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Chapter 24

At Narbonne I took up my abode at the house of
a _serrurier mecanicien_, and was very thankful for the
accommodation. It was my misfortune to arrive at
this ancient city late at night, on the eve of market-
day; and market-day at Narbonne is a very serious
affair. The inns, on this occasion, are stuffed with
wine-dealers; for the country roundabout, dedicated
almost exclusively to Bacchus, has hitherto escaped
the phylloxera. This deadly enemy of the grape is
encamped over the Midi in a hundred places; blighted
vineyards and ruined proprietors being quite the order
of the day. The signs of distress are more frequent
as you advance into Provence, many of the vines being
laid under water, in the hope of washing the plague
away. There are healthy regions still, however, and
the vintners find plenty to do at Narbonne. The
traffic in wine appeared to be the sole thought of the
Narbonnais; every one I spoke to had something to
say about the harvest of gold that bloomed under its
influence. "C'est inoui, monsieur, l'argent qu'il y a
dans ce pays. Des gens a qui la vente de leur vin
rapporte jusqu'a 500,000 francs par an." That little
speech, addressed to me by a gentleman at the inn,
gives the note of these revelations. It must be said
that there was little in the appearance either of the
town or of its population to suggest the possession of
such treasures. Narbonne is a _sale petite ville_ in all
the force of the term, and my first impression on ar-
riving there was an extreme regret that I had not
remained for the night at the lovely Carcassonne. My
journey from that delectable spot lasted a couple of
hours, and was performed in darkness, - a darkness
not so dense, however, but that I was able to make
out, as we passed it, the great figure of Beziers, whose
ancient roofs and towers, clustered on a goodly hill-
top, looked as fantastic as you please. I know not
what appearance Beziers may present by day; but by
night it has quite the grand air. On issuing from the
station at Narbonne, I found that the only vehicle in
waiting was a kind of bastard tramcar, a thing shaped
as if it had been meant to go upon rails; that is,
equipped with small wheels, placed beneath it, and
with a platform at either end, but destined to rattle
over the stones like the most vulgar of omnibuses.
To complete the oddity of this conveyance, it was
under the supervision, not of a conductor, but of a
conductress. A fair young woman, with a pouch sus-
pended from her girdle, had command of the platform;
and as soon as the car was full she jolted us into the
town through clouds of the thickest dust I ever have
swallowed. I have had occasion to speak of the activity
of women in France, - of the way they are always in
the ascendant; and here was a signal example of their
general utility. The young lady I have mentioned
conveyed her whole company to the wretched little
Hotel de France, where it is to be hoped that some
of them found a lodging. For myself, I was informed
that the place was crowded from cellar to attic, and
that its inmates were sleeping three or four in a room.
At Carcassonne I should have had a bad bed, but at
Narbonne, apparently, I was to have no bed at all. I
passed an hour or two of flat suspense, while fate
settled the question of whether I should go on to
Perpignan, return to Beziers, or still discover a modest
couch at Narbonne. I shall not have suffered in vain,
however, if my example serves to deter other travellers
from alighting unannounced at that city on a Wednes-
day evening. The retreat to Beziers, not attempted
in time, proved impossible, and I was assured that at
Perpignan, which I should not reach till midnight, the
affluence of wine-dealers was not less than at Nar-
bonne. I interviewed every hostess in the town, and
got no satisfaction but distracted shrugs. Finally, at
an advanced hour, one of the servants of the Hotel
de France, where I had attempted to dine, came to
me in triumph to proclaim that he had secured for
me a charming apartment in a _maison bourgeoise_. I
took possession of it gratefully, in spite of its having
an entrance like a stable, and being pervaded by an
odor compared with which that of a stable would
have been delicious. As I have mentioned, my land-
lord was a locksmith, and he had strange machines
which rumbled and whirred in the rooms below my
own. Nevertheless, I slept, and I dreamed of Car-
cassonne. It was better to do that than to dream of
the Hotel de France.

