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Wanderings by southern waters, eastern Aquitaine by Edward Harrison Barker

Part 4 out of 5

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town of Severac, and had driven in two queer countrified vehicles
about fifteen miles in order to spend a happy day at Les Vignes. They
were terribly noisy, but boundlessly good-natured. Not only was I made
to share their leg of mutton, but also the champagne which they had
brought with them. The modest lunch that I had expected became a
veritable feast, and having been entangled in the convivial meshes, I
had to stay until the end of it all. The experience was worth
something as a study of provincial life and manners. These
people--husbands and wives and friends--had come out with the
determination to enjoy themselves, and their enjoyment was not merely
hearty; it was hurricane-like. There were moments when pieces of bread
and green almonds were flying across the table, and the noise of
voices was so terrific that the quiet hostess looked in at the door
with a scared expression which made me think she was wondering how
much longer the roof would be able to remain in its right place. Then,
the jokes that were exchanged over the table were as broad as the
humour of the South is broad. I felt sorry for the women, but quite
unnecessarily. Although the local colour was not refined, human nature
present was frank, hospitable, and irresistibly warm-hearted. The
vulgarity of the party was of the unselfish sort, and therefore
amusing. The enjoyment of each was the enjoyment of all; and even when
the tempest of humour was at its height, not a word was said that was
intended to be offensive. As a compliment to me, they all rose to
their feet, glasses in hand, and the hostess was again startled by a
mighty rush of sound repeating the words 'Vive l'Angleterre!' far up
and down the valley.

Instead of going on to La Malene that afternoon, as I had intended, I
went after crayfish with one of the members of this jovial party, who
had brought with him the necessary tackle for the sport. There are
various ways of catching crayfish; but in this district the favourite
method is the following: Small wire hoops, about a foot in diameter,
are covered with netting strained nearly tight, and to this pieces of
liver or other meat are tied. A cord a few yards long, fastened to the
centre of the netting, completes the tackle. The baited snare is
thrown into the stream, not far from the bank, and generally where the
bottom is strewn with stones. No more art is needed. The crayfish,
supposing them to be in the humour to eat, soon smell the meat or
divine its presence, and, coming forth from their lairs beneath the
stones, make towards the lure with greedy alacrity. Their movements
can be generally watched, for although they are not delicate feeders,
they are as difficult as Chinamen to please in the matter of water,
and are only to be found in very clear streams. As is the case with
their congeners--the sea crayfish and the crab--greediness renders
them stupid, and, rather than leave a piece of meat which is to their
taste, they will allow themselves to be pulled with it out of the
water. It sometimes happens that the netting is covered with these
creatures in a few minutes, and that all the trouble the fisherman has
is to haul them up. But they are capricious, and, notwithstanding
their voracity, there are times when they will not leave their holes
upon any consideration. Such was their humour to-day. The cause of
their sullenness was said to be a wind that rippled the surface of the
water; but, whatever the reason, not a crayfish did we catch.

The breeze which was supposed to have upset the temper of the
crustaceous multitude in the Tarn blew up bad weather before night.
The panic-stricken leaves upon the alders and poplars announced the
change with palsied movements and plaintive cries; the willows
whitened, and bent towards the stream; and muttered threats of the
strife-breeding spirits in nature seemed to issue from caverns half
hidden by sombre foliage. As the gorge darkened, the gusts grew
stronger, and the moaning rose at times to a shriek. Now the thunder
groaned, the lightning flashed, and the face of the river gleamed. I
returned to the inn just as the hissing rain began to fall. I was by
this time alone, for the party from Severac had left at the approach
of the storm.

As I took my solitary evening meal in a low building cut off from the
inn, composed of a large _salle-a-manger_--the same in which the feast
was held--and a bedroom, where I was to pass the rest of the night, I
could not help contrasting the exuberant joviality of the morning with
the absolute want of it now. The place seemed much too big for me; I
had rather it had been half as large, to have got rid of half the
shadow. Instead of the tempestuous laughter, there was the thunder's
roar. There was also the lightning's flash to drive the shadows out of
the corners from time to time. It was a wild and awful night.

I was busily building around me a vaporous rampart of tobacco-smoke,
as a barrier to gloomy suggestions from without, when the door
suddenly opened, and in walked two gendarmes--one a very
self-important-looking brigadier, with thin sharp nose and keen,
weasel-like eyes. My immediate impression was that they had come to
question me respecting my intentions--inasmuch as I was not going to
work in the same way as other tourists--and possibly to ask me for my
papers; but I was mistaken. They had merely taken shelter from the
rain, and they had not found a refuge too soon, for their appearance
was that of half-drowned rats. The brigadier called for a bottle of
beer, and while he and his younger companion were drinking it I learnt
from their conversation what business had taken them out of doors that
night. Their object was to surprise the fish-poachers at the illegal,
but very exciting and picturesque, sport of spearing by torchlight.
Now, as I had already seen these night-poachers at work on the Tarn, I
may as well describe their method here.

I was walking one dark night on the bank of the river near Ambialet,
when a glare of lurid light suddenly shot up from the water some
distance in front of me, illuminating the willows, and even the black
woods, on each side of the gorge. I imagined myself at once in a
Canadian forest, near an Indian camp-fire. The light came gliding in
my direction, and presently I distinguished the forms of men in a
boat, all lit up by the glare. One was punting; another was holding
aloft, not a torch, but blazing brushwood--which I afterwards learnt
was broom-that he replenished from a heap in the boat; and a third was
in the stern, gazing intently at the water, and holding in his hand a
staff, which he plunged from time to time to the bottom of the stream.
I understood that this was the _peche au flambeau_, of which I had
already heard.

The Tarn being in summer shallow, and of crystal clearness except in
time of flood, it offers every facility for this kind of fishing. The
flat-bottomed boat glides along with the current; the fish, dazzled by
the sudden light, sink at once to the bottom, and lie there stupefied
until they are either speared or the cause of their bewilderment
passes on. The spear head used is a small trident. When the moon is
up, the fish are not to be fascinated by artificial light;
consequently the darkest nights are chosen for this kind of poaching.

The two gendarmes, then, had been looking for poachers, and, not
liking the weather, they had been unable to resist the auberge light
that beckoned them indoors. While they were talking, in walked the
most hardened and skilful poacher of the place, whose acquaintance I
had made earlier in the day, and who made no secret to me of his
business. So far from being abashed by the presence of the gendarmes,
he gave them a genial salutation, and, sitting down beside them,
talked to them as if he had been on the pleasantest terms with them
for years. He was a man of about fifty, who boasted to me that he had
been a poacher from the age of fifteen, and had never been caught. He
was therefore an artful old fox, and one very difficult to run down.
He made the most of his opportunities in all seasons, and laughed at
those who troubled their heads about the months which were open or
closed. His coolness in the presence of the gendarmes was charming. He
actually offered to furnish the brigadier with a dish of trout at any
time on a day's notice, and argued that they had no right to seize a
net wherever found, because the meshes were not of the lawful size.
'If you doubt it,' said the brigadier, 'just show me yours.' Then he
added with a grin: 'I shall pinch you some day, _mon vieux_.' The
other did not seem to believe it, and I am inclined to think that no
one will 'pinch' him but Death.

Of the few really attractive callings left, that of the poacher must
be given a prominent place, especially in France, where the law is not
too severe upon a man who tries to make an honest living by breaking
the law so far as it relates to fish and game. The excitement of
catching wild creatures must be greatly increased by the risk that the
hunter or fisher runs of being caught himself. A poacher is by no
means looked down upon in France. He is considered a useful member of
society, especially by hotel-keepers. I know a very respectable beadle
of a singularly pious parish who is an inveterate poacher. On
week-days he is slinking about the woods and rocks with his gun, and
has generally a hare or a partridge in his bag; but on Sundays he
wears a cocked hat, a gold-laced coat with a sword at his side, and he
brings down his staff upon the church pavement with a thundering crack
at those moments when the wool-gathering mind has to be hurried back
and fixed upon the sacredness of the ritual. He is a well-knit, agile
fellow, who knows every inch of his ground, and he has led the
gendarmes who have surprised him such dances over rocks, and placed
them in such unpleasant positions, that they have come to treat him
with the respect and consideration due to a man of his talent and
resource. The French poacher must not be judged by the same ethics as
the English poacher. Generally speaking, game is not preserved in
France. There are extensive tracts everywhere where anybody can shoot,
provided that he has satisfied the license formality and observes the
regulations with regard to the seasons. The poacher is a man who
thinks it waste of money to pay for a gun-license, and a waste of
opportunities to respect the breeding season. If he is a fisher, he
not only scoffs at the close time, but uses illegal means to achieve
his purpose, such as nets with meshes smaller than they should be, and
the three-pronged spear. In the Tarn and other French rivers the fish
have been destroyed in a woeful manner by poison and dynamite, but it
is the rock-blaster and the navvy, not the regular poacher, who is
chiefly to be blamed for this. Men who have the constant handling of
dynamite, and who move from place to place, are rapidly destroying the
life of the rivers and streams. Having noted a good pool, they return
by night and drop into it a dynamite cartridge, the explosion of which
brings every fish, big and small, to the surface. With these
destructive causes, which do not belong to the natural order of
things, should be mentioned another that does, namely, the frequency
of floods in the season when the trout are spawning. But for this
drawback, and the unfair methods of fishing, the Upper Tarn would be
one of the finest trout streams in the world. As it is, an expert
angler would find plenty of sport on the banks of the river above Le
Rozier, and as all anglers are said to be lovers of nature, he would
never be dull in the midst of such entrancing scenery as is to be
found here.

