'Don't be afraid,' cried our guide. 'It is nothing.'
'I would venture if I were you,' urged my friend mildly. So up I went.
The climbing, beyond a somewhat breathless scrambling and painful straining of the limbs, was nothing to speak of. For a few moments I could revel in the marvellous spectacle before me.
Lying on a little platform, perhaps two yards square, high above the bright heavens, I had, far around and beneath, the wide panorama of the dolomite city, vista upon vista of tower and monolith, avenues, arches, bridges, arcades, all of cool, tender gray, amid fairy-like verdure and greenery. Not Lyons itself, seen from the heights of La Fourviere, shows a more grandiose aspect than this capital of the waste, unpeopled by either the living or the dead!
Hardly had I realized the magic of the prospect when I became conscious of frightful giddiness. The flowery shelf of rock on which I lay was only a foot or two removed from the edge of the piled mass just climbed so laboriously, and, sloping downwards, seemed to invite a fall. From this side the incline was almost vertical, and the turf below at a distance of over a hundred feet. No descent was practicable except by bestriding the same fissures, two feet wide, and clinging to the sides of the rocks, as before. I now felt that terrible vertigo which I am convinced accounts for so many so-called suicides from lofty heights. To throw myself down seemed the only possible relief from the terrible nightmare. Had I been longer alone I must, at least, have allowed myself to slip off my resting-place, with certain risk to life and limb. As it was, I called to my companion, who had scaled another story—had, indeed, reached the topmost shelf of the citadel; and she tripped down looking so airy and alert that I felt ashamed of my own weakness.
Pale and trembling, I pointed to the horrible staircase by which we had come.
'Get me down some other way,' I said to the guide, who now followed, not slightly embarrassed. Had he possessed the physique of our punter of the rapids, or of our conductor, now attending to his horses at the farm, he could have shouldered me like a baby. But he was slight of build and by no means robust. Not a creature was within call, and those dreaded fissures had to be bestridden. There was no other means of descent.
'It is of no use to try, I cannot get down,' I repeated, and for a moment a sombre vision of broken limbs and a long incarceration at the farm passed before my mind's eye.
Reassuring me as best he could, our poor guide now grasped one of my hands, with the other got a strong grip of the rock, and the first dreaded step was achieved. The second presented greater difficulties still. Once more he tried to carry me, but found the task beyond his strength. I remembered that he was a bridegroom of a few months only; what would be the young wife's feelings if he now came by mishap? So I closed my eyes, shutting out the prospect beneath, and allowed myself to be dragged down somehow, never more to venture on such giddy heights. The incomparable view had been too dearly purchased.
The moral of this incident is, let tourists subject to vertigo carry a smelling-bottle with them, or, better still, stay below.
All had ended well, however, and I could once more enjoy the scene. When the first bewilderment of wonder and admiration is over; when the fantastic city no longer appears a vision, but a reality, pile upon pile of natural rock so magically cast in the form of architecture, we realize countless beauties unperceived at first. The intense limpidity and crystalline clearness of the atmosphere, the brilliance of the limestone, the no less dazzling hue of the foliage everywhere adorning it, the beautiful lights and shadows of the more distant masses, line upon line of far off mountain-chain, mere gold and violet clouds rising above the rugged outline of the Causses, the deep, rich tones of the nearer—these general effects are not more striking than the details close under our feet. About every fragment of rock is a wealth of leaves, flowers and berries, the dogwood and bilberry with their crimson and purple clusters and tufts, wild lavender and thrift, whilst the ground is carpeted with the leaf of the hepatica.
We found also the pretty purple and white toad-flax, [Footnote: Linaria versicolor] the handsome gold-flowered spurges, [Footnote: Euphorbia sylvatica and E. cyparissea] the elegant orange and crimson-streaked salvia, [Footnote: Salvia glutinosa] with others more familiar to us. If the adorer of wild flowers is a happy person here in September, what enchantment would await him in the spring!
Like the Russian Steppes and the African Metidja, these wastes are a mosaic of blossoms. The foot-sure, hardy and leisurely traveller must not content himself with the bird's-eye view of this dolomite city just described. He should spend hours, nay, days here, if he would conscientiously explore the stone avenues, worthy to be compared to Stonehenge or Carnac; the amphitheatre, vast as that of Nimes or Orange; the fortifications, with bulwarks, towers, and ramparts; the necropolis, veritable Cerameicus, or Pere-la-Chaise; the citadel, the forum, the suburbs; for the enthusiastic discoverers of Montpellier-le- Vieux, or the Cite du Diable, have made out all these.
