On the road to Villefranche, about half a mile from Ambialet, is a mine which has been abandoned from time immemorial, and which the inhabitants say was worked by the English for gold. I have noticed, however, throughout this part of France, that nearly everything that was done in a remote age, whether good or evil, is attributed by the people to the English, and that they not infrequently make a curious confusion between Britons and Romans. As for the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, and Arabs, all traditions respecting them appear to have passed out of the popular mind. In the side of a stony hill on which scarcely a plant grows, a narrow passage, a few feet wide, has been quarried, and air shafts have been cut down into it through the solid rock with prodigious labour. I followed this passage until a falling in of the roof prevented me from going any farther. I could perceive no trace of a metallic vein, so thoroughly had it been worked out, but scattered over the hillside with schist, talcose slate, and fragments of quartz, was a great deal of scoriae, showing that metal of some kind had been excavated, and that the smelting had been done on the spot. That the mine was worked for gold seems quite probable, inasmuch as a lump of mineral containing a considerable quantity of the precious metal was picked up near the entrance some years ago. Besides the scoriae, I found upon the hillside much broken pottery, and from the shape of several fragments it was easy to restore the form of earthenware pots which were probably used for smelting purposes. There is no record to show who the people were who were so busy upon these rocks glittering with mica and talc. They may have belonged to any one of the races who passed over the land from the time of the Romans.
One morning, still in the month of July, I broke away from the charms of Ambialet, and shouldering again my old knapsack—which, by travelling hundreds of miles in all weathers, had become disgracefully shabby, but which was a friend too well stitched together to be thrown aside on account of ill-looks—I continued my journey up the valley of the Tarn. I had agreed to walk with the parish priest as far as the village of Villeneuve, and having found him at the presbytery, we passed through the churchyard on the edge of the rock. Here there is a remarkable cross, with the figure of Christ on one side and that of the Virgin on the other, not carved in relief, but in that early mediaeval style which consisted of hollowing out the stone around the image. The cure frankly declared that, if anyone offered him a large new cross in the place of this little one, he would be glad to make the exchange. It is unfortunate that so many rural priests place but little value upon religious antiquities other than images and relics which have a legend. Their appreciation of ecclesiastical art is too often regulated by the practical and utilitarian order of ideas. To dazzle the eye of the peasant may, and does, become the single aim of church ornamentation. Hence the brassy, vulgar altars, and those coloured plaster images of modern manufacture that one sees with regret in so many of the country churches of France.
I soon took my last look at Ambialet, its rocks and ruins on which the wild pinks nodded, and its stone-covered roofs overgrown with white sedum. I was struck by the number of prickly plants on the sandy banks of the Tarn. Those which now made the best show of bloom were the star-thistle centaurea and ononis repens. The appearance of this last was very curious, for in addition to its pink pea-blossoms it seemed to be sprinkled over with little flowers the colour of forget-me-nots. These, however, were not flowers at all, but small flying beetles painted the brilliant blue of myosotis. Another plant that showed a strong liking for these banks was the horned poppy (glaucium luteum), which I had only found elsewhere near the sea-coast. Brown stalks of broomrape were still standing, and I lighted upon a lingering bee-ophrys, a plant which by its amazing mimicry makes one look at it with awe as if it were something supernatural.
It was an invitation to lunch at a presbytery that was the reason for my companion taking a walk of about eight miles. Passing through a small village on the way he called for the cure there, who was also an expected guest. This priest had obtained a reputation throughout the district for his humour, his eccentricity, and contempt for appearances. He had passed most of his life alone, cooking his food, making his bed, and probably mending his clothes, without the help of any woman. Being now over eighty years of age, he had realized the necessity of changing his ways, and a woman not much younger than himself had succeeded in obtaining a firm footing in his paved kitchen, which was also the dining-room and salon. His presbytery in the steep and rocky village street was no better built or more luxuriously furnished than the dwellings of his peasant parishioners. Here we found the old white-haired man, gay and hospitable, anxious to offer everything he had in the house to the visitor, but only able to think of two things which might be acceptable—snuff and sausage. 'Un peu de saucisson?' he said to me, with a winning smile after handing me his snuff-box. I assured him I could eat nothing then. 'Te! and so you are really English, monsieur?—Un peu de saucisson?'
The cure had been shut up in this village so many years, speaking nothing but Languedocian to his parishioners, even when preaching to them, that his French had become rather difficult to understand. I was keenly alive to the exceptional study of human nature presented by this fine specimen of an old rustic priest, who was not the less to be respected because he took a great deal of snuff, hated shaving, wore hob-nailed shoes of the roughest make, and a threadbare, soup-spotted soutane with frayed edges. He was not a bit ascetic, and although he had lived so many years by himself, his good-humour and gaiety continually overflowed. It may be that a housekeeper tends to sour a priest's temper more than anything else, and this one knew it. The sacerdotal domestic help must be fifty years old when she enters the presbytery. Spinster or widow, she has that inherent purpose of every woman to be, if she can, the mistress of the house in which she lives. If she encounters no other woman in the field, against whom if she tried conclusions she would be broken like the earthen pot in the fable, she generally succeeds in achieving her ambition, although she may be in name a servant. There are such phenomena as hen-pecked priests, and those who peck them have no right whatever to do it. It is a state of things brought about by too much submission, for the sake of peace, to a mind determined to be uppermost while pretending to be humble.
When we left again for Villeneuve, we were three in number, and the old cure trudged along over the rocky or sandy paths as nimbly as either of his companions. He pointed out to me a spot in the Tarn where he said was a gulf the bottom of which had never been sounded. There are many such holes in the bed of this river, which receives much of its water from underground tributaries.
I was looking at the mournful vine-terraces, now mostly abandoned and grass-grown. 'Ah!' said the octogenarian, shaking his head, and for once wearing a melancholy expression, 'the best wine of the South used to be grown there.' Near a village a very tall pole, probably a young poplar that had been barked, had been raised in a garden, and painted with stripes of red, white, and blue. It was described to me as a 'tree of liberty,' and I was told that the garden in which it was placed belonged to the mayor for the current year. Every fresh mayor had a fresh tree.
At the village of Villeneuve I parted from my companions, who went to lunch with the cure, together with several other ecclesiastics. These occasional meetings and junketings at one another's houses are the chief mundane consolation of the rural priests, who are as weak as other mortals in the presence of a savoury dish, and, when they can afford to do so, they enter into the pleasures of hospitality with Horatian zest. Poor as they often are, they generally know the faggot that conceals a drop of old wine to place before the guest. The people in the South believe that the bounty of the Creator was intended to be made the most of, and the type of priest that one meets most frequently there in the richer parishes thinks that the next good thing to a clear conscience is a good table.
I lunched at the auberge, and I had for my companion a ruby-faced cattle-dealer of about fifty. He spent his life chiefly in a trap, followed by an old cattle-dog of formidable build and determined expression of mouth. This animal was now lying down near the table, so tired and footsore from almost perpetual running that he thought it too much trouble to get up and eat. I read in his eye that he was in the habit of breathing every day of his life a canine curse on the business of cattle-dealing. His master seemed a good-natured man, but he had a fixed idea that was unfortunate for the dog. He considered that the beast ought to be able to run from thirty-five to forty miles a day, and that if he got sore paws it was his own fault.
'And do you never give him a lift?'
'Never!' roared the cattle-dealer, laughing like an ogre.
The dog being now ten years old, I was not surprised to hear that he sometimes tried to lose himself just before his master was starting upon a long round. Considering his age, and all the running he had done in return for board and lodging, I thought his diplomacy excusable; but the cattle-dealer used strong language to express his loathing of such depravity and ingratitude in a dog old enough to be serious, and on which so much kindness had been lavished.
This man had a very bad opinion of the inhabitants of that part of the Rouergue which I was about to cross, and he strove to convince me that it was very imprudent of me to think of travelling on foot and alone through such a wild country. Had I told him that I carried no other arm but my oak stick with iron spike, he would have been still more vehement. Frenchmen like the companionship of a revolver. I do not. In the first place, it makes me imagine there is an assassin lurking in every thicket; secondly, I do not know where to carry it conveniently so that it would be of use in time of need. I place confidence in my stick, and take my chance. To tell the plain truth, I did not believe what my table companion said about the dangerous character of the inhabitants. The reason he gave for their exceptional wickedness was that they were very poor, but this view was contrary to my experience of humanity.
