To travel from St. Chely d'Apcher to Rodez is like descending a snow- capped Alpine peak for the flowery, sunbright valley below. Instead of the stern grandeur of the Lozere, frowning peaks, sombre pine-forests, vast stony deserts and wintry blasts, we glide swiftly into a balmy region of golden vineyards, rich chestnut woods, softly murmuring streams, and the temperature of July. The transformation is magical. It is like closing a volume of Ossian and opening the pages of Theocritus.

We had spent our morning indoors at St. Chely, cloaked and shawled over a blazing wood fire, quitting at one o'clock p.m. ice-cold rain, biting winds, and a gloomy sky. By sundown we had reached the chef-lieu of the Aveyron; we were in the South indeed! The scenery during the latter part of the way is beautiful and exhilarating, every feature showing the ripest, most brilliant tints - hills clothed with the yellowing chestnut, soil of deep purplish red, the bright gold foliage of the vine, and between spring-like greenery and azure sky, close to the railway, the crystal-clear Aveyron.

And here all is new and fresh; no familiar tourist element enters into the day's experience. As our train stops at one picturesque village after another, we see young soldiers, reservistes, alight, returning home after the twenty-eight days' service, nuns, cures, village folks, family groups, not an English traveller but myself.

Rodez is superbly situated on a lofty, sunny plateau, surrounded by hills and far mountain chains; but between these and the city, which is almost encircled by the Aveyron, lies a broad belt of fertile country, the soil of a deep claret colour.

Just as Venice should be approached by sea at dawn, so all travellers should reach Rodez at sunset.

Never shall I forget the first enchanting view of its glorious cathedral that September afternoon, the three-storied tower of Flamboyant Gothic dominating the vast landscape, the rich red stone flushed to a warmer dye, the noble masonry of the whole glowing with the lustre and solidity of copper against the clear heavens.

This lofty, triple-terraced tower is called the marvel of Southern France, and no wonder. The cathedral of Antwerp itself is not more captivatingly lightsome and lovely. High above the ancient city, with its encompassing river and wide-stretched plain, confronting the far-off mountains, almost on a level with their summits, visible from afar as a lighthouse in mid-ocean, rises this belfry of Rodez.

Certain places, as well as certain individualities, exercise extraordinary fascination. The old capital of Rouergne, and later of the Comte of Rodez, is one. Many and many a French city I have visited of far greater architectural and historic importance; Poitiers among these - Troyes is another; yet I should never go out of my way to revisit Poitiers or Troyes, whilst certain other towns in France I visit regularly once a year. They are like old friends, and every visit makes them more precious. I determined to revisit Rodez during the following summer. The cathedral is rich within and without. Its rood-loft, carved stalls, altar screen, and monuments require a chapter to themselves. Let us hope that some future traveller, more learned than myself in such matters, will give us their history in detail. The town, too, possesses some fine remains of Renaissance architecture, and the views from the ancient ramparts are magnificent.

But the memory I carry away is of that lovely three-storied tower, the whole carved delicately as lace-work; the colour, deep terra-cotta; above it a warm southern sky.

Such a sight is worth a long journey, and the discomforts of a dingy hotel, dirty floors, foul-smelling passages, broken chairs, scant toilet appliances, as usual, in part compensated by excellent beds, good food, good wine, and very moderate charges. The oddest part of these experiences is that the dirtier the inn the better the fare. Wherever we found a little smartness and tidiness, there we were sure to find also a decided falling-off in the cuisine.

Perhaps herein is to be found the true philosophical cause of our own poor cookery. English cooks and housewives are ready to go mad on the subject of scouring pots and pans, but pay scant heed to what goes into, much less what comes out of them. In France the quality of the dinner is the first question of national importance, after the recovery of Alsace-Lorraine!

The railway takes us direct to Aurillac, chef-lieu of the Cantal, and ancient capital of Haute Auvergne. At first the scenery resembles that passed through the day before, close under the embankment, the river flowing clear and bright between green slopes, hanging chestnut-woods, and sweeps of vineyards. The earth everywhere seems soaked with claret; and this wine-red colour of the soil, contracted with the golden-leafed vine, makes a landscape of wonderful brilliance.

The aspect of the country changes as we quit the bright valley of the Aveyron, and enter the department of the Cantal at Capdenac, where we join the main line from Clermont-Ferrand to Toulouse. We just touch the department of the Lot at Figeac, a quaint town, birthplace of the great Orientalist Champollion, then enter the valley of the Cere, and are soon at Aurillac.

