FROM LYONS TO AVIGNON BY THE RHONE.
From Autun to Lyons is a journey that calls for little comment, unless made, as wise Arthur Young made it a hundred years ago, on horseback; or unless we take the steamer at Chalon, and enjoy the scenery of the Saone, Mr. Hamerton's favourite river.
We were too impatient, however, to reach the Causses to stop, even for the sake of a sail on the Saone, and made haste to catch the very next Gladiateur bound to Avignon. Why all these Rhone steamers should be called Gladiateur I don't know, but so it is.
By half-past five this bright August day we are on the deck of the little steamer, to find a scene of indescribable liveliness and bustle. All kinds of merchandise were being stowed away - bedding, fruit, bicycles, bird-cages, passengers' luggage, cases, and packages of every imaginable description.
A stream of peasants poured in, bound for various stations on the way, all heavily laden, some accompanied by their pet dogs. First-class passengers were not numerous. We had an elderly bridegroom, who might have been a small innkeeper, with his youthful bride, evidently making a cheap wedding-trip; a family party or two; an excitable man with a sick wife; a couple of pretty girls with two or three youths - brothers or cousins; a sprinkling of priests and nuns - that was all. The peasants with their baskets and bundles, at the other end of the vessel, made picturesque groups, and the whole scene was as French as French could be.
I was just thinking how pleasant it was thus to escape the routine of travel, to find one's self in a purely foreign atmosphere, among French people, picking up by the way French habits and ways of thought, when one of the officials of the company bustled up to me.
'Pray pardon me, madame,' he said, bringing out a note-book. 'I see that you are English. Will you be so very kind as to give me the name and address of the great tourist agency in London? We are organizing an entirely new service between Lyons and Avignon; we are going to make our steamers attractive to tourists. You will oblige us extremely by giving a little information.'
Crestfallen and with a sinking of the heart, I took his pencil - I could, of course, not do otherwise - and wrote in big letters:
MM. Thomas Cook et Cie.,
But those few words I had written sufficed to dispel the delightful visions of the moment before. Another year or two, then, and the Rhone will be then handed over to Messrs. Cook, Gaze and Caygill - benefactors of their kind, no doubt, but ruthless destroyers of the romance of travel.
Instead of French folk, with whom we can chat about their crops, rural affairs, the passing scenes, gaining all kinds of information, feeling that we are really in France, and forgetting for awhile old associations, henceforth we shall find on board these steamers our near neighbours, whom, no matter how much respected, we are glad to quit for a time. From end to end of the vessel we shall hear the voices of English and Transatlantic tourists, one and all most probably 'disappointed in the Rhone;' but, indeed, for the river, we should as well be at home! However, all this disenchantment happily belongs to the future; let us enjoy the present experience - one long bright summer day, so full of impressions as to seem many days rolled into one.
The whistle sounds, punctually to the stroke of six; we are off.
It is a noble sight as we steam out of the quay de la Charite: the vast city rearing its stately front between green hills and meeting rivers; above, white chateaux and villas dotting the greenery - below, the quays, bordered with warehouses that might be palaces, so lofty and handsome are they, and avenues of plane-trees.
The day promises to be splendid, but mists as yet hang over the scene. Leaving behind us majestic cities and suburbs and the confluence of the Rhone and the Saone - one silvery sheet flowing into the other - we glide between low-lying banks bordered with poplars, and soon reach the little village of Irigny, its sheltering green hills dotted with country houses. As we go swiftly on we realize the appropriateness of the epithet ever applied to the Rhone. Truly in Michelet's phrase, 'C'est un taureau furieux descendu des Alpes, et qui court a la mer.' If we are in haste to reach our destination in the heart of the Cevennes, the Rhone seems still more in haste to reach the sea. This swift current of the bright blue waters and the unspeakable freshness and purity of the air make our journey very exhilarating. Past Irigny we are so near the low, poplar-bordered shore to our left that we could almost reach it with a pebble, whilst to the right lies Millery. From this point the river winds abruptly, and we see far-off hills and gentle declivities nearer shore, with vineyards planted on the slopes. The country on both sides is beautifully wooded, and very verdant.