A Motor-Flight Through France

by Edith Wharton

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Chapter VII - Royat to Bourges

THE term of our holiday was upon us and, stern necessity took us back, the next day, to Vichy. We followed, this time, the road along the western side of the Limagne, passing through the old towns of Riom and Aigueperse. Riom, thanks to its broad boulevards and bright open squares, struck us as the most cheerful and animated place we had seen in Auvergne; and it has, besides, a great air of Renaissance elegance, many of its old traceried hôtels having been built in the sixteenth century, which saw the chief development of the town.

Aigueperse, on the contrary, spite of its situation in the same sunny luxuriant plain, presents the morose aspect of the typical town of Auvergne, without many compensating merits, save that of two striking pictures of the Italian school which are to be seen in its modernised cathedral. From Aigueperse our road struck eastward across the Limagne to Gannat; and thence, through pleasant fields and woods, we returned to Vichy, on the opposite edge of the plain.

We started early the next morning on our journey to the north, for our slight experience of the inns of central France made us anxious to reach Orléans by night. Such long runs cannot be made without the sacrifice of much that charms and arrests one by the way; and this part of the country should be seen at leisure, in the long summer days, when the hotels are less sepulchrally damp, and when one can remain late out of doors, instead of having to shiver through the evening hours around a smoky oil-lamp, in a room which will not bear inspection even by that inadequate light.

We suffered, I remember, many pangs by the way; and not least, that of having to take as a mere parenthesis the charmingly complete little town of La Palisse on the Bèbre, with the ruined ivied castle of the Comtes de Chabannes overhanging a curve of the river, and grouping itself in a memorable composition with the picturesque houses below it.

Farther north, again, Moulins on the Allier inflicted a still deeper pang; for this fine old town has considerable claims to distinction besides the great triptych that made its name known through Europe after the recent exhibition of French Primitives in Paris. The Virgin of Moulins, gloriously enthroned in the cathedral among her soft-faced Lombard angels, remains undoubtedly the crowning ornament of the town, if only on account of the problem which she holds out, so inscrutably, to explorers of the baffling annals of early French art. But aside from this preëminent possession, and the interest of several minor relics, Moulins has the attraction of its own amiable and distinguished physiognomy. With its streets of light-coloured stone, its handsome eighteenth-century hôtels and broad wellpaved cours, it seemed, after the grim black towns of the south, a singularly open and cheerful place; and one was conscious, behind the handsome stone gateways and balconied façades, of the existence of old panelled drawing-rooms with pastel portraits and faded tapestry furniture.

The approach to Nevers, the old capital of the Nivernais, carried us abruptly back to the Middle Ages, but to an exuberant northern mediævalism far removed from the Gallo-Roman tradition of central France. The cathedral of Nevers, with its ornate portals and fantastically decorated clock-tower, has, in the old ducal palace across the square, a rival more than capable of meeting its challenge on equal grounds: a building of really gallant exterior, with fine angle towers, and within, a great staircase commemorating in luxuriant sculpture the legendary beginnings of that ancient house of Cleves which, in the fifteenth century, allied itself by marriage with the dukes of Burgundy.

At Nevers we found ourselves once more on the Loire; but only to break from it again in a long dash across country to Bourges. At this point we left behind us the charming diversified scenery which had accompanied us to the borders of the Loire, and entered on a region of low monotonous undulations, flattening out gradually into the vast wheat-fields about Bourges. But who would wish any other setting for that memorable silhouette, throned, from whichever point of the compass one approaches it, in such proud isolation above the plain? One forgets even, in a distant view of Bourges, that nature has helped, by an opportune rise of the ground, to lift the cathedral to its singular eminence: the hill, and the town upon it, seem so merely the unremarked pedestal of the monument. It is not till one climbs the steep street leading up from the Place Saint Bonnet that one realises the peculiar topographical advantages of such a site; advantages which perhaps partly account for the overwhelming and not quite explicable effect of a first sight of the cathedral.

Even now, on a second visit, with the great monuments of the lie de France fresh in memory, we felt the same effect, and the same difficulty in running it down, in differentiating it from the richer, yet perhaps less deeply Gothic impression produced by the rival churches of the north. For, begin as one will by admitting, by insisting upon, the defects of Bourges—its irregular inharmonious façade, its thin piers, its mean outer aisles—one yet ends in a state where criticism perforce yields to sensation, where one surrenders one's self wholly to the spell of its spiritual suggestion. Certainly it would be hard to put a finger, either within or without, on the specific tangible cause of this feeling. Is it to be found in the extraordinary beauty of the five western portals, so crowded with noble and pathetic imagery and delicate ornamental detail? But the doors of Chartres surpass even these! Is it then, if one looks within, the rich blue and red of its dense ancient glass? But Chartres, again, has finer glass of that unmatched period. Is it the long clear sweep of the nave and aisles, uninterrupted by the cross-lines of transept or chancel-screen? But if one recalls the wonderful convolutions of the ambulatory of Canterbury, one has to confess that Gothic art—even in its conventionalised English form—has created curves of greater poetry and mystery, produced a more thrilling sense of shadowy consecrated distances. Perhaps the spell of Bourges resides in a fortunate accidental mingling of many of the qualities that predominate in this or that more perfect structure—in the mixing of the ingredients so that there rises from them, as one stands in one of the lofty inner aisles, with one's face toward the choir, that breath of mystical devotion which issues from the very heart of mediæval Christianity.

"With this sweetness," wrote Saint Theresa, of the Prayer of Quiet, "the whole inner and outer man seems to be delighted, as though some delicious ointment were poured into the soul like an exquisite perfume . . . as if we suddenly came to a place where it is exhaled, not only from one, but from many things; and we know not what it is, or from which one of them it comes, but they all penetrate us". . . If Amiens, in its harmony of conception and vigour of execution, seems to embody the developing will-power of a people passionate in belief, and indomitable in the concrete expression of their creed, here at Bourges one feels that other, less expressible side of the great ruling influence of the Middle Ages—the power that willed mighty monuments and built them, yet also, even in its moments of most brutal material ascendancy, created the other houses, not built with hands, where the spirits of the saints might dwell.

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