The most striking rocks have been fancifully named after the celebrated structures they resemble. We find the Chateau Gaillard, the Sphinx, the Gate of Mycenae, or of the Lions, the Street of Tombs supposed to resemble Pompeii, some of colossal dimensions. Thus the citadel measures a hundred and fifty feet from the ground, at this point Montpellier-le-Vieux attaining an altitude of two thousand five hundred feet above the sea-level. When I add that the Cite du Diable measures nearly two miles in length and a mile in breadth, and that its city and suburbs, so-called, cover a thousand hectares, an area a third less than that of Windsor Forest, the enterprising tourist will have some feeble notion of the waste before him. The place is indeed altogether indescribable—surely one of the most striking testimonies to the force of erosion existing on the earth's surface. The explanation of the phenomenon is found here. At a remote period of geological history the action of mighty torrents let loose sculptured these fantastic and grandiose monoliths, bored these arcades and galleries, hollowed these fairy-like caves. Erosion has been the architect of the Cite du Diable, partly by impetuous floods, partly by slow filtration. Water has gradually, and in the slow process of ages, built up the whole, then vanished altogether. Nothing strikes the imagination more than the absolute aridity of the region now. Not a drop left in the bed of ancient lake or river, not a crystal thread trickling down the rock channelled by ancient cascades, and nevertheless abundance of greenery and luxuriant foliage everywhere! The waterless world of stone is not only a garden, but a green forest! Immediately around us flowers, ferns, and shrubs adorn every bit of silvery gray rock, whilst wherever space admits we see noble trees, pines, oaks, beeches, some of marvellous growth, yet perched on heights so remote and lofty as to appear mere tufts of grass.
And then the wonderful deliciousness and invigorating quality of the air! It is like tasting the waters of the Nile, an experience never to be forgotten.
Those, indeed, who have once breathed the air of the Lozere will have only one desire: to breathe it again.
True, Montpellier-le-Vieux, departmentally speaking, is in the Aveyron, if so phantom-like a city can be said to have a local habitation and a name. But the Lozere chain is still in sight; its breezes are wafted to us; we seem still in my favourite department of the eighty-seven, that now being the proper number, including the newly-created one of the Territoire de Belfort. I note the fact, as so many errors find their way into print on the subject of French geography. As we reflect on the mine of wealth this newly-discovered marvel may, we should say must, inevitably become to its owners and their near neighbours, a terrible vision rises before the mind. The gradually-diminishing area of the picturesque world, in proportion to the enormously-increasing percentage of tourists, can have but one ultimate result. In process of time the dolomite city must undergo the fate of other marvels of the natural world. Waggonettes drawn by four horses will convey the curious from the Grand Hotel and Hotel Splendide at Le Rozier to the Cite du Diable. Who can tell? A steam tramway may be placed at the disposal of globe-trotters sleeping at Maubert, and a patent lift or captive balloon for the ascension of the citadel. But no! We may at least console ourselves with the reflexion that such a contingency is far off. It will take more than a generation or two to vulgarize the Cite du Diable, which in our days may be considered as remote from London as Bagdad. The ideas of tourists in general must undergo entire transformation ere they will cease to endorse Shelley's opinion: 'There is nothing to see in France.'
Perhaps these pages may tempt a stray sketcher or lover of wild flowers to follow my route, but the peasant-owner of Montpellier-le-Vieux, although reaping a fair harvest from his unique possession, will not certainly become a millionaire through the patronage of Messrs. Cook, Gaze and Caygill. And, truth to tell, it is not even every ardent lover of natural beauty who would be held captive here. It requires a peculiar temperament to appreciate this gray, silent, fantastic world of stone. When once within its precincts, our mood is not precisely that of delight or exhilaration; it is more akin to the eerie and the awesome. We are spellbound, not so much by the sublimity or loveliness of the place, but by its absolute uniqueness, its total unlikeness to any other on the face of the globe, its kinship with the few incomparable marvels Nature has given us; creations of her mysterious, freakish, daemonic humour. Strange that a neighbourhood so weird should have exercised only a wholesome influence on the character of the people! As far as we can judge, no franker, cheerier, more straightforward folks are to be found in France, to say nothing of that little fact of white assizes, so creditable to the department.