I was obliged to cultivate relations with the cuisine
of this establishment. Nothing could have been more
_meridional_; indeed, both the dirty little inn and Nar-
bonne at large seemed to me to have the infirmities
of the south, without its usual graces. Narrow, noisy,
shabby, belittered and encumbered, filled with clatter
and chatter, the Hotel de France would have been
described in perfection by Alphonse Daudet. For what
struck me above all in it was the note of the Midi,
as he has represented it, - the sound of universal talk.
The landlord sat at supper with sundry friends, in a
kind of glass cage, with a genial indifference to arriv-
ing guests; the waiters tumbled over the loose luggage
in the hall; the travellers who had been turned away
leaned gloomily against door-posts; and the landlady,
surrounded by confusion, unconscious of responsibility,
and animated only by the spirit of conversation, bandied
high-voiced compliments with the _voyageurs de com-
merce_. At ten o'clock in the morning there was a
table d'hote for breakfast, - a wonderful repast, which
overflowed into every room and pervaded the whole
establishment. I sat down with a hundred hungry
marketers, fat, brown, greasy men, with a good deal of
the rich soil of Languedoc adhering to their hands
and their boots. I mention the latter articles because
they almost put them on the table. It was very hot,
and there were swarms of flies; the viands had the
strongest odor; there was in particular a horrible mix-
ture known as _gras-double_, a light gray, glutinous,
nauseating mess, which my companions devoured in
large quantities. A man opposite to me had the dir-
tiest fingers I ever saw; a collection of fingers which
in England would have excluded him from a farmers'
ordinary. The conversation was mainly bucolic; though
a part of it, I remember, at the table at which I sat,
consisted of a discussion as to whether or no the maid-
servant were _sage_, - a discussion which went on under
the nose of this young lady, as she carried about the
dreadful _gras-double_, and to which she contributed
the most convincing blushes. It was thoroughly _meri-
dional_.

In going to Narbonne I had of course counted upon
Roman remains; but when I went forth in search of
them I perceived that I had hoped too fondly. There
is really nothing in the place to speak of; that is, on
the day of my visit there was nothing but the market,
which was in complete possession. "This intricate,
curious, but lifeless town," Murray calls it; yet to me
it appeared overflowing with life. Its streets are mere
crooked, dirty lanes, bordered with perfectly insignifi-
cant houses; but they were filled with the same clatter
and chatter that I had found at the hotel. The market
was held partly in the little square of the hotel de
ville, a structure which a flattering wood-cut in the
Guide-Joanne had given me a desire to behold. The
reality was not impressive, the old color of the front
having been completely restored away. Such interest
as it superficially possesses it derives from a fine
mediaeval tower which rises beside it, with turrets at
the angles, - always a picturesque thing. The rest of
the market was held in another _place_, still shabbier
than the first, which lies beyond the canal. The Canal
du Midi flows through the town, and, spanned at this
point by a small suspension-bridge, presented a cer-
tain sketchability. On the further side were the venders
and chafferers, - old women under awnings and big um-
brellas, rickety tables piled high with fruit, white caps
and brown faces, blouses, sabots, donkeys. Beneath
this picture was another, - a long row of washerwomen,
on their knees on the edge of the canal, pounding
and wringing the dirty linen of Narbonne, - no great
quantity, to judge by the costume of the people. In-
numerable rusty men, scattered all over the place,
were buying and selling wine, straddling about in
pairs, in groups, with their hands in their pockets, and
packed together at the doors of the cafes. They were
mostly fat and brown and unshaven; they ground their
teeth as they talked; they were very _meridionaux_.

The only two lions at Narbonne are the cathedral
and the museum, the latter of which is quartered in
the hotel de ville. The cathedral, closely shut in by
houses, and with the west front undergoing repairs, is
singular in two respects. It consists exclusively of a
choir, which is of the end of the thirteenth century
and the beginning of the next, and of great magnifi-
cence. There is absolutely nothing else. This choir,
of extraordinary elevation, forms the whole church. I
sat there a good while; there was no other visitor. I
had taken a great dislike to poor little Narbonne,
which struck me as sordid and overheated, and this
place seemed to extend to me, as in the Middle Ages,
the privilege of sanctuary. It is a very solemn corner.
The other peculiarity of the cathedral is that, exter-
nally, it bristles with battlements, having anciently
formed part of the defences of the _archeveche_, which
is beside it and which connects it with the hotel de
ville. This combination of the church and the for-
tress is very curious, and during the Middle Ages was
not without its value. The palace of the former arch-
bishops of Narbonne (the hotel de ville of to-day
forms part of it) was both an asylum and an arsenal
during the hideous wars by which the Languedoc was
ravaged in the thirteenth century. The whole mass
of buildings is jammed together in a manner that
from certain points of view makes it far from apparent
which feature is which. The museum occupies several
chambers at the top of the hotel de ville, and is not
an imposing collection. It was closed, but I induced
the portress to let me in, - a silent, cadaverous person,
in a black coif, like a _beguine_, who sat knitting in one
of the windows while I went the rounds. The number
of Roman fragments is small, and their quality is not
the finest; I must add that this impression was hastily
gathered. There is indeed a work of art in one of
the rooms which creates a presumption in favor of the
place, - the portrait (rather a good one) of a citizen
of Narbonne, whose name I forget, who is described
as having devoted all his time and his intelligence to
collecting the objects by which the. visitor is sur-
rounded. This excellent man was a connoisseur, and
the visitor is doubtless often an ignoramus.

Henry James