After Estaing the valley became wilder, and the river fell over rocks in a series of cascades. Clouds came up and hid the sun; a rainy wind made the willows hoary, and set all the poplar leaves sighing and quivering. The vines had disappeared, and the wooded gorge became very solemn in the fading light. There was one figure in the landscape—that of a peasant woman bending and rolling up into bundles the hemp that had been spread out to dry. It added the human touch of melancholy to the sadness of the picture. More and more gloomy became the scene. Great black precipitous rocks of schist, their hollows filled with sombre foliage, rose in solemn grandeur far above me, and in the bottom the plunging stream foamed and roared. The mad wind caught up the dust from the road and whirled it onward, and then the rain began to fall. Rockier and darker became the way, and louder the roar of the stream. So narrow was the gorge at length that the road ran along a ledge that had been cut in the gneiss.
When I was still some miles from Entraygues (called by the peasants Entrayou), I met a young gendarme. He did not ask me for my papers, for he was a native of the district of Lourdes, and had been brought into contact with so many English people at Pau that he detected at once my Britannic accent, which has not been worn away by many years' residence in France. To him the fact of my being an Englishman was a sufficient assurance that I was respectable. He was a rakish, devil-may-care fellow, who, after being a sub-officer in the army, had lately been moved into the gendarmerie. His heart had been deeply touched by an English governess whom he had met at Pau, and he spoke to me about her with 'tears in his voice.' He talked much about Lourdes, where he said the people were sincerely religious, and not hypocritical. His opinion of the Aveyronnais was somewhat different, but perhaps unjust, for as yet he could not have had much experience of them. Having taken the precaution to tell me that he was anything but a strict Catholic himself, he declared that he was a believer in miracles.
'Why?' I asked.
'Because,' said he, 'my father saw Bernadette go up a rock on her knees—one that no man could climb—and I myself have been a witness of miracles at Lourdes. I have seen at least twenty people cured at the fountain. One was a captain, who was so paralyzed that he had to be carried to the water, and when he came away he walked as if nothing had been the matter with him.'
Thus talking we reached Entraygues. I allowed the gendarme to take me to the inn of his fancy, which he praised with true Southern warmth for its comfort and good cheer. The large kitchen as we entered was only lighted by the flame of the wood-fire on the hearth, in front of which a fowl and a piece of veal were turning on the same spit, moved by clockwork that said 'click-clack, click-clack;' which was as genial an invitation to dinner as any I had ever heard. Presently the lamp was lighted, the table was laid, and I sat down to dinner with the innkeeper and the gendarme from the Basses Pyrenees. The meal was of the substantial kind, such as gives complete satisfaction to the wayfarer at the end of his day's wandering, after putting up with frugal fare on the road. The aubergiste brought out his best wine, and his best cheeses made from goat's milk, and which had been kept carefully wrapped up in vine leaves. These little cheeses, when they have been allowed to mature in a wrapping of vine or plane leaf, are among the best made. The landlord had studied all matters relating to the stomach within the range of his experience. He said that hares were not fit to eat unless they had fed chiefly on thyme, and that a starling had no value in the kitchen until it had been feeding on juniper berries.
This night when I went to bed I had not the frantic crowing of cocks to keep me awake, but the soft murmuring of the flowing river to lull me asleep. The weather being now fair and calm after the troubled evening, I threw the window open, so that I could feel the wafting of the great invisible wings of the summer night, and listen to the soothing song of the water repeating the tales that were told to it by the rocks and the woods on its way down from the Lozere mountains.
I was again on the banks of this beautiful river—at no place more beautiful than at Entraygues—when the rising sun was gilding only the topmost vines of the high western hill that shadows it. The little town of 2,000 inhabitants is close to the spot where the Thuyere falls into the Lot. It lies in the angle where two lovely valleys meet. The Thuyere comes down from the Cantal mountains, and as it reaches Entraygues it spreads out over a broad smooth bed of pebbles, its water as clear as rock-crystal; and when the morning sun looks down upon it over the vine-clad hills, it is like something that has been seen in the happiest of dreams. There is a castle at Entraygues, and, as in the case of the one at Estaing, it is now used as a convent and school. The archaeologist will find perhaps more to interest him in the two thirteenth-century bridges which span the Lot and the Thuyere, both noble specimens of Gothic work.
As I left Entraygues the bells in the church-tower were ringing—not the monotonous ding-dong with which French people generally have had to content themselves since the Revolutionists turned the old bell-metal into sous, but a blithe and joyous peal of high silvery tones that seemed to belong to the blue air, and to be the voices of the little spirits that flutter about the morning's rosy veil. My design was to reach the abbey of Conques before evening, but instead of going directly towards it over the hills, I preferred to keep as long as possible in the valley of the Lot, which is here of such witching loveliness. As there was a road on the river-bank for many miles, I could follow this fancy, and yet feel the comfort of walking on good ground. Although the season was getting late, I found the valley below Entraygues very rich in flowers. Agrimony, mint, and marjoram, with a tall inula, and the pretty, sweet-scented white melilot, were in great abundance along the bank. Upon the rocks, which now bordered the road, were the deep red blossoms of the orpine sedum, and a small crimson-flowered stock with very hoary stem. A tall handsome plant about three feet high, with large white flowers, drew me down a bank to where it was growing near the water. I found that it was a very luxuriant specimen of the thorn-apple (datura). While I was admiring its poisonous beauty a woman stopped on the road just above me, and, after contemplating me in silent curiosity for a few minutes, said to me first in patois and then in French (when I replied to her in this language):
'It is a wicked plant, that! The beasts will not touch it, so you had better leave it alone.'
Although I did not think this association of ideas very complimentary to myself, I thanked her for her good advice. I nevertheless took away as a souvenir a flower and one of the thorny apples, seeing which the peasant trudged on her way, saying no doubt that it was wasting time and words to give advice to lunatics. Again the cliffs drew very close together, and the valley was nothing more than a deep crack in the earth's crust. On one side was unbroken forest; on the other vines were terraced up the rocky steep to the height of seven or eight hundred feet. Even amidst the jutting crags the adventurous vine lifted its sunny leaves; but, alas! here, too, the phylloxera had begun its work of desolation, and I had little doubt that these hills laden with fruit were destined in a few years to become a waste of stones like so many others that I had seen nearer the plains which had once streamed with wine. The cultivated land by the river was only a narrow strip, and the crops were chiefly maize and buckwheat. At length the vine cultivation was only carried on at intervals. Then the long blue line of water lay between high rocky hills covered with box and broom, bracken and heather. A stream came tumbling down a deep ravine over blocks of gneiss to join the Lot, and a little beyond this was a hamlet.
The morning was now far advanced; so, as I was passing a cottage inn, I wavered a minute, and the result of the wavering was that I crossed the threshold. I said to myself: 'Perhaps I may walk on for miles, and not find another chance so good as this.' It was one of the poorest of inns, but it was able to give me a meal of bread and cheese and eggs, which was as much as I could expect hereabouts. There was also a light wine of local growth—sparkling, fragrant, and deliciously cool. What more could I want? Two motherless girls looked after this waterside inn, and also the ferry belonging to it. The boat lay a few feet from the door. When I was ready to leave, the younger of the two girls ferried me to the other side of the river, and a very pretty figure she made for an artist to sketch—the simplicity of childhood in her face, and the strength of a woman in her bare sunburnt arms. As is the case with so many of the peasants in this district, where the old Gaulish stock (the Ruteni and the Cadurci) has been much less influenced than in the towns by the tumultuous passage of races from the south, the east, and the north, she was fair-haired, and naturally fair-skinned; but exposure to the sun had darkened her by many shades.
I had been walking for some time in the department of the Cantal, but the ferry landed me on the Aveyron side of the river. I had now seriously to consider the shortest way to Conques, separated from me by very rough hill country and an uncertain number of miles. I was on a narrow path skirting the forest and the water, when I met a peasant family dressed in their best clothes, and on their way, as I learnt, to the village of Notre Dame, where the fete patronale was being held. The man, who seemed well pleased with himself in his new black blouse, carried the sleeping baby, and his wife held a great coloured umbrella over it. They were followed by a girl of about fourteen, who wore the open-work hand-made white stockings which the young women of these southern villages use on festive occasions as soon as they begin to grow coquettish. I fell into conversation with these people, who told me that, after reaching the village, I must commence the ascent through the forest. Speaking to the man about the trout, which are plentiful in this part of the river, he entertained me with a story of a selfish angler who once came there, and who had a fish on his hook as soon as he threw a fly. The people of the district—who, it seems, know nothing about fly-fishing—watched his success with wonder and admiration, and asked him to explain to them how he managed to catch fish in that way; but he was surly, and refused to give them any lessons. He had imitators, nevertheless; but after spending many hours vainly endeavouring to hook the crafty trout, they lost patience, and gave up the attempt.
Two or three score of houses huddled together at the foot of a rocky cliff, a little above the water, was Notre Dame. The village was all in movement. The space in front of the church was crowded with peasant figures; a bell was swinging backward and forward in the wall-belfry, as though it was trying to turn right over; stall-keepers with cakes, barley-sugar, and other dainties dear to the village child, to whom the opportunity of feasting even his eyes upon such things comes very seldom, were surrounded by eager little faces, and outstretched sunburnt hands, each clutching the sou that offered such a bewildering field for dissipation. In the auberge hard by was a noisy throng, of peasants sitting and standing in a cloud of smoke. Serving-women, hired for the occasion, gaily coifed and be-ribboned, holding bottles and glasses elbowed their way to the men who shouted the loudest for drink, and, catching the jest in the air, gave one as good or as bad in exchange. The scene was one for another Teniers to paint, although there were no costumes to give a local colour to the picturesque. Most of the older men wore the ugly short blouse—generally black in this part of France; but ambitious youths of eighteen or twenty showed a preference for the cloth coat which the village tailor had tried to cut according to the Paris fashion.