Perhaps the fine prospect framing in Montpellier-le-Vieux is best appreciated as we walk back to the farm, the mind not then being full of expectancy. What a superb coup d'oeil! Distance upon distance, one mountain range rising above another, almost in endless succession, the various stages showing infinite gradation of colour—subtle, distracting, absolutely unpaintable! No wonder the air is unspeakably fresh and exhilarating, seeing that it blows north, south, east and west from lofty Alps. We have in view the sombre walls of the three Causses, the wide outline of the Larzac, in a vast semicircle the western spurs of the Cevennes, whilst from east to west stretch the Cantal chain, the Lozere, and the Cevennes des Gardons. [Footnote: So called from this portion of the Cevennes rising above the valleys of the streams and rivers Gardon.]
We are on the Roof of France indeed! Having escaped a broken leg or dislocated shoulder, my only regret was that we could not spend at least a month within reach of the Cite du Diable. What explorations in search of rare flowers! what sunset effects! what impressions to be obtained here! How delightful, too, to make friends with the young owners of this strange property—the strangest surely out of the 'Arabian Nights,' 'Vathek,' or 'The Epicurean!'—and get the farmhouse turned into quite an ideal hostelry! I saw in my mind's eye the dunghill replaced by a pretty flower-garden, a tablecloth spread for breakfast, the floors swept and scoured, carpets and armchairs in the best bedrooms, and even—my ambition went so far—trays, bells, and door-fastenings introduced into these wilds. As the Utopia could not be realized this year, I chatted with our hosts upon 'le confort,' whilst they brought out one liqueur after another—rum, quince-water, heaven knows what!—with which to restore us after our fatigues. Whilst I conversed on this instructive topic: 'Yes,' said the handsome, slatternly little mistress of the Cite du Diable, turning to her husband, 'we must buy some hand-basins, my dear.'
We had not noticed the fact that the six bedchambers at Maubert were altogether unprovided with these luxuries, for luxuries they must be called in a region where there is absolutely nothing whatever to render them necessary. Without smoke, fog, artificial or atmospheric impurities of any kind, one might surely remain here in a condition of ideal cleanliness from January to December.
Invigorated by the various petits verres of home-made cordials this hospitable young couple had pressed upon us, we now set off jauntily for Le Rozier. My companion, with a courage and endurance I could but envy, mounted the caleche; I followed close behind on foot with the little dog.
It was amusing to watch the imperturbability of our conductor as the somewhat antiquated vehicle swayed this side and that, at every moment, as it seemed, in jeopardy of overthrow. For a mile and a half from the farm the road, or, rather, cart-track, may be described as a kind of steeplechase on wheels, every step of the way showing either a stone- heap or a ditch, the word 'rut' being quite an inadequate definition. Now I saw the hood of the carriage nod to the right, now to the left, as some stone-heap impeded the way; now it curtseyed forward, almost disappearing altogether as some gully was plunged into, horses, driver, and vehicle, wonderful to relate, emerging as if nothing unusual had happened, my companion sitting bolt upright and coolly enjoying the view.
All this time it was instructive to watch the behaviour of the little dog. Whenever I lingered behind to gather a flower or gaze around, the intelligent little creature stopped too and waited for me, with a look that plainly said, 'You must not be left behind, you know.' Nothing would induce him to rejoin his master till I had caught him up.
The drive back to Le Rozier is another balloon descent from the clouds. Like St. Enimie, the little town lies, figuratively speaking, at the bottom of a well, and as we approach we could almost drop a plummet- line on to the house-tops. It is a dizzy drive, and many will shut their eyes as their horses' hoofs turn the sharp curves of the precipitous mountain-sides, only an inch or two between wheel and precipice.
And here is a caution to the adventuresome. During our stay a family- party set off on mule-back from Maubert to Peyreleau somewhat late in the day. Darkness and rain overtaking them, they were obliged to take shelter for the night in a peasant's cottage, thankful enough to obtain even such rough hospitality.
Let no one undertake an expedition in these regions without proper information and the support of accredited guides—men well known and well-recommended by residents on the spot.
CHAPTER XV. LE ROZIER TO MILLAU AND RODEZ.
The road between Le Rozier and Millau is delightful; the verdure and brilliance of the valley in striking contrast with the sombre, dark- ribbed Causse Noir frowning above. For two-thirds of the way we follow the Tarn as it winds—here a placid stream—amid poplars, willows, and smooth green reaches. Gracious and lovely the shifting scenes of the landscape around, stern and magnificent of aspect the Causse, its ramparts as of iron girding it round, its gloomy escarpments showing deep clefts and combes, lines of purply gold and green breaking the gray surface.
