THE ROOF OF FRANCE
THE CAUSSES OF THE LOZERE
To M. SADI CARNOT.
THIS VOLUME, THE THIRD OF MY PUBLISHED TRAVELS IN FRANCE, IS INSCRIBED WITH ALL RESPECT TO HER HONOURED PRESIDENT.
MY FIRST JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF THE CAUSSES.
I. FROM LE PUY TO MENDE II. MENDE III. A GLIMPSE OF THE CAUSSES IV. ON THE TOP OF THE ROOF V. RODEZ AND AURILLAC VI. THE LAND OF THE BURON
MY SECOND JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF THE CAUSSES.
I. THROUGH THE MORVAN II. THROUGH THE MORVAN (continued) III. FROM LYONS TO AVIGNON BY THE RHONE IV. AVIGNON AND ORANGE V. LE VIGAN VI. NANT (AVEYRON) VII. MILLAU (AVEYRON) VIII. FROM MENDE TO ST. ENIMIE IX. ST. ENIMIE X. THE CANON OF THE TARN XI. SHOOTING THE RAPIDS XII. LE ROZIER XIII. MONTPELLIER-LE-VIEUX XIV. MONTPELLIER-LE-VIEUX (continued) XV. LE ROZIER TO MILLAU AND RODEZ XVI. RODEZ, VIC-SUR-CERE REVISITED.—A BREAKFAST ON THE BANKS OF THE SAONE
It is upon this occasion my rare and happy privilege to introduce the reader to something absolutely new. How many English-speaking tourists have found their way to the Roof of France—in other words, the ancient Gevaudan, the romantic department of the Lozere? How many English—or for the matter of that French travellers either—have so much as heard of the Causses, [Footnote: From calx, lime] those lofty tablelands of limestone, groups of a veritable archipelago, once an integral whole, now cleft asunder, forming the most picturesque gorges and magnificent defiles; offering contrasts of scenery as striking as they are sublime, and a phenomenon unique in geological history? On the plateau of the typical Causse, wide in extent as Dartmoor, lofty as Helvellyn, we realize all the sombreness and solitude of the Russian steppe. These stony wastes, aridity itself, yet a carpet of wild-flowers in spring, are sparsely peopled by a race having a peculiar language, a characteristic physique, and primitive customs. Here are laboriously cultivated oats, rye, potatoes—not a blade of wheat, not an apple-tree is to be discerned; no spring or rivulet freshens the parched soil. The length and severity of the winter are betokened by the trees and poles seen at intervals on either side of the road. But for such precautions, even the native wayfarer would be lost when six feet of snow cover the ground. Winter lasts eight months, and the short summer is tropical.
But descend these grandiose passes, dividing one limestone promontory from another—go down into the valleys, each watered by lovely rivers, and we are, as if by magic, transported into the South! The peach, the almond, the grape ripen out of doors; all is smilingness, fertility, and grace. The scenery of the Causses may be described as a series of exhilarating surprises, whilst many minor attractions contribute to the stranger's enjoyment.
The affability, dignity, and uprightness of these mountaineers, their freedom from vulgarity, subservience, or habits of extortion, their splendid physique and great personal beauty, form novel experiences of travel. The general character of the people—here I do not allude to the 'Caussenard,' or dweller on the Causse alone, but to the Lozerien as a type—may be gathered from one isolated fact. The summer sessions of 1888 were what is called assizes blanches, there being not a single cause to try. Such an occurrence is not unusual in this department.
The Lozere, hitherto the Cinderella, poorest of the poor of French provinces, is destined to become one of the richest. Not only the Causses, but the Canon du Tarn, may be regarded in the light of a discovery by the tourist world. A few years ago the famous geographer, Joanne, was silent on both. Chance-wise, members of the French Alpine Club lighted upon this stupendous defile between the Causse de Sauveterre and the Causse Mejean; their glorious find became noised abroad, and now the Tarn is as a Pactolus flowing over golden sands—a mine of wealth to the simple country folk around. The river, springing from a cleft in the Lozere chain, winding its impetuous way, enriched by many a mountain torrent, through the Aveyron, Tarn, and Garonne, finally disemboguing into the Garonne, has lavished all its witchery on its native place.
Every inch of the way between the little towns of St. Enimie and Le Rozier is enchanted ground by virtue of unrivalled scenery. In time the influx of tourists must make the river-side population rich. The sandy bed of the Tarn must attain the preciousness of a building site near Paris. This materialistic view of the question affords mixed feelings. I have in mind the frugality of these country folks, their laboriousness, their simple, upright, sturdy ways. I can but wish them well, even at the price of terrible disenchantment. Instead of rustic hostelries at St. Enimie, gigantic hotels after the manner of Swiss tourist barracks; the solitude of the Causses broken by enthusiastic tittle-tattle; tourist-laden flotillas bearing the ensign of Cook or Gaze skimming the glassy waters of the majestically environed Tarn!
On the threshold of the Lozere, just outside the limits of the department, lies another newly-discovered marvel, more striking, stranger than the scenery of the Causses—as beautiful, though in quite another way, as the Canon or Gorge of the Tarn. This is the fantastic, the unique, the eerie Cite du Diable, or Montpellier-le-Vieux, with its citadel, ramparts, watch-towers, amphitheatres, streets, arcades, terraces—a vast metropolis in the wilderness, a Babylon untenanted from the beginning, a Nineveh fashioned only by the great builder Nature. Little wonder that the peasants formerly spoke of the dolomite city, when forced to speak at all, with bated breath, and gave it so ill-omened a name. The once uncanny, misprized, even accursed city, since surnamed Montpellier-le-Vieux, from a fancied resemblance to Montpellier, is now very differently regarded by its humble owners.
Literally discovered in 1882, its first explorers being two members of the French Alpine Club, the Cite du Diable is already bringing in a revenue. French tourists, who first came by twos and threes, may now be counted by the hundred a month during the holiday season. Alert to the unmistakable rat-tat-tat of Dame Fortune at their front-doors, the good folks are preparing for the welcome invasions to come. The auberge is being transformed into an inn, roads are improving, a regular service of guides has been organized, and all charges for guides, carriages, and mules have been regulated by tariff. It is hardly possible to exaggerate the weird fascination and eldritch charm of this once dreaded, ill-omened place. Only one pen—that, alas! at rest for ever— could have done justice to such a theme. In the hands of the great Sand, Montpellier-le-Vieux might have afforded us a chef d'oeuvre to set beside 'La Ville Noire' or the adorable 'Jeanne.'
Fresh and interesting as is a sojourn on the Roof of France, a name in verity accorded to the Lozere, I have not restricted myself within such limits. The climbing up and the getting down offer many a racy and novel experience. I have given not only the middle of my journey, but the beginning and the end. Those of my country-folk who have traversed the picturesque little land of the French Morran, who have steamed from Lyons to Avignon, made their way by road through the Gard and the Aveyron, and sojourned in the cheese-making region of the Cantal—I fancy their number is not legion—may pass over my chapters thus headed. Had I one object in view only, to sell my book, I must have reversed the usual order of things, and put the latter half in place of the first. I prefer the more methodical plan, and comfort myself with the reflection that France, excepting Brittany, Normandy, the Pyrenees, the Riviera and the Hotel du Jura, Dijon, is really much less familiar to English travellers than Nijni-Novgorod or Jerusalem. I no more encountered anyone British born during my two journeys in the Lozere than I did a beggar. This privileged corner of the earth enjoys an absolute immunity from excursionists and mendicants. Strong enthusiasts, lovers of France, moved to tread in my footsteps, will hardly accuse me of exaggerating either the scenery, the good qualities and good looks of the people, or the flawless charm of Lozerien travel. In years to come I may here be found too eulogistic of all classes with whom I came in contact, who shall say? A long period of increasing prosperity, a perpetually swelling stream of holiday-makers, may by degrees change, and perhaps ultimately pervert, the character of the peasants, so glowingly delineated in the following pages. Let us hope that such a contingency is at least very far off, and that many another may bring home the same cordial recollections of the boatmen of the Tarn, the aubergistes and voituriers of the Causses, the peasant owners of the Cite du Diable. I need hardly add that I give a mere record of travel. The geology of the strange district visited, its rich and varied flora, its wealth of prehistoric remains, are only touched upon. For further information the reader is referred to other writers. On the subject of agriculture I have occasionally dwelt at more length, being somewhat of a farmeress, as Arthur Young styles it, and having now studied a considerable portion of France from an agricultural point of view. The noble dictum of 'that wise and honest traveller'—thus aptly does our great critic describe the Suffolk squire—'the magic of property turns sands to gold,' will be here as amply illustrated as in my works on Eastern and Western France.
One word more. No one must undertake a journey in the Lozere with a scantily-furnished purse. A well-known artist lately contributed a paper to the Pall Mall Gazette in which he set forth—in the strangest English surely ever penned by man, woman, or child—the facilities and delights of cycling in France on seven francs a day. Why anyone in his sober senses should dream of travelling abroad on seven francs a day passes my comprehension. Money means to the traveller not only health, enjoyment, comfort, but knowledge. Why should we expect, moreover, to be wholesomely housed and fed in a foreign country upon a sum altogether inadequate to the tourist's needs at home? The little wayside inns in out-of-the-way places mentioned by me were indeed very cheap, but taking into account horses, carriages and guides, the exploration of the Causses, the Canon du Tarn and Montpellier-le-Vieux will certainly cost twenty-five francs per diem, this outlay being slightly reduced in the case of two or more persons. Of course, when not absolutely making excursions, when settling down for days or weeks in some rural retreat, expenses will be moderate enough as far as inns are concerned. But carriage-hire is costly all the world over, and the inquiring traveller must have his carriage. There will also be a daily call upon his purse in the matter of pourboire to guides and conductors. A pound a day is by no means too liberal an allowance for the wise bent upon having the best, of everything. Those content to put up with the worst may exist upon the half.
