A Book of the Cevennes/The Ravine of the Allier



The Allier—Difficulty of ascent—Remarkable engineering of the line—Summer visitors—Difference between the Allier and the Ardéche—Langeac—Chanteuges—Disorderly monks—Fête on Whit-Sunday—The Lafayettes—The Margeride and its inhabitants—Sauges—The Drac—Church—Tour de la Clauze—Tomb of an English captain—La Voute-Chilhac—Basalt—Used on the roads—Monistrol d'Allier—S. Privat—Find of an oculist's tools—Alleyras—Bed of old lake—Langogne—Church—N. D. du Tout Pouvoir—the Vogue—Proprietorship versus tenancy—Pradelles—Delivered from the Huguenots—Château of De Belsunce—S. Alban—Cave—Trappist monastery—The Liborne—The rule of La Trappe.

I PASS now from the east to the west by direct flight from the Vivarais over the plateau of Le Puy to where the Allier descends into the plains from the lofty ridge of the southern Cevennes.

Almost from its source the Allier has met with difficulties. It has had to contend with granite, schist, and finally with basalt, and it has had to form for itself a ravine that widens into a valley below Langeac where are coal-beds.

That ravine is peculiarly tantalising, because it is difficult to explore satisfactorily. From Langeac a road runs up the riverside only till it encounters that from Sauges to S. Privat. Beyond that there is none. The line, indeed, does follow the stream, and it is of all French lines the most remarkable for the engineering feats achieved. The road for the rails has been hewn as a cornice in the face of the cliff, every salient buttress has been bored through, and every inconvenient lateral gorge overleaped. In 132 kilometres (81 miles) from the confluence of the Dège with the Allier up to La Levade, there are ninety tunnels, which happens to be precisely the number of kilometres between those points as the crow flies.

Precisely this fact makes the ascent of the ravine by train prove so unsatisfactory. It consists in a rapid succession of flashes followed by darkness—a constant flutter, as it were, of the eyelid. Moreover, the tunnels are carried through the shoulders of the mountain, avoiding the finest parts of the cañon.

The only possible way of doing justice to the scenery is to halt at the little stations where poor villages have been planted at the opening of lateral ravines, and thence follow the river by a footpath as far as it will lead.

The ascent of the river by train is indeed one of the great curiosities of the country, and it will be done generally in this way till the authorities of the department undertake to drive a carriage-road up the gorge. It is true that the villages are few, the population small, and trade a negligible quantity at present. But the scenery and the coolness of the mountain air, and the abundance of crystal water, are drawing annually more and ever more from the sweltering plains of Languedoc and the burning zone of Provence to this region for the summer, and it is accordingly to be regretted that they are debarred by lack of roadway from exploring what is the most magnificent feature of the country.

I have described the cañon of the Ardèche; this of the Allier is also a cañon, but they are as unlike as is a blonde beauty to one who is dark. They are both superb, but in manner totally different The Allier runs through rough basalt and crystalline rocks; the Ardèche flows between bluffs of limestone. The latter can be descended in a boat, the Allier cannot. The Allier looks north—the colouring, the vegetation, the climate are northern; the Ardèche in every one of these particulars is southern. The Ardèche has cut its way through a level plateau; the Allier flows between ranges of mountains. The cañon of the Ardèche is a street; the defile of the Allier is a lane. We cannot seek the Ardèche in the height of summer; it is just then when we would refresh in the cool draughts and the blue shadows of the Allier.

The chasm of this latter river has been formed at the point of contact of the lava with the granite. The volcanoes of Le Velay poured forth their molten floods which beat against the granitic mass of the Margeride, and the lava in cooling may have shrunk and cracked and so allowed the river an opportunity of escaping into the plain. In places it has cut through granite and schist. It had cut this channel before the volcanic vents opened. What these latter did was to deposit what they threw out in the trough of the Allier, and force that stream to renew its work of excavation; in the latter part of its course the ravine is cut through lava.

Langeac will serve as a starting-point for visits if the tourist be not very particular as to accommodation. It does possess one passable inn, and that is at some distance from the station in the town. The place itself is of no great interest. It has manufactures, favoured by the presence of coal-beds near at hand. The church, however, is curious. It consists of a nave without aisles, but with chapels between the buttresses, and with an apse, lined within with well-carved oak stalls of the sixteenth century; once occupied at Mass by canons, now by schoolboys. The tower is at the east end, and supports an octagonal campanile.