Leaving the rustic revellers, the queer little church, with its ancient calvary, rudely carved, and resting upon a single column, I was soon in the shadow of the old chestnut forest that covered the steep side of the high cliffs above the Lot. The path was very rocky and toilsome. A young man, who was hastening down from his home on the hills to join the merrymakers, said to me, in allusion to the roughness of the way: 'Le bon Dieu ne passe pas souvent par ici,' thereby expressing the sentiment of the peasant, who associates all that is wild and rugged in nature with the devil. While still in the forest, and not a little puzzled by its paths, I met a woman and a youth, and asked them if the way I was taking led to Conques. 'Ape' (yes) was the reply. Not a word of French could I draw from them. When the cliffs were at length scaled, and I was on the open tableland, I found the south wind blowing there with great violence, although in the valley there was scarcely breeze enough to ripple the river pools. The sun was falling into the yellow haze of the west as I began to descend towards the valley of the Dourdou. I came upon a tributary of this stream in the bottom of a deep and solemn gorge, whose steep sides were densely wooded except where the rock jutted out and revealed its dark nakedness, and where higher, near the sky, showed here and there a patch of heather-purple waste, on which the brilliant light was softening into evening tones. But in the depth of the gorge, where the redly-running stream was nearly hidden under the tent of leaves, the air was already dim, and the forms of the trees were beginning to blend with their own shadows.
Following the stream in its course, I found the Dourdou, and then turned down the broader valley. I was tramping wearily on my way, which seemed endless, when, clustered on the side of another wild and thickly wooded gorge running up amidst the hills, I saw many houses, and a dark pile of masonry, rising far above their roofs. I knew that this must be Conques; it showed its religious origin so plainly in the choice of the site. This was selected not because Nature was gentle and pitiful to man in the cleft of those savage hills, but because she was stern and solemn, and the veil that hides the supernatural was felt to be thinner there, where the rocks and forest seemed to the mediaeval mind to have remained just as the Almighty hand had fashioned them. A monastery arose in the desert, then the abbey church, and gradually a little lay community placed itself under the protection of the religious one.
A long narrow street, steep and stony, leads to the church, which is all that is left of the Benedictine abbey, excepting some massive buttresses, ruinous arches, and a round tower grafted upon the rock—remnants of the ancient monastery which must have been half a fortress. The burg itself was fortified, and one of the gateways of the old wall is still standing. The existing church dates from the eleventh century, but various details point to the conclusion that it was built on the site of a more ancient structure. For example, in the entrance is a holy-water stoup, the basin having been scooped out of the capital of a column which is supposed to have been one of the supports of a very primitive altar. The figure of an emperor is carved on one of the faces, and on another that of a pagan divinity. The architecture of the church is simple and majestic, the only jarring note being the cupola raised about the time of the Renaissance over the intersection of the nave and transept. The barrel-vaulted nave, crossed by plain broad fillets, is in keeping with the early Romanesque severity of the facade. The ornament is nearly confined to the tympan over the portal, the capitals of columns, and to the choir with its seven absidal chapels. The choir itself is cross-vaulted, and the sanctuary, except at its junction with the nave, is enclosed by an arcade of narrow stilted arches, the only ornament of the capitals being acanthus leaves; but those against the wall are elaborately storied with little figures. A moulding of small billets is carried round the apse. The great height of the nave vaulting, obtained by a triforium and clerestory, is very remarkable in a Romanesque church of such early construction. In accordance with the style of the period, the capitals of the nave show a complete absence of uniformity, some being carved with figures, and others with leaves or intricate line ornament. To obtain an adequate impression of all the fantastic imagination expressed in these capitals, and the craftsmanship brought to bear upon the carving, it is necessary to climb to the triforium galleries. The aisle windows are narrow and placed high in the wall. The interest of the exterior is centred upon the bas-relief representing the Last Judgment, which fills the entire tympan of the arch covering the two main doorways. The composition, which contains over a hundred figures, is singularly animated, and although the forms are uncouthly proportioned, and the treatment of the subject in some of the details touches what to the modern mind seems grotesque, it is an exceedingly vivid and faithful reflection of the religious ideas of the age that produced it. What now appears grotesque was then sublime and awful. We smile at the barbaric imagination that placed here, at the door of hell, the head of a vast and hideous monster of the crocodile family, into whose gaping jaws the damned are being thrust by a pantomime devil; but eight centuries ago Christian people had too lively a faith in the materialistic horrors of the infernal kingdom to perceive anything extravagant in this idea of stuffing a scaly monster with condemned sinners. Eight centuries ago!—the peasant of the Aveyron and of Finistere still look upon these Dantesque sculptures with genuine awe. Those who blame the monks for giving the devil a forked tail and a pair of horns, and otherwise exhausting their invention in the endeavour to materialize the terrors of hell, are strangely unphilosophic. The mass of humanity with whom the monks had to deal had the minds of children in regard to metaphysical ideas; only by the pictorial method could they be sufficiently impressed with the joys or horrors of the future life. Bas-reliefs such as this must have had a great influence on the conduct of many generations; nor has their influence yet ceased, although, as popular education spreads, the interest taken in these quaint sculptures by those for whom they were especially intended, so far from being stimulated, is lessened. Inasmuch as the mind needs deep ploughing for the new culture, and the majority can get no more than a superficial raking, the peasant of to-day is often a poorer man intellectually than his father was—poorer by the loss of faith and the confusion of ideas.
The sculptor of this Last Judgment—a Benedictine monk, doubtless, like the architect of the church who has left this personal record, 'Bernardus me fecit,' upon a stone in a dim corner—died centuries ago, and although his bones or their dust may be near, his name will never be known. But how his mind lives in the figures that took life under his hand! With what inspired longing of the soul he must have conceived and felt the majesty of Christ sitting in judgment at the end of time to have expressed so much that is sublime in the holy face and figure with his poor knowledge of art! The right hand is raised to bless the just, and the left repels the unforgiven. Grouped around the central figure are saints and angels. Peter, holding his keys, is followed by a crowd of the elect, headed by an old man on crutches, and a crowned sovereign—said to be Charlemagne—carries a reliquary. In the lower half of the tympan Satan is enthroned, his feet resting upon a writhing and hideously grimacing figure, supposed to be that of Judas. Immediately above, an angel and a fiend are weighing souls in a pair of scales, and the demon is trying to cheat. In this lower division the infernal punishments inflicted upon sinners of different categories are set forth. The sin of Francesca and Paolo is treated less poetically than by Dante, for here two guilty lovers are seen hanging to the same rope. A glutton is being stuffed with flaming viands, sent up from the devil's kitchen. All manner of torture is being inflicted by jubilant demons upon the souls that have fallen into their clutches. One has caught in the net that he has just thrown a mitred abbot and two other monks. As the dead rise from their tombs the justiciary angels bar the way of the wicked who strive to approach the Judge. A seraphim holds the closed book of life, upon which these words are carved: 'Hic signatur liber vitae.' On various parts of the portal are numerous inscriptions, some of which, like the following, are in leonine verses:
'Casti pacifici mites pietatis amici Sic stant gaudentes securi nil metuentes.'
The archaeological interest of Conques is not confined to its church. Here, hidden from the world in this obscure little gorge, far from any railway-station, is one of the most remarkable collections of ancient reliquaries in France. The chief treasure is the very ancient gold statue of St. Foy (Sancta Fides) virgin and martyr, the patron saint of Conques. It is a seated figure nearly three feet in height, and its appearance is thoroughly Byzantine; indeed, one may go farther, and say that it looks much more pagan than Christian. There is nothing in the treatment that indicates a Christian motive; while the antique engraved gems with which it is studded, illustrating, as some of them do, workings of the Greek and Roman mind very far removed from the Christian idea of what is becoming in morals, make this astonishing statue an archaeological puzzle. The explanation that these gems were placed upon it to symbolize the victory of Christian purity over the impurity of the ancient religions of Greece and Rome is more ingenious than conclusive. This statue of gold (repousse), with regal crown enriched with precious stones and enamels on which may be distinguished Jupiter, Mars, Apollo and Diana, among the more respectable of the divinities; if it was originally intended to represent the virgin Fides, martyred at Agen, was certainly one of the most fantastic achievements of ecclesiastical art. But whether this was its origin or not, the style of its workmanship is considered by competent judges to be sufficient proof that it is at least nine hundred years old.
In favour of the opinion that the statue was made at Conques, there is the fact that the cult of St. Foy at this place dates from the early Middle Ages. The ancient seal of the abbey bears the motto:
'Duc nos quo resides, Inclyta Virgo Fides.'
Historians of the abbey state that the relics of the saint were brought from Agen to Conques about the year 874, and that Etienne, Bishop of Clermont, caused a basilica to be raised here in her honour between the years 942 and 984. It was under the direction of Ololric, Abbot of Conques, that the existing church was built between the years 1030 and 1062. Throughout the Middle Ages the relics drew large numbers of pilgrims to the spot. In the dialect of the country they were called Roumious, because the pilgrimage to Conques was one of those which enjoyed the privilege of conferring under certain conditions the same advantages as were to be gained by the great pilgrimage to Rome. The pilgrims kept the 'holy vigil'—that is to say, they passed an entire night in prayer before the relics with a lighted taper either fixed at their side or carried in the hand. The pilgrimage and the ancient association of St. Foy were revived in 1874.