THE ROOF OF FRANCE
MY FIRST JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF THE CAUSSES.
CHAPTER I. FROM LE PUY TO MENDE.
The traveller in France will not unseldom liken his fortunes to those of Saul the son of Kish, who, setting forth in search of his father's asses, found a kingdom; or, to use a homelier parable, will compare his case to that of the donkey between two equally-tempting bundles of hay.
Such, at least, was my luck when starting for my annual French tour in 1887. I had made up my mind to see something of the Lozere and the Cantal, settling down in two charming spots respectively situated in these departments, when, fortunately for myself, I was tempted elsewhere. Instead of rusticating for a few weeks in the country nooks alluded to, there observing leisurely the condition of the peasants and of agriculture generally, I took a contrary direction, thus ultimately becoming acquainted with one of the most romantic and least-known regions of Central France.
'Since you intend to visit the Lozere' wrote a correspondent to me, 'why not explore the Causses? The scenery is, I believe, very remarkable, and the geology deeply interesting.'
The Causses? the Causses? I had travelled east, west, north, south on French soil for upwards of thirteen years, yet the very name was new to me. Having once heard of the Causses, it was, of course, quite certain that I should hear of them twice.
Meeting by chance a fellow-countryman at Dijon, as enthusiastic a lover of French scenery as myself, and comparing our experiences, he suddenly asked:
'But the Causses? Have you seen the wonderful Causses of the Lozere?'
It was a curious and highly-characteristic fact that both my informants should be English, thus bearing out the assertion of an old French writer, author of the first real tourist's guide for his own country, that we are 'le peuple le plus curieux de l'Europe'; he adds, 'le plus observateur,' perhaps a compliment rather paid to Arthur Young than to the English as a nation. The work I refer to ('Itineraire descriptif de la France,' by Vaysse de Villiers, 1816) was evidently written under the inspiration of our great agriculturist.
From French friends and acquaintances I could learn absolutely nothing of the Causses. The region was a terra incognita to one and all. I might every whit as well have asked my way to Swift's Liliputia or Cloud Cuckoo Town, and the Island of Cheese of his precursor, the witty Lucian. People had heard of l'Ecosse; oh yes! but why an Englishwoman should seek information about Scotland in the heart of France, they could not quite make out.
There was nothing for me to do but trust to happy chance and the guide- book, and set out; and as a stray swallow is the precursor of myriads, so no sooner had I got an inkling of one marvel than I was destined to hear of half a dozen.
Wonderful the scenery of the Causses, still more wonderful the canon or gorge of the Tarn and the dolomite city of Montpellier-le-Vieux, so I now learned.
There were difficulties in the way of seeing all these. I had been unexpectedly detained at Dijon. It was the second week in September, and the Roof of France—in other words, the department of the Lozere— is ofttimes covered with snow before that month is out. My travelling companion was a young French lady, permitted by her parents to travel with me, and for whose health, comfort and safety I felt responsible. It seemed doubtful whether this year at least I should be able to realize my new-formed project, and penetrate into the solitudes of the Causses. However, I determined to try.
My journey begins at the ancient town of Le Puy, former capital of the Vivarais, chef-lieu of the department of the Haute Loire, and, it is unnecessary to say, one of the most curious towns in the world. We had journeyed thither by way of St. Etienne, and were bound for Mende, the little mountain-girt bishopric and capital of the Lozere.
We had to be up betimes, as our train for Langogne, corresponding with the Mende diligence, started at five in the morning. It might have been midnight when we quitted the Hotel Gamier—would that I could say a single word in its favour!—so blue black the frosty heavens, so brilliant the stars, the keen September air biting sharply.
More fortunate than a friend whose pocket was lately picked of twenty- five pounds at the railway-station here, I waited whilst the terribly slow business of ticket-taking and registration was got over, thankful enough that I had breakfasted overnight—that is to say, had made tea at three o'clock in the morning. Not a cup of milk, not a crust of bread, would that inhospitable inn offer its over-charged guests before setting out. As I have nothing but praise to bestow upon the hostelries of the Lozere and the Cantal, I must give vent to a well-deserved malediction here.
By slow degrees the perfect day dawned, a glorious sun rising in a cloudless sky. We now discovered that our travelling companions were two sisters—the one, an admirable specimen of the belle villageoise, in her charming lace coiffe; the other, equally good-looking, but as much vulgarized by her Parisian costume as Lamartine's sea-heroine, Graziella, when she had exchanged her contadine's dress for modern millinery. These pretty and becoming head-dresses of Auvergne, made often of the richest lace and ribbon, may now be described as survivals, the bonnet, as well as the chimney-pot hat, making the round of the civilized world.
From Le Puy to Langogne, via Langeac, we traversed a region familiar to many a tourist as he has journeyed from Clermont-Ferrand to Nimes. The shifting scenes of gorge and ravine are truly of Alpine grandeur, whilst the railway is one of those triumphs of engineering skill to which Alpine travellers are also accustomed.
One remark only I make by the way. The sarcasms levelled against the system of peasant proprietorship, that would be cruel were they not silly, are here silenced for once and for all. Nothing can be more self-evident than the beneficial result of small holdings to the State, wholly setting aside the superiority of the peasant-owner's position, moral, social and material, to that of the English farm labourer. Even a prejudiced observer must surely be touched by the indomitable perseverance, the passionate love of the soil, evinced by the small cultivators in the valley of the Allier, and, indeed, witnessed throughout every stage of our day's journey.
Wherever exists a patch of cultivable soil, we see crops of rye, buckwheat and potatoes, some of these plots being only a few yards square, and to all appearances inaccessible. In many places earth has been carried by the basketful to narrow, lofty ledges of rock, an astounding instance of toil, hopefulness and patience. No matter the barrenness of the spot, no matter its isolation or the difficulty of approach, wherever root or seed will grow, there the French peasant owner plies hoe and spade, and gradually causes the wilderness to blossom as the rose.
So true it is, as Arthur Young wrote a hundred years ago, 'Give a man secure possession of a black rock, and he will turn it into a garden.' A considerable proportion of the land hereabouts has been quite recently laid under cultivation, and on every side we see bits of waste being ploughed up.
At Langeac, a little junction between Le Puy and St. Georges d'Aurac, we had a halt of over two hours, easily spent amid charming scenery. The air is sweet and fresh, everyone is busy in the fields, and as we saunter here and there, people look up from their work to greet us with a smile of contentment and bonhomie. It is a scene of peace and homely prosperity. A short railway jaunt to Langogne; a bustling breakfast at the little restaurant; then begins the final packing of the diligence. The crazy old berline looks as full as it can be before our four boxes and numerous small packages are taken from the railway van, and the group of bag and basket laden folks standing round, priests, nuns, and commis-voyageurs, evidently waiting for a place. Surely room can never be found for all these! Just then a French tourist came up and accosted us, smiling ruefully.
'Ah!' he said, shaking his head with affected malice, 'just like you English—you have secured the best places.'
True enough, the English when they travel are as the wise virgins, and secure the best places. The French are as the foolish virgins, and trust ofttimes to chance.
I had, of course, telegraphed from Le Puy the day before for two seats in the coupe. Our interlocutor, an army surgeon, making a holiday trip with his wife, was obliged to relinquish the third good place to madame, placing himself beside the driver on the banquette. The little disappointment over, we became the best of friends, a highly desirable contingency in such terribly close quarters.
Once securely packed, we stood no more chance of being unpacked than potted anchovies on their way from Nantes to Southampton. There we were, and there perforce we must remain till we reached our destination. To move a finger, to stir an inch, was out of the question. Nothing short of physical torture for the space of six hours seemed in store for us—for the three occupants of that narrow coupe, like fashionable ladies of old,
'Close mewed in their sedans for fear of air.'
We could at least enjoy the selfish satisfaction of faring better than our neighbours. The unlucky occupants inside were as short of elbow- room as ourselves, and had not the enjoyment of the view; the passengers of the banquette were literally perched on a knife-board, whilst one old man, a cheery old fellow, supernumerary of the service, hung mid-air on one side of the vehicle, literally sitting on nothing. Like the Indian jugglers and the Light Princess of George Macdonald's wonderful fairy-tale, he had found means to set at nought the law of gravity.
There he hung, and as the sturdy horses set off at a fast trot, and we were whirled round one sharp corner after another, I at first expected to see him lose balance and fall with terrible risk to life and limb. But we soon discovered that he had mastered the accomplishment of sitting on air, and was as safe on his invisible seat as we on our hard benches; old as he was, he seemed to glory in the exploit—exploit, it must be allowed, of the first water.
Once fairly off, our own bodily discomforts were entirely forgotten, so splendid the sunshine, so exhilarating the air, so romantic the scenery. The forty miles' drive passed like a dream.
Our companion, like her husband, was full of health, spirits and information. She could see nothing of the military surgeon but a pair of neat, well-polished boots, as he sat aloft beside the driver; every now and then she craned forward her neck with wifely solicitude and interrogated the boots:
'Well, love, how do you get on?'
And the boots would make affectionate reply:
'As well as possible, my angel—and you?'
'We couldn't be better off,' answered the enthusiastic little lady cheerily. Nor in one sense could we; earth could hardly show fairer or more striking scenes than these highlands of the Lozere.
The first part of our way lay amid wild mountain passes, deep ravines, dusky with pine and fir, lofty granite peaks shining like blocks of diamond against an amethyst heaven. Alternating with such scenes of savage magnificence are idyllic pictures, verdant dells and glades, rivers bordered by alder-trees wending even course through emerald pastures, or making cascade after cascade over a rocky bed. On little lawny spaces about the sharp spurs of the Alps, we see cattle browsing, high above, as if in cloudland. Excepting an occasional cantonnier at work by the roadside, or a peasant woman minding her cows, the region is utterly deserted. Tiny hamlets lie half hidden in the folds of the hills or skirting the edges of the lower mountain slopes; none border the way.