Close under this mighty shadow—a bit of fairyland by the dwelling of evil genii—are sunny little lawns, peach-groves, orchards, and terraced gardens overlooking the river; beyond, fertile fields, and here and there, perched on the crags, some quaint village or ruined chateau. The road is bordered for the most part with walnut-trees, affording rich foliage and delicious shadow. The colours of every feature in the scene—luxuriant belt of field and garden, blue hills and sky—have a southern warmth and brilliance.
Growing close to road and river are apple-trees laden with ruddy fruit. In England such crops would be pillaged in a day. Among peasant proprietors, each respects the possession of his neighbour. This fact and one or two others impressed my companion much. It was her first acquaintance with rural France, and she had undertaken the journey purely as a lover of nature and art, not at all as a student of political economy, agriculture, or statistics. Peasant property was no more in her way than the Impressionist school of modern art in mine. But being keenly observant, and feeling, as any other member of the propertied class must do, aghast at the condition of rural affairs in England—vast tracts of cultivated land deteriorating into waste, agricultural wages lowered to nine shillings a week, vagrancy on the increase in consequence of the general migration to the towns, the sons of country squires enlisting in the ranks, or betaking themselves to manual labour in the Colonies—aghast, I say, at these signs of the times among ourselves, she could but feel some surprise at her French experiences. The entire absence of mendicants in the departments we had lately traversed—these reputed among the poorest in France—was altogether a revelation to her, as indeed it must be to any stranger on French soil. Even in a neglected-looking place like Peyreleau, where the people are wholly unused to the sight of tourists, and life is evidently one of extreme laboriousness, no hand is held out for an alms. In our long drives across country, where strangers in a carriage and pair are assuredly taken for millionaires, we were never asked by man, woman or child for a sou.
Again, the good, neat, suitable clothes of the country-people struck my friend no less. The total absence of tawdriness and finery on Sundays, the equally total absence of rags and squalor on week-days, afforded a striking contrast to what we are accustomed to see at home. It is more especially in the matter of foot-gear that the working-classes in France show to advantage. My friend noticed with admiration the well- stockinged, well-shod children, all having good strong shoes—stockings evidently bought or made for them, not the ill-fitting belongings of others, gifts of charity or bargains of the pawnshop. The men and women, too, are uniformly well shod, with strong, clean, home-knit stockings. Again, the implied sense of security in these unprotected gardens and wayside orchards is a novelty to the English mind. At Hastings, which may also be called the metropolis of vagrancy, it is impossible to keep a poor little wallflower or a primrose in one's garden. An apple-tree would be pillaged on any public road in England before the fruit was half ripe. Not only here, but in Anjou and many other regions, I have walked or driven for miles, amid unprotected vineyards and fruit-trees, the ripening crops being within reach of passers-by. No one pillages his neighbour.
Yes, peasant property is a detestable, nay, an iniquitous, institution, only to be compared to the Inquisition itself. No one who does not already possess several thousand acres of land ought to be permitted by law to purchase a single rood. Nine shillings a week, Christmas doles of beef and flannel petticoats from the Hall, the workhouse as a reward for fifty years' patient following the plough—these make up the only Utopia worth mentioning. Every right-minded person, every true Christian, has come to such conclusions long ago. Yet when it is possible to spend weeks in a civilized country without encountering a beggar; when we see an entire population well-clothed, cheerful, and self-supporting in old age; when we see fruit-crops ripening in all security by the roadside, and inquire throughout the length and breadth of the land for a poor-house in vain; when we find judge and jury dismissed at assize after assize because there are no criminals to try, we are tempted to exclaim:
'Peasant property or no, they manage these things better in France!'
'There is no want here,' our driver said, and the fact is self-evident.
As we approach Millau we meet streams of country folk disporting themselves, some afoot, others in rustic vehicles—the men wearing clean blue blouses over the Sunday broadcloth, the women neat black gowns, kerchiefs, and spotless white coiffes. The fields are deserted. Man and beast are resting from the labours of the week.
The landscape now changes altogether, and we are reminded that we have quitted the Lozere for the Aveyron. The air has lost the matchless purity and exhilarating briskness of Sauveterre and Montpellier-le- Vieux. Alike sky, atmosphere, and vegetation recall the south. Pink and white oleanders bloom before every door; the quince, the mulberry, the peach, ripen in every garden. We long to get at our boxes and exchange woollen travelling-dresses for cottons and muslins.
