At Royat


At Royat


The narrator recounts travelling through Royat, in central France, as well as the relationship developed with the tour guides.


Praed, K.M.


December 1888


essay (travel)


pp. 71–78


La Limagine is a great fertile plain, luxuriant with vineyards, cornfields, orchards, and chestnut- groves. It is dotted with grey hamlets, picturesque villages, and red-roofed towns, which cluster round the tall cathedral spires and fortress-like church towers of the Roman-Auvergnat architecture. Looking westward, all distinguishing features and points of colour melt away into hazy distance, till there seems only a soft, smoke-hued, waveless sea spreading to the horizon-line.

But here, near Royat, where the needles of Clermont-Ferrand Cathedral rise like twin beacons against the blueness, La Limagne is closed in by bold tiers of wooded hills.

Highest among these rises the Puy de Dôme, the loftiest point in Auvergne — the Puy de Dôme consecrated alike by Pagan, Christian, and unholy rites. For on its summit, where Pascal made his experiments and where the Observatory now stands, are the ruins of a temple to the Auvergnat Mercury; here was a chapel dedicated to St. Barnabas; while here also the sorcerers and witches of mediaeval times are said to have assembled for their infernal sabbat; and as late as 1514 Jean Bordeau, sorcerer, was buried alive, having been captured on this spot in the performance of black magic.

From one of the volcanoes near the Puy de Dôme there flowed in remote ages a mighty torrent of lava. Its course is marked by a narrow valley shut in steeply with hills that open out on the beautiful plain, La Limagne. Just here, between the mount of Gravenoire, almost covered with black pines, and the bald, swelling Puy de Chateix, ruled in straight and zig-zag rows of vines, with the Puy de Dome and the other tall hills blocking the sky behind, lies Royat in its nest.

Dark, steep little gorges cut the slopes into the valley. A gurgling mountain stream runs all along its bed. The Tiretaine makes music of a dreamier kind than that wild, clinking, clashing Bohemian dance of Massenet’s, which the leader of the orchestra, his black forelock waving, his whole wiry body swaying to the rhythm of his bâton, is directing so energetically over there in the Pavilion of the garden of the Etablissement. It is but a pitiful achievement of civilisation, this garden, hot, glaring, dusty, with flaunting beds of petunia and hibiscus, stiff walks and stunted sub-tropical foliage. Nature would have been better left to her-self. It seems as if the poor little Tiretaine were singing a plaintive reproach as she dribbles through some cunningly-cut passage, or breaks in petulant sadness over an artificial fall of rock, or leaps up in a fountain's lifeless mechanical play.

But nobody thinks of the Tiretaine between three and six in the afternoon, when the world of Royat gathers round the Pavilion to listen to the band, and paces up and down the gravel walk, exhibiting startling toilettes and chattering high-pitched French. I used to like sitting there watching the people come and go, the variations in the costumes and the changes in the groups as new visitors came and old ones went away. Many curious contrasts and types were to be seen here. Now would go by a brown Franciscan monk, rope-girdled and with shaven crown. Now a Parisienne of doubtful ton, in poppy-coloured gown and wonderful pyramidal hat, with red stockings and high-heeled shoes, all eyes, teeth, gesture, and shrill ejaculation. Now a withered dame of the country, wrinkled like a russet apple, but healthily yellow, all except her piercing black eyes, with the crimped border of her cap lining her broad-brimmed bonnet of Tuscan straw. Now a French soldier in his baggy dark blue trousers and blue tunic and rakishly set cap. Now an anaemic English girl from the provinces in a dowdy stuff frock, her Tauchnitz novel in her hand.

Or there appear the dark blue habit and fantastic white calico head-dress of a Sister of St. Vincent de Paul, bending towards an elderly bonne in white cap and streaming ribbons. The bonne breaks away every now and then from the conversation to shepherd her volatile charges — queer little sallow, bright-eyed, fashionable creatures, among whom a stray English child, with clear skin, golden hair, and straight holland frock, looks like a lily in a bed of tulips. They dart hither and thither, following their jingling hoops and brilliant toy balloons, all skirts, frills, and furbelows, miniature copies of their mamma, who is strolling some paces ahead. Her crinoletted draperies bulge and sway as she plants her high-heeled shoes squarely on the ground. Her plump, compact figure, with its too trim waist, too amply defined bust, its square shoulders, and ungraceful neck, is opposed to all the canons of Greek taste, and yet she has a certain peculiar dash and attractiveness summed up in the one word, “French.” How different from that tall, aristocratic English girl in her simple white gown, who, in a mysterious manner, suggests the Row in June, Hurlingham, and New Club dances.

