THE CANON OF THE TARN.
Amid many cordial adieux we took our seats, the good old town councillor having placed a well-packed basket at the bottom of the boat. Excellent little restaurants await the traveller at the various stations on the way, but all anxious to arrive at their journey's end in good time will carry provisions with them.
The heavy gray mist hung about the scene for the first hour or two, otherwise it must have been enchanting. Even the cold, monotonous atmosphere could not destroy the grace and smilingness of the opening stage of our journey - sweet Allegro Gracioso to be followed by stately Andante, unimaginably captivating Capricioso to come next - climax of the piece - the symphony closing with gentle, tender harmonies. Thus in musical phraseology may be described the marvellous canon or gorge of the Tarn - like the pen of true genius, enchanting, whatever the theme. Quiet as the scenery is at the beginning of the way, without any of the sublimer features to awe us farther on, it is yet abounding in various kinds of beauty. Above the pellucid, malachite-coloured river, at first a mere narrow ribbon ever winding and winding, rise verdant banks, tiny vineyards planted on almost vertical slopes, apple orchards, the bright red fruit hanging over the water's edge, whilst willows and poplars fringe the low-lying reaches, and here and there, a pastoral group, some little Fadette keeps watch over her goats.
The mists rise at last by slow degrees. Soon high above we see the sun gilding the limestone peaks on either side. Very gradually the heavens clear, till at last a blue sky and warm sunshine bring out all the enchantment of the scene.
The river winds perpetually between the bright green banks and shining white cliffs. Occasionally we almost touch the mossy rocks of the shore; the maiden-hair fern, the wild evening primrose, wild Michaelmas daisy, blue pimpernel, fringed gentian, are so near we can almost gather them, and so crystal-clear the untroubled waters, every object - cliff, tree, and mossy stone - shows its double. We might at times fancy ourselves but a few feet from the pebbly bottom, each stone showing its bright clear outline. The iridescence of the rippling water over the rainbow-coloured pebbles is very lovely.
All is intensely still, only the strident cry of the cicada, or the tinkle of a cattle-bell, and now and then the hoarse note of some wild bird break the stillness.
Before reaching the first stage of our journey the weather had become glorious, and exactly suited to such an expedition. The heavens were now of deep, warm, southern blue; brilliant sunshine lighted up gold- green vineyard, rye-field bright as emerald, apple-orchard and silvery parapet on either side.
But these glistening crags, rearing their heads towards the intense blue sky, these idyllic scenes below, are only a part of what we see. Midway between the verdant reaches of this enchanting river and its sheeny cliffs, between which we glide so smoothly, rise stage upon stage of beauty: now we see a dazzlingly white cascade tumbling over stair after stair of rocky ledge; now we pass islets of greenery perched half-way between river and limestone crest, with many a combe or close-shut cleft bright with foliage running down to the water's edge.
Little paths, laboriously cut about the sides of the Causses on either side, lead to the hanging vineyards, fields and orchards, so marvellously created on these airy heights, inaccessible fastnesses of Nature. And again and again the spectator is reminded of the axiom: 'The magic of property turns sands to gold.' No other agency could have effected such miracles. Below these almost vertical slopes of the Causse, raised a few feet only above the water's edge, cabbage and potato beds have been cultivated with equal laboriousness, the soil, what little of soil there is, being very fertile.
On both sides we see many-tinted foliage in abundance: the shimmering white satin-leaved aspen, the dark rich alder, the glossy walnut, yellowing chestnut, and many others.
Few and far between are herdsmen's cottages, now perched on the rock, now built close to the water's edge. We can see their vine-trellised balconies and little gardens, and sometimes the pet cats run down to the water's edge to look at us.
And all this time, from the beginning of our journey to the end, the river winds amid the great walls of the Causses - to our left the spurs of the Causse Mejean; to our right those of Sauveterre. We are gradually realizing the strangeness and sublimity of these bare limestone promontories - here columns white as alabaster - a group having all the grandeur of mountains, yet no mountains at all, their summits vast plateaux of steppe and wilderness, their shelving sides dipping from cloudland and desolation into fairy-like loveliness and fertility.
St. Chely, our first stage, comes to an end in about an hour and a half from the time of leaving St. Enimie. We now change boatmen - punters, I should rather call them. The navigation of the Tarn consists in skilful punting, every inch of the passage being rendered difficult by rocks and shoals, to say nothing of the rapids.
Here our leading punter was a cheery, friendly miller - like the host of the hotel at St. Enimie, a municipal councillor. No better specimen of the French peasant gradually developing into the gentleman could be found. The freedom from coarseness or vulgarity in these amateur punters of the Tarn is indeed quite remarkable. Isolated from great social centres and influences of the outer world as they have hitherto been, there is yet no trace either of subservience, craftiness, or familiarity. Their frank, manly bearing is of a piece with the integrity and openness of their dealings with strangers.