The drive from Mende to the plateau of Sauveterre is a curious experience. Here the Virgilian and Dantesque schemes are reversed: Pluto's dread domain, the horrible Inferno, lies above; deep down below are the Fields of the Blest and the celestial Paradise.

Dazzlingly bright the verdure, fertile and sunny the valleys we now leave behind - arid and desolate beyond the power of words to express the tableland reached so laboriously.

Between these two extremes, Elysium and Tartarus, we pass shifting, panoramic scenes of wondrous beauty, stage upon stage of pastoral charm, picture after picture of idyllic sweetness and grace. Long we can glance behind us and see the little gray town, its spires outlined in steely gray against the embracing hills, its gardens and orchards bright as emerald - towering above all, the bare, purple, wide-stretching Lozere.

The weather is superlative, and the clear, gemlike lines of sky and foliage are as brilliantly contrasted as in an Algerian spring.

All this time we seemed to be climbing a mountain; we are, in reality, ascending the steep, wooded sides or walls of the Causse de Mende, prototype on a smaller scale of the rest - a vast mass of limestone, its summit a wilderness, its shelving sides a marvel of luxuriant vegetation.

Every step has to be made at a snail's pace, the precipitous slopes close under our horses' hoofs being frightful to contemplate. This drive is an excellent preparation for an exploration of the Lozere. We are always, metaphorically, going up or coming down in a balloon.

After two hours' climb, the features of the landscape change. One by one are left behind meandering river, chestnut and acacia groves, meadows fragrant with newly-mown hay, grazing cattle, and cheerful homesteads.

We now behold a scene grandiose indeed as a panorama, but unspeakably wild and dreary.

Here and there are patches of potatoes, buckwheat and rye, the yellow and green breaking the gray surface of the rocky waste; not a habitation, not a living creature, is in sight. Before us and around stretch desert upon desert of bare limestone, the nearer undulations cold and slaty in tone, the remoter taking the loveliest, warmest dyes - gold brown, deep orange, just tinted with crimson, reddish purple and pale rose. We are on the threshold of the true Caussien region. Sterility of soil, a Siberian climate, geographical isolation, here reach their climax, whilst at the base of these lofty calcareous tablelands lie sequestered valleys fertile fields and flowery gardens, oases of the Lozerien Sahara.

Above, not a rill, not a beck, refreshes the spongy, crumbling earth; we must travel far, penetrate the openings just indicated by the dark- blue shadows in the distance, and descend the lofty walls of the Causses to find silvery cascades, impetuous rivers, and fountains gushing from mossy clefts. The showers of spring, the torrential rains of autumn, the snows of winter, have filtered to a depth of several thousand feet.

We are not within sight of the grand Causse Mejean, nor of the Black Causse, or Causse Noir, and only on the threshold of Sauveterre, yet some idea may be gathered here of what M. E. Reclus calls a 'Jurassic archipelago,' once a vast Jurassic island. Imagine, then, a group of promontories, their area equal to that of Salisbury Plain, Dartmoor and Exmoor combined, with the varying altitudes of the loftiest Devonshire tor and Cumberland hill.

Such a comparison may convey some feeble notion of the three Causses just named, two of which belong to the Lozere. The Causse Noir is partly in the Aveyron. Their extraordinary conformation must be seen and studied by all who would familiarize themselves with this geological phenomenon.

No solitude can be more complete than these wastes, except when a leaden sky replaces the warm sunshine of to-day, and a deep, impenetrable mantle of snow covers the plateau from end to end. Then the little life that animates it is hushed, and none from the outer world penetrates the fastnesses of the Causses.

We drive on for a mile or two till we reach the summit of the plateau. Here, at a height of 2,952 feet above the sea-level, is a ruined chateau turned into a farmhouse, where we rest our horses a little and prepare to make tea. The farmer's wife and two children come out to chat with our driver and look at us, evidently welcoming such a distraction. And no wonder! I brought out our bonbon box - one must never take a drive in France unprovided with sweetmeats - and tried to tame the children; but they clung to mother's skirts, and only consented to have the bonbons popped into their mouths, with faces shyly hidden in her apron.

'Would you like a cup of tea?' I asked.

But madame shook her head, giggling, and I do not suppose ever heard of such an infusion in her life.

Meantime, tea-making on that breezy eminence was no easy matter. The little flames of my spirit-lamp were blown hither and thither - anywhere but in the right direction. At last our excellent driver, resourceful as a true son of Gaul is bound to be, lifted up the tiny machine, all afire as it was, and thrust it into that convenient box behind the caleche all travellers know of. The good man burnt his fingers, but had the satisfaction of making the water boil, and there for the first time, without doubt, tea was made after the English fashion. No place could be better adapted for a holiday resort. In summer these sweeps are one gorgeous mosaic of wild-flowers, and the short stunted grass shoots up, making verdure everywhere.