While we were talking over our coffee, there was a rising uproar in the village street. Looking out of the window, we saw two men fighting in the midst of a crowd.
'Ah!' exclaimed the cattle-dealer, with a sonorous chuckle, 'that ought to give you an idea of the capacities of the inhabitants.' Then, entering into the spirit of the battle, he shouted: 'Leave them alone—leave them alone! It is not men who are fighting; it is the juice of the grape!'
Both combatants soon had enough of it, and very little damage was done on either side. The scene was more ludicrous than tragic. After all, it was well, perhaps, that these men had not learnt how to use their fists, and that with them pushing, slapping, and rolling upon one another satisfied honour.
The hostess of this inn, while cooking the inevitable fowl for lunch, basted it after the Languedocian fashion, of which I had taken note elsewhere. Very different is it from what is commonly understood by basting. A curious implement is used for the purpose. This is an iron rod, with a piece of metal at one end twisted into the form of an extinguisher, but with a small opening left at the pointed extremity. The extinguisher, if it may be so termed, is made red-hot, or nearly so, and then a piece of fat bacon is put into it, which bursts into flame. A little stream of blazing fat passes through the small opening, and this is made to trickle over the fowl, which is turned upon, the spit by clockwork in front of the wood fire. The fowl or joint thus treated tastes of burnt bacon; but the Southerners like strong flavours, and revel in grease as well as garlic.
Fat bacon is the basis of all cookery in Guyenne and Upper Languedoc, where the winters are too cold for the olive to flourish, and where butter is rarely seen. The cuisine is substantial, but not refined.
A little beyond Villeneuve I found Trebas, a pleasant river-side village, with a ferruginous spring that has obtained for the place a local reputation for healing. Here I left the Tarn again, and followed its tributary, the Ranee, for the sake of change. This stream ran at the bottom of a deep gorge, the sides of which were chiefly clothed with woods, but here and there was a patch of yellow corn-field and green vineyard. Reapers, men and women, were busy with their sickles, singing, as they worked, their Languedocian songs that troubadours may have been the first to sing; but nature was quiet with that repose which so quickly follows the great festival of flowers. Already the falling corn was whispering of the final feast of colour. All the earlier flowers of the summer were now casting or ripening their seed. I passed a little village on the opposite side of the gorge. The houses, built of dark stone, even to the roofs, looked scarcely different from their background of bare rock. Weedy vine-terraces without vines told the oft-repeated story of privation and long-lasting bitterness of heart in many a little home that once was happy. I found the grandeur of solitude, without any suggestion of human life, where huge rocks of gneiss and schist, having broken away from the sides of the gorge, lay along the margins and in the channel of the stream. Here I lingered, listening to the drowsy music of the flowing water, and the murmuring of the bees amongst the purple marjoram and the yellow agrimony, until the sunshine moving up the rocks reminded me of the fleet-winged hours.
Continuing my way up the gorge, I presently saw a village clinging to a hill, with a massive and singular-looking church on the highest point. It was Plaisance, and I knew now that I had left the Albigeois, and had entered the Rouergue. Having decided to pass the night here, and the auberge being chosen, I climbed to the top of the bluff to have a near view of the church. It is a remarkable structure representing two architectural periods. The apse and transept are Romanesque, but the nave is Gothic. Over the intersection of the transept is a cupola supported by massive piers. Engaged with these are columns bearing elaborately carved capitals embellished with little figures of the quaintest workmanship. In the apse are two rows of columns with cubiform capitals carved in accordance with the florid Romanesque taste, as it was developed in Southern France.
Although the little cemetery on the bluff was like scores of others I had seen in France—a bit of rough neglected field with small wooden crosses rising above the long herbage, tangled with flowers that love the waste places, I yielded to the charm of that old simplicity which is ever young and beautiful. I strolled amongst the grave mounds, and passing the sunny spot where the dead children of the village lay side by side, under the golden flowers of St. John's-wort, reached the edge of the rock, whose dark nakedness was hidden by reddening sedum, and looked at the wave-like hills, their yellow cornfields, vine terraces and woods, the gray-green roofs of the houses below, and lower still the stream flashing along through a desert of pebbles.
Descending to the valley, I noticed the number and beauty of the vine trellises in the village. One, commencing at a Gothic archway, extended from wall to wall far up a narrow lane, and here the twilight fell an hour too soon. I wandered down to the pebbly shore of the Rance, where bare-footed children, sent out to look after pigs and geese, were building castles with the many-coloured stones, while others on the rocky banks above were singing in chorus, like a somewhat louder twittering of sedge warblers from the fringe of willows. I wandered on until all was quiet save the water, and returned to the inn when the fire on the hearth was sending forth a cheerful red glow through the dusk. The soup was bubbling in the chain pot, and a well-browned fowl was taking its final turns upon the spit.
I dined with a commercial traveller, one who went about the country in a queer sort of vehicle containing samples of church ornaments and sacerdotal vestments. His business lay chiefly with the rural clergy, and, like most people, he seemed convinced that circumstances had pushed him into the wrong groove, and that he had remained in it too long for him to be able to get out of it. For twenty years he had been driving over the same roads, reappearing in the same villages and little towns, watching the same people growing old, and spending only three months of the year with his family in Toulouse. He declared the life of a commercial traveller, when the novelty of it had worn down, to be the most abominable of all lives. He was one of the most pleasant, and certainly the most melancholy, of commercial travellers whom I had met in my rambles. He left the impression on me that there was more money to be made nowadays in France by travelling with samples of eau de vie and groceries than with church candlesticks and chasubles. Nevertheless, although he had his private quarrel with destiny, he was not at all a gloomy companion at dinner.
A person who had not had previous experience of French country inns would have been astonished at the order in which the dishes were laid on the table. The first course after the soup was potatoes (sautees); then came barbel from the stream, and afterwards veal and fowl. The order is considered a matter of no importance; the main thing aimed at in the South of France is to give the guest plenty of dishes. If there is any fish, more often than not it makes its appearance after the roast, and I have even seen a custard figure as the first course. By living with the people one soon falls into their ways, accepting things as they come, without giving a thought to the conventional sequence.
Among other things that one has to grow accustomed to in rural France, especially in the South, is the presence of beds in dining-rooms and kitchens. At first it rasps the sense of what is correct, but the very frequency of it soon brings indifference. In the large kitchen of this rather substantial auberge there was an alcove, a few feet from the chimney-place, containing a neatly tucked-up bed with a crucifix and little holy-water shell by the side. It was certainly a snug corner in winter, and I felt sure that the stout hostess reserved it for herself.
ACROSS THE ROUERGUE.
At an early hour in the morning I was wayfaring again. I had made up my mind to reach St. Affrique in a day's walk. There were some thirty miles of country to cross, and I had, moreover, to reckon with the July sun, which shines very earnestly in Southern France, as though it were bent on ripening all the fruits of the earth in a single day. By getting up earlier than usual I was able to watch the morning opening like a wild rose. When we feel all the charm that graces the beginning of a summer day, we resolve in future to rise with the birds, but the next morning's sun finds most of us sluggards again.
I returned towards the Tarn, which I had left the day before, but with the intention of keeping somewhat to the south of it for awhile. However beautiful the scenery of a gorge may be, the sensation of being at the bottom of a crevice at length becomes depressing, and the mind, which is never satisfied with anything long, begins to wonder what the world is like beyond the enclosing cliffs, and the desire to climb them and to look forth under a wider range of sky grows stronger. Such change is needed, for when there is languor within, the impressions from without are dull. The country through which I now passed was very beautiful with its multitude of chestnut-trees, the pale yellow plumes of the male blossom still clinging to them and hiding half their leaves; but here again was the sad spectacle of abandoned, weedy, and almost leafless vineyards upon stony slopes which had been changed into fruit-bearing terraces by the long labour of dead generations.
