Coming from the north, you may reach Perpignan by Quillan and the upper valley of the Aude, or by Narbonne. This is an ancient city, once a port of reputation, known to the Massilist Greeks, and into which in the Middle Ages great ships, or what were great ships for those days, still sailed from Italy and the Levant. The Roman Narbo was a fine town, it is said, at the beginning of the Christian era. It was stormed by the Visigoths, by the Saracens, by Charles Martel, by Charlemagne; on several separate occasions it has been a capital, and now it is stranded half a dozen miles from the sea. “The decay of the town,” says the guide-book, “dates from the beginning of the fourteenth century, when the Jews, who had been established in a quarter of their own by Charlemagne, were expelled, and the port became silted up through the bursting of a dike.” The Jews again! Since first the sun stood still for Joshua, they have been considered capable of anything.
The distance from Carcassonne to Narbonne is about forty miles: the whole way one sees vineyards stretching away to the low hills on the horizon. One might wonder who drank all the wine, if one were not in a country where it is still possible for the labourer to see, taste, or otherwise assess the product of his pains, and where in order to survive it is not essential to induce your enemy to take all your best goods away from you in exchange for his bad ones. The earth grows redder and darker as one nears the coast. The deep green of a cypress burns like a steady flame against this rich background, which is diversified by an occasional homestead, an olive-orchard, or a tree in bloom. And coming into Narbonne, one sees the first mimosa, its feathery, intensely yellow blossom held up against pink walls, the bright blue of a shutter.
Narbonne is famous for its honey, said to be the best in France. It has the perfume of the flowers and the herby hillside plants in it, like all good foods, which bear in palatable form the imprint of their origin in earth or sea. And there is a Gothic cathedral too, in a much more northerly and florid style than is common in the Midi; or there is part of one, for the original design was never finished, and the building stands, with its modern additions which do not so much complete it as they emphasize its incompleteness, like a memorial of the town’s decay.
From this point we turn southwards, leave the vine and olive country, and enter a flat desolate region of salt marshes. Across a big salt-water lake, a couple of miles wide and eight miles long, you may catch your first glimpse of the Mediterranean, flat and blue. This kind of scenery continues for some thirty miles, before the railway and the main road to Perpignan, Barcelona, and Madrid alike bear inland.
On the previous day I had stood on the highest point of the citadel of Carcassonne: from here a line drawn through the tower of Saint-Vincent passes due north and south, on the meridian of Paris; and from this point I had surveyed that valley of the Aude which is bounded on the north by the Montagne-Noire, on the south by the Corbieres. We were now rounding the extremity of this latter spur, and entering a flat plain held between it and the main mass of the Pyrenees, which on the Spanish frontier comes down to the sea. The countryside on which I looked out was no longer the Languedoc that the romantic imagination likes to associate with troubadour and knight, but that ancient kingdom of Roussillon which, in more senses than the literal one, is the next thing to Spain. The country has a character unknown elsewhere in France. I saw masses of plum and almond blossom, fields of artichoke and lettuce alternating with the vineyards; but where cultivation ended, the spontaneous growth of prickly pear and aloe, and a certain dusty bareness, hinted at an increasing aridity and tropicality. The strange red fort of Salses looked like an Eastern strong-hold, crouching under a scorching oriental sun. Across the plain, appearing above the brown and olive slopes of the lower hills, one could see the snowy mass of Canigou, looking at the same time remote and near.
Perpignan, like Carcassonne, consists of two towns, though the division is marked here only by a negligible river decently confined by concrete banks. The keynote of the modern quarter is a stuccoed semi-tropicality. Perpignan decorates its streets with palms and hangs in shades the orange bright. The Place-Arago is a grove of mimosa, gorgeously yellow, inspissating the shadowed air with heady smells. These pleasant growths are sufficiently at home, the sun shines brilliantly; still, to a northerner, the effect is a little as if the ways were lined with beasts of the jungle, suitably restrained, of course, as in a kind of vegetable Whipsnade. One was prepared for the mimosa, if not for its rich profusion; but the palms and orange trees appear at first as exotic as tigers, and slightly spurious, like a photograph of Cannes.
That is the modern city. Old Perpignan is a Spanish town, the offspring of an architecture whose dominating motive was protection from a burning sun. These narrow streets, the tall buildings held back from intimacy by an air of deliberately assumed reserve, give rise in the imaginative mind to the vision of a secluded apartment, stuffy with the languorous heat of the siesta-hour, dimly lit by the green and filtered remnant of the dazzling glare that, outside, beats on closed shutters. Against a clear blue sky the battlemented Castillet stands out with an unnatural sharpness, its strange, rosy, infant colour making it hard to believe it was not erected yesterday.
