TWO SUMMERS IN GUYENNE
A Chronicle of the Wayside and Waterside
BY EDWARD HARRISON BARKER
Author of 'Wayfaring in France', 'Wanderings by Southern Waters,' ETC.
WITH MAPS AND ILLUSTRATIONS
Of the four summers which the writer of this 'Chronicle of the Wayside and Waterside' spent by Aquitanian rivers, the greater part of two provided the impressions that were used in 'Wanderings by Southern Waters.' Although the earlier pages of the present work, describing the wild district of the Upper Dordogne, through which the author passed into Guyenne, belong, in the order of time, to the beginning of his scheme of travel in Aquitaine, the summers of 1892 and 1893, spent chiefly in Prigord and the Bordelais, furnished the matter of which this volume is mainly composed. Hence the title that has been given to it.
It may be thought that there is not a sufficient separation of interest, geographically speaking, between the tracts of country described in the two books. The author regrets that it is not possible to convey in a few words an idea of the extent of the old English Duchy of Aquitaine as it was defined by the Treaty of Brtigny. Still less easy would it be to deal rapidly with its physical contrasts, its relics of the past, and its historical associations. Surely no writer could pretend to have exhausted the interest of such a subject even in two volumes.
Before the final expulsion of the English, Aquitaine was gradually taking the name of Guyenne; but when this designation came to be definitively applied, at the time of the Renaissance, Gascony was not included in it, nor were Poitou, Saintonge, Angoumois and Limousin. Even when thus restricted in its meaning, Guyenne still represented a very considerable part of France, including as it did the regions or sub-provinces known as the Bordelais, Prigord, the Agenais, the Rouergue, and the Quercy.
If the author's work during the fifteen years that he has been living in France has served to make the people, the scenery, and the antiquities of this ever-fascinating country somewhat better known to those who speak the English language, he believes that it is to his favourite mode of travelling that such good fortune must be largely attributed. His faring on foot has caused him to see much that he would otherwise have never seen; it has also widened his knowledge of his fellow-men, and has helped him to control prejudices which are not to be entirely overcome, but ever remain an insidious snare to the traveller and student of manners.
E. H. B.
PARIS, May, 1894.
THE UPPER DORDOGNE ACROSS THE MOORS OF THE CORRZE IN THE VISCOUNTY OF TURENNE IN UPPER PRIGORD IN THE VALLEY OF THE VZRE IN THE VALLEY OF THE ISLE FROM PRIGUEUX TO RIBERAC (BY BRANTME) THE DESERT OF THE DOUBLE A CANOE VOYAGE ON THE DRONNE BY THE LOWER DORDOGNE BY THE GARONNE
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
DOORWAY OF THE ABBEY CHURCH AT BEAULIEU (CORRZE) A BIT OF AUVERGNE THE DORDOGNE AT LA BOURBOULE A MOORLAND WIDOW THE VALLEY OF THE RUE A WOMAN OF THE CORRZE A PEASANT OF THE MOORS PLOUGHING THE MOOR A GORGE IN THE CORRZE TURENNE A PEASANT OF THE CAUSSE CHTEAU DE FNELON RETURNING FROM THE FIELDS BEYNAC CLOISTERS OF THE ABBEY OF CADOUIN CHTEAU DE BIRON: THE LODGE TRUFFLE-HUNTERS CHTEAU DES EYZIES CHTEAU DE HAUTEFORT A HOUSE AT PRIGUEUX THE TOUR DE VSONE THE 'NORMAN GATE' AT PRIGUEUX THE DRONNE AT BOURDEILLES THE ABBEY OF BRANTME CHTEAU DE BOURDEILLES THE DRONNE AT COUTRAS A STREET AT ST. MILION THE CHTEAU DE MONTAIGNE AFTER THE FIRE MONOLITHIC CHURCH AND DETACHED TOWER AT ST. MILION CONVENT OF THE CORDELIERS: THE CLOISTERS TOUR DE L'HORLOGE AT LIBOURNE THE HILL OF FRONSAC BAZAS INTERIOR OF THE CHTEAU DE VILLANDRAUT THE GARONNE CHTEAU DE MONTESQUIEU THE GARONNE AT BORDEAUX THE PALAIS GALLIEN AT BORDEAUX
THE UPPER DORDOGNE.
I had left the volcanic mountains of Auvergne and had passed through Mont-Dore and La Bourboule, following the course of the Dordogne that flowed through the valley with the bounding spirits of a young mountaineer descending for the first time towards the great plains where the large towns and cities lie with all their fancied wonders and untasted charm.
But these towns and cities were afar off. The young Dordogne had a very long journey to make before reaching the plains of Prigord. Nearly the whole of this distance the stream would have to thread its way through deep-cut gorges and ravines, where the dense forest reaches down to the stony channel, save where the walls of rock rising hundreds of feet on either side are too steep for vegetation. Above the forest and the rock is the desert moor, horrible to the peasant, but to the lover of nature beautiful when seen in its dress of purple heather and golden broom.
I had not been long on the road this day, when I saw coming towards me an equipage more picturesquely interesting than any I had ever met in the Champs-Elyses. It was a ramshackle little cart laden with sacks and a couple of children, and drawn by a pair of shaggy sheep-dogs. Cords served for harness. A man was running by the side, and it was as much as he could do to keep up with the animals. This use of dogs is considered cruel in England, but it often keeps them out of mischief, and I have never seen one in harness that looked unhappy. Traces must help a dog to grow in his own esteem, and to work out his ideal of the high destiny reserved for him; or why does he, when tied under a cart to which a larger quadruped is harnessed, invariably try to persuade himself and others that he is pulling the load up the hill, and that the horse or donkey is an impostor?
The width of the Mont-Dore valley decreased rapidly, and I entered the gorge of the Dordogne, where basaltic rocks were thrown up in savage grandeur, vividly contrasting with which were bands and patches of meadow, brilliantly green. Yellow spikes of agrimony and the fine pink flowers of the musk-mallow mingled with the wiry broom and the waving bracken about the rocks.
It was September, but the summer heat had returned, and when the road passed through a beech wood the shade was welcome. Here over the mossy ground rambled the enchanter's nightshade, still carrying its frail white flowers, which really have a weird appearance in the twilight of the woods. The plant has not been called circe without a reason. Under the beeches there were raspberry canes with some fruit still left upon them. After leaving the wood, the scene became more wild and craggy. The basalt, bare and sombre, or sparsely flecked with sedums, their stalks and fleshy leaves now very red, rose sheer from the middle of the narrow valley, down which the stream sped like fleeing Arethusa, now turning to the right, now to the left, foaming over rocks or sparkling like the facets of countless gems between margins of living green.
Then I left the valley in order to pass through the village of St. Sauve on the right-hand hill. There was little there worth seeing besides a very ancient Romanesque archway, or, as some think, detached portico leading to the church.
Many of the women of St. Sauve wore the black cap or bonnet of Mont-Dore, which hangs to the shoulders. It is a hideous coiffure, but an interesting relic of the past. The prototype of it was worn by the chtelaines of the twelfth century. Then, however, it had a certain stateliness which it lacks now. It is only to be seen in a very small district.
I consulted some of the people of St. Sauve respecting my plan of following the Dordogne through its gorges. They did not laugh at me, but they looked at me in a way which meant that if better brains had not been given to them than to me their case would be indeed unfortunate. I was advised to see a cobbler who was considered an authority on the byways of the district. I found him sitting by the open window of his little shop driving hob-nails into a pair of Sunday boots. When I told him what I had made up my mind to do, he shook his head, and, laying down his work, said:
'You will never do it. There are rocks, and rocks, and rocks. Even the fishermen, who go where anybody can go, do not try to follow the Dordogne very far. There are ravines—and ravines. Bon Dieu! And the forest! You will be lost! You will be devoured!'
To be devoured would be the climax of misfortune. I wished to know what animals would be likely to stop my wayfaring in this effectual manner.
'Are there wolves?'
'No; none have been seen for years.'
'Are there boars?'
'Yes, plenty of them.'
'But boars,' I said, 'are not likely to interfere with me.'
'That is true,' replied the local wiseacre, 'so long as you keep walking; but if you fall down a rock—ah!'
'I would not care to have you for a companion, with all your local knowledge,' I thought, as I thanked the cobbler and turned down a very stony path towards the Dordogne. It is always prudent to follow the advice of those who are better informed than yourself; but it is much more amusing—for awhile—to go your own way. I had lunched, and was prepared to battle with the desert for several hours. It was now past mid-day, and notwithstanding the altitude, the heat was very great. But for the discomfort that we endure from the sun's rays we are more than amply compensated by the pleasure that the recollection brings us in winter, when the north wind is moaning through the sunless woods and the dreary fog hangs over the cities. When I again reached the Dordogne there was no longer any road, but only a rough path through high bracken, heather and broom. Snakes rustled as I passed, and hid themselves among the stones. The cobbler had forgotten to include these with the dangers to be encountered. To my mind they were much more to be dreaded than the boars, for these stony solitudes swarm with adders, of which the most venomous kind is the red viper, or aspic. Its bite has often proved mortal.
The path entered the forest which covers the steep sides of the ever-winding gorge of the Dordogne for many leagues, only broken where the rocks are so nearly vertical that no soil has ever formed upon them, except in the little crevices and upon the ledges, where the hellebore, the sedum, the broom, and other unambitious plants which love sterility flourish where the foot of man has never trod.