The first village I came to was Coupiac, lying in a deep hollow, from the bottom of which rose a rugged mass of schistous rock, with houses all about it, under the protecting shadow of a strong castle with high round towers in good preservation. It was a mediaeval fortress, but its mullioned windows cut in the walls of the towers and other details showed that it had been considerably modified and adapted to changed conditions of life at the time of the Renaissance. A troop of little girls were going up to it, and teaching Sisters, who had changed it into a stronghold of education, were waiting for them in the court. Hard by upon the edge of the castle rock was a calvary. The naked schist, ribbed and seamed, served for pavement in the steep little streets of this picturesque old village, where most of the people went barefoot. This is the custom of the region, and does not necessarily imply poverty. Here the sabotier's trade is a poor one, and the cobbler's is still worse. In the Albigeois I was the neighbour of a well-to-do farmer who up to the age of sixty had never known the sensation of sock or stocking, nor had he ever worn a shoe of wood or leather.
No female beauty did I see here, nor elsewhere in the Rouergue. Plainness of feature in men and women is the rule throughout this extensive tract of country. But there is this to be said in favour of the girls and younger women, that they generally have well-shaped figures and a very erect carriage, which last is undoubtedly due to the habit of carrying weights upon the head, especially water, which needs to be carefully balanced.
How the peasants stared at me as I passed along! The expression of their faces showed that they were completely puzzled as to what manner of person I was, and what I was doing there. Had I been taking along a dancing-bear they would have understood my motives far better, and my social success with them would have been undoubtedly greater. As it was, most of them eyed me with extreme suspicion. Not having been rendered familiar, like the peasants of many other districts, with that harmless form of insanity which leads people to endure the hardship of tramping for the sake of observing the ruder aspects of human life, the lingering manners of old times, and of reading the book of nature in solitude, they thought I must perforce be engaged upon some sinister and wicked work. And now this reminds me of an old man at Ambialet, whom I used to send on errands to the nearest small town. He liked my money, but he could never satisfy his conscience that it was not something like treason to carry letters for me, for he had the feeling to the last that he was in the pay of the enemy. 'Ah!' he growled one day (not to me), 'I have always heard it said that the English regretted our beautiful rocks and rich valleys. They are coming back! I am sure they are coming back!' I used to see him looking at me askance with a peculiarly keen expression in his eyes, and as his words had been repeated to me I knew of what he was thinking. He was the first man of his condition who to my knowledge called rocks beautiful. The peasant class abhor rocks on account of their sterility, and because the rustic idea of a beautiful landscape is the fertile and level plain. In searching for the picturesque and the grandeur of nature, it is perfectly safe to go to those places which the peasant declares to be frightful by their ugliness.
Leaving Coupiac behind me, I turned towards the east. The road, having been cut in the side of the cliff, exposed layers of brown argillaceous schist, like rotten wood, and so friable that it crumbled between the fingers; but what was more remarkable was that the layers, scarcely thicker than slate, instead of being on their natural plane, were turned up quite vertically. I was now ascending to the barren uplands. Near the brow of a hill I passed a very ancient crucifix of granite, the head, which must originally have been of the rudest sculpture, having the features quite obliterated by time.
A rural postman in a blouse with red collar had been trudging up the hill behind me, and I let him overtake me so that I might fall into conversation with him, for these men are generally more intelligent or better informed than the peasants. I have often walked with them, and never without obtaining either instruction or amusement. When we had reached the highest ground, from which a splendid view was revealed of the Rouergue country.—a crumpled map of bare hills and deep dark gorges—the postman pointed out to me the village of Roquecesaire (Caesar's Rock), on a hill to the south, and told me a queer story of a battle between its inhabitants and those of an adjacent village. The quarrel, strange to say, arose over a statue of the Virgin, which was erected not long since upon a commanding position between the two villages. 'Now, the Holy Virgin,' said the postman, in no tone of mockery, 'was obliged to turn her back either to one village or the other, and this was the cause of the fight!' When first set up, the statue looked towards Roquecesaire, to the great satisfaction of the inhabitants; but the people of the other village, who thought themselves equally pious, held that they had been slighted; and the more they looked at the back of the Virgin turned towards them the angrier they became, and the more determined not to submit to the indignity. At length, unable to keep down their fury any longer, they sallied forth one day, men, women and children, with the intention of turning the statue round. But the people of Roquecesaire were vigilant, and, seeing the hostile crowd coming, went forth to give them battle. The combat raged furiously for hours, and it was watched—so said the postman—with much excitement and interest by the cure of Montclar—the village we were now approaching—who, happening to have a telescope, was able to note the varying fortune of war. At length the Roquecesaire people got the worst of it, and they were driven away from the statue, which was promptly turned round. Although many persons were badly knocked about, nobody died for the cause. The energetic intervention of the spiritual and temporal authorities prevented a renewal of the scandal, and it was thought best, in the interest of peace, to allow the statue to be turned half-way to one village and half to the other.
The postman was a little reserved at first, not knowing to what country I belonged, but when he was satisfied that I was not a German, he let his tongue rattle on with the freedom which is one of the peculiarities of his class. He confided to me that the best help to a man who walked much was absinthe. It pulled him up the hills and sent him whisking across the plains.
'I eat very little,' said my black-bearded, bright-eyed fellow-tramp; 'but,' he added, 'I drink three or four glasses of absinthe a day.'
'You will eat still less,' I said, 'if you don't soon begin to turn off the tap.'
Considering the hard monotony of their lives and the strain imposed upon physical endurance by walking from twenty to twenty-five miles a day in all weathers, the rural postmen in France are a sober body of men. This one told me that he walked sometimes eight miles out of his way to carry a single letter.
Thus gossiping, we reached Montclar, on the plateau, a little to the south of the deep gorge of the Tarn. Here we entered an auberge, where the postman was glad to moisten his dry throat with the green-eyed enemy. This inn was formerly one of those small chateaux—more correctly termed maisons fortes, or manors—which sprang up all over France in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The inhabited part of the building was reached by a spiral staircase enclosed by a tower. A balcony connected with the principal room enabled me to read an inscription cut in a stone of the tower: 'Tristano Disclaris, 1615.' But for this record left by the founder, his name would probably have passed, long ago, out of the memory of men.
I found that the chief occupation of the people in this house was that of making Roquefort cheeses; indeed, it was impossible not to guess what was going on from the all-pervading odour. And yet: I was still many miles from Roquefort! However, I knew all about this matter before. I was not twenty miles from Albi when I found that Roquefort cheese-making was a local industry. In fact, this is the case over a very wide region. The cheeses, having been made, are sent to Roquefort to ripen in the cellars, which have been excavated in the rock, and also to acquire the necessary reputation. While my lunch was being prepared I looked into the dairy, which was very clean and creditable. On the ground were large tubs of milk, and on tables were spread many earthenware moulds pierced with little holes and containing the pressed curds.
The hostess was a buxom, good-tempered woman with rosy cheeks. She told me that she could not give me anything better than ham and eggs. She could not have offered me anything more acceptable after all the greasy cooking, the steadfast veal and invariable fowl which I had so long been compelled to accept daily with resignation. By a mysterious revelation of art she produced the ham and eggs in a way that made me think that she must surely be descended from one of the English adventurers who did all manner of mischief in the Rouergue some five or six centuries ago. Such ham and eggs in her case could only be explained by the theory of hereditary ideas. Nevertheless, she had become French enough to look at me with a dubious, albeit a good-natured eye. My motive in coming there and going farther without having any commercial object in view was more than she could fathom. After my visit to the dairy I fancy her private notion was that I was commissioned by the English Government to find out how Roquefort cheese was made, with a view to competition. At length, as we talked freely, she let the state of her mind with regard to me escape her unawares by putting this question plump:
'How is it the gendarmes have not stopped you?'
'That I cannot tell you,' said I, much amused by her candour; 'but you may be sure of this, I am not afraid of them.'
Her husband was listening behind the door, and I observed an expression of relief in his face when I took up my pack and departed. If I was to be pounced upon, he preferred, for his own peace of mind and the reputation of his house, that it should be done elsewhere. All the village had heard of my coming, and when I reappeared outside there was a small crowd of people waiting to have a good look at me. I thought from these signs that I was likely to be asked to show my papers again by some petty functionary; but no, I was allowed to pass on without interference. Perhaps the postman had given a good account of me, the absinthe having touched his heart. There is much diplomacy in getting somebody on your side while travelling alone through these unopened districts far from railways. Wandering among the peasants of the Tarn and the Aveyron teaches one what ignorance really means, what blindness of intellect goes with it. And yet their enlightenment by the usual methods would be a doubtful blessing to themselves and others.
