One cannot be sure of the weather even in the South of France, where the skies are supposed, by those who do not know them, to be perpetually blue. The 'South of France' itself is a very deceptive term. The climate on one side of a range of mountains or high hills may be altogether different from that on the other. In Upper Languedoc and Guyenne the climate is regulated by three principal factors: the elevation of the soil, the influence of the Mediterranean, and the influence of the Atlantic. On the northern side of the Cevennes, the currents from the ocean, together with the altitude, do much to keep the air moist and comparatively cool in summer; whereas on the other side of the chain, where the Mediterranean influence - in a large measure African - is paramount, the climate is dry and torrid during the hot months. A liability to sudden changes goes with the advantages of the more favoured region. This was enforced upon me at Millau.

At seven o'clock the sky, lately of such a fiery blue, was of a most mournful smokiness, and the rain fell in a drenching spray. It was mountain weather, and I blamed the Cevennes for it. But I was in the South, and at a season when bad weather is seldom in earnest, so I did not despair of a change when the sun rose higher. It came, in fact, at about eight o'clock, when, a breeze springing up, the clouds, after a short struggle, were swept away. The market-women spread out upon the pavement their tomatoes, their purple aubergines, their peaches, and green almonds; the harvesters, long hesitating, went out into the fields to reap; and I, leaving the Tarn, took my way up the valley of the gleaming Dourbie. Millau was soon nearly hidden in its basin, but above it, on the sides of the surrounding hills, scattered amongst the sickly vines, or the vigorous young plants which promised in a few years to make the stony soil flow once more with purple juice, were the small white houses of the wine-growers. Where I could, I walked in the shade of walnut and mulberry trees, for the heat was great, and the rain that had fallen rose like steam in the sun-blaze from the herbage and the golden stubble. In this low valley all corn except maize had been gathered in, and Nature was resting, after her labour, with the smile of maternity on her face. Nevertheless, this stillness of the summer's fulfilment, this pause in the energy of production, is saddening to the wayfarer, to whom the vernal splendour of the year and the time of blossoming seem like the gifts of yesterday. The serenity of the burnished plains now prompts him upward, where he hopes to overtake the tarrying spring upon the cool and grassy mountains. Although the mountains towards which I was now bearing were the melancholy and arid Cevennes, I wished the distance less that lay between me and their barren flanks, where the breeze would be scented with the bloom of lavender. There were flowers along the wayside here, but they were the same that I had been seeing for many a league, and they reminded me too forcibly of the rapid flight of the summer days by their haste - their unnecessary haste, as I thought - in passing from the flower to the seed. A sprig of lithosperm stood like a little tree laden with Dead Sea fruit, for the naked seeds clung hard and flinty where the flowers had been. The glaucium, although still blooming, had put forth horns nine inches long, and the wild barley, so lately green, was now a brown fringe along the dusty road. And thus all these familiar forms of vegetable life, which we notice in our wanderings, but never understand, come and go, perish and rise again - so quickly, too, that we have no time to listen to what they say; we only feel that the song which they sing along the waysides of the world is ever joyous and ever sad.

In the lower part of this valley were scattered farmhouses, which looked like small rural churches, for their high rectangular dovecots at one end had much the air of towers with broach spires. Throughout Guyenne one is amazed at the apparently extravagant scale on which accommodation has been provided for pigeon-rearing. There are plenty of pigeons in the country, but the size of their houses is usually out of all proportion to the number of lodgers, and dovecots without tenants are almost as frequently seen as those that are tenanted. They are seldom of modern construction; many are centuries old. All this points to the conclusion that people of former times laid much greater store by pigeon-flesh than their descendants do. It may have been that other animal food was relatively more expensive than at the present day.