The rocks were now of gneiss and mica-schist, and the mica was so abundant as to cause many a crag and heap of shale to glitter in the sun, as though there had been a mighty shattering of mirrors here into little particles which had fallen upon everything. There was, however, no lack of contrast. To the shining rocks and the fierce sunshine, which seemed to concentrate its fire wherever it fell in the open spaces of the deep gorge, succeeded the ancient forest and its cool shade; but the darkly-lying shadows were ever broken with patches of sunlit turf. Pines and firs reached almost to the water's edge, and the great age of some of them was a proof of the little value placed upon timber in a spot so inaccessible. One fir had an enormous bole fantastically branched like that of an English elm, and on its mossy bark was a spot such as the hand might cover, fired by a wandering beam, that awoke recollections of the dream-haunted woods before the illusion of their endlessness was lost.
The afternoon was not far spent, when I began to feel a growing confidence in the value of the cobbler's information, and a decreasing belief in my own powers. It became more and more difficult, then quite impossible, to keep along the bank of the stream. What is understood by a bank disappeared, and in its stead were rocks, bare and glittering, on which the lizards basked, or ran in safety, because they were at home, but which I could only pass by a flank movement. To struggle up a steep hill, over slipping shale-like stones, or through an undergrowth of holly and brambles, then to scramble down and to climb again, repeating the exercise every few hundred yards, may have a hygienic charm for those who are tormented by the dread of obesity, but to other mortals it is too suggestive of a holiday in purgatory.
Having gone on in this fashion for some distance, I lay down, streaming from every pore, and panting like a hunted hare beside a little rill that slid singing between margins of moss, amid Circe's white flowers and purple flashes of cranesbill. Here I examined my scratches and the state of things generally. The result of my reflections was to admit that the cobbler was right, that these ravines of the Upper Dordogne were practically impassable, and that the only rational way of following the river would be to keep sometimes on the hills and sometimes in the gorge, as the unforeseen might determine. Hitherto, I had not troubled to inquire where I should pass the night, and this consideration alone would have compelled me to depart from my fantastic scheme. After La Bourboule there is not a village or hamlet in the valley of the Dordogne for a distance of at least thirty miles, allowing for the winding of the stream.
After a hard climb I reached the plateau, where I saw before me a wide moor completely covered with bracken and broom. Here I looked at the map, and decided to make towards a village called Messeix, lying to the east in a fork formed by the Dordogne and its tributary the Chavannon. Going by the compass at first, I presently struck a road leading across the moor in the right direction. I passed through two wretched hamlets, in neither of which was there an auberge where I could relieve my thirst. At the second one a cottage was pointed out to me where I was told a woman sold wine. When, after sinking deep in mud, I found her amidst a group of hovels, and the preliminary salutation was given, the following conversation passed between us:
'They tell me you sell wine.'
'They tell you wrong—I don't.'
'Do you sell milk, then?'
'No; I have no beasts.'
As I was going away she kindly explained that she only kept enough wine for herself. I had evidently not impressed her favourably. Although I think water a dangerous drink in France, except where it can be received directly from the hand of Nature, far from human dwellings, I was obliged to beg some in this place, and run the risk of carrying away unfriendly microbes.
Having left the hovels behind me, the country became less barren or more cultivated. There were fields of rye, buckwheat, and potatoes, but always near them lay the undulating moor, gilded over with the flowers of a dwarf broom. It was evening when I descended into a wide valley from which came the chime of cattle-bells, mingled with the barking of dogs and the voices of children, who were driving the animals slowly homeward. There were green meadows below me, over which was a yellow gleam from the fading afterglow of sunset, and in the air was that odour which, rising from grassy valleys at the close of day, even in regions burnt by the southern summer, makes the wandering Englishman fancy that some wayfaring wind has come laden with the breath of his native land. Suddenly turning a corner, I so startled a little peasant girl sitting on a bank in the early twilight with a flock of goats about her, that she opened her mouth and stared at me as though Croquemitaine had really shown himself at last. The goats stopped eating, and fixed upon me their eyes like glass marbles; they, too, thought that I could be no good.
I hoped that the village of Messeix was in this valley; but no, I had to cross it and climb the opposite hill. On the other side I found the place that I had fixed upon for my night quarters.
Very small and very poor, it lies in a region where the land generally is so barren that but a small part of it has been ever broken by the plough; where the summers are hot and dry, and the winters long and cruel. Although in the watershed of the Gironde, it touches Auvergne, and its altitude makes it partake very much of the Auvergnat climate, which, with the exception of the favoured Limagne Valley, is harsh, to an extent that has caused many a visitor to flee from Mont-Dore in the month of August. In the deep gorges of the Dordogne and its tributaries, the snow rarely lies more than a few days upon the ground, whereas upon the wind-swept plateau above the scanty population have to contend with the rigours of that French Siberia which may be said to commence here on the west, and to extend eastward over the whole mass of metamorphic and igneous rocks, which is termed the great central plateau of France, although it lies far south of the true centre of the country.
At the first auberge where I applied for a night's lodging, an elderly woman with a mournful face declined to take me in, and gave no reason. When I had left, she came after me and said, with her eyes full of tears:
'I have a great trouble in the house, that is why I sent you away.'
I understood what she meant; somebody dear to her was dying. A man who was listening said his brother-in-law, the baker, was also an innkeeper, and he offered to take me to the auberge. I gladly consented, for I was fearful of being obliged to tramp on to some other place. Presently I was in a large, low room, which was both kitchen and baker's shop. On shelves were great wheel-shaped loaves (they are called miches in the provinces), some about two feet in diameter, made chiefly of rye with a little wheaten flour. Filled sacks were ranged along the wall. In a deep recess were the kneading-trough, and the oven, now cold. The broad rural hearth, with its wood-fire and sooty chimney, the great pot for the family soup hanging to a chain, took up a large share of the remaining space. I sat upon a rickety chair beside a long table that had seen much service, but was capable of seeing a great deal more, for it had been made so as to outlast generations of men. Bare-footed children ran about upon the black floor, and a thin, gaunt young woman, who wore very short petticoats, which revealed legs not unlike those of the table, busied herself with the fire and the pot. She was the sister of the children, and had been left in charge of the house while her father and mother were on a journey. She accepted me as a lodger, but for awhile she was painfully taciturn. This, however, her scanty knowledge of French, and the fact that a stranger even of the class of small commercial travellers was a rare bird in the village, fully accounted for. The place was not cheerful, but as I listened to the crickets about the hearth, and watched the flames leap up and lick the black pot, my spirits rose. Presently the church bell sounded, dong, dong, dong.
'Why are they tolling the bell?' I asked.
'Because,' replied the gaunt young woman, 'a man has died in the village.'
By pressing her to speak, she explained that while a corpse lay unburied the bell was tolled three times in the day—early in the morning, at mid-day, and at nightfall. The conversation was in darkness, save such light as the fire gave. It was not until the soup was ready that the lamp was lighted. Then the young woman, addressing me abruptly, said:
'Cut up your bread for your soup.'
I did as I was told, for I always try to accommodate myself to local customs, and never resent the rough manners of well-intentioned people. The bread was not quite black, but it was very dark from the amount of rye that was in it. The soup was water flavoured with a suggestion of fat bacon, whatever vegetables happened to be in the way, and salt. This fluid, poured over bread—when the latter is not boiled with it—is the chief sustenance of the French peasant. It was all that the family now had for their evening meal, and in five minutes everyone had finished. They drank no wine; it was too expensive for them, the nearest vineyard being far away. A bottle, however, was placed before me, but the quality was such that I soon left it. To get some meat for me the village had to be scoured, and the result was a veal cutlet.
I was not encouraged to sit up late. As the eldest daughter of the inn showed me my night quarters, she said:
'Your room is not beautiful, but the bed is clean.'
This was quite true. The room, in accordance with a very frequent arrangement in these rural auberges, was not used exclusively for sleeping purposes, but also for the entertainment of guests, especially on fair and market days, when space is precious. There was a table with a bench for the use of drinkers. There were, moreover, three beds, but I was careful to ascertain that none would be occupied except by myself. I would sooner have slept on a bundle of hay in the loft than have had an unknown person snoring in the same room with me. One has always some prejudice to overcome. The bed was not soft, and the hempen sheets were as coarse as canvas, but these trifles did not trouble me. I listened to the song of the crickets on the hearth downstairs until drowsiness beckoned sleep and consciousness of the present lost its way in sylvan labyrinths by the Dordogne.
At six o'clock the next morning I was walking about the village, and I entered the little church, already filled with people. It was Sunday, and this early mass was to be a funeral one. The man for whom the bell was tolled last night was soon brought in, the coffin swathed in a common sheet. It was borne up the nave towards the catafalque, the rough carpentry of which showed how poor the parish was. Following closely was an old and bent woman with her head wrapped in a black shawl. She had hardly gone a few steps, when her grief burst out into the most dismal wailing I had ever heard, and throughout the service her melancholy cries made other women cover their faces, and tears start from the eyes of hard-featured, weather-beaten men.