I was now descending to the valley, and not long after leaving the village an attempt to escape from the winding hot road led me into one of those wildernesses which are to me infinitely more pleasing than the most artistic gardens, with their geometric flower-beds and their counterfeit lakes and grottoes. The surface of the land was thrown or washed up into dark-brown hillocks of broken argillaceous schist, which repelled vegetation, but the hollows were wooded with mountain oak and many shrubs. Farther down there were other hillocks, equally bare, but formed of the blue-looking lias marl which the husbandman detests with good reason, for its sterility is incorrigible. This terre bleue, as the peasants call it, was not the only sign of a change in the formation; fragments of calcareous stone were mixed with the brown soil. I was leaving the dark schist and was approaching those immense accumulations of jurassic rock, whose singular forms and brilliant colours lend such extraordinary grandeur to the scenery of the Upper Tarn. There was also a change in the vegetation. A large species of broom, four or five feet high, covered with golden blossom the size of pea-flowers, although the common broom had long passed its blooming, now showed itself as well as roseroot sedum, neither of which had I seen while coming over the schist. The cicadas returned and screamed from every tree. I captured one and examined the musical instrument—a truly marvellous bit of mechanism—that it carried in each of its sides. It is not legs which make the noise, as is the case with crickets and grasshoppers, but little hard membranes under the wings are scraped together at the creature's will. The sound is not musical, for when it is not a continuous scissor-grinding noise, it is like the cry of a corncrake with a weak throat; but what delight there is in it! and how it expresses that joy in the present and recklessness of the morrow, which the fabulist has in vain contrasted with the virtuous industry of the ant in order to point a moral for mankind!—vainly, because the cigale's short life in the sunlit trees will ever seem to men a more ideal one than that of the earth-burrowing ant, with its possible longevity, its peevish parsimony, and restless anxiety for the future. I could have lain down under a tree like a gipsy in this wild spot, and let the summer dreams come to me from their airy castles amongst the leaves, if I had not made up my mind to reach St. Affrique before night. There was another reason which, although it clashes with poetry, had better be told for the sake of truth. Insects would soon have taken all pleasure from the siesta. Great black ants, and great red ones, little ants too, that could have walked with comfort through the eye of a fine needle, notwithstanding their wickedness, and intermediate species of the same much-praised family, would have scampered over me and stung me, and flies of bad propensities would have settled upon me. An enthusiastic entomologist has only to lie down in the open air in this part of France at the end of July or in August, and he will soon be able to observe, perhaps feel, sufficient insects travelling on their legs or on the wing to satisfy a great deal of curiosity. Often the air is all aflutter with butterflies, many of them remarkable for their size or the beauty of their colouring. One I have particularly noticed; not large, but coloured with exquisite gradations of bright-yellow, orange, and pale-green.
I believe I added to my day's journey by my excursion across country, but the time would have passed less pleasantly on the road. The winding yellow line, however, appeared again, and I had to tramp upon it. And a hot, toilsome trudge it was, through that long narrow valley with scrubby woods reaching down to the road, but with no habitations and no water. It was the desert. The afternoon was far advanced when the country opened and I saw a village of coquettish appearance, for most of the houses had been washed with red, and many of the window-shutters were painted green.
I was parched with thirst, for the sun had been broiling me for hours; therefore, when I saw this village on the hillside, I hurried towards it with the impatience of a traveller who sees the palm-trees over a well in the sands of Africa. In a place that could give so much attention to colour there must surely be an auberge, I thought. And I judged rightly, for there were two little inns. I found the door of the first one closed, and learnt that the people were out harvesting. I walked on to the next, and found that likewise closed, and was again informed that all the family were out in the fields. The whole village was nearly deserted; almost everyone was busy reaping and putting up the sheaves. I stopped beside the village pump and reflected upon my misery. I had resigned myself to water, when a woman carrying a sickle opened the door of one of the inns. Some friendly bird must have told her of my thirst and weariness—perhaps the merry little quail that I heard as I came up from the plain crying 'To-whit! To-whit!' That blessed auberge actually contained bottled beer. And the room was so cool that butter would not have melted in it. These southern houses have such thick stone walls that they have the double advantage of being warm in winter and delightfully cool in summer. I had some difficulty in resisting the temptation to stop the night at this inn; but I did resist it, and was again on the road to St. Affrique before the heat of the day had passed. Another toilsome trudge, during which I met an English threshing-machine being dragged along by bullocks, and the familiar words upon it made me feel for awhile quite at home. The apparition, however, gave me a shock, for the antique flail is still the instrument commonly used for threshing in the southern provinces of France.
At a village called Moulin, lying in a rich and beautiful valley, I met the Sorgues, one of the larger tributaries of the Tarn, and for the rest of my journey I had the companionship of a charming stream. Evening came on, and the fiery blue above me grew soft and rosy. Rosy, too, were the cornfields, where bands of men and women, fifteen or twenty together, were reaping gaily, for the heat of the day was gone, the freshness of the twilight had come, and the fragrance of the valley was loosened. I had left the last group of reapers behind, and the silence of the dusk was broken only by the tree crickets and the rapids of the little river, when a woman passed me on the road and murmured 'Adicias!' (God be with you!). 'Adicias! I replied, and then I was again alone. Presently there was a jangling of bells behind, and I was soon overtaken by three horses and a crowded diligence. The sound of the bells grew fainter and fainter, and once more I was alone with the summer night. The stars began to shine, and the river was lost in the mystery of shadow, save where a sunken rock made the water gleam white, and broke the peace with a cry of trouble.
It was late when I reached St. Affrique, and I believe no tramp arrived at his bourne that night more weary than I, for I had been walking most of the day in the burning sun. But although I lay down like a jaded horse, I was too feverish to sleep. To make matters worse, there was a cock in the yard just underneath my window, and the fiendish creature considered it his duty to crow every two or three minutes after the stroke of midnight. How well did I then enter into the feelings of a man I knew who, under similar provocation, got up from his bed, and, taking a carving-knife from the kitchen, quietly and deftly cut off the cock's head before the astonished bird had time to protest. Having stopped the crowing and assured himself that it would not begin again, he went back to bed and slept the sleep of the innocent.
I was out early the next morning, looking at the extraordinary astronomical dials of the parish church, covering much of the surface of the outer walls. All the straight lines, curves, and figures, and the inscriptions in Latin, must have the effect of convincing the majority of the inhabitants that their ignorance is hopeless. Such a display of science must be like wizard symbolism to the common people. The dials are exceedingly curious, and there are some really astonishing calculations, as, for instance, a table showing the 'number of souls that have appeared before the Tribunal of God.' Near a great sundial are these solemn words: 'Sol et luna faciunt quae precepta sunt eis; nos autem pergrimamur a Domino.' The church itself is one of the most fantastically ugly structures imaginable. All possible tricks of style and taste appear to have been played upon it. It is a jumble of heavy Gothic and Italian, and the apse is twisted out of line with the nave, in which respect, however, it is like the cathedral of Quimper. As I left the church a funeral procession approached, women carrying palls by the four corners a little in front of the coffin, according to the custom of the country when the dead person is of their own sex.
St. Affrique is a small town of about 7,000 inhabitants, lying in a warm valley and surrounded by high hills, the sides of which were once covered with luxuriant vineyards. These slopes, arid, barren, and sun-scorched, are perfectly suited to the cultivation of the vine, the fig, and the almond; but the elevation is still too great for the olive. According to the authors of 'Gallia Christiana,' a saint named Fricus, or Africus, came at the beginning of the sixth century into the valley of the Sorgues, and was the founder of the burg. St. Affrique was a strong place in the Middle Ages, and for this reason it was disturbed less by the English than some other towns in the Rouergue. After the treaty of Bretigny the consuls went to Millau and swore fealty to the King of England, represented there by John Chandos.
As I toiled up the side of the valley in the direction of Millau, I noticed the Rocher de Caylus, a large reddish and somewhat fantastically shaped block of oolitic rock, perched on the hill above the vineyards. Here the lower formation was schistous, the upper calcareous. The sun was intensely hot, but there was the shade of walnut-trees, of which I took advantage, although it is said to be poisonous, like that of the oleander.