But as I ascended the valley the breadth of cultivated land grew narrower, and the habitations fewer. On either side the cliffs rose higher, and the walls of Jurassic rock, above the brashy steeps, more towering, precipitous, and fantastic. Where vegetable life could draw sustenance from crumbling, stones stretched a veritable forest of box. Now, in a narrow gorge, the Dourbie frolicked about the heaps of pebbles it had thrown up in its winter fury. Strong wires, attached to high rocks, crossed the gorge and the stream, and were made fast to the side of the road. Bundles of newly-cut box at the lower end showed the use to which these wires were put. Far aloft upon the heated rocks women were cutting down the tough shrub for firewood or manure, for it is put to both uses. It serves a very useful purpose when buried in dense layers between the vine rows. When I looked aloft, and saw those petticoated beings toiling in the terrible heat, I thought it a pity that there was no society to protect women as well as horses from being cruelly overworked. Let social reformers ponder this truth: The more the man is encouraged to shirk work, the more the woman will have to toil to make up for wasted time. As it is, women everywhere, except perhaps in England, work harder than men, as far as I can speak from observation.

I was on my way to Vieux Montpellier - the 'Devil's City' - and already the scenery began to take the character to be expected of it in such a neighbourhood. It seemed as though the demon builder of the fantastic town, sporting with man's architectural ideals before his appearance on the earth, had hewn the red and yellow rocks above the Dourbie into the ironic semblance of feudal towers and heaven-pointing spires.

The highest limestone rocks in this region, those which rise from the plateau or causse and strike the imagination by the strangeness of their forms, are dolomite; in the gorges they approach the character of lias towards the base, and not unfrequently contain lumps of pure silex embedded in their mass. The redness which they so often show, and which, alternating with yellow, white, or gray, adds to the grandeur of their rugged outlines, is due to the iron which the rock contains.

A young gipsy-woman, carrying a child upon her shoulders, and holding on to a dusky little leg on each side of her neck, followed in the wake of an old caravan drawn by a mule of resigned countenance - a beast that seemed to have made a vow never to hurry again, and to let the flies do their worst. She vanished upon the winding road, and presently I saw another wayfarer seated on the bank beside the stream, binding up a bleeding foot under the trailing traveller's joy. Before reaching the village of La Roque-Sainte-Marguerite, I passed a genuine rock dwelling. A natural cavern, some twenty or thirty feet above the level of the road, had been walled up to make a house. It had its door and windows like any other dwelling, and some convenient crevice in the rock had probably been used for a chimney.

Having taken an hour's rest and a light meal in the village, I commenced the ascent towards the 'Devil's City.' A mule-path wound up the steep side of the gorge, which had been partly reclaimed from the desert by means of terraces where many almond-trees flourished, safe from the north wind. Very scanty, however, was the vegetation that grew upon this dry stony soil, burning in summer, and washed in winter of its organic matter by the mountain rains. Tall woody spurges two feet high or more, with tufts of dusty green leaves, managed to draw, however, abundant moisture from the waste, as the milk that gushed from the smallest wound attested. An everlasting pea, with very large flowers of a deep rose-colour, also loved this arid steep. I was wondering why I found no lavender, when I saw a gray-blue tuft above me, and welcomed it like an old friend. The air was soon scented with the plant, and for five days I was in the land of lavender. On nearing the buttresses of the plateau the ground was less steep, and here I came to pines, junipers, oaks, and the bird-cherry prunus. But the tree which I was most pleased to find was a plum, with ripe fruit about the size of a small greengage, but of a beautiful pale rose-colour.