The storm having spent its fury, the gendarmes and the poacher left,
and I was again alone. Although it was not yet ten o'clock, there was
the quietude of midnight around me. The village was asleep, and I
should have thought Nature asleep had I not heard the harsh scream of
an owl as I entered my bedroom and threw open the window. The clouds
had broken up, and the moon was shining above the great rocks at the
foot of which I knew that the owl was flying silently and searching
with glowing eyes for the happy, unsuspecting mouse or young hare
amidst the thyme and bracken. Can Nature never rest? Is there no peace
without bloodshed under the sun and moon, no respite from ravin even
when the night is hooded like a dead monk?

I turned from the moonlit clouds, the rushing dark water, the long
white reach of pebbles, and made a little journey round my room. The
people who owned this inn may not have been very prosperous, but they
were evidently rich in faith. The walls were ornamented with rosaries
yards long--probably from Lourdes--and religious pictures. There were
also statuettes of sacred figures, a large crucifix, and close by the
bed a holy-water stoup. The inhabitants of the Lozere, like those of
the Aveyron, are not only believing, they are zealous, and in their
homes they surround themselves with the emblems of their faith. These
are the only works of art which the villagers possess--almost their
only books.

At seven the next morning I had left Les Vignes, and was making my way
up the gorge, whose rocky walls drew closer together, became more
stupendous, fantastic, and savagely naked. All cultivation
disappeared. A rock of immense size, pointing to the sky, but leaning
towards the gorge, soon attracted my notice, as it must that of any
traveller who comes within view of it. This monolith, over 200 feet in
height, has its base about 500 feet above the stream, but it is only a
jutting fragment of the prodigious wall. It has received the name of
L'Aiguille, from its needle-like shape. Below this, and partly in the
bed of the stream, is another prodigious block of dolomite called La
Sourde, and here the channel is so obstructed by the number and size
of the rocks which have fallen into it, that the river has forced a
passage beneath them, and does not reappear until the obstacle is
passed. But although the water vanishes, its muffled groan arises from
mysterious depths. This, together with the monstrous masses of
dolomite, wrinkled, white and honeycombed, the narrowness and gloomy
depth of the gorge, the fury of the water as it descends amongst the
blocks to leap into its gulf, makes the imagination ask if something
supernatural has not happened here. But the geologist says that this
chaos of tumbled-down rocks is simply the result of a 'fault' in the
stratification, and that, the foundations having given way, the masses
of dolomite fell where they now lie.

In the Middle Ages, however, geology was an undiscovered science, and
the human mind was compelled--perhaps with much advantage to
itself--to seek supernatural causes in order to explain the mysterious
phenomena of nature, many of which, so far as subsidiary causes are
concerned, have ceased to be mysterious. This spot--called the Pas de
Souci--has, therefore, its poetic and miraculous legend. St. Enimie,
when she established her convent near the fountain of Burlats, higher
up the Tarn, interfered with the calculations of the devil, who had
found the numerous orifices in this region communicating with the
infernal kingdom exceedingly convenient for his terrestrial
enterprises. He therefore lost no time in entering upon a tug-of-war
with the saintly interloper. But she was more than a match for him.
Her nuns, however, were of weaker flesh, and so he tried his wiles
upon them. Their devotions and good resolutions were so much troubled
by the infernal teaser of frail humanity that St. Enimie, realizing
the great danger, rose to the occasion. One day or night she caught
the devil unawares in the convent and tried to chain him up; but he
was too strong or too crafty for the innocent virgin, and made his
escape down the gorge of the Tarn, intending to reach his own fortress
by the hole down which the stream plunges at the Pas de Souci, and
which the peasant believes existed from the beginning of the world.
St. Enimie followed at his heels as closely as she could, and he led
her a wild scamper over the rocks. She hoped that St. Ilere, her
confessor, who lived in a cavern of the gorge, would stop the fiend in
his flight, but the saint was so busy praying that he did not notice
the arch-enemy as he sped on his frantic course. St. Enimie was quite
out of breath and ready to drop from exhaustion when she drew near the
Pas de Souci, a little in the rear of the tormentor of souls, and he
was just about to plunge into the gulf. The saint threw herself upon
her knees, and exclaimed: 'Help me, O ye mountains and crags! Stop
him, fall upon him!' Thereupon there was a great commotion of the
ancient rocks far above under the calm sky, and they fell, one after
the other, with a frightful crash. It was, however, the immense block,
since named La Sourde, that stopped the devil; the others he shook off
as if they had been pebbles. When La Sourde struck him it was more
than he could contend with, and it flattened him out. The Needle Rock
was just about to tumble, when La Sourde cried out: 'Hold on, my
sister! You need not trouble yourself; I have him fast!' This explains
why the Needle Rock has ever since looked so undecided. For centuries
La Sourde bore the impress of a sanguinary hand, left upon it by Satan
in his frantic efforts to get free, but some years ago it was washed
away by an exceptionally high flood.

A little beyond this impressive and legendary spot, the gorge,
widening, displays an immense concavity on the left, nearly
semicircular. Here among the spur-like rocks which jut out from its
steep sides--much clothed, however, with vegetation--was the hermitage
of St. Ilere, and the spot where it is supposed to have been is a
place of pilgrimage. Here, too, are numerous caverns, in some of which
many implements of the Stone Age have been found, as well as the bones
of extinct animals and others which disappeared from Europe before the
historic period. To those who have the special knowledge that is
requisite, the caverns of the Causses de Sauveterre and Mejan offer
great enticement, for only a few of their secrets, covered by the
darkness of incalculable ages, have yet been brought to light.

Again the cliffs draw closer together, and the tower-like masses on
the brink of each precipice lift their inaccessible ramparts higher
and higher in the blue air. Gray-white or ochre-stained layers and
monoliths shine like incandescent coals in the unmitigated radiance of
the sun. I pass a little group of houses in the hollow of overhanging
rocks, splashed by the shadow of the wild fig-tree's leaves. One side
of the gorge is all luminous with sunbeams, down to the lathy poplars
leaning in every direction by the edge of the torrent, their leaves
still wet with last night's rain. Another boat is being tugged
laboriously up the rapids, a mule taking the first place at the end of
the rope. The impetuous water looks strong enough to carry the beast
off his legs; but he, like the boatman, is used to the work, and has
good nerves. The path--if path it can be called, when it has lost all
trace of one--now leads over large pebbles which are not pleasant to
walk upon; but presently the way along the water-side is absolutely
closed by vertical rocks some hundred feet high.

To enter the mad torrent in order to get beyond these terrible rocks,
forming a narrow strait, was an undertaking only to be thought of if
the case were desperate. I believed that there must be a path
somewhere running up the cliff, and after going back a little I found
one. It led me four or five hundred feet up the side of the gorge; but
on looking down the distance seemed much less, because the rocks rose
a thousand feet higher. I was gazing at the loftiest peak on the
opposite side, when two eagles suddenly appeared in the air above it;
and so long as I remained did they continue to circle over it without
any apparent movement of their wings. The eyrie upon this needle-like
point is well known; according to the popular belief, it has always
been there.

It was in vain, however, that I searched the horizon for the vultures,
whose principal stronghold--a long ledge of rock, protected from above
by an overhanging cornice, and beyond the range of a fowling-piece
from below--is immediately over the river in this part of the gorge.
Had I left Les Vignes before daybreak, I might have seen them start
off all together, the brown vultures and their black cousins, the
arians, in quest of carrion; but now there was not one to be seen. As
the vulture has become a rare bird in France, inhabiting only a few
localities where there are very high and inaccessible rocks, and where
man is crestfallen in the presence of nature, it is to be hoped that
they will not be driven from the great gorge of the Tarn by being too
frequently shot at in the breeding season, when they are obliged to
show themselves at all hours of the day. No peasant would think of
wasting a cartridge upon them; but the sharpshooting tourist, armed
with a rifle, may be tempted to do so. He would probably fire many
bullets before he succeeded in striking a bird five or six hundred
feet above him; and even if the shot took effect, there would be very
small chance of the vulture falling where it could be picked up. The
bombardment would do them little damage; but it might, if often
repeated, prove too trying to their nerves, and, notwithstanding their
conservative principles, they might be driven at length to quit these
rocks inhabited by their ancestors for centuries. To the naturalist
this district is of fascinating interest, on account of the large
number of carnivorous birds of various species by which it is still
haunted. Besides the common brown eagle, three kinds of vulture,
several species of falcons, hawks, and owls, the raven family appears
to be fully represented, with the exception of the jackdaw, which
possibly finds itself too weak and too slow of flight to live in the
midst of such strong and ferocious air-robbers as those which have
established themselves in these grand solitudes. Among smaller birds
of different habits, the red partridge and the water-ousel are
frequently seen. The rock-partridge, or _bartavelle_, is also found,
but is rare. The four-legged fauna is not represented by the wolf or
the boar, the forests being too scanty to afford them sufficient
cover, and the largest wild quadrupeds are the badger and the fox.

