Subscribe for ad free access & additional features for teachers. Authors: 267, Books: 3,607, Poems & Short Stories: 4,435, Forum Members: 71,154, Forum Posts: 1,238,602, Quizzes: 344

Chapter 3

I have mentioned the church of Saint Martin,
which was for many years the sacred spot, the shrine
of pilgrimage, of Tours. Originally the simple burial-
place of the great apostle who in the fourth century
Christianized Gaul, and who, in his day a brilliant
missionary and worker of miracles, is chiefly known
to modem fame as the worthy that cut his cloak in
two at the gate of Amiens to share it with a beggar
(tradition fails to say, I believe, what he did with the
other half), the abbey of Saint Martin, through the
Middle Ages, waxed rich and powerful, till it was
known at last as one of the most luxurious religious
houses in Christendom, with kings for its titular ab-
bots (who, like Francis I., sometimes turned and
despoiled it) and a great treasure of precious things.
It passed, however, through many vicissitudes. Pillaged
by the Normans in the ninth century and by the
Huguenots in the sixteenth, it received its death-blow
from the Revolution, which must have brought to
bear upon it an energy of destruction proportionate
to its mighty bulk. At the end of the last century
a huge group of ruins alone remained, and what we
see to-day may be called the ruin of a ruin. It is
difficult to understand how so vast an ediface can
have been so completely obliterated. Its site is given
up to several ugly streets, and a pair of tall towers,
separated by a space which speaks volumes as to the
size of the church, and looking across the close-pressed
roofs to the happier spires of the cathedral, preserved
for the modern world the memory of a great fortune,
a great abuse, perhaps, and at all events a great pen-
alty. One may believe that to this day a consider-
able part of the foundations of the great abbey is
buried in the soil of Tours. The two surviving towers,
which are dissimilar in shape, are enormous; with
those of the cathedral they form the great landmarks
of the town. One of them bears the name of the Tour
de l'Horloge; the other, the so-called Tour Charle-
magne, was erected (two centuries after her death)
over the tomb of Luitgarde, wife of the great Em-
peror, who died at Tours in 800. I do not pretend to
understand in what relation these very mighty and
effectually detached masses of masonry stood to each
other, but in their gray elevation and loneliness they
are striking and suggestive to-day; holding their hoary
heads far above the modern life of the town, and
looking sad and conscious, as they had outlived all
uses. I know not what is supposed to have become
of the bones of the blessed saint during the various
scenes of confusion in which they may have got mis-
laid; but a mystic connection with his wonder-working
relics may be perceived in a strange little sanctuary
on the left of the street, which opens in front of the
Tour Charlemagne, - the rugged base of which, by
the way, inhabited like a cave, with a diminutive
doorway, in which, as I passed, an old woman stood
cleaning a pot, and a little dark window decorated
with homely flowers, would be appreciated by a
painter in search of "bits." The present shrine of
Saint Martin is enclosed (provisionally, I suppose) in
a very modem structure of timber, where in a dusky
cellar, to which you descend by a wooden staircase
adorned with votive tablets and paper roses, is placed
a tabernacle surrounded by twinkling tapers and pros-
trate worshippers. Even this crepuscular vault, how-
ever, fails, I think, to attain solemnity; for the whole
place is strangely vulgar and garish. The Catholic
church, as churches go to-day, is certainly the most
spectacular; but it must feel that it has a great fund
of impressiveness to draw upon when it opens such
sordid little shops of sanctity as this. It is impos-
sible not to be struck with the grotesqueness of such
an establishment, as the last link in the chain of a
great ecclesiastical tradition.