During the long winter these fine roads, winding between steep precipices and abrupt rocks, are abandoned on account of the snow. The diligence ceases to run, and letters and newspapers are distributed occasionally by experienced horsemen familiar with the country and able to trust to short cuts.
What the icy blasts of January are like on these stupendous heights we can well conceive. At one point of our journey we reach an altitude above the sea equal to that of the Puy de Dome. This is the lofty plateau of granitic formation called Le Palais du Roi, a portion of the Margeride chain, and as the old writer before mentioned writes, 'la partie la plus neigeuse de la route'—the snowiest bit of the road. On this superb September day, although winter might be at hand, the temperature was of an English July. As we travelled on, amid scenes of truly Alpine grandeur and loveliness, the thought arose to my mind, how little even the much-travelled English dream of the wealth of scenery in France! Our cumbersome old diligence carried only French passengers. Nowhere else in Europe does the English tourist find himself more isolated from the common-place of travel.
Many of the landscapes now passed recall scenes in Algeria, especially as we get within sight of the purple, porphyritic chain of the Lozere. We gaze on undulations of delicate violet and gray, as in Kabylia, whilst deep down below lie oases of valley and pasture, the dazzling golden green contrasting, with the aerial hues of distant mountain and cloud.
Nothing under heaven could be more beautiful than the shifting lights and shadows on the remoter hills, or the crimson and rosy flush of sunset on the nearer rocks; at our feet we see well-watered dales and luxuriant meadows, whilst on the higher ground, here as in the valley of the Allier, we have proofs of the astounding, the unimaginable patience and laboriousness of peasant owners.
In many places rings of land have been cleared round huge blocks of granite, the smaller stones, wrenched up, forming a fence or border, whilst between the immovable, columnar masses of rock, potatoes, rye, or other hardy crops, have been planted. Not an inch of available soil is wasted. These scenes of mingled sternness and grace are not marred by any eyesore: no hideous chimney of factory with its column of black smoke, as in the delicious valleys of the Jura; no roar of millwheel or of steam-engine breaks the silence of forest depths. The very genius of solitude, the very spirit of beauty, broods over the woods and mountains of the Lozere. The atmospheric effects are very varied and lovely, owing to the purity of the air. As evening approaches, the vast porphyry range before us is a cloud of purple and ruddy gold against the sky. And what a sky! That warm, ambered glow recalls Sorrento. By the time we wind down into the valley of the Lot night has overtaken us. We dash into the little city too hungry and too tired, it must be confessed, to think of anything else but of beds and dinner; both of which, and of excellent quality, awaited us at the old-fashioned Hotel Chabert.
CHAPTER II. MENDE.
Mende was the last but one of French bishoprics and chef-lieux to be connected with the great highroads of railway.
That tardy piece of justice only remained due to St. Claude in the Jura when, owing to the Republic, Mende obtained its first iron road. Much time and fatigue will henceforth be spared the traveller by these new lines of railway, now spreading like a network over every part of France; yet who can but regret the supersession of the diligence—that antiquated vehicle recalling the good old days of travel, when folks journeyed at a jog-trot pace, seeing not only places, but people, and being brought into contact with wholly new ideas and modes of life?
The benefits of the railway in the Lozere and the Jura are incalculable from an economic point of view, to say nothing of the convenience and comfort thereby placed within reach of all classes. It is an English habit to rail at the lavish expenditure of the French Government. Cavillers of this kind wholly lose sight of the tremendous strides made during the last fifteen years in the matter of communication. Surely money thus laid out is a justifiable expenditure on the part of any State?
I lately revisited the Vendee after twelve years' absence. I found the country absolutely transformed—new lines of railway intersecting every part, increased commercial activity in the towns, improved agriculture in rural districts, schools opened, buildings of public utility erected on all sides-evidences of an almost incredible progress. In Anjou the same rapid advance, social, intellectual, material, strikes the traveller whose first acquaintance with that province was made, say, fifteen years ago. Take Segre by way of example; compare its condition in 1888 with the state of things before the Franco-Prussian War. And this little town is one instance out of hundreds.
It was high time that something should be done for Mende. No town ever suffered more from wolves and wolf-like enemies in human shape. Down almost to our own day the depredations of wolves were frightful. The old French traveller before cited, writing in 1816, speaks of the large number of children annually devoured by these animals in the Lozere. The notorious 'Bete du Gevaudan,' at an earlier period, was the terror of the country. It is an exciting narrative, that of the gigantic four- footed demon of mischief, how, after proving the scourge of the country for years, desolating home after home, in all devouring no less than a hundred old men, women, and children, he was at last caught in 1767 by a brave monster-destroying baron, the Hercules and the Perseus of local story. The ravages of wild beasts were a trifle compared to the enormities committed by human foes.
It is not my intention to do more than touch upon the religious wars of the Cevennes. Those blood-stained chronicles have been given again and again elsewhere. No one, however, can make a sojourn at Mende without recalling the atrocities perpetrated in the name of religion, and compared to which the excesses of the Jacquerie and the Terror sink into insignificance. If any of my readers doubt this, let them turn to the impartial pages of the eminent French historian, the late M. Henri Martin; or, to take a shorter road to conviction, get up the history of the Gevaudan, or of this same little town of Mende.
On a smaller scale, the horrors of the siege of Magdeburgh were here repeated, the Tilly of the campaign being the Calvinist leader Merle.
Devastated in turn by Catholic and Protestant, Royalist and Huguenot, Mende was taken by assault on Christmas Day, 1579, and during three days given up to fire, pillage, and slaughter. A general massacre took place; the cathedral was fired and partially destroyed, the bells, thirteen in number—one of these called the 'Nonpareil,' and reputed the most sonorous in Christendom—being melted down for cannon. All that fiendish cruelty and the demon of destruction could do was done. In vain Henry of Navarre tried to put down atrocities committed in his name. A second time Merle possessed himself of Mende, only consenting to go forth on payment of a large sum in gold.
The history of Mende is the history of Marvejols, of one town after another visited by the traveller in the Cevennes; and in the wake of the burnings, pillagings and massacres of that horrible period follows the more horrible period still of the guerilla warfare of the Camisards, quelled by means of the rack, the stake, and the wheel.
The Revolution, be it ever remembered, abolished all these; torture ended with the Ancien Regime; and, although M. Taine seems of opinion that the new state of things could have been brought about by a few gentlemen quietly discussing affairs in dress-coats and white gloves, we read of no great social upheaval being thus bloodlessly effected. At such times a spirit of lawlessness and vengeance will break loose beyond the power of leaders to hold in check.
The approach to Mende is very fine, and the little city is most romantically placed; above gray spires, slated roofs and verdant valley, framing it in on all sides, rise bare, brown and purple mountains.
The cathedral presents an incongruity. Its twin-towers, each crowned with a spire, recall two roses on a single stem, the one full-blown, beautiful, a floral paragon, the other withered, dwarfed, abortive.
The first towers over its brother by a third, and is a lovely specimen of Gothic architecture in the period of later efflorescence. The second is altogether unbeautiful, and we wonder why such a work should ever have been undertaken at all. Far better to have left the cathedral one- towered, as those of Sens and Auxerre.
The town itself would be pleasant enough if its aediles were more alive to the importance of sanitation. It never seems to occur to the authorities in these regions to have the streets scoured and swept. Just outside Mende is a delicious little mountain-path, commanding a wondrous panorama: although this walk to the hermitage of St. Privat is evidently the holiday-stroll of the inhabitants, accumulations of filth lie on either side. [Footnote: The same remark might be made by a Frenchman of the lanes near Hastings!] No one takes any notice. As Mende has without doubt an important future before it, let us hope that these drawbacks will not afflict travellers in years to come. The little capital of the Lozere must by virtue of position become a tourist centre; surely the townsfolk will at last wake up to the importance of making their streets clean and wholesome.
To obtain the prettiest view of this charming, albeit tatterdemalion, little city, we follow a walk bordered with venerable willows to the railway station. Here is seen a belt of beautifully kept vegetable gardens and orchards, all fresh and green as if just washed by April showers. These are the property of peasant-owners, who dispose of their crops here and at Langogne. As yet the good townsfolk are hardly alive to the benefits of a railway. One of our drivers complained that it ruined the trades alike of carriage proprietor, conductor, and carter; another averred that the local manufacture of woollen goods, formerly of considerable account, was at a standstill owing to the importations of cheaper cloths. These grumblers will doubtless erelong take a different tone, as the glorious scenery of the Lozere becomes more widely known and Mende is made the tourists' headquarters. Our hotel, situated in the middle of the town, offers good beds, good food, dirty floors, charges low enough to please Mr. Joseph Pennell, and a total absence of anything in the shape of modern ideas. The people are charming, and the house is a mousy, ratty, ramshackle place hundreds of years old.
It may be as well to mention that folk assured me I was the first English-speaking lady ever seen at Mende. A short time before no little excitement had been created by the appearance of six young Englishmen in knickerbockers, footing it with knapsack on shoulder. But lady- tourists from the other side of La Manche? Never! Be this as it may, it is as well for my country-women, if any follow me hither, to avoid insular eccentricities of dress. The best plan, before exploring wholly remote regions of France, is to buy the neatest possible head-gear and travelling-costume in Paris. Without meaning to be impertinent, bystanders will stand agape at the sight of any strangers, English or French. Even my young French companion was stared at, just because she was not a native of the place. Very obligingly, she offered to fetch my letters from the poste restante, and look out for photographs. As she had spent some time in England and acquired certain habits of independence, I accepted. But not twice!
