The breeze which was supposed to have upset the temper of the crustaceous multitude in the Tarn blew up bad weather before night. The panic-stricken leaves upon the alders and poplars announced the change with palsied movements and plaintive cries; the willows whitened, and bent towards the stream; and muttered threats of the strife-breeding spirits in nature seemed to issue from caverns half hidden by sombre foliage. As the gorge darkened, the gusts grew stronger, and the moaning rose at times to a shriek. Now the thunder groaned, the lightning flashed, and the face of the river gleamed. I returned to the inn just as the hissing rain began to fall. I was by this time alone, for the party from Severac had left at the approach of the storm.
As I took my solitary evening meal in a low building cut off from the inn, composed of a large salle-a-manger—the same in which the feast was held—and a bedroom, where I was to pass the rest of the night, I could not help contrasting the exuberant joviality of the morning with the absolute want of it now. The place seemed much too big for me; I had rather it had been half as large, to have got rid of half the shadow. Instead of the tempestuous laughter, there was the thunder's roar. There was also the lightning's flash to drive the shadows out of the corners from time to time. It was a wild and awful night.
I was busily building around me a vaporous rampart of tobacco-smoke, as a barrier to gloomy suggestions from without, when the door suddenly opened, and in walked two gendarmes—one a very self-important-looking brigadier, with thin sharp nose and keen, weasel-like eyes. My immediate impression was that they had come to question me respecting my intentions—inasmuch as I was not going to work in the same way as other tourists—and possibly to ask me for my papers; but I was mistaken. They had merely taken shelter from the rain, and they had not found a refuge too soon, for their appearance was that of half-drowned rats. The brigadier called for a bottle of beer, and while he and his younger companion were drinking it I learnt from their conversation what business had taken them out of doors that night. Their object was to surprise the fish-poachers at the illegal, but very exciting and picturesque, sport of spearing by torchlight. Now, as I had already seen these night-poachers at work on the Tarn, I may as well describe their method here.
I was walking one dark night on the bank of the river near Ambialet, when a glare of lurid light suddenly shot up from the water some distance in front of me, illuminating the willows, and even the black woods, on each side of the gorge. I imagined myself at once in a Canadian forest, near an Indian camp-fire. The light came gliding in my direction, and presently I distinguished the forms of men in a boat, all lit up by the glare. One was punting; another was holding aloft, not a torch, but blazing brushwood—which I afterwards learnt was broom-that he replenished from a heap in the boat; and a third was in the stern, gazing intently at the water, and holding in his hand a staff, which he plunged from time to time to the bottom of the stream. I understood that this was the peche au flambeau, of which I had already heard.
The Tarn being in summer shallow, and of crystal clearness except in time of flood, it offers every facility for this kind of fishing. The flat-bottomed boat glides along with the current; the fish, dazzled by the sudden light, sink at once to the bottom, and lie there stupefied until they are either speared or the cause of their bewilderment passes on. The spear head used is a small trident. When the moon is up, the fish are not to be fascinated by artificial light; consequently the darkest nights are chosen for this kind of poaching.
The two gendarmes, then, had been looking for poachers, and, not liking the weather, they had been unable to resist the auberge light that beckoned them indoors. While they were talking, in walked the most hardened and skilful poacher of the place, whose acquaintance I had made earlier in the day, and who made no secret to me of his business. So far from being abashed by the presence of the gendarmes, he gave them a genial salutation, and, sitting down beside them, talked to them as if he had been on the pleasantest terms with them for years. He was a man of about fifty, who boasted to me that he had been a poacher from the age of fifteen, and had never been caught. He was therefore an artful old fox, and one very difficult to run down. He made the most of his opportunities in all seasons, and laughed at those who troubled their heads about the months which were open or closed. His coolness in the presence of the gendarmes was charming. He actually offered to furnish the brigadier with a dish of trout at any time on a day's notice, and argued that they had no right to seize a net wherever found, because the meshes were not of the lawful size. 'If you doubt it,' said the brigadier, 'just show me yours.' Then he added with a grin: 'I shall pinch you some day, mon vieux.' The other did not seem to believe it, and I am inclined to think that no one will 'pinch' him but Death.
Of the few really attractive callings left, that of the poacher must be given a prominent place, especially in France, where the law is not too severe upon a man who tries to make an honest living by breaking the law so far as it relates to fish and game. The excitement of catching wild creatures must be greatly increased by the risk that the hunter or fisher runs of being caught himself. A poacher is by no means looked down upon in France. He is considered a useful member of society, especially by hotel-keepers. I know a very respectable beadle of a singularly pious parish who is an inveterate poacher. On week-days he is slinking about the woods and rocks with his gun, and has generally a hare or a partridge in his bag; but on Sundays he wears a cocked hat, a gold-laced coat with a sword at his side, and he brings down his staff upon the church pavement with a thundering crack at those moments when the wool-gathering mind has to be hurried back and fixed upon the sacredness of the ritual. He is a well-knit, agile fellow, who knows every inch of his ground, and he has led the gendarmes who have surprised him such dances over rocks, and placed them in such unpleasant positions, that they have come to treat him with the respect and consideration due to a man of his talent and resource. The French poacher must not be judged by the same ethics as the English poacher. Generally speaking, game is not preserved in France. There are extensive tracts everywhere where anybody can shoot, provided that he has satisfied the license formality and observes the regulations with regard to the seasons. The poacher is a man who thinks it waste of money to pay for a gun-license, and a waste of opportunities to respect the breeding season. If he is a fisher, he not only scoffs at the close time, but uses illegal means to achieve his purpose, such as nets with meshes smaller than they should be, and the three-pronged spear. In the Tarn and other French rivers the fish have been destroyed in a woeful manner by poison and dynamite, but it is the rock-blaster and the navvy, not the regular poacher, who is chiefly to be blamed for this. Men who have the constant handling of dynamite, and who move from place to place, are rapidly destroying the life of the rivers and streams. Having noted a good pool, they return by night and drop into it a dynamite cartridge, the explosion of which brings every fish, big and small, to the surface. With these destructive causes, which do not belong to the natural order of things, should be mentioned another that does, namely, the frequency of floods in the season when the trout are spawning. But for this drawback, and the unfair methods of fishing, the Upper Tarn would be one of the finest trout streams in the world. As it is, an expert angler would find plenty of sport on the banks of the river above Le Rozier, and as all anglers are said to be lovers of nature, he would never be dull in the midst of such entrancing scenery as is to be found here.
The storm having spent its fury, the gendarmes and the poacher left, and I was again alone. Although it was not yet ten o'clock, there was the quietude of midnight around me. The village was asleep, and I should have thought Nature asleep had I not heard the harsh scream of an owl as I entered my bedroom and threw open the window. The clouds had broken up, and the moon was shining above the great rocks at the foot of which I knew that the owl was flying silently and searching with glowing eyes for the happy, unsuspecting mouse or young hare amidst the thyme and bracken. Can Nature never rest? Is there no peace without bloodshed under the sun and moon, no respite from ravin even when the night is hooded like a dead monk?
I turned from the moonlit clouds, the rushing dark water, the long white reach of pebbles, and made a little journey round my room. The people who owned this inn may not have been very prosperous, but they were evidently rich in faith. The walls were ornamented with rosaries yards long—probably from Lourdes—and religious pictures. There were also statuettes of sacred figures, a large crucifix, and close by the bed a holy-water stoup. The inhabitants of the Lozere, like those of the Aveyron, are not only believing, they are zealous, and in their homes they surround themselves with the emblems of their faith. These are the only works of art which the villagers possess—almost their only books.
At seven the next morning I had left Les Vignes, and was making my way up the gorge, whose rocky walls drew closer together, became more stupendous, fantastic, and savagely naked. All cultivation disappeared. A rock of immense size, pointing to the sky, but leaning towards the gorge, soon attracted my notice, as it must that of any traveller who comes within view of it. This monolith, over 200 feet in height, has its base about 500 feet above the stream, but it is only a jutting fragment of the prodigious wall. It has received the name of L'Aiguille, from its needle-like shape. Below this, and partly in the bed of the stream, is another prodigious block of dolomite called La Sourde, and here the channel is so obstructed by the number and size of the rocks which have fallen into it, that the river has forced a passage beneath them, and does not reappear until the obstacle is passed. But although the water vanishes, its muffled groan arises from mysterious depths. This, together with the monstrous masses of dolomite, wrinkled, white and honeycombed, the narrowness and gloomy depth of the gorge, the fury of the water as it descends amongst the blocks to leap into its gulf, makes the imagination ask if something supernatural has not happened here. But the geologist says that this chaos of tumbled-down rocks is simply the result of a 'fault' in the stratification, and that, the foundations having given way, the masses of dolomite fell where they now lie.
