At Arles the Rhone bifurcates. Its branches, rapidly diverging, and entering the sea at points widely separated, enclose an area of some three hundred square miles. This, the delta of the Rhone, is the Camarguea territory whose character, in half a dozen separate aspects, is unique. For the physical counterpart to its wide, flat grasslands, roamed over by herds of half-wild sheep and cattle, we must look, not elsewhere in Europe, but to the pampas of South America, perhaps. It is the home of ancient, and, it may be, of forgotten civilization: cities of which the sites are once more dry land after centuries of submergence under the waters of the Mediterranean: cities that are still submerged. Men fishing off the coast bring up a fragment of a vase, an ornament that an Aegean princess may have worn in the last age but one. For the rest, there are hints, legends, traces of human occupation which outdate history; above all, the sense of great age, an emanation of mystery and strangeness, something eerie and disturbing in the atmosphere which cannot be explained and cannot be ignored. The appearance of the landscape contributes to this feeling: one stands lost, dread-fully alone, in the middle of a grey waste of herbage, the sun glints somewhere on the waters of a vast lagoon or marsh, one is in the clear southern air, yet there is no definition anywhere, there is no horizon, no foreground, middle distance, or far distance, nothing to give scale, everything is uncertain, the near and the far are inextricably confused. The very confines of the district are unfixed, the maps of one age contradict those of another, geographers are puzzled and invent theories to account for these discrepancies.
In Roman times the greater part of the Ile de la Camargue may have been good dry land, without lagoons or marsh; in the Middle Ages the coastline was nearer to Arles than it is now; that is about as much truth and certainty as the most industrious rooting among the dead leaves of the learned will discover. To-day a good deal of the delta consists of salt marshes and lagoons, of which the largest is the Etang de Vaccares: the rest is bare sand, scrub, and pasture. Some of the salt wastes have been reclaimed in recent years by flooding them with fresh water, and putting them under some salt-absorbing and unremunerative crop, such as rice, for several years, until the land is ready to be laid down to pasture or planted with vines. But the wine of the Camargue is wretched stuff, fit only for Colonials to drink. The vast majority of the male inhabitants are either cowboys, fishermen, or fowlers. The area is sparsely populated. Villages are few, and the commoner unit of society is the mas, or homestead, the glorified farmhouse or manor house of the wealthy cattle-owner. The Camargue is a land where manhood, courage, and success are still measured by the old standards, and a man’s riches are reckoned by the number of head of cattle he possesses. It is a district where the old pride in a good, beautiful, extravagant, flamboyant thing, which brings in no return, has not yet quite died out, as it has al-most everywhere else in Europe. It is said that the Camargais, who is a magnificent horseman (the best in the world, I have heard some say) will still use a saddle costing as much as two or three years’ income of the average peasant family. The alternation of grilling summer sunshine and bitter wind in winter breeds a hardy race, who admire virility and manliness above all other qualities. But the Camargais is not the hearty fool, contemptuous of all but brawn, familiar to us in our schools and universities. He shares with the Catalan folk of the eastern Pyrenees the distinction, rare in France, of being musical. He likes poetry and song, and has the reputation of respecting learning and the arts. But so, I think, does every countryman, and every man of sense. It is only the modern townsman, spawn of servility and avarice, mankind’s usurper, he of the tin-can dunghill breed, that sneers at truth and beauty.
But one passion is supreme in the breast of the Camargais: his desire for the clash and colour, the glitter and formality, the flamboyant virtuosity, the taut nerve, the hot heart, and the cold brain, all that is involved in the corrida. Over the wide, lonely pastures wander in great herds the fighting bulls of the Camargue, and the small, white, vigorous horses peculiar to the region. At his best the black Camargais bull is at least the equal of the finest Spanish thoroughbred. He is a thoroughbred himself. The herds are perhaps nine tenths wild, but periodically they are rounded up, and only those bulls of undeniable strength and spirit are selected for the arena. These round-ups are scenes of tremendous excitement and popular enthusiasm, especially those which take place immediately before a corrida is to be held. The cowboys, mounted on white Camargais horses, and armed with tridents, ride off the bulls they want, and drive them at a headlong pace across country, often over streams and through marshes, right to the arena itself, if it is a local meeting, and through the streets of the village. Everybody turns out to watch, shouts, plays musical instruments, lets off fireworks and guns.
This scene has appealed to the imagination of every local poet and artist. In the Musee Arlesien are many presentments of it by amateurs and peasant painters. Antoine Galle (1808-86), whom I may hail as the Arlesien douanier Rousseau, an undiscovered genius of the primitive, is responsible for one of the best, a picture of great charm and interest. A herd of bulls is being driven across a wide stream, the water of which is apparently perfectly opaque and of a beautiful milky consistency and colour. In a boat a party of substantial yeomen, looking exactly like prosperous English farmers or small squires of the early nineteenth century, down to the last side-whisker, toast themselves in wine. A bull, momentarily halted, regards them with a look of benevolent curiosity.