The poor girl found so many eyes following her, that she took refuge in the cathedral. As there chanced to be an abbe in the confessional handy, she very sensibly seized the opportunity by the forelock, and performed the duty of confession. But I did not permit her to roam about alone after that.
Meantime, the medecin militaire and his wife had set out for the Causses and the Canon du Tarn, and their enthusiasm but served to heighten my own. That shooting of the rapids, too, I now heard of for the first time, lent a spice of exhilarating hazard and adventure to the excursion. They were going to shoot the rapids of the Tarn. Why should I not follow their example?
Sorely tempted as I was to carry out the same programme, once more I hesitated. I could obtain very little precise information as to the real difficulties, if any, that beset the way, but everyone agreed that it was not at all a commonplace journey—in other words, not a very easy one. The long drive across the solitary Causse to St. Eminie or Florac, the four relays of boatmen necessary for the descent of the Tarn, the doubtfulness of the accommodation at the different halting- places—all these details had to be considered. Touring it through the Causses seemed, indeed, beset with difficulties. You have not only to take food with you for horse and man, but water also—ay, and make sure that your driver, besides being trustworthiness and sobriety itself, carries a revolver in his pocket. The Caussenards, or dwellers on these steppes, are said to be harmless enough, but suspicious-looking tramps from a distance, who always go in pairs, may sometimes be met. Wayside inns there are none, and as relays are therefore unattainable, the traveller must quit civilization as soon as dawn breaks, and contrive to reach it before overtaken by nightfall. Lastly, during the brief summer, the heat is torrid, and if you start on your travels towards its close, say the middle or end of September, today's scorching sun may be followed by tomorrow's snowstorm. And to be caught in a snowstorm on the Causses would be an Alpine adventure with no chance of a rescuing St. Bernard.
Had I been alone I might have ventured, but, as before-mentioned, my companion was a young French lady confided to my care by her parents. On the whole, therefore, and with keenest regret, I felt it more prudent to defer the undertaking, for undertaking it undoubtedly was, till another year. Next summer, I said to myself, as soon as the snows were melted, I would again climb the Roof of France. And delightful as was the society of a bright, amiable, ready-witted girl, I would instead find a travelling companion of maturer years, and responsible for her own safety.
There was one compensation within reach. If we could not enter the land of Canaan, we could at least behold it from Mount Pisgah. So I engaged a carriage with sturdy horses and a trustworthy driver, and we set off for the plateau rising over against Mende in a south-easterly direction, the veritable threshold of the Causses.
CHAPTER III. A GLIMPSE OF THE CAUSSES.
The drive from Mende to the plateau of Sauveterre is a curious experience. Here the Virgilian and Dantesque schemes are reversed: Pluto's dread domain, the horrible Inferno, lies above; deep down below are the Fields of the Blest and the celestial Paradise.
Dazzlingly bright the verdure, fertile and sunny the valleys we now leave behind—arid and desolate beyond the power of words to express the tableland reached so laboriously.
Between these two extremes, Elysium and Tartarus, we pass shifting, panoramic scenes of wondrous beauty, stage upon stage of pastoral charm, picture after picture of idyllic sweetness and grace. Long we can glance behind us and see the little gray town, its spires outlined in steely gray against the embracing hills, its gardens and orchards bright as emerald—towering above all, the bare, purple, wide- stretching Lozere.
The weather is superlative, and the clear, gemlike lines of sky and foliage are as brilliantly contrasted as in an Algerian spring.
All this time we seemed to be climbing a mountain; we are, in reality, ascending the steep, wooded sides or walls of the Causse de Mende, prototype on a smaller scale of the rest—a vast mass of limestone, its summit a wilderness, its shelving sides a marvel of luxuriant vegetation.
Every step has to be made at a snail's pace, the precipitous slopes close under our horses' hoofs being frightful to contemplate. This drive is an excellent preparation for an exploration of the Lozere. We are always, metaphorically, going up or coming down in a balloon.
After two hours' climb, the features of the landscape change. One by one are left behind meandering river, chestnut and acacia groves, meadows fragrant with newly-mown hay, grazing cattle, and cheerful homesteads.
We now behold a scene grandiose indeed as a panorama, but unspeakably wild and dreary.
Here and there are patches of potatoes, buckwheat and rye, the yellow and green breaking the gray surface of the rocky waste; not a habitation, not a living creature, is in sight. Before us and around stretch desert upon desert of bare limestone, the nearer undulations cold and slaty in tone, the remoter taking the loveliest, warmest dyes —gold brown, deep orange, just tinted with crimson, reddish purple and pale rose. We are on the threshold of the true Caussien region. Sterility of soil, a Siberian climate, geographical isolation, here reach their climax, whilst at the base of these lofty calcareous tablelands lie sequestered valleys fertile fields and flowery gardens, oases of the Lozerien Sahara.
Above, not a rill, not a beck, refreshes the spongy, crumbling earth; we must travel far, penetrate the openings just indicated by the dark- blue shadows in the distance, and descend the lofty walls of the Causses to find silvery cascades, impetuous rivers, and fountains gushing from mossy clefts. The showers of spring, the torrential rains of autumn, the snows of winter, have filtered to a depth of several thousand feet.
We are not within sight of the grand Causse Mejean, nor of the Black Causse, or Causse Noir, and only on the threshold of Sauveterre, yet some idea may be gathered here of what M. E. Reclus calls a 'Jurassic archipelago,' once a vast Jurassic island. Imagine, then, a group of promontories, their area equal to that of Salisbury Plain, Dartmoor and Exmoor combined, with the varying altitudes of the loftiest Devonshire tor and Cumberland hill.
Such a comparison may convey some feeble notion of the three Causses just named, two of which belong to the Lozere. The Causse Noir is partly in the Aveyron. Their extraordinary conformation must be seen and studied by all who would familiarize themselves with this geological phenomenon.
No solitude can be more complete than these wastes, except when a leaden sky replaces the warm sunshine of to-day, and a deep, impenetrable mantle of snow covers the plateau from end to end. Then the little life that animates it is hushed, and none from the outer world penetrates the fastnesses of the Causses.
We drive on for a mile or two till we reach the summit of the plateau. Here, at a height of 2,952 feet above the sea-level, is a ruined chateau turned into a farmhouse, where we rest our horses a little and prepare to make tea. The farmer's wife and two children come out to chat with our driver and look at us, evidently welcoming such a distraction. And no wonder! I brought out our bonbon box—one must never take a drive in France unprovided with sweetmeats—and tried to tame the children; but they clung to mother's skirts, and only consented to have the bonbons popped into their mouths, with faces shyly hidden in her apron.
'Would you like a cup of tea?' I asked.
But madame shook her head, giggling, and I do not suppose ever heard of such an infusion in her life.
Meantime, tea-making on that breezy eminence was no easy matter. The little flames of my spirit-lamp were blown hither and thither—anywhere but in the right direction. At last our excellent driver, resourceful as a true son of Gaul is bound to be, lifted up the tiny machine, all afire as it was, and thrust it into that convenient box behind the caleche all travellers know of. The good man burnt his fingers, but had the satisfaction of making the water boil, and there for the first time, without doubt, tea was made after the English fashion. No place could be better adapted for a holiday resort. In summer these sweeps are one gorgeous mosaic of wild-flowers, and the short stunted grass shoots up, making verdure everywhere.
As I sipped tea, squatted gipsy-wise on the ground, the thought occurred to my mind what a delightful, a unique villegiatura this spot might make. A clean, comfortable inn on the site of the ruined chateau, a sympathetic companion, a trusty guide, plenty of tea and one book— the book absolutely necessary to existence—perhaps mine would be Spinoza's Ethics or Schiller's 'Letters on the AEsthetic Education of Mankind'—under these conditions, months would glide by like an hour in such eerie, poetic, inspiring solitudes.
The existence of a chateau on the borders of a veritable desert need not surprise us. The entire department of the Lozere was devastated by religious and seigneurial wars, and although the Causses themselves were not invaded, offering as they did no temptation to the thirsters after blood and spoil, the feudal freebooters had their strongholds near.
The treeless condition of the Lozere chain and other once well-wooded regions was thus brought about. The Government is replanting many bare mountain-sides here, as in the Hautes Alpes, in order to improve the soil and climate. The barrenness of the Causses arises, as will be seen, from natural causes.
Even in autumn—at least, on such a day as this—with these wild scenes is mingled much fairy charm and loveliness. Just as the distant scenery is made up of sharp contrasts—on the lofty plateaux, weird solitude and desolation; below, almost a southern luxuriance—so every square yard of rocky waste shows fragrant plant and sweet flower. We have only to stretch out our hands as we lie to gather half a dozen spikes of lavender, wild thyme, rosemary, Deptford pink, melilot, blue pimpernel, and white scabious. But the afternoon is wearing on. We must collect our tea-things, give the children a farewell sweetmeat, cast a last look round, and depart.
It cost me many a pang to turn my back upon that farmhouse, boundary- mark between savagery and civilization, romance and the terre-a-terre of daily existence.
Yonder diverging roads both led to fairy land and worlds of marvel—the one to Florac, so majestically placed under the colossal shadow of the Causse Mejean and above the lovely valley of the Jonte; the other across the steppe of Sauveterre and by the strange dwellings of the Caussenards to the picturesque little town of St. Eminie, the rapids of the Tarn, and the dolomite city.
There was, however, the consolatory hope of seeing all the following year. Who could tell? Perhaps that very day twelve months later I might delight the children with my bonbon box, and a second time make tea on their breezy playground. At any rate, I entertained the project, and
'Should life be dull and spirits low, 'Twill soothe us in our sorrow, That earth has something yet to show, The bonny holms of Yarrow.'
