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Chapter 35

It was the morning after this, I think (a certain
Saturday), that when I came out of the Hotel de
l'Europe, which lies in a shallow concavity just within
the city gate that opens on the Rhone, - came out to
look at the sky from the little _place_ before the inn,
and see how the weather promised for the obligatory
excursion to Vaucluse, - I found the whole town in a
terrible taking. I say the whole town advisedly; for
every inhabitant appeared to have taken up a position
on the bank of the river, or on the uppermost parts
of the promenade of the Doms, where a view of its
course was to be obtained. It had risen surprisingly
in the night, and the good people of Avignon had
reason to know what a rise of the Rhone might signify.
The town, in its lower portions, is quite at the mercy
of the swollen waters; and it was mentioned to me
that in 1856 the Hotel de l'Europe, in its convenient
hollow, was flooded up to within a few feet of the
ceiling of the dining-room, where the long board which
had served for so many a table d'hote floated dis-
reputably, with its legs in the air. On the present
occasion the mountains of the Ardeche, where it had
been raining for a month, had sent down torrents
which, all that fine Friday night, by the light of the
innocent-looking moon, poured themselves into the
Rhone and its tributary, the Durance. The river was
enormous, and continued to rise; and the sight was
beautiful and horrible. The water in many places
was already at the base of the city walls; the quay,
with its parapet just emerging, being already covered.
The country, seen from the Plateau des Doms, re-
sembled a vast lake, with protrusions of trees, houses,
bridges, gates. The people looked at it in silence, as
I had seen people before - on the occasion of a rise
of the Arno, at Pisa - appear to consider the prospects
of an inundation. "Il monte; il monte toujours," -
there was not much said but that. It was a general
holiday, and there was an air of wishing to profit, for
sociability's sake, by any interruption of the common-
place (the popular mind likes "a change," and the
element of change mitigates the sense of disaster); but
the affair was not otherwise a holiday. Suspense and
anxiety were in the air, and it never is pleasant to be
reminded of the helplessness of man. In the presence
of a loosened river, with its ravaging, unconquerable
volume, this impression is as strong as possible; and
as I looked at the deluge which threatened to make
an island of the Papal palace, I perceived that the
scourge of water is greater than the scourge of fire.
A blaze may be quenched, but where could the flame
be kindled that would arrest the quadrupled Rhone?
For the population of Avignon a good deal was at
stake, and I am almost ashamed to confess that in the
midst of the public alarm I considered the situation
from the point of view of the little projects of a senti-
mental tourist. Would the prospective inundation inter-
fere with my visit to Vaucluse, or make it imprudent
to linger twenty-four hours longer at Avignon? I must
add that the tourist was not perhaps, after all, so
sentimental. I have spoken of the pilgrimage to the
shrine of Petrarch as obligatory, and that was, in fact,
the light in which it presented itself to me; all the
more that I had been twice at Avignon without under-
taking it. This why I was vexed at the Rhone - if
vexed I was - for representing as impracticable an ex-
cursion which I cared nothing about. How little I
cared was manifest from my inaction on former oc-
casions. I had a prejudice against Vancluse, against
Petrarch, even against the incomparable Laura. I was
sure that the place was cockneyfied and threadbare,
and I had never been able to take an interest in the
poet and the lady. I was sure that I had known many
women as charming and as handsome as she, about
whom much less noise had been made; and I was
convinced that her singer was factitious and literary,
and that there are half a dozen stanzas in Wordsworth
that speak more to the soul than the whole collection
of his _fioriture_. This was the crude state of mind in
which I determined to go, at any risk, to Vaucluse.
Now that I think it over, I seem to remember that I
had hoped, after all, that the submersion of the roads
would forbid it. Since morning the clouds had gathered
again, and by noon they were so heavy that there was
every prospect of a torrent. It appeared absurd to
choose such a time as this to visit a fountain - a
fountain which, would be indistinguishable in the
general cataract. Nevertheless I took a vow that if
at noon the rain should not have begun to descend
upon Avignon I would repair to the head-spring of the
Sorgues. When the critical moment arrived, the clouds
were hanging over Avignon like distended water-bags,
which only needed a prick to empty themselves. The
prick was not given, however; all nature was too much
occupied in following the aberration of the Rhone to
think of playing tricks elsewhere. Accordingly, I started
for the station in a spirit which, for a tourist who
sometimes had prided himself on his unfailing supply
of sentiment, was shockingly perfunctory.

"For tasks in hours of insight willed
May be in hours of gloom fulfilled."

I remembered these lines of Matthew Arnold (written,
apparently, in an hour of gloom), and carried out the
idea, as I went, by hoping that with the return of in-
sight I should be glad to have seen Vaucluse. Light
has descended upon me since then, and I declare that
the excursion is in every way to be recommended.
The place makes a great impression, quite apart from
Petrarch and Laura.

There was no rain; there was only, all the after-
noon, a mild, moist wind, and a sky magnificently
black, which made a _repoussoir_ for the paler cliffs of
the fountain. The road, by train, crosses a flat, ex-
pressionless country, toward the range of arid hills
which lie to the east of Avignon, and which spring
(says Murray) from the mass of the Mont-Ventoux. At
Isle-sur-Sorgues, at the end of about an hour, the fore-
ground becomes much more animated and the distance
much more (or perhaps I should say much less) actual.
I descended from the train, and ascended to the top
of an omnibus which was to convey me into the re-
cesses of the hills. It had not been among my pre-
visions that I should be indebted to a vehicle of that
kind for an opportunity to commune with the spirit of
Petrarch; and I had to borrow what consolation I
could from the fact that at least I had the omnibus to
myself. I was the only passenger; every one else was
at Avignon, watching the Rhone. I lost no time in
perceiving that I could not have come to Vaucluse at
a better moment. The Sorgues was almost as full as
the Rhone, and of a color much more romantic. Rush-
ing along its narrowed channel under an avenue of
fine _platanes_ (it is confined between solid little embank-
ments of stone), with the good-wives of the village, on
the brink, washing their linen in its contemptuous
flood, it gave promise of high entertainment further on.

