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Chapter 34

Fortunately, it did not rain every day (though I
believe it was raining everywhere else in the depart-
ment); otherwise I should not have been able to go
to Villeneuve and to Vaucluse. The afternoon, indeed,
was lovely when I walked over the interminable bridge
that spans the two arms of the Rhone, divided here
by a considerable island, and directed my course, like
a solitary horseman - on foot, to the lonely tower
which forms one of the outworks of Villeneuve-les-
Avignon. The picturesque, half-deserted little town
lies a couple of miles further up the river. The im-
mense round towers of its old citadel and the long
stretches of ruined wall covering the slope on which
it lies, are the most striking features of the nearer
view, as you look from Avignon across the Rhone. I
spent a couple of hours in visiting these objects, and
there was a kind of pictorial sweetness in the episode;
but I have not many details to relate. The isolated
tower I just mentioned has much in common with the
detached donjon of Montmajour, which I had looked
at in going to Les Baux, and to which I paid my
respects in speaking of that excursion. Also the work
of Philippe le Bel (built in 1307), it is amazingly big
and stubborn, and formed the opposite limit of the
broken bridge, whose first arches (on the side of
Avignon) alone remain to give a measure of the oc-
casional volume of the Rhone. Half an hour's walk
brought me to Villeneuve, which lies away from the
river, looking like a big village, half depopulated, and
occupied for the most part by dogs and cats, old
women and small children; these last, in general, re-
markably pretty, in the manner of the children of
Provence. You pass through the place, which seems
in a singular degree vague and unconscious, and come
to the rounded hill on which the ruined abbey lifts
its yellow walls, - the Benedictine abbey of Saint-
Andre, at once a church, a monastery, and a fortress.
A large part of the crumbling enceinte disposes itself
over the hill; but for the rest, all that has preserved
any traceable cohesion is a considerable portion, of
the citadel. The defence of the place appears to have
been intrusted largely to the huge round towers that
flank the old gate; one of which, the more complete,
the ancient warden (having first inducted me into his
own dusky little apartment, and presented me with
a great bunch of lavender) enabled me to examine in
detail. I would almost have dispensed with the privi-
lege, for I think I have already mentioned that an ac-
quaintance with many feudal interiors has wrought a
sad confusion in my mind. The image of the outside
always remains distinct; I keep it apart from other
images of the same sort; it makes a picture sufficiently
ineffaceable. But the guard-rooms, winding staircases,
loop-holes, prisons, repeat themselves and intermingle;
they have a wearisome family likeness. There are
always black passages and corners, and walls twenty
feet thick; and there is always some high place to
climb up to for the sake of a "magnificent" view.
The views, too, are apt to get muddled. These dense
gate-towers of Philippe le Bel struck me, however, as
peculiarly wicked and grim. Their capacity is of the
largest, and they contain over so many devilish little
dungeons, lighted by the narrowest slit in the pro-
digious wall, where it comes over one with a good
deal of vividness and still more horror that wretched
human beings ever lay there rotting in the dark. The
dungeons of Villeneuve made a particular impression
on me, - greater than any, except those of Loches,
which must surely be the most grewsome in Europe.
I hasten to add that every dark hole at Villeneuve is
called a dungeon; and I believe it is well established
that in this manner, in almost all old castles and
towers, the sensibilities of the modern tourist are un-
scrupulously played upon. There were plenty of black
holes in the Middle Ages that were not dungeons, but
household receptacles of various kinds; and many a
tear dropped in pity for the groaning captive has really
been addressed to the spirits of the larder and the
faggot-nook. For all this, there are some very bad
corners in the towers of Villeneuve, so that I was not
wide of the mark when I began to think again, as I
had often thought before, of the stoutness of the human
composition in the Middle Ages, and the tranquillity
of nerve of people to whom the groaning captive and
the blackness of a "living tomb" were familiar ideas,
which did not at all interfere with their happiness or
their sanity. Our modern nerves, our irritable sym-
pathies, our easy discomforts and fears, make one think
(in some relations) less respectfully of human nature.
Unless, indeed, it be true, as I have heard it main-
tained, that in the Middle Ages every one did go mad,
- every one _was_ mad. The theory that this was a
period of general insanity is not altogether indefensible.

Within the old walls of its immense abbey the
town of Villeneuve has built itself a rough faubourg;
the fragments with which the soil was covered having
been, I suppose, a quarry of material. There are no
streets; the small, shabby houses, almost hovels, straggle
at random over the uneven ground. The only im-
portant feature is a convent of cloistered nuns, who
have a large garden (always within the walls) behind
their house, and whose doleful establishment you look
down into, or down at simply, from the battlements of
the citadel. One or two of the nuns were passing in
and out of the house; they wore gray robes, with a
bright red cape. I thought their situation most pro-
vincial. I came away, and wandered a little over the
base of the hill, outside the walls. Small white stones
cropped through the grass, over which low olive-trees
were scattered. The afternoon had a yellow bright-
ness. I sat down under one of the little trees, on the
grass, - the delicate gray branches were not much
above my head, - and rested, and looked at Avignon
across the Rhone. It was very soft, very still and
pleasant, though I am not sure it was all I once should
have expected of that combination of elements: an old
city wall for a background, a canopy of olives, and,
for a couch, the soil of Provence.

When I came back to Avignon the twilight was
already thick; but I walked up to the Rocher des
Doms. Here I again had the benefit of that amiable
moon which had already lighted up for me so many
romantic scenes. She was full, and she rose over the
Rhone, and made it look in the distance like a silver
serpent. I remember saying to myself at this mo-
ment, that it would be a beautiful evening to walk
round the walls of Avignon, - the remarkable walls,
which challenge comparison with those of Carcassonne
and Aigues-Mortes, and which it was my duty, as an
observer of the picturesque, to examine with some at-
tention. Presenting themselves to that silver sheen,
they could not fail to be impressive. So, at least, I
said to myself; but, unfortunately, I did not believe
what I said. It is a melancholy fact that the walls of
Avignon had never impressed me at all, and I had
never taken the trouble to make the circuit. They
are continuous and complete, but for some mysterious
reason they fail of their effect. This is partly because
they are very low, in some places almost absurdly so;
being buried in new accumulations of soil, and by
the filling in of the moat up to their middle. Then
they have been too well tended; they not only look at
present very new, but look as if they had never been
old. The fact that their extent is very much greater
makes them more of a curiosity than those of Carcas-
sonne; but this is exactly, as the same time, what is
fatal to their pictorial unity. With their thirty-seven
towers and seven gates they lose themselves too much
to make a picture that will compare with the ad-
mirable little vignette of Carcassonne. I may mention,
now that I am speaking of the general mass of Avignon,
that nothing is more curious than the way in which,
viewed from a distance, it is all reduced to nought by
the vast bulk of the palace of the Popes. From across
the Rhone, or from the train, as you leave the place,
this great gray block is all Avignon; it seems to occupy
the whole city, extensive, with its shrunken population,
as the city is.

Henry James