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ON THE BORDERS OF SAVOY
IT was evening. All day we had been speeding across the monotonous plains of central France, but these were now left behind, and we were beginning to encounter the outlying foothills of the Alps. My destination was Bellegarde, still far away, the last stop on the route before the express train for Geneva, on which I was travelling, entered Switzerland. When I looked out into the dusky moon‑light of the night, I could see that we were following up a narrow valley bordered by steep hills, and occasionally there were great up‑thrusting turrets of rocks crowning the slopes like vast and ruinous old castles. In the hollow was a brawling mountain stream full of boulders, its shores strewn with windrows of waterworn stones and pebbles. But the stream had its spells of quiet, where it crept along in pool-like reaches and mirrored the adjoining landscape's slender poplar trees and the hills and castellated rocks. Now and then a little village hugged the face of one of the big cliffs, usually a manufacturing place with some white-walled mills in its midst.
So we went on through the moonlit night until half-past ten, when we reached Bellegarde, where I alighted and had my drowsiness shaken off by the tumult of a custom-house examination conducted by government officers in the railway station. As soon as I was released bag and baggage, I sought the nearest hotel and retired.
The next day was clear and warm. If one sat within doors and had the windows open a little breeze wandered in that was comfortably cooling, but for the pedestrian who chose to ramble near and far as I did, the weather was decidedly hot, and the white, chalky roads were blinding in the sunlight.
The country about Bellegarde was wrinkled into a great medley of monster hills and valleys, while lofty mountain ranges loomed on the horizon. Winding in and out through the lowest valley depths was the river Rhone, a tumult of hurrying green water, seething and boiling along in a manner very unlike the serene leisure of the other French rivers I had known. It seemed a very demon of a stream, and perhaps with reason, for it was bearing to the sea the spirits of the Alpine glaciers that for thousands of years had been held imprisoned in the ice-fields of the mountain tops. No wonder that they should be in a frenzy of haste to reach their old home, the ocean. The river was not broad, but it must have been deep, for it gave a sense of immense power. In the Bellegarde neighborhood it flows for a long distance through a narrow, high-cuffed gorge that it has carved for itself down into the strata of the chalky rock. The gorge drops from the ordinary valley levels suddenly and without any preliminary shelving, and at a little remove you lose sight not only of the stream, but of its channel as well; the landscape appears to be without a break, and if it were not for the roar of the waters you would have no suspicion of the river's existence.
I crossed the stream twice in my walk that first morning, once by the high arches of a stone bridge near the town, and again, some distance down the valley, by a slender wooden footbridge that connected two small villages. The latter crossing was deep in the shadowed chasm, and I had to descend to it by a steep, zigzag path. From the bridge I could look down on the writhing turmoil of the waters and up to the great crags which overhung the narrow channel. On the summit of the cliffs was a fringe of bushes, and, at one point, several cottages peeped over the verge of the precipice.
THE RHONE AT BELLEGARDE
Bellegarde is a frontier town, and all its highways and even its most secluded byways are guarded by revenue officers. No loopholes are left for the entry of contraband goods. Thus, when I reached the farther side of this little bridge across the Rhone I came to a diminutive hut, before the door of which stood a uniformed official. He stopped me and asked if I had a bicycle. I did not comprehend very clearly what he wanted, and he had me step inside his sentry box and read a notice which said no one could come into French territory on a bicycle without a permit, and this permit would cost sixty centimes. I certainly showed no signs of having a bicycle, and the sentinel's challenge seemed hardly necessary, especially as a man would have to risk his neck to get his machine down and up the attenuated and precipitous pathways on either side of the stream. Probably the guard, in his French love of talk, simply wanted to relieve the tedium of his position by a little visiting. He was quite ready to take my word for it that I had no wheel concealed about my person, and, that matter settled, he very sociably volunteered information concerning points of interest in the neighborhood. He had a lonely time, no doubt, in that shadowy canyon, and must have envied the more stirring life of his fellow officials posted in Bellegarde town.
The squad most in evidence there, aside from that which kept watch on the passengers arriving by train, was one stationed where the main highway from the Swiss direction comes over a bridge that spans one of the branches of the Rhone. From a guardroom by the roadside the officials looked out on the highway, and no person or vehicle entered the town without being seen by them. Once in a while a passer was challenged. It might be a woman with a market basket on her arm; it might be a man trundling a bag of sawdust on a wheel barrow, or a driver jogging past with an empty keg in his cart. The cloth covering the basket is lifted, and the guard takes a critical look at its contents; the man with the sawdust waits while a rapier is brought out and thrust through the bag to betray the presence of any smuggled goods that are possibly concealed within; and in the case of the empty keg in the cart a guard must needs climb up and have a look in at the bunghole. I did not think the duties of the revenue officers were very arduous. Their challenging and their investigations seemed to be undertaken more for their personal entertainment than for anything else, or just to keep up a reputation for attending to business.
