A Book of the Cevennes/The Land of Ferdinand Fabre


CHAPTER XVI


THE LAND OF FERDINAND FABRE


Ferdinand Fabre—His novels—Biography—The uncle—Discouragement—Les Courbezon—Bédarieux—Ruined by a strike—Herault—The Population—Iberians—Ligurians—Umbranici—The Gauls—Chestnuts—The Beaters—Ballad of the Chestnut-tree—The Séchoire—Fétes in Hérault—Carotat at Béziers—Pepezuc—The Ass of Gignac—Roquefort Cheese—Le Bousquet d'Orbe—Lamalou—N. Dame de Capimont—Extinction of the hermits—Villemagne—Gorge of the Héric—S. Gervais—The church spire—The inhabitants of the Highland and of the Lowland—The Pillard.


THE number of readers of the novels of Ferdinand Fabre in England is but few, I fear; but those few recognise in him one of the most graceful and delightful of writers. His novels may be divided into two categories: those that deal with his reminiscences of early life in the Cevennes about Bédarieux, and those in which he combats the intrigues of the Jesuits, "they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins"; or who meddle with and thwart the good work of the simple country and town curés, acting as spies for Rome on the bishops and the parochial clergy.

To the first class belong—I mention only the best—Les Courbezon, Julien Savignac, Mon Oncle Célestin, Barnabé, Monsieur Jean, and Xavière. To the latter a series—La Paroisse du Jugement Dernier, Le Calvaire de Mme. Fuster, Le Couvent de la Falosque Bergonnier, L'Hospice des Enfants Assistés; and the purely clerical romances, Lucifer and l'Abbé Tigranne.

The delicacy of touch, the exquisite delineation of character among the peasantry of the Cevennes, and the beautiful descriptions of scenery and bird life in the first category make these stories essential to a knowledge of the country I am describing in this chapter, and no one should visit it without having read at least some of them. Ferdinand Fabre was born in 1830 at Bédarieux, and was the son of an architect. After having spent his first school years in his native place, he was committed to his uncle, the curé of Camplong, and he remained with him for two years. These years left an indelible impression on his mind. The happy life in the country, the habits of the villagers, the ways of the birds, the bald causses, and the chestnut woods of the valleys; above all, the kind, simple-minded old uncle, and the grumbling, economising, but tender-hearted old housekeeper, filled the young heart so full, that it was Fabre's delight in mature life to pour forth his reminiscences of those two happy years. The uncle and the housekeeper recur again and again, the former either as the Abbé Courbezon, the Curé Fulcran, or Mon Oncle Célestin.

On leaving Camplong, Ferdinand entered the Petit Seminaire at S. Pons, and thence passed in due time to the Grand Seminaire at Montpellier. It was there that he made those experiences of clerical life that he has given forth in the remarkable novel, l’Abbé Tigranne, remarkable if only in this particular, that it is a novel without a woman in it. This story represents the conflict of an ultramontane bishop imposed on the diocese with his clergy, who are Gallican-minded.

Not feeling a vocation for the priesthood, Fabre went to Paris, and was at first a lawyer's clerk, but was soon left to his own resources. There he published his first literary venture, Feuilles de Lierre, 1853, which attracted little notice, and, disheartened, with enfeebled health, he returned to the south. Then he began to write stories concerning scenes and personages with which he was intimate. He produced Les Courbezon in 1862, and this "caught on" at once. The charm of style, the sweetness of mind it displayed, the keenness of insight into character, and the daintiness of description caused the literary world to realise that a writer of extraordinary merit had risen as a star on the horizon. Les Courbezon was crowned by the Académie. Next year, 1863, appeared Julien Savignac, a study of a mind affected with incipient insanity. The tale is powerful and painful. Le Chevrier was produced in 1868, a disappointing performance, but, with the curious perversity that characterises many an author, preferred by Fabre to his other works; and as it did not obtain success as a novel, he converted it into a drama, which was also a failure. Barnabé, an excellent study of a class of men now completely passed away, appeared in 1875. Fabre died in Paris on 11 February, 1898.