Descending the path by steps cut in the rock, I again reached the
margin of the Tarn. Gradually the gorge opened, slopes appeared, and
upon these were almond-trees and vines planted on terraces. Flowers,
too, which had little courage to bloom in the dim depths where the
cliffs seemed ready to join again, and the sunbeam vanished before it
dried the dew, now took heart under the broader sky. Great purple
snapdragons hung from clefts in the rocks, inula flashed gorgeously
yellow, white melilot raised its graceful drooping blossoms, and
hemp-agrimony made the bees sing a drowsy song of the brimming cup of

Some vestiges of a castle appeared upon a high-jutting craggy mass,
marking the site of the Chateau de Montesquieu, one of the strongest
fortresses of the gorge in the Middle Ages.

I guessed rightly by the vines and almonds that La Malene was not far
off. Soon came that sight, ever welcome to the wayfarer--the village
where he intends to seek rest and refreshment. The inn here was as
unpretentious as the one at Les Vignes; but with hare, _en civet_, a
dish of trout, and a bottle of the wine grown upon the sunny terrace
above the houses, I had as good a meal as any hungry tramp has a right
to expect. As for myself, I never expect anything so sumptuous, and in
this way I let luck have a chance of giving me now and then a pleasant
surprise. The trout in the Upper Tarn do not often reach a large size,
because by growing they become too conspicuous in such clear water;
but their flesh obtains that firmness which is the gift of mountain
streams. The wine grown upon the slopes of the gorge is a _petit vin_
with a sparkle in it, and it comes as a delightful change to those who
have been drinking the tasteless, deep-coloured wines of the Beziers
and Narbonne region, with which the South of France has been flooded
since the new vineyards upon the plains and slopes of the
Mediterranean have been yielding torrents of juice. The fruit of no
plant is so dependent upon the soil for its flavour as that of the
vine. Chalk produces champagne, and some of the best wines of Southern
France are grown upon calcareous soils where the eye perceives nothing
but stones. The plant loves to get its roots down into the crevices of
a rock. I now drank the fragrant light wine of the Gevaudan--the
calcareous district of the Upper Tarn--with a pleasure not unmixed
with sorrow; for the phylloxera had found its way up the gorge, and
the vineyards were already sick unto death. The pest had come some
years later here than in districts nearer the plains; but it had too
surely come, and the fear of poverty was gnawing the hearts of the
poor men--many of them old--who had been bending their backs such a
number of years, and their fathers before them, upon those terraces
which had been won from the desert at the price of such long labour.

Before continuing my journey up the gorge, I climbed to the little
church overlooking the village, and which stands in the midst of the
rough burying-ground where the dead must lie very near the solid rock.
It is a plain Romanesque building, presenting the peculiarity not
often seen of exterior steps leading to the belfry. Against an inner
wall is a tablet, which tells of certain men of Florac who 'pro Deo et
rege legitime certantes coronati sunt, die II mensis Junii, anni
1793.' They were guillotined by the Revolutionists at Florac.

I passed the Chateau de la Caze, a small but well-preserved castle,
showing the transition from the feudal to the Renaissance style, and
still surrounded by its moat. It has five towers, and is a picturesque
building; but I thought it gloomy in the deep shade of the gorge and
the surrounding trees. It must be gloomier still at night when the
owls shriek and hoot. If it is not haunted, it must be because there
are so many abandoned solitary great houses in this part of France
that the ghosts have become rather spoilt and hard to please.

What is the pale yellow flame that I see burning by the river where a
slanted beam strikes down from a crenellated bastion of ruddy rock?
Reaching the spot, I find two pale-yellow flames, one hanging from the
bank, the other trembling upon the stream. The evening primrose has
lit its lamp from the sunbeam.

More rocks there are to climb, for the river again rushes between
upright walls. The path goes along the edge of a horrid precipice,
then descends abruptly by steps cut in the rock.

At a very poor hamlet, clinging to the side of the gorge at a
sufficient height to be safe from the floods, I ask a woman if anybody
there sells wine. 'Yes,' she replies, 'he does,' pointing at the same
time to a tall old white-haired man, who beckons me to follow him. He
hobbles along with a stick, dragging one leg, and leads the way into
his house under a rock. It is a mere hovel, but it has a wooden floor,
and there are signs of personal dignity--what is known in England as
'respectability'--struggling with poverty. Perhaps the ancient clock,
whose worm-eaten case reaches from the floor to the ceiling, and whose
muffled but cheery tick-tack is like the voice of an old friend,
impressed me in favour of this poor home as soon as I entered.

The crippled man, having given me his best chair, disappeared into his
cellar scooped out of the rock, and presently returned with a bottle
of wine. Then he brought out a great loaf of very dark bread, which he
placed upon the table with the wine, and a plateful of green almonds.
The French peasants observe the wholesome rule of never drinking red
wine without 'breaking a crust' at the same time. I made my new
acquaintance break a crust with me and share the contents of the
bottle. Then he talked freely of the cares that weighed upon him. He
told me that he and others who lived in the gorge had always depended
upon their wine to buy bread.

'And are the vines in a very bad way?' 'The year after next will see
the last of them.'

Many persons, he added, would be obliged to leave the district because
it would become impossible for them to live there. While we were
talking two or three little barefooted boys, whose clothes had been
patched over and over again, but still showed gaping places, watched
and listened in the open doorway with round-eyed attention. They were
robust children with health and happiness in their faces, in spite of
the hard times, for the mountain air fed them, and their troubles were
yet to come. They were the old man's grandchildren, and I suppose I
was looking at them more keenly than I should have had I reflected,
for he made excuses for their neglected appearance with an expression
of pain. Then, changing the subject suddenly, he said:

'What country do you belong to?'

'To England.'

'Ah, c'est un riche pays!'

I told him that it was rich and poor like other countries, and that
the people there had no vines at all to help them. 'It is a rich
country all the same,' repeated the old man, for the impression had
somehow become deeply fixed in his mind. There I see him still seated
at the rough table, and behind his broad bent back the wide fireplace
against the bare rock blackened with smoke.

I had left this hamlet, and was on the bank of the Tarn, when I heard
the patter of bare feet upon the pebbles behind me. Turning round, I
saw the eldest of the boys who had been watching me in the doorway. He
had an idea that I should go wrong, and followed stealthily to see. He
now told me that if I continued by the water I should soon be stopped
by rocks, and I accepted his offer to show me the way up the cliff.
His recklessness in running over the sharp stones made me ask him if
they did not hurt his feet. 'Oh no!' he replied; 'they are used to
it.' It is indeed astonishing what feet are able to get used to. The
boy's joy at the few sous which I gave him was almost ecstatic. He had
hardly thanked me when he set off running homeward to show how he had
been rewarded--for his sharpness in thinking that I should lose my
way, and allowing me to do so before saying a word.

I was by the river-side not far from Sainte-Enimie when a rather
alarming noise broke the silence and became rapidly louder. I looked
up the steep cliff, and saw to my consternation a great stone bounding
down the rocks and crashing through the vines. As I seemed to be in
the line of it I hastened on. I had only gone about ten yards when it
bounded into the air and, passing sheer over the path and bank,
plunged into the Tarn with a mighty splash. I reckoned that had I
remained where I was it would have just cleared my head. It was a
fragment of rock which, from its size, might well have been two
hundredweight. The same thing happened earlier in the day, but that
time I was not so unpleasantly near. The heavy rain of the previous
night, coming after a long period of drought, was probably the cause
of these already-loosened stones starting upon their downward career.
All these calcareous rocks are breaking up. The process of
disintegration and decomposition is slow, but it is sure. Every frost
does something to split them, and every shower of rain entering the
crevices does something to rot them; so that even they cannot last.
The Tarn is carrying them back to the sea, to be deposited again, but
somewhere else.

I was at Sainte-Enimie before sunset, and there I found the air laden
with the scent of lavender. True, all the hills round about were
covered with a blue-gray mantle; but I had never known the plant when
undisturbed give out such an aroma before. Looking down from the
little bridge to the waterside, my wonder ceased. There in a line,
with wood-fires blazing under them, were several stills, and behind
these, upon the bank, were heaps of lavender stalks and flowers such
as I had never seen even in imagination. There were enough to fill
several bullock-waggons. The fragrance in the air, however, did not
come so much from these mounds as from the distilled essence. It was
evident that Sainte-Enimie had a considerable trade in lavender-water.