One might multiply types indefinitely. Those cheery Auvergne women in striped cotton and picturesque caps, with wings of broad pink silk ribbon standing out from each homely face, must see a good deal of life from their post at the Source Eugénie, just below the entrance to the gardens. They have a smile and a greeting for every comer, and take a benevolent interest even in the casual French tourist, oily, unshorn, and dirty of linen, whose rasping laugh rings out in a kind of saucy self-derision when, having been informed of the particular faculty of the water with which he has experimentally refreshed himself, he hands back the cup: "Hé, hé! — pour l’anémie! —hé!"

They are pleasant creatures, these Auvergne women. There used to be something quite warming and inspiriting in the radiant smile of my bathing-woman when she poked her flat, ugly face, with its white teeth and twinkling black eyes, into the little stone compartment where I was dressing, and demanded, with motherly solicitude, "Êtes-vous bien — hé? — et rouge? — rouge comme un écrevisse?" — the peculiar virtue of the Cæsar bath lying in the fact that one emerged from it pink as the under-side of a boiled crayfish.

Life at Royat seemed, during the first week, to resolve itself into baths, waters, and table-d'hote. Serious business, frivolity, and humour blend oddly here. I peeped into the Salle d' Aspiration one day, and was seized with a sense of weird funniness at the sight of certain rows of silent corpse-like figures, wrapped in white linen peignoirs and with hoods like cere-cloths on their heads, which loomed in spectral fashion through the grey mist of the vapour. All bent forward with distended jaws to inhale the steam, and even the vacant seats had a sort of ghostliness, for one might fancy that some lost souls had failed from their lower deep to answer this deathly roll-call.

There was an adorable French girl at the table-d’hôte. She had the sweetest oval face, always bent a little on one side like a drooping lily or a pensive Madonna. She looked as though she had come straight from a convent or the nursery, and her large serene dark eyes had the guileless expression one sees in those of a child. She scarcely ever spoke except in timid appeal to the Marquise her mother, only very occasionally and with a vivid blush and evident effort hazarding a little sentence in her pretty broken English. “Ze wezzare is very fine to-day. You take already bettare face." But the Marquise was always eloquent in the recital of all she had endured from English bonnes in order that her children might learn English. She would bend her keen, sharp-featured face close to each new-comer with whom she found any affinity, and gazing intently from her piercing black eyes, and gesticulating with her lean ringed fingers, would proclaim, "Mais vous assure — elles sont tellement ‘lady.' Je ne puis plus les supporter." Our table-d'hôte was, for a short time, a distinctly depressing affair. I always prefer listening at a table-d'hôte, and gladly allow others to do the talking for me. Most of the people near me, however, seemed to be of the same opinion, and the result was a solemn hush pervaded by an indefinite cackle from lower down.

At our end, the social elements were rather mixed. A queer little French Count sat at the head. He was wrinkled aud yellow as a mummy, and he had a flaxen moustache, a retreating chin and forehead, elaborate little airs, and a dandified manner of dress. His wife was young, and stout, and fresh, with quick-coming blushes. She was very shy, but she had a merry way, and an infectious laugh; and they talked to each other in rapid confidential whispers. Sometimes they would try to extract a little conversation from a family party of Americans next them. Màr-mar, as her daughter called her, was immensely tall, and extraordinarily silent. She wore her thin black hair plastered straight on her shiny forehead, and combed over a huge frizette which it inadequately covered on the top of her head. She had big diamond solitaires, and a diamond crescent like a new moon fastening her linen collar. She sat next the Count. At intervals, her grim face would relax into a spasmodic smile, which did duty for sympathetic assent when anything remotely connected with America was mentioned. Her daughter wore a fresh toilette every day.