As a matter of fact, it was built by James the First, King of Majorca, who held his court here at the beginning of the fourteenth century, patronized the arts, and saw the city rise to the apex of its prosperity. For Roussillon was still a kingdom then, a province of the royal house of Aragon, bequeathed by James the First of that line to his son who ruled in Majorca, and who came here to build the Chateau Royal nucleus of that huge block of masonry, called the Citadelle, and resembling a gigantic waterworks, which stands among flimsy modern villas at the city’s southern edge. How much more convincing history is when it is small and local than when it is an affair of continents! The individual can identify himself with the interests of a city, he can feel with and for those who have lived in it; but an empire is too vast to be comprehended as an entity.
“All estates arise to their zenith and vertical points,” says Browne, “according to their predestined periods. For the lives, not only of men, but of commonwealths and the whole world, run not upon a helix that still enlargeth; but on a circle, where, arriving to their meridian, they decline in obscurity, and fall under the horizon again.” Perpignan was already prosperous when Alfonso the Second, King of Aragon, acquired the locality from the Count of Roussillon, in 1172. The average Perpignanais of the early Middle Ages probably looked forward to a future of unbroken security and peace for his city. He had the privilege, which was rather an advantage than a drawback in those days, of living under the king’s eye, so to speak, instead of in a territory of uncertain vassalage, such as Provence, where any local land-owner was liable to start a war at any time as lightly as one starts a game of cards. Alas, the lives of commonwealths run not upon a helix that still enlargeth: the temporary occupation of Perpignan by the King of France, after a siege which had lasted nearly four years, in the fifteenth century, was only the first of a long series of disasters destined to reduce the city to the status of a garrison town, than which there is no lower civic organism in the world. Here, as at Narbonne, the expulsion of the Jews was followed by ruinous inundations, accompanied in this case by pestilence and famine. In the space of less than a hundred years the population was reduced by half. What’s more, it was not until the province of Roussillon finally passed into French hands, in 1659, that the inhabitants were to experience any considerable respite from the pleasantries of war and siege; nor, till the nineteenth century and the coming of the railway, did they see their commercial prosperity revive. Today the most southerly capital of France, the centre of an immensely fertile vineyard and kitchen garden, climbs once more to the zenith: I hope it is not destined, with the rest of Europe, to plunge, with the rapidity of a shooting star, again and finally under the horizon.
The cathedral of Saint-Jean reflects a little of the city’s history, perhaps is not the happier for doing so. It was the Majorcan Sancho who laid the first stone of the choir; the invading French completed it after the lapse of a hundred years; and the rest was not begun for yet another century. It is not surprising, therefore, that the building lacks the character of a complete and unified design. Saint-Nazaire at Carcassonne, of which one-half is Romanesque and the other Gothic, has, in a sense, more unity. For it at least combines two aspects of the same genius, a little changed by lapse of time, it is true, and set to work on different themes: whereas the spirit that led to the inception of Saint-Jean was exhausted and defeated long before the building was completed. Its best feature is perhaps that one which is most widely separated in time and space from the remainder: the elegant piece of eighteenth-century iron-work that crowns the tower. As for the interior, it lacks the one essential virtue that its bold proportions might have conferred on it, I mean grandeur; for that quality retreats before the manifestations of a piety with which one can sympathize, without admiring the coarse and heavy splendours that bear witness to it here.
When all is said, however, Saint-Jean retains so much that is Spanish, and in France seems exotic, that, if only as a curiosity, and for the sake of the atmosphere that surrounds it, it would be well worth visiting. But if you wish to see a successful product of the spirit that in the exterior of the cathedral was denied complete expression, and in the interior found it only when already decadent, you must go to the much smaller church of Sainte-Marie-de-la-Real, in the oldest quarter of the town. It was the parish church pertaining to the royal residence; and here the kings of Aragon and Majorca, those fantastic beings whom every circumstance of time, race, and creed removes so far from us, must have attended mass. Restoration has not destroyed the distinctive character of the exterior, which reminds one of what one has heard of the much later Spanish churches in Mexico. The interior is nothing very much, but reflects a humble local piety. A woman sweeps the floor, conducting an animated conversation with the girl who helps her. Both have their heads uncovered; they dust the altar as casually as if it were a mantelpiece. But in the gilt and tinsel, which at Saint-Jean seem to express the unpleasing combination of a tasteless ostentation and a benighted religiosity, there is here something domestic, genuine, and touching.
