LE ROZIER TO MILLAU AND RODEZ.
The road between Le Rozier and Millau is delightful; the verdure and brilliance of the valley in striking contrast with the sombre, dark-ribbed Causse Noir frowning above. For two-thirds of the way we follow the Tarn as it winds - here a placid stream - amid poplars, willows, and smooth green reaches. Gracious and lovely the shifting scenes of the landscape around, stern and magnificent of aspect the Causse, its ramparts as of iron girding it round, its gloomy escarpments showing deep clefts and combes, lines of purply gold and green breaking the gray surface.
Close under this mighty shadow - a bit of fairyland by the dwelling of evil genii - are sunny little lawns, peach-groves, orchards, and terraced gardens overlooking the river; beyond, fertile fields, and here and there, perched on the crags, some quaint village or ruined chateau. The road is bordered for the most part with walnut-trees, affording rich foliage and delicious shadow. The colours of every feature in the scene - luxuriant belt of field and garden, blue hills and sky - have a southern warmth and brilliance.
Growing close to road and river are apple-trees laden with ruddy fruit. In England such crops would be pillaged in a day. Among peasant proprietors, each respects the possession of his neighbour. This fact and one or two others impressed my companion much. It was her first acquaintance with rural France, and she had undertaken the journey purely as a lover of nature and art, not at all as a student of political economy, agriculture, or statistics. Peasant property was no more in her way than the Impressionist school of modern art in mine. But being keenly observant, and feeling, as any other member of the propertied class must do, aghast at the condition of rural affairs in England - vast tracts of cultivated land deteriorating into waste, agricultural wages lowered to nine shillings a week, vagrancy on the increase in consequence of the general migration to the towns, the sons of country squires enlisting in the ranks, or betaking themselves to manual labour in the Colonies - aghast, I say, at these signs of the times among ourselves, she could but feel some surprise at her French experiences. The entire absence of mendicants in the departments we had lately traversed - these reputed among the poorest in France - was altogether a revelation to her, as indeed it must be to any stranger on French soil. Even in a neglected-looking place like Peyreleau, where the people are wholly unused to the sight of tourists, and life is evidently one of extreme laboriousness, no hand is held out for an alms. In our long drives across country, where strangers in a carriage and pair are assuredly taken for millionaires, we were never asked by man, woman or child for a sou.
Again, the good, neat, suitable clothes of the country-people struck my friend no less. The total absence of tawdriness and finery on Sundays, the equally total absence of rags and squalor on week-days, afforded a striking contrast to what we are accustomed to see at home. It is more especially in the matter of foot-gear that the working-classes in France show to advantage. My friend noticed with admiration the well- stockinged, well-shod children, all having good strong shoes - stockings evidently bought or made for them, not the ill-fitting belongings of others, gifts of charity or bargains of the pawnshop. The men and women, too, are uniformly well shod, with strong, clean, home-knit stockings. Again, the implied sense of security in these unprotected gardens and wayside orchards is a novelty to the English mind. At Hastings, which may also be called the metropolis of vagrancy, it is impossible to keep a poor little wallflower or a primrose in one's garden. An apple-tree would be pillaged on any public road in England before the fruit was half ripe. Not only here, but in Anjou and many other regions, I have walked or driven for miles, amid unprotected vineyards and fruit-trees, the ripening crops being within reach of passers-by. No one pillages his neighbour.
Yes, peasant property is a detestable, nay, an iniquitous, institution, only to be compared to the Inquisition itself. No one who does not already possess several thousand acres of land ought to be permitted by law to purchase a single rood. Nine shillings a week, Christmas doles of beef and flannel petticoats from the Hall, the workhouse as a reward for fifty years' patient following the plough - these make up the only Utopia worth mentioning. Every right-minded person, every true Christian, has come to such conclusions long ago. Yet when it is possible to spend weeks in a civilized country without encountering a beggar; when we see an entire population well-clothed, cheerful, and self-supporting in old age; when we see fruit-crops ripening in all security by the roadside, and inquire throughout the length and breadth of the land for a poor-house in vain; when we find judge and jury dismissed at assize after assize because there are no criminals to try, we are tempted to exclaim:
'Peasant property or no, they manage these things better in France!'
'There is no want here,' our driver said, and the fact is self-evident.
As we approach Millau we meet streams of country folk disporting themselves, some afoot, others in rustic vehicles - the men wearing clean blue blouses over the Sunday broadcloth, the women neat black gowns, kerchiefs, and spotless white coiffes. The fields are deserted. Man and beast are resting from the labours of the week.