Pleasant and welcome as is this soft air, this warm heaven, this bright, rich-coloured, flowery land, we strain our eyes to get a last glimpse of the Causse Noir. To betake ourselves to cosmopolitan hotels, cities and railways, after this sojourn in elfdom, was like closing the pages of 'Don Quixote' or Lucian to read a debate in the House or listen to a sermon.
And now that I am no longer held spellbound by wizardry and genii, good or evil, and the first glow of enthusiasm is over, let me jot down a few hard facts for the reader's edification—give in a few words the geological and general history of the Causses, if nothing more—a bare outline to serve the tourist on his way. The origin of the phenomenon is thus explained by the great French geographer, Elisee Reclus, in his chapter on 'Le Plateau Central de la France.' [Footnote: See his 'Geographie Universelle,' vol. ii.: 'La France,' 1885.] 'There is no doubt,' he writes, 'that at a remote period all these plateaux of jurassic rock formed a single Causse, deposed by the sea in the southern strait of the granitic group of France. Although the Causse Mejean, placed almost in the centre of the series of plateaux, is a hundred metres loftier than the rest, its formation accords with theirs. All show the same features. From the banks of the Herault to those of the Lot and the Aveyron, all show the same development of continuous strata. The ancient glaciers spread on the highest summits of the Cevennes as they melted, gradually cut into the rock, channelled openings—finally, forcing their way through the layers, have formed these gigantic defiles, now the marvel of geologists. If the rivers flow in an unbroken stream in these deep gorges, on the contrary, water is altogether absent from the plateaux above. The ground, riddled everywhere into holes and fissures, is hardly moistened by a shower. The rain, as if falling through a sieve, immediately disappears. In some places the chasms of rock have widened, the intermediate projections given way, and huge cavities of rightful depth—avens or tindouls, as they are locally called—are formed in the limestone. But the surface of the Causse is almost universally uniform, and these subterranean wells are only indicated by slight openings. Nowhere a foundation springs forth. Alike as to formation, aspect, and climate, the Causses are unique in France.'
This entire chapter is a necessary preparation for no matter how hasty a journey in the Lozere; equally to be recommended is the study of the Causses by M. Onesime Reclus in his work 'La France.' [Footnote: 'L'orage aux larges gouttes, la pluie fine, les ruisseaux de neige fendue, les sources joyeuses ne sont pas pour le Causse, qui est fissure, crible, casse, qui ne retient point les eaux, tout ce que lui verse la nue, entre dans la rocaille. Et c'est bien, bien bas que l'onde engloutie se decide a reparaitre, elle sort d'une grotte, au fond des gorges, au pied de ces roches droites, symetriques, monumentales, qui porte le terre-plein du Causse. Mais ce que le plateau n'a bu qu'en mille gorgees, la bouche de la caverne le rend souvent par un seul flot, les gouttes qui tombent du filtre s'unissant dans l'ombre en misseaux, puis en rivieres. Aussi, les sources du pied du Causse, sont-elles admirables par l'abondance des eaux, par la hauteur et la sublimite des rocs, de leur "bouts de mondes." Trop de soleil si le Causse est bas, trop de neige s'il est eleve, toujours et partout le vent, qui tord les bois chetifs, pour lac, une mare, pour riviere un ravin, de rocheuses prairies tondues par des moutons et des brebis a laine fine, des champs caillouteux d'orge, d'avoine, de pommes de terre, rarement de ble, voila les Causses! Le Caussenard seul peut aimer le Causse, mais qui n'admirerait les vallees qui l'entourent?']
I may add that the only traces of volcanic action in the Causses have been found at Sauveterre, near the so-called capital. Here basaltic rocks exist amid the limestone.
It is not only the geologist and the botanist, in search of an emotion, to use a French phrase, who will find a paradise here. The palaeontologist is no less happy. Sparsely peopled, isolated from civilization as is the 'great jurassic island' in our own day—lost as it seems to have been in the pages of French history—it was inhabited by our prehistoric forerunners, contemporaries of the great cave-bear. The entire department of the Lozere is a rich palaeontological field, and the Causse Mejean especially has afforded abundant treasure-trove. In the vast caverns and grottoes of its walls, great quantities of flint implements and fossils, human and animal, have been discovered. A collection of these may be seen in the museum of Mende.
