AVIGNON AND ORANGE.
My first business at Avignon was, of course, to visit the tomb of our great countryman, John Stuart Mill.
As we drive to the cemetery this cloudless August day there is little to remind us of northern latitudes: warm yellow walls, burning blue heaven, venerable fig-trees white with dust, peach and olive orchards - all combine to conjure up a vision of the far-off East. The perpetual wind, however, cools the air, and if it has not the delicious freshness of the desert breeze tasted towards nightfall near Cairo, at least it makes August in that apparently tropic region bearable. Avignon should without doubt be visited in the height of summer, otherwise we lose this Oriental aspect, which is its most striking and, at the same time, most beautiful characteristic.
Passing the colossal palace of the popes - pity such superb masonry should be linked with the memories of crimes so horrible! - we reach the public gardens, containing the statue of a comparatively humble individual, who did more for the public weal than perhaps all the popes and anti-popes put together. This is Althen, who, by the introduction of the madder-root into France, promoted the peaceful industry and wellbeing of thousands of honest families. From the lofty terrace of this promenade - a natural precipice overlooking the river - we obtain a glorious panorama - the entire city, with its towers, palace, and churches, spread before us as a map, the glory of the Dauphinnois Alps, the magnificent Mont Ventoux stretching across the northern horizon, under the shadow of its sunny crest the pale violet hills of Vaucluse, and, to complete the picture, the Rhone, silvery bright - I protest it is not always muddy as some writers insist! - flowing swiftly between green banks towards the sea.
An avenue of stone pines leads to the cemetery - announced by flower-stalls and stonemasons' yards - and we soon find the head-gardener - an ancient man, proud to show us the tomb of the 'grand Anglais.'
'Do my country-people often come here to pay their respects to this grave?' I asked.
'Oh, many, many!' he said; 'and the demoiselle, his daughter - it is she who sees to everything. She is always coming. Never was any grave so cared for, as you will see.'
He was right. The sarcophagus of pure white marble stands in the midst of a tiny garden, exquisitely kept and railed in, with gate well-locked. The well-known inscription inscribed by Stuart Mill to the memory of his wife cannot be deciphered from outside the enclosure, and no one, under any circumstances whatever, is permitted to enter it; but the name of the noble apostle of liberty stands out bold and clear, and may be seen from a distance. The flower-borders around the tomb were bright with late summer and autumn flowers; not a seared leaf, not an unsightly weed anywhere. The reverential care bestowed on this grave is delightful to witness. Two English girls lie buried near the great champion of women and of liberty of thought. Rare flowers - roses and lilies - were not to be had, so I purchased a homely garland of zinnias and China asters, and laid it just outside the little railing. In paying this modest tribute to the memory of John Stuart Mill I fulfilled a wish very dear to my heart. One other pilgrimage of the like kind I would fain make did not wide seas intervene. I should like to place a wreath on the tomb of another apostle of liberty - the dauntless, the self-immolating Colenso!
Schiller, great in poetry as in prose, says: 'The larger portion of humanity are too much concerned with the struggle for bare existence to occupy themselves with the search after truth.' Let us, then, rejoice in the memory of those who have consecrated their existences to this lofty task!
Beautiful as is Avignon for a burial-place, we wonder how anyone could from choice live here. The perpetual mistral-like wind, the dazzling glare, the white dust, the malodorous streets of the old town, do not at any rate invite a long stay during the dog-days, and much of its picturesqueness would be lost in winter. With the prospect of the breezy Roof of France ever before us, we certainly felt little disposed to linger, in spite of our comfortable quarters and another attraction not mentioned in guide-books. I allude to the great beauty of the people, especially of the young girls and children. We seemed here to have touched the first note of a gradually ascending scale of beauty, the climax awaiting us in the mountain fastnesses of the Lozere. In and around Avignon we saw many a girl beautiful as one of Raphael's Madonnas, many a child lovely as an angel. We could not paint these charming heads, we could not make the acquaintance of their possessors; but it was delightful to obtain such glimpses of beauty by the way - to feel one's self in a living portrait-gallery of beauty. The great neatness and tidiness of the country people, and the absence of vagrancy, are very striking. Wherever we go, we see evidence of an existence laborious perhaps in the extreme, yet one of wholesomeness and content.
Strange to say, chemical science has proved as disastrous to the rural population round about Avignon as the phylloxera has done in other parts of the department. The supersession of madder by aniline dyes has, indeed, for a time almost ruined the small farmers of Vaucluse.
'Ah!' said an elderly man to me, 'in former days the madder made up for everything. It was the harvest of the year. If a peasant's corn was blighted, or potatoes and fruit crops failed, the madder was there to take to market. The madder paid his way in bad seasons and in good - gave him a little "argent mignon" to lay by. The peasant just manages to live nowadays, but when madder was cultivated 'twas his own fault if he didn't grow rich.'