I am now upon the causse and already see the castellated outworks of the 'Devil's City.' The city itself lies in a hollow, and I have not yet reached it. The mule-path fortunately leads in the right direction. On my way multitudes of very dark, almost black, butterflies flutter up from the short turf, which is flecked with the gold of yellow everlastings. Here and there a solitary round-headed allium nods from the top of its long leafless stem. I walk over the shining dark leaves and the scarlet beads of the bearberry, and am presently roaming in the fantastic streets of the dolomitic city. To say streets is scarcely an exaggeration, for these jutting rocks have in places almost the regularity of the menhirs of Carnac. But the megalithic monuments of Brittany are like arrow-heads compared to the stones of Montpellier-le-Vieux. In placing these and in giving them that mimicry of familiar forms at times so startling to human eyes, Nature has been the sole engineer and artist. There is but one theory by which the working cause of the existing phenomena can be brought to our understanding. It is that these honeycombed and fantastically-shaped masses of dolomite or magnesian limestone represent the skeletons of vaster rocks whose less resisting parts were washed away by the wearing action of the sea. Some are formed of blocks of varying size, lying one upon another, with a pinnacle or dome at the summit; others show no trace of stratification, but are integral rocks which in many cases appear to have been cut away and fashioned to the mocking likeness of some animal form by a demon statuary. Now it is a colossal owl, now a frightful head that may be human or devilish, now some inanimate shape such as a prodigious wineglass which fixes the eye and excites the fancy. A mass of rock on which can be seen half sitting, half reclining, a monstrous stony shape with head hideously jovial, has been named the 'Devil's Chair.'

I saw this spot under circumstances very favourable to the full reception of its fantastic, mysterious, and gloomy influence. It was late enough in the afternoon for the feeling of evening and of the coming night to be in the air, especially here, where dark pines stood in the mimic streets and squares like cypresses in a cemetery. The awful mournfulness of the shadowy groves was deepened by my own solitariness, for although surrounded by frightful shapes that caricatured humanity, mine was the only human form that moved amongst the dumb but fiend-like rocks and the pines, which moaned and whispered like unhappy ghosts. I was alone in the 'Devil's City,' and perchance with the devil himself. When a hawk flew over and screamed it was welcome, although there was nothing cheerful in its cry. There could be no severer trial perhaps to the nerves of a superstitious person than to take a solitary walk by moonlight through Montpellier-le-Vieux. The sense of the weird and the horrible would give him too many cold shudders for him to enjoy the grandeur and the strangeness of the scene.

The superstitious horror in which this spot has always been held by the peasants - chiefly shepherds - of the district, together with the fact that the rustic, uninfluenced from without, never speaks of rocks except in terms of contempt, however extraordinary their forms may be, must be the reason why Montpellier-le-Vieux has only been known of late years to persons interested in such curiosities of nature. To the geologist it is fascinating ground, as, indeed, is the whole expanse of these causses of Guyenne and Upper Languedoc, so fissured and honeycombed - a region of gorges and caverns, of subterranean lakes and rivers, of bottomless pits and mysterious streams.

It is said that the dolomitic city owes its name, Montpellier-le-Vieux, to the shepherds of Lower Languedoc, who from time immemorial have brought their flocks in summer to pasture upon these highlands. In their dialect they call Montpellier, which is to them what Paris is to the peasants of the Brie, 'Lou Clapas' - literally, a heap of stones. On seeing rocks covering several acres, and looking like the ruins of a great city of the past, they could think of no better name for it than 'Lou Clapas Biel,' or 'old heap of stones.' This turned into French becomes Montpellier-le-Vieux.

The 'Devil's City' can be recommended to the botanist, who need not fear that the flowers he will find there will wither at his touch like those gathered for Marguerite by her guileless lover. The ever-crumbling dolomite has formed a soil very favourable to a varied flora. As I had, however, to reach the gorge of the Tarn before nightfall, and it was still far off, I only took away two souvenirs of the diabolic garden - a white scabious and a bit of rock-potentil.