When I reached the plateau there was no shade whatever, baneful or beneficent. If there was ever any forest here all vestige of it has disappeared. I was on the border of the Causse de Larzac, one of the highest, most extensive, and hopelessly barren of the calcareous deserts which separate the rivers in this part of France. Not a drop of water, save what may have been collected in tanks for the use of sheep, and the few human beings who eke out an existence there, is to be found upon them. Swept by freezing winds in winter and burnt by a torrid sun in summer, their climate is as harsh as the soil is ungenerous.
But although I was sun-broiled upon this causse, I was interested at every step by the flowers that I found there. Dry, chaffy, or prickly plants, corresponding in their nature to the aridity and asperity of the land, were peculiarly at home upon the undulating stoniness. The most beautiful flower then blooming was the catananche, which has won its poetic French name, Cupidon bleu, by the brilliant colour of its blossom. Multitudes of yellow everlastings also decked the solitude.
On reaching the highest ground the crests of the bare Cevennes were seen against the cloudless sky to the south. A little to the east, beyond the valley of the Cernon, which I intended to cross, were high hills or cliffs, treeless and sterile, with hard-cut angular sides, terminating upwards in vertical walls of naked stone. These were the buttresses of the Causse de Larzac. The lower sides of some of the hills were blue with lias marl, and wherever they were steep not a blade of grass grew.
Having descended to the valley, I was soon climbing towards Roquefort by the flanks of those melancholy hills which seemed to express the hopelessness of nature after ages of effort to overcome some evil power. And yet the tinkling of innumerable sheep-bells told that even here men had found a way of earning their bread. I saw the flocks moving high above me where all was wastefulness and rockiness, and heard the voices of the shepherds. There were the Roquefort sheep whose milk, converted into cheese of the first quality, is sent into distant countries whose people little imagine that its constituents are drawn from a desert where there is little else but stones.
I came in view of the village, clinging as it seemed to the steep at the base of a huge bastion of stark jurassic rock. Facing it was another barren hill, and in the valley beneath were mamelons of dark clay and stones partly conquered by the great broom and burning with its flame of gold. When I reached the village I felt that I had earned a rest.
Cheese, which has been the fortune of Roquefort, has destroyed its picturesqueness. It has brought speculators there who have raised great ugly square buildings of dazzling whiteness, in harsh contrast with the character and sombre tone of the old houses. Although the place is so small that it consists of only one street and a few alleys, the more ancient dwellings are remarkable for their height. It is surprising to see in a village lost among the sterile hills houses three stories high. The fact that there is only a ledge on which to build must be the explanation. What is most curious in the place is the cellars. Before the cheese became an important article of commerce these were natural caverns, such as are everywhere to be found in this calcareous formation, but now they are really cellars which have been excavated to such a depth in the rock that they are to be seen in as many as five stages, where long rows of cheeses are stacked one over the other. The virtue of these cellars from the cheese-making point of view is their dryness and their scarcely varying temperature of about 8o Centigrade summer and winter. But the demand for Roquefort cheese has become so great that trickery now plays a part in the ripening process. The peasants have learnt that 'time is money,' and they have found that bread-crumbs mixed with the curd cause those green streaks of mouldiness, which denote that the cheese is fit for the market, to appear much more readily than was formerly the case when it was left to do the best it could for itself with the aid of a subterranean atmosphere. This is not exactly cheating; it is commercial enterprise, the result of competition and other circumstances too strong for poor human nature. In cheese-making, breadcrumbs are found to be a cheap substitute for time, and it is said that those who have taken to beer-brewing in this region have found that box, which here is the commonest of shrubs, is a cheap substitute for hops. The notion that brass pins are stuck into Roquefort cheese to make it turn green is founded on fiction.
Having remained at Roquefort long enough to see all that was needful, to lunch and to be overcharged—commercial enterprise is very infectious—I turned my back upon it and scrambled down a stony path to the bottom of the valley where the Cernon—now a mere thread of a stream—curled and sparkled in the middle of its wide channel, the yellow flowers and pale-green leaves of the horned poppy basking upon the rocky banks. Following it down to the Tarn, I came to the village of St. Rome de Cernon, where the houses of dark-gray stone, built on a hillside, are overtopped by the round tower of a small mediaeval fortress which has been patched up and put to some modern use. I thought the people very ill-favoured by nature here, but perhaps they are not more so than others in the district. The harshness of nature is strongly reflected in all faces. Having passed a man on the bank of the stream washing his linen—presumably his own—with bare arms, sinewy and hairy like a gorilla's, I was again in the open country; but instead of following donkey-paths and sheep-tracks I was upon the dusty highroad. Well, even a, route nationale, however hot and dusty, so that it be not too straight, has its advantages, which are felt after you have been walking an uncertain number of miles over a very rough country, trusting to luck to lead you where you wished to go. The feeling that you may at length step out freely and not worry yourself with a map and compass is a kind of pleasure which, like all others, is only so by the force of contrast and the charm of variety. I knew that I could now tramp along this road without troubling myself about anything, and that I should reach Millau sooner or later. It was really very hot—ideal sunstroke weather, verging on 90o in the shade; but I had become hardened to it, and was as dry as a smoked herring. For miles I saw no human being and heard no sound of life except the shrilling of grasshoppers and the more strident song of the cicadas in the trees. By-and-by houses showed themselves, and I came to the village of St. Georges beside the bright little Cernon, but surrounded by wasteful, desolate hills, one of which, shaped like a cone, reared its yellow rocky summit far towards the blue solitude of the dazzling sky. I passed by little gardens where great hollyhocks flamed in the afternoon sunshine, then I met the Tarn again and reached Millau, a weary and dusty wayfarer.
I stopped in Millau (sometimes spelt Milhau) more than a day, in order to rest and to ramble—moderately. Although the town, with its 16,000 inhabitants, is the most populous in the department of the Aveyron, it is so remote from all large centres and currents of human movement that very little French is spoken there. And this French is about on a par with the English of the Sheffield grinders. In the better-class families an effort now is made to keep patois out-of-doors for the sake of the children; but there is scarcely a middle-aged native to whom it is not the mother-tongue. The common dialect is not quite the same throughout Guyenne and Languedoc; but the local variations are much less marked than one would expect, considering that the langue d'oc has been virtually abandoned as a literary vehicle for centuries. The word oc (yes), which was once the most convenient sound to distinguish the dialect from that of the northern half of France, is not easy to recognise nowadays in the conversation of the people. The c in the word is not pronounced—perhaps it never was—and the o is usually joined to be, which has the same meaning as bien in the French language. Thus we have the forms obe, ope, and ape according to the district, and all equivalent to 'yes.' All these people can understand Spanish when spoken slowly. Many can catch your meaning when you speak to them in French, but reply in patois. I had grown accustomed, although not reconciled, to this manner of conversing with peasants; but I was surprised to find on entering a shop at Millau that neither the man nor his wife there could reply to me in French.
This town lies in the bottom of a basin; some of the high hills, especially those on the east, showing savage escarpments with towering masses of yellow or reddish rock at the summits. The climate of the valley is delightful in winter, but sultry and enervating in summer. It is so protected from the winds that the mulberry flourishes there, and countless almond-trees rise above the vines on the burning hillsides.
Millau presents a good deal of interest to the archaeologist. Very noteworthy is the ancient market-place, where the first and upper stories project far over the paving and are supported by a colonnade. Some of the columns, with elaborately carved Romanesque capitals, date from the twelfth century, and look ready to fall into fragments. At one end of the square is an immense modern crucifix—a sure sign that the civic authorities do not yet share the views of the municipal councillors of Paris in regard to religious emblems. Protestants, however, are numerous at Millau as well as at St. Affrique, both towns having been important centres of Calvinism at the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes; and after the forced emigration many of the inhabitants must have strongly sympathized with their persecuted neighbours, the Camisards. Nevertheless, the department of the Aveyron, taken in its entirety, is now one of the most fervently Catholic in France.
The church is Romanesque, with a marked Byzantine tendency. It has an elegant apse, decorated in good taste; but the edifice having received various patchings and decorations at the time of the Renaissance, the uniformity of style has been spoilt. The most striking architectural feature of the town is a high Gothic belfry of octagonal form, with a massive square tower for its base.
