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Chapter 28

After this I was free to look about me at Nimes,
and I did so with such attention as the place appeared
to require. At the risk of seeming too easily and too
frequently disappointed, I will say that it required
rather less than I had been prepared to give. It is a
town of three or four fine features, rather than a town
with, as I may say, a general figure. In general,
Nimes is poor; its only treasures are its Roman re-
mains, which are of the first order. The new French
fashions prevail in many of its streets; the old houses
are paltry, and the good houses are new; while beside
my hotel rose a big spick-and-span church, which
had the oddest air of having been intended for
Brooklyn or Cleveland. It is true that this church
looked out on a square completely French, - a square
of a fine modern disposition, flanked on one side by a
classical _palais de justice_ embellished with trees and
parapets, and occupied in the centre with a group of
allegorical statues, such as one encounters only in the
cities of France, the chief of these being a colossal
figure by Pradier, representing Nimes. An English,
an American, town which should have such a monu-
ment, such a square, as this, would be a place of
great pretensions; but like so many little _villes de
province_ in the country of which I write, Nimes is
easily ornamental. What nobler ornament can there
be than the Roman baths at the foot of Mont Cavalier,
and the delightful old garden that surrounds them?
All that quarter of Nimes has every reason to be
proud of itself; it has been revealed to the world at
large by copious photography. A clear, abundant
stream gushes from the foot of a high hill (covered
with trees and laid out in paths), and is distributed
into basins which sufficiently refer themselves to the
period that gave them birth, - the period that has
left its stamp on that pompous Peyrou which we ad-
mired at Montpellier. Here are the same terraces and
steps and balustrades, and a system of water-works
less impressive, perhaps, but very ingenious and charm-
ing. The whole place is a mixture of old Rome and
of the French eighteenth century; for the remains of
the antique baths are in a measure incorporated in
the modern fountains. In a corner of this umbrageous
precinct stands a small Roman ruin, which is known
as a temple of Diana, but was more apparently a
_nymphaeum_, and appears to have had a graceful con-
nection with the adjacent baths. I learn from Murray
that this little temple, of the period of Augustus,
"was reduced to its present state of ruin in 1577;"
the moment at which the townspeople, threatened
with a siege by the troops of the crown, partly
demolished it, lest it should serve as a cover to the
enemy. The remains are very fragmentary, but they
serve to show that the place was lovely. I spent half
an hour in it on a perfect Sunday morning (it is en-
closed by a high _grille_, carefully tended, and has a
warden of its own), and with the help of my imagina-
tion tried to reconstruct a little the aspect of things
in the Gallo-Roman days. I do wrong, perhaps, to
say that 1 _tried_; from a flight so deliberate I should
have shrunk. But there was a certain contagion of
antiquity in the air; and among the ruins of baths
and temples, in the very spot where the aqueduct that
crosses the Gardon in the wondrous manner I had
seen discharged itself, the picture of a splendid
paganism seemed vaguely to glow. Roman baths, -
Roman baths; those words alone were a scene. Every-
thing was changed: I was strolling in a _jardin francais_;
the bosky slope of the Mont Cavalier (a very modest
mountain), hanging over the place, is crowned with a
shapeless tower, which is as likely to be of mediaeval
as of antique origin; and yet, as I leaned on the
parapet of one of the fountains, where a flight of
curved steps (a hemicycle, as the French say) descended
into a basin full of dark, cool recesses, where the slabs
of the Roman foundations gleam through the clear
green water, - as in this attitude I surrendered myself
to contemplation and reverie, it seemed to me that I
touched for a moment the ancient world. Such mo-
ments are illuminating, and the light of this one mingles,
in my memory, with the dusky greenness of the Jardin
de la Fontaine.

