IN THE VALLEY OF THE CÉLÉ.
It was a burning afternoon of late summer when I walked across the stony hills which separate the valley of the Lot from that of its tributary the Célé, between Capdenac and Figeac. I did not take the road, but climbed the cliffs, trusting myself to chance and the torrid causse. I wished that I had not done so when it was too late to act differently. There was nothing new for me upon the bare hills, where all vegetation was parched up except the juniper bushes and the spurge. At length I found the road that went down with many a flourish into the valley of the Célé, and I reached Figeac in the evening, covered with dust, and as thirsty as a hunted stag. Here I took up my quarters for awhile.
Figeac is not a beautiful town from the Haussmannesque point of view - the one that is destined to prevail in all municipal councils; but it is full of charm to the archaeologist and the lover of the picturesque. There are few places even in France which have undergone so little change during the last five or six hundred years. Elsewhere, thirteenth and fourteenth century houses are becoming rare; here they are numerous. There are streets almost entirely composed of them. These streets are in reality narrow crooked lanes paved with pebbles, slanting towards the gutter in the centre. Some are only three or four yards wide, and the walls half shut out the light of day. You look up and see a mere strip of blue sky, but trailing plants reaching far downward from window-sills, one above the other, light up the gloom with many a patch of vivid green. You venture down some dim passage and come suddenly upon a little court where an old Gothic portal with quaint sculptures, or a Renaissance doorway with armorial bearings carved over the lintel, bears testimony to the grandeur and wealth of those who once lived in the now grimy, dilapidated, poverty-stricken mansion. Pretentious dwellings of bygone days have long since been abandoned to the humble.
Here is a typical house in the Rue Abel, which is scarcely wide enough for two to walk abreast. The oak door is elaborately carved with heads and leaves, flowers and line ornament, all in strong relief. One grimacing puckered head has a movable tongue that once lifted a latch on being touched. Near the ground the oak has been half devoured by the damp. This door would have been sold long ago to antiquaries or speculators if the house since the Revolution had not become the property of several persons all equally suspicious of one another, and with the Cadurcian bump of obstinacy equally developed. They had no respect for the carving, and they were eager to 'touch' the money; but their interests in the house not being the same, they could never come to an understanding over the door; consequently, in spite of very tempting offers, the piece of massive oak continues to hang upon its rusty hinges. So much the better for the student of antiquities, for, without denying that museums are eminently useful, it is certain that they deprive objects of a great deal of their interest and their power of suggesting ideas by detaching them from their surroundings. Moreover, it is not at all sure that these things, when they have been bought up and carried away, will ever be put in a place where anybody can see them who may have the wish to do so. And then, when a thing has been put into a museum, it becomes such labour and painfulness to look for it; and most of us are so lazy by nature. I will make a frank confession. For my own part, I should scarcely look at this old door if it were in the Cluny or any other museum; but here, in ancient Figeac, I see it where it was many lustres ago, and the pleasure of finding it in the midst of the sordidness and squalor that follow upon the decay of grandeur and the evaporation of human hopes makes me feel much that I should not feel otherwise, and calls up ideas as a February sunbeam calls gnats out of the dead earth and sets them spinning.