CHAPTER XIV. TARASCON.
Position of Tarascon and Beaucaire opposite each other - Church of S. Martha - Crypt - Ancient paintings - Catechising - Ancient altar - The festival of the Tarasque - The Phoenician goddess Martha - Story of S. Fronto - Discussion at dejeuner over the entry of M. Carnot into Marseilles - The change in the French character - Pessimism - Beaucaire - Font - Castle - Siege by Raymond VII. - Story of Aucassin and Nicolette.
Tarascon and Beaucaire stand frowning at each other across the Rhone, each with its castle; Beaucaire a grand pile on a crag, Tarascon dipping its feet in the water, and sulkily showing to its enemy a plain face, reserving all its picturesqueness for its side towards the town. This castle of Tarascon was one in which King Rene resided, as well as in that at Aix, but the Aix castle is gone, and that at Tarascon remains. Beaucaire belonged to the counts of Toulouse, whereas Tarascon, as already said, belonged to Provence. I do not like to venture on an explanation of the name, but the Tar with which it begins is most probably the Keltic Daur, water.  But the Tarasconese will not hear of this. To them the name is taken from the Tarasc, a monster that devastated the whole country round, but whom S. Martha bridled and slew. S. Martha, as we have already seen, is the very prophetess who directed Caius Marius in his campaign against the Teutons and Ambrons, the devastating horde that has in the popular imagination been represented as a dragon. The body of S. Martha is supposed to lie in the crypt, in an early Christian marble sarcophagus, probably brought from the Alyscamp at Arles, representing Moses striking the rock, and the miraculous feeding of the multitude, the miracle of Cana, and the resurrection of Lazarus.
[Footnote 1: Gwask, in Breton, is contraction, and at Tarascon the river is drawn together by the opposed points of Beaucaire and Tarascon. This may perhaps form the second syllable.]
In this crypt is a Corinthian capital turned upside down and converted into a holy water stoup; also a very early and curious altar, the slab of which is just two feet square, and has in the midst a square hole cut, probably of later date, for the reception of relics; the height of the altar is three feet three and a-half inches, it is of a porous stone that has become greatly corroded with weather. It is probably the earliest Christian altar in France.
In the crypt is a life-size representation of the entombment of S. Martha, with figures standing round, Christ at the head, and S. Pronto at the feet.
The church of S. Martha is of the fourteenth century, with the exception of the south portal, which dates from 1187, and is rich in its deeply-recessed mouldings filled with sculpture, but has been sadly mutilated. Within the church is some very fine ironwork, a grille dividing the choir from the side aisles, and a charming iron safe let into the wall on the north side, of ironwork painted and gilt. There are moreover some quaint paintings; an ancient altarpiece representing S. Rocque, between S. John and S. Laurence, on a gold ground; a S. Mary Magdalen with the portrait of a canon kneeling at her feet; the finest painting is S. Michael, also with a canon kneeling below. The armour of the archangel is very rich, and heightened with gold. The date of these pictures is 1513. There is another of the Nativity that is inferior. Whilst looking round the church, I heard singing muffled and distant, and presently, on reaching the steps that descended to the crypt, found that a young priest was there catechising a class of little girls. After some instructions they sang a hymn, which a Sister of Mercy was accompanying on the harmonium. The air was taking. It puzzled me at first. It was familiar and yet strange, and not till the children had reached the last verse did I recognise a wonderfully distorted form of the mermaid's song in Oberon, all the accents being altered. In this crypt is the tomb of a Neapolitan knight attached to the court of king Rene; and in the floor a well the water of which rises and falls with the river. In all probability this crypt was originally the baptistery of the first basilica erected in Tarascon.
The castle of King Rene is wonderfully picturesque on the landside. It was begun in 1400; he is said to have instituted the festival of the Tarasque, that used to be conducted with great merriment annually on July 29th.
A procession of mummers attended by the clergy paraded the town, escorting the figure of a dragon, made of canvas, and wielding a heavy beam of wood for a tail, to the imminent danger of the legs of all who approached. The dragon was conducted by a girl in white and blue, who led it by her girdle of blue silk, and when the dragon was especially frolicsome and unruly dashed holy water over it.
The ceremony was attended by numerous practical jokes, and led to acts of violence, in consequence of which it has been suppressed.