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Chapter 29

On my way from Nimes to Arles, I spent three
hours at Tarascon; chiefly for the love of Alphonse
Daudet, who has written nothing more genial than
"Les Aventures Prodigieuses de Taitarin," and the
story of the "siege" of the bright, dead little town
(a mythic siege by the Prussians) in the "Conies du
Lundi." In the introduction which, for the new
edition of his works, he has lately supplied to "Tar-
tarin," the author of this extravagant but kindly
satire gives some account of the displeasure with
which he has been visited by the ticklish Tarascon-
nais. Daudet relates that in his attempt to shed a
humorous light upon some of the more erratic phases
of the Provencal character, he selected Tarascon at a
venture; not because the temperament of its natives
is more vainglorious than that of their neighbors, or
their rebellion against the "despotism of fact" more
marked, but simply because he had to name a par-
ticular Provencal city. Tartarin is a hunter of lions
and charmer of women, a true "_produit du midi_," as
Daudet says, who has the most fantastic and fabulous
adventures. He is a minimized Don Quixote, with
much less dignity, but with equal good faith; and the
story of his exploits is a little masterpiece of the
light comical. The Tarasconnais, however, declined to
take the joke, and opened the vials of their wrath
upon the mocking child of Nimes, who would have
been better employed, they doubtless thought, in show-
ing up the infirmities of his own family. I am bound
to add that when I passed through Tarascon they did
not appear to be in the least out of humor. Nothing
could have been brighter, softer, more suggestive of
amiable indifference, than the picture it presented to
my mind. It lies quietly beside the Rhone, looking
across at Beaucaire, which seems very distant and in-
dependent, and tacitly consenting to let the castle of
the good King Rene of Anjou, which projects very
boldly into the river, pass for its most interesting feature.
The other features are, primarily, a sort of vivid sleepi-
ness in the aspect of the place, as if the September
noon (it had lingered on into October) lasted longer
there than elsewhere; certain low arcades, which make
the streets look gray and exhibit empty vistas; and a
very curious and beautiful walk beside the Rhone,
denominated the Chaussee, - a long and narrow cause-
way, densely shaded by two rows of magnificent old
trees, planted in its embankment, and rendered doubly
effective, at the moment I passed over it, by a little
train of collegians, who had been taken out for mild
exercise by a pair of young priests. Lastly, one may
say that a striking element of Tarascon, as of any town
that lies on the Rhone, is simply the Rhone itself: the
big brown flood, of uncertain temper, which has never
taken time to forget that it is a child of the mountain
and the glacier, and that such an origin carries with it
great privileges. Later, at Avignon, I observed it in
the exercise of these privileges, chief among which was
that of frightening the good people of the old papal
city half out of their wits.

The chateau of King Rene serves to-day as the
prison of a district, and the traveller who wishes to
look into it must obtain his permission at the _Mairie
of Tarascon_. If he have had a certain experience of
French manners, his application will be accompanied
with the forms of a considerable obsequiosity, and in
this case his request will be granted as civilly as it
has been made. The castle has more of the air of a
severely feudal fortress than I should suppose the
period of its construction (the first half of the fifteenth
century) would have warranted; being tremendously
bare and perpendicular, and constructed for comfort
only in the sense that it was arranged for defence. It
is a square and simple mass, composed of small yellow
stones, and perched on a pedestal of rock which easily
commands the river. The building has the usual cir-
cular towers at the corners, and a heavy cornice at
the top, and immense stretches of sun-scorched wall,
relieved at wide intervals by small windows, heavily
cross-barred. It has, above all, an extreme steepness
of aspect; I cannot express it otherwise. The walls
are as sheer and inhospitable as precipices. The castle
has kept its large moat, which is now a hollow filled
with wild plants. To this tall fortress the good Rene
retired in the middle of the fifteenth century, finding
it apparently the most substantial thing left him in a
dominion which had included Naples and Sicily,
Lorraine and Anjou. He had been a much-tried
monarch and the sport of a various fortune, fighting
half his life for thrones he didn't care for, and exalted
only to be quickly cast down. Provence was the
country of his affection, and the memory of his troubles
did not prevent him from holding a joyous court at
Tarascon and at Aix. He finished the castle at
Tarascon, which had been begun earlier in the century,
- finished it, I suppose, for consistency's sake, in the
manner in which it had originally been designed rather
than in accordance with the artistic tastes that formed
the consolation of his old age. He was a painter, a
writer, a dramatist, a modern dilettante, addicted to
private theatricals. There is something very attractive
in the image that he has imprinted on the page of
history. He was both clever and kind, and many
reverses and much suffering had not imbittered him
nor quenched his faculty of enjoyment. He was fond
of his sweet Provence, and his sweet Provence has
been grateful; it has woven a light tissue of legend
around the memory of the good King Rene.