She was very fragile, and exquisitely pretty; but she was too languid to talk, or perhaps had not much confidence in her French.

When the Count ventured a polite suggestion as to the places of interest in the neighbourhood, Màr-mar answered in a loud, jerky tone, pausing between each word, "You — should— see — New — York."

"Mais— Neu Yah?" interrogated the Count.

"New York," corrected Màr-mar, in superior manner. " N –– e — w, New; Y— o— r— k, York; New York. Oui, oui," and she nodded till her diamonds seemed like flickering candles. She never got any further than “Oui, oui."

The general depression lasted till one day when the pink and ice pyramid was brought first to the Count, he maladroitly sliced off the top and let it fall to the ground. His funny look of consternation and his horrified cry, "Mais j'ai guillotiné la glace!" roused us all to a kind of hysterical merriment. Màr-mar's grim severity broke down completely. The pretty French girl’s silvery peal was like a fairy chime. The fat little Countess laughed till the tears came into her eyes, and the Count stared at her in a bewildered way, and at last laughed too. The lady of culture and serious views laughed. The ice was broken, in more senses than one, and after this the table-d'hôte became much more cheerful.

There was a learned lady at the hotel, who had the reputation of being able to talk ancient Greek, and was a strenuous advocate of the wrongs of the pit-brow women. Her appearance was that of an elderly Renaissance angel. She had a long, odd, flat face, with no eyelashes or eyebrows to speak of, and soft, flaxen-grey hair. She dressed in clinging, sad-coloured stuff. She was greatly concerned about her health, had consulted most of the doctors in the place and quarielled with each, and was now pursuing a system of experiment and inquiry in regard to the Royat waters. She was a constant source of amusement to the Marquise, who was not without a sense of humour, and made voluble comments upon the eccentricities of this, to her, undiscovered type.

"I have nevare seen Engleesh like zat. She is so droll. She ask all the persons, ‘What you do? Do you take the César bath? Do you go to the Salle d'Aspiration? Do you have the douche froide? What you drink?’ Then she say, ‘I will do the same; ‘always to every one. To-day she will take the douche froide. Yesterday she did have the douche Écossaise. She have drunk the Fonteix, the St. Victor, the Eugénie, the St. Mart — all. It would be droll to send her to the Fontaine Pétrifiante. To say to her, ‘I am going zere. Zat is the thing for all your douleurs.’ And she would sit and sit in ze bath like ze St. Antoine till she was a pétrifaction. I have seen Engleesh, but nevare — jamais, jamais de ma vie — Engleesh like zat!"

I made up my mind that the best way of seeing the country round Royat was from a donkey’s back, and one afternoon the concierge poked his peaked cap and pointed beard in at my door and announced, "L'âne est Ià." The donkey was down in the courtyard, and beside it stood a sturdy, squat Auvergnate in the blue petticoat and cap of the country, and with the brown face and beaming smile of the country also. We were quite a cortége. A big black dog and a tiny half-shorn white dog, with a tufted tail, went ahead. Mère Châtaignier — this she told me was her name — walked on one side of the donkey with a long stick, the descent of which she emphasised by shrill but tender adjurations — "Blondine! Blondinette, ma belle! Marchez, mademoiselle! Va! Blondinette, chérie!" And a pretty blue-eyed child of ten — so many of the Auvergnat children are fair and fresh-complexioned — progged Blondinette on the other side, shouting, less affectionately, " Hé, hé! Courez! Allez!" till we got to old Royat, when she darted down one of the crooked by-ways and was seen no more.

Old Royat is a little higher up the valley, and we always stopped in the quaint place, with its brown stone lichen-grown fountain, and the ancient cross of grey lava — the pedestal of which is cracked, the inscription undecipherable, and the carving defaced — that fronts the white Mairie. Narrow, winding, rudely-paved streets lead out of the place. A walnut-tree grows crookedly from out a grey wall; and here is the curious battlemented church-fortress of which the inhabitants of Royat are so proud. Behind the church are the ruins of an ancient priory, a tangle of underwood covering the broken walls.