From Langeac Chanteuges is easily reached. It clusters about a basaltic hunch at the junction of the Dège with the Allier. The village creeps up the side of the hill, the summit of which is occupied by a church and the ruins of a priory. The original church was a fine example of Romanesque, but is now a sad jumble of styles; every age as it passed has left a trace on the building. The platform on which it stands is ascended by a zigzag path; basaltic prisms, range above range, form the mass of the rock.

The main entrance to the old priory is on the north, and was defended by a tower. On one of the blocks at the top of the wall may be read the date 1115. The monks had evidently converted their habitation into a fortress, and it was precisely this that led to their suppression and the dispersion of the fraternity.

One Iter de Maudulf, a knight who had led a lawless life, felt a twinge of compunction, and resolved on quitting the world and embracing a life of religion. Accordingly he assumed the cowl in Chanteuges. But the old Adam was not dead in him. Cucullus non facit monachum. The choir offices proved tedious, the meagre fare unacceptable, and the wine was vinegar. His temper gave way, and with it his good resolutions. He became restive. In the refectory he talked to the other monks of the good old days when he roistered and roved over the country; ate and drank and did wild deeds of devilry. They listened; their mouths watered, and their fingers itched. Eventually Maudulf succeeded in corrupting the whole fraternity. The monks abandoned their reading and psalmody to fortify the height. Every night a diabolical horde issued from the gate of the monastery, clothed in mail armour under their serge habits. They swept the country, levied blackmail on the farmers, stopped and robbed merchants, and plundered the pilgrims bound for the shrine of Our Lady of Le Puy. In the dead of night they forced their way into convents, and romped and revelled with the nuns, or else carried off comely peasants' daughters en croupe to their stronghold at Chanteuges.

Of all the confraternity, the abbot alone kept his head; but his objurgations were disregarded, his authority was flouted. In despair he appealed to the Bishop of Clermont, who at once visited the monastery, but took the precaution of doing so at the head of a body of armed men. "I saw," said he, "the abbey in the most deplorable condition. The buildings were in ruins, the sanctuary was despoiled, the church converted into a fortress, no one serving God, the holy habitation transformed into a den of thieves and murderers."

Accordingly the monastery was suppressed, the monks dispersed among other houses, and the abbey converted into a priory under the rule and supervision of Chaisedieu. To the present day the belief prevails among the peasantry that in winter, at night, when a storm rages and the snow is driving, a black cavalcade issues from the gate, with cowls drawn over grinning skulls, and with serge habits flapping in the wind, that it sweeps over the plateau till cock-crow, when it returns through the portal and vanishes.

East of the church is a little chapel of flamboyant character with richly sculptured doorway, surmounted by a representation of the Assumption. It is the sole specimen of this style in the department. At the Revolution it was converted into a haystore.

The fête at Chanteuges is on Whitsun Day, and has a peculiar observance. It begins in the Pré du Fou. This field may not be mown till after Pentecost. A beggar is induced to hide in the long grass. The youths of the parish, wearing hats decked with cock's feathers, march to the field in two files led by fifes and drums and preceded by a banner. The procession circles thrice about the field, and some of the young men detach themselves from it and beat it in search of the beggar. If they do not find him at once, others come to their aid. When the fou has been discovered, he is grasped by the legs, thrown on his back, and spun round once by each of the youths forming the procession. Then a pistol is discharged, the procession reforms, and the train mounts to the church, taking the poor fool along with it. There he is again thrown down and undergoes the same process of spinning. After this he is indemnified by a few coppers from each of the Spinners, and every seller of cakes and buns who has a stall there is bound to supply him with sufficient food to satisfy his maw. The spinning over, the young men enter the church for Mass. At Chanteuges the festival of Pentecost is devoted partly to God, partly to dancing, partly to drinking. God is often forgotten, dancing sometimes, the bottle never.

Opposite Chanteuges is S. Arcons, where the Fioule flows into the Allier. It rises among the pine-clad heights of Fix S. Genys, and receives the stream that issues from the Lake of Limagne, a volcanic basin like that of Bourget, but not of like regularity of outline.

Above Langeac is the land of the Lafayettes. They were great seigneurs in the Middle Ages. They derive from Gilbert Motier, lord of Lafayette, who was one of the great captains that drove the English out of France. He died in 1463, and was grandson of a Gilbert who fell on the field of Poitiers, 1356, also with his face set against the English. So Marie Jean Paul, the famous marquess, fought the English on the side of the Americans, 1777-1785. The Marquess was born at Chavagnac, 1757, on the tableland about the junction of lines at S. Georges d'Aurac. The castle was built in 1701.

