France – Tarascon

It is known principally for two highly imaginative products: the Tarasque, fabulous dragon, chief figure in an annual fete, and Tartarin, the mighty hunter, a logical creature whom it brands as a myth.

Tartarin, given to the world by Alphonse Daudet, who, more than any other prose-writer, perhaps, understood the spirit of Provence, is a caricature whom Tarascon does not admire. Of recent years there have been a few persons in the town of sufficient moral turpitude to admit that the story of his exploits is amusing. But with such decadent souls the better citizens hold no commerce.

None the less it is through Tartarin that the world beyond the Rhone has learned of the town of St. Martha, rather than through the dragon, who, whether he ever existed or not, has certainly been dead a long time. At the risk of stirring old memories it may be well to review the social activities of the town as Tartarin knew it.

There was no game to be found in the vicinity of Tarascon in those days; and, for that matter, there is little to be found in the same neighborhood to-day. But the indomitable sportsmanship of the townsfolk was not to be checked by this deficiency.

With all the zest of the chase they would beat through the underbrush, hallooing to the dogs and winding the rollicking horn. Then, having accomplished these preliminaries according to the accepted rules, they would deploy, toss their caps into the air, and begin to shoot.

It was the mighty Tartarin who excelled in these con-tests. His studio was lavishly decorated with trophies of the chase. Stuffed caps were mounted on every cabinet and mantel-piece.

Tartarin went lion-hunting in Africa, in the lion-infested business districts of Algiers, and he bagged the only specimen of this lordly game ever shot by a resident of Tarascon. It turned out afterward that the lion was blind, a performing animal in the employ of an enterprising beggar. But there was none to hold this trifling detail against Tartarin’s record. Assuredly it would have been the same had the lion not been blind.

Tartarin climbed the Alps, much to the glory of Tarascon and somewhat to his own surprise. He founded the South Sea colony of Port Tarascon and was brought back to Tarascon and tried for fraud.

He was never convicted on this charge. His only sin had been the painting of the South Sea paradise in colors that might have been less glowing had he ever seen the place. No native of Tarascon would ever condemn him for exaggeration. Tartarin’s disgrace lay in the fact that his former friends would no longer believe his narratives of personal adventure, and it is a sad day for a Provencal when he can find no credulous audience for his master-pieces of imagination.

Tartarin returned from Port Tarascon discredited. Even his climacteric adventure, the crowning episode of his eventful career, failed to restore him to favor. With unparalleled daring he set out afoot across the bridge from Tarascon to Beaucaire. Without a tremor he marched out upon it, slowly, determinedly, as if unaware of the fact that he was taking a risk beyond the courage of any other Tarasconian then alive. His very enemies stood aghast at his performance. But the great feat was wasted. All that Tartarin accomplished was to reach Beaucaire—fearful anticlimax to so splendid an achievement. . . . No wonder his great heart was broken.

One may hear many strange things in the lobby of the Hotel of the Emperors . . . This being Provence, it is impossible that the hotel might have called itself a dwelling-place of kings or even of one singular emperor. It displays its legend in red and gold with all the modesty of the Rhone valley. The Hotel of the (at least two, perhaps several) Emperors.

It was in such an environment that I discovered Monsieur Jacques. He identified himself as a native on the occasion of our first meeting when he pointed down the dusty, dismal, uninteresting street that leads to the Beaucaire Bridge and informed me: “If you are taking photo-graphs that will make a lovely view, the street is so quiet.” It is characteristic of the Provencal that he looks upon the world through rose-colored spectacles. Whether or not the mighty Tartarin ever lived as an individual, it is certain that he still exists as a community.

“Oh, Provence has contributed much to the history of the world,” declared Monsieur Jacques. “Since the dawn of creation things have been happening here. Unbelievable things. The ark touched on the peaks of the Viverais when the great flood was subsiding. The monkeys that formerly inhabited the district and the bones of the elephants found near Crussol are sufficient proof of that.