The darkness of night drove me to take shelter in an inn which, like everything else here, is dedicated to St. Foy. The pilgrims' money had not made it pretentious, nor the people who kept it dishonest —changes which 'filthy lucre' is very apt to bring about in the holiest places. But the pilgrims who come to Conques are, for the most part, peasants who look well before they leap, and who so contrive matters as never to spend more upon anything than they have set aside for it.
Having completed the next morning my impressions of Conques, noting among other things the curious and richly decorated enfeux in the exterior walls of the church, I returned to the bottom of the ravine, and having crossed the old Gothic bridge over the Dourdou, began the ascent of the rocky chestnut forest on the other side of the valley. Small white crosses planted at intervals amidst the broom and heather of the open wood marked the way to St. Foy's Chapel for the guidance of pilgrims. According to the legend, it was near this spot that, the relics of the saint having been set down by those who had carried them from Agen, a fountain of the purest water burst forth from the earth, and has continued to flow ever since. I found the chapel—a modern Gothic one, with a statue of St. Foy in Roman dress in the niche over the door—under a high rugged rock of schist. There was no one but myself to trouble the solitude of this quiet nook on the wild hillside, all broken up into little gullies and ravines, where the aged chestnuts sheltered the tender moss and fern from the eager sunbeam, and kept the dew upon the bracken until the noonday hours. An exquisitely delicate campanula with minute flowers bloomed with hemp-agrimony and wood-sage along the sides of the rills that -scarcely murmured as they slid down the clefts of the impervious rock.
As I went higher, the chestnuts became more scattered, and at length the rough land was covered only by the tufted heather and broom. Here, instead of the light whispering of leaves, was the drowsy song of multitudinous bees. The breeze blew freshly on the plateau, and grew stronger as the sun rose. Could it be a cemetery, that grouping of stones that I saw upon the moorland? No; it was a cottage-garden, surrounded by disconnected slabs of mica-schist, standing like little menhirs. peasant family lived in the wretched dwelling, exposed to the full force of the howling winds, and striving continually with nature for their black bread and the vegetables that give flavour to the watery soup.
A young man with a beret on his head overtook me. He was a Bearnais, who had not been long in the district, and who earned his living by certain services that he rendered at widely-scattered farms. He had to walk a great deal in all winds and weathers; therefore he knew the country well, and could give me useful information. I was crossing the hills with the intention of meeting the Lot again in the great coal basin of the Aveyron, and thus cutting off a wide bend of the river. All went well for some time after the Bearnais left me; but at length I became fairly bewildered by the woods and ravines, the hills and valleys that lay before me in seemingly endless succession. Savage rockiness, sylvan quietude, open solitudes, bare and windblown, gave me all the sensations of nature which expand the soul; but the body grumbled for rest and refreshment long before I had crossed this singularly wild tract of country almost abandoned by man. I had been wading through bracken up to my neck, or wandering almost at hazard through chestnut-woods for an hour or two, when hope was revived by my meeting a peasant, who told me that I was not far from the village of Firmi. I left the great woods, and reached a district that was new in every sense. Entering a little gorge, to me it seemed that nature had been cursed there ages ago, and still carried the sign of the malediction in the sooty darkness of the rocks—jagged, tormented, baleful—that rose on either hand. Nothing grew upon them save a low wretched turf, and this only in patches. Beyond, the metamorphic rock gave place to red sandstone, and the ground sloped down into the little coal basin of Firmi. What a change of scene was there! The air was thick with smoke, the road was black with coal-dust, most of the houses were new and grimy, nearly all the faces were smutty. There was a confused noise of wheels going round, of invisible iron monsters grinding their teeth, of trollies rattling along upon rails, and of human voices. Nature had no charm; but of beauty combined with fasting I had had enough for awhile, so my prejudices melted before the genial ugliness of this sooty paradise, knowing as I did that prosperity goes with such griminess, and that where there is money there are inns offering creature comforts both to man and beast.
Either the angel or the goblin who goes a wayfaring with me led me this time into a heated little auberge infested by myriads of flies, which, getting into the steam of the soupe caix choux in their anxiety to be served first, fell upon their backs in the hot mixture, and made frantic signals to me with their legs to help them out. There was no temptation to linger at the table when the purpose for which I was there had been attained; so I was very soon on the tramp again, making for the valley of the Lot.
Leaving Decazeville a few miles to the west, I took the direction of Cransac, being curious to see the 'Smoking Mountains' in that district. Between the little coal basin of Firmi and the large one at Cransac and Aubin lay a strip of toilsome hill country. I had left the round tower of the ruined castle of Firmi below, and was following a winding path up a steep chestnut wood, when two mounted gendarmes passed me going down. About five minutes later I heard the sound of horses' hoofs coming near again. 'One of the gendarmes is returning,' was my reflection, and, looking round, I saw this was really so. The man was trotting his horse up the wood. Being sure that he was coming after me, I walked slower, and gave myself the most indifferent and loitering air that I could put on. In a few minutes he reined up his horse at my side. He was a young man, and his expression told me that he did not much like the duty that his chief had put upon him. Addressing me, he said:
'Pardon, monsieur, you are a stranger in this country?'
'Yes, I am.'
'Will you please tell me your quality?'
In reply I asked him if he wished to see my papers.
'If it will not vex you,' he said. His manners were quite charming. If he was a native of the Rouergue, the army had polished him up wonderfully. After looking at the papers and finding them satisfactory, he said: 'Je vous demande pardon, monsieur, mais vous comprenez——-'
'Oh yes, I understand perfectly, and I assure you that my feelings are not at all hurt!'
And so we parted on very good terms. A woman standing at a cottage door at a little distance watched the scene with a scared and wondering look in her face. When I was again alone, and she saw me coming towards her, she disappeared with much agility into her fortress and shut the door. She must have thought that, although I had managed to escape arrest that time, I should certainly come to a bad end.
After reaching the top of the hill, white smoke rising continually into the blue air led me to the Montagnes fumantes. Coming at length to the spot so named, 'Surely,' I thought, 'my wayfaring has brought me at last to the Phlegraean Fields.' All about me were rocks that had been burnt red, black, or yellow, and on their scorched surface not a shrub, nor a blade of grass, nor even a tuft of spurge, grew. The subterranean fires which had burnt these upper rocks had long since gone out; but a hot and sulphurous vapour still passed over them when the wind blew it in their direction. Continuing down the hillside, I heard a crackling as of stones being split by heat, and presently saw little tongues of flame shooting up from the crevices in the soil almost at my feet, but scarcely perceptible in the brilliant sunshine. From these and other vents, however, came intermittent puffs, or continuous fillets of smoke, and the air was almost overpoweringly hot and sulphurous. To wander by night among these jets of fire must be very stimulating to the imagination, for then the hill is lit up by them; but I thought the spot sufficiently infernal by daylight.
Beds of coal lying underneath this rocky hill, perhaps at a great depth, have been burning for centuries, and the same phenomenon is repeated elsewhere in the district. The popular legend is that the English, when they were compelled to abandon Guyenne, set fire to these coal-measures with the motive of doing all the mischief they could before leaving. Such fables are handed down from generation to generation. All the evil that happened to the region in the dim past is placed to the account of the English. These burning hills in the Aveyron have been turned to one good purpose. The hot air that escapes from crevices where there is neither smoke nor fire is used for heating little cabins which have been constructed for the treatment of persons suffering from rheumatic disorders. There they can obtain a natural vapour-bath that is both cheap and effectual.
At the foot of the cliffs lay Cransac, bristling with tall chimneys and in a cloud of dark coal-smoke that filled the valley. Here, instead of the solemn calm of the barren uplands, the murmurous chanting of rills and shallow rivers, and the mystical voices that speak from the depths of the forest, I heard the fretful buzz of a human beehive. Here was human life intensified and yet lowered in tone by aggregation, by the strain of organized effort that suppresses initiative and makes the value of a man merely a question of dynamics. The number of shops, especially of drinking-shops—sordid cafes and flashy buvettes, where the enterprising poisoners of the coal-miner stood behind their zinc counters pouring out the corrosive absinthe and the beetroot brandy—told of the prosperity of Cransac. Evidently it was a place in which money could be earned by those prepared to accept the conditions. The women wore better clothes than the wives of the peasants; but low morality, instead of the sad but always honourable stamp of ravaging toil, was impressed on many a female face. Even the children looked as degraded by the social atmosphere as they were blackened by the smoke and ever-falling soot. Hastening along the road towards Aubin, I soon found that the two places, separated according to the map by a considerable distance, had grown together. The long road powdered with coal-dust was now a street lined on each side with houses and hovels. Wooden shanties with sooty, bushes of juniper hanging over the door, and the word 'Buvette' painted beneath, competed for the miner's money at distances of twenty or fifty yards. One had a notice such as is rarely seen in France, and which was significant here: 'Ready money for everything sold over the counter.' Close by was the sign of a sage-femme, who, under the picture of a woman holding aloft in triumph an unreasonably fat baby, announced that she also bled and vaccinated. Grimy children and grimy pigs that were intended to be white or pink sprawled upon the thresholds or wallowed in the hot dust.
Having left the blissful coal basin, I met the Lot again near the boundary-line of the Aveyron and entered the department named after the river. Thence to Capdenac the valley was a curving line of uninterrupted but ever-changing beauty.
The season was farther advanced when I continued the journey from this point to Cahors.