From Langeac one can explore the granitic Margeride, peopled by a race distinct from the Cevenols. They are pale, often fair-headed and blue-eyed, grave, dignified, and intensely conservative. They are and ever have been sturdy Catholics, have never been shaken, even ruffled, by the shock to faith given by Calvin and his followers. Whereas a Cevenol is ready at all times for a prophecy, a revelation, a new doctrine, the upset of one that is old, taking up what is fresh with fanaticism, and then letting it drop and lapsing into indifference, the man of the Margeride remains as constant, as unmoved as his own rocky mountains. The Margeride, "as seen from the Pec Finiels, is a long black line drawn against the sky of central France, a wall without battlements, without towers, without a keep." It is in reality a long series of successive undulating plains high uplifted, covered with forests of oaks, beech and pines, or else with pastures on which feed during the summer the sheep of Basse Languedoc and the oxen of the Camargue. It is composed of granite, and its loftiest points reach only 4,650 feet. A visitor will probably content himself with an expedition to Sauges, that lies in scenery called the Switzerland of the Margeride. The rich green swath, the dark pine-woods, the abundance of crystal rills contrast with the bare lava plain and mountain cones of Le Velay.

The Sauge stream falls in cascade over a dyke of trap that has been forced through a rent in the granite, near the farm of Luchadou, built on and out of the ruins of a castle. There a phantom horse, magnificently caparisoned, is said to be seen grazing. It neighs when it sees children approach, and invites them to mount its back, which will lengthen conveniently to accommodate as many as desire to have a ride. When the horse has received a full complement, it dashes into the river, and buck-jumps till it has flung all the riders against the rocks or into the pools.

One day when a couple of dozen children were on its back, as the steed was galloping towards the stream one little boy sang out "Gloria Patri," etc., whereby he was able to master the "Drac " and make it gallop round and round the field till exhausted, when it let the children descend unmolested. This is none other than the Irish Pooka. The celebrated fall of the Liffey, near Ballymore Eustace, is named Pool-a-Phooka, and precisely the same story is told there of a phantom horse as here at Sauges. The same also in North Wales of the Ceffyl-y-Dwyr, the water-horse of Marchlyn. Can this myth have originated and been told by the Celtic race before its separation into several branches? I can see no other explanation of the puzzle.

The church at Sauges has an early and remarkable belfry. An immense arch, richly moulded, admits to a porch. Above this is a still larger relieving arch to sustain the octagonal tower that is on two stages. Granite and black basalt are employed in bands and in the arches of the windows, two-light in the tower story, single in that above, and the whole is capped by a dwarf spire.

Near Sauges is the Tour de la Clauze, erected on a protuberant mass of granite fissured into blocks. The rest of the castle is completely ruined. But that which is most curious at Sauges is a monumental structure composed of a cubical base, on which stand four pillars supporting arches and a vault with groined ribs. This goes by the name of the Tombeau du Général Anglais, and is supposed to have been set up in honour of a Captain MacHarren, who commanded one of the mixed companies of English and Gascons that held the land or harried it for the English Crown nominally, actually for themselves. This MacHarren was probably one of the English garrison that held Sauges till 1360, when they were driven out by the Viscount Polignac.

La Voute-Chilhac down the river stands on a peninsula between the Allier and the Avesne that here debouches into it. It possesses a church of the fifteenth century that has taken the place of one erected by S. Odilo of Cluny in 1075. The original door-valves remain, but injured by cutting to make them fit the ogee portal. In the midst it bears the inscription:—

"Hic tibi rex regum hoc condidit Odilo templum
 Agminibus superis quem miscuit arbiter orbis."

There were other inscriptions, but they have been mutilated. Chilhac stands on a rock composed in the lower portion of beautiful prismatic columnar basalt, capped with an amorphous flow. It is curious how sharp the line of demarcation is between the two beds. The situation is pretty, the church Romanesque.

The course of the Allier above Langeac presents many faces like organ fronts of basalt; in places the pillars form a pavé de géants. The prisms are employed along the roads to mark distances, and might easily be supposed to have been specially cut for the purpose. But all lava does not crystallise into prisms; under pressure it does. When not squeezed by super-incumbent beds it is cinderous. But there is another form it assumes, that of phonolith or clinkstone, flakes that can be cut like slates and divided into laminae. As slates they are employed extensively in Velay. But why the ejected lava should form films here and prismatic pillars there, I do not comprehend.