I arrived in Perpignan on the last day of carnival. The streets appeared unswept, the spirit of manana was abroad. In the Place-Arago men stood in crowds enjoying the sunshine, and reading the newspapers which are pasted up daily for the public benefit. The possession of apparently abundant leisure, unlike the neglect of the civic chores, is a phenomenon which is not confined to times of holiday. The people of this town eat a great deal of good food, the cafes are always well patronized, the streets full of strollers. There were times when it seemed to me that here at last was that ideal place I had sought so long, in which one would be paid to eat, drink, and enjoy oneself. But the truth is, no doubt, that the habit of the siesta, which the summer heat exacts, imposes itself at all seasons; and that here at the centre of the rich plain of Roussillon, whose early vegetables go every day in loads to the markets of the north, and whose aperitif wines are drunk all over France, it is not intolerably difficult to make that modest income which suffices to give an appearance of prosperity in a country whose laws, customs, and institutions are designed for the benefit of the petty bourgeoisie.
The final jollification of the carnival took place in the evening under the plane trees of the Promenade-des-Platanes. For a few francs one could buy admission to a stand beside the central walk, whose dusty surface those in fancy dress, deguises as the placard said, were permitted to trample at a lower rate. For gaiety is not taxed in the south of France; and one is not compelled to pay large sums, of which a meagre proportion finally finds its way into the hands of a charitable organization, and the rest goes to swell the living of a vile crowd of snobs and harpies, in order to disguise oneself as a witch, a devil, or the King of Prussia.
My neighbour, with that solicitousness for the reputation of his locus which no provincial Frenchman is so sophisticated as to think ridiculous, took the trouble to warn me that tonight it was grotesquerie and not beauty I must look for; that had come earlier. A rabble of clowns, harlequins, Victorian gentlemen, and Carmenitas, paraded without order, jollying each other and the spectators. It had not been such a good carnival as in former years, I was told; there had been strikes and troubles, the vomitings and purgings inflicted by the nostrums of quack politicians had been suffered even here; and I dare say the splenetic madness raging across the border had cast its shadow over the frivolities of this frontier capital.
It might well do so; for practically everybody in Roussillon has some Spanish blood in him, and can speak Catalan, or at least understand it. Yet politically the Roussillonais looks steadily enough to France, and of course to any rascally politician who will promise him the shadow of a favour in return for his soul, the substance of his being, and his vote. He is not interested, except as a distant sympathizer, in the civil war. But then, no more is many a Spaniard, if he can help it. “The war in Spain is being fought by the English, the Germans, the Italians,” a Frenchman said to me. “As for the Spaniards, they are all in Perpignan, Biarritz, and Nice.”
The milling of the people stopped, the lights suspended between the trees were extinguished, the fortnight of celebration drew near to its close. A match was set to the figure of King Carnival. This sawdust monarch proceeded to give a royal performance to which we are becoming very well accustomed; for long before his proper time he toppled from his throne, and had to be replaced on it, and insecurely held there, by his ministers; and this is a restoraion which is never very satisfactory, whether it is the old sovereign or a new one who is held in place. The fireworks behaved better: the rockets soared, the Catherine wheels whirled, the cascades dripped fire, the Roman candles shot forth particles resembling incandescent sweetmeats; the spectators cried “Ah!” and the trees, illumined from a series of unusual angles by , a varying fantastic glow, created a succession of landscapes with figures by Watteau.
At such moments, reflecting on the frequently quoted observation that it was characteristic of the Chinese to have invented gunpowder, and then to have found its principal employment in the manufacture of fireworks, one thinks of the tremendous benefit to the human race that would accrue if the nations substituted competitive firework displays for warfare. And this is a thing which could be done, I am convinced, without the slightest injury to anybody’s interests. Warfare satisfies the human desire for display, stimulates home industry, protects it by excluding imports, solves economic problems by bridging the discrepancy between production and consumption with a thoroughness that would satisfy the most ardent Douglas theorist; and provides that atmosphere of excitement, without which mod-ern civilized people cannot tolerate the world they live in. Firework displays, if organized on a sufficiently large scale, would perform all these functions, except, admittedly, the provision of a substitute for tariff walls; and against this trifling deficiency must be set the inestimable advantage that there would be no bad jokes about bully-beef or shell-holes. The only other purpose of warfare I can think of which my proposed alternative would not fulfil, is the elimination of the surplus population; but I have no doubt it will soon emerge, if it has not yet done so, that another branch of science has already solved that problem. It would be easy to adapt existing armament factories to the manufacture of dying pigs and Bengal lights instead of bombs and shells; the disposition of the rockets should not be a task beyond the powers of the General Staff, or the setting off of them beyond the rank and file; the Navy could organize set-pieces on a scale never before attempted; and we could have a war a month, as often as there is a revolution in Venezuela or a national lottery in France. I commend the idea to the rulers of the world, in exile and at home, in prison or out of it, be they princes, presidents, or manufacturers of every patent substitute for all that made life worth living to our fathers; for they are modern men, brought up with all the most enlightened notions, and they know that there is nothing whatever that cannot be put in the place of anything else in the world without the slightest difficulty, provided only it be sufficiently well advertised.