“Hannibal came through here, and before him hundreds of other conquerers. I have a big book at home that mentions their names, and you would be shocked, monsieur, to learn how many of them there really were. You have heard the story of the Sainted Marys of the Gospel and how they landed here after they had been placed aboard a rudderless boat by the Jews. It is said on good authority that John the Baptist preached in Provence, and I think it can be proved that Salome danced before Herod at Nimes. Pontius Pilate came to the Rhone valley to spend his declining days in despair and remorse.

“The great temple of Solomon was just south of Arles, monsieur. I have heard some people say that it was in Jerusalem. But they do not remember that in Solomon’s day the Jews were a mighty people and their territory was wide. It seems silly to say that their king could not have built his palace and temple here as well as any place else. Solomon was the wisest man in the world. Where but in Provence would a wise man have chosen to build?

“They tell the story at Beaucaire, monsieur, that the queen of Sheba, the beautiful Balkis, came here from North Africa to see the wise king. There was a legend at the time that for all the beauty of her form and face, her feet and ankles were covered with long hair, and Solomon was eager to observe this marvel.

“So he paved the floor of his audience with glass—you may still find squares of the glass in the ruins beyond the amphitheater; I myself have seen them. And underneath the glass was water with little gold-fishes swimming in it. So when the queen came into the grand audience-chamber she thought that she was stepping into water, and she lifted her long train ankle-high. . . . Now, tell me, monsieur, how could they have remembered that all these years in Beaucaire if it hadn’t happened there?”

A fair question, I nodded in admission that I could not hope to answer it.

“Nicot, who brought tobacco to France, lived in Arles, monsieur,” he went on. “He died a natural death. There is no truth to the canard that the pipe-fuel furnished the community under the government monopoly killed him.

Jeanne d’Arc would have come here if the English had not burned her at Rouen. All of the greatest of the Roman emperors lived here at one time or another. Four or five of them were born in Lyon, which in spite of its fogs is really a part of the Midi. I could name a larger number of illustrious personages produced by Provence if I had my book with me. Should the monsieur care to step over to my home . . . perhaps . . .

“There is a report in some parts of the Midi that this was the Garden of Paradise from which Adam was driven out. One has only to breathe the wonderful air of the south to believe the story. There is no place quite like this in all the world. Its history is only what one would expect of so wonderful a territory.”

He paused, seemingly surprised that he could remember no more. I rose to the occasion.

“The battle of Gettysburg,” I suggested. “Perhaps that was fought here, too.”

He considered for a moment, then sighed.

“I am sorry, monsieur,” he replied. “I don’t seem to re-member just where they fought that battle. I don’t believe, though, that it was in Provence. It was probably one of those inconsequent battles of Languedoc, although I admit that the name sounds a trifle like Flanders.”

I pursued the questioning no further. After all, his survey of Provence was quite as modest as such surveys usually are. Everything worth while in the history of the world had occurred in the valley of the Rhone, with the single possible exception of the battle of Gettysburg. . . . There was something in Monsieur Jacques’s attitude that reminded one very strongly of a certain class of American chambers of commerce.

It is the legend of the Three Marys that figures most prominently in the lore of Tarascon. According to the story, Mary Magdalene, Mary Jacobe, and Mary Salome, with Sarah, their Egyptian servant, were seized upon by the Jews and Romans after the crucifixion and set adrift in a rudderless boat to perish. Other versions of the tale hold that Lazarus, raised from the dead, Trophimus, Maximin, Martial, Eutropius, Marcellus, Cleon, Saturnin, Martha, and Joseph of Arimathea were also passengers in the ship. They were driven across the seas by a miraculous power and landed without mishap at the mouth of the Rhone.

The legend has gained a wide circulation through Provence, and the precise spot at which the holy women left their boat has been located by a dozen rival enthusiasts in a dozen different spots. King Rene in reviving the story declared that a vision had shown him the arrival of the Marys and their companions at a point in the marshes thirty miles south of Arles. Supporting his belief in the vision, he erected the Chapel of Saintes Maries de la Mer, a fortified chapel which still stands, alone and desolate, at the edge of the sea.

The shrine of Sarah the Egyptian is in the crypt of the chapel and has become the rendezvous for the Gipsies of Europe, who, despite their pagan tendencies, are ready to recognize her as the patron of the poor and the guardian spirit of vagabonds.

