He who has not seen Ambialet, in the Albigeois, has missed a wonder of the world. The village rests in a saddle of crystalline rock between two rushing streams, which are yet one and the same river; for the Tarn (as it is called), pouring down from the Cevennes, is met and turned by this harder ridge, and glances along one flank of Ambialet, to sweep around a wooded promontory and double back on the other. So complete is the loop that, while it measures a good two miles in circuit, across the neck of it, where the houses cluster, you might fling a pebble over their roofs from stream to stream.
High on the crupper of this saddle is perched a ruined castle, with a church below it, and a cross and a graveyard on the cliff’s edge; high on the pommel you climb to another cross, beside a dilapidated house of religion, the Priory of Notre Dame de l’Oder.
From the town–for Ambialet was once a town, and a flourishing one–you mount to the Priory by a Via Crucis, zigzagging by clusters of purple marjoram and golden St. John’s wort. Above these come broom and heather and bracken, dwarf oaks and junipers, box-trees and stunted chestnut-trees; and, yet above, on the summit, short turf and thyme, which the wind keeps close-trimmed about the base of the cross.
The Priory, hard by, houses a number of lads whom Pere Philibert does his best to train for the religious life; but its church has been closed by order of the Government, and tall mulleins sprout between the broad steps leading to the porch. Pere Philibert will tell you of a time when these steps were worn by thousands of devout feet, and of the cause which brought them.
A little below the summit you passed a railed box-tree, with an image of the Virgin against it. Here a palmer, travelling homeward from the Holy Land, planted his staff, which took root and threw out leaves and flourished; and in time the plant, called oder in the Languedoc, earned so much veneration that Our Lady of Ambialet changed her title and became Our Lady of the Oder.
This should be Ambialet’s chief pride. But the monks of the Priory boast rather of Ambialet’s natural marvel–the river looped round their demesne.
“There is nothing like it, not in the whole of France!”
Pere Philibert said it with a wave of the hand. Brother Marc Antoine’s pig, stretched at ease with her snout in the cool grass, grunted, as who should say Bien entendu!
We were three in the orchard below the Priory; or four, counting the pig– who is a sow, by the way, and by name Zephirine. Brother Marc Antoine looks after her; a gleeful old fellow of eighty, with a twinkling eye, a scandalously dirty soutane, and a fund of anecdote not always sedate. The Priory excuses him on the ground that his intellectuals are not strong–he has spent most of his life in Africa, and there taken a couple of sunstrokes. Zephirine follows him about like a dog. The pair are mighty hunters of truffles, in the season.
“–Not in the whole of France!” repeated Pere Philibert with conviction, nodding from the dappled shade of the orchard-boughs towards the river, where it ran sparkling far below, by grey willows and a margin of mica-strewn sand; not ‘apples of gold in a network of silver,’ but a landscape all silver seen through a frame of green foliage starred with golden fruit.
The orchard-gate clicked behind us. Brother Marc Antoine, reclining beside the sow with his back against an apple-tree bole, slewed himself round for a look. Pere Philibert and I, turning together, saw a man and a woman approaching, with hangdog looks, and a priest between them–the Cure of Ambialet–who seemed to be exhorting them by turns to keep up their courage.