In the Middle Ages, however, geology was an undiscovered science, and the human mind was compelled—perhaps with much advantage to itself—to seek supernatural causes in order to explain the mysterious phenomena of nature, many of which, so far as subsidiary causes are concerned, have ceased to be mysterious. This spot—called the Pas de Souci—has, therefore, its poetic and miraculous legend. St. Enimie, when she established her convent near the fountain of Burlats, higher up the Tarn, interfered with the calculations of the devil, who had found the numerous orifices in this region communicating with the infernal kingdom exceedingly convenient for his terrestrial enterprises. He therefore lost no time in entering upon a tug-of-war with the saintly interloper. But she was more than a match for him. Her nuns, however, were of weaker flesh, and so he tried his wiles upon them. Their devotions and good resolutions were so much troubled by the infernal teaser of frail humanity that St. Enimie, realizing the great danger, rose to the occasion. One day or night she caught the devil unawares in the convent and tried to chain him up; but he was too strong or too crafty for the innocent virgin, and made his escape down the gorge of the Tarn, intending to reach his own fortress by the hole down which the stream plunges at the Pas de Souci, and which the peasant believes existed from the beginning of the world. St. Enimie followed at his heels as closely as she could, and he led her a wild scamper over the rocks. She hoped that St. Ilere, her confessor, who lived in a cavern of the gorge, would stop the fiend in his flight, but the saint was so busy praying that he did not notice the arch-enemy as he sped on his frantic course. St. Enimie was quite out of breath and ready to drop from exhaustion when she drew near the Pas de Souci, a little in the rear of the tormentor of souls, and he was just about to plunge into the gulf. The saint threw herself upon her knees, and exclaimed: 'Help me, O ye mountains and crags! Stop him, fall upon him!' Thereupon there was a great commotion of the ancient rocks far above under the calm sky, and they fell, one after the other, with a frightful crash. It was, however, the immense block, since named La Sourde, that stopped the devil; the others he shook off as if they had been pebbles. When La Sourde struck him it was more than he could contend with, and it flattened him out. The Needle Rock was just about to tumble, when La Sourde cried out: 'Hold on, my sister! You need not trouble yourself; I have him fast!' This explains why the Needle Rock has ever since looked so undecided. For centuries La Sourde bore the impress of a sanguinary hand, left upon it by Satan in his frantic efforts to get free, but some years ago it was washed away by an exceptionally high flood.
A little beyond this impressive and legendary spot, the gorge, widening, displays an immense concavity on the left, nearly semicircular. Here among the spur-like rocks which jut out from its steep sides—much clothed, however, with vegetation—was the hermitage of St. Ilere, and the spot where it is supposed to have been is a place of pilgrimage. Here, too, are numerous caverns, in some of which many implements of the Stone Age have been found, as well as the bones of extinct animals and others which disappeared from Europe before the historic period. To those who have the special knowledge that is requisite, the caverns of the Causses de Sauveterre and Mejan offer great enticement, for only a few of their secrets, covered by the darkness of incalculable ages, have yet been brought to light.
Again the cliffs draw closer together, and the tower-like masses on the brink of each precipice lift their inaccessible ramparts higher and higher in the blue air. Gray-white or ochre-stained layers and monoliths shine like incandescent coals in the unmitigated radiance of the sun. I pass a little group of houses in the hollow of overhanging rocks, splashed by the shadow of the wild fig-tree's leaves. One side of the gorge is all luminous with sunbeams, down to the lathy poplars leaning in every direction by the edge of the torrent, their leaves still wet with last night's rain. Another boat is being tugged laboriously up the rapids, a mule taking the first place at the end of the rope. The impetuous water looks strong enough to carry the beast off his legs; but he, like the boatman, is used to the work, and has good nerves. The path—if path it can be called, when it has lost all trace of one—now leads over large pebbles which are not pleasant to walk upon; but presently the way along the water-side is absolutely closed by vertical rocks some hundred feet high.
To enter the mad torrent in order to get beyond these terrible rocks, forming a narrow strait, was an undertaking only to be thought of if the case were desperate. I believed that there must be a path somewhere running up the cliff, and after going back a little I found one. It led me four or five hundred feet up the side of the gorge; but on looking down the distance seemed much less, because the rocks rose a thousand feet higher. I was gazing at the loftiest peak on the opposite side, when two eagles suddenly appeared in the air above it; and so long as I remained did they continue to circle over it without any apparent movement of their wings. The eyrie upon this needle-like point is well known; according to the popular belief, it has always been there.
It was in vain, however, that I searched the horizon for the vultures, whose principal stronghold—a long ledge of rock, protected from above by an overhanging cornice, and beyond the range of a fowling-piece from below—is immediately over the river in this part of the gorge. Had I left Les Vignes before daybreak, I might have seen them start off all together, the brown vultures and their black cousins, the arians, in quest of carrion; but now there was not one to be seen. As the vulture has become a rare bird in France, inhabiting only a few localities where there are very high and inaccessible rocks, and where man is crestfallen in the presence of nature, it is to be hoped that they will not be driven from the great gorge of the Tarn by being too frequently shot at in the breeding season, when they are obliged to show themselves at all hours of the day. No peasant would think of wasting a cartridge upon them; but the sharpshooting tourist, armed with a rifle, may be tempted to do so. He would probably fire many bullets before he succeeded in striking a bird five or six hundred feet above him; and even if the shot took effect, there would be very small chance of the vulture falling where it could be picked up. The bombardment would do them little damage; but it might, if often repeated, prove too trying to their nerves, and, notwithstanding their conservative principles, they might be driven at length to quit these rocks inhabited by their ancestors for centuries. To the naturalist this district is of fascinating interest, on account of the large number of carnivorous birds of various species by which it is still haunted. Besides the common brown eagle, three kinds of vulture, several species of falcons, hawks, and owls, the raven family appears to be fully represented, with the exception of the jackdaw, which possibly finds itself too weak and too slow of flight to live in the midst of such strong and ferocious air-robbers as those which have established themselves in these grand solitudes. Among smaller birds of different habits, the red partridge and the water-ousel are frequently seen. The rock-partridge, or bartavelle, is also found, but is rare. The four-legged fauna is not represented by the wolf or the boar, the forests being too scanty to afford them sufficient cover, and the largest wild quadrupeds are the badger and the fox.
Descending the path by steps cut in the rock, I again reached the margin of the Tarn. Gradually the gorge opened, slopes appeared, and upon these were almond-trees and vines planted on terraces. Flowers, too, which had little courage to bloom in the dim depths where the cliffs seemed ready to join again, and the sunbeam vanished before it dried the dew, now took heart under the broader sky. Great purple snapdragons hung from clefts in the rocks, inula flashed gorgeously yellow, white melilot raised its graceful drooping blossoms, and hemp-agrimony made the bees sing a drowsy song of the brimming cup of summer.
Some vestiges of a castle appeared upon a high-jutting craggy mass, marking the site of the Chateau de Montesquieu, one of the strongest fortresses of the gorge in the Middle Ages.
I guessed rightly by the vines and almonds that La Malene was not far off. Soon came that sight, ever welcome to the wayfarer—the village where he intends to seek rest and refreshment. The inn here was as unpretentious as the one at Les Vignes; but with hare, en civet, a dish of trout, and a bottle of the wine grown upon the sunny terrace above the houses, I had as good a meal as any hungry tramp has a right to expect. As for myself, I never expect anything so sumptuous, and in this way I let luck have a chance of giving me now and then a pleasant surprise. The trout in the Upper Tarn do not often reach a large size, because by growing they become too conspicuous in such clear water; but their flesh obtains that firmness which is the gift of mountain streams. The wine grown upon the slopes of the gorge is a petit vin with a sparkle in it, and it comes as a delightful change to those who have been drinking the tasteless, deep-coloured wines of the Beziers and Narbonne region, with which the South of France has been flooded since the new vineyards upon the plains and slopes of the Mediterranean have been yielding torrents of juice. The fruit of no plant is so dependent upon the soil for its flavour as that of the vine. Chalk produces champagne, and some of the best wines of Southern France are grown upon calcareous soils where the eye perceives nothing but stones. The plant loves to get its roots down into the crevices of a rock. I now drank the fragrant light wine of the Gevaudan—the calcareous district of the Upper Tarn—with a pleasure not unmixed with sorrow; for the phylloxera had found its way up the gorge, and the vineyards were already sick unto death. The pest had come some years later here than in districts nearer the plains; but it had too surely come, and the fear of poverty was gnawing the hearts of the poor men—many of them old—who had been bending their backs such a number of years, and their fathers before them, upon those terraces which had been won from the desert at the price of such long labour.
