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Chapter 18

If it was really for the sake of the Black Prince
that I had stopped at Poitiers (for my prevision of
Notre Dame la Grande and of the little temple of St.
John was of the dimmest), I ought to have stopped at
Angouleme for the sake of David and Eve Sechard,
of Lucien de Rubempre and of Madame de Bargeton,
who when she wore a _toilette etudiee_ sported a Jewish
turban ornamented with an Eastern brooch, a scarf of
gauze, a necklace of cameos, and a robe of "painted
muslin," whatever that may be; treating herself to
these luxuries out of an income of twelve thousand
francs. The persons I have mentioned have not that
vagueness of identity which is the misfortune of his-
torical characters; they are real, supremely real, thanks
to their affiliation to the great Balzac, who had invented
an artificial reality which was as much better than the
vulgar article as mock-turtle soup is than the liquid it
emulates. The first time I read "Les Illusions Perdues"
I should have refused to believe that I was capable of
passing the old capital of Anjou without alighting to
visit the Houmeau. But we never know what we are
capable of till we are tested, as I reflected when I
found myself looking back at Angouleme from the
window of the train, just after we had emerged from
the long tunnel that passes under the town. This
tunnel perforates the hill on which, like Poitiers,
Angouleme rears itself, and which gives it an eleva-
tion still greater than that of Poitiers. You may have
a tolerable look at the cathedral without leaving the
railway-carriage; for it stands just above the tunnel,
and is exposed, much foreshortened, to the spectator
below. There is evidently a charming walk round the
plateau of the town, commanding those pretty views
of which Balzac gives an account. But the train
whirled me away, and these are my only impressions.
The truth is that I had no need, just at that moment,
of putting myself into communication with Balzac; for
opposite to me in the compartment were a couple of
figures almost as vivid as the actors in the "Comedie
Humaine." One of these was a very genial and dirty
old priest, and the other was a reserved and concen-
trated young monk, - the latter (by which I mean a
monk of any kind) being a rare sight to-day in France.
This young man, indeed, was mitigatedly monastic.
He had a big brown frock and cowl, but he had also
a shirt and a pair of shoes; he had, instead of a
hempen scourge round his waist, a stout leather thong,
and he carried with him a very profane little valise.
He also read, from beginning to end, the "Figaro"
which the old priest, who had done the same, presented
to him; and he looked altogether as if, had he not
been a monk, he would have made a distinguished
officer of engineers. When he was not reading the
"Figaro" he was conning his breviary or answering,
with rapid precision and with a deferential but dis-
couraging dryness, the frequent questions of his com-
panion, who was of quite another type. This worthy
had a bored, good-natured, unbuttoned, expansive
look; was talkative, restless, almost disreputably human.
He was surrounded by a great deal of small luggage,
and had scattered over the carriage his books, his
papers, the fragments of his lunch, and the contents
of an extraordinary bag, which he kept beside him -
a kind of secular reliquary - and which appeared to
contain the odds and ends of a lifetime, as he took
from it successively a pair of slippers, an old padlock
(which evidently didn't belong to it), an opera-glass, a
collection of almanacs, and a large sea-shell, which he
very carefully examined. I think that if he had not
been afraid of the young monk, who was so much
more serious than he, he would have held the shell to
his ear, like a child. Indeed, he was a very childish
and delightful old priest, and his companion evidently
thought him most frivolous. But I liked him the better
of the two. He was not a country cure, but an eccle-
siastic of some rank, who had seen a good deal both
of the church and of the world; and if I too had not
been afraid of his colleague, who read the "Figaro"
as seriously as if it had been an encyclical, I should
have entered into conversation with him.

