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Chapter 30

There are two shabby old inns at Arles, which
compete closely for your custom. I mean by this that
if you elect to go to the Hotel du Forum, the Hotel
du Nord, which is placed exactly beside it (at a right
angle) watches your arrival with ill-concealed dis-
approval; and if you take the chances of its neighbor,
the Hotel du Forum seems to glare at you invidiously
from all its windows and doors. I forget which of
these establishments I selected; whichever it was, I
wished very much that, it had been the other. The
two stand together on the Place des Hommes, a little
public square of Arles, which somehow quite misses
its effect. As a city, indeed, Arles quite misses its
effect in every way; and if it is a charming place, as
I think it is, I can hardly tell the reason why. The
straight-nosed Arlesiennes account for it in some degree;
and the remainder may be charged to the ruins of the
arena and the theatre. Beyond this, I remember with
affection the ill-proportioned little Place des Hommes;
not at all monumental, and given over to puddles and
to shabby cafes. I recall with tenderness the tortuous
and featureless streets, which looked like the streets of
a village, and were paved with villanous little sharp
stones, making all exercise penitential. Consecrated
by association is even a tiresome walk that I took the
evening I arrived, with the purpose of obtaining a
view of the Rhone. I had been to Arles before, years
ago, and it seemed to me that I remembered finding
on the banks of the stream some sort of picture. I
think that on the evening of which I speak there was
a watery moon, which it seemed to me would light up
the past as well as the present. But I found no pic-
ture, and I scarcely found the Rhone at all. I lost
my way, and there was not a creature in the streets to
whom I could appeal. Nothing could be more pro-
vincial than the situation of Arles at ten o'clock at
night. At last I arrived at a kind of embankment,
where I could see the great mud-colored stream slip-
ping along in the soundless darkness. It had come
on to rain, I know not what had happened to the
moon, and the whole place was anything but gay. It
was not what I had looked for; what I had looked for
was in the irrecoverable past. I groped my way back
to the inn over the infernal _cailloux_, feeling like a dis-
comfited Dogberry. I remember now that this hotel
was the one (whichever that may be) which has the
fragment of a Gallo-Roman portico inserted into one
of its angles. I had chosen it for the sake of this ex-
ceptional ornament. It was damp and dark, and the
floors felt gritty to the feet; it was an establishment at
which the dreadful _gras-double_ might have appeared
at the table d'hote, as it had done at Narbonne. Never-
theless, I was glad to get back to it; and nevertheless,
too, - and this is the moral of my simple anecdote, -
my pointless little walk (I don't speak of the pave-
ment) suffuses itself, as I look back upon it, with a
romantic tone. And in relation to the inn, I suppose
I had better mention that I am well aware of the in-
consistency of a person who dislikes the modern cara-
vansary, and yet grumbles when he finds a hotel of
the superannuated sort. One ought to choose, it would
seem, and make the best of either alternative. The
two old taverns at Arles are quite unimproved; such
as they must have been in the infancy of the modern
world, when Stendhal passed that way, and the lum-
bering diligence deposited him in the Place des
Hommes, such in every detail they are to-day. _Vieilles
auberges de France_, one ought to enjoy their gritty
floors and greasy window-panes. Let it be put on re-
cord, therefore, that I have been, I won't say less com-
fortable, but at least less happy, at better inns.

To be really historic, I should have mentioned that
before going to look for the Rhone I had spent part
of the evening on the opposite side of the little place,
and that I indulged in this recreation for two definite
reasons. One of these was that I had an opportunity
of conversing at a cafe with an attractive young Eng-
lishman, whom I had met in the afternoon at Tarascon,
and more remotely, in other years, in London; the
other was that there sat enthroned behind the counter
a splendid mature Arlesienne, whom my companion
and I agreed that it was a rare privilege to contem-
plate. There is no rule of good manners or morals
which makes it improper, at a cafe, to fix one's eyes
upon the _dame de comptoir_; the lady is, in the nature
of things, a part of your _consommation_. We were there-
fore feee to admire without restriction the handsomest
person I had ever seen give change for a five-franc
piece. She was a large quiet woman, who would never
see forty again; of an intensely feminine type, yet
wonderfully rich and robust, and full of a certain phy-
sical nobleness. Though she was not really old, she
was antique, and she was very grave, even a little sad.
She had the dignity of a Roman empress, and she
handled coppers as if they had been stamped with
the head of Caesar. I have seen washerwomen in the
Trastevere who were perhaps as handsome as she; but
even the head-dress of the Roman contadina con-
tributes less to the dignity of the person born to wear
it than the sweet and stately Arlesian cap, which sits
at once aloft and on the back of the head; which is
accompanied with a wide black bow covering a con-
siderable part of the crown; and which, finally, accom-
modates itself indescribably well to the manner in
which the tresses of the front are pushed behind the
cars.

