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Chapter 16

To go from Nantes to La Rochelle you travel
straight southward, across the historic _bocage_ of La
Vendee, the home of royalist bush-fighting. The
country, which is exceedingly pretty, bristles with
copses, orchards, hedges, and with trees more spread-
ing and sturdy than the traveller is apt to deem the
feathery foliage of France. It is true that as I pro-
ceeded it flattened out a good deal, so that for an
hour there was a vast featureless plain, which offered
me little entertainment beyond the general impression
that I was approaching the Bay of Biscay (from which,
in reality, I was yet far distant). As we drew near
La Rochelle, however, the prospect brightened con-
siderably, and the railway kept its course beside a
charming little canal, or canalized river, bordered
with trees, and with small, neat, bright-colored, and
yet old-fashioned cottages and villas, which stood
back on the further side, behind small gardens, hedges,
painted palings, patches of turf. The whole effect
was Dutch and delightful; and in being delightful,
though not in being Dutch, it prepared me for the
charms of La Rochelle, which from the moment I
entered it I perceived to be a fascinating little town,
a most original mixture of brightness and dulness.
Part of its brightness comes from its being extra-
ordinarily clean, - in which, after all, it _is_ Dutch; a
virtue not particularly noticeable at Bourges, Le Mans,
and Angers. Whenever I go southward, if it be only
twenty miles, I begin to look out for the south, pre-
pared as I am to find the careless grace of those lati-
tudes even in things of which it may, be said that
they may be south of something, but are not southern.
To go from Boston to New York (in this state of
mind) is almost as soft a sensation as descending the
Italian side, of the Alps; and to go from New York to
Philadelphia is to enter a zone of tropical luxuriance
and warmth. Given this absurd disposition, I could
not fail to flatter myself, on reaching La Rochelle,
that I was already in the Midi, and to perceive in
everything, in the language of the country, the _ca-
ractere meridional._ Really, a great many things had
a hint of it. For that matter, it seems to me that to
arrive in the south at a bound - to wake up there, as
it were - would be a very imperfect pleasure. The
full pleasure is to approach by stages and gradations;
to observe the successive shades of difference by
which it ceases to be the north. These shades are
exceedingly fine, but your true south-lover has an eye
for them all. If he perceive them at New York and
Philadelphia, - we imagine him boldly as liberated
from Boston, - how could he fail to perceive them at
La Rochelle? The streets of this dear little city are
lined with arcades, - good, big, straddling arcades of
stone, such as befit a land of hot summers, and which
recalled to me, not to go further, the dusky portions
of Bayonne. It contains, moreover, a great wide
_place d'armes_, which looked for all the world like the
piazza of some dead Italian town, empty, sunny,
grass-grown, with a row of yellow houses overhanging
it, an unfrequented cafe, with a striped awning, a tall,
cold, florid, uninteresting cathedral of the eighteenth
century on one side, and on the other a shady walk,
which forms part of an old rampart. I followed this
walk for some time, under the stunted trees, beside
the grass-covered bastions; it is very charming, wind-
ing and wandering, always with trees. Beneath the
rampart is a tidal river, and on the other side, for a
long distance, the mossy walls of the immense garden
of a seminary. Three hundred years ago, La Rochelle
was the great French stronghold of Protestantism; but
to-day it appears to be a'nursery of Papists.

The walk upon the rampart led me round to one
of the gatesi of the town, where I found some small
modern, fortifications and sundry red-legged soldiers,
and, beyond the fortifications, another shady walk, -
a _mail_, as the French say, as well as a _champ de
manoeuvre_, - on which latter expanse the poor little
red-legs were doing their exercise. It was all very
quiet and very picturesque, rather in miniature; and
at once very tidy and a little out of repair. This,
however, was but a meagre back-view of La Rochelle,
or poor side-view at best. There are other gates than
the small fortified aperture just mentioned; one of
them, an old gray arch beneath a fine clock-tower, I
had passed through on my way from the station.
This picturesque Tour de l'Horloge separates the town
proper from the port; for beyond the old gray arch,
the place presents its bright, expressive little face to
the sea. I had a charming walk about the harbor,
and along the stone piers and sea-walls that shut it
in. This indeed, to take things in their order, was
after I had had my breakfast (which I took on arriv-
ing) and after I had been to the _hotel de ville_. The
inn had a long narrow garden behind it, with some
very tall trees; and passing through this garden to a
dim and secluded _salle a manger_, buried in the heavy
shade, I had, while I sat at my repast, a feeling of
seclusion which amounted almost to a sense of in-
carceration. I lost this sense, however, after I had
paid my bill, and went out to look for traces of the
famous siege, which is the principal title of La Rochelle
to renown. I had come thither partly because I
thought it would be interesting to stand for a few
moments in so gallant a spot, and partly because, I
confess, I had a curiosity to see what had been the
starting-point of the Huguenot emigrants who founded
the town of New Rochelle in the State of New York,
a place in which I had passed certain memorable
hours. It was strange to think, as I strolled through
the peaceful little port, that these quiet waters, during
the wars of religion, had swelled with a formidable
naval power. The Rochelais had fleets and admirals,
and their stout little Protestant bottoms carried de-
fiance up and down.

