Chatting thus pleasantly, we come nearer and nearer the city, painted in violet tints against an azure sky, to find it, as we approach, a splendid phantasmagoria. What we deemed citadels, domes and parapets, prove to be the silvery dolomite only: limestone rock thrown into every conceivable form, the imposing masses blocking the horizon; the shadow of a mighty Babylon darkening the heaven; but a Babylon untenanted from its earliest beginning - a phantom capital, an eldritch city, whose streets now for the first time echo with the sound of human voice and tread.
I can think of but one pen that could aptly describe the scene: the pen of a Shelley dipped in iridescence and gold; of a poet whose inner eye could conjure up visions of loveliness and enchantment invisible to the rest of mortal born. I do not know how Montpellier-le-Vieux would look on a dull, gray day; doubtless imagination would people it then with gnomes, horrid afrits, and shapes of fear. To-day, under an exquisite sky, pearly clouds floating across the blue, a soft southern air wafting the fragrance of wild pink, thyme and lavender, it was a region surely peopled by good genii, sportive elves and beneficent fairies only. We were in a spirit, a phantasmal world; but a world of witchery and gracious poetic thrall only.
But as yet we are on the threshold, and, like other magic regions, the Cite du Diable unfolds its marvels all at once, as soon as the novice has entered within its precincts. Before us rose the colossal citadel so-called, pyramid upon pyramid of rock, which our guide said we must positively climb, the grandest panorama being here obtained; a bit of a scramble, he added, but a mere bagatelle - the affair of a few minutes only.
I hesitated. We were at the foot of a chaotic wall of enormous blocks, piled one upon the other, with deep, ugly fissures between - the height, from base to summit, that of St. Paul's Cathedral. In order to reach even the lower platform of these superimposed masses it was necessary to be hoisted up after the manner of travellers ascending the Pyramids, only with this disadvantage - that holding on to the rocks where any hold was possible, and planting the feet as firmly as was practicable on the almost vertical sides, we had here to bestride chasm after chasm.
'Don't be afraid,' cried our guide. 'It is nothing.'
'I would venture if I were you,' urged my friend mildly. So up I went.
The climbing, beyond a somewhat breathless scrambling and painful straining of the limbs, was nothing to speak of. For a few moments I could revel in the marvellous spectacle before me.
Lying on a little platform, perhaps two yards square, high above the bright heavens, I had, far around and beneath, the wide panorama of the dolomite city, vista upon vista of tower and monolith, avenues, arches, bridges, arcades, all of cool, tender gray, amid fairy-like verdure and greenery. Not Lyons itself, seen from the heights of La Fourviere, shows a more grandiose aspect than this capital of the waste, unpeopled by either the living or the dead!
Hardly had I realized the magic of the prospect when I became conscious of frightful giddiness. The flowery shelf of rock on which I lay was only a foot or two removed from the edge of the piled mass just climbed so laboriously, and, sloping downwards, seemed to invite a fall. From this side the incline was almost vertical, and the turf below at a distance of over a hundred feet. No descent was practicable except by bestriding the same fissures, two feet wide, and clinging to the sides of the rocks, as before. I now felt that terrible vertigo which I am convinced accounts for so many so-called suicides from lofty heights. To throw myself down seemed the only possible relief from the terrible nightmare. Had I been longer alone I must, at least, have allowed myself to slip off my resting-place, with certain risk to life and limb. As it was, I called to my companion, who had scaled another story - had, indeed, reached the topmost shelf of the citadel; and she tripped down looking so airy and alert that I felt ashamed of my own weakness.
Pale and trembling, I pointed to the horrible staircase by which we had come.
'Get me down some other way,' I said to the guide, who now followed, not slightly embarrassed. Had he possessed the physique of our punter of the rapids, or of our conductor, now attending to his horses at the farm, he could have shouldered me like a baby. But he was slight of build and by no means robust. Not a creature was within call, and those dreaded fissures had to be bestridden. There was no other means of descent.
'It is of no use to try, I cannot get down,' I repeated, and for a moment a sombre vision of broken limbs and a long incarceration at the farm passed before my mind's eye.
Reassuring me as best he could, our poor guide now grasped one of my hands, with the other got a strong grip of the rock, and the first dreaded step was achieved. The second presented greater difficulties still. Once more he tried to carry me, but found the task beyond his strength. I remembered that he was a bridegroom of a few months only; what would be the young wife's feelings if he now came by mishap? So I closed my eyes, shutting out the prospect beneath, and allowed myself to be dragged down somehow, never more to venture on such giddy heights. The incomparable view had been too dearly purchased.
The moral of this incident is, let tourists subject to vertigo carry a smelling-bottle with them, or, better still, stay below.