We had a lively fund of conversation, though when I asked her about her children she became instantly lugubrious. They were all dead. She had nothing left but her donkey and her two dogs — she ignored her husband for the moment; she had had many misfortunes; she was never tired walking the hills now, "Les chagrins que j’ai souffert m'ont dégrassé," she said. She had bought Blondinette with her économies of eight years. A workman whom she had nursed in the winter had left her the big dog Ture in payment of his debt. Ture did not add to her économies, it was true, but she had not the heart to kill him; and the little dog Minerve was her bébé. Her husband cultivated cabbages, which he sold at the hotels. "Et c’est comme ça que nous gagnons notre pauvre vie," she added, with a prolonged sigh, which, however, suddenly changed into a burst of big laughter. “Voici mes enfants, niadame," she cried, pointing to a beautiful grove of chestnut-trees through which we were passing. The chestnuts were in flower now. Every branch lifted feathery plumes of pale yellow that scented the air. Mère Châtaignier had a story to tell — how on the first day her husband had set foot in Royat twenty years ago, he had won ten litres of wine at an auberge where some men who did not know him were talking of their large families. Père Châtaignier wagered that there were more of his name in Royat than the families of them all put together, and when he pointed to the chestnut-trees, they admitted that he had won his bet. Then she went on to relate how, when the time came each year for beating down the ripe chestnuts, the villagers would gather round their house with large poles, shouting, “Hé, hé, Père Châtaignie! Nous allons battre vos enfants."

We used to go along very cheerily, Père Châtaignier, Blondinette, and I, with Turc and Clépâtre running in front. Sometimes in some dirty hamlet they would set-to and chase a pig — it seemed to me that the pigs and the peasants, the children and the cows, all live together in Auvergne — till the pig finally tumbled over a nettle-grown wall. Then Mère Châtaignie's great laugh would echo through the gorge, and Turc would growl, and Blondinette would take advantage of the opportunity to stand still and cull a thistle unrebuked.

Sometimes Père Châtaignier would appear instead of his wife, and Blondinette always marched at a better pace when he was behind her. He was a wiry little French peasant, with crisp, curling black hair, and a short, brown, merry face. He was always scrupulously neat, and would take off his cap with quite an air. One day when we were winding up to La Charrarde by the Gorge d'Enfer, a heavy storm arose. It had been one of those unnaturally still and oppressive days when scarcely a leaf quivers, and every breath of air seems charged with electricity. Suddenly the thunder began to growl. Before many minutes every pine-needle was shaking with a fierce chill wind, and a torrent of rain swept down the valley and drenched us through to the skin. The mountain path became a little river. All down the hill-side rivulets ran, and tiny cascades dashed over the rocks bearing down dead-fir branches and cones, and loose débris of gravel. After a little while, the rain ceased as suddenly as it had begun. As the heavy mist cleared away, there was something intensely exhilarating in the air and the scene. The red boles of the pines glistened; the tender green shoots drank in the moisture; the Tiretaine was roaring loudly; the moss on the banks beneath the firs, which had been so brown and dry, looked fat and soft and satisfied now.

Presently we got to La Charrarde. A band of peasant-women, in blue jackets and caps, ran out to greet Père Châtaignier. One of them lifted me down from the donkey, and catching up a bundle of firewood, made me follow her into a low brown room from which a wooden staircase led to the upper storey. There was a big open fireplace in one comer — or rather a hearth without any distinct division from the rest of the room — on which my hostess laid the faggot. Her name was Madame Grènon, and she was young and comely and fair. A clock in a tall wooden case with brass mountings stood against the wall, and the cream cheeses were spread on rushes below the chimney. Père Châtaignier lighted the bundle of wood, and Madame Grènon took off my stockings and gave them to him to dry. Then she took me up-stairs to another low brown room, where balls of flax hung over the bed, and in which was a large wooden press that she opened, showing piles of neatly folded homespun linen — "not so fine, perhaps," she said, "mais tout-à-fait propre." She clothed me completely, putting my feet into wooden sabots; and when I got downstairs, the children came in, and more peasant-women in caps and sabots, and laughed at my appearance; and Père Châtaignier danced round me and benevolently patted the bodice, lamenting its bagginess, and then he slapped Mme. Grènon's ample shoulders, and made sundry jokes upon her plumpness.