In the Middle Ages the government of this town was vested in six consuls, who received twenty gold florins a year as salary, and also a new robe of red and black cloth with a hood. In 1341 they furnished forty men-at-arms for the war against the English, but the place was given up to Chandos in 1362. The rising of 1369 delivered the burghers again from the British power, but for twenty-two years they were continually fighting with the English companies.
The evening before I left Millau I strolled into the little square where the great crucifix stands. I found it densely crowded. Three or four hundred men were there, each wearing a blouse and carrying a sickle with a bit of osier laid upon the sharp edge of the blade along its whole length, and firmly tied. All these harvesters were waiting to be hired for the following week. They belonged to a class much less numerous in France than in England—the agricultural labourers who have no direct interest in the soil that they help to cultivate and the crops that they help to gather in. I have often met them on the dusty roads, frequently walking with bare feet, carrying the implements of their husbandry and a little bundle of clothes. It must be very hard to ask for work from farm to farm. I can enter fully into the attachment of the French peasant to his bit of land, which, although it may yield him little more than his black bread, cannot be taken from him so long as he can manage to live by the sweat of his brow. Many of these peasant proprietors can barely keep body and soul together; but when they lie down upon their wretched beds at night, they feel thankful that the roof that covers them and the soil that supports them are their own. The wind may howl about the eaves, and the snow may drift against the wall, but they know that the one will calm down, and that the other will melt, and that life will go on as before—hard, back-breaking, grudging even the dark bread, but secure and independent. Waiting to be hired by another man, almost like a beast of burden—what a trial is here for pride! Happily for the human race, pride, although it springs naturally in the breast of man, only becomes luxuriant with cultivation. The poor labourer does not feel it unless his instinctive sense of justice has been outraged.
THE BLACK CAUSSE.
One cannot be sure of the weather even in the South of France, where the skies are supposed, by those who do not know them, to be perpetually blue. The 'South of France' itself is a very deceptive term. The climate on one side of a range of mountains or high hills may be altogether different from that on the other. In Upper Languedoc and Guyenne the climate is regulated by three principal factors: the elevation of the soil, the influence of the Mediterranean, and the influence of the Atlantic. On the northern side of the Cevennes, the currents from the ocean, together with the altitude, do much to keep the air moist and comparatively cool in summer; whereas on the other side of the chain, where the Mediterranean influence—in a large measure African—is paramount, the climate is dry and torrid during the hot months. A liability to sudden changes goes with the advantages of the more favoured region. This was enforced upon me at Millau.
At seven o'clock the sky, lately of such a fiery blue, was of a most mournful smokiness, and the rain fell in a drenching spray. It was mountain weather, and I blamed the Cevennes for it. But I was in the South, and at a season when bad weather is seldom in earnest, so I did not despair of a change when the sun rose higher. It came, in fact, at about eight o'clock, when, a breeze springing up, the clouds, after a short struggle, were swept away. The market-women spread out upon the pavement their tomatoes, their purple aubergines, their peaches, and green almonds; the harvesters, long hesitating, went out into the fields to reap; and I, leaving the Tarn, took my way up the valley of the gleaming Dourbie. Millau was soon nearly hidden in its basin, but above it, on the sides of the surrounding hills, scattered amongst the sickly vines, or the vigorous young plants which promised in a few years to make the stony soil flow once more with purple juice, were the small white houses of the wine-growers. Where I could, I walked in the shade of walnut and mulberry trees, for the heat was great, and the rain that had fallen rose like steam in the sun-blaze from the herbage and the golden stubble. In this low valley all corn except maize had been gathered in, and Nature was resting, after her labour, with the smile of maternity on her face. Nevertheless, this stillness of the summer's fulfilment, this pause in the energy of production, is saddening to the wayfarer, to whom the vernal splendour of the year and the time of blossoming seem like the gifts of yesterday. The serenity of the burnished plains now prompts him upward, where he hopes to overtake the tarrying spring upon the cool and grassy mountains. Although the mountains towards which I was now bearing were the melancholy and arid Cevennes, I wished the distance less that lay between me and their barren flanks, where the breeze would be scented with the bloom of lavender. There were flowers along the wayside here, but they were the same that I had been seeing for many a league, and they reminded me too forcibly of the rapid flight of the summer days by their haste—their unnecessary haste, as I thought—in passing from the flower to the seed. A sprig of lithosperm stood like a little tree laden with Dead Sea fruit, for the naked seeds clung hard and flinty where the flowers had been. The glaucium, although still blooming, had put forth horns nine inches long, and the wild barley, so lately green, was now a brown fringe along the dusty road. And thus all these familiar forms of vegetable life, which we notice in our wanderings, but never understand, come and go, perish and rise again—so quickly, too, that we have no time to listen to what they say; we only feel that the song which they sing along the waysides of the world is ever joyous and ever sad.
In the lower part of this valley were scattered farmhouses, which looked like small rural churches, for their high rectangular dovecots at one end had much the air of towers with broach spires. Throughout Guyenne one is amazed at the apparently extravagant scale on which accommodation has been provided for pigeon-rearing. There are plenty of pigeons in the country, but the size of their houses is usually out of all proportion to the number of lodgers, and dovecots without tenants are almost as frequently seen as those that are tenanted. They are seldom of modern construction; many are centuries old. All this points to the conclusion that people of former times laid much greater store by pigeon-flesh than their descendants do. It may have been that other animal food was relatively more expensive than at the present day.
But as I ascended the valley the breadth of cultivated land grew narrower, and the habitations fewer. On either side the cliffs rose higher, and the walls of Jurassic rock, above the brashy steeps, more towering, precipitous, and fantastic. Where vegetable life could draw sustenance from crumbling, stones stretched a veritable forest of box. Now, in a narrow gorge, the Dourbie frolicked about the heaps of pebbles it had thrown up in its winter fury. Strong wires, attached to high rocks, crossed the gorge and the stream, and were made fast to the side of the road. Bundles of newly-cut box at the lower end showed the use to which these wires were put. Far aloft upon the heated rocks women were cutting down the tough shrub for firewood or manure, for it is put to both uses. It serves a very useful purpose when buried in dense layers between the vine rows. When I looked aloft, and saw those petticoated beings toiling in the terrible heat, I thought it a pity that there was no society to protect women as well as horses from being cruelly overworked. Let social reformers ponder this truth: The more the man is encouraged to shirk work, the more the woman will have to toil to make up for wasted time. As it is, women everywhere, except perhaps in England, work harder than men, as far as I can speak from observation.
I was on my way to Vieux Montpellier—the 'Devil's City'—and already the scenery began to take the character to be expected of it in such a neighbourhood. It seemed as though the demon builder of the fantastic town, sporting with man's architectural ideals before his appearance on the earth, had hewn the red and yellow rocks above the Dourbie into the ironic semblance of feudal towers and heaven-pointing spires.
The highest limestone rocks in this region, those which rise from the plateau or causse and strike the imagination by the strangeness of their forms, are dolomite; in the gorges they approach the character of lias towards the base, and not unfrequently contain lumps of pure silex embedded in their mass. The redness which they so often show, and which, alternating with yellow, white, or gray, adds to the grandeur of their rugged outlines, is due to the iron which the rock contains.
A young gipsy-woman, carrying a child upon her shoulders, and holding on to a dusky little leg on each side of her neck, followed in the wake of an old caravan drawn by a mule of resigned countenance—a beast that seemed to have made a vow never to hurry again, and to let the flies do their worst. She vanished upon the winding road, and presently I saw another wayfarer seated on the bank beside the stream, binding up a bleeding foot under the trailing traveller's joy. Before reaching the village of La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite, I passed a genuine rock dwelling. A natural cavern, some twenty or thirty feet above the level of the road, had been walled up to make a house. It had its door and windows like any other dwelling, and some convenient crevice in the rock had probably been used for a chimney.