Before continuing my journey up the gorge, I climbed to the little church overlooking the village, and which stands in the midst of the rough burying-ground where the dead must lie very near the solid rock. It is a plain Romanesque building, presenting the peculiarity not often seen of exterior steps leading to the belfry. Against an inner wall is a tablet, which tells of certain men of Florac who 'pro Deo et rege legitime certantes coronati sunt, die II mensis Junii, anni 1793.' They were guillotined by the Revolutionists at Florac.
I passed the Chateau de la Caze, a small but well-preserved castle, showing the transition from the feudal to the Renaissance style, and still surrounded by its moat. It has five towers, and is a picturesque building; but I thought it gloomy in the deep shade of the gorge and the surrounding trees. It must be gloomier still at night when the owls shriek and hoot. If it is not haunted, it must be because there are so many abandoned solitary great houses in this part of France that the ghosts have become rather spoilt and hard to please.
What is the pale yellow flame that I see burning by the river where a slanted beam strikes down from a crenellated bastion of ruddy rock? Reaching the spot, I find two pale-yellow flames, one hanging from the bank, the other trembling upon the stream. The evening primrose has lit its lamp from the sunbeam.
More rocks there are to climb, for the river again rushes between upright walls. The path goes along the edge of a horrid precipice, then descends abruptly by steps cut in the rock.
At a very poor hamlet, clinging to the side of the gorge at a sufficient height to be safe from the floods, I ask a woman if anybody there sells wine. 'Yes,' she replies, 'he does,' pointing at the same time to a tall old white-haired man, who beckons me to follow him. He hobbles along with a stick, dragging one leg, and leads the way into his house under a rock. It is a mere hovel, but it has a wooden floor, and there are signs of personal dignity—what is known in England as 'respectability'—struggling with poverty. Perhaps the ancient clock, whose worm-eaten case reaches from the floor to the ceiling, and whose muffled but cheery tick-tack is like the voice of an old friend, impressed me in favour of this poor home as soon as I entered.
The crippled man, having given me his best chair, disappeared into his cellar scooped out of the rock, and presently returned with a bottle of wine. Then he brought out a great loaf of very dark bread, which he placed upon the table with the wine, and a plateful of green almonds. The French peasants observe the wholesome rule of never drinking red wine without 'breaking a crust' at the same time. I made my new acquaintance break a crust with me and share the contents of the bottle. Then he talked freely of the cares that weighed upon him. He told me that he and others who lived in the gorge had always depended upon their wine to buy bread.
'And are the vines in a very bad way?' 'The year after next will see the last of them.'
Many persons, he added, would be obliged to leave the district because it would become impossible for them to live there. While we were talking two or three little barefooted boys, whose clothes had been patched over and over again, but still showed gaping places, watched and listened in the open doorway with round-eyed attention. They were robust children with health and happiness in their faces, in spite of the hard times, for the mountain air fed them, and their troubles were yet to come. They were the old man's grandchildren, and I suppose I was looking at them more keenly than I should have had I reflected, for he made excuses for their neglected appearance with an expression of pain. Then, changing the subject suddenly, he said:
'What country do you belong to?'
'Ah, c'est un riche pays!'
I told him that it was rich and poor like other countries, and that the people there had no vines at all to help them. 'It is a rich country all the same,' repeated the old man, for the impression had somehow become deeply fixed in his mind. There I see him still seated at the rough table, and behind his broad bent back the wide fireplace against the bare rock blackened with smoke.
I had left this hamlet, and was on the bank of the Tarn, when I heard the patter of bare feet upon the pebbles behind me. Turning round, I saw the eldest of the boys who had been watching me in the doorway. He had an idea that I should go wrong, and followed stealthily to see. He now told me that if I continued by the water I should soon be stopped by rocks, and I accepted his offer to show me the way up the cliff. His recklessness in running over the sharp stones made me ask him if they did not hurt his feet. 'Oh no!' he replied; 'they are used to it.' It is indeed astonishing what feet are able to get used to. The boy's joy at the few sous which I gave him was almost ecstatic. He had hardly thanked me when he set off running homeward to show how he had been rewarded—for his sharpness in thinking that I should lose my way, and allowing me to do so before saying a word.
I was by the river-side not far from Sainte-Enimie when a rather alarming noise broke the silence and became rapidly louder. I looked up the steep cliff, and saw to my consternation a great stone bounding down the rocks and crashing through the vines. As I seemed to be in the line of it I hastened on. I had only gone about ten yards when it bounded into the air and, passing sheer over the path and bank, plunged into the Tarn with a mighty splash. I reckoned that had I remained where I was it would have just cleared my head. It was a fragment of rock which, from its size, might well have been two hundredweight. The same thing happened earlier in the day, but that time I was not so unpleasantly near. The heavy rain of the previous night, coming after a long period of drought, was probably the cause of these already-loosened stones starting upon their downward career. All these calcareous rocks are breaking up. The process of disintegration and decomposition is slow, but it is sure. Every frost does something to split them, and every shower of rain entering the crevices does something to rot them; so that even they cannot last. The Tarn is carrying them back to the sea, to be deposited again, but somewhere else.
I was at Sainte-Enimie before sunset, and there I found the air laden with the scent of lavender. True, all the hills round about were covered with a blue-gray mantle; but I had never known the plant when undisturbed give out such an aroma before. Looking down from the little bridge to the waterside, my wonder ceased. There in a line, with wood-fires blazing under them, were several stills, and behind these, upon the bank, were heaps of lavender stalks and flowers such as I had never seen even in imagination. There were enough to fill several bullock-waggons. The fragrance in the air, however, did not come so much from these mounds as from the distilled essence. It was evident that Sainte-Enimie had a considerable trade in lavender-water.
I spent an unhappy evening, for the inn where I stopped—it called itself a hotel—had been made uninteresting by enterprise; and a couple of tourists from the South, with whom it was my lot to dine, caused me unspeakable misery by talking of nothing else but of a bridge which they had lately seen; If I should ever be near it, I think the recollection of that evening will make me avoid it. It may be a miracle in iron, but none the less shall I owe it an everlasting grudge. These gentlemen from Carcassonne were typical sons of the South in this, that the sound of their own voices acted upon their imagination like the strongest coffee blended with the oldest cognac. They would have been amusing, nevertheless, but for the horrible intensity of their resolve to make me see that nightmare of a bridge. If one had taken breath while the other spoke, or rather shouted, I should have suffered less; but they both shouted together, and their struggle to get the better of one another by force of lung, gesticulation, and frenzied rolling of the eyes became a duel, whereby the solitary witness was the only person harmed. What a relief to me if they had gone down to the river bank and fought it out there! No such luck, however. Had there been no listener, they, too, might have wished the bridge in the depths of Tartarus.
If I passed an unhappy evening at Sainte-Enimie, I spent a worse morning. There was a change of weather in the night, and when the day came again, it was a blear-eyed, weeping day, with that uniform gray sky with steam-like clouds hiding half the hills which, when seen in a mountainous region by a person bent on movement, is enough to give him 'goose flesh.' I now felt a longing to leave the Cevennes and to return to the lower country, but there seemed no chance of escape. The rain continued hour after hour—and such rain! It was enough to turn a frog against water. As the people of the inn seemed incapable of showing sympathy, I went out to look at the town under a borrowed umbrella. It was certainly not much to look at, especially under circumstances of such acute depression. I walked or waded through a number of miry little streets where all manner of refuse was in a saturated or deliquescent state—cabbage-stumps and dead rats floating in the gutters, potato-peelings and bean-pods sticking to the mediaeval pitching—everything slippery, nasty, and abominable. There were old houses, as a matter of course; but who can appreciate antiquities when his legs are wet about the knees and his boots are squirting water? Nevertheless, I tried to notice a few things besides the vileness underfoot. One was a rudely-carved image of the Virgin in a niche covered by a grating. This was in such a dark little street that it seemed as if the sun had given up all hope of ever shining there again. I struggled through the slush to the church, built, with the town, on the side of a hill rising from the Tarn. I found a Romanesque edifice—old, but rough, and offering no striking feature, save the arched recesses in the exterior surface of the wall. A little higher upon the hill was the convent founded by St. Enimie; but the original building disappeared centuries ago.
