Fragrance in Travel Literature-Wanderings by southern waters, eastern Aquitaine, by Edward Harrison Barker

Wanderings by southern waters, eastern
Aquitaine, by Edward Harrison Barker


As I went on I soon found that the stony wastes had their flowers too.
It would seem as if Nature had wished to console the desert by giving
to it her loveliest and most enticing blossoms. I came upon colonies
of the poet's narcissus, breathing over the rocks so sweet a fragrance
that it was as if a miracle had been wrought to draw it out of the
earth. I walked knee-deep through blooming asphodels, beautiful and
strange, but only noticed here by the wild bee. I gathered sprays of
the graceful alpine-tea, densely crowded with delicate white bloom,
and marvelled at the wanton splendour of the iris colouring the gray
and yellow stones with its gorgeous blue.

After wandering and loitering by rivers too well fed by the mountains
to dry completely up like the perfidious little Alzou, I have returned
to Roc-Amadour, my headquarters, the summer being far advanced. The
wallflowers no longer deck the old towers and gateways with their
yellow bloom, and scent the morning and evening air with their
fragrance; the countless flags upon the rocky shelves no longer flaunt
their splendid blue and purple, tempting the flower-gatherer to risk a
broken neck; the poet's narcissus and the tall asphodel alike are
gone; so are all the flowers of spring. The wild vine that clambers
over the blackthorn, the maple and the hazel, all down the valley
towards the Dordogne, shows here and there a crimson leaf; and the
little path is fringed with high marjoram, whose blossoms revel amidst
the hot stones, and seem to drink the wine of their life from the
fiery sunbeams. Upon the burning banks of broken rock--gray wastes
sprinkled with small spurges and tufts of the fragrant southernwood,
now opening its mean little flowers--multitudes of flying grasshoppers
flutter, most of them with scarlet wings, and one marvels how they can
keep themselves from being baked quite dry where every stone is hot.
The lizards, which spend most of their time in the grasshoppers'
company, appear equally capable of resisting fire. In the bed of the
Alzou a species of brassica has had time since the last flood to grow
up from the seed, and to spread its dark verdure in broad patches over
the dry sand and pebbles. The ravens are gone--to Auvergne, so it is
said, because they do not like hot weather. The hawks are less
difficult to please on the score of climate; they remain here all the
year round, piercing the air with their melancholy cries.

A little below the summit of the cliff, from the large cavern which
has been fashioned to represent the Holy Sepulchre, there issues a
brilliant light, together with the sound of many voices singing the
'Tantum ergo.' A faint odour of incense wanders here and there among
the shrubs, and mingles with the fragrance of flowers upon the
terraces. Presently the clergy and the pilgrims come forth, and,
forming a long procession, descend the Way of the Cross; and as the
burning tapers that they carry shine and flash amongst the foliage,
these words, familiar to every pilgrim to Roc-Amadour, sung by
hundreds of voices, may be heard afar off in the dark desolate gorge:
'Reine puissante, Mère d'Amour,
Sois-nous compatissante,
O Vierge d'Amadour!'

As I write, other impressions come to mind of this ancient town on the
edge of the great plain of Languedoc. A little garden in the outskirts
became familiar to me by daily use, and I see it still with its almond
and pear trees, its trellised vines, the blue stars of its borage, and
the pure whiteness of its lilies. A bird seizes a noisy cicada from a
sunny leaf, and as it flies away the captive draws out one long scream
of despair. Then comes the golden evening, and its light stays long
upon the trailing vines, while the great lilies gleam whiter and their
breath floods the air with unearthly fragrance. A murmur from across
the plain is growing louder and louder as the trees lose their edges
in the dusk, for those noisy revellers of the midsummer night, the
jocund frogs, have roused themselves, and they welcome the darkness
with no less joy than the swallows some hours later will greet the
breaking dawn.


The figure of the old man bending upon his stick glides away by the
dark willow-fringe of the Tarn, and I am standing alone in the solemn
splendour of the luminous dusk--the clear-obscure of the quickly
passing twilight, beside the bearded corn, whose gold is blended with
the faint rosiness that spreads through the air of the valley, and
lets free the fragrance of those flowers which keep all their
sweetness for the evening. There is still a gleam of the lost sun upon
the priory walls, and over the dark rocks and wooded hollows floats a
purple haze. The dusk gathers apace, and the poplars that rise far
above the willows along the river, their outlines shaded away into the
black forest behind them, stand motionless like phantom trees, for not
a leaf stirs; but the corn seems to grow more luminous, as if it had
drunk something of the fire as well as the colour of the sun, while
the horns of the sinking moon gleam silver-bright just over the
topmost trees, painted in sepia upon a cobalt sky.