The Causses, owing to their isolated position, may be said to have escaped a history. The great wave of religious warfare that devastated the Cevennes in the Middle Ages passed them by. Only here and there on the skirts of Sauveterre, near Mende, and of the Causse Noir, near Millau, as we have seen, are relics of feudal times. Close around, under the very shadow of these vast promontories, cresting the borders of the Tarn and the green heights between Millau and Mende, ruined strongholds and chateaux abound. The Causse itself enjoyed immunity alike from ferocious seigneurs and still more ferocious theologian bandits, seeking, as they put it, the salvation of their neighbours' souls. The merciless Calvinist leader, Merle, who burnt, pillaged, and depopulated Mende; the equally merciless quellers of the Camisard revolt, emissaries of Louis XII., were tempted by no more prey to penetrate these solitudes.
Were they, indeed, peopled at all? Was the so-called capital of Sauveterre even in existence? Who can answer the questions? Nor is it easy to determine when the entire region first fell under the observation of French geographers, and found at last a name and a place on the map of France.
Arthur Young, the most curious and accurate traveller of his time, brought, moreover, into contact with the best informed Frenchmen of the day, had evidently never heard of any portion of the Gevaudan, as the Lozere was then called, at all answering to the Causses. But a French traveller before alluded to—himself without doubt stimulated by the example of our countryman—M. Vaysse de Villiers, author of the 'Itineraire Descriptif de la France,' did in 1816, or thereabouts, accomplish the journey from Mende to Florac by way of Sauveterre. 'Never,' he wrote, 'have I seen a more complete aridity, so utter a desert,' He goes on to describe the beauty of the Tarnon (a small river of the Lozere) and its verdant banks. 'All this, added to the delightfulness of the autumn day and the horrible Causse of Sauveterre,' but just passed, transformed the dreary town and narrow valley of Florac into a delicious retreat. In a note he gives the accepted derivation of Causse from calx, saying that it was of general application, and that the word certainly filled a blank in French nomenclature.
It is now instructive to turn to French guidebooks and see how completely the region here described was ignored till within the last few years. I have before me Joanne's invaluable and conscientious guides for Auvergne, including the Cevennes, published respectively in 1874 and 1883. In the former, whilst the Causses figure in the map, beyond a brief allusion to the Causse Noir, they are ignored altogether. St. Enimie is not once mentioned, and nothing is said about the gorges of the Tarn. As to Montpellier-le-Vieux, it could find no place in a guide-book of that date, seeing that it was only discovered ten years later. We now take the edition of 1883. Here, the route from Mende to St. Enimie by way of Sauveterre is described also in the fewest possible words, two pages being found sufficient for short descriptions of the gorges of the Tarn by way of Florac, St. Enimie and the valley of the Joute. Montpellier-le-Vieux, for the very good reason mentioned above, is still absent. But just a year later we find the guide-book remodelled altogether. Joanne now devotes an entire, volume to the Cevennes, and states in his preface that the new issue of the 'General Itinerary of France' contains an account of a region very little known to French tourists, yet well worth visiting, the region comprising the Causses, the Canon du Tarn and Montpellier-le-Vieux. The distinguished geographer, alas! did not live to see his little purple volume, and, I am compelled to add, Baedeker's red rival, in the hands of scores and hundreds of his fellow-countrymen and women bound for the Lozere.
If the reader now turns to a map of France, and draws a perpendicular line from Mende to Lodeve, and a vertical line from Millau to Florac, he will have a pretty good notion of the area occupied by the Causses, including that of the Larzac in Aveyron.
When it is taken into account that the superficies thus covered in the Lozere alone reaches the total of 125,000 hectares, some idea may be gathered of the magnitude of the whole. The entire population of these highlands was only 6,662 souls in 1876, and there can be little doubt that, in the slow process of time, either they will be abandoned altogether, or by means of scientific methods utterly transformed. The laborious, long-suffering, hitherto ignored Caussenard will not surely be long neglected by the patriarchal Government of France. The Republic has laid iron roads across the Lozere, thus redeeming the department from the isolation and inertia of former times. Another tardigrade act of justice will surely ere long complete the work, and the inhabitant of the French steppes be made to share in the well-being and happiness long enjoyed by his fellow-countrymen.
CHAPTER XVI. RODEZ, VIC-SUR-CERE REVISITED.—A BREAKFAST ON THE BANKS OF THE SAONE.
In future, tourists bound northward will be able to reach Neussargues on the Clermont and Nimes railway by a direct line from Mende and St. Flour. As this new line is not yet completed, and I had set my heart upon revisiting Rodez and Vic-sur-Cere, we took the more circuitous route, going over the same ground I had traversed the year before. It was once my ambition to visit one by one every noteworthy spot in France. The appetite grows by what it feeds on, and now I never see any striking place without making up my mind to see it twice.