A person who had contracted the 'morphia habit' would probably find the most effectual cure for it by forced residence at Capdenac, because the town does not boast the luxury of a chemist's shop. Supposing the patient, however, to be a lady of worldly tastes, she might die of ennui in twenty-four hours. The Capdenac of which I am speaking is not the utterly unpicturesque collection of houses that has been formed about the well-known railway junction on the line to Toulouse, but old romantic Capdenac, whose dilapidated ramparts, dating from the early Middle Ages, crown the high rocky hill that rises abruptly from the valley on the other side of the Lot, which here separates the department named after it from, the Aveyron. The situation of this town is one of the most remarkable. It is perched upon a lofty table of reddish rock of the same calcareous composition as that which prevails throughout the region of the causses. Its walls are so escarped that the topmost crags in places overhang the path that winds about their base far below. Only strategical considerations could ever have induced men to build a town on such a site. The Gauls set the example, and their oppidum was long supposed to have been Uxellodunum, but the controversy has been settled in favour of the Puy d'Issolu.
I chose the hour of eight in the morning for climbing the rock of Capdenac. The broad winding river was brilliantly blue, like the vault overhead, and although the vine-clad hills, which shut in the valley, and the bare rocks, whose outlines were sharply drawn against the sky, were luminous, the light had the pure and clear sparkle of the morning. Reaching the hill, I took a zigzag stony path that led through terraced vineyards. The vintage had commenced, and men, women, and children were busy picking the purple grapes still wet with dew.
The children only, however, showed any joy in the work, for the bunches hung at such a distance from each other that a vine was very quickly stripped. The vigneron, with his mind dwelling upon the bygone fruitful years, when these arid steeps poured forth torrents of wine as surely as October came round, wore an expression on his face that was not one of thankfulness to Providence. They are a rather surly people, moreover, the inhabitants of this district, and I do not think at any time their hearts could have been very expansive. As I approached a woman who had a great basket of grapes in front of her, she hastily threw a bundle of leaves over them, casting a keenly suspicious glance at me the while. If she meant me to understand that the times were too bad for grapes to be given away, the movement was unnecessary. Where now are the generous sentiments and the poetry traditionally associated with the vintage? Not here, certainly. Men go out into their vineyards by night armed with guns, and the depredators whom they fear most are not dogs that have acquired a taste for grapes. The stony path was bordered by brambles, overclimbed by clematis, whose glistening awns were mingled with blackberries, which not even a child troubled to pick. There was much fleabane—a plant that deserves to be cherished in these parts, if it be really what its name indicates, but it would have to be extensively cultivated to be a match for the fleas. After the vineyards came the dry rock, that held, however, sufficient moisture for the wild fig-tree, wherever it could find a deep, crevice.
Passing underneath the perpendicular wall of rock, and the vine-clad ramparts above it, built on the very edge of the precipice, the winding path led me gradually up to the town. A little in front of an arched gateway was a ruined barbican, the inner surface of the walls being green with ferns and moss. Four loopholes were still intact. Had it been night I might have seen ghostly men with crossbows issuing from the gateway, but it being broad daylight, I was met by a troop of young pigs followed by a little hump-backed woman who addressed her youthful swine in the language of the troubadours.
In the narrow street beyond the arch a company of gigantic geese drew themselves up in order of battle, and challenged me in chorus to come on; but their courage was like that of Ancient Pistol. No other living creature did I see until I had walked nearly half through the ancient burg, between houses several centuries old, their stories projecting over the rough pitching and the stunted fig-trees which grew there unmolested. Some of these dwellings were in absolute ruin, with long dry grasses waving on the roofless walls. Nobody seemed to think it worth while to rebuild or repair anything. The town appeared to have been left to itself and to time for at least two hundred years. And yet there really were some inhabitants left. I found another gateway and another ruined barbican, and near to these, on the verge of the precipice, a high rectangular tower, which was the citadel and prison. The lower part was occupied by the schoolmaster of the commune, and he allowed me to ascend the winding staircase, which led to two horrible dungeons, one above the other. Neither was lighted by window or loophole, and but for the candle I should have been in utter darkness. Great chains by which prisoners were fastened to the wall still lay upon the ground, and as I raised them and felt their weight, I thought of the human groans that only the darkness heard in the pitiless ages. In another part of the building was a heavy iron collar that was formerly attached to one of these chains. There were also several old pikes in a corner.
A little beyond the citadel I found the church, a small Romanesque building without character. An eighteenth-century doorway had been added to it, and the tympan of the pediment was quite filled up with hanging plants. Still more suggestive of abandonment was the little cemetery behind, which was bordered by the ramparts. It was a small wilderness. Just inside the entrance, a life-sized figure with outstretched arms lay against a damp wall in a bed of nettles and hemlock. It had become detached from the cross on which it once hung, and had been left upon the ground to be overgrown by weeds. I have seen many a neglected rural cemetery in France, but never one that looked so sadly abandoned as this. It was like the 'sluggard's garden,' where 'the thorn and the thistle grow higher and higher.' Most of the gravestones and crosses were quite hidden by dwarf elder, artemisia, wild carrot, and other plants all tangled together. A grave had just been dug in this wilderness and it was about to have a tenant, for the two bells in the open tower were sounding the glas, and a distant murmur of chanting was growing clearer. The priest had gone to 'fetch the body,' and the procession was now on its way. On the top of the earth and stones thrown up on each' side of the new grave were a broken skull, a jawbone, several portions of leg and arm bones, besides many smaller fragments of the human framework. I thought the gravedigger might at least have thrown a little earth over these remains out of consideration for the feelings of those who were about to stand around this grave, but concluded that he probably understood the people with whom he had to deal. Presently this functionary—a lantern-jawed, nimble old man, with a dirty nightcap on his head—made his appearance to take a final look at his work. After strutting round the very shallow hole he had dug, in an airy, self-satisfied manner, he concluded that everything was as it should be, and retired for the priest to perform his duty.
The great difficulty with the people of Capdenac in time of war must have been the water supply. When their cisterns were empty, they had the river at the bottom of the valley and a spring that flowed at certain seasons, as it does now, at the foot of the rock on which they had built their little town. When they were besieged, they could not descend to the Lot to draw water; consequently they laid great store by the stream at the base of the rock. A long zigzag flight of steps down the side of the precipice was constructed, and it was covered by a wall that protected those who fetched water from arrows and bolts. Near the spring this wall was built very high and strong, and was pierced with loopholes. It also served as an outwork. The steps and much of the wall still exist. The spring in modern times came to be called Caesar's Well, because the elder Champollion and others endeavoured to prove that Capdenac was the site of Uxellodunum. The fact, however, that the spring is dry for several months in the year, and could never have been aught else but the drainage of the rock, is in itself a sufficient refutation of the hypothesis; because, according to Caesar, the fountain at Uxellodunum was so perennially abundant that when he drew off the water by tunnelling, the Gauls recognised in this disaster the intervention of the gods.
Capdenac appears to have given the English a great deal of trouble, which the natural strength of the place fully explains. It must have been a fortress of the first order in the Middle Ages, and would be so to-day, if the French thought it worth while to use it in a military sense; but, happily for the inhabitants of this part of France, their territory now lies far from the theatre of any war that is likely to occur. A charter by Philippe le Long, dated 1320, another by King John, and a third by Charles VII., recognise the immunity of the people of Capdenac from all public charges on account of the resistance which they constantly opposed to the English. The rock must, nevertheless, have fallen into the hands of a company attached to the British cause, for the Count of Armagnac bought the place in 1381 of a band of so-called English routiers. Sully lived there after the death of Henry IV., and the house that he occupied still exists.
According to a local tradition, Capdenac was on the point of being captured by the English, when it was saved from this fate by a stratagem. The defenders were starving, and the besiegers were relying upon famine to reduce them. In order to make the English believe that the place was still well provisioned, a pig was given a very full meal of all the corn that could be scraped together and then pushed over the side of the rock in a cautious manner, so that the animal might appear to be the victim of its own indiscretion. The pig fulfilled expectations by splitting open when it struck the ground, and thus revealed the corn that was in its body. When the English saw this, they said: 'If the men of Capdenac can afford to feed their swine on wheat, they must still have plenty for themselves.' Discouraged by this reflection, they raised the siege. When they went away there was not an ounce of bread left to divide amongst the garrison.
A market was being held at Capdenac—the lower town—as I left it. Bunches of fowls tied together by the legs were dangling from the hands of a score or so of peasant women standing in line. The wretched birds had ceased to complain, and even to wriggle; but although, with their toes upward and their beaks downward, life to them could not have looked particularly rosy, they seemed to watch with keen interest all that was going on. Only when they had their breasts well pinched by critical fingers did they struggle against their fate. The legs of these fowls are frequently broken, but the peasants only think of their own possible loss; and women are every bit as indifferent to the sufferings of the lower animals as men.
There was a sharp wrangle going on in the Languedocian dialect over a coin—a Papal franc—that somebody to whom it had been offered angrily rejected. Here I may say that one of the small troubles of my life in this district came from accepting coins which I could not get rid of. As a rule, the native here turns over a piece of money several times before he satisfies himself that no objection can be brought against it; but if, in the hurry of business, the darkness of night, or the trustfulness inspired by a little extra worship of Bacchus, he should happen to take a Papal, Spanish, Roumanian, or other coin that is unpopular, he puts it on one side for the first simpleton or stranger who may have dealings with him. Thus, without intending it, I came to possess a very interesting numismatical collection, which I most unconscientiously, but with little success, tried to scatter.
I made my way down the valley of the Lot, taking the work easily, stopping at one place long enough to digest impressions before pushing on towards a fresh point. This valley is so strangely picturesque, so full of the curiosities of nature and bygone art, that if I had not been a loiterer before, I should have learnt to loiter here.