On returning to the inn I passed the Fontaine de Burlats, where St. Enimie was cured of her leprosy in the Merovingian age. It was a change to see something that really seemed to enjoy the incessant downpour and to enter into the spirit of it. The fountain would be remarkable in another region by the volume of water that gushes in all seasons like a little river out of the earth; but there are so many such between the Dordogne and the Tarn, wherever the calcareous formation has lent itself to the honeycombing action of water, that this copious outflow loses thereby much of its claim to distinction.
The legend of St. Enimie is fully set forth in a Provencal poem of the thirteenth century by the troubadour Bertrand de Marseilles, who received his information from his friend the Prior of the monastery at Sainte-Enimie, which in the Middle Ages was the most important religious house in the Gevaudan. The MS. is preserved in the library of the Arsenal, Paris. It was at the express recommendation of St. Ilere that Enimie sought the fountain of Burla (now Burlats), and bathed her afflicted body in its pure waters. The passage of the poem containing this injunction is as follows:
'Enimia verges de Dyeu, Messatges fizels ti suy yeu. Per me ti manda Dieus de pla Que t'en anes en Gavalda,[*] Car, lay trobaras una fon Que redra ton cors bel e mon Si te laves en l'aygua clara. * * * * A nom Burla; vay l'en lay Non ho mudar per negun play.'
The relics of the saint were destroyed or lost at the time of the Revolution; but high upon the side of a neighbouring hill a chapel has been raised to her, and it is a place of pilgrimage.
IN THE VALLEY OF THE LOT.
The rambler in the highlands of the North knows so well what the wretchedness of being shut up by bad weather in a mountain inn means, that he may have grown reconciled to it, and have learnt how to spend a day under such circumstances pleasantly. But to me, a sun-lover, to whom the charm of the South has been irresistible, such a trial is one that taxes to the utmost all the powers of endurance. Hence it is that, when I think of Sainte-Enimie, I can recall nothing but impressions of dismal wetness. This may seem shocking to those who have seen, under a different aspect, the little town on the Upper Tarn, named after the Merovingian saint. Be it remembered, however, that I was shut up hour after hour in an inn crowded with peasants in damp blouses, shouting patois at each other, and clutching great cotton umbrellas, whose fragrance under the influence of moisture, was not idyllic; In that abominable little auberge, that styled itself a hotel, I decided to go no farther up the Tarn, but, as soon as the weather would set me free, to cross the causse that separated me from the Lot, and to descend the valley of this river towards the warmer and dryer region of the plains.
Not until the afternoon were there any signs of improvement in the weather; and then, as soon as the clouds grew lighter, I started without waiting for the rain to stop. It was Sunday, and outside the old church was a crowd of men and boys, who had come for vespers. The women did not join them, but passed through the door as they arrived. Throughout rural France, wherever religion keeps a firm hold on the peasant, it is the custom of the men to gather for gossip in front of the church some time before the service, and, just as the bell stops; to make a rush at the doorway, and struggle through the opening like sheep into a fold when there is a dog at their heels. While looking at these men, I was again struck by the prevailing tendency of the peasants of the Lozere to develop long, sharp noses—a feature that often gives them a very weasel-like expression.
Having passed the ruins of the monastery, whose high loopholed walls and strong tower showed that it had once been a fortress as well as a religious house, I was soon rising far above the valley of the Tarn. The winding road led me up the flanks of stony hills, terraced everywhere for almond-trees; but after two or three hours of ascent the almonds dwindled away, and the country became an absolute desert of brashy hills, showing little asperity of outline, but mournful and solemn by their wastefulness and abandonment to a degree that makes the traveller ask himself if he is really in Europe, or has been transported by magic to the most arid steppes of Asia. But there is a plant that thrives in this desert, that loves it so much as to give to it a tinge of dusty blue as far as the eye can reach on every side. Needless to say that this is the lavender. It was in all its flowering beauty as I crossed the treeless waste, and it gave to the breath of the desert what seemed to be the mystical fragrance of peace.
Leaving the highway to Mende, I took a rough road on the left, which, according to the map, led directly to Chanac by the Lot. I should recommend no one else to take it unless he have more hours of daylight before him than I had. Again I ran a near risk of passing the night in the open air. The road became little better than a track; then it crossed others, and it was a very pretty puzzle to tell which was the one for me and which was not. It is true that I could have made straight towards the Lot by the compass, but the descent of the precipitous cliffs into the deep gorge, unless one knows the paths, is only a task to be undertaken at nightfall with a light heart by those who have had no experience of this savage district. When my perplexity was at its worst I saw a shepherd, whose form, wrapped in the long brown homespun cloak called a limousine, stood solemnly against the evening sky. I made towards him, thinking that he would help me out of my difficulty; but no: either he did not understand a word I said, or did not choose to give any information. Perhaps he thought me an escaped madman, or a dangerous tramp, with whom it was better to hold no conversation. The sun was setting when I reached a wood of scattered firs—a more melancholy spot at that hour than the bare causse. The weather had been fine for some hours, but now a storm that had been gathering broke. As the wind blew the rain in slanting lines, the level sun shone through the vapour and the streaming atmosphere. Looking above me, as I sheltered myself behind a wailing fir, I saw that the dreary world was spanned by two glorious rainbows. But although the scene was so wildly beautiful, the spirit of desolation was upon me, and I felt like a homeless wanderer. I was roaming among the firs in the dusk, when I met a shepherd boy, who put me on a path that joined the main road to Chanac. Then began the descent into the valley of the Lot. It was very long; the winding road passed through a black forest of firs, and the dark night fell when I was still far from the little town. The walk was gloomy, but in all gloom there is something that is grand and elevating—something that gives a sense of expansion to the soul. The cries of the unseen night-birds, the solemn mystery of the enigmatic trees wrapped in darkness, make us feel the supernatural that surrounds us, and is a part of us, more than the visible movement of life in the light of the sun.
At length the oil-lamps of Chanac flashed brightly in the hollow below, and not long afterwards I was sitting at a table in an upper room of a comfortable old inn, the lower part of which was filled with roisterers, for it was Sunday night. I dined with a Government functionary—an inland revenue controleur, who happened to be a Frenchman of the reserved and solemn sort that cultivates dignity. By dint of being looked up to by others he had acquired the fixed habit of looking up to himself. All the time that I was in his company I felt that, had he been an angel dining with a modern Tobias, he could scarcely have shown greater anxiety not to sit upon his wings. Moved by the genial spirit of the grape, or not wishing, perhaps, to crush me altogether with the weight of his official importance, his ice began to melt a little at about the second or third course. Forgetting discretion, he actually smiled. The meal, which had been prepared in anticipation of his coming, was a much more splendid entertainment than would have been got up for me had I been alone. The cook's masterpiece was a very cunningly contrived pasty—a work of local genius that I was quite unprepared for. Even M. le controleur, had he not checked himself in time, would have beamed at this achievement; but he would never have forgiven himself such an admission of weakness common to mortals not in the service of the Government. Just before the dessert a superb trout that had been drawn out of the sparkling Lot was brought in, and it had been mercifully spared the disgrace of being sprinkled with chopped garlic.
