A GLIMPSE OF THE CAUSSES.
The drive from Mende to the plateau of Sauveterre is a curious experience. Here the Virgilian and Dantesque schemes are reversed: Pluto's dread domain, the horrible Inferno, lies above; deep down below are the Fields of the Blest and the celestial Paradise.
Dazzlingly bright the verdure, fertile and sunny the valleys we now leave behind - arid and desolate beyond the power of words to express the tableland reached so laboriously.
Between these two extremes, Elysium and Tartarus, we pass shifting, panoramic scenes of wondrous beauty, stage upon stage of pastoral charm, picture after picture of idyllic sweetness and grace. Long we can glance behind us and see the little gray town, its spires outlined in steely gray against the embracing hills, its gardens and orchards bright as emerald - towering above all, the bare, purple, wide-stretching Lozere.
The weather is superlative, and the clear, gemlike lines of sky and foliage are as brilliantly contrasted as in an Algerian spring.
All this time we seemed to be climbing a mountain; we are, in reality, ascending the steep, wooded sides or walls of the Causse de Mende, prototype on a smaller scale of the rest - a vast mass of limestone, its summit a wilderness, its shelving sides a marvel of luxuriant vegetation.
Every step has to be made at a snail's pace, the precipitous slopes close under our horses' hoofs being frightful to contemplate. This drive is an excellent preparation for an exploration of the Lozere. We are always, metaphorically, going up or coming down in a balloon.
After two hours' climb, the features of the landscape change. One by one are left behind meandering river, chestnut and acacia groves, meadows fragrant with newly-mown hay, grazing cattle, and cheerful homesteads.
We now behold a scene grandiose indeed as a panorama, but unspeakably wild and dreary.
Here and there are patches of potatoes, buckwheat and rye, the yellow and green breaking the gray surface of the rocky waste; not a habitation, not a living creature, is in sight. Before us and around stretch desert upon desert of bare limestone, the nearer undulations cold and slaty in tone, the remoter taking the loveliest, warmest dyes - gold brown, deep orange, just tinted with crimson, reddish purple and pale rose. We are on the threshold of the true Caussien region. Sterility of soil, a Siberian climate, geographical isolation, here reach their climax, whilst at the base of these lofty calcareous tablelands lie sequestered valleys fertile fields and flowery gardens, oases of the Lozerien Sahara.
Above, not a rill, not a beck, refreshes the spongy, crumbling earth; we must travel far, penetrate the openings just indicated by the dark- blue shadows in the distance, and descend the lofty walls of the Causses to find silvery cascades, impetuous rivers, and fountains gushing from mossy clefts. The showers of spring, the torrential rains of autumn, the snows of winter, have filtered to a depth of several thousand feet.
We are not within sight of the grand Causse Mejean, nor of the Black Causse, or Causse Noir, and only on the threshold of Sauveterre, yet some idea may be gathered here of what M. E. Reclus calls a 'Jurassic archipelago,' once a vast Jurassic island. Imagine, then, a group of promontories, their area equal to that of Salisbury Plain, Dartmoor and Exmoor combined, with the varying altitudes of the loftiest Devonshire tor and Cumberland hill.
Such a comparison may convey some feeble notion of the three Causses just named, two of which belong to the Lozere. The Causse Noir is partly in the Aveyron. Their extraordinary conformation must be seen and studied by all who would familiarize themselves with this geological phenomenon.
No solitude can be more complete than these wastes, except when a leaden sky replaces the warm sunshine of to-day, and a deep, impenetrable mantle of snow covers the plateau from end to end. Then the little life that animates it is hushed, and none from the outer world penetrates the fastnesses of the Causses.
We drive on for a mile or two till we reach the summit of the plateau. Here, at a height of 2,952 feet above the sea-level, is a ruined chateau turned into a farmhouse, where we rest our horses a little and prepare to make tea. The farmer's wife and two children come out to chat with our driver and look at us, evidently welcoming such a distraction. And no wonder! I brought out our bonbon box - one must never take a drive in France unprovided with sweetmeats - and tried to tame the children; but they clung to mother's skirts, and only consented to have the bonbons popped into their mouths, with faces shyly hidden in her apron.
'Would you like a cup of tea?' I asked.
But madame shook her head, giggling, and I do not suppose ever heard of such an infusion in her life.
Meantime, tea-making on that breezy eminence was no easy matter. The little flames of my spirit-lamp were blown hither and thither - anywhere but in the right direction. At last our excellent driver, resourceful as a true son of Gaul is bound to be, lifted up the tiny machine, all afire as it was, and thrust it into that convenient box behind the caleche all travellers know of. The good man burnt his fingers, but had the satisfaction of making the water boil, and there for the first time, without doubt, tea was made after the English fashion. No place could be better adapted for a holiday resort. In summer these sweeps are one gorgeous mosaic of wild-flowers, and the short stunted grass shoots up, making verdure everywhere.