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Chapter 27

The weather the next day was equally fair, so that
it seemed an imprudence not to make sure of Aigues-
Mortes. Nimes itself could wait; at a pinch, I could
attend to Nimes in the rain. It was my belief that
Aigues-Mortes was a little gem, and it is natural to
desire that gems should have an opportunity to sparkle.
This is an excursion of but a few hours, and there is
a little friendly, familiar, dawdling train that will con-
vey you, in time for a noonday breakfast, to the small
dead town where the blessed Saint-Louis twice em-
barked for the crusades. You may get back to Nimes
for dinner; the run - or rather the walk, for the train
doesn't run - is of about an hour. I found the little
journey charming, and looked out of the carriage win-
dow, on my right, at the distant Cevennes, covered
with tones of amber and blue, and, all around, at
vineyards red with the touch of October. The grapes
were gone, but the plants had a color of their own.
Within a certain distance of Aigues-Mortes they give
place to wide salt-marshes, traversed by two canals;
and over this expanse the train rumbles slowly upon
a narrow causeway, failing for some time, though you
know you are near the object of your curiosity, to
bring you to sight of anything but the horizon. Sud-

denly it appears, the towered and embattled mass,
lying so low that the crest of its defences seems to
rise straight out of the ground; and it is not till the
train stops, close before them, that you are able to
take the full measure of its walls.

Aigues-Mortes stands on the edge of a wide _etang_,
or shallow inlet of the sea, the further side of which
is divided by a narrow band of coast from the Gulf
of Lyons. Next after Carcassonne, to which it forms
an admirable _pendant_, it is the most perfect thing of
the kind in France. It has a rival in the person of
Avignon, but the ramparts of Avignon are much less
effective. Like Carcassonne, it is completely sur-
rounded with its old fortifications; and if they are far
simpler in character (there is but one circle), they are
quite as well preserved. The moat has been filled
up, and the site of the town might be figured by a
billiard-table without pockets. On this absolute level,
covered with coarse grass, Aigues-Mortes presents quite
the appearance of the walled town that a school-boy
draws upon his slate, or that we see in the background
of early Flemish pictures, - a simple parallelogram, of
a contour almost absurdly bare, broken at intervals by
angular towers and square holes. Such, literally speak-
ing, is this delightful little city, which needs to be seen
to tell its full story. It is extraordinarily pictorial,
and if it is a very small sister of Carcassonne, it has
at least the essential features of the family. Indeed,
it is even more like an image and less like a reality
than Carcassonne; for by position and prospect it
seems even more detached from the life of the present
day. It is true that Aigues-Mortes does a little busi-
ness; it sees certain bags of salt piled into barges
which stand in a canal beside it, and which carry their
cargo into actual places. But nothing could well be
more drowsy and desultory than this industry as I
saw it practised, with the aid of two or three brown
peasants and under the eye of a solitary douanier,
who strolled on the little quay beneath the western
wall. "C'est bien plaisant, c'est bien paisible," said
this worthy man, with whom I had some conversa-
tion; and pleasant and peaceful is the place indeed,
though the former of these epithets may suggest an
element of gayety in which Aigues-Mortes is deficient.
The sand, the salt, the dull sea-view, surround it with
a bright, quiet melancholy. There are fifteen towers
and nine gates, five of which are on the southern side,
overlooking the water. I walked all round the place
three times (it doesn't take long), but lingered most
under the southern wall, where the afternoon light
slept in the dreamiest, sweetest way. I sat down on
an old stone, and looked away to the desolate salt-
marshes and the still, shining surface of the _etang_,
and, as I did so, reflected that this was a queer little
out-of-the-world corner to have been chosen, in the
great dominions of either monarch, for that pompous
interview which took place, in 1538, between Francis I.
and Charles V. It was also not easy to perceive how
Louis IX., when in 1248 and 1270 he started for the
Holy Land, set his army afloat in such very undeveloped
channels. An hour later I purchased in the town a
little pamphlet by M. Marius Topin, who undertakes
to explain this latter anomaly, and to show that there
is water enough in the port, as we may call it by
courtesy, to have sustained a fleet of crusaders. I was
unable to trace the channel that he points out, but
was glad to believe that, as he contends, the sea has
not retreated from the town since the thirteenth century.
It was comfortable to think that things are not so
changed as that. M. Topin indicates that the other
French ports of the Mediterranean were not then _dis-
ponsibles_, and that Aigues-Mortes was the most eligible
spot for an embarkation.

Behind the straight walls and the quiet gates the
little town has not crumbled, like the Cite of Carcas-
sonne. It can hardly be said to be alive; but if it is
dead it has been very neatly embalmed. The hand
of the restorer rests on it constantly; but this artist
has not, as at Carcassonne, had miracles to accomplish.
The interior is very still and empty, with small stony,
whitewashed streets, tenanted by a stray dog, a stray
cat, a stray old woman. In the middle is a little _place_,
with two or three cafes decorated by wide awnings, -
a little _place_ of which the principal feature is a very
bad bronze statue of Saint Louis by Pradier. It is
almost as bad as the breakfast I had at the inn that
bears the name of that pious monarch. You may walk
round the enceinte of Aigues-Mortes, both outside and
in; but you may not, as at Carcassonne, make a por-
tion of this circuit on the _chemin de ronde_, the little
projecting footway attached to the inner face of the
battlements. This footway, wide enough only for a
single pedestrian, is in the best order, and near each
of the gates a flight of steps leads up to it; but a
locked gate, at the top of the steps, makes access im-
possible, or at least unlawful. Aigues-Mortes, however,
has its citadel, an immense tower, larger than any of
the others, a little detached, and standing at the north-
west angle of the town. I called upon the _casernier_,
the custodian of the walls, - and in his absence I was
conducted through this big Tour de Constance by his
wife, a very mild, meek woman, yellow with the traces
of fever and ague, - a scourge which, as might be ex-
pected in a town whose name denotes "dead waters,"
enters freely at the nine gates. The Tour de Con-
stance is of extraordinary girth and solidity, divided
into three superposed circular chambers, with very fine
vaults, which are lighted by embrasures of prodigious
depth, converging to windows little larger than loop-
holes. The place served for years as a prison to many
of the Protestants of the south whom the revocation
of the Edict of Nantes had exposed to atrocious
penalties, and the annals of these dreadful chambers
during the first half of the last century were written
in tears and blood. Some of the recorded cases of
long confinement there make one marvel afresh at
what man has inflicted and endured. In a country in
which a policy of extermination was to be put into
practice this horrible tower was an obvious resource.
From the battlements at the top, which is surmounted
by an old disused light-house, you see the little com-
pact rectangular town, which looks hardly bigger than
a garden-patch, mapped out beneath you, and follow
the plain configuration of its defences. You take
possession of it, and you feel that you will remember
it always.

Henry James