Then they examined my wet gown with deep interest They were greatly puzzled over the steels and the tapes which tied it back, and the little horsehair cushion at the waist was to them an object of extreme wonder. They pondered over it for a long time, and they pulled about the draperies, and looked down at their own round, straight skirts. Père Châtaignier held the dress to him, and executed a comic travesty of the way the ladies walked in the gardens of the Établissement. Madame Grènon wondered meditatively how "ces pauvres dames" could give themselves the trouble of carrying about so much when they walked. Père Châtaignier supposed that they submitted to the inconvenience in order that they might be distinguished from the peasants; but they all seemed to think "ces pauvres dames" were greatly to be pitied.

Presently Père Châtaignier opened a deep drawer, and with his pocket-knife cut a hunch off a huge round loaf of coarse bread which quite filled the drawer. He halved his piece and handed me a bit between his fingers. Madame Grènon brought a bowl of milk for me, and a bottle of wine for him, and we sat down on a settle by the fire and made a cheerful meal, after which, with many expressions of sympathy and commiseration, Madame Grènon helped me to put on my own still damp gown over her dry clothes, and mounted me on Blondinette once more. This was not the end of my acquaintance with Madame Grènon. We got to be great friends. One Sunday she came to see me in her costume de fête. We exchanged photographs, and promised to write to each other.

The thunder growled still in the distance as we rode back from La Charrarde, but the air was deliciously fresh, and the new-born creeklets murmured joyously. The sun was setting, and there was a haze over La Limagne, so that it seemed more than ever like the sea, while the distant hills were unusually blue and clear; and Père Châtaignier pointed out to me how the fields of ripe corn upon them looked like patches of snow.

It was the eve of the National Fête. Guns were being fired in Clermont, and as we came down through old Royat, men were parading the street and singing the Marseillaise. At the table-d’hôte all the French people were excited about the arrival of General Boulanger and the whispers of a probable émeute.

"How happy you are in England to have a Queen and a Court," said the little French Countess pathetically. “Under such a triste Government as 'ours one never knows what is coming. And with a President who was an avocat!" and she shrugged her plump shoulders. "What is to be done? At a ball at the Elysée now there are none but gens de commerce. All is shaken up in a republic, and the little come to the top.''

Royat is, in itself, the least interesting of watering-places, but there are any number of excursions to be made from it, and the enterprising antiquarian may revel in ruined castles and ancient churches, to say nothing of Roman relics and traditions of Julius Cæsar and Vercingetorix. Julius Cæsar is quite a household word among the Auvergnats. "Ah, c’est un grand homme!" Père Châtaignier remarked with solemn conviction as Blondinette climbed the Roman road to Villars; and then as we descended by the Puy de Chateix — “See, this is what he made to bring the water to Royat," pointing to a hollow in the rocky side-path. Père Châtaignier went on to tell how the Puy de Chateix was called the Granary of Cæsar. How Cæsar had stored in the caves corn for his soldiers, and how "when he was killed in battle, or died a sudden death, I do not quite remember," conscientiously added Châtaignier, his stores of corn had been burned, and to this day calcined grains were found.

There is a curious old church at Volvic, almost barbaric in its ornamentation — an odd mixture of the ecclesiastical, the pagan, and the feudal. Two large stone heads, one of which might be the Greek Mercury, support the arch of the chancel. The capitals of the pillars are strangely sculptured, here a graven centaur, and there an Egyptian-like carving of two grotesque birds, their beaks meeting in an Etruscan-looking vase. In one place a mediaeval figure in armour holding the scales of justice, and in another a knight, mailed and winged, with something between a battle-axe and a banner in one hand, while the other thumb and two fingers are extended over an enshrined chalice.