A bit of dull prose after a glorious poem! Whilst it is difficult to tear one's self away from Rodez, despite its ill-kept hotel, there is nothing whatever to detain the ordinary tourist at Aurillac beyond an hour or two. It is prettily situated in a fair open country, watered by the river Jordanne, and is an excellent centre for the study of rural life.

I had come hither provided with a letter introductory to the State-paid professor of agriculture, and here let me explain matters a little. The French State, stanch to the maxim of the great Sully, 'Le labourage et le paturage sont les deux mamelles de France,' is making tremendous efforts on behalf of agricultural progress throughout the country. A few years since, professorships of agriculture were appointed by the Government in the various departments. The duties of these professors is two-fold: they hold classes on the theory and practice of agriculture in the Ecole Normale, or training-school for male teachers, in winter, and in summer give free lectures, out of doors, in the various towns and villages. Recruited from the great agricultural schools of Grand Jouan, near Nantes, Grignan in the Seine, and Oise and Montpellier, these lecturers have had the benefit of a thoroughly practical training, and by little and little will doubtless effect quite a revolution in out-of-the-way places.

Among the least progressive regions, agriculturally speaking, must be pronounced the Cantal. As yet the use of machinery and artificial manure is almost unknown. The professor gets the peasants together on a Sunday afternoon and discourses to them in an easy, colloquial way on the advantages of scientific methods. The conference over, he shows specimens of superphosphates, top-dressings, new seeds, roots, etc., and here and there succeeds in inducing the more adventurous than the rest to try an experiment.

The agricultural shows have much effect in stimulating progress. The country folks delight to obtain prizes for their cattle, cheese and other products. They are, as a rule, averse to innovation, especially when it involves expenditure. The departmental professor will have to bring proof positive to bear out his theories ere he can induce his listeners to spend their savings - in French phrase, 'argent mignon' - upon unknown good, instead of investing in Government three per cents.

Other interesting facts I learned here, all confirmatory of my former accounts of the French peasant. These Cantal farmers, many of them hiring land on lease, others small owners, are well-to-do; L1,200 is not infrequently given as a dowry to the daughter of a small proprietor; I was told of one, possessor of a few hectares only, who had just before invested in the funds L80, one year's savings.

Avarice, I admit, is not infrequently the besetting sin of the French peasant in these parts, but other characteristics of the Auvergnat, such as roughness of manner, suspiciousness of strangers, a habit of extortion, did not come under my notice during this stay in the Cantal.

One of my pleasantest experiences, indeed, of French rural life, is that of an afternoon visit paid to a farmer in the neighbourhood of Aurillac. No well-bred gentleman, no lady accustomed to society, could have received an entire stranger with more urbanity, kindliness and grace, than did this peasant of the Cantal and his wife. A charming drive of an hour through well-wooded and neatly cultivated country brought us to the farmstead called Le Croizet, a group of buildings lying a hundred yards or so from the roadside.

In front of the well-built, roomy dwelling-house was a fruit and vegetable garden, with a border of flowers and ornamental shrubs. The place was not perhaps so neatly kept as English farm premises, but the general look betokened comfort and well-being.

The farmer and his wife were absent, and their daughter-in-law received us somewhat awkwardly. She seemed puzzled by the fact of English ladies wanting to see a farm, but after a little her shyness vanished. Her husband, she told us, was just then minding his own farm; he was a small proprietor, possessing a bit of land and a cow or two. Two cows, she informed us, as we chatted on, would suffice for the maintenance of a family of five persons. Such reckoning, of course, only holds good of thrifty, homely France. The magic of property not only turns sands to gold: it teaches the great lesson of looking forward, of confronting the morrow - realizing 'the unseen time.'

Soon the housewife came up, all cheeriness and hospitality. She made us sit down in the large, airy, well-furnished kitchen - hitherto we had chatted outside - and my curiosity being explained by the fact that I was an English author, travelling for information, she readily answered any questions I put to her.

'My husband will be here in a minute. He can tell you much more about farming than I can,' she said.

She was a pleasant-looking, well-mannered, intelligent woman - a peasant born and bred. Meantime I glanced round the kitchen.

The floor certainly was of uncarpeted stone and uneven, but the place was clean and tidy, and everything in order. Against the wall were rows of well-scoured cooking vessels; also shelves of china - evidently reserved for high days and holidays - and a few pictures for further adornment.