The name given to the tract of country I was now crossing - the Causse Noir, fitly describes it, It is singularly dark and mournful, and almost uninhabited. It is not, strictly speaking, a plateau, but a succession of valleys and low hills like the bed of the ocean. The barren land is thickly overgrown with box and juniper, and these shrubs, which often attain a height of six or eight feet, sufficiently account for the sombre tone of the landscape. Here and there savage little, gorges run up between the dismal hills, with trees of larger growth, such as oaks and pines, in the hollows. There is good reason to believe that all thesecausses were at one time more or less covered by forests; but the reason commonly given for their disappearance - namely, that they were burnt down during the religious wars - is less likely to be the true one than that they gradually perished because it was nobody's business to protect the seedlings from sheep and goats - animals capable of changing the world into a treeless desert, but which, fortunately, cease to be profitable when they come down from the sterile highlands, where they thrive best, into the rich plains and valleys. The disastrous floods which occur with such appalling suddenness in the valleys of the Tarn and the Lot are due in a large measure to the nudity of the causses and the Cevennes, where these mountains turn northward and cross the Lozère to meet the Auvergne range. The French Government nurses the hope that it will be able some day to cover much of the baldness of this extensive region with magnificent pine-forests, and planting actually goes on in places; but what with the nibbling flocks, and the increasing seventy of the winters, the measure of success already obtained by such laudable efforts is not encouraging.

I wished to reach Peyreleau that night, but how to get there I knew not otherwise than by persistently keeping in a north-easterly course, and despising all natural obstacles. I was attracted by what looked like a road running up between two hills in the right direction; but when I came to it I found that it was the dry channel of a stream. I nevertheless took advantage of it, as I have of many another such in the South, although there are few watercourses whose beds can be walked upon with comfort. I was lucky now beyond my expectations, for it was not long before I struck a road which I was sure could lead nowhere but to Peyreleau. It first took me through a darkly-wooded gorge, where evening stood like a nun in a chapel. The brilliant sky had changed to a sad gray. There was to be no gorgeous sunset, with rosy after-glow, softening with transparent colour the harshness of the dark box and darker juniper. No: the day that commenced sadly was ending sadly - going to its grave in a gray habit with drawn cowl. A great falcon passed slowly on its way under the dull sky, but no bird nor beast uttered a sound. The Causse Noir was as silent as a crypt.

I became very uncertain where this road over the dismal solitude was going to lead me, for it turned about in such a way as to put me out of my reckoning. At length I saw a deep gorge yawning below, and this told me that I had reached the edge of the causse. Oh, the sublime desolation of these heights and depths in the solemn evening! How, mournful then is the silence of the innumerable, gray stones and monstrous rocks which try to speak to us like creatures once eloquent and possessing the knowledge of wondrous changes, and the key to problems that everlastingly distress the human mind, but on which the curse of dumbness has lain for ages!

I thought that I must have wandered beyond the peopled world, when suddenly I saw, far down in the bottom of the widening valley, a village or small town at the foot of a cone-shaped hill. The little river running near satisfied me that I was in view of Peyreleau. The descent was tedious and long, notwithstanding the loops that I cut off of the curling road by scrambling down the steep sides of the gorge over the loose stones and lavender. It was still daylight when I reached a small hotel, outside of which some tourists were smoking cigarettes and drinking beer while waiting for dinner. Until then I had not seen a tourist after leaving Albi. All through the Albigeois and the Rouergue, I was looked upon as an animal of unknown species, and possibly noxious; but here I was recognised at once as one of a familiar tribe, of small brain development, but harmless. I had entered a region which for several years past had drawn to it many persons - mostly French - who had heard of the grand gorge, or cañon, of the Tarn.

I had been told that the right way - the one followed by all sensible people - of seeing the gorge from Sainte-Enimie to Le Rozier was to come down the stream in a boat; but circumstances, or my own perversity, had led me once more to do the thing that was considered wrong. Instead of coming down the swift stream like a fly on a leaf, my intention was to crawl up the gorge by such goat or mule paths as were available on the margin of the river or on the ledges of the cliffs. Thus I should not be obliged to treat every fresh view as if it were a bird on the wing, but could dawdle as long as I pleased over this or that object without being a trouble to anybody.

It was far from unpleasant, however, to spend an evening at this water-side inn with people fresh from Paris, bringing with them the spray of the sea that beats against the shores of high-strung life. Nor was it unpleasant to find a little refinement in the kitchen again, and to eat trout not saturated with the essence of garlic.