I spent an unhappy evening, for the inn where I stopped--it called
itself a hotel--had been made uninteresting by enterprise; and a
couple of tourists from the South, with whom it was my lot to dine,
caused me unspeakable misery by talking of nothing else but of a
bridge which they had lately seen; If I should ever be near it, I
think the recollection of that evening will make me avoid it. It may
be a miracle in iron, but none the less shall I owe it an everlasting
grudge. These gentlemen from Carcassonne were typical sons of the
South in this, that the sound of their own voices acted upon their
imagination like the strongest coffee blended with the oldest cognac.
They would have been amusing, nevertheless, but for the horrible
intensity of their resolve to make me see that nightmare of a bridge.
If one had taken breath while the other spoke, or rather shouted, I
should have suffered less; but they both shouted together, and their
struggle to get the better of one another by force of lung,
gesticulation, and frenzied rolling of the eyes became a duel, whereby
the solitary witness was the only person harmed. What a relief to me
if they had gone down to the river bank and fought it out there! No
such luck, however. Had there been no listener, they, too, might have
wished the bridge in the depths of Tartarus.

If I passed an unhappy evening at Sainte-Enimie, I spent a worse
morning. There was a change of weather in the night, and when the day
came again, it was a blear-eyed, weeping day, with that uniform gray
sky with steam-like clouds hiding half the hills which, when seen in a
mountainous region by a person bent on movement, is enough to give him
'goose flesh.' I now felt a longing to leave the Cevennes and to
return to the lower country, but there seemed no chance of escape. The
rain continued hour after hour--and such rain! It was enough to turn a
frog against water. As the people of the inn seemed incapable of
showing sympathy, I went out to look at the town under a borrowed
umbrella. It was certainly not much to look at, especially under
circumstances of such acute depression. I walked or waded through a
number of miry little streets where all manner of refuse was in a
saturated or deliquescent state--cabbage-stumps and dead rats floating
in the gutters, potato-peelings and bean-pods sticking to the
mediaeval pitching--everything slippery, nasty, and abominable. There
were old houses, as a matter of course; but who can appreciate
antiquities when his legs are wet about the knees and his boots are
squirting water? Nevertheless, I tried to notice a few things besides
the vileness underfoot. One was a rudely-carved image of the Virgin in
a niche covered by a grating. This was in such a dark little street
that it seemed as if the sun had given up all hope of ever shining
there again. I struggled through the slush to the church, built, with
the town, on the side of a hill rising from the Tarn. I found a
Romanesque edifice--old, but rough, and offering no striking feature,
save the arched recesses in the exterior surface of the wall. A little
higher upon the hill was the convent founded by St. Enimie; but the
original building disappeared centuries ago.

On returning to the inn I passed the Fontaine de Burlats, where St.
Enimie was cured of her leprosy in the Merovingian age. It was a
change to see something that really seemed to enjoy the incessant
downpour and to enter into the spirit of it. The fountain would be
remarkable in another region by the volume of water that gushes in all
seasons like a little river out of the earth; but there are so many
such between the Dordogne and the Tarn, wherever the calcareous
formation has lent itself to the honeycombing action of water, that
this copious outflow loses thereby much of its claim to distinction.

The legend of St. Enimie is fully set forth in a Provencal poem of the
thirteenth century by the troubadour Bertrand de Marseilles, who
received his information from his friend the Prior of the monastery at
Sainte-Enimie, which in the Middle Ages was the most important
religious house in the Gevaudan. The MS. is preserved in the library
of the Arsenal, Paris. It was at the express recommendation of St.
Ilere that Enimie sought the fountain of Burla (now Burlats), and
bathed her afflicted body in its pure waters. The passage of the poem
containing this injunction is as follows:

'Enimia verges de Dyeu,
Messatges fizels ti suy yeu.
Per me ti manda Dieus de pla
Que t'en anes en Gavalda,[*]
Car, lay trobaras una fon
Que redra ton cors bel e mon
Si te laves en l'aygua clara.
* * * *
A nom Burla; vay l'en lay
Non ho mudar per negun play.'

[*] Gevaudan.

The relics of the saint were destroyed or lost at the time of the
Revolution; but high upon the side of a neighbouring hill a chapel has
been raised to her, and it is a place of pilgrimage.


The rambler in the highlands of the North knows so well what the
wretchedness of being shut up by bad weather in a mountain inn means,
that he may have grown reconciled to it, and have learnt how to spend
a day under such circumstances pleasantly. But to me, a sun-lover, to
whom the charm of the South has been irresistible, such a trial is one
that taxes to the utmost all the powers of endurance. Hence it is
that, when I think of Sainte-Enimie, I can recall nothing but
impressions of dismal wetness. This may seem shocking to those who
have seen, under a different aspect, the little town on the Upper
Tarn, named after the Merovingian saint. Be it remembered, however,
that I was shut up hour after hour in an inn crowded with peasants in
damp blouses, shouting _patois_ at each other, and clutching great
cotton umbrellas, whose fragrance under the influence of moisture, was
not idyllic; In that abominable little auberge, that styled itself a
hotel, I decided to go no farther up the Tarn, but, as soon as the
weather would set me free, to cross the _causse_ that separated me
from the Lot, and to descend the valley of this river towards the
warmer and dryer region of the plains.

Not until the afternoon were there any signs of improvement in the
weather; and then, as soon as the clouds grew lighter, I started
without waiting for the rain to stop. It was Sunday, and outside the
old church was a crowd of men and boys, who had come for vespers. The
women did not join them, but passed through the door as they arrived.
Throughout rural France, wherever religion keeps a firm hold on the
peasant, it is the custom of the men to gather for gossip in front of
the church some time before the service, and, just as the bell stops;
to make a rush at the doorway, and struggle through the opening like
sheep into a fold when there is a dog at their heels. While looking at
these men, I was again struck by the prevailing tendency of the
peasants of the Lozere to develop long, sharp noses--a feature that
often gives them a very weasel-like expression.

Having passed the ruins of the monastery, whose high loopholed walls
and strong tower showed that it had once been a fortress as well as a
religious house, I was soon rising far above the valley of the Tarn.
The winding road led me up the flanks of stony hills, terraced
everywhere for almond-trees; but after two or three hours of ascent
the almonds dwindled away, and the country became an absolute desert
of brashy hills, showing little asperity of outline, but mournful and
solemn by their wastefulness and abandonment to a degree that makes
the traveller ask himself if he is really in Europe, or has been
transported by magic to the most arid steppes of Asia. But there is a
plant that thrives in this desert, that loves it so much as to give to
it a tinge of dusty blue as far as the eye can reach on every side.
Needless to say that this is the lavender. It was in all its flowering
beauty as I crossed the treeless waste, and it gave to the breath of
the desert what seemed to be the mystical fragrance of peace.

Leaving the highway to Mende, I took a rough road on the left, which,
according to the map, led directly to Chanac by the Lot. I should
recommend no one else to take it unless he have more hours of daylight
before him than I had. Again I ran a near risk of passing the night in
the open air. The road became little better than a track; then it
crossed others, and it was a very pretty puzzle to tell which was the
one for me and which was not. It is true that I could have made
straight towards the Lot by the compass, but the descent of the
precipitous cliffs into the deep gorge, unless one knows the paths, is
only a task to be undertaken at nightfall with a light heart by those
who have had no experience of this savage district. When my perplexity
was at its worst I saw a shepherd, whose form, wrapped in the long
brown homespun cloak called a _limousine_, stood solemnly against the
evening sky. I made towards him, thinking that he would help me out of
my difficulty; but no: either he did not understand a word I said, or
did not choose to give any information. Perhaps he thought me an
escaped madman, or a dangerous tramp, with whom it was better to hold
no conversation. The sun was setting when I reached a wood of
scattered firs--a more melancholy spot at that hour than the bare
_causse_. The weather had been fine for some hours, but now a storm
that had been gathering broke. As the wind blew the rain in slanting
lines, the level sun shone through the vapour and the streaming
atmosphere. Looking above me, as I sheltered myself behind a wailing
fir, I saw that the dreary world was spanned by two glorious rainbows.
But although the scene was so wildly beautiful, the spirit of
desolation was upon me, and I felt like a homeless wanderer. I was
roaming among the firs in the dusk, when I met a shepherd boy, who put
me on a path that joined the main road to Chanac. Then began the
descent into the valley of the Lot. It was very long; the winding road
passed through a black forest of firs, and the dark night fell when I
was still far from the little town. The walk was gloomy, but in all
gloom there is something that is grand and elevating--something that
gives a sense of expansion to the soul. The cries of the unseen
night-birds, the solemn mystery of the enigmatic trees wrapped in
darkness, make us feel the supernatural that surrounds us, and is a
part of us, more than the visible movement of life in the light of the

At length the oil-lamps of Chanac flashed brightly in the hollow
below, and not long afterwards I was sitting at a table in an upper
room of a comfortable old inn, the lower part of which was filled with
roisterers, for it was Sunday night. I dined with a Government
functionary--an inland revenue _controleur_, who happened to be a
Frenchman of the reserved and solemn sort that cultivates dignity. By
dint of being looked up to by others he had acquired the fixed habit
of looking up to himself. All the time that I was in his company I
felt that, had he been an angel dining with a modern Tobias, he could
scarcely have shown greater anxiety not to sit upon his wings. Moved
by the genial spirit of the grape, or not wishing, perhaps, to crush
me altogether with the weight of his official importance, his ice
began to melt a little at about the second or third course. Forgetting
discretion, he actually smiled. The meal, which had been prepared in
anticipation of his coming, was a much more splendid entertainment
than would have been got up for me had I been alone. The cook's
masterpiece was a very cunningly contrived pasty--a work of local
genius that I was quite unprepared for. Even M. le controleur, had he
not checked himself in time, would have beamed at this achievement;
but he would never have forgiven himself such an admission of weakness
common to mortals not in the service of the Government. Just before
the dessert a superb trout that had been drawn out of the sparkling
Lot was brought in, and it had been mercifully spared the disgrace of
being sprinkled with chopped garlic.