All this while I was getting on to Bordeaux, where
I permitted myself to spend three days. I am afraid
I have next to nothing to show for them, and that
there would be little profit in lingering on this episode,
which is the less to be justified as I had in former
years examined Bordeaux attentively enough. It con-
tains a very good hotel, - an hotel not good enough,
however, to keep you there for its own sake. For the
rest, Bordeaux is a big, rich, handsome, imposing com-
mercial town, with long rows of fine old eighteenth-
century houses, which overlook the yellow Garonne. I
have spoken of the quays of Nantes as fine, but those
of Bordeaux have a wider sweep and a still more
architectural air. The appearance of such a port as
this makes the Anglo-Saxon tourist blush for the sor-
did water-fronts of Liverpool and New York, which,
with their larger activity, have so much more reason
to be stately. Bordeaux gives a great impression of
prosperous industries, and suggests delightful ideas,
images of prune-boxes and bottled claret. As the focus
of distribution of the best wine in the world, it is in-
deed a sacred city, - dedicated to the worship of
Bacchus in the most discreet form. The country all
about it is covered with precious vineyards, sources of
fortune to their owners and of satisfaction to distant
consumers; and as you look over to the hills beyond
the Garonne you see them in the autumn sunshine,
fretted with the rusty richness of this or that immortal
_clos_. But the principal picture, within the town, is that
of the vast curving quays, bordered with houses that
look like the _hotels_ of farmers-general of the last cen-
tury, and of the wide, tawny river, crowded with ship-
ping and spanned by the largest of bridges. Some of
the types on the water-side are of the sort that arrest
a sketcher, - figures of stalwart, brown-faced Basques,
such as I had seen of old in great numbers at Biarritz,
with their loose circular caps, their white sandals, their
air of walking for a wager. Never was a tougher, a
harder race. They are not mariners, nor watermen,
but, putting questions of temper aside, they are the
best possible dock-porters. "Il s'y fait un commerce
terrible," a _douanier_ said to me, as he looked up and
down the interminable docks; and such a place has
indeed much to say of the wealth, the capacity for
production, of France, - the bright, cheerful, smokeless
industry of the wonderful country which produces,
above all, the agreeable things of life, and turns even
its defeats and revolutions into gold. The whole town
has an air of almost depressing opulence, an appear-
ance which culminates in the great _place_ which sur-
rounds the Grand-Theatre, - an establishment in the
highest style, encircled with columns, arcades, lamps,
gilded cafes. One feels it to be a monument to the
virtue of the well-selected bottle. If I had not for-
bidden myself to linger, I should venture to insist on
this, and, at the risk of being considered fantastic,
trace an analogy between good claret and the best
qualities of the French mind; pretend that there is a
taste of sound Bordeaux in all the happiest manifes-
tations of that fine organ, and that, correspondingly,
there is a touch of French reason, French complete-
ness, in a glass of Pontet-Canet. The danger of such
an excursion would lie mainly in its being so open to
the reader to take the ground from under my feet by
saying that good claret doesn't exist. To this I should
have no reply whatever. I should be unable to tell
him where to find it. I certainly didn't find it at
Bordeaux, where I drank a most vulgar fluid; and it
is of course notorious that a large part of mankind is
occupied in vainly looking for it. There was a great
pretence of putting it forward at the Exhibition which
was going on at Bordeaux at the time of my visit, an
"exposition philomathique," lodged in a collection of
big temporary buildings in the Allees d'Or1eans, and
regarded by the Bordelais for the moment as the most
brilliant feature of their city. Here were pyramids of
bottles, mountains of bottles, to say nothing of cases
and cabinets of bottles. The contemplation of these
glittering tiers was of course not very convincing; and
indeed the whole arrangement struck me as a high
impertinence. Good wine is not an optical pleasure,
it is an inward emotion; and if there was a chamber
of degustation on the premises, I failed to discover it.
It was not in the search for it, indeed, that I spent
half an hour in this bewildering bazaar. Like all
"expositions," it seemed to me to be full of ugly
things, and gave one a portentous idea of the quantity
of rubbish that man carries with him on his course
through the ages. Such an amount of luggage for a
journey after all so short! There were no individual
objects; there was nothing but dozens and hundreds,
all machine-made and expressionless, in spite of the
repeated grimace, the conscious smartness, of "the last
new thing," that was stamped on all of them. The
fatal facility, of the French _article_ becomes at last as
irritating as the refrain of a popular song. The poor
"Indiens Galibis" struck me as really more interesting,
- a group of stunted savages who formed one of the
attractions of the place, and were confined in a pen
in the open air, with a rabble of people pushing and
squeezing, hanging over the barrier, to look at them.
They had no grimace, no pretension to be new, no
desire to catch your eye. They looked at their visitors
no more than they looked at each other, and seemed
ancient, indifferent, terribly bored.

Henry James