While we were dining the wassailers in the great kitchen and general room downstairs became more and more uproarious. Dancing had commenced, and it was the bourree, the delightful bourree of Auvergne (the Upper Lot here runs not very far from the Cantal) that was being danced. It is a measure that has no local colour unless it is accompanied by violent stamping. The controleur looked very scandalized, and said it was abominable that the house should be given up to such tumult and disorder. I observed, however, that as the joyousness of the party downstairs increased my companion's face became animated by an expression that was not one of genuine anger, and as soon as he had drunk his coffee he remarked in a tone of indifference that, as the evening had to be spent somehow, it might be less disagreeable to see what was going on below than simply to hear it. I soon followed him, and found that he was enjoying himself thoroughly, although discreetly, in a quiet corner. The kitchen was filled with young fellows in blouses, some sitting at tables drinking and smoking, others standing; all were shouting, whistling or raising peals of laughter that might have brought the house about their ears had it been built by a modern contractor. In the centre of the room the bare-armed kitchenmaid, who had left the platters, and a young peasant in a blouse were dancing, their backs turned to each other, moving their arms up and down like puppets in a barrel-organ, and banging the floor with their sabots, with the full conviction that the greater the noise the greater the fun. And this was the opinion of all except the stout hostess, who looked on at the scene with a distressed countenance from behind a mighty pile of dirty plates. The musicians were spectators who whistled in a band the air of the bourree, which is enough to make the most sedate Canon who ever sat in a stall dance, or at least to remember with charity the promptings of his adolescence.
When the kitchenmaid went back to her plates—to the great relief of her mistress, who would have sternly condemned her tripping if thoughts of business had not beset her practical mind—two young men stood up and danced another bourree. With the exception of the scullion and household drudge there was no chance of getting a female partner. In these villages and small towns the girls are kept out of harm's way. They go to bed at eight or nine, and are hard at work either in the fields or in the house, or washing by the stream, all through the hours of daylight. The priests, wherever they have influence—and in the South they have a great deal—set their faces strongly against dancing by the two sexes, except under very exceptional circumstances. They are right; they have peculiar facilities for knowing the variety of human nature with which they have to deal. Humanity is fundamentally the same everywhere, but what is fundamental is modified by race and climate. Temperament, fashioned by causes innate and local, exercises an immense influence upon practical morality.
And so the revel went on. As the glasses were refilled the noise grew louder and the smoke denser. I soon had enough of it, and taking a candle I climbed to my bedroom, leaving the controleur in his corner. Before going to bed I did a little sewing, having borrowed a threaded needle from the landlady with this object in view. The wayfarer should be ready to help himself as far as he can, and although sewing is not, perhaps, the most manly of accomplishments, no tourist should be incapable of sewing on a button or closing up a rent that makes the village children laugh.
My walk across the causse separating two rivers had tired me, but I might as well have remained downstairs for all the sleep that I enticed. As the hours wore on the uproar, instead of subsiding, became more terrific. These Southerners have voices of such rock-splitting power that, when twenty or thirty of them, inspired by Bacchus, or excited by discussion, shout together, one asks if it would be possible for devils on the rampage to raise a more hideous tumult. The house trembled as from a succession of thunderclaps. Midnight struck, and the uproar was unabated. At one it had entered upon the quarrelsome phase, and at two there was a fight. Chairs or tables were overthrown, there was a smashing of glass, a rapid scuffling of feet, and the screaming and howling as of a menagerie on fire. Above the fiendish din rang out the shrill voice of the hostess, who was evidently trying to separate the combatants, and who seemed to be successful, for the hurricane suddenly lulled.
This hostess was a woman of words, but the landlady of an inn near Rodez, which I entered one summer evening, showed herself under similar circumstances to be a woman of action. Two young men who were sitting at a table, after a very brief difference of opinion, stared fixedly and fiercely into each other's face, and then sprang at one another like a couple of tom-cats. Presently the stronger took the other up in his arms, carried him out through the door, and, having pitched him considerately upon the manure-heap in the yard, returned to his place with the expression of the victorious cat. But he reckoned without his hostess. She was not tall, but her cubic capacity took up more place in the world than that of two or three ordinary mortals. With her great bare arms folded across her ample person she waddled towards the triumphant young man, and there was a look in her eye that made him wriggle uneasily upon his chair. I think he was tempted to run away, but shame nailed him to his seat. As soon as the pair were at close quarters, one of the folded bolster-like arms made a sudden movement, and the back of the strong rough hand, hardened by forty years or more of toil, covered for an instant the youth's nose and mouth. That single movement of a female arm, the muscular development of which a pugilist might have envied, shed more blood than all the clawing, tugging, and butting of the male combatants had caused to flow. 'That is to teach you,' said the strong woman, 'not to fight in my house again!'
But I am forgetting that I am now at Chanac. When I went down into the kitchen at about seven o'clock, after two or three hours' sleep, the landlady and the other women of the inn looked very tired and sheepish. They were prepared to hear some strong criticism of the night's proceedings, such as they would be sure to get when the controleur came down.
'You seem to have had some good amusement last night, and to have kept it up well,' said I.
'Oh, monsieur,' exclaimed the hostess, shaking her head dolefully, 'what a night it was!'
And she went on shaking her head, while the kitchen-maid—the one who danced the bourree, and was now listlessly rinsing glasses innumerable—giggled behind her mistress's back. She evidently thought that it was a good sort of night. In making up the bill I think that the regretful aubergiste, who felt, that the reputation of her house had received a cruel blow, and that all the mothers in the place were reviling her for encouraging their sons in dissipation, must have left the bed out of the reckoning, considering that she could not honestly charge me for a night's rest which I did not get. At any rate, the bill was ridiculously small.
Now, with the help of daylight, I can see what the little town is like. The houses—many of which have late Gothic doorways—are clustered about the sides of an isolated hill or mamelon in the valley of the Lot, beyond which rise the high cliffs covered with dark woods. The town is still dominated by the tall rectangular tower that helped to protect it in the Middle Ages, and near to this is the church, which is both Romanesque and Gothic, and is rich in curious details. The sanctuary is separated from the rest of the choir by the graceful arcade of numerous little arches supported by tall and slender columns, which is one of the most charming and characteristic features of the Auvergnat style. The carving of the capitals exhibits in a delightful manner the hardihood and florid fancy of this singularly interesting development of Byzantine-Romanesque taste. Upon one of the piers of the sanctuary are a pair of symbolical doves dipping their beaks into the chalice that separates them, and upon another are two grotesque and fantastic beasts facing one another with frightful jaws wide open.
The walk from Chanac down the valley through the rest of the department of the Lozere I did not do fairly. The sun was so hot and the way so tedious that I at length yielded to the temptation of the railway that I met here, and rode some fifteen or twenty miles. It was not until the next morning at St. Laurent d'Olt that I braced myself up to the task of faring on foot by the river through the department of the Aveyron. Here in the upper country the stream retains its ancient name, the Olt, which is merely an abbreviation of Oltis, unless it be the Celtic origin of the Latin word. It is easy to see how in rapid speech L'Olt became changed to Lot. The t is still pronounced.
The valley down which I now took my way from St. Laurent was broad and green, but the high rocky cliffs which shut it off from the outer world drew nearer as I went on. An old tramp who had a bag slung over his back stopped me and said that he was 'dans la misere.' Doubtless he guessed that I was not quite so deep in it as himself, and that I might be able to spare him something. As I always look upon the tramp with a fraternal interest, however disreputable he may appear, because my own wayfaring has helped to teach me contempt for appearances, I stopped to talk with the aged wanderer while hunting for some stray sous. His matted gray beard and sunken cheeks gave him the air of a Job of the studios; but no such luck had probably ever befallen him as to be asked to pose for thirty sous the hour. Such a sum would be more than he could gather in a day, even after selling the surplus of his begged crusts. He talked to me of 'the picturesque,' which proved that he had not grown gray and half doubled up without learning something of the world's wisdom. I learnt from him that between the spot where we met and St. Geniez there was only a hamlet, but that I should be able to find a house there where I could get a meal.
The old man went hobbling away, wondering, perhaps, when he would meet another foreign imbecile on the tramp, and I was soon alone upon the margin of the river's broad bed of sand, strewn with pebbles like the seashore. The stream was still fresh from the mountains, and it had the joyousness and bounding movements of young life. It was very narrow now, and many plants had grown up since the spring upon its far-shelving banks of mica-glittering sand and many-coloured pebbles; but often its swollen waters had rolled through this smiling valley, a raging and uncontrollable force, spreading terror and destruction.
