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THE RHONE AND THE SOUTH
FOR its length the Rhone is probably the most rapid river in the world. Until near the very end its roily haste is unceasing. From Lyons, southward, it is easily navigable for good-sized vessels, but the current is so swift that the voyage upstream is attended with considerable difficulty and is at times well-nigh impracticable.
The river rises in the Swiss Alps and enters Lake Geneva stained with glacier mud. But in passing through the tranquil fifty miles of the lake all sediment sinks to the bottom, and at the lower end the water is celebrated for its clearness and for its wonderful tinge of blue. When I looked down into it from the Geneva wharves it seemed like fine glass without a flaw, and everything at the bottom was perfectly distinct. The Rhone leaves the lake as pure and pellucid as crystal, but it so continues for only about a mile. Then the Arve joins it, bringing the glacier washings from the valley of Chamonix. It is an interesting sight to see the streams come together, one turbid and gray, the other blue as the sky. For a long distance they struggle together, boiling and whirling, the line of demarkation swaying this way and that, and continuing for some time quite distinct; but in the end the stain of the Alpine rocks penetrates the water from shore to shore, and the stream never loses that hue of muddy gray until it reaches the Mediterranean.
Below Avignon the river passes through a broad arid tract, and the banks are low and swampy; but the scenery of the upper and middle courses is varied and interesting, and, with its luxuriant southern vegetation, is often exceptionally beautiful. At least, that was the impression it made on me when I journeyed down the Rhone valley by train from Lyons one Sunday morning. Much of the way we were moving between high, steep hillsides which now and then were crowned with ruined castles, the old-time homes of the robber barons of the middle ages. Where the slopes descended too sharply to hold cultivated soil they were buttressed all over with stone walls and converted into a succession of narrow terraces. On all the hillsides, whether terraced or not, were grape-vines, green and spreading in the heat of early summer.
The peasantry of the upper valley of the Rhone had only recently begun their haying, but as we proceeded southward we gradually entered a region where the season and the farm work were much more advanced. The wheat changed color, passing from fresh green in the north through all stages of yellowing and ripening till there began to be fields cut, and frequent groups of harvesters were reaping others. In spite of its being Sunday I could not see but that just as much work was going forward as if it had been a week day. Small fields were the rule, and the harvesting was nearly always done by hand. The women did much of the raking into bundles and the binding, and, in several instances, I noticed women gleaning—going through the stubble and picking up stray ears, one or two at a time.
Toward noon I reached Avignon, an old town with a mediæval wall girding it round about. At frequent intervals in the wall are towers, each designed to be a little fortress of defence against invaders, but now long vacant and unused. The streets are crooked and narrow, and many of them are paved with rounded cobblestones that are far from adding to the comfort of the pedestrian. In the midst of the town, on a hill overlooking the Rhone, is a great gray building that has the appearance of a castle, but which in reality is a one-time palace of the popes. For about seventy-five years in the fourteenth century, at a period when Rome was an undesirable dwelling-place by reason of Italian civil wars, the popes made Avignon their imperial city. Of late the old palace has been an army barracks, and soldiers in martial red and blue are always to be seen in the vicinity.
The streets and public squares, as I rambled through them that Sunday midday, were full of people, and the cafés were noisy with conviviality. In the chief square, before the town's most swell restaurant, a concert was in progress in which several women violinists took a prominent part. All such resorts had little tables set out in front of them on the walks, and, sometimes, these with their occupants encroached so far that passers had to take to the street. Sidewalk lunching was not a local peculiarity. It is found in French towns and villages everywhere, and the men especially seem to take pleasure in being on the public thoroughfares, seated in the shadow of the café building or of its awning, there to see the world go by and give the world the pleasure of seeing them as they leisurely sip their wines and smoke their cigars and cigarettes.
I soon had enough of the confusion and noise of the town, and went outside the walls for a walk along the river; but the change was not altogether a success, for the sun glared painfully on the white roadways, and a gusty wind was blowing that showed remarkable facility in lifting off my straw hat and spinning it along the ground. The river repelled rather than attracted. It had neither the charm of a clear mountain torrent with foaming falls and dusky pools, nor of a lowland stream with reaches of quiet and repose. Here, as in nearly all its course, it was muddy and hurried, like a river in flood, and you felt that in this rush of dark water seaward there was something sinister and fateful. You would not think its grimy current could be congenial to life of the finny kind, yet all along the town borders men were fishing. Possibly they may have been impelled simply by a sportsman's instinct that must be gratified, independent of results— for I did not see them catch anything. There were also women by the waterside engaged in washing clothes. I do not see how they could expect to get them clean in such water, but all over France the women have a mania for doing their washing in the streams and ponds, and the quality of the water, whether it be clear, muddy, or stagnant, seems to be of no consequence.