In the same street, on the other side, a little below,
is something better worth your visit than the shrine
of Saint Martin. Knock at a high door in a white
wall (there is a cross above it), and a fresh-faced
sister of the convent of the Petit Saint Martin will
let you into the charming little cloister, or rather
fragment of a cloister. Only one side of this exqui-
site structure remains, but the whole place is effective.
In front of the beautiful arcade, which is terribly
bruised and obliterated, is one of those walks of inter-
laced _tilleuls_ which are so frequent in Touraine, and
into which the green light filters so softly through a
lattice of clipped twigs. Beyond this is a garden,
and beyond the garden are the other buildings of the
Convent, - where the placid sisters keep a school, - a
test, doubtless, of placidity. The imperfect arcade,
which dates from the beginning of the sixteenth cen-
tury (I know nothing of it but what is related in Mrs.
Pattison's "Rennaissance in France") is a truly en-
chanting piece of work; the cornice and the angles of
the arches, being covered with the daintiest sculpture
of arabesques, flowers, fruit, medallions, cherubs, griffins,
all in the finest and most attenuated relief. It is like
the chasing of a bracelet in stone. The taste, the
fancy, the elegance, the refinement, are of those things
which revive our standard of the exquisite. Such
a piece of work is the purest flower of the French
Renaissance; there is nothing more delicate in all
Touraine.

There is another fine thing at Tours which is not
particularly delicate, but which makes a great impres-
sion, - the- very interesting old church of Saint Julian,
lurking in a crooked corner at the right of the Rue
Royale, near the point at which this indifferent thorough-
fare emerges, with its little cry of admiration, on the
bank of the Loire. Saint Julian stands to-day in a
kind of neglected hollow, where it is much shut in by
houses; but in the year 1225, when the edifice was
begun, the site was doubtless, as the architects say,
more eligible. At present, indeed, when once you have
caught a glimpse of the stout, serious Romanesque
tower, - which is not high, but strong, - you feel that
the building has something to say, and that you must
stop to listen to it. Within, it has a vast and splendid
nave, of immense height, - the nave of a cathedral, -
with a shallow choir and transepts, and some admir-
able old glass. I spent half an hour there one morn-
ing, listening to what the church had to say, in perfect
solitude. Not a worshipper entered, - not even an old
man with a broom. I have always thought there is a
sex in fine buildings; and Saint Julian, with its noble
nave, is of the gender of the name of its patron.

It was that same morning, I think, that I went in
search of the old houses of Tours; for the town con-
tains several goodly specimens of the domestic archi-
tecture of the past. The dwelling to which the average
Anglo-Saxon will most promptly direct his steps, and
the only one I have space to mention, is the so-called
Maison de Tristan l'Hermite, - a gentleman whom the
readers of "Quentin Durward" will not have forgotten,
- the hangman-in-ordinary to the great King Louis XI.
Unfortunately the house of Tristan is not the house of
Tristan at all; this illusion has been cruelly dispelled.
There are no illusions left, at all, in the good city of
Tours, with regard to Louis XI. His terrible castle of
Plessis, the picture of which sends a shiver through
the youthful reader of Scott, has been reduced to sub-
urban insignificance; and the residence of his _triste
compere,_ on the front of which a festooned rope figures
as a motive for decoration, is observed to have been
erected in the succeeding century. The Maison de
Tristan may be visited for itself, however, if not for
Walter Scott; it is an exceedingly picturesque old
facade, to which you pick your way through a narrow
and tortuous street, - a street terminating, a little be-
yond it, in the walk beside the river. An elegant
Gothic doorway is let into the rusty-red brick-work,
and strange little beasts crouch at the angles of the
windows, which are surmounted by a tall graduated
gable, pierced with a small orifice, where the large
surface of brick, lifted out of the shadow of the street,
looks yellow and faded. The whole thing is disfigured
and decayed; but it is a capital subject for a sketch
in colors. Only I must wish the sketcher better luck
- or a better temper - than my own. If he ring the
bell to be admitted to see the court, which I believe
is more sketchable still, let him have patience to wait
till the bell is answered. He can do the outside while
they are coming.