To say that I found any traces of the siege would
be to misrepresent the taste for vivid whitewash by
which La Rochelle is distinguished to-day. The only
trace is the dent in the marble top of the table on
which, in the _hotel de ville_, Jean Guiton, the mayor of
the city, brought down his dagger with an oath, when
in 1628 the vessels and regiments of Richelieu closed
about it on sea and land. This terrible functionary
was the soul of the resistance; he held out from
February to October, in the midst of pestilence and
famine. The whole episode has a brilliant place
among the sieges of history; it has been related a
hundred times, and I may only glance at it and pass.
I limit my ambition, in these light pages, to speaking
of those things of which I have personally received an
impression; and I have no such impression of the
defence of La Rochelle. The hotel de ville is a
pretty little building, in the style of the Renaissance
of Francis I.; but it has left much of its interest in
the hands of the restorers. It has been "done up"
without mercy; its natural place would be at Rochelle
the New. A sort of battlemented curtain, flanked
with turrets, divides it from the street and contains
a low door (a low door in a high wall is always
felicitous), which admits you to an inner court, where
you discover the face of the building. It has statues
set into it, and is raised upon a very low and very
deep arcade. The principal function of the deferential
old portress who conducts you over the place is to call
your attention to the indented table of Jean Guiton;
but she shows you other objects of interest besides.
The interior is absolutely new and extremely sump-
tuous, abounding in tapestries, upholstery, morocco,
velvet, satin. This is especially the case with a really
beautiful _grande salle_, where, surrdunded with the
most expensive upholstery, the mayor holds his official
receptions. (So at least, said my worthy portress.)
The mayors of La Rochelle appear to have changed a
good deal since the days of the grim Guiton; but
these evidences of municipal splendor are interesting
for the light they throw on French manners. Imagine
the mayor of an English or an American town of
twenty thousand inhabitants holding magisterial soirees
in the town-hall! The said _grande salle_, which is un-
changed in form and its larger features, is, I believe,
the room in which the Rochelais debated as to whether
they should shut themselves up, and decided in the
affirmative. The table and chair of Jean Guiton have
been restored, Iike everything else, and are very
elegant and coquettish pieces of furniture, - incongruous
relics of a season of starvation and blood. I believe
that Protestantism is somewhat shrunken to-day at La
Rochelle, and has taken refuge mainly in. the _haute
societe_ and in a single place of worship. There was
nothing particular to remind me of its supposed austerity
as, after leaving the hotel de ville, I walked along the
empty portions and cut out of the Tour de l'Horloge,
which I have already mentioned. If I stopped and
looked up at this venerable monument, it was not to
ascertain the hour, for I foresaw that I should have
more time at La Rochelle than I knew what to do
with; but because its high, gray, weather-beaten face
was an obvious subject for a sketch.
The little port, which has two basins, and is ac-
cessible only to vessels of light tonnage, had a certain
gayety and as much local color as you please. Fisher
folk of pictuesque type were strolling about, most
of them Bretons; several of the men with handsome,
simple faces, not at all brutal, and with a splendid
brownness, - the golden-brown color, on cheek and
beard, that you see on an old Venetian sail. It was
a squally, showery day, with sudden drizzles of sun-
shine; rows of rich-toned fishing-smacks were drawn
up along the quays. The harbor is effective to the
eye by reason of three battered old towers which, at
different points, overhang it and look infinitely weather-
washed and sea-silvered. The most striking of these,
the Tour de la Lanterne, is a big gray mass, of the
fifteenth century, flanked with turrets and crowned
with a Gothic steeple. I found it was called by the
people of the place the Tour des Quatre Sergents,
though I know not what connection it has with the
touching history of the four young sergeants of the
garrison of La Rochelle, who were arrested in 1821
as conspirators against the Government of the Bour-
bons, and executed, amid general indignation, in Paris
in the following year. The quaint little walk, with
its label of Rue sur les Murs, to which one ascends
from beside the Grosse Horloge, leads to this curious
Tour de la Lanterne and passes under it. This walk
has the top of the old town-wall, toward the sea, for
a parapet on one side, and is bordered on the other
with decent but irregular little tenements of fishermen,
where brown old women, whose caps are as white as
if they were painted, seem chiefly in possession. In
this direction there is a very pretty stretch of shore,
out of the town, through the fortifications (which are
Vauban's, by the way); through, also, a diminutive
public garden or straggling shrubbery, which edges
the water and carries its stunted verdure as far as a
big Etablissernent des Bains. It was too late in the
year to bathe, and the Etablissement had the bank-
rupt aspect which belongs to such places out of the
season; so I turned my back upon it, and gained, by
a circuit in the course of which there were sundry
water-side items to observe, the other side of the
cheery little port, where there is a long breakwater
and a still longer sea-wall, on which I walked awhile,
to inhale the strong, salt breath of the Bay of Biscay.
La Rochelle serves, in the months of July and August,
as a _station de bains_ for a modest provincial society;
and, putting aside the question of inns, it must be
charming on summer afternoons.

Henry James