At Monistrol d' Allier the Ance du Sud comes in from the Margeride after traversing a picturesque gorge. Here may be studied a fine basaltic face, called Escluzels. There are grottoes in the neighbourhood excavated in the tufa by the hand of man, but when is not known. A chapel dedicated to the Magdalen has been scooped out of the rock, but given a frontage of wall, and is an object of pilgrimage on the Sunday following July 22nd, when and where may be seen some of the costumes of the neighbourhood not yet wholly discarded.

On the opposite bank of the Allier is S. Privat, where the stream of Bouchoure comes down writhing between high precipices. The tower of Rochegude occupies the summit of a peak 1,500 feet high, commanding the river and the roads. In 1865 a discovery was made at S. Privat of a cache of a Roman oculist of the third century. Along with his little store of coins lay his delicate instruments, and a cube as well, bearing on each face the name of one of the medicaments employed by him, and the cube used probably by him for sealing up his packets. The man seems to have known his business, or at all events of having both instruments and remedies not by any means barbarous. On reaching Alleyras the valley opens into a basin. Above the little town shoots up a mass of rock looking like a gigantic thumb as we approach from the north, but changing form as Alleyras is passed. It is actually a huge slab of rock that is detached from the mountain by a wide fissure.

The basin of Alleyras was once a lake, where the river paused to rest before it renewed its efforts to break a way through the lava. From this point upwards the scenery is less savage and gloomy. At Chapeauroux the railway describes a great curve, and pursues its way through tunnel and over viaduct till it draws up at Langogne, a busy little town of the Gevaudan, of some commercial importance. A monastery was founded here in 998 by Stephen Count of the Gevaudan, and Silvester II. presented to it the relics of SS. Gervasius and Protasius, and further conferred on the town the more than doubtful privilege of being out of episcopal jurisdiction, to be looked after or let alone by the Holy See only. The place suffered severely in the Hundred Years War, and again and worse even in those of religion. From 1562 for nearly a century and a half the Gevaudan was devastated turn and turn about by Protestants and Catholics, and Langogne passed from the hands of one party to those of the other. In 1568 the Huguenots sacked the town and set fire to the church and monastery.

The church comprises a nave and side aisles, and is substantially in the Romanesque style, but with many alterations. There are three arcades resting on piers with engaged columns in granite, with capitals carved to represent fruit, acanthus leaves, and the seven deadly sins. A pretty flamboyant doorway replaces the western porch, which had been destroyed. Over it is a window in the same style. On the right of the entrance a doorway, that seems to give access only to a passage, communicates with a chapel below the soil, dimly lighted, and containing an image of N. D. de tout Pouvoir, supposed to have been given by Agelmodis, the widow of the founder of church and monastery. It was accorded a crown in 1900 by the Pope, and the anniversary of this ceremony, July 29th, is kept as a fête at Langogne. But the great festival in the town is on the Sunday following June 19th, when is the vogue, in honour of the two patrons, Gervasius and Protasius. On that occasion cars are drawn through the streets bearing groups of allegorical figures; but the special sport of the day is the "chute d'eau." A species of gallows is erected in the main street, with a vessel full of water balanced in the middle. The young men vie with one another as to who by throwing a stick can upset the vessel, and then dash under it so speedily as not to be splashed by the falling water. He who succeeds receives a prize.

Langogne is becoming annually more and more a summer resort. The Languiron here flows into the Allier; it does not fill its bed, which is the receptacle for the refuse from the abattoir and the town, and the odours arising from these dejections infect the otherwise pure mountain air.

It is doubtless excellent in principle that every man should be able to dwell under his own fig tree and inhabit his own house; but this has its drawbacks. The theory may be sound, yet the results other than those anticipated. In England, where most householders are tenants, if a slate be blown off the landlord is applied to. If the putty be cracked that retains a window-pane, the landlord must see to it less the glass fall out. If the plaster scales off in one patch the size of a leaf, the landlord must replaster the whole face of the house. If the rats have gnawed through the floor, "Please, squire, have the boards relaid lest my child puts its leg through." If the well be contaminated, he is called upon to clear it, under the threat of complaint to the Local Government Board. But in France, where every man owns his own habitation, the habitations are allowed to fall into a ragged and measly condition. If a slate be carried away, the patron tells his wife to put a basin where it can catch the drip whenever it rains. If the putty falls from the glass, the pane is retained by the gummed border of postage stamps, renewed when necessary. If the rats have eaten through the floor, the child must learn to avoid the hole; it affords a useful lesson in circumspection. If the plaster peals away in masses from the front of the house, "Shall I squander money in titivating it?" asks the owner. "My relatives would consign me to an asylum as incapable of managing my affairs." And as for the well, M. le propriétaire says to himself, "I never drink water, only wine. If some of my children get diphtheria, it will leave more money for those who survive."