Bédarieux is, or rather was, a busy manufacturing town, with forges and glass works, indebted for its coal to the neighbouring mines of Grassensac. But a few years ago a strike took place. The ironmasters and glassmasters could not meet the demands of the men, and forges and factories have since been closed, and the population has dwindled to nearly half what it was. This also has seriously affected the miners of Grassensac.

Bédarieux is on the Orbe at the confluence into it of the Courbezon. The station is three-quarters of a mile from the town. There is nothing of interest in the place itself, except the church of S. Alexandre of the fifteenth century, and that not remarkable. For a centre of excursions it is good, but preferable is Lamalou-les-Bains, where are excellent hotels; but Bédarieux must be tarried at for a few nights if Rochefort, Lunas, and Boussagues are to be visited, or much time will be lost in the trains. Bédarieux is the station of bifurcation of three lines from the main trunk from Clermont to Béziers, and any one who has had experience of French lines will know that as often as not this implies a tedious halt, perhaps of an hour, at the station where a change has to be made.

The nature of the mountains through and by which flows the Orb differs greatly from that of the schisty Cevennes—the Cevennes proper—and the limestone of the causses and of the garigues. They are a ripple rather than a billow, and being sheltered from the north winds by the high range at their back form a sort of natural hothouse, in which the sweetest fruits of a southern clime ripen readily, where the spring comes earliest and the autumn sun lingers longest.

In the Languedoc plain, in Roussillon, even to Perpignan, the icy blasts from the Cevennes are dreaded. The olives, the planes, the mulberries are bent, leaning towards the south, permanently given this incline under the influence of these cruel winds. They scourge Beziers and Montpellier as with a cat-o'-nine-tails dipped in water that has been frozen. But these winds pass over Bédarieux and the valley of the Orb to expend their violence elsewhere. Here in the upper reaches of the Orb the vine, the fig, the olive, the pomegranate, the almond, the nettle-tree luxuriate, untortured, unnipped.

Villages are many, clustering as so many sets of beehives in every warm and sheltered nook that faces the sun, and has a mountain wall at its back.

And it is precisely here, where least wanted, that a prodigal nature lavishes heating material in beds of anthracite and other coal.

"The peasants of the low hills of the Monts d'Orb are less accessible to superstition than those of the highlands, but they have less character and veritable greatness. The sun has not only heated their land, it has also sucked up from their brains all those vapours full of poetry that make of the men of the causses a type original and picturesque. Between the inhabitant of Servier, who never sowed a seed, and he of Camplong, who gets fuddled on new wine, the distance is immeasurable, and yet they are parted by nothing more than the granite mass of Bataillo."

This is what Fabre says of the natives. There are two types not due to difference of blood, but of surroundings and of occupations. We are now in the department of Hérault, of Lower Languedoc, and I may be allowed a few words on the mixture of peoples of diverse origin that have been fused together into a homogeneous race.

From a period before history began, this country was inhabited by populations of diverse origins, habits, and language, drawn thither by the delicious climate, its natural resources, or simply by the chance of migration. One fact characterises the establishment of the tribes or nationalities in these parts; so far as we can judge, it was their attitude towards the people who preceded them. If some of them swept away the indigenous race, more often they planted themselves beside the earlier population peaceably and fused with them. Most of these invaders seem to have possessed gentle manners, and were not goaded on by the passion for extermination, for which there was no provocation or need, as the land was wide and rich enough to sustain all. This mode of colonisation had the result of filling Lower Languedoc with very heterogeneous inhabitants, the complexity of which explains the apparent contradictions of early writers. But on one point these writers are unanimous: the variety of races or mixtures that occupied the land in Gallia Narbonensis. In the first century before Christ, Cicero notices this; and in the fourth century after Christ, Ausonius sang: "Who can record all thy ports, thy mountains and thy lakes, who the diversity of thy peoples, their vestures and their languages?"

