Read Chapter XXXIX - Beaune of A Little Tour in France, free online book, by Henry James, on

On my return to Macon I found myself fairly face to face with the fact that my tour was near its end.  Dijon had been marked by fate as its farthest limit, and Dijon was close at hand.  After that I was to drop the tourist and re-enter Paris as much as possible like a Parisian.  Out of Paris the Parisian never loiters, and therefore it would be impossible for me to stop between Dijon and the capital.  But I might be a tourist a few hours longer by stopping somewhere between Macon and Dijon.  The question was where I should spend these hours.  Where better, I asked myself (for reasons not now entirely clear to me), than at Beaune?  On my way to this town I passed the stretch of the Cote d’Or, which, covered with a mellow autumn haze, with the sunshine shimmering through, looked indeed like a golden slope.  One regards with a kind of awe the region in which the famous crus of Burgundy (Vougeot, Chambertin, Nuits, Beaune) are, I was going to say, manufactured.  Adieu, paniers; vendanges sont faîtes!  The vintage was over; the shrunken russet fibres alone clung to their ugly stick.  The horizon on the left of the road had a charm, however; there is something picturesque in the big, comfortable shoulders of the Cote.  That delicate critic M. Emile Montegut, in a charming record of travel through this region published some years ago, praises Shakespeare for having talked (in “Lear”) of “waterish Burgundy.”  Vinous Burgundy would surely be more to the point.  I stopped at Beaune in pursuit of the picturesque, but I might almost have seen the little I discovered without stopping.  It is a drowsy Burgundian town, very old and ripe, with crooked streets, vistas always oblique, and steep, moss covered roofs.  The principal lion is the Hôpital-Saint-Esprit, or the Hotel-Dieu simply, as they call it there, founded in 1443 by Nicholas Rollin, Chancellor of Burgundy.  It is administered by the sisterhood of the Holy Ghost, and is one of the most venerable and stately of hospitals.  The face it presents to the street is simple, but striking ­a plain, windowless wall, surmounted by a vast slate roof, of almost mountainous steepness.  Astride this roof sits a tall, slate-covered spire, from which, as I arrived, the prettiest chimes I ever heard (worse luck to them, as I will presently explain) were ringing.  Over the door is a high, quaint canopy, without supports, with its vault painted blue and covered with gilded stars. (This, and indeed the whole building, have lately been restored, and its antiquity is quite of the spick-and-span order.  But it is very delightful.) The treasure of the place is a precious picture ­a Last Judgment, attributed equally to John van Eyck and Roger van der Weyden ­given to the hospital in the fifteenth century by Nicholas Rollin aforesaid.

I learned, however, to my dismay, from a sympathising but inexorable concierge, that what remained to me of the time I had to spend at Beaune, between trains ­I had rashly wasted half an hour of it in breakfasting at the station ­was the one hour of the day (that of the dinner of the nuns; the picture is in their refectory) during which the treasure could not be shown.  The purpose of the musical chimes to which I had so artlessly listened was to usher in this fruitless interval.  The regulation was absolute, and my disappointment relative, as I have been happy to reflect since I “looked up” the picture.  Crowe and Cavalcaselle assign it without hesitation to Roger van der Weyden, and give a weak little drawing of it in their “Flemish Painters.”  I learn from them also ­what I was ignorant of ­that Nicholas Rollin, Chancellor of Burgundy and founder of the establishment at Beaune, was the original of the worthy kneeling before the Virgin in the magnificent John van Eyck of the Salon Carre.  All I could see was the court of the hospital and two or three rooms.  The court, with its tall roofs, its pointed gables and spires, its wooden galleries, its ancient well, with an elaborate superstructure of wrought iron, is one of those places into which a sketcher ought to be let loose.  It looked Flemish or English rather than French, and a splendid tidiness pervaded it.  The porter took me into two

rooms on the ground-floor, into which the sketcher should also be allowed to penetrate, for they made irresistible pictures.  One of them, of great proportions, painted in elaborate “subjects” like a ball-room of the seventeenth century, was filled with the beds of patients, all draped in curtains of dark red cloth, the traditional uniform of these eleemosynary couches.  Among them the sisters moved about in their robes of white flannel with big white linen hoods.  The other room was a strange, immense apartment, lately restored with much splendour.  It was of great length and height, had a painted and gilded barrel-roof, and one end of it ­the one I was introduced to ­appeared to serve as a chapel, as two white-robed sisters were on their knees before an altar.  This was divided by red curtains from the larger part; but the porter lifted one of the curtains and showed me that the rest of it, a long, imposing vista, served as a ward lined with little red-draped beds.  “C’est l’heure de la lecture,” remarked my guide; and a group of convalescents ­all the patients I saw were women ­were gathered in the centre around a nun, the points of whose white hood nodded a little above them and whose gentle voice came to us faintly, with a little echo, down the high perspective.  I know not what the good sister was reading ­a dull book, I am afraid ­but there was so much colour and such a fine, rich air of tradition about the whole place that it seemed to me I would have risked listening to her.  I turned away, however, with that sense of defeat which is always irritating to the appreciative tourist, and pottered about Beaune rather vaguely for the rest of my hour:  looked at the statue of Gaspard Monge, the mathematician, in the little place (there is no place in France too little to contain an effigy to a glorious son); at the fine old porch ­completely despoiled at the Revolution ­of the principal church; and even at the meagre treasures of a courageous but melancholy little museum, which has been arranged ­part of it being the gift of a local collector ­in a small hotel de ville.  I carried away from Beaune the impression of something mildly autumnal ­something rusty yet kindly, like the taste of a sweet russet pear.