Most of the women present wore the very ugly headgear which is the most common of all in Auvergne and the Corrze, namely, a white cap covered by a straw bonnet something of the coal-scuttle pattern. There were many communicants at this six o'clock mass, and what struck me as being the reverse of what one might suppose the right order of things, was that the women advanced in life wore white veils as they knelt at the altar rails, while those worn by the young, whose troubles were still to come, were black. These veils were carried in the hand during the earlier part of the rite. Throughout a very wide region of Southern France the custom prevails. The church belonged to different ages. Upon the exterior of the Romanesque apse were uncouth carvings in relief of strange animal figures. They were more like lions than any other beasts, but their outlines were such as children might have drawn.
I returned to the inn. The baker had come back, and was preparing to heat his oven with dry broom. I learned that he had not only to bake the bread that he sold, but also the coarser rye loaves which were brought in by those who had their own flour, but no oven. Three francs was the charge for my dinner, bed, and breakfast. The score settled and civilities exchanged, I walked out of Messeix, expecting to strike the valley of the Dordogne not very far to the south. The landscape was again that of the moorland. On each side of the long, dusty line called a road spread the brown turf, spangled with the pea-flowers of the broom or stained purple with heather. There were no trees, but two wooden crosses standing against the gray sky looked as high as lofty pines. I met little bands of peasants hurrying to church, and I reached the village of Savennes just before the grand messe. Many people were sitting or standing outside the church—even sitting on the cemetery wall. When the bell stopped and they entered, literally like a flock of sheep into a fold, all could not find room inside, so the late-comers sat upon the ground in the doorway, or as near as they could get to it. As the people inside knelt or stood, so did they who had been left, not out in the cold, but in the heat, for the sun had broken through the mist, and the weather was sultry. As I walked round the church I found women sitting with open books and rosaries in their hands near the apse, amidst the yarrow and mulleins of forgotten grave mounds. They were following the service by the open window. I lingered about the cemetery reading the quaint inscriptions and noting the poor emblems upon wooden crosses not yet decayed, picking here and there a wild flower, and watching the butterflies and bees until the old priest, who was singing the mass in a voice broken by time, having called upon his people to 'lift up their hearts,' they answered: 'Habemus ad Dominum.'
I had a simple lunch at a small inn in this village, where I was watched with much curiosity by an old man in a blouse with a stiff shirt-collar rising to his ears, and a nightcap with tassel upon his head. The widow who kept the inn had a son who offered to walk with me as far as some chapel in the gorge of the Chavannon. We were not long in reaching the gorge, the view of which from the edge of the plateau was superbly savage. Descending a very rugged path through the forest that covered the sides of the deep fissure, save where the stark rock refused to be clothed, we came to a small chapel, centuries old, under a natural wall of gneiss, but deep in the shade of overhanging boughs. It was dedicated to St. John the Baptist, and on St. John's Day mass was said in it, and the spot was the scene of a pilgrimage. Outside was a half-decayed moss-green wooden platform on which the priest stood while he preached to the assembled pilgrims. The young man left me, and I went on alone into the more sombre depths of the gorge, where I reached the single line of railway that runs here through some of the wildest scenery in France. I kept on the edge of it, where walking, although very rough, was easier than on the steep side of the split that had here taken place in the earth's crust. Upon the narrow stony strip of comparatively level ground the sun's rays fell with concentrated ardour, and along it was a brilliant bloom of late summer flowers—of camomile, St. John's wort, purple loosestrife, hemp-agrimony and lamium. At almost every step there was a rustle of a lizard or a snake. The melancholy cry of the hawk was the only sound of bird-life. Near rocks of dazzling mica-schist was a miserable hut with a patch of buckwheat reaching to the stream. A man standing amidst the white flowers of the late-sown crop said, in answer to my questioning, that I could not possibly reach the village of Port-Dieu without walking upon the line and through the tunnels.
When I had left him about fifty yards behind, his curiosity proved more than he could bear in silence; so he called out to me, in the bad French that is spoken hereabouts by those who use it only as the language of strangers: 'Quel mtier que vous faites?'
I waved my hand in reply and left him to his conjectures.
On I went, now over the glittering stones, now wading through the pink flowers of saponaria, then in a mimic forest of tall angelica by the water's edge, until I realized that the peasant's information was sound—that it was impossible to walk through this gorge except upon the railway.
Presently the rocks rose in front of me and the line disappeared into the darkness of a tunnel. I did not like the idea of entering this black hole, for I had brought no candle with me, but the prospect of climbing the rocks was still more forbidding. It proved to be a short and straight tunnel with daylight shining at the farther end. After this came another short one, but the third was much longer and had a curve; consequently I was soon in total darkness. The only danger to be feared was a passing train, so I felt with my stick for the wires between the rock and the metals, and crept along by them. From being broiled by the sun ten minutes before I was now shivering from the cold. I longed to see again the flowers basking under the warm sky, and to hear the grasshoppers' happy song. By-and-by I saw the blessed light flashing at the end of the black bore. When I came out again into the sunshine, I was following, not the Chavannon, but the Dordogne.
The gorge widened into a valley, where there were scattered cottages, cows, sheep, and goats. Here I found a fair road on the western side of the river, in the department of the Corrze, and being now free of mind, I loitered on the way, picking strawberries and watching the lizards. It was dark when, descending again to the level of the Dordogne, I sought a lodging in the little village of Port-Dieu. I stopped at a cottage inn, where an old man soon set to work at the wood-fire and cooked me a dinner of eggs and bacon and fried potatoes. He was a rough cook, but one very anxious to please. The room where I passed the night had a long table in it, and benches. There was no blanket on the bed, only a sheet and a heavy patchwork quilt. Ah, yes, there was something else, carefully laid upon the quilt. This was a linen bag without an opening, which, when spread out, tapered towards the ends. Had I not known something about the old-fashioned nightcap, I should have puzzled a long time before discovering what I was expected to do with this object. The matter is simple to those who know that the cap is formed by turning one of the ends in. There were mosquitoes in the room, but they sang me to sleep, and if they amused themselves at my expense afterwards, I was quite unconscious of it.
The murmur of the rushing Dordogne mingled not unpleasantly with the impressions of dreams as I awoke. I got up and opened the small worm-eaten window-frame. High thatched roofs, not many yards in front, were covered with moss, which the morning rays, striking obliquely, painted the heavenly green of Beatrice's mantle. Down the narrow road goats were passing, followed by a sunburnt girl with a barge-like wooden shoe at the end of each of her bare brown legs. The pure, life-giving air that entered by the window made the blood glow with a better warmth than that of sparkling wine. I soon went outside to see something of the place which I had entered in the darkness.
I found that the village was built partly in the bottom of the gorge and partly on one of its craggy sides. Closely hemmed in by rocks and high hills overgrown with forest was a bright and fertile little valley, with abundance of pear and walnut trees, luxuriant cottage-gardens, and little fields by the flashing torrent, where shocks of lately-cut buckwheat stood with their heads together waiting for the warm September hours to ripen their black grain.
Many of the houses were half hidden in leafy bowers. I threaded my way between these towards some ivy-draped fragments of an ancient priory upon a mass of rock much overgrown with brambles glistening with blackberries and briars decked with coral-red hips. Before descending to the road and beginning the day's journey I indulged for a little while the musing mood of the solitary wanderer in the grassy burying-ground on the edge of the cliff.
I started for Bort ere the intensely blue sky began to pale before the increasing brilliancy of the sun. The road ran along the bottom of the deep valley, where there was change of scene with every curve of the Dordogne. A field of maize showed how different was the climate here from that of the bleak plateau above the deep rift in the rocks. I stopped beside a little runnel that came down from the wooded heights to pick some flowers of yellow balsam, and while there my eye fell upon a splendid green lizard basking in the sun. Here was another proof of the warm temperature of the valley, notwithstanding its altitude. As I went on I skirted long fields of buckwheat upon the slope, but reaching only a little way upwards. The white waxen flowers had turned, or were turning, rusty; but what a variety of beautiful colour was on the stems and leaves! Greens and yellows passed into carmine, purple, and burnt sienna. A field of ripening buckwheat has a charm of warm colour that gladdens the eye, especially when the morning or evening sunshine is upon it. But this glow of many tints was a sure sign of approaching autumn; so, too, were the reddened stalks of persicaria, filling the dry ditches by the wayside.
The valley narrowed, and upon its rocky sides was many a patch of purple heather—little gardens for the wild bees, but not for man. Neither peasant nor local Nimrod ever sets his foot there. Still higher, the outlines of the topmost crags were drawn hard against the sky, for there was no vapour in the air. Verily, the ground seemed quite alive with brown lizards darting along at my approach and raising little clouds of dust, whilst blue-winged grasshoppers—which, perhaps, would be more correctly described as locusts—crossed and recrossed the road in one flight. In the midst of such beautiful scenery, and with such happy creatures for companions, I felt no wish to hurry. Moreover, the blackberries sometimes tempted me to loiter. If they are unwholesome, as French peasants often maintain, I ought to have been dead long ago. Strange that this prejudice should be so general in France with regard to the fruit of so harmless a tribe. But these same peasants gather the leaves of the bramble to make a decoction for sore throat. I passed a cottage that had a vine-trellis, the first I had seen on this side of the Auvergne mountains, and it was half surrounded by a forest of beans in full flower on very high sticks. In a sunny space was a row of thatched beehives.