The most ancient inhabitants recorded were the Iberians, who extended their domination over the Spanish peninsula and to the Rhone on the east, which formed the boundary between them and the Ligurians. But at a time difficult to determine these latter crossed the river and invaded the territories of the Iberians. But instead of expelling the conquered peoples, the Ligurians, having an aptitude for absorption, mingled with those whom they had subdued and formed the mixed race of the Iberian-Ligurian. There was, however, already in the land a third nation, that of the Umbranici, apparently the same as the Umbrians of Northern Italy. They have left their name at Ambrussum, now Pont-Ambroise, on the Vidourle. Twenty-three inscriptions remain, mostly in Gard, in an unknown tongue, but written in Greek characters, that bears an affinity alike to the Ossian and Umbrian language in Italy.

The Greek trade of Marseilles spread through the land. At Murviel, a cyclopean enclosure, not many miles from Montpellier, have been found Greek coins of Marseilles.

In the fourth century before the Christian era a new ethnic element came to add to what already existed. The Gauls appeared in the land. A branch of this stock was that of the Volci. These established themselves between the Rhone and the Garonne, and extended their authority over the Ibero-Ligurians. These new arrivals seem to have treated the conquered much as the Ligurians had the Iberians. They established themselves peaceably among them or alongside of them. This was the more easy, for, as Strabo says, though the Gauls belonged to a wholly different stock, yet they resembled the Ligurians in their mode of life.

Their dominion was not for long—not for more than two centuries—for in B.C. 121 their country was conquered by the Romans.

Such, then, is the origin of the population of Lower Languedoc, and explains the diverse origin of the names of rivers, mountains and towns, some Iberic, some Celtic, some Latin, some of undiscoverable derivation, given perhaps by the Umbrian colony.

The staple of life in the Cevennes, mainly in the southern portion, is not corn, but the chestnut. That is why we see this tree everywhere, old and twisted, but sturdy still, young and vigorous when recently planted. But unhappily a malady has broken out among them, the cause of which has not been discovered with certainty, nor has any remedy been found efficacious. In some years the leaves fall in September, and the fruit comes to nothing, reducing the people to a condition almost of famine. In order to preserve the nuts through the winter and spring and prevent the sprouting, they are subjected to desiccation in clèdes that may be seen as a part of the outbuildings of every farmhouse and of many cottages.

The Spanish chestnut is a beautiful tree. It was indigenous in England. A few years ago I was draining a field by the river, and cut down to glacial clay nearly nine feet below the surface, and lying on this was a huge tree, black as ebony. With great labour I had it removed to the sawmill, thinking it to have been black bog oak. It was Spanish chestnut, and since then others have been found in the same valley. It seems willing to grow anywhere. The peasants build up terraces no larger than a doormat, and it grows there. But where there is plenty of soil it will grow much more vigorously than on a ledge of rock.

"I wish," said R. L. Stevenson, "I could convey a notion of the growth of these noble trees; of how they strike out boughs like the oak, and trail sprays of drooping foliage like the willow; of how they stand as upright fluted columns like the pillars of a church; or like the olive, from the most shattered bole can put out smooth and youthful shoots, and begin a new life upon the ruins of the old. Thus they partake of the nature of many different trees; and even their prickly top-knots, seen near at hand against the sky, have a certain palm-like air that impresses the imagination. But this individuality, although compounded of so many elements, is but the richer and the more original. And to look down upon a level filled with these knolls of foliage, or to see a clan of old unconquerable chestnuts cluster like herded elephants upon the spurs of a mountain, is to rise to higher thoughts of the powers that are in Nature."

I believe that the reason why we have so few old chestnuts in England, why we have not woods of them, is that the rabbit dearly loves its sweet bark when young. In planting chestnuts they must be protected by wire, or every one will be pealed in early spring by these wretched rodents. The beating of the trees and the gathering of the fallen chestnuts is a great festival among the Cevenol, as is the vintage in the plains. I will give an account of the beginning of the gathering in from the pen of Ferdinand Fabre. I must premise that the mountaineers from the bald causses come down to the zone where the precious tree grows and hire themselves out as beaters and gatherers. A body of men, mostly young, arrive in a village waving branches, and is met by the old people in the street.