An English chaplain, who was of our party, pointed out these curiosities of architecture with professional interest. He had a deep mellifluous voice, and an insatiable appetite for exploration of all kinds. We were driving together — the American lady and her pretty daughter, the cleric and I. Our road led among plumy chestnuts, pleasant vineyards, and gardens. There were wild flowers all along the wayside, golden-rod and clematis, harebells and cornflowers. Sometimes we would pass by a white château with a stiff avenue of poplara leading up to its straight front. Sometimes we went through an old-world town with a gay place — they are delightful, these raised, lime-shaded places — and dark, narrow streets almost bridged in parts, where one might see a quaint twelfth-century house with arched stone doorway, or curious carved façades of a somewhat later date, fantastic tourelles, and queer bits of sculpture in grey lava, or funny little bakers’ shops, with the long brown twists, and the big round loaves with a hole through the middle, hanging on nails down each side of the doorway, while at every doorway there would be a group of the blue-gowned, white-capped peasants always busy with their knitting.

At each church we came to, the carnage stopped, and our friend, the chaplain, aliglited. But Màr-mar was deaf to the coachman's remonstrances — "Mais, madame, un peu de courage!"

"Well, I presume we saw churches enough in Rome," said Màr-mar stolidly. "I don't see that there's any good in going round another. We've seen a great many ruined castles, and we've been round quite a number of old churches," Màr-mar pursued plaintively, "but somehow it don't seem when we're done as if we'd got any forwarder. It always appears after we've gone that there's something we've just missed everywhere — a picture, or a church, or a statue, or a waterfall, that we'd just ought to have come all the way from America to look at. I presume it's the guides' fault; but that's just so."

We were going to the ruined castle of Tournöel, and after zig-zagging up for a little while, the carriage stopped on a tiny plateau shadowed by chestnuts and enclosed by a crumbling wall, with the bold tower of the castle rising grandly on the summit of the peak. "There's plenty of romance in me," said Màr-mar, but I should like something in my stomach to support it." So we had our luncheon first under the chestnut-trees; and the ecclesiastic improved the occasion by a short lecture on mediævalism, troubadours, the age of chivalry, and the doubtful advantages of civilisation, telegraph wire, Birmingham caucus, and all the rest; while the fresh untainted breeze blew upon our faces, and a brood of domesticated fowls clucked round and feasted in cannibal fashion upon the remnants of our cold roast chickens

It is quite the real thing, this castle of Tournöel — dungeon, oubliette, watch-tower, archers' loopholes, secret winding stair — all in proper form and excellent preservation. White pigeons coo now in the deserted inner courtyard, and float in and out of the sculptured window-frames, and nestle in the old doorway beneath the defaced coat-of-arms. The salle des gardes is grass-grown, and only the carved chimneypiece remains in the great salon. There was something very dreamy and poetic about it all; We could have lingered a long time on the roof of the big tower, looking down on the shadow-flecked plain, where the towns seemed like little red patches, and the flelds and vineyards like irregularly ruled chess board squares, while beyond, one above the other, rose tiers of hills, with here and there the flattened cone of an extinct volcano.

Below Tournöel, the carriage stopped again in a village at the mouth of a ravine; and there came out a troop of peasant-girls, headed by one who carried a long distaff and rapidly spun and wound her flax as she walked. She volunteered to conduct us to the cascade at the end of the gorge — a cascade which was "magnifique," which all the visitors went to look at. The ecclesiastic, always energetic, jumped down, and so did the whole party in another carriage which had followed us. But Màr-mar shook her head, saying that she presumed, as they were going on to Switzerland, they would have plenty of cascades soon, and she guessed that she and her daughter would stop in the carriage till we came back. We others followed the girl with the distaff over the rocks and along a dell closed in with clefted precipices and projecting granite boulders, and with a tiny stream running sluggishly down its bed. At last the girl stopped in front of a rocky wall, on the top of which were a few rugged pines.

"C'est le bout du monde," she said. That was the name of the ravine, and we might go no further.

"But where is the cascade?" we cried, except the clergyman, who had just caught a purple emperor butterfly in the crown of his soft hat.

"Mais––––" The girl shrugged her shoulders and pointed with her distaff to a stain on the rocky wall. "There was the cascade. In the month of May it was superb. There were torrents of water in May. But in July––––!" Màr-mar smiled grimly when we got back to the carriage. "Well, I did presume we should get the real thing in Switzerland," she said.