My stay in Avignon was short, nor did I pause long anywhere in the southeast. The impression I got of the country was not such as to make me wish to linger. The low hills appeared parched and tropical, the towns sunburned and bare. Olive orchards were frequent, but their gray-green foliage looked dusty and suggestive of prolonged heat, while the trees themselves were curiously twisted, and were seemingly stunted and very old. The landscape's only touch of coolness was in the emerald verdure of the vineyards, which in most regions abounded.
The weather, truly, was very hot, and the low, oven-like railway carriages were stifling; and they were the less bearable because my companions were almost certain to relieve the tedium of the journey by smoking. A Frenchman travelling by rail is never long content unless he has a cigarette hanging out of the corner of his mouth. He is not at all bashful about it, but smokes as freely in non-smoking apartments as in any others. Nor did I ever notice that the presence of ladies made any difference. The smokers take it for granted that the aroma of the nicotine is to the feminine liking, and the Frenchman's proverbial politeness never impels him to inquire whether or not his cigarette is offensive. In one instance a young man who was riding in my apartment, accompanied by two young women, shared his cigarettes with his companions.
They were an intelligent and fairly well-looking trio, constantly engaged in lively and demonstrative chatter. The gentleman divided his attentions impartially between the two ladies and showed his appreciation of their charms by the occasional bestowal of caresses and kisses. But the climax was the offer of cigarettes. Each of the three took one, the man scratched a match and started his, and then offered the burning end to his fair companions, who from that lighted theirs. The women puffed as expertly as the man, and they exhaled the smoke and poked the ashes off with their little fingers in a manner that seemed to me quite scientific.
That, I suppose, was fast life. For an example of what would be popularly esteemed a more vulgar use of tobacco on the part of my fellow-travellers I might cite an old man and old Woman who got on the train together at Avignon. The old woman was the possessor of a snuff box which she pulled out every little while and passed to the man. He took a pinch and she took a pinch, and then they coughed and blew their noses in unison as if the effect was more irritable than grateful; but that could hardly have been the case or they would not have resorted to the snuff-box so frequently.
The strangest of all the companions I had on my southern trip were two monks — great, stout, full-bearded fellows who looked as if manual labor and hearty living were more in their line than religious contemplation, solitude, and self-denial. They wore black skull-caps, brown gowns corded about the waist, and had sandals on their stockingless feet. Each carried a Bible and a long string of wooden prayer-beads. They were as unlike the life of the world to-day as if they had stepped out of some dim and ancient past after a magic sleep of centuries. I watched them with a kind of fascination as they sat in opposite corners at the other end of my apartment. They opened their Bibles and dropped off into a drowsy quiet, reading a little now and then, and telling over their beads with moving lips. I wondered if the rumble and clatter of the train speeding along over the iron rails was not disturbing to their fossilized and mossy meditations.
One of the sights that I had from the car window seemed part and parcel of the same ancient life represented by these monks. It was a glimpse of old Carcassonne. The railway passes through the new town of like name, but the old town was in full view on a slope opposite, as perfect in its mediævalism as if it had been purposely preserved for us. There was its citadel, and there was its double line of fortifications including no less than fifty round towers — and the whole scarcely altered since the days when battles were fought by main strength without the aid of gunpowder. Probably no other town in the world gives so true an impression of what the walled villages of the middle ages were like.
Another curious memory of the south has to do with the coast town of Cette where I broke my journey and staid over night. I had the greatest trouble in getting to sleep after I retired, for my room seemed to be full of mosquitoes. The creatures had musical wings that played the old familiar airs I had heard too many times in America to be mistaken about them, only these European mosquitoes did not bite. That was the mystery! If I once got used to them I do not think they would be particularly troublesome, but habit was too strong, and when they buzzed into my vicinity I could not help slapping at them. Half the night was gone before slumber put an end to the warfare.
At Cette and other points along the coast I had a chance to see the Mediterranean, and I thought its limpid and beautiful blue waters merited all the good things said of them. But the southern sky did not impress me as being specially different from any other skies; and at sunset the west was painted with the same tints I knew at home in New England.
I kept on westward after leaving Cette and stopped next at Toulouse, where I saw something of the country around the city and of the peasantry working in the fields — men and women hoeing onions, harvesting grain, etc., but the only thing new and different from what I had seen before was the well-sweeps that were common all through the town outskirts. Every yard had one, and their poles were sticking up whichever way I looked.
When I resumed my journey, a few hours' travelling took me out of the parched lands of the southeast into a region really beautiful. The landscape began to heave into hills, and as I proceeded the hills grew constantly larger. They were pleasantly wooded, too, and among the other trees on the slopes were many sturdy chestnuts crowded with tasselled bloom. At length the noble range of the Pyrenees came into view, its lofty blue heights rising ridge on ridge till the summits of those in the haziest distance were crested with snow; and there, on the border-lands of Spain, my journey, so far as it has to do with the more characteristic phases of the south, was at an end.