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Chapter 17

It is an injustice to Poitiers to approach her by
night, as I did some three hours after leaving La
Rochelle; for what Poitiers has of best, as they would
say at Poitiers, is the appearance she presents to the
arriving stranger who puts his head out of the window
of the train. I gazed into the gloom from such an
aperture before we got into the station, for I re-
membered the impression received on another occa-
sion; but I saw nothing save the universal night,
spotted here and there with an ugly railway lamp.
It was only as I departed, the following day, that I
assured myself that Poitiers still makes something of
the figure she ought on the summit of her consider-
able bill. I have a kindness for any little group of
towers, any cluster of roofs and chimneys, that lift
themselves from an eminence over which a long road
ascends in zigzags; such a picture creates for the mo-
ment a presumption that you are in Italy, and even
leads you to believe that if you mount the winding
road you will come to an old town-wall, an expanse
of creviced brownness, and pass under a gateway sur-
mounted by the arms of a mediaeval despot. Why
I should find it a pleasure, in France, to imagine my-
self in Italy, is more than I can say; the illusion has
never lasted long enough to be analyzed. From the
bottom of its perch Poitiers looks large and high;
and indeed, the evening I reached it, the interminiable
climb of the omnibus of the hotel I had selected,
which I found at the station, gave me the measure of
its commanding position. This hotel, "magnifique
construction ornee de statues," as the Guide-Joanne,
usually so reticent, takes the trouble to announce, has
an omnibus, and, I suppose, has statues, though I
didn't perceive them; but it has very little else save
immemorial accumulations of dirt. It is magnificent,
if you will, but it is not even relatively proper; and
a dirty inn has always seemed to me the dirtiest of
human things, - it has so many opportunities to betray
itself.

Poiters covers a large space, and is as crooked
and straggling as you please; but these advantages are
not accompanied with any very salient features or any
great wealth of architecture. Although there are few
picturesque houses, however, there are two or three
curious old churches. Notre Dame la Grande, in the
market-place, a small romanesque structure of the
twelfth century, has a most interesting and venerable
exterior. Composed, like all the churches of Poitiers,
of a light brown stone with a yellowish tinge, it is
covered with primitive but ingenious sculptures, and is
really an impressive monument. Within, it has lately
been daubed over with the most hideous decorative
painting that was ever inflicted upon passive pillars
and indifferent vaults. This battered yet coherent
little edifice has the touching look that resides in
everything supremely old: it has arrived at the age at
which such things cease to feel the years; the waves
of time have worn its edges to a kind of patient dul-
ness; there is something mild and smooth, like the
stillness, the deafness, of an octogenarian, even in its
rudeness of ornament, and it has become insensible
to differences of a century or two. The cathedral
interested me much less than Our Lady the Great,
and I have not the spirit to go into statistics about it.
It is not statistical to say that the cathedral stands
half-way down the hill of Poitiers, in a quiet and
grass-grown _place_, with an approach of crooked lanes
and blank garden-walls, and that its most striking
dimension is the width of its facade. This width is
extraordinary, but it fails, somehow, to give nobleness
to the edifice, which looks within (Murray makes the
remark) like a large public hall. There are a nave
and two aisles, the latter about as high as the nave;
and there are some very fearful modern pictures,
which you may see much better than you usually see
those specimens of the old masters that lurk in glow-
ing side-chapels, there being no fine old glass to dif-
fuse a kindly gloom. The sacristan of the cathedral
showed me something much better than all this bright
bareness; he led me a short distance out of it to the
small Temple de Saint-Jean, which is the most curious
object at Poitiers. It is an early Christian chapel,
one of the earliest in France; originally, it would seem,
- that is, in the sixth or seventh century, - a bap-
tistery, but converted into a church while the Christian
era was still comparatively young. The Temple de
Saint-Jean is therefore a monument even more vener-
able than Notre Dame la Grande, and that numbness
of age which I imputed to Notre Dame ought to reside
in still larger measure in its crude and colorless little
walls. I call them crude, in spite of their having
been baked through by the centuries, only because,
although certain rude arches and carvings are let
into them, and they are surmounted at either end with
a small gable, they have (so far as I can remember)
little fascination of surface. Notre Dame is still ex-
pressive, still pretends to be alive; but the Temple
has delivered its message, and is completely at rest.
It retains a kind of atrium, on the level of the street,
from which you descend to the original floor, now un-
covered, but buried for years under a false bottom.
A semicircular apse was, apparently at the time of its
conversion into a church, thrown out from the east
wall. In the middle is the cavity of the old baptismal
font. The walls and vaults are covered with traces
of extremely archaic frescos, attributed, I believe, to
the twelfth century. These vague, gaunt, staring
fragments of figures are, to a certain extent, a reminder
of some of the early Christian churches in Rome; they
even faintly recalled to me the great mosaics of
Ravenna. The Temple de Saint-Jean has neither the
antiquity nor the completeness of those extraordinary
monuments, nearly the most impressive in Europe;
but, as one may say, it is very well for Poitiers.