The drive to Vaucluse is of about three quarters of
an hour; and though the river, as I say, was promis-
ing, the big pale hills, as the road winds into them,
did not look as if their slopes of stone and shrub were
a nestling-place for superior scenery. It is a part of
the merit of Vaucluse, indeed, that it is as much as
possible a surprise. The place has a right to its name,
for the valley appears impenetrable until you get fairly
into it. One perverse twist follows another, until the
omnibus suddenly deposits you in front of the "cabinet"
of Petrarch. After that you have only to walk along
the left bank of the river. The cabinet of Petrarch is
to-day a hideous little _cafe_, bedizened, like a sign-
board, with extracts from the ingenious "Rime." The
poet and his lady are, of course, the stock in trade of
the little village, which has had for several generations
the privilege of attracting young couples engaged in
their wedding-tour, and other votaries of the tender
passion. The place has long been familiar, on festal
Sundays, to the swains of Avignon and their attendant
nymphs. The little fish of the Sorgues are much
esteemed, and, eaten on the spot, they constitute, for
the children of the once Papal city, the classic sub-
urban dinner. Vaucluse has been turned to account,
however, not only by sentiment, but by industry; the
banks of the stream being disfigured by a pair of
hideous mills for the manufacture of paper and of
wool. In an enterprising and economical age the
water-power of the Sorgues was too obvious a motive;
and I must say that, as the torrent rushed past them,
the wheels of the dirty little factories appeared to turn
merrily enough. The footpath on the left bank, of
which I just spoke, carries one, fortunately, quite out
of sight of them, and out of sound as well, inasmuch
as on the day of my visit the stream itself, which was
in tremendous force, tended more and more, as one
approached the fountain, to fill the valley with its own
echoes. Its color was magnificent, and the whole
spectacle more like a corner of Switzerland than a
nook in Provence. The protrusions of the mountain
shut it in, and you penetrate to the bottom of the re-
cess which they form. The Sorgues rushes and rushes;
it is almost like Niagara after the jump of the cataract.
There are dreadful little booths beside the path, for
the sale of photographs and _immortelles_, - I don't know
what one is to do with the immortelles, - where you
are offered a brush dipped in tar to write your name
withal on the rocks. Thousands of vulgar persons, of
both sexes, and exclusively, it appeared, of the French
nationality, had availed themselves of this implement;
for every square inch of accessible stone was scored
over with some human appellation. It is not only we
in America, therefore, who besmirch our scenery; the
practice exists, in a more organized form (like every-
thing else in France), in the country of good taste.
You leave the little booths and stalls behind; but the
bescribbled crag, bristling with human vanity, keeps
you company even when you stand face to face with
the fountain. This happens when you find yourself
at the foot of the enormous straight cliff out of which
the river gushes. It rears itself to an extraordinary
height, - a huge forehead of bare stone, - looking as
if it were the half of a tremendous mound, split open
by volcanic action. The little valley, seeing it there,
at a bend, stops suddenly, and receives in its arms
the magical spring. I call it magical on account of
the mysterious manner in which it comes into the
world, with the huge shoulder of the mountain rising
over it, as if to protect the secret. From under the
mountain it silently rises, without visible movement,
filling a small natural basin with the stillest blue
water. The contrast between the stillness of this basin
and the agitation of the water directly after it has
overflowed, constitutes half the charm of Vaucluse.
The violence of the stream when once it has been set
loose on the rocks is as fascinating and indescribable
as that of other cataracts; and the rocks in the bed of
the Sorgues have been arranged by a master-hand.
The setting of the phenomenon struck me as so simple
and so fine - the vast sad cliff, covered with the after-
noon light, still and solid forever, while the liquid ele-
ment rages and roars at its base - that I had no diffi-
culty in understanding the celebrity of Vaucluse. I
understood it, but I will not say that I understood
Petrarch. He must have been very self-supporting, and
Madonna Laura must indeed have been much to him.

The aridity of the hills that shut in the valley is
complete, and the whole impression is best conveyed
by that very expressive French epithet _morne_. There
are the very fragmentary ruins of a castle (of one of
the bishops of Cavaillon) on a high spur of the moun-
tain, above the river; and there is another remnant of
a feudal habitation on one of the more accessible
ledges. Having half an hour to spare before my
omnibus was to leave (I must beg the reader's pardon
for this atrociously false note; call the vehicle a _dili-
gence_, and for some undiscoverable reason the offence
is minimized), I clambered up to this latter spot, and
sat among the rocks in the company of a few stunted
olives. The Sorgues, beneath me, reaching the plain,
flung itself crookedly across the meadows, like an un-
rolled blue ribbon. I tried to think of the _amant de
Laure_, for literature's sake; but I had no great success,
and the most I could, do was to say to myself that I
must try again. Several months have elapsed since
then, and I am ashamed to confess that the trial has
not yet come off. The only very definite conviction I
arrived at was that Vaucluse is indeed cockneyfied,
but that I should have been a fool, all the same, not
to come.

Henry James