Great was my delight at Rodez to find a bright, cheerful, spick and span hotel, newly opened since last year. The time-honoured house of Biney has two credentials worthy of mention—very low charges and good food. Its modern rival has greater claims upon the wayfarer's gratitude—pleasant, wholesome rooms, neat chambermaids, and the kind of modernization so necessary to health and comfort. The Hotel Flouron, too, is presided over by a lady, and when we have said this we have implied a good deal. A grand old town is the capital of the Aveyron. We must see it again and again to realize its superb position and the unique splendour of its cathedral, towering over the wide landscape as our own Ely Cathedral over the eastern plains. To-day it was not flushed with the flaming red and gold of sunset, as when first I saw it a year before, but its aspect was perhaps all the more grandiose for sombre colouring.
From both extremities of the town we obtain vast panoramas; we look down as if from a mountain-top, the plateau or isthmus on which Rodez stands being two hundred and fifty feet above the circumjacent plain, the river Aveyron almost cutting it off from the mainland. Within a few yards of the Hotel Flouron we reach the edge of this escarpment, and gaze upon the wide valley of the Aveyron, village-crested hills, and the dim blue outline of the far-off Larzac.
From the public promenade at the other end of the city we look westward upon a richly-cultivated plain set round with the Cantal mountains, gold-green vineyards, wine-red soil, and deep purple distance.
The physical characteristics of some French departments are as nicely defined as their political demarcations. Nothing can afford a sharper contrast than the Aveyron, with its ruddy soil and red rocks, and the green, pastoral Cantal, land of smiling valleys, unbroken pastures, and hills that wear a look of perpetual spring. These differences cannot fail to strike the traveller who journeys from Rodez to Vic-sur-Cere; a charming bit of railway it is, especially in autumn, when the chestnut woods begin to show autumn crimson and gold.
And Vic-sur-Cere, too, delights even more on a second visit. The spot is indeed a corner of Eden—a happy valley, to be transformed, alas! into a miniature Vals. My hostess told me that a casino, hotel, and bathing establishment are about to be built, all bringing their concomitant evils or advantages, as we may respectively regard cosmopolitan comforts, high prices, frivolous distractions, and a fashionable crowd.
How kindly the good folks of the homely Hotel du Pont welcomed their guest of last year, filling my basket at departure with gifts of flowers, fruit, and little cheeses, begging me to return the following summer! At Clermont-Ferrand, good fortune for the first time directed me to a really comfortable hotel, as on previous visits, alike in lodgings and hotels, I had been cheated, bullied, and made uncomfortable. Let me signal alike the fact and the name: at the Hotel de la Poste I was enabled really to enjoy this interesting old town, the views of the Puy de Dome from every opening, the noble, Romanesque church of Notre Dame du Port, the magnificent display of the shops-no town in all France where you can buy more beautiful jewellery, bronzes and porcelain than at Clermont.
My companion quitted me here, proceeding by night express to Paris, and I took the long, slow, wearisome parliamentary to Lyons, a ten hours' journey, which wiser travellers will not fail to break half-way. The only express train between Clermont and Lyons leaves very early in the morning, so we have a choice of evils.
I do not know why the Puy de Dome should be my favourite mountain, but so it is, and never did it look lovelier than to-day, as, with its sister volcanoes, pyramid upon pyramid of warm purple, it towered above the green Limagne; gradually the rest receded from view, till at last nothing was left but that solitary dome of amethyst under the golden heaven. At Lyons—where I awaited a dear French friend—I always make a point of seeing the famous town-clock, work of a modern sculptor, a son of Lyons.
This clock, or rather the marble facade adorning it, is not only a work of genius, but a sermon in stone, perpetually preached to the surging, buzzing crowds below. It stands high above the central hall of the Exchange, at business hours a scene of extraordinary bustle and excitement, which the public can always watch from the gallery above, and from which they command an excellent view of the clock.
The noble piece of sculpture forming the facade represents the various stages of human life—three female figures composing the group—the Hour that is gone, the Hour that is here, the Hour that is coming. Simple as is the arrangement of the whole, nevertheless, so skilful is the pourtrayal that each figure seems to move before our eyes. We almost see the despairing past sink into the abyss, her passive, erect sister, the dominant hour, letting go her hand, whilst, radiant and impatient for her own reign to begin, the joyous impersonation of the future springs upward as if on wings.