After walking some eight miles, I was not unwilling to take advantage of a village inn. Here I had a meal of bacon and eggs, haricots, cheese and walnuts, with some rather rough Limousin wine. I soon became aware that there was something amiss in the rustic auberge, and catching a dim glimpse of a figure lying in a bed in a small room adjoining, I asked the young woman who waited upon me if anybody was ill there. 'Yes,' she replied dolefully. Then I learnt from her that her father, struck with apoplexy, was lying in a state that was hopeless. There is no escaping the mournfulness of life. When our minds are least clouded the shadow of death suddenly stands between us and the sunshine. I was in no mood to linger at the table.
What a relief to be out again in the sunshine and the light air, to see the Dordogne flashing through meadows where women were haymaking with bare feet!
It was early in the afternoon when I entered the small but active town of Bort. The burg is only interesting by its exceedingly picturesque situation on the right bank of the Dordogne, under a very high hill, capped by a basaltic table, which is flanked towards the town, or rather a little to the south of it, by a long row of stupendous columns of basalt, known as the Orgues de Bort, from their resemblance at a distance to organ-pipes. The basalt here is of a reddish yellow. The table, with its igneous crystallizations, lies upon the metamorphic rock.
I decided to climb to the summit of the prodigious organ-pipes, and to look at the world from that remarkable point of view. For the greater part of the distance the way lay up a tiresome winding road on the side of the hill. A woman, who was tying buckwheat into sheaves, said the distance was 'three small quarters of an hour.' It would have been simpler arithmetic to have said 'half an hour,' but the peasant thinks it safer not to be more explicit than he or she can help. Experience has taught me that 'three-quarters of an hour,' whether they are called little or not, mean an hour or more, and that 'five quarters of an hour' mean an hour and a half, or even two hours. I passed a team of bullocks descending from the moor with loads of dry broom for the bakers, headed by a little old man in a great felt hat, with a long goad in his hand, with which he tickled up the yoked beasts occasionally, not because they needed it, but from force of habit. This goad, by-the-bye, is a slender stick about six feet long, with a short nail at one end, so fastened that the point is turned outwards. A bullock is not goaded from behind, but from the front between the shoulder-blades, and it generally suffices for the animal to see a man in front of him with a stick. Instead of drawing back, as might be supposed, he steps forward at his best pace. Cows and bulls are harnessed, to the wain and plough as well as oxen; they have all to work for their living. English cattle are allowed to grow fat in idleness, and their troubles do not begin until the time comes for them to be eaten. It is otherwise in France.
On the banks were fragrant, mauve-coloured pinks, with ragged petals; but at the foot of the Orgues was a rocky waste, where little grew besides the sombre holly and fetid hellebore.
The view from the top of the cliff made me fully realize the wildness, the sterility, the desolation of nature in this region. Beyond the valley far beneath me where the Dordogne lay, a glittering thread, was the department of the Cantal. The whole southern and eastern prospect was broken up by innumerable savage, heath-covered or rocky hills, with little green valleys or dense woods filling the hollows, the southern horizon being closed by the wavy blue line of the Cantal mountains. To the north-east the sky-line was marked by the Mont-Dore range, with the highest peak of Auvergne, the Puy de Sancy, clearly visible against the lighter blue of the cloudless air. The feeling that prevailed throughout this wide expanse of country was solemn sternness.
I returned to Bort, and as there were still about two hours of light left, I crossed the river and went in search of the cascades, two or three miles from the town, formed by the Rue in its wild impatience to meet the Dordogne. When I was skirting the buckwheat fields of the valley in the calm open country, there was a sweet and tender glow of evening sunshine upon the purple-tinted sheaves standing with their heads together. The Titan-strewn rocks felt it likewise with all their heather and broom. There was no husbandman in the plain, no song of the solitary goat-girl, no creak of the plough, no twitter even of a bird. It was not yet the hour when Virgil says every field is silent, but the repose of nature had commenced.
The dusk was falling when I reached a silk-mill by the side of the Rue, and passed up the deep gorge full of shadows, led by the sound of roaring waters. A narrow path winding under high rocks of porphyritic gneiss brought me to the cascade called the Saut de la Saule, where the river, divided into two branches by a vast block, leaps fifteen or twenty feet into a deep basin to whirl and boil with fury, then dashes onward down the stony channel, to leap again into the air and fall into another basin.
I reached a rock in the channel by means of a tree that had been laid between it and the bank, and stood in the midst of the seething, broken torrent, from which arose that saddening odour which water in wild commotion gives forth when daylight is dying and the darkened trees stand like mourning plumes. On either hand the forest-covered sides of the ravine and their savage crags seemed to reach higher as they grew darker. Where was I? There was a tree hard by that looked very like the infernal elm beneath whose leaves the vain dreams cluster; but it was probably an oak.
ACROSS THE MOORS OF THE CORRZE.
The night being passed at Bort, the next morning I continued my journey by the Dordogne. Again the sky was cloudless. I kept on the right bank of the river—the Limousin side, leaving the Cantal to some future day, that may never come. A little beyond the spot where the Dordogne and the Rue met and embraced uproariously, the path entered a narrow lane bordered by tall hedges chiefly of hazel and briar overclimbed by wild clematis—well termed the traveller's joy, for it is a beautiful plant that reminds many a wanderer of his far-away home.
Then I passed under precipitous naked rocks, with the river on the other hand, skirted by low bushes of twiggy willow that looked like tamarisk from a distance. The sun was now hot, and the ground was again all astir with lizards. Looking upon the path just in front of me, I brought myself to a sudden stop. Had I advanced a step or two more I could hardly have failed to tread upon a serpent that lay dozing in the sun just in my way. I was glad that I did not do so, for I recognised it, by its olive skin with reddish patches, as the dreaded aspic, or red viper. There it lay stretched out its full length, about a foot and a half, either asleep or enjoying the morning sun so much that it was in no humour to move. I do not kill snakes indiscriminately, like the peasants whenever they get the chance, but this one being dangerous, I resolved that it should never take another sun-bath. After being roused by a blow, the creature did not attempt to run, but did battle bravely, fiercely striking at the stick.
The path I had been following with so much confidence dwindled away and was lost. Again the gorge became a deep rift in the rocks, which left no margin on which one could walk. The only way to follow the windings of the stream would have been to wade or swim. Once more I had to own myself beaten by natural obstacles. The Dordogne is a river that cannot be followed throughout its savage wildernesses, except perhaps in a light flat-bottomed boat, and then not without serious difficulties. Anglers might have splendid sport here until they broke their necks, for the trout abound where the shadow of a man seldom or never falls. In the neighbourhood of towns and large villages the fishing is often spoilt by the casting-net.
Having realized the situation, I turned my back to the stream and commenced climbing the steep side of the gorge, choosing a spot where it was well wooded, for the sake of the foothold. For some distance the ground was green with moss and wood-sorrel; but the tug-of-war came when the vast banks of loose stones—hot, bare, and shale-like—were reached. On gaining the plateau, I threw myself down upon the heather and looked at the scene below. The mingling of rock, forest, and stream was superbly desolate. Even the naked steeps of slate-coloured broken stone had an impressive grandeur of their own.
Leaving the Dordogne with the intention of cutting off a wide bend and meeting it again the next day or the day after, I struck across the half-cultivated open country, hoping soon to find a village; for I had spent much time in the gorge and made very little progress, while the sun had moved nearly up to the centre of his arc. The rays fell fiercely, and there was no shade upon the plateau. There was a road, but it was abominable. Only tramps understand the luxury of-walking upon a good road.
I came to a hamlet that looked very miserable. The daily toil had scattered the men afield, and only a few women were to be seen. Not one of them wore a stocking, nor even a wooden shoe. Some to whom I spoke did not understand me; those who understood told me that there was no inn in the place—that there was no one who could give me a meal. One of them must have thought that I was begging my way, or was exceedingly hard up, for she said: 'Ah! mon pauvre ami, vous tes dans un malheureux pays.'
Continuing, I came to a village which was not shown on my map. Here I learnt there was a single auberge, which was also the tobacco shop and grocery of the place. It was kept by an old man who lived alone. This inn was a cottage without any sign over it. I tried the door, but it was locked, and nobody responded to the noise I made. It took me half an hour to find the solitary at the farther end of the village. He returned with me, and, opening the door, we both entered the only room of the cottage. It was shop, bedroom, and kitchen. There was a bed against the wall, and near the window was a small stock of tobacco, snuff, and groceries all mixed up. My host's back was much bent and his face deeply furrowed. He wore a shirt with a high collar, and a blue waistcoat. He was an honest, kindly man, and seemed to take pleasure in doing what he could for me apart from the thought of gaining by it.
In the way of food he had only eggs, bread, cheese, and butter. It was decided that he should fry some eggs. He lighted some sticks upon the hearth, and there was soon a good blaze; then he laid his great frying-pan upon it, resting the long handle upon a chair. While the butter was melting, he opened a trap-door in the floor and went down a ladder into his cellar. Presently he reappeared with a litre of wine, and having set this before me, he proceeded to crack the eggs and empty them into the frying-pan. As a cook he had no pretensions, but he knew how to fry eggs. When my meal was ready, and he had placed everything before me upon the bare board, he sat at a little distance eating a dry old crust with a piece of goat cheese. This was his lunch. I insisted upon his sharing the wine with me, and this little attention made him thoroughly confiding and cheery.