At a village called Moulin, lying in a rich and beautiful valley, I
met the Sorgues, one of the larger tributaries of the Tarn, and for
the rest of my journey I had the companionship of a charming stream.
Evening came on, and the fiery blue above me grew soft and rosy. Rosy,
too, were the cornfields, where bands of men and women, fifteen or
twenty together, were reaping gaily, for the heat of the day was gone,
the freshness of the twilight had come, and the fragrance of the
valley was loosened. I had left the last group of reapers behind, and
the silence of the dusk was broken only by the tree crickets and the
rapids of the little river, when a woman passed me on the road and
murmured '_Adicias!_' (God be with you!). '_Adicias!_ I replied, and
then I was again alone. Presently there was a jangling of bells
behind, and I was soon overtaken by three horses and a crowded
_diligence_. The sound of the bells grew fainter and fainter, and once
more I was alone with the summer night. The stars began to shine, and
the river was lost in the mystery of shadow, save where a sunken rock
made the water gleam white, and broke the peace with a cry of trouble.

At a village called Moulin, lying in a rich and beautiful valley, I
met the Sorgues, one of the larger tributaries of the Tarn, and for
the rest of my journey I had the companionship of a charming stream.
Evening came on, and the fiery blue above me grew soft and rosy. Rosy,
too, were the cornfields, where bands of men and women, fifteen or
twenty together, were reaping gaily, for the heat of the day was gone,
the freshness of the twilight had come, and the fragrance of the
valley was loosened. I had left the last group of reapers behind, and
the silence of the dusk was broken only by the tree crickets and the
rapids of the little river, when a woman passed me on the road and
murmured '_Adicias!_' (God be with you!). '_Adicias!_ I replied, and
then I was again alone. Presently there was a jangling of bells
behind, and I was soon overtaken by three horses and a crowded
_diligence_. The sound of the bells grew fainter and fainter, and once
more I was alone with the summer night. The stars began to shine, and
the river was lost in the mystery of shadow, save where a sunken rock
made the water gleam white, and broke the peace with a cry of trouble.

I was at Sainte-Enimie before sunset, and there I found the air laden
with the scent of lavender. True, all the hills round about were
covered with a blue-gray mantle; but I had never known the plant when
undisturbed give out such an aroma before. Looking down from the
little bridge to the waterside, my wonder ceased. There in a line,
with wood-fires blazing under them, were several stills, and behind
these, upon the bank, were heaps of lavender stalks and flowers such
as I had never seen even in imagination. There were enough to fill
several bullock-waggons. The fragrance in the air, however, did not
come so much from these mounds as from the distilled essence. It was
evident that Sainte-Enimie had a considerable trade in lavender-water.

Having passed the ruins of the monastery, whose high loopholed walls
and strong tower showed that it had once been a fortress as well as a
religious house, I was soon rising far above the valley of the Tarn.
The winding road led me up the flanks of stony hills, terraced
everywhere for almond-trees; but after two or three hours of ascent
the almonds dwindled away, and the country became an absolute desert
of brashy hills, showing little asperity of outline, but mournful and
solemn by their wastefulness and abandonment to a degree that makes
the traveller ask himself if he is really in Europe, or has been
transported by magic to the most arid steppes of Asia. But there is a
plant that thrives in this desert, that loves it so much as to give to
it a tinge of dusty blue as far as the eye can reach on every side.
Needless to say that this is the lavender. It was in all its flowering
beauty as I crossed the treeless waste, and it gave to the breath of
the desert what seemed to be the mystical fragrance of peace.

On the stony slope above the orchard, the stock of an old and leafless
vine, showing here and there over the purple flush of flowering
marjoram and the more scattered gold of St. John's-wort, told the
story of the perished vineyard. For centuries a rich wine had flowed
from these slopes, but at length the phylloxera spread over them like
flame, and now where the vine is dead the wild-flower blooms. A little
higher a fringe of broom, the blossom gone, the pods blackening and
shooting their seeds in the sun, marked the line of the virgin
wilderness. Then came tall heather and bracken, dwarf oak and
chestnut, box and juniper, all luxuriating about the blocks of
mica-schist, a rock that holds water and is therefore conducive to a
varied and splendid vegetation, wherever a soil can rest upon it.
Towards the summit the trees and shrubs dwindled away, and then came
the dry thyme-covered turf scenting the air. The tall thyme, the
garden species in the North, had already flowered, but the common wild
thyme of England, the _serpolet_ of the French, was beginning to
spread its purple over the stony ground. A great wooden cross stood
upon the ridge, and hard by, buffeted by the wintry winds and blazed
upon by the summer sun, was the ancient priory of Nôtre Dame de
l'Oder.

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.

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.