The cliffs drew nearer and rose higher, and then the river ran through a gorge nearly impassable, and abandoned to all the wildness of nature. The partial loop here formed by the Lot is hidden and defended by a forbidding wilderness of rocks and forest, as if it were one of the last retreats of the fluvial deities, where they can defy the curiosity of man. The adventurous spirit prompted me to explore it, but the lazy one said, 'Leave it.' I took the advice of the latter, and went on by the road, which now left the river, and ascended towards the plateau under cliffs of red sandstone. The thirsty sun had by this time drained almost every flower-cup of its dew; but the freshness of the morning still lingered in the hollows of the rocks, and in the shade of the chestnut, the walnut, and elm. As the earth warmed, it became quieter. All creatures seemed to grow drowsy, except the sociable little quails that kept calling to one another, 'How are you?' and the flies of wicked purpose, which become more and more enterprising as the temperature rises.
It was long since I had seen a human being, when I heard the click-clack of loose sabots coming nearer. Presently a couple of young bulls showed their grim visages round a corner, and after them came a very small girl with a very long stick. She looked about six years old, and she had great trouble to keep her little brown feet inside the wooden shoes, which were many sizes too large for her. How was it that those big, and perhaps bad-tempered, animals allowed themselves to be driven and beaten by that child, whereas they would have turned upon a dog double her size, and done their best to toss him over the chestnut trees? What is it that the brutes see below the surface of the human being to inspire them with such respect and fear of this biped, even when he or she has just crawled out of the cradle? These bulls, by-the-bye, stopped and looked at me in a way that was anything but respectful, and I delayed the study of the metaphysical question until I could watch them from the rear.
I found on the top of the hill the village or hamlet that the old tramp had mentioned; but there was no sign of an inn—indeed, there was no sign of anybody being alive in the place. I threaded the steep little lanes between the houses and hovels, up to the ankles in dirty straw that had been turned out of the animals' sheds, but saw nothing moving except fowls. I knocked at various doors, and obtained no response. It was clear that all the people, including the children, were away in the fields, and had left the village to take care of itself. Hungry and thirsty, I was resigning myself with a heavy heart to trudge on, when I observed a column of blue smoke rise suddenly from a chimney, and I was not long in finding the house to which it belonged. It was a dilapidated building, very wretched now, but with an air of bygone superiority. This was chiefly shown in the Renaissance doorway, a rather elaborate piece of work, over which was the date 1602. I ascended the steps with a little misgiving, for I thought that perhaps some cantankerous person whose family had seen better times might be living there, and that my questions as to food and drink might meet with surly answers. I knocked, nevertheless, with my stick upon the old door studded with nail-heads. It was opened, and before me stood a woman who looked old, but who was probably middle-aged; she was very poorly clad, very imperfectly washed, but on her tired and toil-worn face there was no forbidding expression. I told her that I was looking for an auberge, and she said that hers was one au besoin. It was the only one that answered at all to the name thereabouts. So the smoke had led me to the right place. I followed the heiress of the dilapidated house—she was a descendant of the original owner—through the dingy kitchen, where upon the hearth the fire of sticks that she had just lighted was blazing cheerfully, into a back room, where there were two beds without linen, and with nothing but patchwork quilts over big bundles of dry maize leaves. It is thus that many of the peasants of the Aveyron sleep. This is not a part of France where the study of cleanliness and comfort is carried to excess. If the floor of the room that I now entered had ever been washed, the boards must have forgotten the scrubbing sensation a century or more ago. The appearance of everything indicated that I was in a fleas' paradise; but as it was by no means the first of the kind of which I had had experience, I merely took the precaution of keeping my feet off the ground, so as to offer as few travelling facilities as possible to the enemy. The room, although it was dirty, was cheerful; for the sunshine streamed in through the open window, and the view of the green valley beneath and the woods beyond soon drove the fleas out of mind. Upon the sill were plums laid out on wooden trays to dry in the sun and become what English people call prunes.
The excellent woman, who installed me before a little table on which she laid a cloth, said that she had little to offer me; but that all she had was at my service. She first fished out of the wood-ashes in which it was preserved one of those dry, stringy sausages with which everyone who knows this part of France must be familiar. Then she brought in some white bread which a presentiment of my coming had perhaps caused her to buy a month before, for it was green with mildew. She thought that I should prefer this to the very dark bread of her own making. The choice was perplexing. My meal was chiefly made upon a dish of firm cream like that of Devonshire, with plums and fresh cob-nuts for dessert. Then my hostess made me some coffee, a luxury rarely used in the house; and when she had set it on the table, I induced her to stay and talk awhile. The conversation was made easier because, notwithstanding her poverty, she spoke French with much more facility than most of the people in these rural districts. She told me that her husband and children had not yet returned from the fields, and that she was at home because she was so tired after threshing buckwheat all yesterday in the sun.
'In winter,' I said, 'you have an easier time?' 'Oh no! In winter we are always working at something or another. We then make our linen from the hemp, patch up the clothes, prepare the walnuts for pressing, and blanch the chestnuts.[*] We have always something on hand.'
[*] Blanchir les chataignes. In Guyenne, after the first sale of chestnuts in their natural state, the peasants prepare a large quantity of those that remain in a special manner, which consists of removing the first and second skins, and artificially drying the nuts until they become quite hard. They will then keep an indefinite period, and can be boiled for food when required. In the winter evenings, while the women work at their distaffs, the men frequently skin chestnuts either for drying or for food the next day.
But while there was any work to be done out-of-doors, there they were busy from sunrise until dusk. Supper over, the beasts were looked after. 'Then,' she added, 'we say our prayers and go to bed.' She volunteered no statements respecting her ancestry, but when I questioned her concerning the house, she said that her family had been living in it for nearly 300 years. At one time they were the principal people in the district. It was true that they had come down in the world, but she felt thankful for the blessings that had been given her, and was satisfied. The family were all in good health, and that was the main thing. Her mother was still living with her—eighty-seven years of age, and had never been ill in her life.
Here was a simple but eloquent story of human vicissitude and uncertainty that was told without a word of regret or repining, and as though it were a tale of no interest to anybody. This poor, humble woman before me, whose back was still aching from the movement of bending and lifting the flail hour after hour, was, by right of birth, what we call in England a 'gentlewoman.' But she was poor, and ignorant of all books except the one that contained her prayers. She was not less a peasant than any of the women around her, nor did she wish to be thought anything better. That her ancestors were gentlemen, that, they may have borne a forgotten title (many that were borne in France have been forgotten by the descendants), was as nothing to her. She clung only to what, in her simple but grand philosophy, was really to be valued—the blessings of life and health, opportunities of labour, independence, and faith in God.
This woman would only take the equivalent of a shilling for her wine, her coffee, and her food; then she made me drink some of her eau de noix (spirit prepared with the juice of green walnuts), and as I left she pressed more nuts and plums upon me.
The old woman who had never been ill was waiting for me under a tree. She could not speak a word of French, but she said a great deal in patois, of which all that I could make out was that she was afraid the calour (heat) would hurt me if I left so early in the afternoon. A little beyond the village I passed a party of threshers, men and women—two rows of them facing each other like dancers; the figures bending and straightening in unison, and all the. flails whirling together in the air. They had spread a large cloth upon the ground, and were thrashing out the grain upon it.
A block of granite cropping out of the sandstone indicated a change in the formation, and this came, for the rocks gradually passed into gneiss and schist, frequently covered with moss and ferns, golden-rod in bloom, and purple heather. St. Geniez by the Lot was reached long before sundown; but although I had the time, I was not tempted to walk any farther that day.
The little town is picturesquely situated on the river-bank, and it has some old houses with turrets, and other interesting details. There is a late Gothic church that was formerly attached to an Augustinian monastery, of which part of the cloisters remains. Inside the edifice every flagstone covers a tomb, and in several instances masons' hammers and other tools are carved upon them.
It fell out that several commercial travellers and superior pedlars came into St. Geniez on the same day as myself, but in more genteel fashion, for they had their traps, and would not for all the world have risked their reputation for respectability, and rendered themselves despicable in the eyes of customers, by entering on foot. Nevertheless, their first impression (as I afterwards learnt), when I sat down with them to dinner at the comfortable inn, which, thanks to their patronage, had found the courage to style itself a hotel, was that I might be a new rival in the field. But the difficulty was to guess the particular field that I had marked out for my own distinction and the confusion of competitors. Was I in the grocery line, or the oil and colour line? Was I dans les spiritueux or dans les articles d'eglise? Then they had a suspicion that I was, perhaps, a German traveller trying to open up a fresh market for potato spirit, or those scientific syrups which are said to change any alcohol into 'old cognac' or the most venerable Jamaica rum. This may have accounted for the somewhat chilly reserve that fell upon my table companions as I took my seat among them. But, as this was unpleasant for everybody, I soon found an opportunity of dispelling the mystery that hung over me. Then they threw off all restraint, and showed themselves to be the jolly, rollicking, good-natured beings that these men almost invariably are. They were much more polite to me than Englishmen generally are to strangers, who are felt to be something like intruders—recognising me as a guest, and insisting upon my helping myself first to every dish that was brought on the table. It is customary for tourists to speak of the French commercial traveller as a very ridiculous or vulgarly offensive person. I have found these so-called 'bagmen' to be among the most pleasant-mannered, agreeable, and intelligent people whom I have met while roaming in provincial France. I have been disturbed at night by their uproariousness, for they are convivial to a fault; but in my immediate relations with them I have always found them frank, kindly, and courteous.