While we were dining the wassailers in the great kitchen and general
room downstairs became more and more uproarious. Dancing had
commenced, and it was the _bourree_, the delightful _bourree_ of
Auvergne (the Upper Lot here runs not very far from the Cantal) that
was being danced. It is a measure that has no local colour unless it
is accompanied by violent stamping. The _controleur_ looked very
scandalized, and said it was abominable that the house should be given
up to such tumult and disorder. I observed, however, that as the
joyousness of the party downstairs increased my companion's face
became animated by an expression that was not one of genuine anger,
and as soon as he had drunk his coffee he remarked in a tone of
indifference that, as the evening had to be spent somehow, it might be
less disagreeable to see what was going on below than simply to hear
it. I soon followed him, and found that he was enjoying himself
thoroughly, although discreetly, in a quiet corner. The kitchen was
filled with young fellows in blouses, some sitting at tables drinking
and smoking, others standing; all were shouting, whistling or raising
peals of laughter that might have brought the house about their ears
had it been built by a modern contractor. In the centre of the room
the bare-armed kitchenmaid, who had left the platters, and a young
peasant in a blouse were dancing, their backs turned to each other,
moving their arms up and down like puppets in a barrel-organ, and
banging the floor with their sabots, with the full conviction that the
greater the noise the greater the fun. And this was the opinion of all
except the stout hostess, who looked on at the scene with a distressed
countenance from behind a mighty pile of dirty plates. The musicians
were spectators who whistled in a band the air of the _bourree_, which
is enough to make the most sedate Canon who ever sat in a stall dance,
or at least to remember with charity the promptings of his

When the kitchenmaid went back to her plates--to the great relief of
her mistress, who would have sternly condemned her tripping if
thoughts of business had not beset her practical mind--two young men
stood up and danced another _bourree_. With the exception of the
scullion and household drudge there was no chance of getting a female
partner. In these villages and small towns the girls are kept out of
harm's way. They go to bed at eight or nine, and are hard at work
either in the fields or in the house, or washing by the stream, all
through the hours of daylight. The priests, wherever they have
influence--and in the South they have a great deal--set their faces
strongly against dancing by the two sexes, except under very
exceptional circumstances. They are right; they have peculiar
facilities for knowing the variety of human nature with which they
have to deal. Humanity is fundamentally the same everywhere, but what
is fundamental is modified by race and climate. Temperament, fashioned
by causes innate and local, exercises an immense influence upon
practical morality.

And so the revel went on. As the glasses were refilled the noise grew
louder and the smoke denser. I soon had enough of it, and taking a
candle I climbed to my bedroom, leaving the _controleur_ in his
corner. Before going to bed I did a little sewing, having borrowed a
threaded needle from the landlady with this object in view. The
wayfarer should be ready to help himself as far as he can, and
although sewing is not, perhaps, the most manly of accomplishments, no
tourist should be incapable of sewing on a button or closing up a rent
that makes the village children laugh.

My walk across the _causse_ separating two rivers had tired me, but I
might as well have remained downstairs for all the sleep that I
enticed. As the hours wore on the uproar, instead of subsiding, became
more terrific. These Southerners have voices of such rock-splitting
power that, when twenty or thirty of them, inspired by Bacchus, or
excited by discussion, shout together, one asks if it would be
possible for devils on the rampage to raise a more hideous tumult. The
house trembled as from a succession of thunderclaps. Midnight struck,
and the uproar was unabated. At one it had entered upon the
quarrelsome phase, and at two there was a fight. Chairs or tables were
overthrown, there was a smashing of glass, a rapid scuffling of feet,
and the screaming and howling as of a menagerie on fire. Above the
fiendish din rang out the shrill voice of the hostess, who was
evidently trying to separate the combatants, and who seemed to be
successful, for the hurricane suddenly lulled.

This hostess was a woman of words, but the landlady of an inn near
Rodez, which I entered one summer evening, showed herself under
similar circumstances to be a woman of action. Two young men who were
sitting at a table, after a very brief difference of opinion, stared
fixedly and fiercely into each other's face, and then sprang at one
another like a couple of tom-cats. Presently the stronger took the
other up in his arms, carried him out through the door, and, having
pitched him considerately upon the manure-heap in the yard, returned
to his place with the expression of the victorious cat. But he
reckoned without his hostess. She was not tall, but her cubic capacity
took up more place in the world than that of two or three ordinary
mortals. With her great bare arms folded across her ample person she
waddled towards the triumphant young man, and there was a look in her
eye that made him wriggle uneasily upon his chair. I think he was
tempted to run away, but shame nailed him to his seat. As soon as the
pair were at close quarters, one of the folded bolster-like arms made
a sudden movement, and the back of the strong rough hand, hardened by
forty years or more of toil, covered for an instant the youth's nose
and mouth. That single movement of a female arm, the muscular
development of which a pugilist might have envied, shed more blood
than all the clawing, tugging, and butting of the male combatants had
caused to flow. 'That is to teach you,' said the strong woman, 'not to
fight in my house again!'

But I am forgetting that I am now at Chanac. When I went down into the
kitchen at about seven o'clock, after two or three hours' sleep, the
landlady and the other women of the inn looked very tired and
sheepish. They were prepared to hear some strong criticism of the
night's proceedings, such as they would be sure to get when the
_controleur_ came down.

'You seem to have had some good amusement last night, and to have kept
it up well,' said I.

'Oh, monsieur,' exclaimed the hostess, shaking her head dolefully,
'what a night it was!'

And she went on shaking her head, while the kitchen-maid--the one who
danced the _bourree_, and was now listlessly rinsing glasses
innumerable--giggled behind her mistress's back. She evidently thought
that it was a good sort of night. In making up the bill I think that
the regretful aubergiste, who felt, that the reputation of her house
had received a cruel blow, and that all the mothers in the place were
reviling her for encouraging their sons in dissipation, must have left
the bed out of the reckoning, considering that she could not honestly
charge me for a night's rest which I did not get. At any rate, the
bill was ridiculously small.

[Illustration: CIGALA, THE SHOEBLACK.]

Now, with the help of daylight, I can see what the little town is
like. The houses--many of which have late Gothic doorways--are
clustered about the sides of an isolated hill or mamelon in the valley
of the Lot, beyond which rise the high cliffs covered with dark woods.
The town is still dominated by the tall rectangular tower that helped
to protect it in the Middle Ages, and near to this is the church,
which is both Romanesque and Gothic, and is rich in curious details.
The sanctuary is separated from the rest of the choir by the graceful
arcade of numerous little arches supported by tall and slender
columns, which is one of the most charming and characteristic features
of the Auvergnat style. The carving of the capitals exhibits in a
delightful manner the hardihood and florid fancy of this singularly
interesting development of Byzantine-Romanesque taste. Upon one of the
piers of the sanctuary are a pair of symbolical doves dipping their
beaks into the chalice that separates them, and upon another are two
grotesque and fantastic beasts facing one another with frightful jaws
wide open.

The walk from Chanac down the valley through the rest of the
department of the Lozere I did not do fairly. The sun was so hot and
the way so tedious that I at length yielded to the temptation of the
railway that I met here, and rode some fifteen or twenty miles. It was
not until the next morning at St. Laurent d'Olt that I braced myself
up to the task of faring on foot by the river through the department
of the Aveyron. Here in the upper country the stream retains its
ancient name, the Olt, which is merely an abbreviation of Oltis,
unless it be the Celtic origin of the Latin word. It is easy to see
how in rapid speech L'Olt became changed to Lot. The _t_ is still

The valley down which I now took my way from St. Laurent was broad and
green, but the high rocky cliffs which shut it off from the outer
world drew nearer as I went on. An old tramp who had a bag slung over
his back stopped me and said that he was 'dans la misere.' Doubtless
he guessed that I was not quite so deep in it as himself, and that I
might be able to spare him something. As I always look upon the tramp
with a fraternal interest, however disreputable he may appear, because
my own wayfaring has helped to teach me contempt for appearances, I
stopped to talk with the aged wanderer while hunting for some stray
sous. His matted gray beard and sunken cheeks gave him the air of a
Job of the studios; but no such luck had probably ever befallen him as
to be asked to pose for thirty sous the hour. Such a sum would be more
than he could gather in a day, even after selling the surplus of his
begged crusts. He talked to me of 'the picturesque,' which proved that
he had not grown gray and half doubled up without learning something
of the world's wisdom. I learnt from him that between the spot where
we met and St. Geniez there was only a hamlet, but that I should be
able to find a house there where I could get a meal.