It is a good picture, informed by enthusiasm for the subject and naive pride in craftsmanship. And it is especially interesting to us, because in common with many other things in this museum, it suggests a number of points of correspondence between the life of the Camargais farmer and that which we associate with such phrases as Old England, the Good Old Days, etc. There was a period, during which agriculture in England reached the peak of its prosperity, when the English farmer lived as well as any noble-man. At that time English cooking, which is that of the farmhouse and the small manor rather than the palace, was at its very best. The farmhouse interior reproduced in the Musee Arlesien, with its groaning board, suggests that the Provencal yeoman of those days lived no less handsomely than his English counterpart. Where we must observe a difference is that he probably eats almost as well now as he did then; whereas with us the culinary arts, deprived by the same unkind economic stroke at once of their staunchest patrons and their best practitioners (the wives of those same patrons), have sunk into decadence. It is a saddening thought that many people in England have never tasted a sirloin of beef, a saddle of mutton, a Bakewell tart, or a boiled custard, cooked as they should be cooked, because the pressure of economic change has robbed the class possessing standards in these matters of the power to enforce them. Social progress, which is supposed to mean the transference of wealth and power from the few to the many, usually involves in practice their transference from one minority to another, more cunning and more cynical. But even when it means what it is supposed to mean, it is still a bad thing unless the many acquire the standards of the few at the same time as they acquire their privileges. If they do not, then a loss is suffered which is in the profoundest sense a cultural loss. And a loss of that kind, which almost always results from a too rapid economic change, is something that can never be made good by any amount of popular education on the magazine and newspaper article, art-and-culturefor-the-million pattern.
Horses, bulls, and men are not the only untamed product of the Camargue. One expects that so extraordinary a locality will produce something distinctive in the way of flora and fauna. For once, one is not disappointed. There are flowers here which are found nowhere else in the world. Having seen this unique land, and felt its strangeness, one learns almost without surprise that beavers, for thousands of years extinct elsewhere in Europe, still thrive in the fresh waters of the delta. Flamingos, reed-warblers, a greater variety of aquatic birds than can be found anywhere else on the Continent, as well as hawks, buzzards, and all kinds of odd-looking, unfamiliar creatures, are as common as blackbirds in an English garden. The French Ministry of Agriculture administers a portion of the Camargue as a National Park, where those interested are given facilities to study the unique local varieties of beast and plant. But the majority of them are found quite freely, and in such profusion that the sight of them is not even remarkable; though there can be no doubt about the wisdom of preservation where the rarer species are concerned. From the window of your carriage, even, as you travel by the little Chemin de Fer de la Camargue, you may see, not only herds of bulls and horses, but exotic-looking birds, such as you have seen previously only in books or, by great good luck or after hours of patient watching, in some inaccessible quarter of Europe or the British Isles.
The little railway takes you from Trinquetaille to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, traversing one of the loneliest and most desolate regions imaginable. There are several stations on the way, but few of them serve more than a single homestead. Apart from an occasional shepherd, a party of two or three countrymen and a couple of dogs out on a shooting expedition, or a man ploughing a rare piece of arable behind a yoke of oxen, these scattered farmhouses, each with its clump of umbrella-pines to give shade and shelter, are the only signs of habitation. The flat wastes of dull grey-green herbage stretch away and away on either side of you to nothing, without break or relief beyond an occasional stunted bush, and here and there the cold glint of the bleak light on the surface of a patch of water. The train draws into the terminus and stops; and one is in this place to which the similitude of an African village has often been applied.
I have heard it said that no group of habitations in the world gives such a feeling of remoteness as this village of a thousand inhabitants or so, twenty-four miles from Arles. Certainly I know of no mountain or moorland hamlet that has such an air of loneliness and isolation, despite the rail-way and the summer villas. The place is marooned, as it were, between a sea of salt water on one side and a sea of pampas on the other. There is something indescribably uncanny and oppressive in the dead flatness of the scenery, the entire absence of any kind of elevation, even the smallest hillock. Step off the paved road, and your feet sink into fine, colourless sand, which is either that of the plain or that of the tideless shore, for there is no way of telling which is which. A few yards outside the village the dark grey-green scrub begins, and stretches away endlessly, not to the horizon, for somehow there seems to be no horizon, but until the eye can no longer cope with it, until it loses itself somehow in a grey nothing. Subjectively speaking, the greatest open space of America or the Colonies could not afford you a wider prospect. If your back is to the sea, the view is the same in all directions, except that on the east there is water instead of scrub, for over there is the vast Etang de Vaccares.