We are overtaken by two pedestrians only on our way home—ill-looking fellows enough, strangers in these parts, our driver assured us. 'No Caussenards, they,' he said. 'The Caussenard is harmless enough, only a trifle slow.'
We get magnificent views of Mende and the Valley of the Lot—some slight recompense for having had to retrace our footsteps—and what was equally valuable, much useful information.
'Is the land cut up into small parcels here?' I asked.
We were just then on the outskirts of the town, and he pointed with his whip to a large, well-built farmhouse, with solid, walled-in buildings.
'Most of the land round about Mende is farmed by the monsieur who lives there,' he replied. 'There he is, true enough, with his wife and children.'
Just then we passed a hooded carriage, in which were seated father, mother, two little ones, and nursemaid, all taking a holiday jaunt, the day being Sunday.
'That is the owner of the farm,' he went on: 'several hundred acres—I can't say how many—but it is stocked with two hundred sheep, ten oxen, besides cows and pigs. There you have an idea of the size,'
'Are there no small farms here, then?'
'There are all sorts: little farms, big ones, and betwixt and between,' he replied. 'Everybody has his little bit' (Tout le monde a son petit lot); 'but the land immediately round the town is farmed by the neighbour you saw in the caleche.'
'Is he a peasant?' I asked.
'A peasant if you like. He is a cultivator' (Un paysan si vous voulez. C'est un cultivateur), was the answer.
When a French peasant becomes what in rustic phraseology is called a substantial man, owning or hiring a considerable extent of land, he ceases to be called 'paysan,' and is designated 'cultivateur.' The very word 'peasant,' as I have shown elsewhere, will, in process of time, become a survival, so steady and sure is the social upheaval of rural France. The most eminent Frenchmen of the day, witness the late Paul Bert, are often peasant-born; and hardly a village throughout the country but sends some promising son of the soil to Paris, destined for one of the learned professions. I know of a village baker's son near Dijon now studying for the Bar—one instance out of many. In one of her clever novelettes, 'Un Gascon,' Madame Th. Bentzon gives us for hero the village doctor, son of a peasant. The portrait of this young man, devoted to duty, high-minded, self-sacrificing, is no mere ideal, as experience proves. But if readers, compelled to make the acquaintance of French peasants on paper, will accept Zola and certain English writers as a guide to his moral and material condition, they will be landed on some conclusions strangely at variance with experience. [Footnote: I may add that I have received appreciative testimony from various French journals—L'Economiste, and others—also from no less an authority than M. Henri Baudrillart, of the Institut, of my studies of the French peasant, notably the contribution to the Fortnightly Review, August, 1887, in which I have summed up the experiences of twelve years' French residence and travel.]
CHAPTER IV. ON THE TOP OF THE ROOF.
The temperature of the Lozere is excessively variable. The traveller must always be provided with winter wraps and the lightest summer clothing. We had enjoyed almost tropic sunshine on the plateau of Sauveterre. Next day (September 19th), when half-way to St. Flour, the very blasts of Siberia seemed to overtake us. The weather was splendid at starting, and for some hours we had a brisk air only, and unclouded skies; but there were signs of a change, and I began to doubt whether I should accomplish even my second programme. Having relinquished the Causses, the rapids of the Tarn, and Montpellier-le-Vieux for this year, I had hired a carriage, intending to drive straight across the Lozere, sleeping at St. Chely, to St. Flour, chef-lieu of the Cantal, thence making excursions to the two departments. I wanted especially to see Condat-es-Feniers and La Chaldette, the two sweet spots already alluded to. The hire of the carriage with two good horses was eighty francs—forty for the two days' drive thither, and forty for the return.
It is a striking journey from Mende to St. Amans-la-Lozere, half-way halting-place between Mende and St. Chely. The region traversed is very solitary, the Causse itself hardly more so, and now, as yesterday, we follow a road wonderfully cut round the mountain-sides. Here also we find certain English notions concerning peasant property entirely disproved. So far is French territory from being cut into minute portions of land, that on this side of Mende farms are let, not by the hectare, but by the tract, many tenant farmers being unable to tell you of how many hectares their occupation consists. The extent of land is reckoned not by acreage, but by the heads of cattle it will keep.
Much of the soil between Mende and St. Amans-la-Lozere is very stony and unproductive; we heard even of a farm of several hundred acres let at a rental of fifty pounds a year. And here, as in the valley of the Allier, and on the road from Langogne to Mende, it is wonderful to see the uncompromising devotion of the French peasant to Mother Earth— neither stones, brushwood, nor morass daunting his energy. These tenant farmers are almost invariably small freeholders also, but to read certain English writers one might suppose that no such thing as a tenant farm, much less one of a thousand acres, existed in France at all, the entire superficies of the country, according to their account, being cut up into minute patches, each by a process of subdivision, growing smaller by degrees and beautifully less; in fact, the French peasant owner of the future, according to these theorists, will possess about as much of his native soil as can be got into a flower-pot, the contents of the said flower-pot being mortgaged for a hundred times its value.
By the time we have driven for an hour and a half we obtain a most beautiful view, looking back upon Mende, the gray and purple hills set in a glowing semicircle round it, showing loveliest light and shadow. The verdure of the valley is fresh as in May, and sweet scents of newly mown hay, the autumn crop, reach us as we go. We look down on smooth, lawn-like meadows, little rivers winding between alder-trees, tan- coloured cows and orange-brown sheep browsing at their ease. The contours of the pine and fir clad hills are bold and varied, whilst deep gorges and ravines alternate with the more smiling aspects. Fruit- trees and flowers are wholly absent from the sparsely scattered villages, and there is little in the way of farming going on, only the second hay-crops being turned, and the land ploughed for autumn sowing. Buckwheat, rye, oats and hay form the chief crops. The road is set on either side by young trees, service berry and mountain ash, or granite pillars almost the height of a man. These columns, recalling Druidic stones, are completely hidden by snow in winter.
Fortunately, in another year or two the Lozere will be traversed by railway, and its comparative isolation during several months of the year cease for once and for all.
Meantime we were anxiously looking out for St. Amans and our promised breakfast, and here let me note a failing of the French rustic. His notions of time and distance are often not in the very least to be relied on. Thus, a countryman will tell you such and such a place lies at a distance of 'une petite lieue,' and you will find you have to walk or drive six miles instead of three. Again, a village conductor will assure you that you will arrive at your destination 'dans une petite demi-heure,' and you find on arriving that an hour and a half have elapsed since putting the question. We were terribly tried by this habit now. Our old driver—not the master, who had accompanied us to the plateau, but his employe—seemed to have no more idea of the real distance of St. Amans than of Spitzbergen. Again and again my young companion put her head out of the window and cried: 'Well, driver, how many kilometres now to St. Amans?'
And the reply would be:
'Three more' or 'Two more—just two, mademoiselle.'
Whereas mademoiselle laughingly counted half a dozen by the milestones between each inquiry. We had fondly looked forward to a fair inn and a good meal at noon—it was nearly two o'clock when our driver triumphantly deposited us before the dirtiest, most repulsive-looking hostelry it was ever my fate to enter.
In the kitchen, with walls blackened by smoke, hens and chickens disported at will; the uneven, floor was innocent of broom or scrubbing-brush as the road; in the salle-a-manger, gendarmes, soldiers, carters, and gamekeepers were smoking, drinking and discussing at the tops of their voices.
The old man whispered a word in the ear of the patrone—a veritable hag to look at—and she immediately begged us to walk upstairs.
'You will find no elegance, but comfort here' ('Vous ne trouvez pas le luxe, mais le confortable ici),' she said.
Then, with evident pride, she threw open the door of what was evidently the public bedchamber of the inn.
Let not the reader take alarm. In these out-of-the-way places such accommodation is often all that is offered the traveller, namely, a spacious room, set round with four posters, each well curtained, so as to form a tiny room in itself. As women never, or very rarely, travel in such regions, the chief patrons being commis-voyageurs and soldiers, the inconvenience is not great. The bedding looked good and clean, and the room was airy.
We opened the window. Madame complacently spread a snowy cloth, then, with the airy aplomb of a head waiter of some famous restaurant, say, the Chapeau Rouge at Bordeaux, asked:
'And what would these ladies like for breakfast?'
There seemed cruel, double-edged irony in the question. What could we expect in such a place but just something to stay the cravings of hunger: that something rendered uneatable by the terribly dirty—no, let me say, smoke-dried—look of the speaker, who seemed to be cook and waitress in one?
'Suppose we have an omelette?' suggested my young friend.
An omelette cooked by those hands! The very notion took away my appetite; however, there were new-laid eggs, and no matter the unwashed condition of the cook, the inside of a boiled egg may always be eaten with impunity. We could have anything we chose by waiting a little, our hostess said—mutton cutlets, roast chicken, partridges, fish, vegetables; the resources of that rustic larder seemed inexhaustible. Then she had choice wine, Burgundy and Bordeaux, besides liqueurs, in the cellar.
We had no time or inclination for a feast, but made an excellent meal— what with the eggs and a tiny leg of cold-boiled mutton, I do honestly believe the very best I ever tasted in my life.
The mountain-fed mutton of these regions is renowned, and the country folk boil it with just a slice of garlic by way of a flavour.
This dingy little wayside hostelry could really offer a first-rate ordinary, and, on principles not to be controverted, guests here pay, not according to what they order, but the quantity they eat. Would that all restaurant-keepers were equally conscientious!
When we went downstairs and asked for the reckoning, the old woman, who was all obligingness and good-nature, charming, indeed, but for her neglected personal appearance, replied:
'I must first see how much you have eaten, of course.'
And true enough we were charged so much per item. Here let me give the traveller a hint: never venture in out of-the-way parts of France without a well-filled muffineer and pepper-box; but for our dry clean pepper and salt brought from England, even the eggs would have been swallowed with a painful effort.
