ACROSS THE ROUERGUE.
St. Affrique is a small town of about 7,000 inhabitants, lying in a warm valley and surrounded by high hills, the sides of which were once covered with luxuriant vineyards. These slopes, arid, barren, and sun-scorched, are perfectly suited to the cultivation of the vine, the fig, and the almond; but the elevation is still too great for the olive. According to the authors of 'Gallia Christiana,' a saint named Fricus, or Africus, came at the beginning of the sixth century into the valley of the Sorgues, and was the founder of the burg. St. Affrique was a strong place in the Middle Ages, and for this reason it was disturbed less by the English than some other towns in the Rouergue. After the treaty of Brétigny the consuls went to Millau and swore fealty to the King of England, represented there by John Chandos.
As I toiled up the side of the valley in the direction of Millau, I noticed the Rocher de Caylus, a large reddish and somewhat fantastically shaped block of oolitic rock, perched on the hill above the vineyards. Here the lower formation was schistous, the upper calcareous. The sun was intensely hot, but there was the shade of walnut-trees, of which I took advantage, although it is said to be poisonous, like that of the oleander.
When I reached the plateau there was no shade whatever, baneful or beneficent. If there was ever any forest here all vestige of it has disappeared. I was on the border of the Causse de Larzac, one of the highest, most extensive, and hopelessly barren of the calcareous deserts which separate the rivers in this part of France. Not a drop of water, save what may have been collected in tanks for the use of sheep, and the few human beings who eke out an existence there, is to be found upon them. Swept by freezing winds in winter and burnt by a torrid sun in summer, their climate is as harsh as the soil is ungenerous.
But although I was sun-broiled upon this causse, I was interested at every step by the flowers that I found there. Dry, chaffy, or prickly plants, corresponding in their nature to the aridity and asperity of the land, were peculiarly at home upon the undulating stoniness. The most beautiful flower then blooming was the catananche, which has won its poetic French name, Cupidon bleu, by the brilliant colour of its blossom. Multitudes of yellow everlastings also decked the solitude.
On reaching the highest ground the crests of the bare Cevennes were seen against the cloudless sky to the south. A little to the east, beyond the valley of the Cernon, which I intended to cross, were high hills or cliffs, treeless and sterile, with hard-cut angular sides, terminating upwards in vertical walls of naked stone. These were the buttresses of the Causse de Larzac. The lower sides of some of the hills were blue with lias marl, and wherever they were steep not a blade of grass grew.
Having descended to the valley, I was soon climbing towards Roquefort by the flanks of those melancholy hills which seemed to express the hopelessness of nature after ages of effort to overcome some evil power. And yet the tinkling of innumerable sheep-bells told that even here men had found a way of earning their bread. I saw the flocks moving high above me where all was wastefulness and rockiness, and heard the voices of the shepherds. There were the Roquefort sheep whose milk, converted into cheese of the first quality, is sent into distant countries whose people little imagine that its constituents are drawn from a desert where there is little else but stones.
I came in view of the village, clinging as it seemed to the steep at the base of a huge bastion of stark jurassic rock. Facing it was another barren hill, and in the valley beneath were mamelons of dark clay and stones partly conquered by the great broom and burning with its flame of gold. When I reached the village I felt that I had earned a rest.