Keeping on the Aveyron side of the river, I soon reached the village of St. Julien d'Empare, where almost every house had somewhat of a castellated appearance, owing to the dovecot tower which occupied one angle and rose far above the roof. One of these houses had two rows of dormer windows, covered by little gables with very long eaves in the high-pitched roof, whose red tiles were well toned by time. The tower-like pigeon-house, with extinguisher roof, stood at one end upon projecting beams, and the pigeons kept going in and coming out of the holes in their two-storied mansion. One sees dovecots everywhere in this district, and most of them are two or three centuries old. Some are attached to houses, and others are isolated on the hillsides amongst the vines. When in the latter position, they are generally round, and are built on such a scale that they really look like towers.
There were grape-gatherers in the vineyards, but they had to search for the fruit. The wine grown upon these hills by the Lot has been famous from the days of the Romans; but there is very little of it left. There is, however, a consoling side to every misfortune. A man of Figeac told me that since the vines had failed in the district the death-rate had diminished remarkably.
'Why?' I asked.
'Why?' replied he, with a sad smile, 'because in the happy times everybody drank wine at all hours of the day; but now, in these miserable times, nearly everybody drinks water.'
The new state of things would be still more satisfactory from a teetotal point of view if Nature were less niggardly of water in these parts. In some localities it has to be strictly economized, and this is done in the case of streams by using it first for the exterior, and afterwards for the interior needs of man. I, having still some English prejudices, would rather run all the risks incurred by drinking wine, than swallow any more than I am obliged of the rinsings of dirty linen.
Having crossed the Lot by a suspension bridge, a roadside inn enticed me with its little terrace, where there were many hanging plants and flowers, and a wild fig-tree that had climbed up from the rock below, so that it could look into people's glasses and listen to their talk in that pleasant bower. I might have lingered here too long had it not been for the wasps, which were even a greater nuisance than the flies.
To reach the village of Frontenac I took a little path leading through maize-fields by the river's side. The maize was ready for the harvest, and the long leaves had lost nearly all their greenness. The lightest breath of air made each plant rustle like a paper scarecrow. The river was fringed with low, triggy willows and a multitude of herbs, rich in seeds, but poor in flowers. Among those still in bloom were the evening primrose, soapwort, and marjoram. The river was as blue as the heaven, and on each side rose steep hills, wooded or vine-clad, with the yellow or reddish rock upon the ridges glowing against the hot sky. As I was moving south-west I had the afternoon sun full in the face. The lizards that darted across the path, raising little clouds of dust in their hurry, found this glare quite to their taste, but it was too much for me, and when at length I saw a leafy walnut tree I lay down in the shade until the fiery sun began to touch the high woods, the river, and the yellow maize-stalks with the milder tones of evening.
A narrow grassy lane between tall hedgerows sprinkled over with innumerable glistening blackberries led me to Frontenac, a village upon the rocky hillside. Here is a little church partly raised upon the site of a Roman or Gallo-Roman temple. A broken column left standing was included in the wall of the Romanesque apse, upon the lower masonry of which both pagan and Christian hands have worked. The nave has been rebuilt in modern times, but in the open space before the entrance Roman coffins crop up above the rough paving, separated from each other only by a few feet. There is a stone coffin lying right across the doorway, and the cure, whom I drew into conversation, confided to me, with a comical smile upon his pale dark face, that he had raised a fragment of the lid to see if anything more enduring than man had been left there, but that he found nothing but very fine dust. Every bone had become powder. This priest was a companionable man, and he must have looked upon me with a less suspicious eye than most people hereabouts, for he invited me into his house to take a petit verre with him. But the sun was getting near the end of his journey, and I had to fare on foot to the next village; so I thought it better to decline the offer.
The next village was St. Pierre-Toirac, also built upon the hillside above the Lot. It is a larger place than Frontenac, and must have been of considerable importance in the Middle Ages, to judge from its fortified church, whose high gloomy walls give it the appearance of a veritable stronghold. Some of the inhabitants say that it was built by the English, but the architecture does not indicate that such was the case. The interior is a beautiful example of the Romanesque style. The capitals of the columns are fit to serve as models, so strongly typical are the designs, and so exquisite is their workmanship. It is probable that the walls of the church were raised, and that it was turned into a fortress during the religious wars of the thirteenth century between Catholics and Albigenses, which explain the existence of so many fortified churches in Languedoc and Guyenne, as well as so many ruins.
I had reached this church by an old archway, whose origin was evidently defensive, and crossing the dim and silent square, surrounded by mediaeval houses, some half ruinous, and all more or less adorned with pellitory, ivy-linaria, and other wall-plants which had fixed their roots between the gaping stones. I passed through another archway, and stopped at a terrace belonging to a ruined chateau or country-house. Here I was looking at the valley of the Lot in the warm after-glow of sunset, when an elderly gentleman came up to me and disturbed my contemplative mood by asking me not very courteously if I wanted to see anybody. I was somewhat taken aback to find such an important-looking person in such a dilapidated place. I tried, however, not to appear too much overcome, and explained that it was only with the intention of seeing the picturesque that I had found my way to that ruinous spot. The agreeable person who had questioned me now let me understand that it was his spot, and informed me that nobody was allowed to see it 'sans etre presente.' Then, looking at me very fiercely, he said:
'Are you an Englishman or a German?'
'An Englishman,' I replied, whereupon his ferocious expression relaxed considerably, but he did not become genial.
I retired from his ruin considerably disgusted with its owner, who contrasted badly with all Frenchmen in his social position whom I had previously met. I asked a woman who he was, and she replied that all she knew about him was that he was an 'espece de noble.' Her cruelty was unintentional. The next morning I learnt from an old Crimean soldier, who knew I was English because he had drained many a glass with my fellow-countrymen, that the magnates of the village had held a consultation overnight upon the advisability of coming down upon me in a body and asking me for my papers. Nothing came of it, which was well for me, for I had come away without my papers.
There was rain that night, and when morning came it had changed the face of the world. The sun was shining again and warmly, but summer had gone and autumn had come. Upon the rocky slopes the maples were on fire; in the valley the large leaves of the walnut-trees mimicked the sunshine, and by the river-side the tall poplars, as they bowed to the water deities, cast upon the mirror of many tones the image of a trembling golden leaf repeated beyond all power of numbering. A little rain had been enough to produce this magical change. It had opened the great feast of colour that brings the year to its gray, sad close.
But the sky was brilliantly blue when I left St. Pierre-Toirac. The next village was Laroque-Toirac. The houses were clustered near the foot of an escarped hill, where thinly-scattered pines relieved the glare of the naked limestone. Upon a precipitous rock dominating the village is a castle, the lower works of which belong to the Feudal Ages, the upper to the Renaissance epoch—a combination very frequent in this district. The mullioned windows and the graceful balustrade, carried along a high archway, are in strong contrast to the stern and dark masonry of the feudal stronghold. This picturesque incongruity reaches its climax in the lofty round tower upon which a dovecot has been grafted, whose extinguisher-roof, with long drooping eaves, is quite out of keeping with the machicolations which remain a little below the line of the embattled parapet that has disappeared. The castle is now used for the schools of the commune, and a score or so of little boys and girls whom I met on my way up the rough path stared at me with much astonishment. I climbed to a bastion of the outer works, where a fig-tree, growing from the old wall, and reaching above it, softened the horror of the precipice; for such it really was. The masonry was a continuation of one of those walls of rock which give such a distinctive character: to the geological formation of this region. The village lay far below—a broken surface of tiled roofs, sloping rapidly towards the Lot, itself a broad ribbon of many blended colours, winding through the sunlit plain. The castle of Laroque belonged to the Cardaillac family. In 1342 it was stormed and taken by Bertegot Lebret, captain of a strong company of English, who had established their headquarters at Grealou.
As I approached Montbrun, the next village, the rocks which hemmed in the valley became more boldly escarped. In their lower part the beds of lias were shown with singular regularity. Box and pines and sumach were the chief vegetation upon the stony slopes, where the scattered masses of dark-green foliage gave by contrast a whiter glitter to the stones. Montbrun, like so many of the little towns and villages hereabouts, is built upon rocks immediately below a protecting stronghold, or, rather, what was one centuries ago. The windows of some of the dwellings look out upon the sheer precipice. The vine clambers over ruined houses and old walls built on to the rock, and seemingly a part of it. Of the mediaeval castle little is left besides the keep. The Marquis de Cadaillac, to whom it belonged, strengthened the fortifications with the hope that the stronghold would be able to resist any attack by the English; but it was nevertheless captured by them.
After leaving Montbrun I saw nothing more of civilization until I came near a woman seated on a doorstep, and engaged in the exciting occupation of fleaing a cat. She held the animal upon its back between her knees, and was so engrossed by the pleasures of the chase that she scarcely looked up to answer a question I put to her. The word cafe painted upon a piece of board hung over another door enticed me inside, for it was now nearly midday, and I had been in search of the picturesque since seven o'clock, sustained by nothing more substantial than a bowl of black coffee and a piece of bread. This is the only breakfast that one can expect in a rural auberge of Southern France. If milk is wanted in the coffee it must be asked for over-night, and even then it is very doubtful if the cow will be found in time. To ask for butter with the bread would be looked upon as a sign of eccentric gluttony, but to cap this request with a demand for bacon and eggs at seven in the morning, as a man fresh from England might do with complete unconsciousness of his depravity, would be to openly confess one's self capable of any crime. People who travel should never be slaves to any notions on eating and drinking, for such obstinacy brings its own punishment.
A stout woman with a coloured silk kerchief on her head met me with a good-tempered face, and, after considering what she could do for me in the way of lunch, said, as though a bright idea had suddenly struck her:
'I have just killed some geese; would monsieur like me to cook him some of the blood?'.
'Merci!' I replied. 'Please think of something else.'