In the large kitchen I took note of extensive preparations going on for dinner, huge caldrons bubbling above the wood fire; heaps of vegetables, leeks, onions, garlic predominating, prepared for the pot, with ample provision in the shape of flesh and fowl.
At St. Amans the sun shone warm and bright, and the blue sky was of extraordinary depth and softness. I was reminded of Italy. As we sauntered about the long straggling village, a scene of indescribable contentment and repose met our eyes. We are in one of the poorest departments of France, but no signs of want or vagrancy are seen. The villagers, all neatly and suitably dressed, were getting in their hay or minding their flocks and herds, with that look of cheerful independence imparted by the responsibilities of property. Many greeted us in the friendliest manner, but as we could not understand their patois, a chat was impossible. They laughed, nodded, and passed on.
No sooner were we fairly on our way to St. Chely than the weather changed. The heavens clouded over, and the air blew keenly. We got out our wraps one by one, wanting more. If the scenery is less wildly beautiful here than between Mende and St. Amans, it is none the less charming, were we only warm enough to enjoy it. The pastoralness of many a landscape is Alpine, with brilliant stretches of turf, scattered chalets, groups of haymakers, herds and flocks browsing about the rocks. Enormous blocks of granite are seen everywhere superimposed after the manner of dolmens, and everywhere the peasant's spade and hoe is gradually redeeming the waste. It is nightfall when we reach St. Chely d'Apcher, reputed the coldest spot in France, and certainly well worthy of its reputation.
It stands on an elevation of 980 metres—i.e., over 3,000 feet above the sea-level. If the Lozere is aptly termed the Roof of France, then St. Chely may be regarded as its Chimney top. Summer here lasts only two months. No wonder that the searching wind seemed as if it would blow not merely the clothes off our shoulders, but the flesh off our bones. Yet the people of the inn smiled and said: 'Wait here another month, and you will find out what WE call cold.'
The little Hotel Bardol wore a look of cheerfulness and welcome, nevertheless. There were white and pink oleanders before the door, geraniums in the window, testifying to the fact that winter this year, at all events, had not yet begun. Men and maids bustled about intent on our comfort. Soon the big logs crackled on the hearth; with curtains drawn, tea and a good fire, the discomforts of the last hour or two were soon forgotten. Needless, perhaps, to say that we found in this small old-fashioned inn beds of first-rate quality, a good dinner, and really fine old Bordeaux.
St. Chely will necessarily become a junction town of considerable importance when the new line of railway, by way of St. Flour, is completed to Neussargues. As the proprietor of the Hotel Bardol seems fully alive to the requirements of tourists and the progress of ideas, future visitors will doubtless find many improvements—well-appointed rooms, bells, and other comforts. I hope myself to pay this obliging host another visit ere long.
The rain poured down all night, and next morning it was evident that the projected journey by road to St. Flour must be given up. A long day's drive across country in the teeth of biting wind and downpour was not to be thought of, though both my young friend and myself had set our minds upon seeing the wonderful Pont de Garabit, a tour de force of engineering, worthy to be set beside the Eiffel Tower, and an achievement of the same genius. But we were now within reach of the railway. At the cost of a great disappointment and a forfeiture of sixty francs, I determined to send the carriage back to Mende, and reach the Cantal by way of Rodez, in the Aveyron. The Pont de Garabit, like the Causses, all well, should be seen another year.
Never shall I forget the amazement of my host.
'To make a round-about journey like that by rail, when you have your own carriage and horses!' he cried. 'Are you mad? Are you a millionaire,' his face said, 'to pay eighty francs for one day's drive? And the weather—the rain? you have glass windows; you can shut yourselves in; you won't take any harm.'
Say what I would, I could not convince him that it was wiser to forfeit sixty francs than drive across the Lozere in a storm of wind and rain, with the thermometer rapidly falling to freezing-point.
CHAPTER V. RODEZ AND AURILLAC.
To travel from St. Chely d'Apcher to Rodez is like descending a snow- capped Alpine peak for the flowery, sunbright valley below. Instead of the stern grandeur of the Lozere, frowning peaks, sombre pine-forests, vast stony deserts and wintry blasts, we glide swiftly into a balmy region of golden vineyards, rich chestnut woods, softly murmuring streams, and the temperature of July. The transformation is magical. It is like closing a volume of Ossian and opening the pages of Theocritus.
We had spent our morning indoors at St. Chely, cloaked and shawled over a blazing wood fire, quitting at one o'clock p.m. ice-cold rain, biting winds, and a gloomy sky. By sundown we had reached the chef-lieu of the Aveyron; we were in the South indeed! The scenery during the latter part of the way is beautiful and exhilarating, every feature showing the ripest, most brilliant tints—hills clothed with the yellowing chestnut, soil of deep purplish red, the bright gold foliage of the vine, and between spring-like greenery and azure sky, close to the railway, the crystal-clear Aveyron.
And here all is new and fresh; no familiar tourist element enters into the day's experience. As our train stops at one picturesque village after another, we see young soldiers, reservistes, alight, returning home after the twenty-eight days' service, nuns, cures, village folks, family groups, not an English traveller but myself.
Rodez is superbly situated on a lofty, sunny plateau, surrounded by hills and far mountain chains; but between these and the city, which is almost encircled by the Aveyron, lies a broad belt of fertile country, the soil of a deep claret colour.
Just as Venice should be approached by sea at dawn, so all travellers should reach Rodez at sunset.
Never shall I forget the first enchanting view of its glorious cathedral that September afternoon, the three-storied tower of Flamboyant Gothic dominating the vast landscape, the rich red stone flushed to a warmer dye, the noble masonry of the whole glowing with the lustre and solidity of copper against the clear heavens.
This lofty, triple-terraced tower is called the marvel of Southern France, and no wonder. The cathedral of Antwerp itself is not more captivatingly lightsome and lovely. High above the ancient city, with its encompassing river and wide-stretched plain, confronting the far- off mountains, almost on a level with their summits, visible from afar as a lighthouse in mid-ocean, rises this belfry of Rodez.
Certain places, as well as certain individualities, exercise extraordinary fascination. The old capital of Rouergne, and later of the Comte of Rodez, is one. Many and many a French city I have visited of far greater architectural and historic importance; Poitiers among these—Troyes is another; yet I should never go out of my way to revisit Poitiers or Troyes, whilst certain other towns in France I visit regularly once a year. They are like old friends, and every visit makes them more precious. I determined to revisit Rodez during the following summer. The cathedral is rich within and without. Its rood- loft, carved stalls, altar screen, and monuments require a chapter to themselves. Let us hope that some future traveller, more learned than myself in such matters, will give us their history in detail. The town, too, possesses some fine remains of Renaissance architecture, and the views from the ancient ramparts are magnificent.
But the memory I carry away is of that lovely three-storied tower, the whole carved delicately as lace-work; the colour, deep terra-cotta; above it a warm southern sky.
Such a sight is worth a long journey, and the discomforts of a dingy hotel, dirty floors, foul-smelling passages, broken chairs, scant toilet appliances, as usual, in part compensated by excellent beds, good food, good wine, and very moderate charges. The oddest part of these experiences is that the dirtier the inn the better the fare. Wherever we found a little smartness and tidiness, there we were sure to find also a decided falling-off in the cuisine.
Perhaps herein is to be found the true philosophical cause of our own poor cookery. English cooks and housewives are ready to go mad on the subject of scouring pots and pans, but pay scant heed to what goes into, much less what comes out of them. In France the quality of the dinner is the first question of national importance, after the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine!
The railway takes us direct to Aurillac, chef-lieu of the Cantal, and ancient capital of Haute Auvergne. At first the scenery resembles that passed through the day before, close under the embankment, the river flowing clear and bright between green slopes, hanging chestnut-woods, and sweeps of vineyards. The earth everywhere seems soaked with claret; and this wine-red colour of the soil, contracted with the golden-leafed vine, makes a landscape of wonderful brilliance.
The aspect of the country changes as we quit the bright valley of the Aveyron, and enter the department of the Cantal at Capdenac, where we join the main line from Clermont-Ferrand to Toulouse. We just touch the department of the Lot at Figeac, a quaint town, birthplace of the great Orientalist Champollion, then enter the valley of the Cere, and are soon at Aurillac.
A bit of dull prose after a glorious poem! Whilst it is difficult to tear one's self away from Rodez, despite its ill-kept hotel, there is nothing whatever to detain the ordinary tourist at Aurillac beyond an hour or two. It is prettily situated in a fair open country, watered by the river Jordanne, and is an excellent centre for the study of rural life.
I had come hither provided with a letter introductory to the State-paid professor of agriculture, and here let me explain matters a little. The French State, stanch to the maxim of the great Sully, 'Le labourage et le paturage sont les deux mamelles de France,' is making tremendous efforts on behalf of agricultural progress throughout the country. A few years since, professorships of agriculture were appointed by the Government in the various departments. The duties of these professors is two-fold: they hold classes on the theory and practice of agriculture in the Ecole Normale, or training-school for male teachers, in winter, and in summer give free lectures, out of doors, in the various towns and villages. Recruited from the great agricultural schools of Grand Jouan, near Nantes, Grignan in the Seine, and Oise and Montpellier, these lecturers have had the benefit of a thoroughly practical training, and by little and little will doubtless effect quite a revolution in out-of-the-way places.
Among the least progressive regions, agriculturally speaking, must be pronounced the Cantal. As yet the use of machinery and artificial manure is almost unknown. The professor gets the peasants together on a Sunday afternoon and discourses to them in an easy, colloquial way on the advantages of scientific methods. The conference over, he shows specimens of superphosphates, top-dressings, new seeds, roots, etc., and here and there succeeds in inducing the more adventurous than the rest to try an experiment.
