ACROSS THE ROUERGUE.
At an early hour in the morning I was wayfaring again. I had made up my mind to reach St. Affrique in a day's walk. There were some thirty miles of country to cross, and I had, moreover, to reckon with the July sun, which shines very earnestly in Southern France, as though it were bent on ripening all the fruits of the earth in a single day. By getting up earlier than usual I was able to watch the morning opening like a wild rose. When we feel all the charm that graces the beginning of a summer day, we resolve in future to rise with the birds, but the next morning's sun finds most of us sluggards again.
I returned towards the Tarn, which I had left the day before, but with the intention of keeping somewhat to the south of it for awhile. However beautiful the scenery of a gorge may be, the sensation of being at the bottom of a crevice at length becomes depressing, and the mind, which is never satisfied with anything long, begins to wonder what the world is like beyond the enclosing cliffs, and the desire to climb them and to look forth under a wider range of sky grows stronger. Such change is needed, for when there is languor within, the impressions from without are dull. The country through which I now passed was very beautiful with its multitude of chestnut-trees, the pale yellow plumes of the male blossom still clinging to them and hiding half their leaves; but here again was the sad spectacle of abandoned, weedy, and almost leafless vineyards upon stony slopes which had been changed into fruit-bearing terraces by the long labour of dead generations.
The first village I came to was Coupiac, lying in a deep hollow, from the bottom of which rose a rugged mass of schistous rock, with houses all about it, under the protecting shadow of a strong castle with high round towers in good preservation. It was a mediaeval fortress, but its mullioned windows cut in the walls of the towers and other details showed that it had been considerably modified and adapted to changed conditions of life at the time of the Renaissance. A troop of little girls were going up to it, and teaching Sisters, who had changed it into a stronghold of education, were waiting for them in the court. Hard by upon the edge of the castle rock was a calvary. The naked schist, ribbed and seamed, served for pavement in the steep little streets of this picturesque old village, where most of the people went barefoot. This is the custom of the region, and does not necessarily imply poverty. Here the sabotier's trade is a poor one, and the cobbler's is still worse. In the Albigeois I was the neighbour of a well-to-do farmer who up to the age of sixty had never known the sensation of sock or stocking, nor had he ever worn a shoe of wood or leather.
No female beauty did I see here, nor elsewhere in the Rouergue. Plainness of feature in men and women is the rule throughout this extensive tract of country. But there is this to be said in favour of the girls and younger women, that they generally have well-shaped figures and a very erect carriage, which last is undoubtedly due to the habit of carrying weights upon the head, especially water, which needs to be carefully balanced.
How the peasants stared at me as I passed along! The expression of their faces showed that they were completely puzzled as to what manner of person I was, and what I was doing there. Had I been taking along a dancing-bear they would have understood my motives far better, and my social success with them would have been undoubtedly greater. As it was, most of them eyed me with extreme suspicion. Not having been rendered familiar, like the peasants of many other districts, with that harmless form of insanity which leads people to endure the hardship of tramping for the sake of observing the ruder aspects of human life, the lingering manners of old times, and of reading the book of nature in solitude, they thought I must perforce be engaged upon some sinister and wicked work. And now this reminds me of an old man at Ambialet, whom I used to send on errands to the nearest small town. He liked my money, but he could never satisfy his conscience that it was not something like treason to carry letters for me, for he had the feeling to the last that he was in the pay of the enemy. 'Ah!' he growled one day (not to me), 'I have always heard it said that the English regretted our beautiful rocks and rich valleys. They are coming back! I am sure they are coming back!' I used to see him looking at me askance with a peculiarly keen expression in his eyes, and as his words had been repeated to me I knew of what he was thinking. He was the first man of his condition who to my knowledge called rocks beautiful. The peasant class abhor rocks on account of their sterility, and because the rustic idea of a beautiful landscape is the fertile and level plain. In searching for the picturesque and the grandeur of nature, it is perfectly safe to go to those places which the peasant declares to be frightful by their ugliness.
Leaving Coupiac behind me, I turned towards the east. The road, having been cut in the side of the cliff, exposed layers of brown argillaceous schist, like rotten wood, and so friable that it crumbled between the fingers; but what was more remarkable was that the layers, scarcely thicker than slate, instead of being on their natural plane, were turned up quite vertically. I was now ascending to the barren uplands. Near the brow of a hill I passed a very ancient crucifix of granite, the head, which must originally have been of the rudest sculpture, having the features quite obliterated by time.