Before eight o'clock the next morning I had left St. Geniez behind me in the light mist, and was again on the banks of the Lot. At a waterside village called Sainte-Eulalie—a saint so much venerated by the French in the Middle Ages that a multitude of places have been named after her—was a church with a broad tower and low broach spire. I was struck by the noble simplicity and elegance of the Romanesque apse, which was much in the Auvergnat style. The village was very picturesque, partly on account of its position by the sunny, babbling water, and partly because of its numerous old houses, some with projecting stories, and others with exterior staircases communicating with an open gallery covered by the prolonged eaves of the roof. Outside of the doors mushrooms (boleti) after being cut in slices, were spread in the sun to dry. As I continued my way down the valley I met several women and girls returning from the chestnut woods on the hillsides carrying baskets of these cepes on their heads. Although I hoped to sleep that night at Espalion, I soon left the direct road and struck off across country to the south-west in order to take in the village of Bozouls, a place that some soldier whom I had met told me was like Constantine in Algeria. I therefore left the valley of the Lot, and proceeded to cross the hills and tablelands which separated me from the gorge of its tributary, the Dourdou.
In taking by-paths to reach the causse, I passed over hillocks of chocolate-coloured marl mixed with broken schist and flints: here the broom and juniper, the heather and bracken, flourished. At length I felt the fresh breeze and drank the invigorating air of the limestone plateau. Descending the hill beyond, on the road to Rodez, I passed a very strange-looking spot where huge flat blocks of bare gneiss, laid together as though giants of the Titanic age had here been trying to pave the world, sloped with extraordinary regularity towards the highway. And these prodigious slabs of gneiss now lay amidst schistous marl and calcareous rock.
Farther down in the valley was a small village of which the houses were dwarfed by a gloomy strong hold, apparently of the fifteenth century, whose four high and massive towers, occupying the angles of a small quadrilateral, gave it the appearance of a vast donjon. At a small inn kept by a blacksmith I was able to get a meal and the rest that was now needed. The blacksmith's wife, a pleasant young woman; who seemed much amused at the sight of a being from the outer and, to her, half-fabulous world, drew part of a duck out of the grease in which it had been preserved, and gave me this with rice for my lunch. During the repast I was not a little worried by the questions of the blacksmith and some other village worthies who were drinking coffee in the small room that had to do for everybody, and who had so placed themselves that they could watch me at their ease. Such a strange bird as myself did not drop into their midst every day. They were not unfriendly, but their curiosity was troublesome, and I perceived that nothing that I might have said would have removed the impression from their minds that I was a mysterious character.
The country beyond this village was not unpleasant to the eye, with its vineyards on the slopes and its green pasturage in the valleys, but the hours went by drearily as I tramped upon the long road. I felt solitary, and was not in the mood to be interested easily; nevertheless, I lingered on the wayside awhile before a remarkable relic of the past: a rectangular machicolated tower of great height and strength rising out of a dark grove of trees. The afternoon was drawing towards evening, when I descended suddenly into a deep and narrow ravine where the sunshine was lost, and the twilight dwelt with greenness and dampness. At the bottom the Dourdou ran swiftly over its pebbly bed. After following it a little distance I found myself between towering walls of Jurassic rock, vertical towards the summit, capped on each side by a long row of houses. There was also a church, likewise on the edge of the precipice. This was Bozouls—a place scarcely known beyond a small district of the Aveyron, but one of the most curious in France. The traveller, when he reaches the gorge, after crossing a somewhat monotonous country, is quite unprepared for such a startling revelation of the sentiment of human fellowship in the midst of the savagery of nature. Why did men build houses in rows on the brink of these frightful precipices? It appears to have been all done for the sake of the artist and the lover of the picturesque. And yet Bozouls grew to be a village in an age when men of work and action only knew two kinds of enthusiasm—war and religion. Either a castle or a religious foundation must have been the beginning of this community. There are no remains of a fortress, but the church is very old, and its elaborate architecture suggests that it was at one time attached to a monastic establishment. After crossing the stream I climbed to this church by a path that wound about the rocks, and found it an exceedingly interesting example of the Southern Romanesque. The portal opens into a narthex, where there is a very primitive font like a low square trough. The nave entrance has two columns on each side supporting archivolts, and upon the capitals of these columns are carved figures of the quaintest Romanesque character, illustrating Biblical subjects. The nave has an aisle on each side scarcely four feet wide, and most of the separating columns are out of the perpendicular. The capitals here are wrought with acanthus-leaves or little figures. The sanctuary and apse are in the style of Auvergne, with this peculiarity, that the capitals of the slender columns are singularly massive, and bear only the mere outline of the acanthus-leaf for ornament.
The long street of the village, white and sunbaked, running within a few yards of the precipice, was almost as deserted as the church. But for a Sister who stood by the convent gate like a statue of Eternal Silence, and a man who was killing a wretched calf in the middle of the road, I might have asked myself if this fantastic Bozouls was not some spectral village, reproducing the past in all except the living beings who had gone down into their graves. When I recrossed the Dourdou, the light was several tones lower than it was when I first descended to the bottom of the ravine, and the vegetation was of a deeper and sadder green. And the stream rushed onward with a low wail, and a distressful cry, as of a soul passing down the Dark Valley and not yet free from the panic of death.
When I had reached the plateau that I had left an hour or more ago, the sun was about to set. As I knew that the diligence to Espalion would soon pass, I preferred to wait for it rather than to walk any farther. The south wind was blowing with such force that I lay down on the leeside of a bush to be sheltered from it. Here I watched the sun burning dimly in a yellow haze on the edge of the world. The wind wailed amongst the leaves of the hawthorn-bushes, but over the brown land, flushed with the sad yellow gleam, came the sound of cattle-bells, softening the harshness of the solitude, and bringing almost a smile upon the careworn face of Nature. I watched the dingy golden light rising up the stubble of the hills. Now the sun began to dip behind a knoll; a far-off tree stood in the line of vision, and I could see the leaves shaking as if in frenzy against the disc of sullen fire. Then from the edge of the western sky shot up into the yellow haze fair colours of pink and purple that seemed to say: 'The south wind may blow and burn the beauty of the earth, but the west wind will come again, its light wings laden with refreshment and joy.' The sun was gone, the shadows of night were being laid upon the dreary land, when the wavy clouds about the brightening moon became like a shower of rose-petals; the breeze grew softer and softer, for it was, in the language of the peasant, the 'sun-wind,' and the nocturnal peace began to reign over the sadness of the day's death.
The sound of jingling bells coming rapidly nearer roused me from my contemplative mood. The diligence, so called, was in sight, and a few minutes later I took my place in the very stuffy box on wheels, nearly filled with women and bundles. As it was only a drive of some seven or eight miles to Espalion, the town was reached in good time for dinner. I sat at a side-table in the large room of the inn, at the door of which the coach stopped. The central table was already occupied by half a dozen persons—all fat, vulgar, and noisy. They were examples of the petit bourgeois class whom one meets rather too frequently wherever there are towns in this part of France, and with whom the disposition to grossness is equally apparent in mind and body. There were women in the party, but had they been absent, the language of the men would have been no coarser. These fat and middle-aged women, married, doubtless, and highly respectable after their fashion, when struck by each gust of humour, such as might issue from the mouth of a foul-minded buffoon at a fair, rolled like ships at sea.
I passed a troubled night at Espalion, for there were a couple of feathered fiends just underneath the window crowing against each other with maddening rivalry. One, an old cock, had a very hoarse crow, and seemed to be suffering from chronic laryngitis brought on by an abuse of his vocal powers; and the other was a young cock with a very squeaky crow, for he was still taking lessons, and, as is the case with many beginners, he had too much enthusiasm.