"Our old men and women, very attached to the Fète of the Chestnuts which brightened their youthful years, had quitted the fireside and had advanced to the first house of the village. There they drew up in file, ranged against the south wall. From one end of the line to the other the features were grave with wrinkles and furrows, softened on some by their white hair. Warped, bowed, shivering, they looked ahead with glassy eyes kindled with curiosity. The young folk of the mountain were about to pass by and they desired to see them, and in seeing them revive recollections of their own young days, and warm themselves thereat.

"At the first house the arrivals halted; then waving their boughs in salutation, asked altogether, 'Good folk, how go the chestnuts this year?' 'Very well, children,' replied the old people. Then a little woman, aged eighty-five, detached herself from her nook in the wall and advanced towards the beaters. 'You have not forgotten, friends, the Complaint of the Chestnut Tree?' 'To be sure, the Complaint of the Chestnut Tree,' cried all.

"From the midst of the grove of boughs carried in their hands, and which seemed suddenly to have taken root in the soil of the road, rose the Complainte (ballad), so popular among the Cevenols of the south, and which, like most of their popular songs, express their toil, their sweat, their sighs of hunger at last assuaged by labour.

 
"Quand le châtaignier est planté
      Il monte, monte, monte!
 Quand le châtaignier est planté
      Nous buvons largement a sa santé.


 Quand le châtaignier est en fleur,
      Belle, belle, belle!
 Quand le châtaignier est en fleur,
      Le pays prend son odeur.


 Quand le châtaignier a grainé,
      Il graine, graine, graine!
 Quand le châtaignier a grainé,
      Chacun danse dans son pré.


 Quand les châtaignes nous avons,
      Bonnes, bonnes, bonnes!
 Quand les châtaignes nous avons,
      Nous les mangeons, puis nous mourons.

"After the fourth couplet the ballad was interrupted. Our Cevenols raised their boughs, brandished the leaves, and made therewith the sign of the cross.

'On your knees!' said the old woman, extending her hand. The beaters knelt at once. Then, all at once, from a thousand sturdy breasts young for the most part, rolled forth the final verse of the Complainte du Châtaignier. It was as grand, as beautiful, as sublime as any psalm, any hymn I have heard in any church.

  
"Cévennes pleins de rochers,
      Hautes, hautes, hautes!
 Cévennes pleins de rochers,
      Faites nous forts et religieux.
"

When the chestnuts have been gathered, then in November they are dried in séchoirs. These are small square structures with a door and window on one side, and on the other three or more long narrow loopholes, called in the country carézéïros, that are never closed. A fire of coals is lighted and kept burning incessantly in the drying-house, and the smoke passes through shelves on which the chestnuts are laid, in stages, and escapes by the loopholes. To any one unaccustomed to the atmosphere in these séchoirs, it is hard to endure the smoke, and one stands the risk of being asphyxiated. Nevertheless the peasants spend two months in the year in these habitations, amidst cobwebs and soot, swarming with mice and rats, and the smoke at once acrid and moist, for in drying the chestnuts exude a greenish fluid that falls in a rain from the shelves. The natives do not seem to mind the dirt and smell of these horrible holes. Moreover, if there be in a village any one suffering from phthisis, at the end of autumn the patient is taken by the relations in his or her bed, and this is deposited in a corner of the séchoir. The sick person is not allowed to leave the drying-house, and it is a singular phenomenon that not infrequently, under the influence of the heat and the sulphurous smoke, the tuberculosis is arrested, and the sufferer lives on for many long years.

It is economy that drives the peasants to live in the drying-houses. As they are forced to light fires for the chestnuts, they extinguish those on their hearths in the farm-houses. Why have two fires going when one will suffice? So the peasant bids his wife and children cook their soup at the brazier in the séchoir. And he himself, driven under shelter by the rain and cold, brings to the common hearth his hatchet and long strips of wild chestnut, of which he fashions hoops for barrels or baskets for the collectors of olives. Through the two months from the Jour des Morts to Christmas Eve the séchoir is the village centre; to it flock the poorest members of the commune, who have no drying-houses of their own.

The fêtes in Hérault are often very curious, and evidently date from an early period, and are reminiscences of paganism.