The agricultural shows have much effect in stimulating progress. The country folks delight to obtain prizes for their cattle, cheese and other products. They are, as a rule, averse to innovation, especially when it involves expenditure. The departmental professor will have to bring proof positive to bear out his theories ere he can induce his listeners to spend their savings—in French phrase, 'argent mignon'— upon unknown good, instead of investing in Government three per cents.
Other interesting facts I learned here, all confirmatory of my former accounts of the French peasant. These Cantal farmers, many of them hiring land on lease, others small owners, are well-to-do; L1,200 is not infrequently given as a dowry to the daughter of a small proprietor; I was told of one, possessor of a few hectares only, who had just before invested in the funds L80, one year's savings.
Avarice, I admit, is not infrequently the besetting sin of the French peasant in these parts, but other characteristics of the Auvergnat, such as roughness of manner, suspiciousness of strangers, a habit of extortion, did not come under my notice during this stay in the Cantal.
One of my pleasantest experiences, indeed, of French rural life, is that of an afternoon visit paid to a farmer in the neighbourhood of Aurillac. No well-bred gentleman, no lady accustomed to society, could have received an entire stranger with more urbanity, kindliness and grace, than did this peasant of the Cantal and his wife. A charming drive of an hour through well-wooded and neatly cultivated country brought us to the farmstead called Le Croizet, a group of buildings lying a hundred yards or so from the roadside.
In front of the well-built, roomy dwelling-house was a fruit and vegetable garden, with a border of flowers and ornamental shrubs. The place was not perhaps so neatly kept as English farm premises, but the general look betokened comfort and well-being.
The farmer and his wife were absent, and their daughter-in-law received us somewhat awkwardly. She seemed puzzled by the fact of English ladies wanting to see a farm, but after a little her shyness vanished. Her husband, she told us, was just then minding his own farm; he was a small proprietor, possessing a bit of land and a cow or two. Two cows, she informed us, as we chatted on, would suffice for the maintenance of a family of five persons. Such reckoning, of course, only holds good of thrifty, homely France. The magic of property not only turns sands to gold: it teaches the great lesson of looking forward, of confronting the morrow—realizing 'the unseen time.'
Soon the housewife came up, all cheeriness and hospitality. She made us sit down in the large, airy, well-furnished kitchen—hitherto we had chatted outside—and my curiosity being explained by the fact that I was an English author, travelling for information, she readily answered any questions I put to her.
'My husband will be here in a minute. He can tell you much more about farming than I can,' she said.
She was a pleasant-looking, well-mannered, intelligent woman—a peasant born and bred. Meantime I glanced round the kitchen.
The floor certainly was of uncarpeted stone and uneven, but the place was clean and tidy, and everything in order. Against the wall were rows of well-scoured cooking vessels; also shelves of china—evidently reserved for high days and holidays—and a few pictures for further adornment.
True, the curtained bedstead of master and mistress stood in one corner, but leading out of the kitchen was a second room for the son and son's wife; whilst the hired women-servants occupied in the dairy slept upstairs.
It may here be mentioned that the habit of sleeping in the kitchen arises from the excessive cold. I found on lately revisiting Anjou, and in the Berri, that the better-off peasants are building houses with upper bedrooms.
'It is tidier' (C'est plus propre), said a Berrichon to me. This custom, therefore, of turning the kitchen into a bedchamber may be considered as on the wane.
Our hostess now brought out one local dainty after another—galettes, or flat cakes of rye and oaten flour, peculiar in flavour, and said to be extremely nutritious; cream, curds and whey, fresh butter, and wine —and was quite distressed that we could not make a hearty afternoon meal. Then the master came in, one of Nature's gentlemen, if ever any existed—stalwart, sunburnt to the complexion of an Arab, with a frank, manly, shrewd face. He wore sabots, and, like his wife, was stockingless. Stockings are objected to by French country-folks in hot weather, and it seems to me on good grounds. His clothes were clean, neat, and appropriate, and all of the material that goes into the weekly wash-tub. Like his wife, he was most willing to give me any information, and a pleasant and instructive time I had of it.
My host leased his farm. He was a tenant farmer precisely as the name is understood here, with this difference—he owned a little land as well. He could not tell me the exact size of his occupation in hectares; land here, as in the Lozere, being computed instead by heads of cattle, one hectare and a half of pasture allowed for each cow. Some notion of its extent may be gathered from the fact that he possessed 120 cows. Besides these 200 hectares of pasturage, the farm comprised arable land, the whole making up a total of nearly 1,000 acres. Much larger farms, he told me, were to be found in the Cantal. The notion of France being cut up into tiny parcels of land amused him not a little. The crops here consist of wheat, barley, maize, rye, oats, buckwheat, clover—a little of everything.
'But this is a cheese-making country. We don't grow anything like corn enough for ourselves in the Cantal,' he said. 'Large quantities are imported every year. It is our cows that pay.'
The principal stock kept is this beautiful Cantal cow, a small, red, glossy-coated breed, very gentle, and very shy. The enormous quantities of milk afforded by these dairy farms are sold in part at Aurillac for home consumption. By far the larger proportion is used in the cheese- makers' huts, or 'burons,' on the surrounding hills. The pleasant, mild-flavoured Cantal cheese has hitherto not been an article of export. It is decidedly inferior to Roquefort, fabricated from ewes' milk in the Aveyron, and to the Gruyere of the French Jura. As the quality of the milk is first-rate, a delicious flavour being imparted by the fragrant herbs that abound here, this inferiority doubtless arises from want of skill, or, perhaps, want of cleanliness in the preparation. The numerous schools for dairy-farming that now exist in France, and the new State-paid teachers of agriculture, will most likely ere long revolutionize the art of cheese-making throughout the department. We may then expect to find Cantal cheese at every English grocer's.
Many more interesting facts I learned, my host chatting leisurely.
'It is usual in these parts,' he said, 'for the eldest son to inherit an extra fourth part of land, he, in return, being bound to maintain his parents in old age. A heritage is often thus divided during the life-time of father and mother, the old folks not caring any longer to be burdened with the toil of business.'
Much he told me also concerning the rights of 'pacage,' or pasturage on commons—privileges upheld rather by custom than law. These rights of pasturing cattle on common-grounds date from the earliest times, and we read in French history of certain communes being ruined by the mortgage of their 'pacage.'
After a stay of more than an hour we took leave, our host accompanying us to the road, where the carriage waited.
I have before alluded to the excessive timidity of the cattle here, perhaps arising from the infrequency of strangers in these regions. As we now walked up the narrow lane separating the farm from the road, we met three separate droves of cows returning to their stalls. It was curious to note the suspiciousness of the gentle creatures, also their quickness of observation. Had we been a couple of peasant women from a distance, they would have passed us without hesitation. I had evidently an outlandish look in their eyes. Only by dint of coaxing and calling each animal by name could the master get them to go by.
'It is always well to be careful with beasts that don't know you,' he said, as he planted himself between us and each drove. 'Gentle as my cows are, they might give a stranger a kick.'
When all were gone, he extricated my gown from a bramble, then, baring his head, bade us adieu with the courtesy of a polished gentleman.
CHAPTER VI. THE LAND OF THE BURON.
Vic-sur-Cere, half an hour distant from Aurillac, is an earthly paradise, a primitive Eden, as yet unspoiled by fashion and utilitarianism. The large 'Etablissement des Bains,' described in French and English guide-books, has long ceased to exist; bells, carpets, curtains, and other luxuries are unknown; but the unfastidious traveller, who prefers homeliness and honesty to elegance and extortion, may here drink waters rivalling those of Spa without being exposed to the exorbitant prices and insolence of the Spa hotel- keepers. Rustic inns, or rather pensions, may be had at Vic-sur-Cere, in which the tourist is wholesomely lodged and handsomely 'tabled' at a cost that would enrapture Mr. Joseph Pennell. Two or three hundred visitors, chiefly from the neighbouring towns, spend the summer holidays here, one and all disappearing about the middle of September.
When we arrived, we had the entire place to ourselves—inn, river-side walks, and dazzlingly green hills. No palm island in mid-Pacific could offer a sweeter, more pastoral halting-place. It is indeed a perfect little corner of earth, beauty of the quiet kind here reaching its acme; and neither indoors nor abroad is there any drawback to mar the traveller's enjoyment.
From the windows of our hotel, close to the station, we enjoy a prospect absolutely flawless—Nature in one of her daintiest moods is here left to herself. The inn stands amid its large vegetable, fruit and flower gardens; looking beyond these, we see the prettiest little town imaginable nestled in a beautiful valley, around it rising romantic crags, wooded heights, and gentle slopes, fresh and verdant as if the month were May. Through the smooth meadows between the encompassing hills winds the musically-named stream, the Iraliot, and from end to end the broad expanse of green is scented with newly-mown hay. The delightful scenery, the purity of the air, the excellent quality of the waters, ought to turn Vic-sur-Cere into a miniature Vichy. Fortunately for the lovers of rusticity and calm, such has not as yet been the case, and the simple, straightforward character of the people is still unspoiled by contact with the outer world. Here, also, the pervading aspect is of well-being and contentment. 'Everybody can live here,' we were told by an intelligent resident; 'only the idle, the drunkard, and the thriftless need come to want.'
Vagrancy is altogether absent; the children are neatly dressed and very clean; the men and women have all a look of cheerful independence as they toil on their little farms or mind their small flocks and herds.
Here also, as elsewhere, the greatest variety exists in the matter of holdings. We find tiny freeholds and large tenant farms side by side. With few exceptions, all possess a house and bit of land. Folks toil hard and fare hard, but live in no terror of sickness or old age. The house and bit of land will not support a family; with the savings of a man's best years, it is the harbour of refuge when work is past.
Without meeting here the urbanity and hospitable welcome that awaited us near Aurillac, we found the peasant farmers exceedingly civil to strangers; and when once made to understand the motives of my inquisitiveness, they were quite ready to give me any information I required.
