FROM LE PUY TO MENDE.
The traveller in France will not unseldom liken his fortunes to those of Saul the son of Kish, who, setting forth in search of his father's asses, found a kingdom; or, to use a homelier parable, will compare his case to that of the donkey between two equally-tempting bundles of hay.
Such, at least, was my luck when starting for my annual French tour in 1887. I had made up my mind to see something of the Lozere and the Cantal, settling down in two charming spots respectively situated in these departments, when, fortunately for myself, I was tempted elsewhere. Instead of rusticating for a few weeks in the country nooks alluded to, there observing leisurely the condition of the peasants and of agriculture generally, I took a contrary direction, thus ultimately becoming acquainted with one of the most romantic and least-known regions of Central France.
'Since you intend to visit the Lozere' wrote a correspondent to me, 'why not explore the Causses? The scenery is, I believe, very remarkable, and the geology deeply interesting.'
The Causses? the Causses? I had travelled east, west, north, south on French soil for upwards of thirteen years, yet the very name was new to me. Having once heard of the Causses, it was, of course, quite certain that I should hear of them twice.
Meeting by chance a fellow-countryman at Dijon, as enthusiastic a lover of French scenery as myself, and comparing our experiences, he suddenly asked:
'But the Causses? Have you seen the wonderful Causses of the Lozere?'
It was a curious and highly-characteristic fact that both my informants should be English, thus bearing out the assertion of an old French writer, author of the first real tourist's guide for his own country, that we are 'le peuple le plus curieux de l'Europe'; he adds, 'le plus observateur,' perhaps a compliment rather paid to Arthur Young than to the English as a nation. The work I refer to ('Itineraire descriptif de la France,' by Vaysse de Villiers, 1816) was evidently written under the inspiration of our great agriculturist.
From French friends and acquaintances I could learn absolutely nothing of the Causses. The region was a terra incognita to one and all. I might every whit as well have asked my way to Swift's Liliputia or Cloud Cuckoo Town, and the Island of Cheese of his precursor, the witty Lucian. People had heard of l'Ecosse; oh yes! but why an Englishwoman should seek information about Scotland in the heart of France, they could not quite make out.
There was nothing for me to do but trust to happy chance and the guide- book, and set out; and as a stray swallow is the precursor of myriads, so no sooner had I got an inkling of one marvel than I was destined to hear of half a dozen.
Wonderful the scenery of the Causses, still more wonderful the canon or gorge of the Tarn and the dolomite city of Montpellier-le-Vieux, so I now learned.
There were difficulties in the way of seeing all these. I had been unexpectedly detained at Dijon. It was the second week in September, and the Roof of France - in other words, the department of the Lozere - is ofttimes covered with snow before that month is out. My travelling companion was a young French lady, permitted by her parents to travel with me, and for whose health, comfort and safety I felt responsible. It seemed doubtful whether this year at least I should be able to realize my new-formed project, and penetrate into the solitudes of the Causses. However, I determined to try.
My journey begins at the ancient town of Le Puy, former capital of the Vivarais, chef-lieu of the department of the Haute Loire, and, it is unnecessary to say, one of the most curious towns in the world. We had journeyed thither by way of St. Etienne, and were bound for Mende, the little mountain-girt bishopric and capital of the Lozere.
We had to be up betimes, as our train for Langogne, corresponding with the Mende diligence, started at five in the morning. It might have been midnight when we quitted the Hotel Gamier - would that I could say a single word in its favour! - so blue black the frosty heavens, so brilliant the stars, the keen September air biting sharply.
More fortunate than a friend whose pocket was lately picked of twenty- five pounds at the railway-station here, I waited whilst the terribly slow business of ticket-taking and registration was got over, thankful enough that I had breakfasted overnight - that is to say, had made tea at three o'clock in the morning. Not a cup of milk, not a crust of bread, would that inhospitable inn offer its over-charged guests before setting out. As I have nothing but praise to bestow upon the hostelries of the Lozere and the Cantal, I must give vent to a well-deserved malediction here.
By slow degrees the perfect day dawned, a glorious sun rising in a cloudless sky. We now discovered that our travelling companions were two sisters - the one, an admirable specimen of the belle villageoise, in her charming lace coiffe; the other, equally good-looking, but as much vulgarized by her Parisian costume as Lamartine's sea-heroine, Graziella, when she had exchanged her contadine's dress for modern millinery. These pretty and becoming head-dresses of Auvergne, made often of the richest lace and ribbon, may now be described as survivals, the bonnet, as well as the chimney-pot hat, making the round of the civilized world.