Another legend, more ancient than that of the good king, fixes the harbor reached by the boat of the holy women of Jerusalem at the foot of Les Baux. It is easily seen how Les Baux came to be connected with the activities of the Marys when one recalls the monumental carvings of Marius, his wife, and the Syrian sorceress, which pious natives have been quite willing to attribute to other person-ages. Geologists have decided, moreover, that the Mediterranean at one time came up to the Alpilles. It may be that a tradition of that time became interwined with the tradition of the Three Marys and so linked them with Les Baux and this part of the Rhone valley.

After the landing of the saints at the mouth of the Rhone, says the legend, they separated. St. Trophimus is said to have acted as missionary to the pagans in the vicinity of Arles. Martha came north to Tarascon. Mary Magdalene preached along the Riviera. Lazarus was the first bishop of Marseille and afterward carried on extensive missionary work farther northward in the valley. A body, supposed to be his, lay for a long time in the Cathedral of St. Lazare at Autun.

St. Martha’s conquest of the Tarasque made her a popular figure in the community of Gallo-Roman Tarascon, aside from all other considerations. The church erected to her honor is decorated with beautiful pictorial representations of incidents in the life of the saint. The paintings are by Vien, an eighteenth-century artist, and show St. Martha’s encounter with the dragon, the raising of Lazarus, St. Martha, preaching the gospel at Tarascon, and the death of St. Martha. There is artistic merit also in the tomb of St. Martha in the moldy old crypt of the cathedral. The marble sculptures show her lying in repose with her hands clasped at her breast.

A tender Christ is at her head. St. Fronto, Bishop of Perigueux, is at her feet. The marble is bronze-green with dampness and seems as old as the Rhone.

This group is illustrative of a story that is still credited in Tarascon despite the arguments of unsentimental calendar-makers. If one is to believe the story, Martha died after more than fifty years of successful preaching. Her funeral was a three-day ceremonial of a magnificence that the saint probably would have deprecated had she been alive to protest. On the morning of the third day when the solemn requiem mass was being sung the people discovered that a strange prelate was on the altar as celebrant, but no one—not even the attaches of the church—could say how he had come there. Suddenly an ecclesiastic in the front of the church leaned forward in recognition. The strange celebrant was Fronto, Bishop of Perigueux, who in some mysterious fashion had been brought hundreds of miles to officiate at these rites. It was quite puzzling.

After Martha had been laid in her tomb, the bishop spoke to several clerical friends, gave them the latest news from far-away Perigueux, and departed. Three months later there arrived a messenger from Perigueux. This man explained to the clergy of Tarascon that the holy Fronto had dreamed of making a trip to Tarascon in which he seemed to be officiating at the funeral of St. Martha. He now wished to know whether Martha had really died, and whether by any chance a glove that he had been unable to find since his dream might not be located in the sacristy of the Tarascon cathedral. The priests looked, found the glove, and confirmed the miracle.

It is somewhat to be regretted that the churchmen of Provence do not accept this evidence without comment. There are those who point out that St. Fronto was bishop of Perigueux in the fourth century, nearly three hundred years after he had officiated at St. Martha’s funeral and about the same number of years after he had played a principal but passive part in his own. But the time element is of no consequence in a good Provencal story.

The sacristan of the Church of St. Martha recounted all these wonders as he showed an opening in the wall where the foundations of the basilica were built about the stairs of the saint’s Gallo-Roman dwelling.

“The town was much lower in those days,” he said. “Martha’s cottage was on a level with the floor of this crypt. The original church was probably built around her home, but all that remains now is the little staircase.”

He paused while he inserted a candle through an opening in the tomb which contained the bones supposed to be those of Martha during the Middle Ages.

“Empty, you see,” he commented. “The saint now sleeps in the beautiful marble sarcophagus that you have seen. Many of the world’s important men and women have wished to be buried here near to her.” He pointed to a tomb, on top of which a crusader in chain-mail lay with his mildewed hands folded upon his breast.

“That,” he said, “is the tomb of King Rene of Provence, the great King Rene who built the castle down by the bridge. His wife, the lovely Queen Jeanne, is buried there with him. King Rene would be buried nowhere else. He declared on his death-bed that he wished to remain in Tarascon until he should be called out by Gabriel.” And so on through a recital of beautiful sentiment.