An Englishman may possibly become reconciled to snails and frogs as food, but never, I should say, to goose's blood. In about twenty minutes a meal was ready for me, composed of soup containing great pieces of bread, lumps of pumpkin and haricots; minced pork that had been boiled with the soup in a goose's neck, then a veal cutlet, covered with a thick layer of chopped garlic. Horace says that this herb is only fit for the stomachs of reapers, but every man who loves garlic in France is not a reaper. Strangers to this region had better reconcile themselves both to its perfume and its flavour without loss of time, for of all the seasoning essences provided by nature for the delight of mankind garlic is most esteemed here. Those who have a horror of it would fare very badly at a table-d'hote at Cahors, for its refined odour rises as soon as the soup is brought in, and does not leave until after the salad. Even then the unconverted say that it is still present. To cultivate a taste for garlic is, therefore, essential to happiness here.
I crossed a toll-bridge over the river just below Cajarc, and again entered the department of the Aveyron, my object being to ascend the valley of a tributary of the Lot, to a spot where it flows out of a pool of unknown depth, called the Gouffre de Lantouy. The road passed under the village of Savagnac, built upon the hillside. A Renaissance castle with sham machicolations, little chambers. with their projecting floors resting on brackets turrets on culs de lampe and with extinguisher roofs, and a high terrace overgrown with vines and fig-trees left to fight their own battle, lorded it over all the other houses, like a sunflower in an onion-bed. But the castle, although it gives itself such aristocratic airs, is, in these days, nothing but a farmhouse, sacks of maize being now stored in rooms where ladies once touched the lute with white fingers, and where gentlemen may have crumpled their frills while swearing eternal love upon their knees. The little cemetery adjoining the chateau has swallowed up the great and the lowly century after century, and the rank grass, now sprinkled with the lingering flowers of summer, barely covers their mingled bones. The old gravestones, left undisturbed, have sunk into the soil nearly out of sight. Such is the ending of all that is human.
A little beyond this village a peasant woman, whom I met picking up walnuts from the road that was strewn with them, lifted her wide-brimmed straw hat to me as I passed. This was indeed polite. I now left the road, and followed a lane by the stream that flows out of the gouffre. This valley is narrow enough to be called a gorge, and the stony hills on either side presented a picture of utter barrenness and desolation. But along the level of the stream the deep-green grass shadowed by the hill was lighted up with the pale-purple death-torches of the poisonous colchicum. After crossing a stubble-field, now overgrown by the violet-coloured pimpernel, I reached the sinister pool, fringed with the flag's sword-like leaves and shadowed by willows and alders. I expected to find the water all in tumult; but no, it had the dark, solemn stillness of the mountain tarn. The two streams that poured out of it to meet a little lower down the valley hardly murmured as they started upon their journey amidst the iris and sedge, although the body of water was strong enough to turn a millwheel.
There is something that troubles the imagination in the appearance of this lonely pool for ever silently overflowing, and so deep that nobody as yet has been able to find the bottom. On the side of the stony hill close by are some ruined walls of a church and convent, said to have been built by St. Mamphaise. The peasants of the district have an extraordinary story with regard to this convent, which is either the cause or the consequence of the superstitious awe in which they hold the Gouffre de Lantouy. This legend is to the effect that the conventual building was once inhabited by women who ate children, and that a certain mother, whose baby they had kidnapped and eaten, cursed them so heartily and to such purpose that the gouffre was formed, and their convent, or the greater part of it, was supernaturally carried down the hill and plunged into the bottomless water. The legend also says that those who stand by the pool on St. John's Eve will hear the convent bell ringing. It not being St. John's Eve when I was there I was unable to test the truth of this part of the legend. What I did hear was a raven croaking from the ruin, and the sound harmonized well with the air of mystery and gloom hanging over the spot.
There is some historic reason for believing that the convent at Lantouy was founded by Charlemagne. Very near this spot are the remains of some ancient fortified works, and the locality is known as 'La domaine de Waiffier.' This name is evidently the same as Waifre. There is reason to believe that the last of the sovereign Dukes of Aquitaine made a stand here when pursued by his implacable enemy Pepin le Bref. The people pronounce the word 'Waiffier' as though it commenced with a 'G.'
Towards evening I recrossed the Lot and entered Cajarc. Passing through the little town, which is not in itself very interesting, I took a path winding up the side of the hill, at the base of which lies the burg. I wished to see a cascade that has a local reputation for beauty. I reached the foot of a high, fantastic rock, from the ledges of which masses of ivy hung woven together like a veritable tapestry of nature. A small stream descended from the uppermost ridge upon a rock covered with moss showing every hue of green, and then into a dark pool below. The hillside above the cascade has been extensively tunnelled for phosphate. An Englishman discovered the value of the site, and dug a fortune out of it. There are several phosphate-mines in this district, all more or less connected with British enterprise. Phosphate inspires respect for Englishmen here, for it has been the means of giving a great deal of employment and rendering petty proprietors, who could barely get a living out of their thankless soil, comparatively rich. The inhabitants, therefore, consider English speculators in the light of public benefactors, and such they have really proved, although the motive that brought them here was scarcely a philanthropic one. Neither the French nor the British public has any conception of the extent to which the mineral resources of France are worked by the English.
Cajarc, although it looks like a village to-day, was once a fortified town of considerable importance in the Quercy. Its inhabitants offered an obstinate resistance to the English on several occasions. In 1290 they refused to swear fealty to the King of England until their lord, the Bishop of Cahors, gave them the order to do so in the name of the King of France. Subsequently in the same and the following century, when the Ouercynois were again in arms against the English, various attempts to take the town by surprise failed through the vigilance and courage of the burghers. To punish them, the English, in 1368, destroyed their bridge across the Lot, of which some remnants may still be seen.
After leaving Cajarc in the morning I was soon alone with Nature on the right bank of the river. Autumn was there in a gusty mood, blowing yellow leaves down from the hills upon the water and driving them towards the sea over the rippled, gray surface lit up with cold, steel-like gleams of sunshine struggling through the vapour. The wilderness of herbs and under-shrubs along the banks was no longer aflame with flowers. Dead thistles, whose feathered seeds had drifted far away upon the wind to found new colonies, and a multitude of withered spikes and racemes, told the old story of the summer's life passing into the death or sleep of winter. Yet the river-banks were not without flowers. A rose, very like the 'monthly rose' of English gardens, was still blooming there, together with hawkweed, wild reseda, and a mint with lilac-coloured blossoms which one sees on every bit of waste ground throughout this region.
A rock rising from the river's bank carried the ruin of an ancient chapel. Only the apse was left. It contained one narrow deeply-splayed Romanesque window, and a piscina where the priest washed his hands. The altar-stone lay upon the ground where the altar must have stood, and behind it a rough wooden cross had been piously raised to remind the passer-by that the spot was hallowed.
The road now ran under high red rocks or steep stony slopes, where, on neglected terraces overgrown with weeds, the dead or dying vines repeated the monotonous tale of the phylloxera.
I passed through the village of Lannagol, mostly built upon rocks overlooking the bed of its dried-up stream, and was soon again under the desert hills, where the fiery maple flashed amid the sombre foliage of the box. The next village or hamlet was a very curious one. Rows of little houses, some of them mere huts, were built against the side of the rock under the shelter of huge masses of oolite or lias projecting like the stories of mediaeval dwellings. People climbed to their habitations, like goats, up very steep paths winding amongst the rocks. The overleaning walls were blackened to a great height by the smoke from the chimneys.
It was dusk when I crossed a bridge leading to the village of Cenevieres, where I intended to pass the night. There was a very fair inn here, less picturesque than many of the auberges of the country, but cleaner, perhaps, for this reason. The aubergiste was suspicious of me at first, as he afterwards admitted, for like others he had turned over in his mind the question, Is he a German spy? Judging from my own experience in this part of France, I should say that a German tourist would not spend a very happy holiday here. The sentiment of the Parisians towards the Teuton is fraternal love compared to that of the Southern French. These people proved themselves to be thorough going haters in the religious wars, and the old character is still strong in them.
Although the Germans in 1870-71 did not show themselves in Guyenne, the resentment of the inhabitants towards them is intense, and it is the vivacity of this feeling that renders them so suspicious of foreigners. I noticed, however, that as I went farther down the Lot the people became more genial, so that the long evenings in the rural inns generally passed very pleasantly. Dinner over, I usually took possession of a chimney-corner, the only place where one can be really warm on autumnal nights, and while satisfying the curiosity of the rustic intelligence concerning the English and their ways I gathered much information that was useful to me respecting local customs and the caverns, castles and legends of the district where I happened to be. By nine o'clock everybody was yawning, and if the village blacksmith, the postman, and the bell-ringer had not left by that time, they were in an unusually dissipated frame of mind. By ten o'clock the great kitchen was dark, and the mice were making up a quadrille upon the hearth, supposing no cat to be looking on.
Early the next morning I was climbing the hill towards the Castle of Cenevieres. This building is a most picturesque jumble of the castellated styles of the thirteenth, fifteenth, and sixteenth centuries. The oldest part of the structure—and it is very considerable—is that of a frowning feudal fortress of great strength, built upon a rock, which on the side of the Lot is a perpendicular wall some 200 feet high. The inhabitants agree in saying that the feudal walls are the work of the English, but they are probably in error. The original castle belonged to Waifre. It afterwards passed to the Gourdon family, who doubtless rebuilt it upon the old foundations. The last descendant of this family was one of the most ardent Huguenots in the Quercy. The late Gothic superstructure, which is still inhabited, has a very high-pitched roof, with dormer windows covered by high gables with elaborate carvings. Very near this castle, in the side of the cliff, is a fortified cavern, which for centuries has gone by the name of La Grotte des Anglais. It must have been in communication with the castle, of which it may have served as an outwork or a place of refuge in the last extremity. I might have passed the whole day trying to find it but for the help of a peasant, who led the way down the rocks, hanging on to bushes of box. The remains of a small tower, pierced with loopholes on one side of the opening, and the other ruined masonry, leave no doubt as to the defensive use to which this cavern was at one time put.