It was on this desolate shore, according to legend, that the holy women, Mary of Bethany, Mary the mother of James, Mary Magdalen, with their black servant Sarah, Lazarus, and Maximin, and other of the friends of Jesus, were miraculously cast up, having taken to the sea when they were turned out of Palestine after the Crucifixion. Mary Magdalen went to la Sainte-Baume, near Aubagne, Maxi-min to the district of the Var, and Lazarus to Marseille; while Martha and Trophimus, who were also of the company, went to Tarascon and Arles respectively, the former delivering the people from the menace of the Tarasque, the latter converting them to Christianity; but Mary of Beth-any and Mary the mother of James, with Sarah, dwelt where they landed, and all three died and were buried there. It is thus that the village gets its name, the Holy Marys of the Sea. Relics of the holy women, supposed to have been discovered in the Middle Ages, are lowered from an upper floor of the church to a frenzied and ecstatic throng below on the occasion of the annual pilgrimage in Maya.
This festival is one, not only of great importance to the devout, but of peculiar interest to the connoisseur of the mysterious. In addition to a large number of ordinary Catholics, it attracts a horde of the gipsy tribe, the gitanes, who come “des quatre coins du monde,” according to some accounts, and certainly from many different parts of Europe. Ostensibly they come to honour Sarah, who by virtue of complexion is their patron. They are permitted to hold a celebration in the crypt of the Christian church. Now, the gitanes are not Christians, and from what one hears their outlook is rather inimical to Christianity than otherwise. So what is the significance of these cryptic rites, which it is said (I do not know with how much truth) no stranger has ever been allowed to witness? Dark hints of sacrifice and bloodshed have been thrown out. Whether or not the church of Les Saintes-Maries stands on the foundations of the oldest Christian church in Europe, it is extremely probable that it occupies the site of a former pagan altar, for that would be no more than in the normal course of things; and I think it very likely that the whole celebration, not merely in the crypt, but in the body of the church as well, is a mitigation or corruption of some rite much older than Christianity, Mithraic if you like, but going back to the very beginning of all worship, I should think. It is not very likely that any actual sacrifice takes place in the crypt, though one could imagine anything might happen in this dim cellar, cold and mysterious as the tomb, below the level of the sea. The atmosphere is indescribably uncanny, one feels op-pressed by the weight of all the centuries. Here was the authentic shudder I had nursed in the Alyscamps. On the walls, near the altar, are hung votive offeringspieces of gaudy jewellery, crude drawings, scarves and handkerchiefs, the tatters of a discarded garment, worn-out stockings, rags, and scraps. How far they are really votive offerings, and how far they are potential talismans, intended to be taken away and replaced by something else when sufficiently impregnated with the required virtue, I do not know. But one cannot look at these things without emotion. There must always be something moving in the contemplation of the new born or the elemental. And one is very near, in this place, to something very fundamental and primitive indeed; to the source of something; to the disreputable and bloody origin, it may be, of a great deal we have valued in the past, and may be destined soon to lose.
The existing church of Les Saintes-Maries, a grey battlemented pile rising forbiddingly from the level shore, was built in the twelfth century, and restored in the fifteenth by good King Rene. It was used for the defence of the coasts against piratical invasion as well as for religious purposes. There is no other like it in the world. In the body of the church are many votive offerings, more elaborate and intrinsically more valuable than those in the crypt. A photo-graph of the donor is often attached, that the dedicatee may be under no misapprehension as to whom to thank. Beneath the floor is a well, which is said always to yield fresh water, though no other so near the sea has ever been known to do so. The guide when I was there admitted that continual flooding of the crypt by high seas had rendered its waters slightly brackish; but insisted that they were still much fresher than could be accounted for by any natural explanation. A dark stairway leads from the outside of the church to the upper story of this extraordinary building. The cure will show you some of the treasures kings and great men have given to the church, and demonstrate the mechanism by which the relics are lowered towards the excited crowd below. That is the ostensible religious climax of the festival. But when it is over there are other celebrations. There are revels, music and dancing, there are bullfights; and that god is sacrificed who is the giver of fecundity and strength.
We climbed to the roof of the church. The cure showed me how one could walk up the slates to the ridge. Behind us was the sea, to the left the Petit Rhone, and beyond it the Petite Camargue, le Grau-du-Roi, and Aigues-Mortes. In front was the endless plain, to the right the Etang de Vaccares. Over there, in that direction, said the cure, pointing, there was a herd of bulls. But I had not the Camargais eye, which can distinguish one thing from another in these grey wastes, and I could not see them.
Afterwards I walked out of the village in the direction of the etang. My footsteps made no sound in the soft powdery sand. I had only gone a few yards when the loneliness of the desert spaces seemed to descend on me like something palpable. It was absurd that here in Europe, not very far from the second largest town in France, one should have this strange feeling, as if time and space had changed their meaning, and one found oneself for the first time in an alien world. My modern civilized clothes seemed an absurdity. Suddenly I saw before me the great herd of black cattle, majestic and forbidding. They were grazing on the shores of the lake which owes its name to them. They looked men-acing in the extreme, but instinct told me that they were not really so; and I discovered afterwards that I was right. A lone bull constitutes a danger which any one who is not a fool will go out of his way to avoid. But a resolute man can drive a herd of them off his path with ease. And that, if you wish to take a walk in certain parts of the Camargue, is something you must be prepared to do.