One farm I visited in the neighbourhood was a tenant-holding of about 1,000 acres, let at a fixed rental of L600 a year, and this is far from the largest farm hereabouts. The stock consisted of seventy-eight cows, five horses, four pair of team oxen, besides large numbers of sheep, pigs, and poultry. Five women-servants were boarded in the house, and several cheese-makers employed on the alps during summer.
The farmer's wife received us pleasantly, and after a little explanation, when she quite understood the reason of my visit, answered all questions with ease and intelligence. She was resting from the labours of the day, a piece of knitting in her hands, which she politely laid aside whilst chatting.
The kitchen was large, clean, and airy, its principal ornaments consisting of rows of prize medals on tablets, awarded at different agricultural shows. On the shelves were rows of copper cooking vessels, burnished as those of a Dutch interior. The bed-chambers were apart.
Certainly, the housewife's personal appearance left something to desire, but we were assured that on Sundays she turned out for Mass gloved, veiled and bonneted like any town lady. French peasants will not set about the day's labour in smart or shabby-genteel clothes.
Here, as near Aurillac, modern agricultural methods, machinery and artificial manures are not yet the order of the day. As an instance of what peasant farmers in France can effect whilst following old plans, let me cite the predecessor of my hostess's husband. This man had lately retired, having saved up enough money to live upon. He had, in fact, become a rentier.
Another tenant farm near consisted of 1,000 acres, stocked with 120 cows, eight pair of team oxen, besides sheep, horses and pigs. Adjoining such large holdings are small freeholds farmed by their peasant owners—dairy farms of a few acres, market-gardens of one or two, and so on.
Metayage, or the system of half-profits, is rarely found in the Cantal. Tenancy at a fixed rental is preferred, as less complicated and troublesome. [Footnote: I have described the metayage of Berri in a contribution to Macmillan's Magazine, 'In George Sand's Country,' 1886.] It was pleasant to see the people working in their little field or garden, or minding their goats and sheep, their decent appearance, cheerfulness and healthful looks testifying to the satisfactory conditions of existence.
I do not for a moment aver that such a state of things exists in every part of France; but everywhere we find the same qualities— independence, thrift and foresight—called forth by the all-potent agency of possession. I have somewhere seen the fact mentioned, and adduced as an argument against peasant property, that the owner of seven cows had not a wardrobe in which to hang so much as his wife's clothes; they were suspended on a rope. Was the writer aware of the money-value of seven cows, the capital thereby represented, and could she point to any farm-labourer in England, however well off in the matter of cupboards and clothes-pegs, possessed of seven cows, their stalls and pasture-ground—in other words, a capitalist to the extent of several hundred pounds? Few French peasants, we fancy, would exchange their house, land and stock for the furniture of an English labourer's cottage, wardrobe included. As a matter of fact, most of these small farmers own furniture, clothes and house-linen in abundance.
Cheese-making is the chief industry of the place. Far away on the summit of every green hill may be descried the red-roofed hut, or buron, of the cheese-maker. Here, with his dog, and sometimes a shepherd, he spends the summer months, descending to the valleys before the first snow falls. The dairyman, or fromager, is generally a hired workman, specially trained for the work. He is paid at the rate of L25 or L30 a year, besides board and lodging. As soon as the snows melt and the cows can be driven afield, he betakes himself to his buron on the alp, if married, leaving his wife in the valley below.
Have the fromager of the Cantal hills and the Caussenard of the Lozerien steppe their legends, folklore, songs? Have their love-stories been chronicled by some French Auerbach, their ballads found a translator in a French Hebel? Without doubt this sequestered life of shepherd and mountain has its vein of poetry and romance as well as any other. To reach one of these cheese-makers' huts is quite an expedition, and on foot is only practicable to hardy pedestrians. It is a beautiful drive from the valley of the Cere to the open pasture- ground, dotted with burons, behind its steep green hills on the southern side. As the road winds upwards, we see the crags and slopes clothed with the delicate greenery of young fir and pine. These are seedlings planted by the State; here, as in other departments, some strenuous efforts being made to replant the ancient forests. Goats are no longer permitted to browse on the mountain-sides promiscuously, as in former days, and thus slowly, but surely, not only the soil, but the climate and products of these re-wooded districts, will undergo complete transformation. And who can tell? Perhaps the Causse itself will, generations hence, cease to exist, and the Roof of France become a vast flowery garden. The country people here all speak a patois, and the fromager is not communicative. It is always well to be accompanied by a blue-bloused native on these visits. The dogs, too, that keep guard over the buron, like the cows, are very suspicious of strangers.
More attractive than the interior of the cheese-maker's hut—often dark, ill-ventilated, and malodorous—is the scene without, a wide prospect of pastoral, idyllic charm. The Cantal offers many a superb mountain panorama and grandiose scene. Nowhere is to be found more sweetness, graciousness and repose than in the valley of the Cere.
After a few days' sojourn we journeyed to Clermont-Ferrand, which I found much embellished since my long stay in that city, just ten years before. Thence, seeing the Puy de Dome flushed with the red light of the rising sun, a sight compensating for much insolence and discomfort at the Hotel de l'Univers, we proceeded to St. Germain-des-Fosses, where we parted, my young companion taking the train to Autun, I proceeding by way of Lyons to Gap, on a visit to a beloved French friend.
The weather had remained brilliantly fine throughout our expedition, although the cold of early morning was now piercing. And brilliantly fine it remained till my departure for England, early in October.
MY SECOND JOURNEY IN SEARCH OF THE CAUSSES.
CHAPTER I. THROUGH THE MORVAN.
Of the four hundred and fifty passengers who crossed with us from Dover to Calais, in August, 1888, we lost every trace when quitting the Paris-Lyon-Mediterranee line at La Roche. Writing a hundred years ago, the great agriculturist, Arthur Young, gave his countrymen the following excellent piece of advice, which, it need hardly be said, has been generally neglected from that day to this: 'It may be useful to those who see no more of France than by once passing to Italy, to remark that if they would view the finest parts of the kingdom they should land at Dieppe, and follow the Seine to Paris, then take the great road to Moulins, and thence quit it for Auvergne, and pass to Viviers, the Rhone, and so by Aix to Italy. By such a variation from the frequented road the traveller might suffer for want of good inns, but would be repaid by the sight of a much finer and more singular country than the common road by Dijon offers, which passes in a great measure through the worst parts of France.'
The Suffolk squire who rode through France on the eve of the Great Revolution, in spite of his conscientious desire to see all that the country had to show, lost much from want of roads, maps, and any kind of accommodation. Nowadays, as will be seen from the following pages, good food and good beds await the traveller in the most remote districts; but in vain! Ninety-nine tourists out of a hundred remain of the poet Shelley's opinion—there is nothing to see in France—and hurry on as fast as the express can carry them to Geneva.
At the clean, bright, friendly little town of Auxerre we find ourselves as isolated from the beaten track as well can be. We are free to roam, sketch, stare at will, and no one notices us; not even an importunate beggar molests the sketcher as she brings out her book in the middle of the street.
This immunity from observation and annoyance forms a minor charm of French travel.
Auxerre possesses a beautiful little cathedral. It is one-towered, as that of Sens, a circumstance probably due to want of funds for the completion.
We always carry away in the memory some striking characteristic of French cathedrals, and no one can forget the exquisite tint of the building-stone here, a ruddy hue as of gold lighting up the dark, richly-sculptured mass without, nor the charming cluster of airy columns joining the Lady Chapel to the choir within, daintiest bit of architectural fancy. Whilst we were revelling in the contrast afforded by the intense glow of the stained glass and the pure white marble—the interior being one of the loveliest, if least spacious, in France—the sacristan's wife came up and said that if we waited a few minutes longer we should see a wedding.
'Although,' she added with an air of apology, 'a wedding of the third class.'
Now, whilst fairly familiar with French ways, I had never heard of marriages being divided after the manner of railway-carriages, into first, second, and third class. Our informant hastened to enlighten us. It seems that only wedding-parties of the first and second classes are entitled to enter by the front-door, to music of the full church orchestra, and to carpets laid down from porch to altar, every detail of pomp and ceremony depending on the price paid.
I must say that were I a French bride I should bargain for a wedding of the first class at any sacrifice. To have the big doors of the front portal flung open at the thrice-repeated knock of the beadle's staff; to hear Mendelssohn's 'Wedding March' pealed from the great organ; to march in solemn procession up the aisle, preceded by that wonderful figure in cocked hat, red sash, pink silk stockings, and shoes sparkling with huge buckles, all the congregation a-titter—it seems to me it were worth while being married simply for the intoxication of such a moment.
The third-class wedding-party, entering by a small side-door, and passing without music to the altar, made nevertheless a pretty picture: the bride, a handsome demoiselle de boutique, or shop assistant, in white, with veil and wreath; behind her, girls in bright dresses bearing enormous bouquets; bridegroom and supporters, all in spick and span swallow-tail coats, with white ties and gloves, like beaux in a French comedy, backwards and forwards; the priests looking gorgeous, although in their second-best robes, their gold plates shining as they collected the money; for whether married first, second or third class, the Church exacts its due. I felt real commiseration for these middle- class, evidently hard-working people, as the gold plate was presented again and again, first, I presume, for the Church; secondly, for the poor; thirdly, for Heaven knows what. Then two of the bridesmaids, each taking the arm of a white-gloved, swallow-tailed cavalier, made the round of the wedding guests, begging money of them. In fact, there seemed no end to the giving. Small wonder that marriages are on the decline in France! We left the bridal party still on their crimson velvet fauteuils—twelve being the number allotted to a wedding of the third class, the remaining guests being accommodated on rush-bottomed chairs—and next visited the underground Church of St. Germain.