Having taken an hour's rest and a light meal in the village, I commenced the ascent towards the 'Devil's City.' A mule-path wound up the steep side of the gorge, which had been partly reclaimed from the desert by means of terraces where many almond-trees flourished, safe from the north wind. Very scanty, however, was the vegetation that grew upon this dry stony soil, burning in summer, and washed in winter of its organic matter by the mountain rains. Tall woody spurges two feet high or more, with tufts of dusty green leaves, managed to draw, however, abundant moisture from the waste, as the milk that gushed from the smallest wound attested. An everlasting pea, with very large flowers of a deep rose-colour, also loved this arid steep. I was wondering why I found no lavender, when I saw a gray-blue tuft above me, and welcomed it like an old friend. The air was soon scented with the plant, and for five days I was in the land of lavender. On nearing the buttresses of the plateau the ground was less steep, and here I came to pines, junipers, oaks, and the bird-cherry prunus. But the tree which I was most pleased to find was a plum, with ripe fruit about the size of a small greengage, but of a beautiful pale rose-colour.
I am now upon the causse and already see the castellated outworks of the 'Devil's City.' The city itself lies in a hollow, and I have not yet reached it. The mule-path fortunately leads in the right direction. On my way multitudes of very dark, almost black, butterflies flutter up from the short turf, which is flecked with the gold of yellow everlastings. Here and there a solitary round-headed allium nods from the top of its long leafless stem. I walk over the shining dark leaves and the scarlet beads of the bearberry, and am presently roaming in the fantastic streets of the dolomitic city. To say streets is scarcely an exaggeration, for these jutting rocks have in places almost the regularity of the menhirs of Carnac. But the megalithic monuments of Brittany are like arrow-heads compared to the stones of Montpellier-le-Vieux. In placing these and in giving them that mimicry of familiar forms at times so startling to human eyes, Nature has been the sole engineer and artist. There is but one theory by which the working cause of the existing phenomena can be brought to our understanding. It is that these honeycombed and fantastically-shaped masses of dolomite or magnesian limestone represent the skeletons of vaster rocks whose less resisting parts were washed away by the wearing action of the sea. Some are formed of blocks of varying size, lying one upon another, with a pinnacle or dome at the summit; others show no trace of stratification, but are integral rocks which in many cases appear to have been cut away and fashioned to the mocking likeness of some animal form by a demon statuary. Now it is a colossal owl, now a frightful head that may be human or devilish, now some inanimate shape such as a prodigious wineglass which fixes the eye and excites the fancy. A mass of rock on which can be seen half sitting, half reclining, a monstrous stony shape with head hideously jovial, has been named the 'Devil's Chair.'
I saw this spot under circumstances very favourable to the full reception of its fantastic, mysterious, and gloomy influence. It was late enough in the afternoon for the feeling of evening and of the coming night to be in the air, especially here, where dark pines stood in the mimic streets and squares like cypresses in a cemetery. The awful mournfulness of the shadowy groves was deepened by my own solitariness, for although surrounded by frightful shapes that caricatured humanity, mine was the only human form that moved amongst the dumb but fiend-like rocks and the pines, which moaned and whispered like unhappy ghosts. I was alone in the 'Devil's City,' and perchance with the devil himself. When a hawk flew over and screamed it was welcome, although there was nothing cheerful in its cry. There could be no severer trial perhaps to the nerves of a superstitious person than to take a solitary walk by moonlight through Montpellier-le-Vieux. The sense of the weird and the horrible would give him too many cold shudders for him to enjoy the grandeur and the strangeness of the scene.
The superstitious horror in which this spot has always been held by the peasants—chiefly shepherds—of the district, together with the fact that the rustic, uninfluenced from without, never speaks of rocks except in terms of contempt, however extraordinary their forms may be, must be the reason why Montpellier-le-Vieux has only been known of late years to persons interested in such curiosities of nature. To the geologist it is fascinating ground, as, indeed, is the whole expanse of these causses of Guyenne and Upper Languedoc, so fissured and honeycombed—a region of gorges and caverns, of subterranean lakes and rivers, of bottomless pits and mysterious streams.
It is said that the dolomitic city owes its name, Montpellier-le-Vieux, to the shepherds of Lower Languedoc, who from time immemorial have brought their flocks in summer to pasture upon these highlands. In their dialect they call Montpellier, which is to them what Paris is to the peasants of the Brie, 'Lou Clapas'—literally, a heap of stones. On seeing rocks covering several acres, and looking like the ruins of a great city of the past, they could think of no better name for it than 'Lou Clapas Biel,' or 'old heap of stones.' This turned into French becomes Montpellier-le-Vieux.
The 'Devil's City' can be recommended to the botanist, who need not fear that the flowers he will find there will wither at his touch like those gathered for Marguerite by her guileless lover. The ever-crumbling dolomite has formed a soil very favourable to a varied flora. As I had, however, to reach the gorge of the Tarn before nightfall, and it was still far off, I only took away two souvenirs of the diabolic garden—a white scabious and a bit of rock-potentil.
The name given to the tract of country I was now crossing—the Causse Noir, fitly describes it, It is singularly dark and mournful, and almost uninhabited. It is not, strictly speaking, a plateau, but a succession of valleys and low hills like the bed of the ocean. The barren land is thickly overgrown with box and juniper, and these shrubs, which often attain a height of six or eight feet, sufficiently account for the sombre tone of the landscape. Here and there savage little, gorges run up between the dismal hills, with trees of larger growth, such as oaks and pines, in the hollows. There is good reason to believe that all these causses were at one time more or less covered by forests; but the reason commonly given for their disappearance—namely, that they were burnt down during the religious wars—is less likely to be the true one than that they gradually perished because it was nobody's business to protect the seedlings from sheep and goats—animals capable of changing the world into a treeless desert, but which, fortunately, cease to be profitable when they come down from the sterile highlands, where they thrive best, into the rich plains and valleys. The disastrous floods which occur with such appalling suddenness in the valleys of the Tarn and the Lot are due in a large measure to the nudity of the causses and the Cevennes, where these mountains turn northward and cross the Lozere to meet the Auvergne range. The French Government nurses the hope that it will be able some day to cover much of the baldness of this extensive region with magnificent pine-forests, and planting actually goes on in places; but what with the nibbling flocks, and the increasing seventy of the winters, the measure of success already obtained by such laudable efforts is not encouraging.
I wished to reach Peyreleau that night, but how to get there I knew not otherwise than by persistently keeping in a north-easterly course, and despising all natural obstacles. I was attracted by what looked like a road running up between two hills in the right direction; but when I came to it I found that it was the dry channel of a stream. I nevertheless took advantage of it, as I have of many another such in the South, although there are few watercourses whose beds can be walked upon with comfort. I was lucky now beyond my expectations, for it was not long before I struck a road which I was sure could lead nowhere but to Peyreleau. It first took me through a darkly-wooded gorge, where evening stood like a nun in a chapel. The brilliant sky had changed to a sad gray. There was to be no gorgeous sunset, with rosy after-glow, softening with transparent colour the harshness of the dark box and darker juniper. No: the day that commenced sadly was ending sadly—going to its grave in a gray habit with drawn cowl. A great falcon passed slowly on its way under the dull sky, but no bird nor beast uttered a sound. The Causse Noir was as silent as a crypt.
I became very uncertain where this road over the dismal solitude was going to lead me, for it turned about in such a way as to put me out of my reckoning. At length I saw a deep gorge yawning below, and this told me that I had reached the edge of the causse. Oh, the sublime desolation of these heights and depths in the solemn evening! How, mournful then is the silence of the innumerable, gray stones and monstrous rocks which try to speak to us like creatures once eloquent and possessing the knowledge of wondrous changes, and the key to problems that everlastingly distress the human mind, but on which the curse of dumbness has lain for ages!
I thought that I must have wandered beyond the peopled world, when suddenly I saw, far down in the bottom of the widening valley, a village or small town at the foot of a cone-shaped hill. The little river running near satisfied me that I was in view of Peyreleau. The descent was tedious and long, notwithstanding the loops that I cut off of the curling road by scrambling down the steep sides of the gorge over the loose stones and lavender. It was still daylight when I reached a small hotel, outside of which some tourists were smoking cigarettes and drinking beer while waiting for dinner. Until then I had not seen a tourist after leaving Albi. All through the Albigeois and the Rouergue, I was looked upon as an animal of unknown species, and possibly noxious; but here I was recognised at once as one of a familiar tribe, of small brain development, but harmless. I had entered a region which for several years past had drawn to it many persons—mostly French—who had heard of the grand gorge, or canon, of the Tarn.