He was left a widower, he told me, with four children, at the age of thirty-eight, and he would not take a second wife because, his father having done so, he remembered the trials and tribulations of his own childhood which came of his having 'a mother who was not a mother.' He said to himself, 'My children shall not run the risk of going through what I went through.' He toiled on alone, brought up his family himself, added to his bit of land in course of years, and acquired other property. His children were now all settled in life, and he had given them everything he had except the cottage in which he lived. I was struck by the strong virtue of this illiterate peasant, who had evidently no notion of his own value, and who would not have told the simple story of his life passed amidst the moors of the Corrze had I not drawn it from him.
As I watched the old man, prematurely bent by labour, eating his hard crust, cheerful and contented, after giving to others the fruit of his many years of toil, I thought, 'If man were nothing but an animal, such a life would be not only absurd, but impossible.' Another glass of wine made my host and cook still more talkative. He told me that not long ago he had walked from this village to Tulle, distant about thirty-five miles, to see a soldier son who was to pass through the place with his regiment. He started at three in the morning and arrived at five in the afternoon, but was only able to exchange a few words with his son. They could not even 'break a crust' together. The old man then turned his face towards his village, and walked the whole night.
'I hope your son would walk as far to see you,' I said, with a little scepticism in my mind.
This is what he replied, almost word for word:
'Ah! children do not do for their parents what their parents do for them. The commandment says, 'Honour your father and your mother'—not honour your children. Nevertheless, it is the parents who deny themselves the most. As soon as your children are married they generally forget you.
Perhaps if I had married again I should be happier now. All the same, I am contented. I can keep myself. When I am no longer able to take care of myself, my children must do something for me.'
I confess that I was sorry when the time came for me to leave this old man, knowing well that I should never see again his rugged face and his kind eyes twinkling under their shaggy brows. Perhaps he, too, had some such regret, for we had had a long talk, and he may have tired out all his other listeners, especially those of his own family. When a man has grown old and is near the end, it would often be better for him to go out into the wilderness and talk to the rocks and trees than to repeat the stories of his life upon his own hearth-stone. Before I left the peasant fetched a bottle, which he only brought out on rare occasions, and insisted upon my drinking a parting glass with him.
I passed through another hamlet where there was a high wooden cross. There were walnut-trees, and men were knocking down the nuts. The women here wore wide-brimmed black straw hats over white caps. I soon left these figures behind, and was alone in a birch-wood, where there were many yellow leaves between me and the blue sky. Then I met the road to Neuvic, and following it came to the Artaud, a tributary of the Dordogne, threading its way through deep ravines, amidst wild rocks, dark woods, and bracken-covered steeps. The road crossed the ravine upon a bridge of three arches.
The scene was one to raise the mind above common things. The stream rushed madly down the rocky chasm with a mighty roar, now losing itself in the leafy vaults of overhanging trees, now reappearing like a torrent of fire where the glorious lustre of the September sun struck it and mingled with it.
As I ascended the opposite hill a still deeper ravine came into view, wooded down to the water and all in dark shadow, except a rocky ridge facing the sinking sun and bathed in warm light.
When the top of the hill had been reached, an old man, who wore a large and very weather-beaten felt hat, was sitting on the step of a wayside cross with a flock of geese feeding around him. Next I passed a bare-footed cantonnier breaking stones, and he told me that if I made haste I might reach Neuvic before dark. On the outskirts of a village—Roche-le-Peyroux—a wandering tinker and his boy were at work by the side of the road with fire and bellows, and I felt a trampish or romantic desire to stay with them awhile in the cheerful glow; but thinking of the coming night, I smothered the impulse.
Upon the moor which I was now traversing was a very old stone cross, upon which the figure of the Saviour was rudely carved in relief. The form was so uncouth as to be scarcely human. The head was half as wide again as the space across the shoulders, and the hands were nearly as large as the head. How many centuries ago did Christian piety raise this rough image of its hope upon the moors amidst the purple heather and the yellow broom?
The road crossed another stream not far from the spot where it fell into the Dordogne. There was a wooded quietude here, with an odour of fresh grass and water that enticed me to linger; but the evening light in the tops of the trees and the twittering of the birds settling amongst the leaves for the night spurred me on. I had walked many miles since the morning, but had made very little way according to the map, so full of deception is this wild Limousin country to the wanderer who does not know it. I had still some eight miles to walk before reaching Neuvic.
There was a little mill at the bottom of the grassy valley, but it seemed deserted by all living creatures save a dog. This rather large and shaggy animal seized the rare opportunity that was now offered him for a little excitement. Not satisfied with barking at me furiously from his own ground, he followed me about a mile up the hill I had now to climb, but without venturing very near. At length I thought I had had enough of his company, so at the next bend in the road I came to a stand beside a heap of stones that a cantonnier had neatly piled up in geometrical pattern. There I waited, and the animal came on gaily, little expecting to find himself suddenly at close quarters with me. Just as he turned the corner he raised a howl that said he was both surprised and shocked. Skipping with great agility, he avoided the next stone, and the expression of his face told me that he was already feeling very home-sick. He turned tail as quick as he could, and used very bad dog-language as the stones followed him down the hill. As a rule, dogs lose all their courage when they are out of sight of their own homes, unless someone whom they know well is near at hand to give them confidence in themselves.
I am again upon the moor. There is a deep silence over the heather, for the last bees have left the pink and purple bells. But there is still a wan glow in the air, which gives a sad beauty to the quiet, mournful land. A boy is returning with some cattle after spending the day upon the heath, and he sings as he thinks of his poor home, the blazing sticks on the hearth, the soup, the buckwheat cake, or the potatoes. Through a mask of silver birches I see a solemn ruddy light as of a funeral-torch in the far western sky. The breath of evening is made sweeter by the odour wafted from some distant fresh-cut grass or broom that has been drying in the September sun. A field-cricket, waking up, breaks the silence with its shrill cry that is quickly taken up by others near at hand and far away in the dusk. The light and colour of the day are now gone, but there is one beautiful star flashing in front of me like a lamp of the sanctuary when the vaulted minster is filled with shadow.
The rest of the walk to Neuvic was by night. The first auberge I entered in this small town of some three thousand inhabitants was a little too rough even for me. The family were at dinner, or at supper, as they would say, eating upon the bare board, without plates, potatoes boiled in their skins. I do not doubt there were hollows cut in the table to serve instead of plates, for this primitive contrivance still lingers in the wildest parts of the Limousin. In answer to my inquiry as to bed accommodation, I was told that I should have to sleep in the same room with others, probably the whole family. I had sufficient taste for civilization left to decline the proposed arrangement, and went in search of another inn.
Happily there was one, and of a better sort. It was thoroughly rustic, but there was not the squalor I had just encountered. In the kitchen, paved with small pebbles, two months' accumulation of used linen had been pressed down in an old wine-cask, and boiling water was now being poured upon it through a cloth covered with a layer of wood ashes. In these rural places the washing-day is usually once in two or three months. This simplifies matters, but it needs a considerable stock of linen, which, by-the-bye, peasants generally possess. The wash-house odour that arose from the lessive was not grateful, but I tried to accommodate myself to it. On the floor was a baby swaddled up, and tightly fitted into a small wooden cradle on huge rockers—a cradle that might have served for scores of babies, and been none the worse for wear. Although the fire on the hearth looked tempting, the proximity of the wine-cask and the linen that was being purified with potash made me glad to hear that my meal would be served in another room.
Considering the region, the dinner was not a bad one. I had soup, veal, eggs, and a fair wine. I had also a companion, but would rather have been without him. He was a young man, whose appearance gained by the contrast of a dusty wayfarer's, and he gave himself airs accordingly. I set him down as a petty functionary of the place, and a pensionnaire of the auberge. All the time I was with him his mind was exceedingly restless as to my intentions and business in those parts, and such explanations as I gave him to appease his insatiable curiosity and awkwardly-veiled suspicion evidently left him unsatisfied.
The next morning the hostess brought out her police register for me to enter my name, nationality, age, profession, destination, etc. I had no doubt that my acquaintance of the night before had reminded her of this little formality in order that he might afterwards see what I had written. All innkeepers in France are liable to a fine if they do not make every traveller who passes the night with them leave this record of himself for inspection, but the formality is much more often omitted than observed. I have not been able to overcome my English dislike of the practice, which is annoying and useless, like much more that belongs to the French administrative system.
By daylight I found Neuvic to be a cheerful, pleasant little town, with a venerable-looking old church, apparently of the twelfth century. It is entered by a cavernous portal under a very massive low tower, but the interior shows little of interest. What struck me, however, as something quite uncommon was a small altar in the centre of the nave just below the sanctuary. Upon it was an image of the Virgin, which a boy told me had been found in a neighbouring wood about a century ago.
On leaving Neuvic I noticed a woman carrying to the baker's a large dish of edible boleti, known to the French as cpes. This excellent fungus during the late summer and autumn is a very important article of food in France wherever there are extensive chestnut-woods. The orange mushroom is also much eaten in the same regions, for it likewise loves the chestnut forest; but it may be mistaken by those who do not know the signs for its relative, the crimson-capped fly-agaric, one of the most deadly of cryptogams.