The section of the town in which the guardhouse was situated lay in part across the stream, and the bridge was a busy thoroughfare. All sorts of folks were coming and going — bareheaded school children, and men and women of high degree and low; and there were carts and carriages and now and then a slow ox-team. Somewhere near there was a bakery, and whenever I was in the vicinity toward evening I found many of the passers burdened with great round loaves of bread. The loaves were in form very like monster doughnuts, each with a hole in the middle, making it very convenient to carry them hung on the arm. The most ingenious use of the hole that I noticed was made by a driver of one of the ox-teams, who was conveying his loaf home safely suspended on a pole of his cart.
In what I saw of the farming round about the town, it seemed to me the tillers of the soil had to contend with great difficulties. There were no levels. All the land was on a slant, often very steep and much broken by ravines and outjutting spurs of rock. Most of the work had of necessity to be done by hand, even if there was the enterprise to use modern machines and the prosperity that could afford them. At this season the men were busy with their scythes mowing the little grass-fields, or, with the help of the women, were spreading, turning, raking, and getting in the hay. Their tools, compared with the lightness and grace of those commonly used in America, were curiously clumsy. The rakes, for instance, had perfectly straight handles, and at the working end a double set of teeth, one set on either side of the crosspiece. The theory seemed to be that the workers were as likely to put their rakes down wrong side up as right, and this double row of teeth was provided so there could be no wrong side.
The forks used were not so angular as the rakes, but were hardly less primitive. They were wholly of wood, had three curved, wide-spreading tines, were all very large, and some of them enormous. The especial purpose of the biggest forks was to enable a man to pick up and carry great heaps of hay on his shoulders from the less accessible plots to those more favorably situated. Sometimes he conveyed the hay in that way clear to the house-barn. Usually, however, if a man had to carry his hay on his back any considerable distance to reach home he packed it into a big blanket. Blanket transportation was resorted to more, higher among the mountains than immediately about Belle-garde, where most of the farmers had oxen and brought their hay from the fields, up or down the steeps, as the case might be, in little jags on their clumsy ox-carts.
The manner of attaching the oxen to the carts was peculiar, and I thought rather harassing. The yoke was not on the oxen's shoulders, but was strapped to their horns and rested on their heads just over the ears. You could not help fancying that the jolting of the cart must make the yoke thus placed quite distressing at times, yet the oxen seemed as well pleased to have it there as anywhere, and the ponderous tranquillity which characterizes their race appeared not even to be disturbed by the femininity of wearing veils. Veils were the fashion for oxen in that part of the country, and every creature had one. They were a kind of screen of strings intended to keep the flies out of the eyes, and as the heads of the oxen were fast to the yoke so that they could not free themselves from the troublesome pests, the veils were humane and necessary.
In favorable spots on the Bellegarde hillsides there were vineyards set full of slender stakes about a yard high that were fast being hidden by the green vines. Each vine's this year's sprouts all grew from a stub cut back within a foot of the ground. In the newer vineyards the stubs were hardly noticeable, but in some of the older ones they had attained a considerable size, and showed that their years were many. The vines were set so thickly that a person could barely walk between them. No weeds were allowed to grow in the vineyards, and the women were constantly at work in them hoeing and mellowing the ground, tying the straggling shoots with wisps of straw to the upright stakes, and otherwise caring for the vines.
One afternoon I climbed in the swelter of the clear sunshine far up the steep of a great hill slope to a little village that had as a background a big mountain range seamed with stony ravines. The farm buildings of this and all the other villages of the region were quite different from those of the north where I had been travelling previously. They betokened a warmer climate and sought protection from the heat by allowing the roof to project all around far out from the walls. On the side of the house most exposed to the sun the roof was continued still more to make a kind of shed sheltering a veranda, the house entrance, racks of tools, and gatherings of rubbish. The door to the living-room was usually in the second story up a flight of outdoor stairs and opened on the veranda. This little upstairs porch was a very good place to sit and work, and it was utilized, more or less, by all the family; but it was essentially a kitchen adjunct and mainly used by the women. One porch I observed was occupied by a mother sewing and at the same time caring for a small child that she kept from tumbling down the stairs by clasping her feet about its body.
This upland village impressed me strongly with its picturesqueness, but the calling of the inhabitants was too apparent for unalloyed charm. If truth be told, the farm hamlets throughout the region were best seen from a distance. At close quarters you found them always so dolefully dirty that their streets looked and smelled more like stable-yards than public ways.
I wanted to go farther on up the mountain that afternoon, but now a thunder-storm came gloaming over the vast landscape, warning me back, and under the shadow of its portentous blackness I hastened down a steep pathway that brought me to Bellegarde just in time to escape the downpour.