This admirable dispenser of lumps of sugar has
distracted me a little; for I am still not sufficiently
historical. Before going to the cafe I had dined, and
before dining I had found time to go and look at the
arena. Then it was that I discovered that Arles has
no general physiognomy, and, except the delightful
little church of Saint Trophimus, no architecture, and
that the rugosities of its dirty lanes affect the feet
like knife-blades. It was not then, on the other hand, that
I saw the arena best. The second day of my stay at
Arles I devoted to a pilgrimage to the strange old hill
town of Les Baux, the mediaeval Pompeii, of which I
shall give myself the pleasure of speaking. The even-
ing of that day, however (my friend and I returned in
time for a late dinner), I wandered among the Roman
remains of the place by the light of a magnificent
moon, and gathered an impression which has lost little
of its silvery glow. The moon of the evening before
had been aqueous and erratic; but if on the present
occasion it was guilty of any irregularity, the worst it
did was only to linger beyond its time in the heavens,
in order to let us look at things comfortably. The
effect was admirable; it brought back the impression
of the way, in Rome itself, on evenings like that, the
moonshine rests upon broken shafts and slabs of an-
tique pavement. As we sat in the theatre, looking at
the two lone columns that survive - part of the decora-
tion of the back of the stage - and at the fragments
of ruin around them, we might have been in the
Roman forum. The arena at Arles, with its great
magnitude, is less complete than that of Nimes; it has
suffered even more the assaults of time and of the
children of time, and it has been less repaired. The
seats are almost wholly wanting; but the external walls
minus the topmost tier of arches, are massively, rug-
gedly, complete; and the vaulted corridors seem as
solid as the day they were built. The whole thing is
superbly vast, and as monumental, for place of light
amusement - what is called in America a "variety-
show" - as it entered only into the Roman mind to
make such establishments. The _podium_ is much higher
than at Nimes, and many of the great white slabs that
faced it have been recovered and put into their places.
The proconsular box has been more or less recon-
structed, and the great converging passages of approach
to it are still majestically distinct: so that, as I sat
there in the moon-charmed stillness, leaning my elbows
on the battered parapet of the ring, it was not im-
possible - to listen to the murmurs and shudders, the
thick voice of the circus, that died away fifteen hun-
dred years ago.

The theatre has a voice as well, but it lingers on
the ear of time with a different music. The Roman
theatre at Arles seemed to me one of the most charm-
ing and touching ruins I had ever beheld; I took a
particular fancy to it. It is less than a skeleton, - the
arena may be called a skeleton; for it consists only of
half a dozen bones. The traces of the row of columns
which formed the scene - the permanent back-scene -
remain; two marble pillars - I just mentioned them -
are upright, with a fragment of their entablature. Be
fore them is the vacant space which was filled by the
stage, with the line of the prosoenium distinct, marked
by a deep groove, impressed upon slabs of stone, which
looks as if the bottom of a high screen had been in-
tended to fit into it. The semicircle formed by the
seats - half a cup - rises opposite; some of the rows
are distinctly marked. The floor, from the bottom of
the stage, in the shape of an arc of which the chord
is formed by the line of the orchestra, is covered by
slabs of colored marble - red, yellow, and green -
which, though terribly battered and cracked to-day,
give one an idea of the elegance of the interior. Every-
thing shows that it was on a great scale: the large
sweep of its enclosing walls, the massive corridors that
passed behind the auditorium, and of which we can
still perfectly take the measure. The way in which
every seat commanded the stage is a lesson to the
architects of our epoch, as also the immense size of
the place is a proof of extraordinary power of voice
on the part of the Roman actors. It was after we had
spent half an hour in the moonshine at the arena that
we came on to this more ghostly and more exquisite
ruin. The principal entrance was locked, but we
effected an easy _escalade_, scaled a low parapet, and
descended into the place behind file scenes. It was
as light as day, and the solitude was complete. The
two slim columns, as we sat on the broken benches,
stood there like a pair of silent actors. What I called
touching, just now, was the thought that here the
human voice, the utterance of a great language, had
been supreme. The air was full of intonations and
cadences; not of the echo of smashing blows, of riven
armor, of howling victims and roaring beasts. The
spot is, in short, one of the sweetest legacies of the
ancient world; and there seems no profanation in the
fact that by day it is open to the good people of
Arles, who use it to pass, by no means in great num-
bers, from one part of the town to the other; treading
the old marble floor, and brushing, if need be, the
empty benches. This familiarity does not kill the
place again; it makes it, on the contrary, live a little,
- makes the present and the past touch each other.

Henry James