I strolled over his dusky habitation - it must have
taken all his good-humor to light it up - at the heels
of the custodian, who showed me the usual number of
castle-properties: a deep, well-like court; a collection of
winding staircases and vaulted chambers, the embra-
sures of whose windows and the recesses of whose
doorways reveal a tremendous thickness of wall. These
things constitute the general identity of old castles;
and when one has wandered through a good many,
with due discretion of step and protrusion of head,
one ceases very much to distinguish and remember,
and contents one's self with consigning them to the
honorable limbo of the romantic. I must add that this
reflection did not the least deter me from crossing the
bridge which connects Tarascon with Beaucaire, in
order to examine the old fortress whose ruins adorn
the latter city. It stands on a foundation of rock much
higher than that of Tarascon, and looks over with a
melancholy expression at its better-conditioned brother.
Its position is magnificent, and its outline very gallant.
I was well rewarded for my pilgrimage; for if the castle
of Beaucaire is only a fragment, the whole place, with
its position and its views, is an ineffaceable picture. It
was the stronghold of the Montmorencys, and its last
tenant was that rash Duke Francois, whom Richelieu,
seizing every occasion to trample on a great noble,
caused to be beheaded at Toulouse, where we saw, in
the Capitol, the butcher's knife with which the cardinal
pruned the crown of France of its thorns. The castle,
after the death of this victim, was virtually demolished.

Its site, which Nature to-day has taken again to herself,
has an extraordinary charm. The mass of rock that it
formerly covered rises high above the town, and is as
precipitous as the side of the Rhone. A tall rusty iron
gate admits you from a quiet corner of Beaucaire to a
wild tangled garden, covering the side of the hill, -
for the whole place forms the public promenade of the
townsfolk, - a garden without flowers, with little steep,
rough paths that wind under a plantation of small,
scrubby stone-pines. Above this is the grassy platform
of the castle, enclosed on one side only (toward the
river) by a large fragment of wall and a very massive
dungeon. There are benches placed in the lee of the
wall, and others on the edge of the platform, where
one may enjoy a view, beyond the river, of certain
peeled and scorched undulations. A sweet desolation,
an everlasting peace, seemed to hang in the air. A
very old man (a fragment, like the castle itself) emerged
from some crumbling corner to do me the honors, - a
very gentle, obsequious, tottering, toothless, grateful old
man. He beguiled me into an ascent of the solitary
tower, from which you may look down on the big
sallow river and glance at diminished Tarascon, and
the barefaced, bald-headed hills behind it. It may
appear that I insist too much upon the nudity of the
Provencal horiion, - too much, considering that I have
spoken of the prospect from the heights of Beaucaire as
lovely. But it is an exquisite bareness; it seems to
exist for the purpose of allowing one to follow the de-
licate lines of the hills, and touch with the eyes, as it
were, the smallest inflections of the landscape. It
makes the whole thing seem wonderfully bright and
pure.

Beaucaire used to be the scene of a famous fair,
the great fair of the south of France. It has gone the
way of most fairs, even in France, where these delight-
ful exhibitions hold their own much better than might
be supposed. It is still held in the month of July;
but the bourgeoises of Tarascon send to the Magasin
du Louvre for their smart dresses, and the principal
glory of the scene is its long tradition. Even now,
however, it ought to be the prettiest of all fairs, for it
takes place in a charming wood which lies just beneath
the castle, beside the Rhone. The booths, the barracks,
the platforms of the mountebanks, the bright-colored
crowd, diffused through this midsummer shade, and
spotted here and there with the rich Provencal sun-
shine must be of the most pictorial effect. It is highly
probable, too, that it offers a large collection of pretty
faces; for even in the few hours that I spent at
Tarascon I discovered symptoms of the purity of
feature for which the women of the _pays d'Arles_ are
renowned. The Arlesian head-dress, was visible in the
streets; and this delightful coiffure is so associated with
a charming facial oval, a dark mild eye, a straight
Greek nose, and a mouth worthy of all the rest, that
it conveys a presumption of beauty which gives the
wearer time either to escape or to please you. I have
read somewhere, however, that Tarascon is supposed
to produce handsome men, as Arles is known to deal
in handsome women. It may be that I should have
found the Tarasconnais very fine fellows, if I had en-
countered enough specimens to justify an induction.
But there were very few males in the streets, and the
place presented no appearance of activity. Here and
there the black coif of an old woman or of a young
girl was framed by a low doorway; but for the rest, as
I have said, Tarascon was mostly involved in a siesta.
There was not a creature in the little church of Saint
Martha, which I made a point of visiting before I re-
turned to the station, and which, with its fine Romanesque
sideportal and its pointed and crocketed Gothic spire,
is as curious as it need be, in view of its tradition. It
stands in a quiet corner where the grass grows between
the small cobble-stones, and you pass beneath a deep
archway to reach it. The tradition relates that Saint
Martha tamed with her own hands, and attached to
her girdle, a dreadful dragon, who was known as the
Tarasque, and is reported to have given his name to
the city on whose site (amid the rocks which form the
base of the chateau) he had his cavern. The dragon,
perhaps, is the symbol of a ravening paganism, dis-
pelled by the eloquence of a sweet evangelist. The
bones of the interesting saint, at all events, were found,
in the eleventh century, in a cave beneath the spot on
which her altar now stands. I know not what had be-
come of the bones of the dragon.

Henry James