The Maison de Tristan, I say, may be visited for
itself; but I hardly know what the remnants of Plessis-
les-Tours may be visited for. To reach them you
wander through crooked suburban lanes, down the
course of the Loire, to a rough, undesirable, incon-
gruous spot, where a small, crude building of red
brick is pointed out to you by your cabman (if you
happen to drive) as the romantic abode of a super-
stitious king, and where a strong odor of pigsties and
other unclean things so prostrates you for the moment
that you have no energy to protest against the obvious
fiction. You enter a yard encumbered with rubbish
and a defiant dog, and an old woman emerges from a
shabby lodge and assures you that you are indeed in
an historic place. The red brick building, which looks
like a small factory, rises on the ruins of the favorite
residence of the dreadful Louis. It is now occupied
by a company of night-scavengers, whose huge carts
are drawn up in a row before it. I know not whether
this be what is called the irony of fate; at any rate,
the effect of it is to accentuate strongly the fact (and
through the most susceptible of our senses) that there
is no honor for the authors of great wrongs. The
dreadful Louis is reduced simply to an offence to the
nostrils. The old woman shows you a few fragments,
- several dark, damp, much-encumbered vaults, de-
nominated dungeons, and an old tower staircase,
in good condition. There are the outlines of the old
moat; there is also the outline of the old guard-room,
which is now a stable; and there are other vague out-
lines and inconsequent lumps, which I have forgotten.
You need all your imagination, and even then you
cannot make out that Plessis was a castle of large ex-
tent, though the old woman, as your eye wanders over
the neighboring _potagers,_ talks a good deal about the
gardens and the park. The place looks mean and
flat; and as you drive away you scarcely know whether
to be glad or sorry that all those bristling horrors have
been reduced to the commonplace.

A certain flatness of impression awaits you also, I
think, at Marmoutier, which is the other indisuensable
excursion in the near neighborhood of Tours. The
remains of this famous abbey lie on the other bank of
the stream, about a mile and a half from the town.
You follow the edge of the big brown river; of a fine
afternoon you will be glad to go further still. The
abbey has gone the way of most abbeys; but the place
is a restoration as well as a ruin, inasmuch as the
sisters of the Sacred Heart have erected a terribly
modern convent here. A large Gothic doorway, in a
high fragment of ancient wall, admits you to a garden-
like enclosure, of great extent, from which you are
further introduced into an extraordinarily tidy little
parlor, where two good nuns sit at work. One of these
came out with me, and showed me over the place, -
a very definite little woman, with pointed features, an
intensely distinct enunciation, and those pretty man-
ners which (for whatever other teachings it may be
responsible) the Catholic church so often instils into
its functionaries. I have never seen a woman who had
got her lesson better than this little trotting, murmur-
ing, edifying nun. The interest, of Marmoutier to-day
is not so much an interest of vision, so to speak, as an
interest of reflection, - that is, if you choose to reflect
(for instance) upon the wondrous legend of the seven
sleepers (you may see where they lie in a row), who
lived together - they were brothers and cousins - in
primitive piety, in the sanctuary constructed by the
blessed Saint Martin (emulous of his precursor, Saint
Gatianus), in the face of the hillside that overhung the
Loire, and who, twenty-five years after his death,
yielded up their seven souls at the same moment, and
enjoyed the curious privilege of retaining in their faces,
in spite of this process, the rosy tints of life. The
abbey of Marmoutier, which sprung from the grottos in
the cliff to which Saint Gatianus and Saint Martin re-
tired to pray, was therefore the creation of the latter
worthy, as the other great abbey, in the town proper,
was the monument of his repose. The cliff is still
there; and a winding staircase, in the latest taste, en-
ables you conveniently to explore its recesses. These
sacred niches are scooped out of the rock, and will
give you an impression if you cannot do without one.
You will feel them to be sufficiently venerable when
you learn that the particular pigeon-hole of Saint
Gatianus, the first Christian missionary to Gaul, dates
from the third century. They have been dealt with as
the Catholic church deals with most of such places to-
day; polished and furnished up; labelled and ticketed,
- _edited,_ with notes, in short, like an old book. The
process is a mistake, - the early editions had more
sanctity. The modern buildings (of the Sacred Heart),
on which you look down from these points of vantage,
are in the vulgar taste which seems doomed to stamp
itself on all new Catholic work; but there was never-
theless a great sweetness in the scene. The afternoon
was lovely, and it was flushing to a close. The large
garden stretched beneath us, blooming with fruit and
wine and succulent vegetables, and beyond it flowed
the shining river. The air was still, the shadows were
long, and the place, after all, was full of memories,
most of which might pass for virtuous. It certainly
was better than Plessis-les-Tours.

Henry James