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. [1] 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.

S. Martha has inherited the symbols of the Phoenician goddess of her own name, the ship and the dragon; there can be little doubt that the first Phoenician settlers in Provence introduced her worship as the patroness of sailors, and that this worship acquired a fresh impulse after the destruction of the Teutons who had overrun the land, when the prophetess Martha was regarded as one with the earlier goddess. When Christianity came in, the name of the hostess of Bethany was given to the churches erected where Martha the moon goddess had been venerated before, so as gradually to wean the heathen from their old faith. They came over into the Church, but brought with them their myth of the pagan goddess.

An odd legend is told of her death.

On a Sunday morning, S. Fronto, bishop of Perigeux was about to say Mass, and whilst waiting for the congregation to assemble, fell asleep in his chair, when he saw Christ appear, who bade him come and assist at the obsequies of Martha. Instantly he found himself translated to Tarascon, in the church with our Lord, he at the feet and Christ at the head of the body, and the Saviour sang the burial office. In the meantime at Perigeux, the deacon wondered at the heavy sleep of the bishop, and had much ado to rouse him. At length Fronto opened his eyes, when the deacon whispered that the people were impatient with long waiting.

"Do not be troubled," said Fronto, "you do not understand what I have been about."

Now it fell out that whilst at Tarascon Fronto was engaged in burying Martha, he had taken off his glove and ring, and had put them into the hands of the sacristan. When Fronto informed the congregation at Perigeux what he had been about, they disbelieved. However, messengers were sent to Tarascon, and his glove and ring were identified. These were preserved as relics in the church till the Revolution. Unfortunately for the story, Fronto of Perigeux belongs to the fourth century, so that the lapse in dream was not merely a skip over half France, but also through four centuries.

Tarascon has some picturesque bits in the town, arcades with shops underneath, and quaint doorways of Renaissance work; but its chief charm after the castle is certainly the view across the river to the heights of Beaucaire with its grand ruins.

I lunched at an hotel where, nearly opposite me, was a gentleman who had been at Marseilles on the arrival of the President, and was very full of what he had seen. At the table were half-a-dozen beside myself, and he held forth to them on the spectacle. Opposite him sat a bullet-headed commercial traveller.

"But," said the latter, "I would not have crossed the Rhone by the bridge of Tarascon to have seen him. What is M. Sadi-Carnot? He is naught."

"No, but he represents the nation. Give us a pump as president, and we must garland that pump with flowers. And believe me, c'est un vilain metier cet de president. If he leans a little too much on this side he goes down into the mud, a little too much on the other he rolls in the dust. One must feel some respect for the man who undertakes such a thankless office. And, again, when a man rides in an open landau in pelting rain, when il lui pleut dans le nez, without an umbrella, with his hat off, saluting right and left, he deserves recognition."

"It was not worth the cost of his entertainment. I am surprised that Marseilles did it."

"I beg pardon. It was worth while doing it. Had the weather been fine, it would have brought money into the town."

"What! Would any English and American travellers desert Montecarlo for a day to see a Sadi-Carnot?"

"No, but every woman in Marseilles would have bought a new kerchief or a trinket to make herself smart, just because it was a fete. As it was, money circulated."

"How so?"

"One thousand and ninety-seven umbrellas were sold that day at prices ranging from five to fifteen francs, which on other occasions sell for two francs twenty-five centimes, and ten francs."

I do not know whether I have been peculiarly unfortunate in lighting on only one class of men under the present regime, but whether it be in France, Switzerland, Belgium, or Italy, that I have come across Frenchmen and had a talk with them of late years, I have noticed a prevailing discouragement, a pessimism, that certainly was absent in former days. The very character of a French table d'hote is changed. Instead of Gallic vivacity, merriment, and general conversation, such as one was wont to find there, one encounters silence, reserve, and a marked absence of self-assertion. It is the Germans who are now boisterous and self-assertive at table. The French are quiet and subdued. As I have already said, I may be mistaken; I may have hit on exceptional cases, but it is a fact that those Frenchmen I have conversed with during the last two or three years have been oppressed with a conviction that France has lost caste among the nations, that her future is menaced, and they say that they see no way out of their present condition.

As one said to me last winter in Rome: "The idea of France is an abstraction. We range ourselves now under parties, our devotion is no longer to our country but to our party. Have you ever been at a stag hunt? When the noble beast is down the huntsman slices it open and throws the heart and liver and entrails to the hounds. Then ensues a battle. Every dog snatches at what he desires, and envies the other the piece of offal he has secured. All are filled with hatred of each other, and selfish greed as to who can eat most and the best morsels of the fallen beast. And that is a picture of France. If war came upon us, we must infallibly be overthrown, for each general would be seeking out of the accidents of warfare to steal an advantage for himself or the party he favours."