After seeing the dish of cpes, I was not surprised to find many chestnut-trees along the road that I now took to St. Pantalon. The country was less barren than that which I had passed over the day before. Although there was much heather, broom and furze, trees and pasture broke the monotony of the moorland. Here was the better Limousin landscape—every knoll and mamelon covered with heather and other moor-plants, woods and meadows in the dells and dips. The numerous clumps of silver birches, and the gorse arrayed in its new flowers of bright gold, added to the charm of the sunlit scene.
To me the weather was all the more delightful by being very warm, for I had run away from winter on the Auvergne mountains. The whirring noise of the grasshoppers as they flew across the road, and the tremulous sheen of their wings, coloured like blooming lavender, brought back to me the best recollections of other wayfaring days in the warm South, when all these things were new, and the sight feasted upon them with the eagerness of bees that suck the first flowers of spring.
I passed a little field of buckwheat that had been cut some days and had fully ripened. A woman was threshing out the grain with a flail upon a spread canvas, surrounded by a circle of purple-tinted cones, the sheaves leaning together. Now the wide level moor returned, but Nature was not quite the same here as she had been before. The vast expanse was dotted over with dark little juniper bushes. These were covered with berries which nobody seemed to think worth the picking. Rock-cist flourished, starring the turf all over with its yellow discs. This moor was an absolute desert.
Long I walked without seeing another human being. At length I met a woman carrying a distaff, and tried to get into conversation with her, but it was impossible; she could not speak a word of French, and I knew nothing of her Limousin patois.
By steadfastly following the road, I came to the village of St. Pantalon, on the brow of a hill overlooking the Luxge, and stopped at a wayside inn. It was a poor auberge; but there was an air of reaching toward some ideal of superior life and softened manners that made itself felt in small ways not to be described with any certainty, but none the less real. The innkeeper, who was also a peasant-farmer, possessed the doubtful blessing of a mind that rose above what the logic of his existence, sternly bound to a plot of grudging soil and the petty needs of still poorer neighbours, demanded of it. He was blessed or afflicted with that hunger of knowledge and refinement which lifts and casts down, rejoices and saddens. He knew that such ambition with regard to himself was vain, that it was his destiny to live out his days on the edge of a moor in the Corrze, and that it was his duty to thank Heaven that he was sheltered and had sufficient food, fuel, and clothing for himself and his family: all this he knew, and he accepted his lot bravely. But the fire was only damped down; it glowed in its hidden heart, and strove for a vent. It was not lighted without a purpose. The peasant had a son, to whom the flame had been passed on; for he aimed at the priesthood. This has ever been a refuge of ambitious minds that cannot rise by any other means above the dullness of the peasant's life, which is the more endurable the more the man is able to place himself upon the animal level of his plodding ox. The son was being educated in a seminary, but he was now home for the holidays. Presently he appeared. He was a youth of about nineteen, wearing a blouse like any other peasant. There was certainly nothing in his appearance to indicate that he was destined for the cure of souls. The proud father said: 'He is in philosophy.' The young man had a twinkle in his eye that might have been philosophical. Neither of them had a suspicion of the vanity concealed in the high-sounding phrase.
But I am forgetting to say anything about what was more important to me than aught else at that time. I had to eat and drink in order to look at nature with an admiring eye, note the interwoven aims and motives and troubled duties of human life; to be 'in philosophy' after my own humble fashion. My meal was chiefly of fried eggs and ham, the latter nearly as hard as leather. I ate in a small room where there was a bed with a red curtain. No knife was given me, for in these out-of-the-way inns you are expected to carry your knife in your pocket, which a century ago was the case in most of the French hostelries. In the remotely rural districts the ways of life have changed very slightly in a hundred years. But, if the knife was overlooked, the white napkin and small tablecloth were remembered. While talking with the aubergiste over the coffee—there was really some coffee here that was not made either from acorns or beans—he told me, as an example of the low rate of wages in the district, that a road—mender, who worked in all weathers, was paid forty francs a month. In the whole commune there were only two or three persons who had wine in their houses. He lent me his two sons—the sminariste and his young brother—to walk with me as far as the Luxge, and put me on the path to La Page, at which village I proposed to pass the night.
As we left, a grand expanse of chestnut forest came into view, following the hills that bordered the curved line of the Luxge. The little river, like all the tributaries of the upper Dordogne, runs at the bottom of a deep gorge. Standing upon the brink of it, I perceived that I was about to enter another sylvan solitude of enchanting beauty. The dense forest descended the abrupt escarpments to the channel and hid the stream, and over the leafy masses was that play of sunshine, shadow, and thin vapour which I had so often watched in a dreamily joyous mood lying at the foot of some pine in the Vosges.
About half-way down the gorge was a ruinous Romanesque chapel upon a rock, the polygonal apse being on the very edge of a precipice. At each exterior angle of the imperfect polygon was a column with a cubiform capital. The interior was all dilapidated; the floor of the sanctuary had fallen in, but the altar-stone—a block of granite—remained in its place. This chapel belonged to a priory. Little is left of the adjoining monastery except some subterranean vaults and the gaping oven of the ruined bakery; all ferny, mossy, given up to the faun and the dryad. The upper masonry was carried away years ago to build a chapel upon the hill. A bit of green slope, where the sunbeams wantoned with yellow mulleins, wild carrot, and bracken, was the cemetery, as a few stone crosses almost buried in the soil plainly told. These crosses doubtless mark the graves of nameless priors. And the dust of the humble monk and serving brother, where is that? Every plant draws from it something that it needs to fulfil its purpose. It is as good for the nightshade as for the violet; flowers that are rank and deadly, and others that are sweet and innocent, strive for the right of clasping with their hungry roots the dust of men.
The innkeeper's sons left me by an abandoned mill on the other side of the stream, which was crossed by a rough wooden bridge. Ascending the opposite hill by a narrow path in the shadow of chestnuts and beeches, and fringed with gorse and heather, I passed another deserted house, the roof of which had fallen in. The gorge was getting very shadowy when I reached the tableland above it. I saw the small town of Laplau in the plain away to the left, but my path did not lie through it, for I preferred the wilder country towards La Page. When I passed a little lake in a hollow, half surrounded by firs, the slanting rays were diving into its liquid stillness, over which the motionless trees bent gazing at their likeness.
When the sun left me I was upon a hilly waste, amid darkening bushes of holly and juniper, tall bracken, heather, and gorse. The spirit of desolation threw out broad wings under the fading sky; but from afar towards the west, whither I was going, came through the dusk the shine and twinkle of many fires that had been lighted by the peasants upon their patches of reclaimed desert. They flashed to me the sentiment of the autumn fields, of hopeful husbandry, of laying up for the winter, and preparation for harvests that would be gathered under next year's sun.
Tired and hungry, I reached La Page in the darkness. The village looked very poor and dreary; but I had been told that it contained a 'good hotel,' and I set about looking for it. It turned out to be a rather large but exceedingly rough auberge. On opening the door I saw a great kitchen with pebbled floor, lighted only by the glow of embers on the hearth. The figure of a woman standing in the chimney opening was lit up by the glare. I walked towards her, and asked her if she could give me lodging. After scanning me very acutely for some seconds, she replied, 'Yes.' She was puzzled, if not startled, by the apparition in front of her; but having thrown down my pack and taken a seat in the chimney-corner like a familiar of the house, I talked to her about the comfort of being in such a place after a long walk in so wild a district as hers, and succeeded in making her quite genial. She was the mayor's wife, but she was not too proud to cook for me after lighting a flickering oil-lamp. While I was waiting for my meal peasants came in, and had theirs at the bare tables, of which there were several in the great kitchen. Their soup was ladled out from the immense black pot that hung over the fire, and the noise they made as they fell to it was very grating to the nerves. But the wanderer in the chimney-corner had no business to be there, unless he was prepared to accept all that was customary without wincing. My own dinner commenced with some of this soup, which was like hot dishwater with slices of bread thrown into it. The bit of boiled veal that followed was an improvement, although anything but a captivating dish. Goat-cheese, hard and salt, and with a flavour that left no doubt as to the source from which it came, made up the frugal fare. I returned to the chimney-corner and smoked in silence, now peering up the sooty cavern where the wind moaned, and now watching the clear-obscure effects of the dimly-lighted room. Presently a trap stopped outside, and in walked the aubergiste, accompanied by a sprightly little man who I afterwards learnt was a pedlar.
Monsieur le maire was not exactly a polished gentleman; he took no notice of me after the first searching glance. He made an unpleasant impression, but this wore off when I found that he was a well-meaning man, who had not cultivated fine manners. Why should he have cultivated what would have been of little or no use to him? These rural functionaries are just like the people with whom they live. The young sminariste told me an amusing story of a mayor of St. Pantalon, who had had a very narrow escape of being caught by gendarmes when upon a poaching expedition. 'Tout le monde est braconnier ici,' added my informant with a sincerity that was very pleasing. Of course, he was a poacher himself when reposing from his theological and philosophical studies. I thought none the worse of him for that. After all, poaching in France generally means nothing more immoral than neglecting to take out a gun license, and to respect the President's decrees with regard to the months that are open and those that are not.
On my way to bed I saw in a corner of the staircase a spinning-wheel of the pattern known throughout Europe. I was told that it had not been used for many years. The distaff and spindle which are to be seen on Egyptian monuments are still employed by thousands of French, peasant-women, but the wheel invented in the sixteenth century is rarely used now, unless it be by Martha in the opera.
