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Chapter 13

It is very certain that when I left Tours for Le
Mans it was a journey and not an excursion; for I
had no intention of coming back. The question, in-
deed, was to get away, - no easy matter in France, in
the early days of October, when the whole _jeunesse_
of the country is going back to school. It is accom-
panied, apparently, with parents and grandparents,
and it fills the trains with little pale-faced _lyceens_,
who gaze out of the windows with a longing, lingering
air, not unnatural on the part of small members of a
race in which life is intense, who are about to be
restored to those big educative barracks that do such
violence to our American appreciation of the oppor-
tunities of boyhood. The train stopped every five
minutes; but, fortunately, the country was charming, -
hilly and bosky, eminently good-humored, and dotted
here and there with a smart little chateau. The old
capital of the province of the Maine, which has given
its name to a great American State, is a fairly interest-
ing town, but I confess that I found in it less than I
expected to admire. My expectations had doubtless
been my own fault; there is no particular reason why
Le Mans should fascinate. It stands upon a hill,
indeed, - a much better hill than the gentle swell of
Bourges. This hill, however, is not steep in all direc-
tions; from the railway, as I arrived, it was not even
perceptible. Since I am making comparisons, I may
remark that, on the other hand, the Boule d'Or at Le
Mans is an appreciably better inn than the Boule d'Or
at Bourges. It looks out upon a small market-place
which has a certain amount of character and seems
to be slipping down the slope on which it lies, though
it has in the middle an ugly _halle_, or circular market-
house, to keep it in position. At Le Mans, as at
Bourges, my first business was with the cathedral, to
which, I lost no time in directing my steps. It suf-
fered by juxta-position to the great church I had seen
a few days before; yet it has some noble features. It
stands on the edge of the eminence of the town, which
falls straight away on two sides of it, and makes a
striking mass, bristling behind, as you see it from
below, with rather small but singularly numerous flying
buttresses. On my way to it I happened to walk
through the one street which contains a few ancient
and curious houses, - a very crooked and untidy lane,
of really mediaeval aspect, honored with the denomina-
tion of the Grand' Rue. Here is the house of Queen
Berengaria, - an absurd name, as the building is of a
date some three hundred years later than the wife of
Richard Coeur de Lion, who has a sepulchral monu-
ment in the south aisle of the cathedral. The structure
in question - very sketchable, if the sketcher could get
far enough away from it - is an elaborate little dusky
facade, overhanging the street, ornamented with panels
of stone, which are covered with delicate Renaissance
sculpture. A fat old woman, standing in the door of
a small grocer's shop next to it, - a most gracious old
woman, with a bristling moustache and a charming
manner, - told me what the house was, and also in-
dicated to me a rotten-looking brown wooden mansion,
in the same street, nearer the cathedral, as the Maison
Scarron. The author of the "Roman Comique," and
of a thousand facetious verses, enjoyed for some years,
in the early part of his life, a benefice in the cathedral
of Le Mans, which gave him a right to reside in one
of the canonical houses. He was rather an odd canon,
but his history is a combination of oddities. He wooed
the comic muse from the arm-chair of a cripple, and
in the same position - he was unable even to go down
on his knees - prosecuted that other suit which made
him the first husband of a lady of whom Louis XIV.
was to be the second. There was little of comedy in
the future Madame de Maintenon; though, after all,
there was doubtless as much as there need have been
in the wife of a poor man who was moved to compose
for his tomb such an epitaph as this, which I quote
from the "Biographie Universelle":-

"Celui qui cy maintenant dort,
Fit plus de pitie que d'envie,
Et souffrit mille fois la mort,
Avant que de perdre la vie.
Passant, ne fais icy de bruit,
Et garde bien qu'il ne s'eveille,
Car voicy la premiere nuit,
Que le Pauvre Scarron sommeille."