The old man went hobbling away, wondering, perhaps, when he would meet
another foreign imbecile on the tramp, and I was soon alone upon the
margin of the river's broad bed of sand, strewn with pebbles like the
seashore. The stream was still fresh from the mountains, and it had
the joyousness and bounding movements of young life. It was very
narrow now, and many plants had grown up since the spring upon its
far-shelving banks of mica-glittering sand and many-coloured pebbles;
but often its swollen waters had rolled through this smiling valley, a
raging and uncontrollable force, spreading terror and destruction.

The cliffs drew nearer and rose higher, and then the river ran through
a gorge nearly impassable, and abandoned to all the wildness of
nature. The partial loop here formed by the Lot is hidden and defended
by a forbidding wilderness of rocks and forest, as if it were one of
the last retreats of the fluvial deities, where they can defy the
curiosity of man. The adventurous spirit prompted me to explore it,
but the lazy one said, 'Leave it.' I took the advice of the latter,
and went on by the road, which now left the river, and ascended
towards the plateau under cliffs of red sandstone. The thirsty sun had
by this time drained almost every flower-cup of its dew; but the
freshness of the morning still lingered in the hollows of the rocks,
and in the shade of the chestnut, the walnut, and elm. As the earth
warmed, it became quieter. All creatures seemed to grow drowsy, except
the sociable little quails that kept calling to one another, 'How are
you?' and the flies of wicked purpose, which become more and more
enterprising as the temperature rises.

It was long since I had seen a human being, when I heard the
click-clack of loose _sabots_ coming nearer. Presently a couple of
young bulls showed their grim visages round a corner, and after them
came a very small girl with a very long stick. She looked about six
years old, and she had great trouble to keep her little brown feet
inside the wooden shoes, which were many sizes too large for her. How
was it that those big, and perhaps bad-tempered, animals allowed
themselves to be driven and beaten by that child, whereas they would
have turned upon a dog double her size, and done their best to toss
him over the chestnut trees? What is it that the brutes see below the
surface of the human being to inspire them with such respect and fear
of this biped, even when he or she has just crawled out of the cradle?
These bulls, by-the-bye, stopped and looked at me in a way that was
anything but respectful, and I delayed the study of the metaphysical
question until I could watch them from the rear.

I found on the top of the hill the village or hamlet that the old
tramp had mentioned; but there was no sign of an inn--indeed, there
was no sign of anybody being alive in the place. I threaded the steep
little lanes between the houses and hovels, up to the ankles in dirty
straw that had been turned out of the animals' sheds, but saw nothing
moving except fowls. I knocked at various doors, and obtained no
response. It was clear that all the people, including the children,
were away in the fields, and had left the village to take care of
itself. Hungry and thirsty, I was resigning myself with a heavy heart
to trudge on, when I observed a column of blue smoke rise suddenly
from a chimney, and I was not long in finding the house to which it
belonged. It was a dilapidated building, very wretched now, but with
an air of bygone superiority. This was chiefly shown in the
Renaissance doorway, a rather elaborate piece of work, over which was
the date 1602. I ascended the steps with a little misgiving, for I
thought that perhaps some cantankerous person whose family had seen
better times might be living there, and that my questions as to food
and drink might meet with surly answers. I knocked, nevertheless, with
my stick upon the old door studded with nail-heads. It was opened, and
before me stood a woman who looked old, but who was probably
middle-aged; she was very poorly clad, very imperfectly washed, but on
her tired and toil-worn face there was no forbidding expression. I
told her that I was looking for an auberge, and she said that hers was
one _au besoin_. It was the only one that answered at all to the name
thereabouts. So the smoke had led me to the right place. I followed
the heiress of the dilapidated house--she was a descendant of the
original owner--through the dingy kitchen, where upon the hearth the
fire of sticks that she had just lighted was blazing cheerfully, into
a back room, where there were two beds without linen, and with nothing
but patchwork quilts over big bundles of dry maize leaves. It is thus
that many of the peasants of the Aveyron sleep. This is not a part of
France where the study of cleanliness and comfort is carried to
excess. If the floor of the room that I now entered had ever been
washed, the boards must have forgotten the scrubbing sensation a
century or more ago. The appearance of everything indicated that I was
in a fleas' paradise; but as it was by no means the first of the kind
of which I had had experience, I merely took the precaution of keeping
my feet off the ground, so as to offer as few travelling facilities as
possible to the enemy. The room, although it was dirty, was cheerful;
for the sunshine streamed in through the open window, and the view of
the green valley beneath and the woods beyond soon drove the fleas out
of mind. Upon the sill were plums laid out on wooden trays to dry in
the sun and become what English people call prunes.

The excellent woman, who installed me before a little table on which
she laid a cloth, said that she had little to offer me; but that all
she had was at my service. She first fished out of the wood-ashes in
which it was preserved one of those dry, stringy sausages with which
everyone who knows this part of France must be familiar. Then she
brought in some white bread which a presentiment of my coming had
perhaps caused her to buy a month before, for it was green with
mildew. She thought that I should prefer this to the very dark bread
of her own making. The choice was perplexing. My meal was chiefly made
upon a dish of firm cream like that of Devonshire, with plums and
fresh cob-nuts for dessert. Then my hostess made me some coffee, a
luxury rarely used in the house; and when she had set it on the table,
I induced her to stay and talk awhile. The conversation was made
easier because, notwithstanding her poverty, she spoke French with
much more facility than most of the people in these rural districts.
She told me that her husband and children had not yet returned from
the fields, and that she was at home because she was so tired after
threshing buckwheat all yesterday in the sun.

'In winter,' I said, 'you have an easier time?' 'Oh no! In winter we
are always working at something or another. We then make our linen
from the hemp, patch up the clothes, prepare the walnuts for pressing,
and blanch the chestnuts.[*] We have always something on hand.'

[*] _Blanchir les chataignes_. In Guyenne, after the first sale of
chestnuts in their natural state, the peasants prepare a large
quantity of those that remain in a special manner, which consists
of removing the first and second skins, and artificially drying
the nuts until they become quite hard. They will then keep an
indefinite period, and can be boiled for food when required. In
the winter evenings, while the women work at their distaffs, the
men frequently skin chestnuts either for drying or for food the
next day.

But while there was any work to be done out-of-doors, there they were
busy from sunrise until dusk. Supper over, the beasts were looked
after. 'Then,' she added, 'we say our prayers and go to bed.' She
volunteered no statements respecting her ancestry, but when I
questioned her concerning the house, she said that her family had been
living in it for nearly 300 years. At one time they were the principal
people in the district. It was true that they had come down in the
world, but she felt thankful for the blessings that had been given
her, and was satisfied. The family were all in good health, and that
was the main thing. Her mother was still living with her--eighty-seven
years of age, and had never been ill in her life.

Here was a simple but eloquent story of human vicissitude and
uncertainty that was told without a word of regret or repining, and as
though it were a tale of no interest to anybody. This poor, humble
woman before me, whose back was still aching from the movement of
bending and lifting the flail hour after hour, was, by right of birth,
what we call in England a 'gentlewoman.' But she was poor, and
ignorant of all books except the one that contained her prayers. She
was not less a peasant than any of the women around her, nor did she
wish to be thought anything better. That her ancestors were gentlemen,
that, they may have borne a forgotten title (many that were borne in
France have been forgotten by the descendants), was as nothing to her.
She clung only to what, in her simple but grand philosophy, was really
to be valued--the blessings of life and health, opportunities of
labour, independence, and faith in God.

This woman would only take the equivalent of a shilling for her wine,
her coffee, and her food; then she made me drink some of her _eau de
noix_ (spirit prepared with the juice of green walnuts), and as I left
she pressed more nuts and plums upon me.

The old woman who had never been ill was waiting for me under a tree.
She could not speak a word of French, but she said a great deal in
_patois_, of which all that I could make out was that she was afraid
the _calour_ (heat) would hurt me if I left so early in the afternoon.
A little beyond the village I passed a party of threshers, men and
women--two rows of them facing each other like dancers; the figures
bending and straightening in unison, and all the. flails whirling
together in the air. They had spread a large cloth upon the ground,
and were thrashing out the grain upon it.

A block of granite cropping out of the sandstone indicated a change in
the formation, and this came, for the rocks gradually passed into
gneiss and schist, frequently covered with moss and ferns, golden-rod
in bloom, and purple heather. St. Geniez by the Lot was reached long
before sundown; but although I had the time, I was not tempted to walk
any farther that day.

The little town is picturesquely situated on the river-bank, and it
has some old houses with turrets, and other interesting details. There
is a late Gothic church that was formerly attached to an Augustinian
monastery, of which part of the cloisters remains. Inside the edifice
every flagstone covers a tomb, and in several instances masons'
hammers and other tools are carved upon them.