The next morning I made friends with the pedlar, who was about to start upon my road, and who offered to give me a lift in his trap as far as La Roche Canillac. Meanwhile, he had unpacked all his samples of cloth with a view to doing a little business with the mayor. This personage, however, was not allowed to have much voice in the matter; it was his spouse who represented his interests in the bargaining battle that was now waged with deafening din and much apparent ferocity for three-quarters of an hour. The little pedlar was used to this kind of thing, and was quite prepared for the fray. When the lady offered him, after much depreciatory fingering of the chosen material, two-thirds of what he asked for the stuff that was to be made into a pair of winter trousers for the mayor, he spun round and jumped like a peg-top just escaped from the string. Then he raged and swore, said he was being mocked at, dabbed his hat on his head, and made a pretence of gathering up his samples and rushing off. The mayor watched the scene with a quiet smirk on his face: he knew that he would somehow get the trousers. I have no doubt that he did have them, but I walked out instead of waiting to see the end of the battle. When I returned, the haggling was over, the hostess and the pedlar were on the most affable terms, and there was not a sign of the recent storm.
Presently the pedlar, myself, and the innkeeper's son—a young man who had received his education elsewhere, and had learnt much that did not chime in with his present surroundings—were in a light cart, drawn by a lively horse, speeding along the road over the moors. Here and there, near the village, were small fields of buckwheat in the midst of the heather and bracken. My companions explained that each commune was surrounded by a considerable extent of moorland that belonged to it, and that any native of the commune had the right of selecting a piece, which became his absolute property after he had cleared it and brought it under cultivation; thus anyone could have what land he wanted in reason for nothing. Quite an Arcadian state of things this, were not the conditions of nature such as to chill the ambition to acquire such freeholds. Three years of back-breaking labour are needed before the land is fit to be put to some profitable purpose. And then what does it yield? Buckwheat, and perhaps potatoes. Although the peasants have the faculty of extending their landed property in the manner described, the consideration of means generally stands in the way. They cannot afford to work and wait three years. Their existence is truly wretched, and if it were not for the luxuriant chestnut-woods, which cover the sides of the narrow valleys or gorges with which the barren plateau is deeply seamed every few miles, the population of the region would be more scanty than it is, for the chestnut goes far to sustain the people through the worst months of the year.
The plough used upon these moors, on the causses of the Quercy, and in some other districts where the barrenness of the soil has kept the inhabitants for centuries imprisoned within the circle of their old routine, is one of the simplest that the world has known. It differs but slightly from the one figured in the most ancient of Egyptian hieroglyphs, and is really the same as that which was used in Gaul under the Romans. Indeed, it has not the improvements that the Romans introduced. Two poles forming an obtuse angle is the rough shape of it. The wedge-like share is a continuation of the pole that is held by the ploughman. Often on the causses, where loose stones are inseparably mixed with the soil, the entire plough is of wood.
We passed through the village of Marcillac, near the head of one of the valleys. The soil was much more fertile here, and a maize field was a sign that the climate was warmer. There were, moreover, pleasant gardens with fruit-trees and flowers. Oleanders were blooming outside some of the houses. But we had no sooner risen upon the plateau again than the moor returned, and for seven or eight miles it continued unbroken. The ground was slightly undulating, and amongst the gorse and heather were scattered innumerable juniper bushes.
On approaching La Roche Canillac the road descended into a very deep valley by so many turns and windings that I was thankful to be in the pedlar's cart, especially as the mid-day sun smote with torrid strength. But the scenery was of exquisite beauty, and this valley will remain in my memory as one of the most charming I have ever seen. Luxuriant woods, flashing water, savage rocks, emerald-green patches of meadow, little mills by the riverside—I should add nothing to the picture by saying more. Upon the rocky hillside was the burg of five hundred inhabitants. My companions took me to an old auberge whose exterior was not promising, but which was, nevertheless, well supplied with food, and had a good cellar. The meal served there was the best that had fallen to my lot for several days. The sun had lost all the ardour of mid-day when I took leave of the pedlar and the mayor's son. I went away thinking that I might travel far without finding two more kindly, honest fellows.
I had hoped to reach Argentat by the Dordogne that night, but I had stayed too long at the inn for the plan to be practicable; so I set off down the gorge of the tributary with the intention of taking my luck at a village called St. Bazile. I was soon in the shade of the chestnut forest, where boars were said to be plentiful. As time went on, the scenery became more solemn and awe-inspiring. Pines that looked very gloomy in the late afternoon mingled with the chestnuts, while black rocks, faintly flushed with heather towards the sky, reared their jagged outlines above the sombre foliage. All the while the water in the gorge moaned or roared. It was growing very dusk when the walls on either hand rose like the sides of a pit.
I was beginning to ask myself in no cheerful mood whether the map had not deceived me as to the whereabouts of St. Bazile, when, to my relief, I heard a church bell ringing not very far down the stream. It was the angelus. How often has this clear, solemn, heart-touching, and consoling sound been to me what a familiar beacon is to the doubting mariner! Only wanderers in desolate places know the sentiment that it carries through the evening air. More welcome than ever before did it seem in this black gorge. I pushed on, and presently the gloomy walls widened out. Turning a bend of the torrent, I stood in a glow of ruddy light that streamed from the yawning mouth of an open-air oven that had recently been filled with dry broom and kindled for the night's baking. Here was a fresh delight, for there is nothing more cheering, more full of homely sentiment in the dusk, than the view of such a blazing oven.
This, then, was the village of St. Bazile de la Roche, to give its full name. It could scarcely have boasted a hundred houses. There was one miserable little inn, kept by a widow. There I had to pass the night, unless I preferred a cave or a mossy bed under a tree. The poor woman managed to find a piece of veal, which she cooked for me. It seemed to be my lot now to eat no meat but veal. As I sat down to this dish and a bottle of wine, two men at another table were eating boiled potatoes, without plates, and drinking water. The contrast made me uncomfortable. There is some reason in the selfishness that avoids the sights and sounds and all suggestions of other people's poverty and pain; but those who take such base care of themselves never know human life. I could not offer these men wine without running the risk of a refusal, but it was different with regard to a little hump-backed postman who came in to gossip. Half a litre of wine that, at my wish, was set before him made him exceedingly cheerful. He told me that he walked about twenty miles a day on the hillsides and in the ravines, and I suppose his pay was the same as that of other rural postmen in France—from 28 to 32 a year. The inhabitants of St. Bazile, he said, were all very poor, their chief food being potatoes and chestnuts. Before the vines a little further down the valley were destroyed by the phylloxera and mildew, the people were much better off. Then there was plenty of wine in the cellars, but now St. Bazile was a village of water-drinkers. He spoke of the neighbouring parish of Servires, where, at the annual pilgrimage, women go barefoot from one rock to the other on which the chapel stands.
Before placing myself between the canvas-like sheets, I opened the lattice window of my meagrely-furnished room. The only distinguishable voice of the night was that of the stream quarrelling with its rocky bed just below. Before me was the high black wall of hill and forest, above the ragged line of which flashed the swarming stars.
The angelus sounded again at four in the morning. Before seven I was out in the open air. I saw the cur go up into the tower of his small church, and ring the bell for his own mass. He was probably too poor to pay a sacristan. A little later he was in the pulpit catechising the children, and preaching to the older parishioners between whiles. A boy and then a girl would stand up, and in answer to questions put to them would recite in an unintelligible gabble the catechism they had learnt. If one of them lost the thread and suddenly lapsed into a speechless confusion of ideas, the cur pointed the finger of reprobation at the unfortunate little wretch, and made him or her—especially him—feel the enormity of having a bad memory. While waving his arm in a moment of rhetorical excitement, he let his book fall upon an old woman's head. 'Voil ce que c'est de faire des gestes!' said he with a smile that was almost a discreet grin. The children were delighted, and everybody laughed, including the poor old soul, who had seated herself under the pulpit so that she might hear well.
It was evident that the people of St. Bazile quite understood their cur, and that he was just the one for them. He was a strong man, over sixty years of age, and he spoke with a rich southern accent. Under his sacerdotal earnestness there was a sense of humour ever ready to take a little revenge for a life of sacrifice. There are many such priests in France.
I had no sooner walked out of this village, on my way to Argentat, than I became aware that the Girondin climate was beginning to make itself felt. The influence of the plains was overcoming that of the highlands. The warm rocky slopes on each side of the valley were covered with vines—alas! dead or dying. There was no hope for them. On the level of the river were fields of maize, now ripening, and irrigated meadows intensely green. There were beehives, fifteen or twenty together on the sunny slopes, and as I went on, the signs of human industry and ease increasing, I saw petunias climbing over cottage doors. There was a steep descent to Argentat. The town lay in a wide valley by the Dordogne, in the midst of maize and buckwheat fields and green meadows, the surrounding hillsides being covered here with chestnut woods, and there with vines. I met a woman returning from market with melons in her basket. Truly I had come into a different climate. At the small town, made pretty by the number of its vine trellises, I lunched. The inn where I stopped is not worth describing; but it gave me a dish of gudgeons caught in the Dordogne that deserved to be remembered.