For instance, the Carotat at Béziers on Ascension Day has nothing Christian about it. Till 1878, on the eve, the servants of the Consuls were wont to parade the town with music going before them, and knock at the doors of houses asking for contributions. They were followed by a clumsy wooden structure covered with hide to represent a camel; and all largesses received were put into the mouth of the beast

Next day, to the sound of cannon and bells, the Corporation assembled in three ranks, led by the Provost bearing a cake decked out with ribbons and attached to his left arm, attended by a servant carrying a basket of bread, followed by the camel. This fête is dead. But what does survive at Béziers and at Montpellier and elsewhere is the Danse des Treilles at the fête called Roumarin. The young people, in their gala dresses and adorned with bunches of rosemary, carry hoops similarly decorated, with which they perform the evolutions of a graceful ballet in which there are seven figures; and the bystanders pelt them with violets. At Montpellier the dance is considered to be a commemoration of the marriage of Peter II. of Aragon to Marie de Montpellier, June 15th, 1204.[1]

At Béziers no public festival formerly took place without a preliminary visit to Pepezuc, a mutilated white marble statue with the head knocked off and replaced by one of common stone. It is obviously a representation of a Roman emperor, perhaps of Augustus. It stood on a fluted column, and on the base is inscribed P.P.E.S.V. But the common story was that it represented a gallant officer who had driven out the English from the town, of which they had obtained possession. Pepezuc was wont to be dressed up and decorated with flowers. That is stopped, as the statue has been removed to the town museum.

The Ass of Gignac continues to be fêted. The town was besieged by the Saracens. One night, after a hard day's fighting, the defenders, wearied out, had gone to sleep, when an ass brayed long and loud. His master had forgotten to feed him, and this he resented. The man awoke, for the braying of an ass would rouse the Seven Sleepers, and he saw that the enemy was escalading the walls. He roused the garrison, and they succeeded in hurling back the ladders. However, the deliverance was temporary, for a few days later the town was captured and burnt. In gratitude for what the ass had done, the people of Gignac instituted an annual commemoration, in which they march a figure of an ass through the street to the sound of fife and tabor. Then in reminiscence of the fight a contest takes place in a field called Le Senibelet, in which one duellist wears
Cheesemakers, Roquefort - A book of the Cevennes.jpg


Cheesemakers, Roquefort

a huge helmet, preserved in the town hall, to represent the Christian warrior, whilst the adversary has a turban on his head. They fight with sticks of the garrigou, that grows on the otherwise barren limestone, till the Mussulman drops with exhaustion, when the victor is divested of his helmet and conducted in triumph to the house where the ass is supposed to have brayed.

A visit should certainly be made to Roquefort, where the famous cheese is made from ewe's milk. The town is built not only against, but into a rock of limestone that has been riddled with caves natural and artificially bored to serve as cellars, in which the cheese is kept at an even temperature, and is supposed then to attain its special flavour. The cheese is, however, not all made there; it is brought there from the Larzac, that maintains enormous flocks of sheep, and indeed from throughout the arrondissement of Ste. Affrique. The cheeses are conveyed to Roquefort, there to mature. The blue mould in them is not, however, due to natural mildew in the cheese, but to mildewed crumbs of bread blown into the curd in process of formation. The cheeses are ranged on stages of wooden boards by over nine hundred girls in short petticoats, called cabanières, whose special duty it is to attend to the cheeses. They are clean, good-natured, happy-faced lasses, who marry early, usually at sixteen. It is extraordinary if one is still unmarried at nineteen.

I have described the making of the cheese in my Deserts of Central France. The natural caves in Roquefort number twenty-three, and there are thirty-four in all. The rocks in part of the town overhang the houses.

At Lunas, commanded by the escarpments of the Pioch, there is not much more to be seen than the ruins of a castle and a church partly Romanesque. Le Bousquet d'Orb occupies a picturesque situation, on a mamelon in the midst of a basin. On the highest terrace the church stands up boldly. This is a place with mines of coal and copper. Boussagues is a very ancient village, once a town enclosed within walls, and possessing two churches and two castles. The town has retained its medieval physiognomy—and its smells.