Having left Cenevieres, I recrossed the Lot and passed through Saint-Martin, a village of little interest, but the point from which it is most convenient to reach a certain cave where animals of the prehistoric ages were obliging enough to die, so that their skeletons might be preserved for the delight and instruction of the modern scientific bone-hunter. This is not one of the celebrated caves in the department, consequently the visitor with thoughts fixed on bones may carry away a sackful if he has the patience to grub for them. If the cavern were near Paris it would give rise to a fierce competition between the palaeontologist and the chiffonnier, but placed where it is the soil has not yet been much disturbed. I went in search of it up a very steep, stony hill, and there had the good fortune to meet an old woman who was coming down over the rocks with surprising nimbleness. She knew at once what I wanted. Although she spoke French with great difficulty, three words out of every five being patois, she made me understand that her house was just in front of the cave, and that it was not to be visited without her consent and guidance. She therefore began to reascend the 'mountain,' as she called the hill, making signs to me to follow. There was certainly nothing wrong with the old woman's lungs, for it was as much as I could do to keep pace with her, especially when she led the way up almost naked rock. At length we reached the brow of the hill, where a cottage showed itself in a desert of limestone, but where a little garden, by dint of long labour, had been formed upon a natural terrace on which the sun's rays fell warmly.
The woman left me in the cottage while she went to find her daughter. It was composed of one small room, in which there were two beds, an old worm-eaten walnut buffet, an eight-day clock after the pattern of Sir Humphrey's, a hearth covered with white wood-ashes, a large wheel-shaped loaf of black bread in a rack, onions, grapes, garlic, and balls of twisted hemp hanging from the beams; baskets of maize and chestnuts, and a great copper swing-pot, only a little less imposing than the one out of which the scullion fished the fowls for Sancho Panca. I afterwards learned that two couples slept in the two beds—the old pair and the young pair.
Presently the old woman reappeared, followed by a much younger one, carrying upon her head a copper water-pot, that glowed in the sun like a wind-blown brand. Having set down her pot, the daughter, a rather wild-looking person with sun-baked face and large gleaming eyes, took an old-fashioned brass dish-lamp—a deformed and vulgar descendant of the agate lamp held in the hand of the antique priestess—and, after bringing the wick towards the lip, lighted it. I lit the candle I had brought with me, and, followed by the old woman, we entered the cavern, near the mouth of which was a fig-tree. The entrance was so small that it was almost necessary to crawl for some distance; but it must have been much larger at one time if the story that the younger woman told me about the bones of a mastodon having been discovered inside was well founded. As we proceeded, the roof rose rapidly, so that the rocks overhead could not presently be seen by the light of the candle and lamp. Farther in, the roof became lower, and it was connected with the ground in places by natural columns of vast size, formed in the course of ages by the calcareous deposit of the dropping water. Near the end of the cavern, at about 100 yards from the entrance, various holes dug in the yellow soil showed where the bone-searchers had been at work. I had ample encouragement, for I had only to stir the earth a little to find bones half turned to stone. I selected two or three teeth with the hope that a scientific friend would say they were a mastodon's or a mammoth's. If I had liked the prospect of carrying a bag of bones on my back down the valley of the Lot, I might have taken away many very large specimens. I called to mind, however, an experience of early days which prevented me from being again a martyr to science. I had found a quantity of bones in a newly-dug gravel-pit, and fully believing that they belonged to some animal that flourished before the flood, I carried them twelve miles with infinite labour and suffering, and then learned that they were part of the anatomy of a very modern cow. Since that adventure I have left bones for those who understand them.
I had ample leisure for studying the river after leaving Saint-Martin, for I stood upon the bank waiting for a ferryman until I lost all the patience I had brought with me. He was taking a couple of oxen harnessed to a cart across the stream, and the strong wind that was blowing sent the great flat boat far out of its course.
Every day I noticed a larger fleet of floating leaves upon the water, hurrying through the ever-curving valley, drifting over the golden reflections of other leaves that waited for the gust to cast them too upon the water; passing into the deep shadow of bridges whose arches resounded with mournful murmurs, riding the white foam of the weirs, whirling in the dark eddies beyond, gliding in the brown shade of vine-clad hills and under the beetling brows of solemn rocks, now mingling with the imaged dovecot with pigeons perched upon the red-tiled roof, now with the tracery of Gothic gables or the grim blackness of feudal walls splashed with fern and pellitory, now in a warm glow of dying summer, and now in the melancholy gray of wintry clouds heavy with rain. Away they went, the multitudinous leaves—children of the poplar, the willow, the fig-tree, and vine; some broad and clumsy like rafts or barges, others slender and graceful like little skiffs; all stained with some brilliant colour of autumn.
I had reckoned upon getting a mid-day meal at a village called Cregols on the opposite bank, but when I at length reached it I had another trial. The only place of public entertainment was an exceedingly dirty hovel that called itself a cafe, and the woman who kept it declared that she had no victuals of any sort in the house. This, of course, was not true, but it was a polite way of saying that she did not wish to be bothered with me. The wayfarer in the little-travelled districts of France must not expect to find in all his stopping-places a fowl ready to be placed on the spit for him. Had I obtained a meal at Cregols, I should have looked for some dolmens said to be in the neighbourhood, but failure in one respect spoilt my zeal in the other. I am afraid, moreover, that I only half appreciated the grandeur of some prodigious walls of rock which I passed in my rapid walk to the little town of Saint-Cirq-la-Popie. It is deplorable to think how much the mind is influenced by internal circumstances which ought to have nothing to do with the spirit.
After climbing a steep wood where there were unripe medlars, I came in sight of a small burg, lying high above the Lot in a hollow of the hill. A fortress-like church towered far above the closely-packed red-tiled roofs sprinkled with dormer windows, and upon a still higher rock were the ruined walls of a castle. This was Saint-Cirq-la-Popie, a place no less quaint than its name. I was presently seated in a dimly-lighted back-room of an auberge, whose walls—built apparently for eternity—dated from the Middle Ages. The hostess, who, as I entered, was gossiping with some cronies in the dark doorway, while she pretended to twist the wool that she carried upon the most rustic of distaffs—a common forked stick—laid this down, and, blowing up the embers on the hearth, proceeded to cook some eggs sur le plat. This with bread, goat-cheese and walnuts, and an excellent wine of the district—the new vintage—made my lunch. The fact that there was no meat in the auberge reminded me that it was Friday.
Speaking generally, the inhabitants of the Lot are practising Catholics. The churches are well filled, and the clergy are as comfortably off as French priests can expect to be in these days. It is no uncommon thing for a cure to keep his trap. I have several times met priests on horseback in the Quercy, but never without thinking that they would look better if they used side-saddles.
The early Gothic Church of Saint-Cirq-la-Popie, to judge by its high massive walls and round tower, was raised more with the idea of defence than ornament. In the interior there is still the feeling of Romanesque repose; nothing of the animation of the Pointed style—no vine-leaf or other foliage breaks the severity of the lines. I ascended the tower with the bell-ringer's boy. In the bell-loft, with other lumber, was an old 'stretcher,' very much less luxurious than the brancard that is used in Paris for carrying the sick and wounded. It was composed of two poles, with cross-pieces and a railing down the sides. I ascertained that this piece of village carpentry was used within the memory of people still living for carrying the dead to the cemetery merely wrapped in their shrouds. They were buried without coffins, not because wood was difficult to obtain, but because the four boards had not yet come into fashion at Saint-Cirq-la-Popie. To bury a person in such a manner even there would nowadays cause great scandal, but sixty or seventy years ago it was considered folly to put good wood into a grave. A homespun sheet was thought to be all that was needed to break the harshness of the falling clay. And there are people who call this age that gives coffins even to the poorest dead utilitarian!
Among other curious things I saw in this ancient out-of-the-way burg were two mediaeval corn-measures forming part of a heap of stones in a street corner. They had much the appearance of very primitive holy-water stoups, such as are to be seen in some rural churches, for they were blocks of stone rounded and hollowed out with the chisel. Each of these measures, however, had a hole in the side near the bottom for the corn to run through, and irons to which a little flap-door was once affixed in front of this hole. The commune treated these stones as rubbish until some accidental visitor offered 500 francs for them; now it clings to them tightly, hoping, no doubt, that the price will go up. Prowling curiosity-hunters are destined to destroy much of the archaeological interest of these old towns. They are doing to them what Lord Elgin did to the Parthenon. Fantastic corbel-heads and other sculptured details disappear every year from the Gothic houses, and find their way into private museums.
As I was taking leave of the bellringer's boy—a lad of about fifteen—he put his hand under his blouse and, pulling out a snuff-box, offered me a pinch. I had met plenty of boys who chewed tobacco—they abound along the coast of Brittany—but never one who carried a snuff-box before.
The castle whose ruins are to be seen on the bluff above the church received Henry IV. as a guest after his memorable exploit at Cahors.
A man who was laying eel-lines across the Lot consented to take me to the other side in his boat, and there I struck the road to Cahors, which closely borders the river all along this valley. In several places it is tunnelled through the rock, where the buttresses of the cliffs could not be conveniently shattered with dynamite. All this has been the work of late years. Previously the passage between the river and the rocks was about as bad as it could be. The English fortified several of the caverns in the cliffs commanding the passage, to which the name of Le Defile des Anglais was consequently given. Now the term is applied by the country people to the caves themselves, wherever these have been walled up for defence.