Not far from it, in a lonely corner which was ani-
mated for the moment by the vociferations of several
old, women who were selling tapers, presumably for
the occasion of a particular devotion, is the graceful
romanesque church erected in the twelfth century to
Saint Radegonde, - a lady who found means to be a
saint even in the capacity of a Merovingian queen.
It bears a general resemblance to Notre Dame la
Grande, and, as I remember it, is corrugated in some-
what the same manner with porous-looking carvings;
but I confess that what I chiefly recollect is the row
of old women sitting in front of it, each with a tray
of waxen tapers in her lap, and upbraiding me for
my neglect of the opportunity to offer such a tribute to
the saint. I know not whether this privilege is oc-
casional or constant; within the church there was no
appearance of a festival, and I see that the name-
day of Saint Radegonde occurs in August, so that the
importunate old women sit there always, perhaps, and
deprive of its propriety the epithet I just applied to
this provincial corner. In spite of the old women,
however, I suspect that the place is lonely; and in-
deed it is perhaps the old women that have made the
desolation.

The lion of Poitiers, in the eyes of the natives, is
doubtless the Palais de Justice, in the shadow of which
the statue-guarded hotel, just mentioned, erects itself;
and the gem of the court-house, which has a prosy
modern front, with pillars and a high flight of steps,
is the curious _salle des pas perdus_, or central hall, out
of which the different tribunals open. This is a
feature of every French court-house, and seems the
result of a conviction that a palace of justice - the
French deal in much finer names than we - should be
in some degree palatial. The great hall at Poitiers
has a long pedigree, as its walls date back to the
twelfth century, and its open wooden roof, as well as
the remarkable trio of chimney-pieces at the right end
of the room as you enter, to the fifteenth. The three
tall fireplaces, side by side, with a delicate gallery
running along the top of them, constitute the originality
of this ancient chamber, and make one think of the
groups that must formerly have gathered there, - of
all the wet boot-soles, the trickling doublets, the
stiffened fingers, the rheumatic shanks, that must have
been presented to such an incomparable focus of
heat. To-day, I am afraid, these mighty hearts are
forever cold; justice it probably administered with the
aid of a modern _calorifere_, and the walls of the palace
are perforated with regurgitating tubes. Behind and
above the gallery that surmounts the three fireplaces
are high Gothic windows, the tracery of which masks,
in some sort, the chimneys; and in each angle of this
and of the room to the right and left of the trio of
chimneys, is all open-work spiral staircase, ascending
to - I forget where; perhaps to the roof of the edifice.
This whole side of the _salle_ is very lordly, and seems
to express an unstinted hospitality, to extend the
friendliest of all invitations, to bid the whole world
come and get warm. It was the invention of John,
Duke of Berry and Count of Poitou, about 1395. I
give this information on the authority of the Guide-
Joanne, from which source I gather much other curious
learning; for instance, that it was in this building,
when it had surely a very different front, that Charles VII.
was proclaimed king, in 1422; and that here Jeanne
Darc was subjected, in 1429, to the inquisition of
certain doctors and matrons.

The most charming thing at Poitiers is simply the
Promenade de Blossac, - a small public garden at one
end of the flat top of the hill. It has a happy look
of the last century (having been arranged at that
period), and a beautiful sweep of view over the sur-
rounding country, and especially of the course of the
little river Clain, which winds about a part of the base
of the big mound of Poitiers. The limit of this dear
little garden is formed, on the side that turns away
from the town, by the rampart erected in the fourteenth
century, and by its big semicircular bastions. This
rampart, of great length, has a low parapet; you look
over it at the charming little vegetable-gardens with
which the base of the hill appears exclusively to be
garnished. The whole prospect is delightful, especially
the details of the part just under the walls, at the end
of the walk. Here the river makes a shining twist,
which a painter might have invented, and the side of
the hill is terraced into several ledges, - a sort of
tangle of small blooming patches and little pavillions
with peaked roofs and green shutters. It is idle to
attempt to reproduce all this in words; it should be
reproduced only in water-colors. The reader, how-
ever, will already have remarked that disparity in
these ineffectual pages, which are pervaded by the
attempt to sketch without a palette or brushes. He will
doubtless, also, be struck with the grovelling vision
which, on such a spot as the ramparts of Poitiers,
peoples itself with carrots and cabbages rather than
with images of the Black Prince and the captive king.
I am not sure that in looking out from the Promenade
de Blossac you command the old battle-field; it is
enough that it was not far off, and that the great rout
of Frenchmen poured into the walls of Poitiers, leav-
ing on the ground a number of the fallen equal to
the little army (eight thousand) of the invader. I did
think of the battle. I wondered, rather helplessly,
where it had taken place; and I came away (as the
reader will see from the preceding sentence) without
finding out. This indifference, however, was a result
rather of a general dread of military topography than
of a want of admiration of this particular victory,
which I have always supposed to be one of the most
brilliant on record. Indeed, I should be almost
ashamed, and very much at a loss, to say what light
it was that this glorious day seemed to me to have
left forever on the horizon, and why the very name of
the place had always caused my blood gently to tingle.
It is carrying the feeling of race to quite inscrutable
lengths when a vague American permits himself an
emotion because more than five centuries ago, on
French soil, one rapacious Frenchman got the better
of another. Edward was a Frenchman as well as
John, and French were the cries that urged each of
the hosts to the fight. French is the beautiful motto
graven round the image of the Black Prince, as he
lies forever at rest in the choir of Canterbury: _a la
mort ne pensai-je mye_. Nevertheless, the victory of
Poitiers declines to lose itself in these considerations;
the sense of it is a part of our heritage, the joy of it
a part of our imagination, and it filters down through
centuries and migrations till it titillates a New Yorker
who forgets in his elation that he happens at that
moment to be enjoying the hospitality of France. It
was something done, I know not how justly, for Eng-
land; and what was done in the fourteenth century
for England was done also for New York.

Henry James