The train from Bédarieux to Lamalou follows the Orb, that flows through a green and smiling plain. Properly the Orb should pursue its further course due south, but a low range of hills obstructs the way, and the river is forced to turn abruptly round and flow due west. The hills to the south rise; on a lofty isolated height above green forest gleams white a pilgrimage chapel. We pass on to Lamalou, where every comfort may be obtained.

Lamalou is picturesquely situated in a narrow lateral valley of the Orb, in the midst of the buttresses of the Espinouse, or rather of the Caroux, that links the Cevennes proper to the Montaigne Noire. This thermal station is growing in importance, the waters being thought specially and peculiarly beneficial in spinal troubles, above all in cases of S. Vitus's Dance. In winter it has but 900 inhabitants, but in summer arrive 10,000 visitors, and a special train-de-luxe starts twice a week from Paris for Lamalou, enabling the journey to be made in fifteen hours.

A favourite walk is to N. D. de Capimont, which occupies from two hours to two and a half. This is a little chapel on the height above the village, with a hermitage attached. There is no hermit there now. The last died five years ago. He was found dead in his cell, some days apparently after that he had expired. He was the last, and there are not likely to be any successors to an Order that was by no means an element of good in the country. Ferdinand Fabre has given a graphic account of the hermits in Barnabé, and also in Mon Oncle Célestin.

"I am in despair," says he. "Letters from the South inform me that one by one the hermitages are being closed; that the hermits, knapsack on back, are quitting their solitary chapels, and that they do not return. Did the order for their suppression issue from the Prefecture or from the Episcopal Palace? It is supposed from both simultaneously. What a pity! O how the picturesqueness of our South will be the poorer thereby."

The hermits, calling themselves Free Brothers of S. Francis, were a begging fraternity; they rambled about the country selling sacred pictures, rosaries, and other religious trifles; they frequented the fairs and the taverns, and neither ate nor drank in moderation, and their morals were not irreproachable. But they served a purpose. They attended to the solitary chapels, and made ample provision for the pilgrims who visited these shrines.

"Mon Dieu!" says Fabre; "I know well enough that the Free Brothers of S. Francis, as they loved to entitle themselves, had allowed themselves a good deal of freedom, more than was decorous. For instance, it was not particularly edifying at Bédarieux on a market-day to see the hermits from the mountains round about leave the tavern of the Golden Grapes staggering, jolting against one another, shouting, and at nightfall describing ridiculous zigzags as they went on their way straying along the roads leading to their solitary dwellings.

"But as these monastically habited gentry in no way scandalised the population of the South, who never confounded the occupants of the hermitages with the cures of the parishes, why sweep away these fantastic figures, who, without any religious character, recruited from the farms, never educated in seminaries, peasants at bottom, in no way priests, capable, when required, to give a helping hand with the pruning-knife in the vineyard or with the pole among the olives, or the sickle among the corn. Alas! they had their weaknesses, and these weaknesses worked their ruin."

At the French Revolution the Free Brothers of S. Francis did not creep into their shells and hide their heads there—they knew better than that. Though not even in minor orders, they did something smack of the clerical, and might be sent à la lanterne. So they doffed the brown habit and donned the blouse, went to farmers and served them till the tyranny was overpassed. In 1806 the curés of the parishes were glad to find any pious laymen who would keep the chapels clean and serve at Mass on the days when pilgrims streamed to them. The men thus installed assumed a Franciscan snuff-coloured habit, and called themselves, without other justification, Brethren of S. Francis.

When he was a child, Fabre says, there were six hermitages in the upper valley of the Orb. Now most of the chapels are falling to decay, as there is no one authorised to look after them. But N. D. de Capimont is still in considerable repute, and is frequented by crowds on the Feast of the Assumption. A curious old town, situated high, may be visited from either Lamalou or Bédarieux. This is Villemagne, with a ruined abbey and mint. The abbey was founded by Charlemagne in 780. The church of the parish is dedicated to S. Majan, and is a vast building; the choir alone was erected in the fourteenth century. It contains a curious altar of the sixth century, now used as a bénitier. The old church of S. Gregory, of the thirteenth century, long used as a granary, has been restored. The old town is full of ancient buildings, in narrow streets, and is very curious.