I had been told that the right way—the one followed by all sensible people—of seeing the gorge from Sainte-Enimie to Le Rozier was to come down the stream in a boat; but circumstances, or my own perversity, had led me once more to do the thing that was considered wrong. Instead of coming down the swift stream like a fly on a leaf, my intention was to crawl up the gorge by such goat or mule paths as were available on the margin of the river or on the ledges of the cliffs. Thus I should not be obliged to treat every fresh view as if it were a bird on the wing, but could dawdle as long as I pleased over this or that object without being a trouble to anybody.
It was far from unpleasant, however, to spend an evening at this water-side inn with people fresh from Paris, bringing with them the spray of the sea that beats against the shores of high-strung life. Nor was it unpleasant to find a little refinement in the kitchen again, and to eat trout not saturated with the essence of garlic.
THE CANON OF THE TARN.
At an early hour next morning I was making my way up the gorge beside the Tarn; but before leaving Peyreleau, I wandered about its steep streets—in some places a series of steps cut in the rock—noted Gothic doorways, and houses with interior vaulting, and climbed to the top of a machicolated tower built over the ivy-draped wall of a ruined castle. The place is very charming to the eye; but in this region one soon becomes a spoilt child of the picturesque, and the mind, fatigued by admiration, loses something of its sensibility to the impressions of beauty and grandeur, and is capable of passing by almost unmoved what, where Nature deals out her surprises with a calmer hand, might engrave upon the memory images of lasting delight. This is the chief reason, perhaps, why I hate the hurry of the sightseer who, even in his pleasure, makes himself the bondman of time and the creature of convention.
It was pleasant and easy walking on the bank of the river, for as yet the cliffs were far apart, and in the valley there were strips of meadow and flowering buckwheat. The water, where it was not broken into white anger by the rocky channel, was intensely green with the reflection of poplar and alder, although of crystal clearness. I watched the large trout swimming in the pools, and wished I had a rod, but consoled myself with the thought that if I had brought one I should probably have not seen a fish. Opportunities are never so ready to show themselves as when we have not the means of seizing them. While I was looking at the river, a boat shot into view round a bend of the gorge and came down like an arrow over the rapids. It contained a small party of tourists and two boatmen, who stood in. the flat-bottomed craft with poles in their hands, with which they kept it clear of the rocks. I understood at once the delicious excitement of coming down the Tarn in this fashion. Bucketfuls of water are often shipped where the stream rushes furiously between walls of rock; but the men have become so expert with practice that the risk of being capsized is very slight. In a few minutes the boat had vanished, and then the gorge became wilder and sterner; but just as I thought the sentiment of desolation perfect, a little goatherd, who had climbed high up the rocks somewhere with his equally sure-footed companions, began to sing, not a pastoral ditty in the Southern dialect, but the 'Marseillaise,' thus recalling with shocking incongruity impressions of screaming barrel-organs at the fete of St. Cloud.
The gorge narrowed and the rocks rose higher, the topmost crags being 1,000 or 1,200 feet above the water. Although everything here was on a grander scale, all the strong peculiarities of formation which I had remarked elsewhere in Guyenne and Languedoc, wherever the layers of Jurassic rock have split asunder and produced gorges more or less profound, were repeated in this canon of the Tarn.
Competent geologists, however, have noted a distinctive difference, namely: that, of all the rivers running in the fissures of the causses, the Tarn is the only one whose water does not penetrate to the beds of marl beneath the lias; and this is said to partly explain the great height and verticality of the cliffs, for when the water reaches the marl it saps the foundations of the rocks, and these, subsiding, send their dislocated masses rolling to the bottom of the gorge.
I overtook a man and two boys who were hauling and pushing a boat up-stream. The man was wading in the water with a towing-rope over his shoulder, and the boys were in the punt plying their boat-hooks against the rocks and the bed of the river. They made very slow headway on account of the strength and frequency of the rapids. In coming down the Tarn, all that the boatman has to do is to use his gaffe so as to keep clear of the rocks; but the return-journey is by no means so pleasant and exciting.
I passed a little cluster of hovels built against the rock, and here a kind woman offered me some sheep's milk, which I declined for no better reason than because it was sheep's.
Towards mid-day I reached the village of Les Vignes, which takes its name from the vineyards which have long been cultivated here, where the gorge widens somewhat, and offers opportunities to husbandry. The great cliffs protect vegetation and human life from the mountain climate which prevails upon the dismal Causse Mejan and the Causse de Sauveterre, separated by the deep fissure. Until tourists came to the Tarn, Les Vignes was quite cut off from the world, but now it is a halting-place for the boatmen and their passengers; and a little auberge, while retaining all its rustic charm, provides the traveller with a good meal at a fair price. The rush of strangers during the summer has not yet been sufficient to spoil the river-side people between Sainte-Enimie and Peyreleau by fostering that spirit of speculation which, when it takes hold of an inn-keeper, almost fatally classifies him with predatory animals.
On reaching the auberge I walked straight into the kitchen as usual. A fowl and a leg of mutton were turning on the spit, and the hostess was very busy with stewpans and other utensils on various parts of her broad hearth. I soon learnt that a party of several persons had arrived before me, and that all these preparations were for them. My application for a meal was not met with a refusal, but it was evident that I should have to wait until others were served, and that, they having bespoken the best of everything in the house, my position was not as satisfactory as could be desired. I suppose I must have looked rather sad, for one of the party who had so swooped down upon the little inn and all its resources suggested that I should take my meal at their table. I should have accepted this offer with more hesitation had I known that they had brought with them the piece de resistance, the leg of mutton, nearly as large as an English one, that was browning upon the spit before the blazing wood. After thinking myself unlucky, it turned out that I was in luck's way.
I was presently seated at a long table with about a dozen others of both sexes, all relatives or old friends. They belonged to the small town of Severac, and had driven in two queer countrified vehicles about fifteen miles in order to spend a happy day at Les Vignes. They were terribly noisy, but boundlessly good-natured. Not only was I made to share their leg of mutton, but also the champagne which they had brought with them. The modest lunch that I had expected became a veritable feast, and having been entangled in the convivial meshes, I had to stay until the end of it all. The experience was worth something as a study of provincial life and manners. These people—husbands and wives and friends—had come out with the determination to enjoy themselves, and their enjoyment was not merely hearty; it was hurricane-like. There were moments when pieces of bread and green almonds were flying across the table, and the noise of voices was so terrific that the quiet hostess looked in at the door with a scared expression which made me think she was wondering how much longer the roof would be able to remain in its right place. Then, the jokes that were exchanged over the table were as broad as the humour of the South is broad. I felt sorry for the women, but quite unnecessarily. Although the local colour was not refined, human nature present was frank, hospitable, and irresistibly warm-hearted. The vulgarity of the party was of the unselfish sort, and therefore amusing. The enjoyment of each was the enjoyment of all; and even when the tempest of humour was at its height, not a word was said that was intended to be offensive. As a compliment to me, they all rose to their feet, glasses in hand, and the hostess was again startled by a mighty rush of sound repeating the words 'Vive l'Angleterre!' far up and down the valley.
Instead of going on to La Malene that afternoon, as I had intended, I went after crayfish with one of the members of this jovial party, who had brought with him the necessary tackle for the sport. There are various ways of catching crayfish; but in this district the favourite method is the following: Small wire hoops, about a foot in diameter, are covered with netting strained nearly tight, and to this pieces of liver or other meat are tied. A cord a few yards long, fastened to the centre of the netting, completes the tackle. The baited snare is thrown into the stream, not far from the bank, and generally where the bottom is strewn with stones. No more art is needed. The crayfish, supposing them to be in the humour to eat, soon smell the meat or divine its presence, and, coming forth from their lairs beneath the stones, make towards the lure with greedy alacrity. Their movements can be generally watched, for although they are not delicate feeders, they are as difficult as Chinamen to please in the matter of water, and are only to be found in very clear streams. As is the case with their congeners—the sea crayfish and the crab—greediness renders them stupid, and, rather than leave a piece of meat which is to their taste, they will allow themselves to be pulled with it out of the water. It sometimes happens that the netting is covered with these creatures in a few minutes, and that all the trouble the fisherman has is to haul them up. But they are capricious, and, notwithstanding their voracity, there are times when they will not leave their holes upon any consideration. Such was their humour to-day. The cause of their sullenness was said to be a wind that rippled the surface of the water; but, whatever the reason, not a crayfish did we catch.