Read CHAPTER II - ONE WALKS of Alias The Lone Wolf, free online book, by Louis Joseph Vance, on

A little place called Le Monastier, in a pleasant highland valley fifteen miles from Le Puy ... notable for the making of lace, for drunkenness, for freedom of language, and for unparalleled political dissension was Mr. Stevenson’s point of departure on his Travels with a Donkey. Monsieur Duchemin made it his as well; and on the fourth morning of his hegira from England set out from Le Monastier afoot, a volume of Montaigne in his pocket, a stout stick in his fist the fat rucksack strapped to his shoulders enabling this latter-day traveller to dispense with the society of another donkey.

The weather was fine, his heart high, he was happy to be out of harness and again his own man. More than once he laughed a little to think of the vain question of his whereabouts which was being mooted in the underworld of Europe, where (as well he knew) men and women spat when they named him. For his route from the Channel coast to Le Monastier had been sufficiently discreet and devious to persuade him that his escape had been as cleanly executed as it was timely instigated.

Thus for upwards of a fortnight he fared southward in the footsteps of Mr. Stevenson; and much good profit had he of the adventure. For it was his common practice to go to bed with the birds and rise with the sun; and more often than not he lodged in the inn of the silver moon, with moss for a couch, leafy boughs for a canopy and the stars for night-lights accommodations infinitely more agreeable than those afforded by the grubby and malodorous auberge of the wayside average. And between sun and sun he punished his boots famously.

Constant exercise tuned up muscles gone slack and soft with easy living, upland winds cleansed the man of the reek of cities and made his appetite a thing appalling. A keen sun darkened his face and hands, brushed up in his cheeks a warmer glow than they had shown in many a year, and faded out the heavier lines with which Time had marked his countenance. Moreover, because this was France, where one may affect a whisker without losing face, he neglected his razors; and though this was not his first thought, a fair disguise it proved. For when, toward the end of the second week, he submitted that wanton luxuriance to be tamed by a barber of Florac, he hardly knew the trimly bearded mask of bronze that looked back at him from a mirror.

Not that it mattered to Monsieur Duchemin. From the first he met few of any sort and none at all whom a lively and exacting distrust reckoned a likely factor in his affairs. It was a wild, bold land he traversed, and thinly peopled; at pains to avoid the larger towns, he sought by choice the loneliest paths that looped its quiet hills; such as passed the time of day with him were few and for the most part peasants, a dull, dour lot, taciturn to a degree that pleased him well. So that he soon forgot to be forever alert for the crack of an ambushed pistol or the pattering footfalls of an assassin with a knife.

It was at Florac, on the Tarnon, that he parted company with the trail of Stevenson. Here that one had turned east to Alais, whereas Duchemin had been lost to the world not nearly long enough, he was minded to wander on till weary. The weather held, there was sunshine in golden floods, and by night moonlight like molten silver. Between beetling ramparts of stone, terraced, crenellated and battlemented in motley strata of pink and brown and yellow and black, the river Tarn had gouged out for itself a canyon through which its waters swept and tumbled, as green as translucent jade in sunlight, profound emerald in shadow, cream white in churning rapids. The lofty profiles of its cliffs were fringed with stunted growths of pine and ash, a ragged stubble, while here and there chateaux, forsaken as a rule, and crumbling, reared ruined silhouettes against the blue. Eighteen hundred feet below, it might be more, the Tarn threaded lush bottom-lands, tilled fields, goodly orchards, plantations of walnut and Spanish chestnut, and infrequent, tiny villages that clung to precarious footholds between cliffs and water.

On high again, beyond the cliffs, stretched the Causses, vast, arid and barren plateaux, flat and featureless save for an occasional low, rounded mound, a menhir or a dolmen, and (if such may be termed features) great pits that opened in the earth like cold craters, which the countryfolk termed avens. A strange, bleak land, inhospitable, wind-harried, haunted, the home of seven howling devils of desolation...

Rain at length interned the traveller for three days in a little place called Meyrueis, which lies sweetly in the valley of the Jonte, at its confluence with the Butezon, long leagues remote from railroads and the world they stitch together that world of unrest, uncertainty and intrigue which in those days seemed no better than a madhouse.

The break in the monotony of daily footfaring proved agreeable. It suited one well to camp for a space in that quaint town, isolate in the heart of an enchanted land, with which one was in turn enchanted, and contemplate soberly the grave issues of Life and Death.

Here (said Duchemin) nothing can disturb me; and it is high time for me to be considering what I am to make of the remainder of my days. Too many of them have been wasted, too great a portion of my span has been sacrificed to vanities. One must not forget one is in a fair way to become a grandfather; it is plainly an urgent duty to reconcile oneself to that estate and cultivate its proper gravity and decorum. Yet a little while and one must bid adieu to that Youth which one has so heedlessly squandered, a last adieu to Youth with its days of high adventure, its carefree heart, its susceptibility to the infinite seductions of Romance.