I had had more than enough of this duo before the night was through, and was out very early in the morning looking at the ancient town of Espalion, which witnessed both the victory and the defeat of British arms long ere the Maid of Domremy came to the rescue of the golden lilies. Its capture took place soon after the Battle of Crecy. The lords of Espalion were the Calmont d'Olt, who played an active part in the wars with the English. The town deserves a prominent place among the many picturesque old burgs stamped with mediaeval character on the banks of the Lot. One may stand upon its Gothic bridge of the thirteenth century and dream of the past without risk of being hustled by a crowd except on market days. This venerable bridge must have been admirably built to have withstood all the floods which have smote it in the course of six centuries. The great central arch is so much higher than the others that in crossing you go up a hill and then down one. Close by on the river-bank is the sixteenth-century Hotel de Ville, a castle, partly built on a rock, in the gracefully-ornamental style of the French Renaissance, with turrets, mullioned windows, and a loggia.
Having crossed the river, I went in search of the chief architectural curiosity in or near Espalion—that known as the Church of Pers, or the Chapel of St. Hilarion. It is on the outskirts of the town, and stands in the old cemetery. I had first to find a potter who kept the key, and I discovered him at length in a narrow street in the midst of his clay and the vessels of his handicraft. He gave me the great key, and it was one that some fervent archaeologist might press reverentially to his heart, for the smith who forged it must have died centuries ago. Entering the cemetery, I saw, surrounded by a multitude of closely-packed tombs and grave mounds, on which the long grass stood with the late summer flowers, a small Romanesque building that seemed to have sunk far into the soil, like the ancient lichen-covered slabs from which the inscriptions had been washed away by time's inexorable and ever-wearing sea. Perhaps the soil had risen about the walls.
This church of the twelfth century is built of red sandstone, the blocks being laid together without mortar. On entering it such a dimness falls, with such a sacred silence; the air is so heavy with dampness and the odour of mildew, that you feel as if you were already in the vestibule of the Halls of Death, where darkness and stillness have never known the sound of a human voice or the blessed light of the sun. The design of the building is that of a nave with transept and apse. At each end of the transept is some curious cross-vaulting. The columns have all very large capitals in proportion to the diameter and height; some are ornamented with plain acanthus leaves, others are carved with numerous small figures of men and animals, ideally uncouth and typical of the fantastic medley of Christian symbolism and the barbaric imagination that found a mystical relationship between the monsters of its own creation and the problems of the universe. The exterior of the church is not less interesting than the interior. The charming Romanesque apse, with its three narrow windows, its blind arcade, the capitals ornamented with the acanthus, the row of fantastic modillions above carried all round the building, their sculpture exhibiting the strangest variety of ideas—heads of men, women, beasts, birds, and fabulous monsters; and then the venerable portal, with its elaborate bas-relief of the Last Judgment, furnish much matter for reflection and study. In this 'Judgment' Christ is standing in the midst of the Apostles, and the dead are rising from the tombs below. Fiends are pulling the wicked out of their coffins, and others are throwing the condemned into the wide-opened jaws of a frightful monster. Above are numerous figures separated by various mouldings forming archivolts. The arch of the door is Gothic, but all the other work is Romanesque. The belfry is simply a roofed wall pierced with four arched openings for bells.
Espalion had once its strong fortress on a neighbouring hill—the Castle of Calmont d'Olt. It is now a ruin. I climbed to it, and found the undertaking more tedious than I had supposed. The narrow path winding through the vineyards was bordered with cat-mint, agrimony, vervain, and camomile. Then it passed through a little village, where there were old walnut-trees and mossy walls, and a small church with these words over the door: 'C'est ici la maison de Dieu et la porte du ciel.' After the village, the path was almost lost amidst blocks of sandstone and the debris of the fortress, where snakes basking in the sun slid away at my approach, hissing indignantly at the intruder. On the summit there had been in the far-off ages an outpour of basalt, which had crystallized into columnar prisms, and upon this foundation of ancient lava the castle was built. A good deal of wall and the lower part of a rectangular keep remain of this fortress, which dates from the twelfth century. The outer wall was strengthened with semicircular bastions, the ruins of which are seen. Fennel now thrives amongst the fallen stones, which were dumb witnesses of so much that was human.
Returning to the inn, I resisted the temptation held out to stop and lunch, although the preparations in the kitchen were far advanced, and started off on the road to Estaing. I was again following the Lot, which here flows between high vine-clad hills. After walking a few miles, I saw a bush over the door of a roadside cottage, and, entering, found that the only person in charge of this very rustic inn was a pretty girl of about seventeen. She looked a little scared at first; but when I had sat down with the evident intention of making myself at home, she became reconciled to the sight of me, and consented to let me have what there was in the house to eat. This was not much, as she took care to point out. The nearest approach to meat there was eggs, excepting, of course, the fat bacon—quite uneatable in the English fashion—which is the basis of all the soup made throughout a great part of France. Having lighted a fire on the hearth, and fried me some eggs with bits of fat bacon instead of butter, she said she must go and call 'papa,' who was working in the vineyard. So she left me in charge of the inn while she went to fetch her father on the hillside. While I was alone, I looked at the sunny view of green meadows and trees through the open door that faced the shining river, and easily fancied that what I saw was a bit of verdant England. In the room, too, the twittering of a pair of canaries recalled impressions of other days; but the plague of flies was thoroughly French, and it soon brought me back to realities. When the girl returned with her father, she gave me some excellent goat-cheese, and for my dessert some hazelnuts, together with a spirit distilled from plums, similar to the quertch of Alsace.
I had not been long in the sunshine again, when I noticed a large house in the midst of the vines not far off the road. On drawing near I found that it was ruinous, and had been long since abandoned. It had been a rather grand house once, and must have belonged to people of importance in the country. There was a finely-carved scutcheon with arms over the Gothic door, and the mullioned windows, which had lost all their glass, had something of the pathos of gentility that, becoming poor and old, has been abandoned to all winds and weathers. The little courtyard was full of high weeds and shrubs, and the wild flags that grow on the rocks had laid their green leaves together to hide the wounds of the old walls. Swallows, sparrows, and bats were now the tenants of this mysterious house, which must have had a troubled history. The picture has since haunted my memory; the mind goes back to it in a strange way, and the sentiment of it, as it was communicated to me, I find perfectly expressed in these lines by Alphonse Karr:
'De la solitaire demeure Une ombre lourde d'heure en heure, Se detache sur le gazon, Et cet ombre, couchee et morte Est la seule chose qui sorte Tout le jour de cette maison.'
Some distance farther I passed another deserted dwelling. It was perched upon rocks, and was overgrown with ivy and clematis. The road led me down beside the Lot, which now began to rush again over rocks as the hills drew closer, and the valley became once more a gorge. On one side were dense woods; on the other vines reached up to the sky.
At length I saw before me a row of houses beside the river in a bright bit of valley hemmed in by high cliffs. On the rocks behind the houses were a church and a castle.
This was Estaing. It is a little place full of originality, and looks as if it had been built to set forth the dream of some old writer of romance. The late-Gothic church is more quaint and odd than beautiful. The architect sported with the laws of symmetry, and revelled in the fanciful. The nave is much wider at one end than the other. The great sundial over the door, bearing the date 1636, is scarcely less useful now than when it was placed there. The castle is a strange pile, all the more picturesque by its incongruity. It stands upon a mass of schistous rock about fifty feet above the river. Most of the visible portion of the building is late Gothic and Renaissance; but this was grafted upon the lower walls and arches of a feudal fortress. Towers rise from towers, mullioned windows have their lines cut in the shadow of beetling machicolations, and higher still are dormer windows with graceful Gothic gables. This castle is now a convent and village school. From the court I could see the Sisters' little garden, where flowers and melons and potherbs were curiously mixed without the gardener's systematic art, which is so often a deadly thing to beauty; and nasturtiums climbing the weedy walls from rough deal boxes were basking in the steady glow of afternoon sun, which seemed to me so intensely brilliant because I was in the dark shadow. A Sister consented to let me go to the top of the highest tower, and she went before me rattling her keys officially. On the way she showed me a fine Renaissance chimney-piece with florid carvings.