The fountain proper - the source of all these dis-
tributed waters - is the prettiest thing in the world, a
reduced copy of Vaucluse. It gushes up at the foot
of the Mont Cavalier, at a point where that eminence
rises with a certain cliff-like effect, and, like other
springs in the same circumstances, appears to issue
from the rock with a sort of quivering stillness. I
trudged up the Mont Cavalier, - it is a matter of five
minutes, - and having committed this cockneyism en-
hanced it presently by another. I ascended the stupid
Tour Magne, the mysterious structure I mentioned a
moment ago. The only feature of this dateless tube,
except the inevitable collection of photographs to
which you are introduced by the door-keeper, is the
view you enjoy from its summit. This view is, of
course, remarkably fine, but I am ashamed to say I
have not the smallest recollection of it; for while I
looked into the brilliant spaces of the air I seemed
still to see only what I saw in the depths of the Roman
baths, - the image, disastrously confused and vague, of
a vanished world. This world, however, has left at
Nimes a far more considerable memento than a few
old stones covered with water-moss. The Roman arena
is the rival of those of Verona and of Arles; at a
respectful distance it emulates the Colosseum. It is a
small Colosseum, if I may be allowed the expression,
and is in a much better preservation than the great
circus at Rome. This is especially true of the external
walls, with their arches, pillars, cornices. I must add
that one should not speak of preservation, in regard
to the arena at Nimes, without speaking also of repair.
After the great ruin ceased to be despoiled, it began
to be protected, and most of its wounds have been
dressed with new material. These matters concern
the archaeologist; and I felt here, as I felt afterwards
at Arles, that one of the profane, in the presence of
such a monument, can only admire and hold his
tongue. The great impression, on the whole, is an
impression of wonder that so much should have sur-
vived. What remains at Nimes, after all dilapidation
is estimated, is astounding. I spent an hour in the
Arenes on that same sweet Sunday morning, as I
came back from the Roman baths, and saw that the
corridors, the vaults, the staircases, the external casing,
are still virtually there. Many of these parts are
wanting in the Colosseum, whose sublimity of size,
however, can afford to dispense with detail. The seats
at Nimes, like those at Verona, have been largely
renewed; not that this mattered much, as I lounged
on the cool surface of one of them, and admired the
mighty concavity of the place and the elliptical sky-
line, broken by uneven blocks and forming the rim of
the monstrous cup, - a cup that had been filled with
horrors. And yet I made my reflections; I said to
myself that though a Roman arena is one of the most
impressive of the works of man, it has a touch of that
same stupidity which I ventured to discover in the
Pont du Gard. It is brutal; it is monotonous; it is
not at all exquisite. The Arenes at Nimes were ar-
ranged for a bull-fight, - a form of recreation that, as
I was informed, is much _dans les habitudes Nimoises_,
and very common throughout Provence, where (still
according to my information) it is the usual pastime
of a Sunday afternoon. At Arles and Nimes it has a
characteristic setting, but in the villages the patrons
of the game make a circle of carts and barrels, on
which the spectators perch themselves. I was sur-
prised at the prevalence, in mild Provence, of the
Iberian vice, and hardly know whether it makes the
custom more respectable that at Nimes and Arles the
thing is shabbily and imperfectly done. The bulls
are rarely killed, and indeed often are bulls only in
the Irish sense of the term, - being domestic and
motherly cows. Such an entertainment of course does
not supply to the arena that element of the exquisite
which I spoke of as wanting. The exquisite at Nimes
is mainly represented by the famous Maison Carree.
The first impression you receive from this delicate
little building, as you stand before it, is that you have
already seen it many times. Photographs, engravings,
models, medals, have placed it definitely in your eye,
so that from the sentiment with which you regard it
curiosity and surprise are almost completely, and per-
haps deplorably, absent. Admiration remains, how-
ever, - admiration of a familiar and even slightly
patronizing kind. The Maison Carree does not over-
whelm you; you can conceive it. It is not one of the
great sensations of the antique art; but it is perfectly
felicitous, and, in spite of having been put to all sorts
of incongruous uses, marvellously preserved. Its slender
columns, its delicate proportions, its charming com-
pactness, seemed to bring one nearer to the century
that built it than the great superpositions of arenas
and bridges, and give it the interest that vibrates from
one age to another when the note of taste is struck.
If anything were needed to make this little toy-temple
a happy production, the service would be rendered by
the second-rate boulevard that conducts to it, adorned
with inferior cafes and tobacco-shops. Here, in a
respectable recess, surrounded by vulgar habitations,
and with the theatre, of a classic pretension, opposite,
stands the small "square house," so called because it
is much longer than it is broad. I saw it first in the
evening, in the vague moonlight, which made it look
as if it were cast in bronze. Stendhal says, justly,
that it has the shape of a playing-card, and he ex-
presses his admiration for it by the singular wish
that an "exact copy" of it should be erected in Paris.
He even goes so far as to say that in the year 1880
this tribute will have been rendered to its charms;
nothing would be more simple, to his mind, than to
"have" in that city "le Pantheon de Rome, quelques
temples de Grece." Stendhal found it amusing to
write in the character of a _commis-voyageur_, and some-
times it occurs to his reader that he really was one.

Henry James