There is rather a quiet, satisfactory _place_ in front
of the cathedral, with some good "bits" in it; notably
a turret at the angle of one of the towers, and a very
fine, steep-roofed dwelling, behind low walls, which it
overlooks, with a tall iron gate. This house has two
or three little pointed towers, a big, black, precipitous
roof, and a general air of having had a history. There
are houses which are scenes, and there are houses
which are only houses. The trouble with the domestic
architecture of the United States is that it is not
scenic, thank Heaven! and the good fortune of an old
structure like the turreted mansion on the hillside of
Le Mans is that it is not simply a house. It is a per-
son, as it were, as well. It would be well, indeed, if
it might have communicated a little of its personality
to the front of the cathedral, which has none of its
own. Shabby, rusty, unfinished, this front has a
romanesque portal, but nothing in the way of a tower.
One sees from without, at a glance, the peculiarity of
the church, - the disparity between the romanesque
nave, which is small and of the twelfth century, and
the immense and splendid transepts and choir, of a
period a hundred years later. Outside, this end of
the church rises far above the nave, which looks merely
like a long porch leading to it, with a small and curious
romanesque porch in its own south flank. The transepts,
shallow but very lofty, display to the spectators in the
_place_ the reach of their two clere-story windows, which
occupy, above, the whole expanse of the wall. The
south transept terminates in a sort of tower, which is
the only one of which the cathedral can boast. Within,
the effect of the choir is superb; it is a church in it-
self, with the nave simply for a point of view. As I
stood there, I read in my Murray that it has the stamp
of the date of the perfection of pointed Gothic, and I
found nothing to object to the remark. It suffers little
by confrontation with Bourges, and, taken in itself,
seems to me quite as fine. A passage of double aisles
surrounds it, with the arches that divide them sup-
ported on very thick round columns, not clustered.
There are twelve chapels in this passage, and a charm-
ing little lady chapel, filled with gorgeous old glass.
The sustained height of this almost detached choir is
very noble; its lightness and grace, its soaring sym-
metry, carry the eye up to places in the air from
which it is slow to descend. Like Tours, like Chartres,
like Bourges (apparently like all the French cathedrals,
and unlike several English ones) Le Mans is rich in
splendid glass. The beautiful upper windows of the
choir make, far aloft, a sort of gallery of pictures,
blooming with vivid color. It is the south transept
that contains the formless image - a clumsy stone
woman lying on her back - which purports to represent
Queen Berengaria aforesaid.

The view of the cathedral from the rear is, as usual,
very fine. A small garden behind it masks its base;
but you descend the hill to a large _place de foire_, ad-
jacent to a fine old pubic promenade which is known
as Les Jacobins, a sort of miniature Tuileries, where I
strolled for a while in rectangular alleys, destitute of
herbage, and received a deeper impression of vanished
things. The cathedral, on the pedestal of its hill, looks
considerably farther than the fair-ground and the
Jacobins, between the rather bare poles of whose
straightly planted trees you may admire it at a con-
venient distance. I admired it till I thought I should
remember it (better than the event has proved), and
then I wandered away and looked at another curious
old church, Notre-Dame-de-la-Couture. This sacred
edifice made a picture for ten minutes, but the picture
has faded now. I reconstruct a yellowish-brown facade,
and a portal fretted with early sculptures; but the
details have gone the way of all incomplete sensations.
After you have stood awhile in the choir of the
cathedral, there is no sensation at Le Mans that goes
very far. For some reason not now to be traced, I
had looked for more than this. I think the reason
was to some extent simply in the name of the place;
for names, on the whole, whether they be good reasons
or not, are very active ones. Le Mans, if I am not
mistaken, has a sturdy, feudal sound; suggests some-
thing dark and square, a vision of old ramparts and
gates. Perhaps I had been unduly impressed by the
fact, accidentally revealed to me, that Henry II., first
of the English Plantagenets, was born there. Of course
it is easy to assure one's self in advance, but does it
not often happen that one had rather not be assured?
There is a pleasure sometimes in running the risk of
disappointment. I took mine, such as it was, quietly
enough, while I sat before dinner at the door of one
of the cafes in the market-place with a _bitter-et-curacao_
(invaluable pretext at such an hour!) to keep me com-
pany. I remember that in this situation there came
over me an impression which both included and ex-
cluded all possible disappointments. The afternoon
was warm and still; the air was admirably soft. The
good Manceaux, in little groups and pairs, were seated
near me; my ear was soothed by the fine shades of
French enunciation, by the detached syllables of that
perfect tongue. There was nothing in particular in
the prospect to charm; it was an average French view.
Yet I felt a charm, a kind of sympathy, a sense of the
completeness of French life and of the lightness and
brightness of the social air, together with a desire to
arrive at friendly judgments, to express a positive
interest. I know not why this transcendental mood
should have descended upon me then and there; but
that idle half-hour in front of the cafe, in the mild
October afternoon, suffused with human sounds, is
perhaps the most definite thing I brought away from
Le Mans.

Henry James