This allegory, so powerfully and poetically rendered in marble, might have been more appropriately placed. Does it not savour of irony thus to idealize the three stages of human existence 'among the money- changers of the Temple'?
Next day was Sunday, as glorious a sixteenth of September as could be desired. In company with my friend I set off for an al-fresco breakfast on the banks of the Saone.
No city in all France boasts of more umbrageous walks than Lyons, and for miles we drive along the plane-bordered quays and suburban slopes, dotted with villas and chateaux, the modest chalet of the artisan and small shopkeeper peeping amid vineyards and orchards, whilst showing a splendid front from English-like park we see many a palatial mansion of silk merchant or iron-founder. Between the sunny vine-clad hills and belt of suburban dwellings flows the placid Saone, a contrast indeed to its swift, impetuous brother—no wonder the Rhone has a masculine name!
An hour of upward climb, and we might fancy ourselves in Switzerland or at Keswick, anywhere but within an easy walk of the second Paris—so cool the shadow of the over-arching trees, so rustic the ferny rock, so quiet the woodland glades. We got lovely glimpses of the clear, blue river as, freighted with many a pleasure-boat, it winds its way towards Macon.
In a sequestered nook at the foot of these wooded hills is a curious monument, none more martial to be found in the world—the tomb of a soldier, constructed by soldiers; on a plain marble slab inscribed the words: 'Here lies a soldier,' not a syllable more.
On either side, under a small open chapel, portico-shaped, in which the stone lies, are two figures, a dragoon and a foot-soldier, who keep perpetual watch over their chief.
This is the self-chosen monument of the General Castellane, one of the first Napoleon's veterans. Perpetual Masses are celebrated here on his behalf.
We drive on to our destination, the Ile Barbe, a narrow wooded islet, dividing the Saone into two branches, and forming the favourite holiday-ground of the Lyonnais. The rich hire a special pleasure-boat or carriage; the happy tourist is, perhaps, like myself, driven thither by ever-hospitable, too hospitable, French friends, who, not content with affording their guests a day's unmitigated pleasure, invariably contrive to eliminate every element of fatigue. Holiday-making is indeed cultivated to the point of a fine art in France.
For slender purses there are cheap boats, cheap railways, and the omnibus. It does one's heart good to see scores of family parties today availing themselves of the superb weather and taking a last picnic. In every green, shady nook we see a merry group squatted on the ground, relishing their cold patties, fruit and wine, as they can only be relished out of doors. The babies, nursemaids, and pet dogs are there. Breakfast over, the holiday-makers amuse themselves, grandparents and bantlings, with fishing for minnows in the clear waters.
How merry are all! How all too swiftly fleet the bright hours!
In the spacious, terraced garden of the restaurant we find dozens of tables spread for richer folk. We prefer the cool, quiet dining-room, which we have to ourselves, after all. The food is not of the choicest, the wine compels criticism between each course, we have to wait long enough for the making of an ordinary meal; but French gaiety and good- nature overlook these drawbacks, and the charming view of the river and its wooded banks, the freshness of the air, the atmosphere of gala and relaxation, make up for everything; the bill is cheerfully paid, and all but the separate items of the day's enjoyment forgotten.
Perhaps the charm of a French picnic is enhanced by the fact that it is never made too long. Our neighbours do not make what is called 'a day of it,' but wisely prefer to take their pleasure as they do their champagne—in moderation. We drive home, feeling fresh and alert as when we set out.
Everyone is abroad. As we pass through the workman's suburb, the ultra- socialist, ultra-revolutionary quarter of the city, in which political passions have so often raged hotly, and popular feeling has taken incendiary form, we find only peacefulness and calm. The socialist and red-revolutionary, in his Sunday's best, sits before his front door, reading a newspaper, playing with his baby or chatting with a neighbour. Pet dogs and cats sun themselves with a lazy, Sunday air, girls and lovers flirt, children play, gossips tell each other the news. It is difficult to believe that we are passing the stormiest quarter of the stormiest city in France. All is as quiet as the riverside scenes we have just left.
With this delightful recollection I close my latest—not, I trust, last—French journey.
I took leave of my dear friend at Lyons, both of us hoping to breakfast together next time, not on the banks of the Saone, but on the Eiffel Tower, there to fete the glorious Revolution, in the words of our great Fox: 'How much the greatest event that ever happened in the world, and how much the best!'