But the finest excursion of all is that to the gorge of Héric. For this it is advisable to take the train to Colombières and walk thence, or drive from Lamalou. The station of Trivalle is close to the entrance of the gorge, but from that side it can rarely be ascended, as the path built up against the precipice is often broken down and not repaired. But from the other side the ascent is easily made. The view up the ravine to the needle rocks of granite above is hardly to be surpassed for beauty of colour and form. The sides are precipitous for 900 feet. By the path one can reach the village of Héric, lost at the extremity of this tremendous ravine, and by this is its only means of communication with the outer world; and so dangerous is the path that there is a saying in the country that no inhabitant of Héric dies in his bed. What I have said before I repeat here. None of the gorges in the Cevennes resemble one another; they have not even a family likeness, for the Caroux from which the stream descends, and into the bowels of which this gorge is cleft, is of granite; and what resemblance can there be between granite and basalt or dolomitic limestone? When I visited the ravine, snow powdered the silvery-grey needles at the head and lay in the laps. So seen, the picture of that ravine is indelibly impressed on my memory as one of surpassing savage beauty.

S. Gervais is a picturesque little town situated at the junction of the Casselouvres and the Mare, that takes its rise in the Signal de l'Espinouse, 3,380 feet. Its church has the peculiarity of the spire being a grove of trees and a bed of wallflowers that have rooted themselves in the stonework and been allowed to grow there unmolested. The town, notwithstanding that it preserves many relics of the Middle Ages and a general aspect that is venerable, is but modern compared with the older town, now abandoned, that was built on a jagged rock, its ruins mingling with the rock and scarce distinguishable from it. The more modern town is planted on a hillock standing by itself; the streets are narrow, scrambling up the side of the hill, and the houses are dingy, dirty, and dilapidated. The still more modern town lies below the hill. There is an intermittent spring in the side of the Hotel Soulié. At Saint Gervais at fair time may be noted the contrast that exists between the inhabitant of the sun-baked, semi-tropical lower land, rich in oil, honey, and wine, and the mountaineer who descends there to sell his cattle. Those who live in the sheltered valleys are clothed in stout broadcloth and serge, or bottle-green velvet. They arrive at a fair or market, noisy, sprightly, their mules laden with corn and fruit. On the other hand, the inhabitant of the heights of the Espinouse or Larzac is grave, reserved, uncommunicative, clothed in a garment of coarse cloth called grisaoud, followed by interminable flocks of sheep, goats, and oxen.

At Bédarieux—

"They trade, they chaffer over almonds, olives, honey, cocoons, wheat, the produce of a sunny nature; at Saint Gervais is a cattle market, and is of a graver character, for though a man can dispose lightly of the fruits of the earth that he has tilled, of the tree he has planted, it is not without a pang that the shepherd can separate himself from the beast he has nourished. Between the pastor and his flock do there not exist, moreover, mutual sentiments of affection, even of love, that defy all psychology?"

But the market is not one of cattle and corn only, it is of human beings as well, for hither come the shepherds to hire boys to attend during the year on the sheep and herds of swine. These lads are locally called {{wikt: pillard|pillards}}, and the token that one has been engaged is that the shepherd buys the boy a pair of new {{wikt: sabot|sabots}} out of his own money, a sort of investiture in the pastoral office. These lads and the shepherds lead a lonely life in the mountains. The boys are not unkindly treated, for the Cevenol, if rough and silent, has a gentle and kindly heart. But what a life for a growing boy in wild nature, among mountains and shrubs, birds of all kinds, and creeping things innumerable, and at night with the stars shining above his head with a sharpness and intensity as though they stabbed him to the heart, but left an exquisite pain behind. He learns to know the signs of the times, the winds, the voices of nature, to distinguish one bird's note from another, and to ascertain the virtues of the aromatic herbs on the limestone causse. The life may be hard, but it is healthy both to body and mind and soul.

  1. Ferd. Troubat: Danse des Treilles. Toulouse, 1900.