I soon reached one of these caverns, the embattled wall being a conspicuous object from the road below. Having fallen into ruin, it had lately been repaired at the expense of the commune. To an Englishman the spot could not be otherwise than strangely interesting. I imagined my own language being spoken there five or six centuries ago, and speculated as to whether the accent was Cockney or Lancashire, or West of England.
Several fig-trees grew beside the walled-up cavern, and I was picking the ripest of the fruit when I heard a voice from the road below calling upon me to come down. Peering through the boughs, I saw a man seated in the smallest and most gimcrack of donkey-carts. It was something like a grocer's box on wheels. The owner gave violent smacks to the plank on which he was sitting, to let me understand that there was room for another person. I did not think there could be, but I left the figs and came down the rocks.
'If you are going to Saint-Gery,' said the man, 'I can take you about five kilometres on the road.'
'But the donkey,' I urged, 'will lie down and roll.'
'What, the little beast! Not he! he will go along like an arrow.'
I accepted the invitation, and away went the donkey, making himself as much like an arrow on the wing as any ass could. My companion, who was a handsome fellow, with a moustache that one would expect to see upon the face of a Sicilian brigand, was a cantonnier, and as he scraped out the ditches and mended the roads, his donkey browsed upon what he could find along the wayside. In summer and winter they were inseparable companions, and had come to thoroughly understand one another. The cantonnier confided to me that he was formerly employed in the phosphate quarries, and that he had closed his experience in this line by working three months without wages for an Englishman whose speculation turned out a failure. Phosphate then lost its charm upon the proprietor of the donkey-cart, for it had caused him to 'eat all his economies,' and he resigned himself to the wages of a road-mender, which were small but sure. It was getting dusk when we parted. My next companion on the road was a poor bent-backed, shambling, idiotic youth, who was driving home two long-tailed sheep and a lamb, and who had just enough intelligence for this work. He kept at my side for a mile or two, flourishing a long stick over the backs of the sheep and uttering melancholy cries. His presence was not cheering, but I had to put up with it, for when I walked fast he ran. He likewise left me at length to continue my way alone, and his wild cries became fainter and fainter. Then, in the deepening dusk, two churches, one on each side of the river, began to sound the angelus. A gleam of yellow light lingered in the western sky between two dark hills, but the clouds above and the river below were of the colour of slate. Suddenly a bright blaze flashed across the dim and misty valley from a cottage hearth where a woman had just thrown on a faggot to boil the evening soup, and the gloom of nature was at once filled with the sentiment of home.
It was quite dark when I reached Saint-Gery. The narrow passage leading to the best inn was illumined by the red glare of a forge, and was rich in odours ancient and modern. Some twenty geese tightly packed in a pen close to the hostelry door announced my arrival with shrieks of derision. They said: 'It's Friday; no goose for you to-night!' Those who suppose that geese cannot laugh have not studied bucolic poetry from nature. The forge was attached to the inn, a very common arrangement here, and one that enables the traveller who has hope of sleep at daybreak—because the fleas are then thinking of rest after labour—to enjoy the melody of the 'Harmonious Blacksmith' without the help of Handel.
I was not cheered by the sight of goose or turkey turning on the spit as I entered the vast smoke-begrimed kitchen, lighted chiefly by the flame of the fire, but the great chain-pot sent forth a perfume that was not offensive, although the soup was maigre. There was also fish that had been freshly pulled out of the Lot. The cooking left something to be desired, but the hostess, the wife of the Harmonious Blacksmith, had thrown her best intentions into it. A rosy light wine grown upon the side of a neighbouring hill compensated for the lack of culinary art. It was a rather rough inn, but I had been in many worse. Seated in the chimney-corner after dinner, and sending the smoke of my pipe to join the sparks of the blazing wood up the yawning gulf where the soot hung like stalactites below the calm sky and twinkling stars, I had a long talk with the aubergiste, who told me that he had been taken prisoner at Sedan, and had, in consequence, spent eight months in Germany. He considered that he had been as well treated by the Germans as a prisoner could expect to be. He had always enough to eat, but there was no soup, and, lacking this, he thought it impossible for any civilized stomach to be happy.
Rural inns have charms, especially when they are old and picturesque, and smell of the Middle Ages; but to be kept a prisoner in one of them by rainy weather is apt to plunge a restless wanderer into the Slough of Despond. The chances are that the inn itself becomes at such times a slough, so that Bunyan's expression is then applicable in a real as well as in a figurative sense. There is a constant coming in and going out of peasants with dripping sabots, of dogs with wet paws, and draggle-tailed hens with miry feet; geese, and even pigs, not unfrequently venture inside, and have a good walk round before their presence is noticed and they are treated to quotations from Rabelais, enforced with the broomstick. Then the rain beats in at the open door, which nobody troubles to close. Under these circumstances, the rural inn becomes detestable. So I found the auberge at Saint-Gery, where I waited long hours for the weather to change, after having received a soaking while climbing the escarped cliffs which rise so grandly on one side of the little town.
A fortified cavern and a ruined castle tempted me up the rocks. On my way I passed a small Gothic house, dating apparently from the fourteenth or fifteenth century, with pointed arched doorway and window lights separated by slender columns with foliated capitals carved by no clumsy rustic workman. The boy who accompanied me had the key. As I entered I was met on the threshold by the fragrant odour of the tobacco-plant; I perceived that the mediaeval house was used for drying tobacco-leaves—a purpose that could never have been in the imagination of the original owner, for those stones were laid together long before the herb, now so precious to the French Government, was brought to Europe. The stalks with all the leaves attached were hung to strings stretched from wall to wall. There is much tobacco grown hereabouts in the valley of the Lot, but it is considered too strong for smoking purposes, and is therefore made into snuff. When the utmost care has been used in its cultivation and drying the price paid by the Government to the grower does not exceed half a franc the pound. Those who enjoy the privilege of raising it consider the money very hardly earned.
I reached the ruined castle at the foot of the limestone buttresses supporting the plateau above. Enough is left of the wall to show that it must have been a strong place at one time. It is attributed by common consent to the English. Protected on one side by the abrupt rock, it overlooked the valley from a height that to an enemy must have been very difficult of access. The fortified cavern is in the escarped cliff above the castle, with which there was, perhaps, a secret communication. The upper part of the wall is gone, but what remains is about ten feet high and nine feet thick. Swallows build their nests in the roof of the cavern, and the spot is noisy with the harsh cries of countless jackdaws. These sagacious birds can doubtless tell many stories of the English which they received from their ancestors.
When I returned to the auberge wet and shivering, I found no sympathy, the thoughts of the hostess being occupied by a matter that interested her more deeply. The badgers had eaten her maize which she needed for fattening the geese, and her tongue was busily employed in wishing them every misfortune, both in time and eternity. Badgers are very numerous in the district, and they continue to increase and multiply, while the peasants jeopardise their immortal interests by cursing them every time they see a spike of ripening maize pulled down and half stripped of its corn. In the daytime these animals sleep comfortably, digesting their ill-gotten meal in the holes of the rocks, which are so honeycombed that dogs cannot easily get at the hermits. Moreover, it is not every dog that likes the prospect of being bitten nearly in half, the badger being much better known than trusted by the canine race.
Another animal that flourishes here, in spite of the hatred in which it is held by the inhabitants, is the fox, which likewise finds the valley an Elysium on account of the convenient neighbourhood of the rocks pierced with multitudinous holes. Badgers and foxes, with all their vices, are preferable to the hyenas which used to infest this part of France, as is proved by the bones found in the larger caverns. The present inhabitants ought to take comfort from this reflection, but they do not.
While the aubergiste's wife, a little woman who carried about with her the outline of a wine-cask, was breathing maledictions upon the badgers, and venting her fury upon the little boy-of-all-work—who, being used to such outbursts, ate his morning allowance of soup with philosophic indifference—I took up my place again in the chimney-corner, and endeavoured to dry myself on all sides by somewhat imitating the movement of a fowl turning on the spit.
At length the heavy pall of cloud lifted, and when the first yellow gleam of sunshine filtering through vapour was reflected by the puddles and streaming roofs, I walked out of Saint-Gery. When the last houses were out of sight, solitude added to the desolate grandeur of the scenery. It was a relief to be alone with Nature, dripping as she was with recent tears, after the depressing influences of the inn—the dimness, dampness, and dirt, the unreasoning anger of ignorance, the dull routine of human beings whose chief concern was to feed themselves and the animals which helped them to live. As an alterative to the mind, rural life is of real value in the case of those who have been carried round and round in the whirlpool of a great city until they have had more than enough of the sensation; but, like other useful medicines, rusticity is best when taken in moderate doses, and at judicious intervals. I had stayed at Saint-Gery long enough to feel like a fish that in jumping out of water for the sake of variety had fallen upon the mud.
The sun that changes the face of all things, and warms the ideas no less than the earth, now shone out from a blue sky, spreading fire over the ruddy tops of the chestnut woods, and flashing into the dark caverns of the ancient crags, fringed with box, sumach and juniper. I noticed that one of these caverns had been fortified, but my curiosity was satisfied with the distant view. A yellow chicory, quite leafless, was still blooming on the stony banks, and I also, found a white scabious. Green hellebore and wild madder flourished amidst the broken limestone. A forest of brown maize-stalks, from which the golden corn had been gathered, followed the windings of the river, now turgid and tumultuous, and dyed sienna-red by the washings from the hills. Every day the increasing water as it descended the weirs made a wilder tumult. These weirs are a great beauty to the Lot, for they generally form an angle or the arc of a circle, and the river tumbles over the rough blocks like a natural cascade. They are connected with a series of locks, which render the stream navigable from the sea; but one rarely sees a barge upon it now, the railway having completely ruined the water traffic, and caused a most elaborate and costly piece of engineering to be practically useless.