But, alas for the story, there is an inscription just beneath the slab on which the moldy crusader is sleeping. And despite the ardor of the guide one becomes aware that this is not the grave of King Rene at all but of Jean de Cossa, a governor of Provence. Tartarin has been speaking again through the lips of the sacristan.

The guide exhibits with considerable pride the golden bust of St. Martha that serves as a reliquary for a portion of her skull. The original reliquary was a piece of Burgundian workmanship in solid gold, the gift of Louis XI in 1478. It was seized in the looting of the church during the revolution and traded to Genoese merchants for sixteen thou-sand dollars’ worth of wheat. But such historical details make no difference to the sacristan.

“It is not a copy,” he stoutly maintains. “This is the bust that was given by King Louis. It is not gilt but solid gold.” Once more Tartarin.

For centuries the festival of the Tarasque was one of the most important celebrations of the lower Rhone. The carnival spirit, still strong in effervescent France, was in full flower at the time of Rene. Public buffooneries of all sorts continued to mark all great events from Normandy to the Mediterranean.

Rene established the pageant of the Tarasque. He wrote much of the incidental music and devised many of the practical jests that accompanied it. In this pageant the reincarnated Tarasque, a mechanical dragon of the variety on which Boson trained his horse for the great Rhodesian combat, made two parades through the streets of the city.

The Tarasque lived up to its fabled character. Its great tail swung viciously from one side of the street to the other, now and then colliding with a spectator who had ventured too near. Clouds of soot or flour rolled from its terrible jaws upon the holiday clothing of too inquisitive celebrants; or, by way of variety, streams of rancid oil were sprayed out over the heads of the crowd. It is typical of Provence that this part of the entertainment was taken by the victims in a spirit of fun.

Tarascon became attached to its mechanical dragon, just as many another city shows a real affection for a zoo. The original beast cost five thousand dollars, which was more than most of the towns of King Rene’s period would have paid for a live dragon and a garage to house it. When the revolutionists destroyed this artistic marvel they alienated the sympathies of nearly all the inhabitants of the lower Rhone country.

There is the story of a man who made his little boy recite after his evening prayers each day this declaration of loyalty to principle and tradition:

“As long as I live, I shall remember that these human fiends burned our beautiful Tarasque.”

The celebration was abolished by the French Government in 1904 for reasons that are known only to those who have a hand in the making of the complicated politics of Paris. A rumor, persistent, though frequently denied, had, it that the parade had been placed under governmental ban as a religious ceremonial.

A typical town of the Midi, Tarascon. In the older quarter the streets run under low, vaulted arcades, cool despite the flaming sun. This portion of the city is a club for gossips, for here, of a warm afternoon, the women-folk bring their chairs and fancy work. The streets hum with conversation.

In the Cours National, the town’s principal boulevard, the carnival wagons are mobilizing for the midsummer races. Tired-faced women are arranging trinkets of lead and brass, flaming neckties, and soiled candy in bins on the counters of their wheeled booths. Rifles are cracking in a near-by shooting-gallery. A fat baby, who presently will be a victim of maternal ire, sits on the curbstone, her face buried in a fistful of stolen butter. Across the street, in a garden beyond a wrought-iron grill, a woman and little girl are playing battledore and shuttlecock.

A dull crash in the air high overhead; a puffball of white opens like a cloud, shreds, and disappears. Again the re-port and again. All Tarascon comes out into the street to gaze at the sky.

Instinctively one looks for an enemy airplane, forgetting that the war has been over these several years. For there is no doubting the nature of the puffballs. They are bursting shells, thrown up to prodigious heights by guns designed for anti-aircraft service.

But there is nothing at all militant in the demonstration, as one learns presently. Throughout Provence artillery is being used extensively and successfully to break up storm-clouds that would ruin the vineyards. One hundred years ago Abbe Martin, pastor of Benque in Gascony, was laughed out of his parish for suggesting that cannon might be used to fight hail. And today the descendants of the scoffers are spreading memorial wreaths on his grave.