True, the curtained bedstead of master and mistress stood in one corner, but leading out of the kitchen was a second room for the son and son's wife; whilst the hired women-servants occupied in the dairy slept upstairs.

It may here be mentioned that the habit of sleeping in the kitchen arises from the excessive cold. I found on lately revisiting Anjou, and in the Berri, that the better-off peasants are building houses with upper bedrooms.

'It is tidier' (C'est plus propre), said a Berrichon to me. This custom, therefore, of turning the kitchen into a bedchamber may be considered as on the wane.

Our hostess now brought out one local dainty after another - galettes, or flat cakes of rye and oaten flour, peculiar in flavour, and said to be extremely nutritious; cream, curds and whey, fresh butter, and wine - and was quite distressed that we could not make a hearty afternoon meal. Then the master came in, one of Nature's gentlemen, if ever any existed - stalwart, sunburnt to the complexion of an Arab, with a frank, manly, shrewd face. He wore sabots, and, like his wife, was stockingless. Stockings are objected to by French country-folks in hot weather, and it seems to me on good grounds. His clothes were clean, neat, and appropriate, and all of the material that goes into the weekly wash-tub. Like his wife, he was most willing to give me any information, and a pleasant and instructive time I had of it.

My host leased his farm. He was a tenant farmer precisely as the name is understood here, with this difference - he owned a little land as well. He could not tell me the exact size of his occupation in hectares; land here, as in the Lozere, being computed instead by heads of cattle, one hectare and a half of pasture allowed for each cow. Some notion of its extent may be gathered from the fact that he possessed 120 cows. Besides these 200 hectares of pasturage, the farm comprised arable land, the whole making up a total of nearly 1,000 acres. Much larger farms, he told me, were to be found in the Cantal. The notion of France being cut up into tiny parcels of land amused him not a little. The crops here consist of wheat, barley, maize, rye, oats, buckwheat, clover - a little of everything.

'But this is a cheese-making country. We don't grow anything like corn enough for ourselves in the Cantal,' he said. 'Large quantities are imported every year. It is our cows that pay.'

The principal stock kept is this beautiful Cantal cow, a small, red, glossy-coated breed, very gentle, and very shy. The enormous quantities of milk afforded by these dairy farms are sold in part at Aurillac for home consumption. By far the larger proportion is used in the cheese-makers' huts, or 'burons,' on the surrounding hills. The pleasant, mild-flavoured Cantal cheese has hitherto not been an article of export. It is decidedly inferior to Roquefort, fabricated from ewes' milk in the Aveyron, and to the Gruyere of the French Jura. As the quality of the milk is first-rate, a delicious flavour being imparted by the fragrant herbs that abound here, this inferiority doubtless arises from want of skill, or, perhaps, want of cleanliness in the preparation. The numerous schools for dairy-farming that now exist in France, and the new State-paid teachers of agriculture, will most likely ere long revolutionize the art of cheese-making throughout the department. We may then expect to find Cantal cheese at every English grocer's.

Many more interesting facts I learned, my host chatting leisurely.

'It is usual in these parts,' he said, 'for the eldest son to inherit an extra fourth part of land, he, in return, being bound to maintain his parents in old age. A heritage is often thus divided during the life-time of father and mother, the old folks not caring any longer to be burdened with the toil of business.'

Much he told me also concerning the rights of 'pacage,' or pasturage on commons - privileges upheld rather by custom than law. These rights of pasturing cattle on common-grounds date from the earliest times, and we read in French history of certain communes being ruined by the mortgage of their 'pacage.'

After a stay of more than an hour we took leave, our host accompanying us to the road, where the carriage waited.

I have before alluded to the excessive timidity of the cattle here, perhaps arising from the infrequency of strangers in these regions. As we now walked up the narrow lane separating the farm from the road, we met three separate droves of cows returning to their stalls. It was curious to note the suspiciousness of the gentle creatures, also their quickness of observation. Had we been a couple of peasant women from a distance, they would have passed us without hesitation. I had evidently an outlandish look in their eyes. Only by dint of coaxing and calling each animal by name could the master get them to go by.

'It is always well to be careful with beasts that don't know you,' he said, as he planted himself between us and each drove. 'Gentle as my cows are, they might give a stranger a kick.'

When all were gone, he extricated my gown from a bramble, then, baring his head, bade us adieu with the courtesy of a polished gentleman.