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GUIENNE

CHAPTER I.

A TOWNLET AMONG THE MOUNTAINS.

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Conques in Rouergue. In the northwest corner of that part of Guienne. called Rouergue, hidden away in a mountainous labyrinth, stands the tiny hill town of Conques. Conceive a picture in which the foreground is filled by a ravine with a brawling torrent buried in the depths below, while behind are wooded steeps with the streets in terraces rising tier over tier, the houses scattered about in picturesqueconfusion, some standing, as it were, on their own legs, and others clinging to the hillside. The streets, however, are but sorry lanes after all, several of them mere alleys, paved with stones full of holes and breaks, and (especially when recent rain has given a slippery gloss to the pavement, or after dusk) perilously steep.

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Among these narrow crooked lanes are two or three principal thoroughfares which go far to realize one's ideal of what a street in a country town may have looked like five hundred years ago. That on the topmost terrace or tier, made up chiefly of a few straggling tenements, tottering with age, has for its most prominent building a mediæval Hospital, hoary with years and services rendered to successive generations of sufferers. There is about it a grey, time-worn aspect, with which its Gothic portal and mullioned windows harmonize well enough. Like many another public edifice in outof-the way places in the South, it has a certain air of desolation, which might have suggested the idea of a tenantless palace in a tale or ballad, but for a merry troop of children who were making of its bare hall and staircase a playground. From the elevated terrace hewn out of the cliff, on which stands the Hospital, long flights of broken stepsthe dilapidated legacies of past times—lead down, at different points, to a second lane on a lower level. This may pass for the Grande Rue (street nomenclature not having hitherto penetrated thus far), since it contains the quarters of the military police and three or four shops, besides a curious covered space, in the middle of the broadest part, a few feet square (somewhat recalling, on a small scale, one of our roofed-in country market-places), open at the sides, save a low stone parapet, breast high. Hollowed out in this parapet is a measure of peculiar form, said to have served for meting out in kind the Seignorial dues in days anterior to the Revolution. A third street, at a lower level stillprecipitous, roughly paved, and winding by many a sharp twist-leads up from the base of the mountain to the little town that hugs its flank. Following the course of this thoroughfare, and passing beneath an arched gateway more quaint than archi. tectural, and thence to the church, with an irregular and diminutive piazza in front of it, you find yourself in the centre of the straggling collection of rickety tenements of which the place is for the most part composed. A carriage way was, unhappily, in contemplation which, while leading right up to this central point, would cut ruthlessly through a group of buildings, venerable from their antiquity, and thus mar the effect of one of the most unique and mediæval-looking spots that the wanderer in unbeaten paths could have the luck to stumble upon.

Conques is in some respects a typical example of the French bourgade or big village. A very townlet in scale, yet a tiny local capital—the residence of a paid justice of the peace and a station of constabulary, with a colossal church, that dates from the eleventh century, in the heart of an artistic

pile of tumbledown habitations, you have presented to you a fair specimen of that smaller type of country-town suggested by the term bourgade, such at least as it is to be seen in secluded mountainous districts. At the same time, however, that to a certain extent it may be called typical of a class of mountain townlets, this is a place bristling with distinctive characteristics of its own at every step and turn. Built on successive low-lying ledges of rock dominated by an amphitheatre of overtopping hills, its series of sparsely inhabited lanes and alleys are so steep as to be practically impervious to wheeled vehicles, and not a little rugged even for the pedestrian. An unmistakable air of mediævalism, too, hangs over its antique houses, some even of the better sort being without glass to the windows, and displaying gabled roofs, projecting storeys and walls which, with massive beams of oak let into them, seem as if built to weather the storms of time and chance. The irregularity they present is heightened by the narrow slips of streets standing on such different levels, the view from the uppermost among them—that of the Hospital-as you look down upon the buildings below, being hardly less precipitous than the Roman Forum seen from the Tarpeian Rock. Several antiquated and crumbling gateways—the one on the north set off by a neighbouring tower or two-fill up the

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