IN THE VALLEY OF THE LOT.
The rambler in the highlands of the North knows so well what the wretchedness of being shut up by bad weather in a mountain inn means, that he may have grown reconciled to it, and have learnt how to spend a day under such circumstances pleasantly. But to me, a sun-lover, to whom the charm of the South has been irresistible, such a trial is one that taxes to the utmost all the powers of endurance. Hence it is that, when I think of Sainte-Enimie, I can recall nothing but impressions of dismal wetness. This may seem shocking to those who have seen, under a different aspect, the little town on the Upper Tarn, named after the Merovingian saint. Be it remembered, however, that I was shut up hour after hour in an inn crowded with peasants in damp blouses, shouting patois at each other, and clutching great cotton umbrellas, whose fragrance under the influence of moisture, was not idyllic; In that abominable little auberge, that styled itself a hotel, I decided to go no farther up the Tarn, but, as soon as the weather would set me free, to cross the causse that separated me from the Lot, and to descend the valley of this river towards the warmer and dryer region of the plains.
Not until the afternoon were there any signs of improvement in the weather; and then, as soon as the clouds grew lighter, I started without waiting for the rain to stop. It was Sunday, and outside the old church was a crowd of men and boys, who had come for vespers. The women did not join them, but passed through the door as they arrived. Throughout rural France, wherever religion keeps a firm hold on the peasant, it is the custom of the men to gather for gossip in front of the church some time before the service, and, just as the bell stops; to make a rush at the doorway, and struggle through the opening like sheep into a fold when there is a dog at their heels. While looking at these men, I was again struck by the prevailing tendency of the peasants of the Lozère to develop long, sharp noses - a feature that often gives them a very weasel-like expression.
Having passed the ruins of the monastery, whose high loopholed walls and strong tower showed that it had once been a fortress as well as a religious house, I was soon rising far above the valley of the Tarn. The winding road led me up the flanks of stony hills, terraced everywhere for almond-trees; but after two or three hours of ascent the almonds dwindled away, and the country became an absolute desert of brashy hills, showing little asperity of outline, but mournful and solemn by their wastefulness and abandonment to a degree that makes the traveller ask himself if he is really in Europe, or has been transported by magic to the most arid steppes of Asia. But there is a plant that thrives in this desert, that loves it so much as to give to it a tinge of dusty blue as far as the eye can reach on every side. Needless to say that this is the lavender. It was in all its flowering beauty as I crossed the treeless waste, and it gave to the breath of the desert what seemed to be the mystical fragrance of peace.
Leaving the highway to Mende, I took a rough road on the left, which, according to the map, led directly to Chanac by the Lot. I should recommend no one else to take it unless he have more hours of daylight before him than I had. Again I ran a near risk of passing the night in the open air. The road became little better than a track; then it crossed others, and it was a very pretty puzzle to tell which was the one for me and which was not. It is true that I could have made straight towards the Lot by the compass, but the descent of the precipitous cliffs into the deep gorge, unless one knows the paths, is only a task to be undertaken at nightfall with a light heart by those who have had no experience of this savage district. When my perplexity was at its worst I saw a shepherd, whose form, wrapped in the long brown homespun cloak called a limousine, stood solemnly against the evening sky. I made towards him, thinking that he would help me out of my difficulty; but no: either he did not understand a word I said, or did not choose to give any information. Perhaps he thought me an escaped madman, or a dangerous tramp, with whom it was better to hold no conversation. The sun was setting when I reached a wood of scattered firs - a more melancholy spot at that hour than the bare causse. The weather had been fine for some hours, but now a storm that had been gathering broke. As the wind blew the rain in slanting lines, the level sun shone through the vapour and the streaming atmosphere. Looking above me, as I sheltered myself behind a wailing fir, I saw that the dreary world was spanned by two glorious rainbows. But although the scene was so wildly beautiful, the spirit of desolation was upon me, and I felt like a homeless wanderer. I was roaming among the firs in the dusk, when I met a shepherd boy, who put me on a path that joined the main road to Chanac. Then began the descent into the valley of the Lot. It was very long; the winding road passed through a black forest of firs, and the dark night fell when I was still far from the little town. The walk was gloomy, but in all gloom there is something that is grand and elevating - something that gives a sense of expansion to the soul. The cries of the unseen night-birds, the solemn mystery of the enigmatic trees wrapped in darkness, make us feel the supernatural that surrounds us, and is a part of us, more than the visible movement of life in the light of the sun.