This it is that gives to so many of the towns and nearly every village in France a palsied, neglected look, as if the houses had lost their self-respect, like a man who has gone down in the world and sunk to be a tramp.

Pradelles is four miles from Langogne, built in an amphitheatre on the flanks of the mountains of Le Velay, surrounded by rich meadows, from which it derives its name (pratellæ). The many Prades that occur in the south are all so called from the pratæ that spread about them. In 1588 Chambaud, at the head of a large body of Huguenots, besieged the town. As it had but a scanty garrison, he shouted to those on the walls, "Ville prise, ville gagnée!" To which a young woman called back, "Pa'ncaro!" (not yet) and flung a great stone at him which broke in his skull. This act of heroism saved Pradelles from being sacked and its citizens from massacre. The memory of that woman, Jeanne de Verdette, is still green there, and in 1888 the third centenary of the deliverance was commemorated at Pradelles.

At Naussac, in the opposite direction, on a granite tableland that goes by the name of the Kidney of Lozère, is an ancient house with a tower that formed a portion of the château of Mgr. de Belsunce, the brave Bishop of Marseilles, who was so devoted in his attentions to the plague-stricken in the terrible pestilence of 1720, which carried off forty thousand of its population. S. Alban-en-Montagne is four miles from Langonne in the department of Ardèche. It lies high—3,565 feet. On the face of an enormous basaltic rock is a remarkable cave divided into several chambers, and large enough to contain all the villagers. It was employed as a place of refuge during the wars of feudal times, and again in those of religion. Access to it is not easy. As the railway reaches the watershed, barricades on both sides protect it from snow-drifts. Luc is passed, having an old castle on a rock, the donjon braced to sustain a colossal statue of the Virgin. Then the train halts at La Bastide, where is a branch line to Mende.

The Trappist monks have an establishment near this on these bleak heights. Their buildings are tasteless. Hitherto the monks have been left unmolested by Government, due possibly to the fact that they receive and examine the silkworm moths that have laid their eggs, sent to them from great distances round, to examine if they are free from the disease that so fatally threatened the silk industry in the Cevennes.

The breaking out of this complaint caused consternation some years ago, and M. Pasteur was sent down to investigate it. He found that no remedial efforts availed, and that the sole way of getting rid of the disorder was to stamp it out. Accordingly every moth after it has laid its eggs is enclosed along with the seed that has been deposited in a muslin bag and sent to be inspected. Each bag is numbered and ticketed with the name of the sender. The body of the moth is pounded up and submitted to examination under a powerful microscope, and this reveals the presence of the germs of fibrine if they exist. Should these be detected, the eggs of that particular moth are destroyed by fire.

In addition to this service rendered by the Trappists, they have shown the peasantry of the High Cevennes how to improve the quality of the land by the use of lime and artificial manures, and they have also improved the breed of the sheep and cattle.

But these are side products of monachism, and they are benefits that might just as well be rendered by laymen; and, in fact, the examination of the silkworm moths is carried out in laboratories established for the purpose in some of the large towns of Languedoc.

The Trappist Order is the severest of all. The members are condemned never to speak, never to eat meat or fish, are denied even butter and oil. They have but two meals a day, and these of vegetables only. They never take off their garments to wash or to sleep,and do not wear linen. They go to bed at 8 p.m. in the summer, at 7 p.m. in winter, and rise at 2 a.m., but have no meal of any sort till midday. Every day part of their duty is to dig a portion of their future grave.

In Quarles' Hieroglyphics of the Life of Man, published in 1635, is an emblem of a dark lantern placed on a coffin and the sun in total eclipse, and this is above a poem, of which I give two stanzas:—

"Was it for this, the breath of Heav'n was blown
       Into the nostrils of this heavenly creature?
 Was it for this, that the sacred Three in One
       Conspired to make this quintessence of Nature?
             Did heav'nly Providence intend
             So rare a fabric for so poor an end?

"Tell me, recluse monastre, can it be
       A disadvantage to thy beams to shine?
A thousand tapers may gain light from thee:
       Is thy light less or worse for light'ning mine?
             If wanting light I stumble, shall
             Thy darkness not be guilty of my fall?

Peasants of the Caus - A book of the Cevennes.jpg

Peasants of the Caus