As I left Entraygues the bells in the church-tower were ringing--not
the monotonous ding-dong with which French people generally have had
to content themselves since the Revolutionists turned the old
bell-metal into sous, but a blithe and joyous peal of high silvery
tones that seemed to belong to the blue air, and to be the voices of
the little spirits that flutter about the morning's rosy veil. My
design was to reach the abbey of Conques before evening, but instead
of going directly towards it over the hills, I preferred to keep as
long as possible in the valley of the Lot, which is here of such
witching loveliness. As there was a road on the river-bank for many
miles, I could follow this fancy, and yet feel the comfort of walking
on good ground. Although the season was getting late, I found the
valley below Entraygues very rich in flowers. Agrimony, mint, and
marjoram, with a tall inula, and the pretty, sweet-scented white
melilot, were in great abundance along the bank. Upon the rocks, which
now bordered the road, were the deep red blossoms of the orpine sedum,
and a small crimson-flowered stock with very hoary stem. A tall
handsome plant about three feet high, with large white flowers, drew
me down a bank to where it was growing near the water. I found that it
was a very luxuriant specimen of the thorn-apple (_datura_). While I
was admiring its poisonous beauty a woman stopped on the road just
above me, and, after contemplating me in silent curiosity for a few
minutes, said to me first in _patois_ and then in French (when I
replied to her in this language):
'It is a wicked plant, that! The beasts will not touch it, so you had
better leave it alone.'

The morning air was fresh, and the fronds of the bracken were wet with
dew, when I left Marsal, and took my course along the margin of the
river through meadows that dwindled away into woodlands, where the
rocky sides of the gorge rose abruptly from the stream. Haymakers were
abroad, and I heard the sound of their scythes cutting through the
heavy swathes with all their flowers; but the sunshine had not yet
flashed down into the deep valley, and the grasshoppers were waiting
to hail it from their watch-towers in the green herbage and on the
purple heather. As the breeze stirred the leaves of the wood, it
brought with it the perfume of hidden honeysuckle. Golden oriels were
busy in the tops of the wild cherry trees, feeding upon the ripe
fruit, and calling out their French name, _loriot_; and when they flew
across the river, a gleam of brilliant yellow moved swiftly over the
rippled surface. For an hour or so I remained in the shade of trees,
and then the sandy path met a road where the gorge widened and
cultivation returned. Here I left the stream for awhile.

For awhile I walked on the lush grass by the brimming river, where in
the little creeks and bays the water-ranunculus floated its small
white flowers that were to continue the race. Then I left the water
and the green ribbon that followed its margin, and, taking a
sheep-track, rose upon the arid steeps, where the thinly-scattered
aromatic southern-wood was putting forth its dusty leaves. The bare
rocks, yellow, white, and gray, towered above me; they were beneath
me; they faced me across the valley; wherever I looked they were
shutting me off from the outer world. No nightingales were singing
here, but I heard the melancholy scream of the hawk and the harsh
croak of the raven. And yet, when I looked down into the bottom of
this steep desert of stones, what soft and vernal beauty was there!
Over the grass of living green was spread the gold of cowslips, just
as if that strip of meadow, with its gently-gliding river, had been
lifted out of an English dale and dropped into the midst of the
sternest scenery of Southern France.


I found that the chief occupation of the people in this house was that
of making Roquefort cheeses; indeed, it was impossible not to guess
what was going on from the all-pervading odour. And yet: I was still
many miles from Roquefort! However, I knew all about this matter
before. I was not twenty miles from Albi when I found that Roquefort
cheese-making was a local industry. In fact, this is the case over a
very wide region. The cheeses, having been made, are sent to Roquefort
to ripen in the cellars, which have been excavated in the rock, and
also to acquire the necessary reputation. While my lunch was being
prepared I looked into the dairy, which was very clean and creditable.
On the ground were large tubs of milk, and on tables were spread many
earthenware moulds pierced with little holes and containing the
pressed curds.


The bright line in the west moved very slowly upwards, and the rain
continued to fall, although less drenchingly than before. The setting
sun strove with the cloud-rack and coloured the veil of vapour that
its rays could not pierce. The nightingales and thrushes in the
shrubs, and the finches amidst the later blossoms of the may, took
heart again, and the song rose from so many throats near and far that
the whole valley of the Dordogne was filled with warbling. As the
birds grew drowsy the frogs came out to spend a happy night on the
margins of the pools and the brooks, until their joyful screaming and
croaking was a universal chorus. I was by the side of the broad river
that flowed calmly through the fairest meadows. The face of the
stream, the pools in the road, the grass and the leaves, were
brightened with the orange glow of a veiled light as of some sacred
fire shining in the dusk through clouds of incense. It grew warmer and
warmer until it purpled and died away in grayness and mournful shadow.
The beauty of nature at such moments, when the colours brighten and
fade like the powers of the mind as the human day is closing, takes a
solemnity that is unearthly, and it is good to be alone with the
mystery.

The sound of solemn music draws me into a church. A requiem Mass is
being chanted. In the middle of the nave, nearer the main door than
the altar, is a deal coffin with gable-shaped lid, barely covered by a
pall. A choir-boy comes out of the sacristy, carrying a pan of live
embers, which he places at the head of the coffin. Then he sprinkles
incense upon the fire, and immediately the smoke rises like a
snow-white cloud towards the vaulting; but, meeting the sunbeams on
its way, it moves up their sloping golden path, and seems to pass
through the clerestory window into the boundless blue.