As I sipped tea, squatted gipsy-wise on the ground, the thought occurred to my mind what a delightful, a unique villegiatura this spot might make. A clean, comfortable inn on the site of the ruined chateau, a sympathetic companion, a trusty guide, plenty of tea and one book - the book absolutely necessary to existence - perhaps mine would be Spinoza's Ethics or Schiller's 'Letters on the AEsthetic Education of Mankind' - under these conditions, months would glide by like an hour in such eerie, poetic, inspiring solitudes.

The existence of a chateau on the borders of a veritable desert need not surprise us. The entire department of the Lozere was devastated by religious and seigneurial wars, and although the Causses themselves were not invaded, offering as they did no temptation to the thirsters after blood and spoil, the feudal freebooters had their strongholds near.

The treeless condition of the Lozere chain and other once well-wooded regions was thus brought about. The Government is replanting many bare mountain-sides here, as in the Hautes Alpes, in order to improve the soil and climate. The barrenness of the Causses arises, as will be seen, from natural causes.

Even in autumn - at least, on such a day as this - with these wild scenes is mingled much fairy charm and loveliness. Just as the distant scenery is made up of sharp contrasts - on the lofty plateaux, weird solitude and desolation; below, almost a southern luxuriance - so every square yard of rocky waste shows fragrant plant and sweet flower. We have only to stretch out our hands as we lie to gather half a dozen spikes of lavender, wild thyme, rosemary, Deptford pink, melilot, blue pimpernel, and white scabious. But the afternoon is wearing on. We must collect our tea-things, give the children a farewell sweetmeat, cast a last look round, and depart.

It cost me many a pang to turn my back upon that farmhouse, boundary- mark between savagery and civilization, romance and the terre-a-terre of daily existence.

Yonder diverging roads both led to fairy land and worlds of marvel - the one to Florac, so majestically placed under the colossal shadow of the Causse Mejean and above the lovely valley of the Jonte; the other across the steppe of Sauveterre and by the strange dwellings of the Caussenards to the picturesque little town of St. Eminie, the rapids of the Tarn, and the dolomite city.

There was, however, the consolatory hope of seeing all the following year. Who could tell? Perhaps that very day twelve months later I might delight the children with my bonbon box, and a second time make tea on their breezy playground. At any rate, I entertained the project, and

                   'Should life be dull and spirits low, 
                     'Twill soothe us in our sorrow, 
                   That earth has something yet to show, 
                     The bonny holms of Yarrow.'

We are overtaken by two pedestrians only on our way home - ill-looking fellows enough, strangers in these parts, our driver assured us. 'No Caussenards, they,' he said. 'The Caussenard is harmless enough, only a trifle slow.'

We get magnificent views of Mende and the Valley of the Lot - some slight recompense for having had to retrace our footsteps - and what was equally valuable, much useful information.

'Is the land cut up into small parcels here?' I asked.

We were just then on the outskirts of the town, and he pointed with his whip to a large, well-built farmhouse, with solid, walled-in buildings.

'Most of the land round about Mende is farmed by the monsieur who lives there,' he replied. 'There he is, true enough, with his wife and children.'

Just then we passed a hooded carriage, in which were seated father, mother, two little ones, and nursemaid, all taking a holiday jaunt, the day being Sunday.

'That is the owner of the farm,' he went on: 'several hundred acres - I can't say how many - but it is stocked with two hundred sheep, ten oxen, besides cows and pigs. There you have an idea of the size,'

'Are there no small farms here, then?'

'There are all sorts: little farms, big ones, and betwixt and between,' he replied. 'Everybody has his little bit' (Tout le monde a son petit lot); 'but the land immediately round the town is farmed by the neighbour you saw in the caleche.'

'Is he a peasant?' I asked.

'A peasant if you like. He is a cultivator' (Un paysan si vous voulez. C'est un cultivateur), was the answer.

When a French peasant becomes what in rustic phraseology is called a substantial man, owning or hiring a considerable extent of land, he ceases to be called 'paysan,' and is designated 'cultivateur.' The very word 'peasant,' as I have shown elsewhere, will, in process of time, become a survival, so steady and sure is the social upheaval of rural France. The most eminent Frenchmen of the day, witness the late Paul Bert, are often peasant-born; and hardly a village throughout the country but sends some promising son of the soil to Paris, destined for one of the learned professions. I know of a village baker's son near Dijon now studying for the Bar - one instance out of many. In one of her clever novelettes, 'Un Gascon,' Madame Th. Bentzon gives us for hero the village doctor, son of a peasant. The portrait of this young man, devoted to duty, high-minded, self-sacrificing, is no mere ideal, as experience proves. But if readers, compelled to make the acquaintance of French peasants on paper, will accept Zola and certain English writers as a guide to his moral and material condition, they will be landed on some conclusions strangely at variance with experience. [Footnote: I may add that I have received appreciative testimony from various French journals - L'Economiste, and others - also from no less an authority than M. Henri Baudrillart, of the Institut, of my studies of the French peasant, notably the contribution to theFortnightly Review, August, 1887, in which I have summed up the experiences of twelve years' French residence and travel.]