It fell out that several commercial travellers and superior pedlars
came into St. Geniez on the same day as myself, but in more genteel
fashion, for they had their traps, and would not for all the world
have risked their reputation for respectability, and rendered
themselves despicable in the eyes of customers, by entering on foot.
Nevertheless, their first impression (as I afterwards learnt), when I
sat down with them to dinner at the comfortable inn, which, thanks to
their patronage, had found the courage to style itself a hotel, was
that I might be a new rival in the field. But the difficulty was to
guess the particular field that I had marked out for my own
distinction and the confusion of competitors. Was I in the grocery
line, or the oil and colour line? Was I _dans les spiritueux_ or _dans
les articles d'eglise_? Then they had a suspicion that I was, perhaps,
a German traveller trying to open up a fresh market for potato spirit,
or those scientific syrups which are said to change any alcohol into
'old cognac' or the most venerable Jamaica rum. This may have
accounted for the somewhat chilly reserve that fell upon my table
companions as I took my seat among them. But, as this was unpleasant
for everybody, I soon found an opportunity of dispelling the mystery
that hung over me. Then they threw off all restraint, and showed
themselves to be the jolly, rollicking, good-natured beings that these
men almost invariably are. They were much more polite to me than
Englishmen generally are to strangers, who are felt to be something
like intruders--recognising me as a guest, and insisting upon my
helping myself first to every dish that was brought on the table. It
is customary for tourists to speak of the French commercial traveller
as a very ridiculous or vulgarly offensive person. I have found these
so-called 'bagmen' to be among the most pleasant-mannered, agreeable,
and intelligent people whom I have met while roaming in provincial
France. I have been disturbed at night by their uproariousness, for
they are convivial to a fault; but in my immediate relations with them
I have always found them frank, kindly, and courteous.

Before eight o'clock the next morning I had left St. Geniez behind me
in the light mist, and was again on the banks of the Lot. At a
waterside village called Sainte-Eulalie--a saint so much venerated by
the French in the Middle Ages that a multitude of places have been
named after her--was a church with a broad tower and low broach spire.
I was struck by the noble simplicity and elegance of the Romanesque
apse, which was much in the Auvergnat style. The village was very
picturesque, partly on account of its position by the sunny, babbling
water, and partly because of its numerous old houses, some with
projecting stories, and others with exterior staircases communicating
with an open gallery covered by the prolonged eaves of the roof.
Outside of the doors mushrooms (_boleti_) after being cut in slices,
were spread in the sun to dry. As I continued my way down the valley I
met several women and girls returning from the chestnut woods on the
hillsides carrying baskets of these _cepes_ on their heads. Although I
hoped to sleep that night at Espalion, I soon left the direct road and
struck off across country to the south-west in order to take in the
village of Bozouls, a place that some soldier whom I had met told me
was like Constantine in Algeria. I therefore left the valley of the
Lot, and proceeded to cross the hills and tablelands which separated
me from the gorge of its tributary, the Dourdou.

In taking by-paths to reach the _causse_, I passed over hillocks of
chocolate-coloured marl mixed with broken schist and flints: here the
broom and juniper, the heather and bracken, flourished. At length I
felt the fresh breeze and drank the invigorating air of the limestone
plateau. Descending the hill beyond, on the road to Rodez, I passed a
very strange-looking spot where huge flat blocks of bare gneiss, laid
together as though giants of the Titanic age had here been trying to
pave the world, sloped with extraordinary regularity towards the
highway. And these prodigious slabs of gneiss now lay amidst schistous
marl and calcareous rock.

Farther down in the valley was a small village of which the houses
were dwarfed by a gloomy strong hold, apparently of the fifteenth
century, whose four high and massive towers, occupying the angles of a
small quadrilateral, gave it the appearance of a vast _donjon_. At a
small inn kept by a blacksmith I was able to get a meal and the rest
that was now needed. The blacksmith's wife, a pleasant young woman;
who seemed much amused at the sight of a being from the outer and, to
her, half-fabulous world, drew part of a duck out of the grease in
which it had been preserved, and gave me this with rice for my lunch.
During the repast I was not a little worried by the questions of the
blacksmith and some other village worthies who were drinking coffee in
the small room that had to do for everybody, and who had so placed
themselves that they could watch me at their ease. Such a strange bird
as myself did not drop into their midst every day. They were not
unfriendly, but their curiosity was troublesome, and I perceived that
nothing that I might have said would have removed the impression from
their minds that I was a mysterious character.

The country beyond this village was not unpleasant to the eye, with
its vineyards on the slopes and its green pasturage in the valleys,
but the hours went by drearily as I tramped upon the long road. I felt
solitary, and was not in the mood to be interested easily;
nevertheless, I lingered on the wayside awhile before a remarkable
relic of the past: a rectangular machicolated tower of great height
and strength rising out of a dark grove of trees. The afternoon was
drawing towards evening, when I descended suddenly into a deep and
narrow ravine where the sunshine was lost, and the twilight dwelt with
greenness and dampness. At the bottom the Dourdou ran swiftly over its
pebbly bed. After following it a little distance I found myself
between towering walls of Jurassic rock, vertical towards the summit,
capped on each side by a long row of houses. There was also a church,
likewise on the edge of the precipice. This was Bozouls--a place
scarcely known beyond a small district of the Aveyron, but one of the
most curious in France. The traveller, when he reaches the gorge,
after crossing a somewhat monotonous country, is quite unprepared for
such a startling revelation of the sentiment of human fellowship in
the midst of the savagery of nature. Why did men build houses in rows
on the brink of these frightful precipices? It appears to have been
all done for the sake of the artist and the lover of the picturesque.
And yet Bozouls grew to be a village in an age when men of work and
action only knew two kinds of enthusiasm--war and religion. Either a
castle or a religious foundation must have been the beginning of this
community. There are no remains of a fortress, but the church is very
old, and its elaborate architecture suggests that it was at one time
attached to a monastic establishment. After crossing the stream I
climbed to this church by a path that wound about the rocks, and found
it an exceedingly interesting example of the Southern Romanesque. The
portal opens into a narthex, where there is a very primitive font like
a low square trough. The nave entrance has two columns on each side
supporting archivolts, and upon the capitals of these columns are
carved figures of the quaintest Romanesque character, illustrating
Biblical subjects. The nave has an aisle on each side scarcely four
feet wide, and most of the separating columns are out of the
perpendicular. The capitals here are wrought with acanthus-leaves or
little figures. The sanctuary and apse are in the style of Auvergne,
with this peculiarity, that the capitals of the slender columns are
singularly massive, and bear only the mere outline of the
acanthus-leaf for ornament.

The long street of the village, white and sunbaked, running within a
few yards of the precipice, was almost as deserted as the church. But
for a Sister who stood by the convent gate like a statue of Eternal
Silence, and a man who was killing a wretched calf in the middle of
the road, I might have asked myself if this fantastic Bozouls was not
some spectral village, reproducing the past in all except the living
beings who had gone down into their graves. When I recrossed the
Dourdou, the light was several tones lower than it was when I first
descended to the bottom of the ravine, and the vegetation was of a
deeper and sadder green. And the stream rushed onward with a low wail,
and a distressful cry, as of a soul passing down the Dark Valley and
not yet free from the panic of death.

When I had reached the plateau that I had left an hour or more ago,
the sun was about to set. As I knew that the _diligence_ to Espalion
would soon pass, I preferred to wait for it rather than to walk any
farther. The south wind was blowing with such force that I lay down on
the leeside of a bush to be sheltered from it. Here I watched the sun
burning dimly in a yellow haze on the edge of the world. The wind
wailed amongst the leaves of the hawthorn-bushes, but over the brown
land, flushed with the sad yellow gleam, came the sound of
cattle-bells, softening the harshness of the solitude, and bringing
almost a smile upon the careworn face of Nature. I watched the dingy
golden light rising up the stubble of the hills. Now the sun began to
dip behind a knoll; a far-off tree stood in the line of vision, and I
could see the leaves shaking as if in frenzy against the disc of
sullen fire. Then from the edge of the western sky shot up into the
yellow haze fair colours of pink and purple that seemed to say: 'The
south wind may blow and burn the beauty of the earth, but the west
wind will come again, its light wings laden with refreshment and joy.'
The sun was gone, the shadows of night were being laid upon the dreary
land, when the wavy clouds about the brightening moon became like a
shower of rose-petals; the breeze grew softer and softer, for it was,
in the language of the peasant, the 'sun-wind,' and the nocturnal
peace began to reign over the sadness of the day's death.

The sound of jingling bells coming rapidly nearer roused me from my
contemplative mood. The _diligence_, so called, was in sight, and a
few minutes later I took my place in the very stuffy box on wheels,
nearly filled with women and bundles. As it was only a drive of some
seven or eight miles to Espalion, the town was reached in good time
for dinner. I sat at a side-table in the large room of the inn, at the
door of which the coach stopped. The central table was already
occupied by half a dozen persons--all fat, vulgar, and noisy. They
were examples of the _petit bourgeois_ class whom one meets rather too
frequently wherever there are towns in this part of France, and with
whom the disposition to grossness is equally apparent in mind and
body. There were women in the party, but had they been absent, the
language of the men would have been no coarser. These fat and
middle-aged women, married, doubtless, and highly respectable after
their fashion, when struck by each gust of humour, such as might issue
from the mouth of a foul-minded buffoon at a fair, rolled like ships
at sea.

