CHAPTER XV. NIMES.
The right spelling of Nimes - Derivation of name - The fountain - Throwing coins into springs - Collecting coins - Symbol of Agrippa - Character of Agrippa - What he did for Nimes - The Maison Carree - Different idea of worship in the Heathen world from what prevails in Christendom - S. Baudille - Vespers - Activity of the Church in France - Behaviour of the Clergy in Italy to the King and Queen - The Revolution a blessing to the Church in France - Church services in Italy and in France - The Tourmagne - Uncertainty as to its use - Cathedral of Nimes - Other churches - A canary lottery - Altars to the Sun - The sun-wheel - The Cross of Constantine - Anecdote of Flechier.
I pray the reader to observe how I spell the name of Nimes, with neither an s nor a circumflex, neither as Nismes, nor as Nimes, for both are wrong. Nimes is Nemausus, and there is no s to be sounded or suppressed in the ancient name of the place, which comes from the Keltic naimh, a fountain or spring. And in very truth no other name could better suit it, for here under a limestone hill wells up the river in one large flood sufficient for boats to go on it at once. This great green spring, ever flowing, mysterious even nowadays, is the great feature of Nimes, and this fountain certainly awoke the veneration of the old Gauls, who believed it to be a direct gift of the gods. One follows up a canal between streets planted with trees, and looks down into the pure water like liquid green glass, then suddenly reaches a garden. Above rises a wooded hill, thick with pines, syringa, Judas tree of brilliant pink lake, laburnum with its chains of gold, forming an arc of flowers, and sees before one a wide enclosed pool, walled round, of the shape of the figure 8, heaving with cold pure water that flows away under the terrace and falls with a roar to the lower level of the canal. On one side are ruins - of a temple to the Nymphs; but one cannot at first look at that, the volume of water engages one - a lake lifting itself up by its own strength out of the earth, always, night and day, inexhaustible, hardly varying in volume, coming no one knows whence, deep and green, with no visible bottom, without a bubble, without a ruffle - it is indeed wonderful. I have seen the spring of the Danube at Donaueschingen: it is nothing to this; the fountain of Vaucluse one can understand - it breaks out from a cave in the mountainside, like scores of others; this is otherwise - a river rising with no fuss, no display, no noise, without even a ripple.
It does not gush, it does not boil up. It is simply one glassy surface, and looking at it you cannot conceive that it is a river rising vertically and sliding away under your feet. Pliny says of the source of the Clitumnus: "At the foot of a little hill covered with venerable and shady trees, a spring issues which, gushing out in different and unequal streams, forms itself, after several windings, into a spacious basin, so extremely clear that you may see the pebbles, and the little pieces of money that are thrown into it, as they lie at the bottom." I have quoted this passage, not because the source of the Clitumnus at all resembles that of the river at Nimes, but because of the mention of the coins thrown in. Suetonius speaks of this same practice in his life of Augustus. Now this fountain at Nimes has yielded, and yields still, an almost inexhaustible supply of Roman and Gaulish and Gallo-Greek coins that have been thus thrown in as oblations to the nymphs in remote times; and these coins are now in the museums of Nimes and Paris, and in those of private collectors. The same custom still remains, but instead of coins, pins are now cast into springs.
At the entrance to the public gardens, over the iron gate is a medallion representing a crocodile and a palm-tree. The moment I saw it I stood still and stared. I knew that symbol, had known it from a boy. And this is how I came to know it. Living much in the south of France, and having always a hankering after old things, I collected coins, and I got them from the priests. The peasants were wont to drop old Roman coins which they found in their fields into the offertory bags and plates, and as these were of no use to the cures, they were very glad to give or sell them to me for small current sous. By this means I succeeded in making a very tolerable collection of Roman coins at an incredibly small cost. Now among these, one of the very first I got, and most curious, represented Octavius and Agrippa on one side, and on the reverse this identical symbol of a crocodile under a palm tree. Often enough did I turn that coin over and wonder what it meant, and highly delighted was I to discover its signification at length. It was symbolical of the subjugation of Egypt, and was struck in compliment to Agrippa. Then most assuredly Agrippa had something to do with Nimes. I turned to a little history of the place that I had, and to my delight found that he it was who is held to have been the great benefactor, indeed maker, of this little town.
I have the greatest possible respect for Agrippa. His stern, yet noble face, once seen in this bust is never to be forgotten, and infinitely sad - sad beyond comparison in history is the story of his family.