The name given to the tract of country I was now crossing—the Causse Noir, fitly describes it, It is singularly dark and mournful, and almost uninhabited. It is not, strictly speaking, a plateau, but a succession of valleys and low hills like the bed of the ocean. The barren land is thickly overgrown with box and juniper, and these shrubs, which often attain a height of six or eight feet, sufficiently account for the sombre tone of the landscape. Here and there savage little, gorges run up between the dismal hills, with trees of larger growth, such as oaks and pines, in the hollows. There is good reason to believe that all these causses were at one time more or less covered by forests; but the reason commonly given for their disappearance—namely, that they were burnt down during the religious wars—is less likely to be the true one than that they gradually perished because it was nobody’s business to protect the seedlings from sheep and goats—animals capable of changing the world into a treeless desert, but which, fortunately, cease to be profitable when they come down from the sterile highlands, where they thrive best, into the rich plains and valleys. The disastrous floods which occur with such appalling suddenness in the valleys of the Tarn and the Lot are due in a large measure to the nudity of the causses and the Cevennes, where these mountains turn northward and cross the Lozere to meet the Auvergne range. The French Government nurses the hope that it will be able some day to cover much of the baldness of this extensive region with magnificent pine-forests, and planting actually goes on in places; but what with the nibbling flocks, and the increasing seventy of the winters, the measure of success already obtained by such laudable efforts is not encouraging.
I wished to reach Peyreleau that night, but how to get there I knew not otherwise than by persistently keeping in a north-easterly course, and despising all natural obstacles. I was attracted by what looked like a road running up between two hills in the right direction; but when I came to it I found that it was the dry channel of a stream. I nevertheless took advantage of it, as I have of many another such in the South, although there are few watercourses whose beds can be walked upon with comfort. I was lucky now beyond my expectations, for it was not long before I struck a road which I was sure could lead nowhere but to Peyreleau. It first took me through a darkly-wooded gorge, where evening stood like a nun in a chapel. The brilliant sky had changed to a sad gray. There was to be no gorgeous sunset, with rosy after-glow, softening with transparent colour the harshness of the dark box and darker juniper. No: the day that commenced sadly was ending sadly—going to its grave in a gray habit with drawn cowl. A great falcon passed slowly on its way under the dull sky, but no bird nor beast uttered a sound. The Causse Noir was as silent as a crypt.