The town of Beaucaire, on the farther side of the Rhone, is fuller of picturesque points than is Tarascon. Seated at the head of the Beaucaire Canal, that communicates with the sea, it has that commercial prosperity which is lacking at Tarascon. The old church is an exact reproduction of that of S. Martha, but has in addition a most remarkable font, a structure rising in stages like a tower, and with a spire to cap it, resembling somewhat the sacramental tabernacles in the German churches. The Hotel de Ville is a picturesque Renaissance building with bold open staircase on pillars. The castle of Beaucaire crowns the ridge of limestone that extends across the country from Nimes and is cut through by the Rhone, again emerging, in a low eminence, at Tarascon. This noble castle was taken by Simon de Montfort in the Albigensian War from the Count of Toulouse, but the youthful Raymond VII., though only nineteen years old, laid siege to it in 1216, and succeeded in recovering it. In this siege, the inhabitants of the town, under the young count, assailed the castle. Simon de Montfort collected an army and attacked Raymond in the rear. There is a very curious account of this siege in a Provencal poem on the Albigensian War, from which I will quote a few lines, only premising that in the original the castle is called the Capitol: -

"The townsmen set up their engines against the Crusaders in the castle, and so battered it that castle and watch-tower were broken, beams and lead and stone. At Holy Easter the battering-ram was made ready, long, iron-headed, sharp, which so struck and cut that the wall was injured, and the stones began to fall out. But the besieged were not discouraged; they made a loop of cords attached to a wooden beam, and with that they caught the head of the ram and held it fast. This troubled those of Beaucaire sore; till the master engineer came, and he set the ram in motion once more. Then several of the assailants got up the rock, and began to detach portions of the wall with their picks. This the besieged were ware of, and they let down upon them sulphur and pitch and fire in sackcloth by a chain along the wall, and when it blazed it broke forth and was spilt over the workmen, and suffocated them so that not one could there continue. Then they went to their machines for casting stones, and they threw them with such effect into the castle as to break all the beams thereof."

Beaucaire castle is now in ruins, but the Romanesque chapel remains in tolerable condition. In it Louis IX. is said to have heard Mass before he embarked for the crusade to Egypt. The pretty old Provencal poem of Aucassin and Nicolette, which has been recently translated into English by Mr. Andrew Lang and daintily published, has its scene laid at Beaucaire. Tieck gave a version of it in his "Phantasus."

As we are on the very scene of this graceful little tale, I must give the essence of it. The romance, which dates from the second half of the thirteenth century, is in prose, mingled with scraps of rhyme, destined to be sung, and with their musical notation given. At the head of each scrap of verse comes the rubric "Now is to be sung," and the prose passages are headed, "Now is to be said."

Aucassin was the son of the Count of Beaucaire. He was fair of face, with light curled hair and grey eyes. Now there was a viscount in the town who had bought of the Saracens a little maid, and he taught her the Christian faith, and had her baptised and called Nicolette.

Then said the Count of Beaucaire to his son Aucassin that he should go to battle and win his spurs and be dubbed a knight. Aucassin replied that he had no wish to be a knight, unless his father would give him Nicolette "ma douce mie" to wife. The count is indignant. He says that his son must marry the daughter of a king or of a count; but Aucassin replies that were an empress offered him he would refuse her for Nicolette. Thereat the count goes to the viscount and bids him give up the little maid that he may burn her as a witch. The viscount hesitates, and promises he will put her out of reach of Aucassin. Thereupon he shuts her up in a tower, along with her nurse, where there is but a single window. And the count promises his son that he shall have his "douce mie" if he will go to fight against the mortal enemy of their house, the Count of Vallence. Aucassin believes his father; goes and captures the count. Then the father refuses to fulfil his promise. Aucassin in a rage releases the Count of Vallence, and the Count of Beaucaire imprisons his son in a tower of the castle.

One moonlight night, when her nurse is asleep, Nicolette ties the bedclothes together and lets herself down out of the window, escapes from the town, and goes under the castle, where she hears Aucassin lamenting in his prison. She speaks to him and he replies.

But (as it is ascertained that she has escaped) the guard are sent forth in search of her, with orders to run her through the body if found. However, the chief officer of the guard is a merciful man, and so, as he goes about, he sings a song to warn her, and she hides in the shadow of the tower till the watch is gone by and then flies away into the forest land. There she builds herself a hut. When no tidings of Nicolette are heard, the Count of Beaucaire lets his son forth from prison. One day, as Aucassin rides in the forest, he lights on the cabin of his dear Nicolette, and they resolve to fly together. So they take a boat on the Rhone and they are washed down towards the sea, captured by Saracen pirates and separated. Aucassin is ransomed and returns home. Nicolette stains her face, makes her escape, obtains a vielle, and travels about Provence, singing ballads. She comes to Beaucaire, where Aucassin is now count, his father having died, and sings to her hurdy-gurdy the song of her adventures. The tears run down his cheeks, and he promises her rich gifts if she will tell him more. Then she goes to the viscountess - the viscount is dead - washes off the walnut juice, dresses in best array, is seen and recognised by Aucassin, they are married with great pomp, and are happy ever after. A dear little innocent story, fresh and sweet with the springtime bloom of early literature, withal full of curious pictures of the feelings of the time relative to chivalry, monachism, and religion.