I passed a troubled night at Espalion, for there were a couple of
feathered fiends just underneath the window crowing against each other
with maddening rivalry. One, an old cock, had a very hoarse crow, and
seemed to be suffering from chronic laryngitis brought on by an abuse
of his vocal powers; and the other was a young cock with a very
squeaky crow, for he was still taking lessons, and, as is the case
with many beginners, he had too much enthusiasm.

I had had more than enough of this duo before the night was through,
and was out very early in the morning looking at the ancient town of
Espalion, which witnessed both the victory and the defeat of British
arms long ere the Maid of Domremy came to the rescue of the golden
lilies. Its capture took place soon after the Battle of Crecy. The
lords of Espalion were the Calmont d'Olt, who played an active part in
the wars with the English. The town deserves a prominent place among
the many picturesque old burgs stamped with mediaeval character on the
banks of the Lot. One may stand upon its Gothic bridge of the
thirteenth century and dream of the past without risk of being hustled
by a crowd except on market days. This venerable bridge must have been
admirably built to have withstood all the floods which have smote it
in the course of six centuries. The great central arch is so much
higher than the others that in crossing you go up a hill and then down
one. Close by on the river-bank is the sixteenth-century Hotel de
Ville, a castle, partly built on a rock, in the gracefully-ornamental
style of the French Renaissance, with turrets, mullioned windows, and
a loggia.

Having crossed the river, I went in search of the chief architectural
curiosity in or near Espalion--that known as the Church of Pers, or
the Chapel of St. Hilarion. It is on the outskirts of the town, and
stands in the old cemetery. I had first to find a potter who kept the
key, and I discovered him at length in a narrow street in the midst of
his clay and the vessels of his handicraft. He gave me the great key,
and it was one that some fervent archaeologist might press
reverentially to his heart, for the smith who forged it must have died
centuries ago. Entering the cemetery, I saw, surrounded by a multitude
of closely-packed tombs and grave mounds, on which the long grass
stood with the late summer flowers, a small Romanesque building that
seemed to have sunk far into the soil, like the ancient lichen-covered
slabs from which the inscriptions had been washed away by time's
inexorable and ever-wearing sea. Perhaps the soil had risen about the

This church of the twelfth century is built of red sandstone, the
blocks being laid together without mortar. On entering it such a
dimness falls, with such a sacred silence; the air is so heavy with
dampness and the odour of mildew, that you feel as if you were already
in the vestibule of the Halls of Death, where darkness and stillness
have never known the sound of a human voice or the blessed light of
the sun. The design of the building is that of a nave with transept
and apse. At each end of the transept is some curious cross-vaulting.
The columns have all very large capitals in proportion to the diameter
and height; some are ornamented with plain acanthus leaves, others are
carved with numerous small figures of men and animals, ideally uncouth
and typical of the fantastic medley of Christian symbolism and the
barbaric imagination that found a mystical relationship between the
monsters of its own creation and the problems of the universe. The
exterior of the church is not less interesting than the interior. The
charming Romanesque apse, with its three narrow windows, its blind
arcade, the capitals ornamented with the acanthus, the row of
fantastic modillions above carried all round the building, their
sculpture exhibiting the strangest variety of ideas--heads of men,
women, beasts, birds, and fabulous monsters; and then the venerable
portal, with its elaborate bas-relief of the Last Judgment, furnish
much matter for reflection and study. In this 'Judgment' Christ is
standing in the midst of the Apostles, and the dead are rising from
the tombs below. Fiends are pulling the wicked out of their coffins,
and others are throwing the condemned into the wide-opened jaws of a
frightful monster. Above are numerous figures separated by various
mouldings forming archivolts. The arch of the door is Gothic, but all
the other work is Romanesque. The belfry is simply a roofed wall
pierced with four arched openings for bells.

Espalion had once its strong fortress on a neighbouring hill--the
Castle of Calmont d'Olt. It is now a ruin. I climbed to it, and found
the undertaking more tedious than I had supposed. The narrow path
winding through the vineyards was bordered with cat-mint, agrimony,
vervain, and camomile. Then it passed through a little village, where
there were old walnut-trees and mossy walls, and a small church with
these words over the door: 'C'est ici la maison de Dieu et la porte du
ciel.' After the village, the path was almost lost amidst blocks of
sandstone and the _debris_ of the fortress, where snakes basking in
the sun slid away at my approach, hissing indignantly at the intruder.
On the summit there had been in the far-off ages an outpour of basalt,
which had crystallized into columnar prisms, and upon this foundation
of ancient lava the castle was built. A good deal of wall and the
lower part of a rectangular keep remain of this fortress, which dates
from the twelfth century. The outer wall was strengthened with
semicircular bastions, the ruins of which are seen. Fennel now thrives
amongst the fallen stones, which were dumb witnesses of so much that
was human.

Returning to the inn, I resisted the temptation held out to stop and
lunch, although the preparations in the kitchen were far advanced, and
started off on the road to Estaing. I was again following the Lot,
which here flows between high vine-clad hills. After walking a few
miles, I saw a bush over the door of a roadside cottage, and,
entering, found that the only person in charge of this very rustic inn
was a pretty girl of about seventeen. She looked a little scared at
first; but when I had sat down with the evident intention of making
myself at home, she became reconciled to the sight of me, and
consented to let me have what there was in the house to eat. This was
not much, as she took care to point out. The nearest approach to meat
there was eggs, excepting, of course, the fat bacon--quite uneatable
in the English fashion--which is the basis of all the soup made
throughout a great part of France. Having lighted a fire on the
hearth, and fried me some eggs with bits of fat bacon instead of
butter, she said she must go and call 'papa,' who was working in the
vineyard. So she left me in charge of the inn while she went to fetch
her father on the hillside. While I was alone, I looked at the sunny
view of green meadows and trees through the open door that faced the
shining river, and easily fancied that what I saw was a bit of verdant
England. In the room, too, the twittering of a pair of canaries
recalled impressions of other days; but the plague of flies was
thoroughly French, and it soon brought me back to realities. When the
girl returned with her father, she gave me some excellent goat-cheese,
and for my dessert some hazelnuts, together with a spirit distilled
from plums, similar to the _quertch_ of Alsace.

I had not been long in the sunshine again, when I noticed a large
house in the midst of the vines not far off the road. On drawing near
I found that it was ruinous, and had been long since abandoned. It had
been a rather grand house once, and must have belonged to people of
importance in the country. There was a finely-carved scutcheon with
arms over the Gothic door, and the mullioned windows, which had lost
all their glass, had something of the pathos of gentility that,
becoming poor and old, has been abandoned to all winds and weathers.
The little courtyard was full of high weeds and shrubs, and the wild
flags that grow on the rocks had laid their green leaves together to
hide the wounds of the old walls. Swallows, sparrows, and bats were
now the tenants of this mysterious house, which must have had a
troubled history. The picture has since haunted my memory; the mind
goes back to it in a strange way, and the sentiment of it, as it was
communicated to me, I find perfectly expressed in these lines by
Alphonse Karr:

'De la solitaire demeure
Une ombre lourde d'heure en heure,
Se detache sur le gazon,
Et cet ombre, couchee et morte
Est la seule chose qui sorte
Tout le jour de cette maison.'

Some distance farther I passed another deserted dwelling. It was
perched upon rocks, and was overgrown with ivy and clematis. The road
led me down beside the Lot, which now began to rush again over rocks
as the hills drew closer, and the valley became once more a gorge. On
one side were dense woods; on the other vines reached up to the sky.

At length I saw before me a row of houses beside the river in a bright
bit of valley hemmed in by high cliffs. On the rocks behind the houses
were a church and a castle.

This was Estaing. It is a little place full of originality, and looks
as if it had been built to set forth the dream of some old writer of
romance. The late-Gothic church is more quaint and odd than beautiful.
The architect sported with the laws of symmetry, and revelled in the
fanciful. The nave is much wider at one end than the other. The great
sundial over the door, bearing the date 1636, is scarcely less useful
now than when it was placed there. The castle is a strange pile, all
the more picturesque by its incongruity. It stands upon a mass of
schistous rock about fifty feet above the river. Most of the visible
portion of the building is late Gothic and Renaissance; but this was
grafted upon the lower walls and arches of a feudal fortress. Towers
rise from towers, mullioned windows have their lines cut in the shadow
of beetling machicolations, and higher still are dormer windows with
graceful Gothic gables. This castle is now a convent and village
school. From the court I could see the Sisters' little garden, where
flowers and melons and potherbs were curiously mixed without the
gardener's systematic art, which is so often a deadly thing to beauty;
and nasturtiums climbing the weedy walls from rough deal boxes were
basking in the steady glow of afternoon sun, which seemed to me so
intensely brilliant because I was in the dark shadow. A Sister
consented to let me go to the top of the highest tower, and she went
before me rattling her keys officially. On the way she showed me a
fine Renaissance chimney-piece with florid carvings.

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

'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

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

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

'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

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

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