I did not remain long at Argentat, for I was determined to reach Beaulieu that night. A little out of the town some girls whom I passed on the road looked very suspiciously at me out of the corners of their eyes, and reminded me that another whom I had met that morning higher up the valley took to her heels at the sight of me. An old woman who had lived long enough to overcome such timidity, asked me if I was a marchand, by which she meant pedlar—the old question to which I have grown weary of replying. About a mile from the town I found the Dordogne again. It had grown to quite a fine river since I last saw it in the ravines below Bort. Many an eager affluent had rushed into it, both on the Corrze and the Cantal side. Here most of the grass was dried up, and the freshness of the highlands was gone. Still the valley was shut in by steep cliffs. Brambles climbed about the rocks, where the broom also flourished, although tangled with its parasite, the dodder. Looking up the crags, I recognised a wild fig-tree—the first I had seen on this southward journey.
The valley became again so narrow that the road was cut into the escarped side of the cliff, for the river ran close under it. A woman with bare legs and bare chest—really half naked—trudged by with a heavy bundle of maize upon her head, followed by a couple of red-haired children, their perfectly-shaped little legs browned by the sun and powdered with dust. How beautiful are the limbs of these peasant children, however disfigured by toil and the inherited physical blight of hardship their mother's form may be! With each fresh generation, Nature seems to make an effort to go back to her ideal type; but destiny is strong. Old and new causes working together are often more than a match for that most marvellous force in all animal and vegetable life—the love of symmetry.
Resting upon a bed of peppermint, blue with flowers, under an old wall, whose stones were half hidden by celandine and roving briony; loitering dreamily upon a wide waste of sunlit pebbles, watching the flashing rapids of the river where it awoke from its calm sleep to battle with the rocks which had resisted incalculable ages of washing, the hours glided by so stealthily that it was evening when I reached a village which was still eight miles or more from Beaulieu.
Turning into an inn, I fell into conversation with a postman, who made me the offer of his company during the remainder of the journey. I readily assented, and gave him a glass of absinthe—his favourite drink—before leaving. He did not need it, for, as he confessed, he had been clinking glasses with unusual zeal that day. He was a very droll fellow, a striking type of the Southerner, whom it was difficult to look at with a serious face, and whom no one with any sense of humour could really dislike, notwithstanding his immense vanity and his immeasurable impudence. He had a thick black beard, a long, sharp nose, dark eyes full of mischievous mirth, and cheeks the colour of red wine. He wore a stiff new blouse with a red collar—the badge of his office—and a straw hat like a beehive. The whole of the way to Beaulieu his tongue was not still a minute. He told me stories of his bravery and his love adventures with a most amusing accent and intonation. The Rabelaisian expressions, which give such a peculiar flavour to the conversation of the 'people' in Southern France, rolled off his tongue with a sonority that could hardly have been excelled at Nimes or Tarascon. His swagger, his gestures, and his elocutionary power were amazing. He would stop walking, and, placing his stick—which he called his trique—under his arm, would speak in a tragic stage-whisper; then, clutching his trique and flourishing it over his head, he would burst out into a roar of laughter that made the dogs bark in the scattered farms for miles around. Once, when we were passing under high rocks, he shouted with such a terrible voice that he brought some loose stones rattling down upon the road so close to us that my head, as well as his own, nearly paid the penalty for thus exasperating the peaceful night. This was either the effect of vibration or of the sudden movement of some bird or other creature that he had startled far above us.
Among other things of which this amusing man talked to me was a visit of archaeologists, among whom were a number of Englishmen, to Beaulieu.
'If you had only seen them,' he said, 'outside the church, all with their noses lifted in the air! Grand Dieu! What noses!'
Long before we reached Beaulieu I had had more than enough of the wild spirits of my comic postman. On entering the town he insisted upon taking me to a hotel which he said he could recommend to me with as much confidence as if I were his brother. Then he left me; but I had not seen the last of him. He presently returned, while I was enjoying the luxury of a quiet and well-served little dinner. Seating himself in front of me without waiting for an invitation, he helped himself with his fingers to a dish of baked cpes, which I in consequence relinquished, but with a complete absence of goodwill. There was no getting rid of him, short of telling him plainly to go, and this I could not do after having accepted his companionship on the road. He devoured all the mushrooms, expressing his astonishment between whiles that I did not like them. 'J'aime bien les champignons,' he kept on repeating. 'a me va le soir. Ce n'est pas lourd.' When the dessert was brought in, he picked out the only ripe peach in the dish, and having poured another glass of wine down his really terrible throat, he declared that it had given him great pleasure to make my acquaintance, and left me with the hope that I should sleep well, and would not forget the Beaulieu postman. I assured him, with perfect sincerity, that I should never forget him.
When daylight returned I found Beaulieu a pleasant little town lying under hills covered with chestnut woods, and at a short distance from the Dordogne. Its name, however, was probably given to it on account of the fertility of the soil in this bit of valley, where the cliffs that enclose the Dordogne on each side fall back, and, by allowing a rich alluvium to settle in the plain, give the husbandmen a chance of growing something more profitable than buckwheat.
Beaulieu was once the seat of a powerful Benedictine abbey. The original monastery was founded in 858 by Charles le Chauve, who placed it under his protection. Although the territory was included in the viscounty of Turenne, the Viscount Raymond II., before he went crusading, made over his suzerain rights with regard to the abbey and its dependencies to the abbots, who thus became temporal lords. There is nothing left of the monastery; but much of the abbey church, which dates from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, has been fortunately preserved. The interior is not remarkable, but the large and elaborate bas-relief of the Last Judgment which fills the tympanum of the portal is considered the most precious example of mediaeval sculpture in the Bas-Limousin. The face of the Saviour, expressive of something above all human passions and motives, shows a really God-like combination of serenity and severity. The fantastic spirit of the age is well set forth in the tortured forms of the horrid reptiles and fabulous beasts carved in relief upon the massive lintel, and filling also the broad border at the base of the tympanum. The same spirit finds even stronger expression in the demon figure, so grotesquely long-drawn out, carved upon the scalloped pillar that supports the lintel. The abbey was pillaged by the Huguenots, who lit a fire in the choir, which destroyed much of the woodwork. Notwithstanding the religious wars and the revolutionary convulsions of the eighteenth century, the church has preserved some of its ancient treasure, of which the most precious object is a silver statue of the Virgin of very curious workmanship, dating from the twelfth century.
IN THE VISCOUNTY OF TURENNE.
What gives us the zest to wander until the hour comes when we must fain be content to sit in the porch, thankful if the evening sun shines warmly, is the fascination of the unknown. As children, did we not long to get at the horizon's verge, to touch the painted clouds of the morning or of the sunset—ay, and to grasp with our outstretched hands that reached such a little way the blood-red glory of the sun itself? The garden, with its glowing tulips and its roses haunted by gilded beetles, became too small to satisfy the mind of infancy fresh from the infinite. Surely, I thought, when I was again in the open country beyond Beaulieu, I must have carried something of my childhood on with me, for me to go wandering over these hot hills exposing myself to sunstroke, weariness, and thirst for the sake of the unknown.
The road at first led up vine-covered slopes towards the west, where the waysides were blue with the flowers of the wild chicory. A priest astride upon a rough old cob passed me, his hitched-up soutane showing his gaitered legs. The French rural priests are generally rubicund, but this one was cadaverous. He would have looked like Death on horseback, swathed in a black mantle, but for the dangling gaitered legs, which spoilt the solemn effect. A very curious figure did he cut upon his shaggy, ambling steed. On the top of the hill was a village, in the midst of which stood a little old Gothic church with a gable-belfry, and hard by was a half-timber house, its porch aglow with climbing petunias.
Beyond this village was a deep valley, the sides of which were covered with chestnut-trees. On ascending the opposite hill, I took a by-path through a steep wood, thinking to cut off a long turn of the hot and dusty road. It led me into difficulties and bewilderment. The path disappeared, but I went on. After climbing rocks densely overgrown with brambles, which left their daggers in my skin, I reached the top of the hill, and saw before me a desert of disintegrated rock or drift dotted over with low juniper bushes. Although it was the middle of September, the sun blazed above me with the ardour of July, and the rays were thrown back by the bare stones, on which there was not a trace of moss, nor even lichen. These arid rocky places, so characteristic of Southern France, have a poetry of their own that to me is ever enticing. I love the stony wastes and their dazzling sun-glitter. There I find something that approaches companionship in the prickly juniper, the narcotic hellebore, and the acrid spurge. And these plants likewise love the places where the world has remained unchanged by man. The heat, however, was too great for me to linger upon this shadeless hill, where every stone was warm, and the reflected glare was almost as blinding as that of the sun itself, which seemed so near.
Having crossed another valley, after much casting about, I found the highroad again. The altitude was considerable here, so that the view embraced a wide expanse of the Corrze and the department of the Lot, which I was approaching. The scene was everything that an English landscape is not. No soft verdure, no hedgerows setting memory astir with pictures of the flowering may and the pink, clambering dog-rose gemmed with dew; no lustrous meadow crossed by shadows thrown by ancient dreaming elms; no flash from the briskly-flowing brook: no, nothing of this, but in its place a parched and rugged land of hills or knolls, stony, wasteful, where for countless ages the juniper, the broom, the gorse, and the heather have disputed the sovereignty, the intervening valleys, timidly cultivated, producing little else but rye and buckwheat, and the deep gorges sombre with overhanging trees.