VI. QUISSAC AND SAUVE
One should always go round the sun to meet the moon in France, that is to say, one should ever circumambulate, never make straight for the lodestar ahead. The way to almost any place of renown, natural, historic or artistic, is sure to teem with as much interest as that to which we are bound. So rich a palimpsest is French civilization, so varied is French scenery, so multifarious the points of view called up at every town, that hurry and scurry leave us hardly better informed than when we set out. Thus it has ever been my rule to indulge in the most preposterous peregrination, taking no account whatever of days, seasons or possible cons, hearkening only to the pros, and never so much as glancing at the calendar. Such protracted zigzaggeries have been made easy to the "devious traveller" by one unusual advantage. Just as pioneers in Australasia find Salvation Army shelters scattered throughout remotest regions, so, fortunately, have I ever been able to count upon "harbour and good company" during my thirty-five years of French sojourn and travel.
To reach a certain Pyrenean valley in which I was to spend a holiday would only have meant a night's dash by express from Paris. Instead, I followed the south-eastern route, halting at - Heaven knows how many! - already familiar and delightful places between Paris and Dijon, Dijon and Lyons, Lyons and Nimes; from the latter city being bound for almost as many more before reaching my destination.
Quite naturally I would often find myself on the track of that "wise and honest traveller," so John Morley calls Arthur Young.
Half-way between Nimes and Le Vigan lies the little town of Sauve, at which the Suffolk farmer halted in July 1787. "Pass six leagues of a disagreeable country," he wrote. "Vines and olives."
But why a disagreeable country? Beautiful I thought the landscape as I went over the same ground on a warm September afternoon a century and odd years later, on alighting to be greeted with a cheery -
"Here I am!"
As a rule I am entirely of Montaigne's opinion. "When I travel in Sicily," said the philosopher of Gascony, "it is not to find Gascons." Dearly as we love home and home-folk, the gist of travel lies in oppositeness and surprises. We do not visit the uttermost ends of the globe in search of next-door neighbours. That cordial "Here I am!" however, had an unmistakable accent, just a delightful suspicion of French. My host was a gallant naval officer long since retired from service, with his English wife and two daughters, spending the long vacation in his country home.
High above the little village of Quissac rises the residence of beneficent owners, master and mistress, alas! long since gone to their rest. From its terrace the eye commands a vast and beautiful panorama, a richly cultivated plain dotted with villages and framed by the blue Cevennes. Tea served after English fashion and by a dear countrywoman, everywhere "le confortable Anglais" admittedly unattainable by French housewives, could not for a single moment make me forget that I was in France. And when the dinner gong sounded came the final, the unequivocal, proof of distance.
Imagine dining out of doors and in evening dress at eight o'clock in the last week of August! The table was set on the wide balcony of the upper floor, high above lawn and bosquets, the most chilly person having here nothing to fear. It is above all things the French climate that transports us so far from home and makes us feel ourselves hundreds, nay, thousands of miles away.
I have elsewhere, perhaps ofttimes, dwelt on the luminosity of the atmosphere in southern and south-western France. To-night not a breath was stirring, the outer radiance was the radiance of stars only, yet so limpid, so lustrous the air that cloudless moonlight could hardly have made every object seem clearer, more distinct. The feeling inspired by such conditions is that of enchantment. For the nonce we may yield to a spell, fancy ourselves in Armida's enchanted garden or other "delightful land of Faery."
Not for long, however! Pleasant practical matters soon recall us to the life of every day. That laborious, out-of-door existence, which seems sordid in superfine English eyes, but which is never without the gaiety that enchanted Goldsmith and Sterne a hundred and fifty years ago.
Whilst host and guest dined on the balcony, the farming folk and such of the household as could be spared were enjoying a starlit supper elsewhere. Later, my hostess took me downstairs and introduced her English visitor to a merry but strictly decorous party having a special bit of sward to themselves, bailiff, vintagers, stockmen, dairywoman, washerwoman and odd hands making up a round dozen of men, women and boys. All seemed quite at home, and chatted easily with their employer and the visitor, by no means perturbed, rather pleased by the intrusion.
And here I will mention one of those incidents that lead English observers into so many misconceptions concerning French rural life. Little things that seem sordid, even brutifying to insular eyes, really arise from incompatible standards.