Quite seriously the adventurer entertained a premonition of his to-morrow, a vision of himself in skull-cap and seedy clothing (the trousers well-bagged at the knees) with rather more than a mere hint of an equator emphasized by grease-spots on his waistcoat, presiding over the fortunes of one of those dingy little Parisian shops wherein debatable antiques accumulate dust till they fetch the ducats of the credulous; and of a Sunday walking out, in a shiny frock-coat with his ribbon of the Legion in the buttonhole, a ratty topper crowning his placid brows, a humid grandchild adhering to his hand: a thrifty and respectable bourgeois, the final avatar of a rolling stone!

Yes: it is amusing, but quite true; though it would need a deal of contriving, something little short of a revolution to bring it about, to precisely such a future as that did Duchemin most seriously propose to dedicate himself.

But always, they say, it is God who disposes....

And for all this mood of premature resignation to the bourgeois virtues Duchemin was glad enough when his fourth day in Meyrueis dawned fair, and by eight was up and away, purposing a round day’s tramp across the Causse Noir to Montpellier-lé-Vieux (concerning which one heard curious tales), then on by way of the gorge of the Dourbie to Millau for the night.

Nor would he heed the dubious head shaken by his host of Meyrueis, who earnestly advised a guide. The Causses, he declared, were treacherous; men sometimes lost their way upon those lofty plains and were never heard of more. Duchemin didn’t in the least mind getting lost, that is to say failing to make his final objective; at worst he could depend upon a good memory and an unfailing sense of direction to lead him back the way he had come.

He was to learn there is nothing more unpalatable than the repentance of the headstrong....

He found it a stiffish climb up out of the valley of the Jonte. By the time he had managed it, the sun had already robbed all vegetation of its ephemeral jewellery, the Causse itself showed few signs of a downpour which had drenched it for seventy-two hours on end. To that porous limestone formation water in whatever quantity is as beer to a boche. Only, if one paused to listen on the brink of an aven, there were odd and disturbing noises to be heard underfoot, liquid whisperings, grim chuckles, horrible gurgles, that told of subterranean streams in spate, coursing in darkness to destinations unknown, unguessable.

His path (there was no trace of road) ran snakily through a dense miniature forest of dwarfed, gnarled pines, of a peculiarly sombre green, ever and again in some scant clearing losing itself in a web of similar paths that converged from all points of the compass; so that the wayfarer was fain to steer by the sun and at one time found himself abruptly on the brink of a ravine that gashed the earth like a cruel wound. He worked his way to an elevation which showed him plainly that unless by a debatable detour of several miles there was no way to the farther side but through the depths of the ravine itself.

If that descent was a desperate business, the subsequent climb was heartbreaking. He needed a long rest before he was able to plod on, now conceiving the sun in the guise of a personal enemy. The sweat that streamed from his face was brine upon his lips. For hours it was thus with Duchemin, and in all that time he met never a soul. Once he saw from a distance a lonely chateau overhanging another ravine; but it was apparently only one more of the many ruins indigenous to that land, and he took no step toward closer acquaintance.

Long after noon, sheer fool’s luck led him to a hamlet whose mean auberge served him bread and cheese with a wine singularly thin and acid. Here he enquired for a guide, but the one able-bodied man in evidence, a hulking, surly animal, on learning that Duchemin wished to visit Montpellier-lé-Vieux, refused with a growl to have anything to do with him. Several times during the course of luncheon he caught the fellow eyeing him strangely, he thought, from a window of the auberge. In the end the peasant girl who waited on him grudgingly consented to put him on his way.

In a rocky gorge, called the Rajol, a spot as inhumanly grotesque as a nightmare of Gustave Dore’s, with the heat of a pit in Tophet, he laboured for hours. The hush of evening and its long shadows were on the land when finally he scrambled out to the Causse again. Then he lost his path another time, missed entirely the village of Maubert, where he had thought to find a conveyance, or at least a guide, and in the silver and purple mystery of a perfect moonlight night found himself looking down from a hilltop upon Montpellier-lé-Vieux.

Rumour had prepared him to know the place when he saw it, nothing for its stupendous lunacy. Heaven knows what convulsion or measured process of Nature accomplished this thing. For his part Duchemin was unable to accept any possible scientific explanation, and will go to his grave believing that some half-witted cyclops, back beyond the dimmest dawn of Time, created Montpellier-lé-Vieux in an hour of idleness, building him a play city of titanic monoliths, then wandered away and forgot it altogether.

He saw what seemed to be a city at least two miles in length, more than half as wide, a huddle of dwellings of every shape and size, a labyrinth of narrow, tortuous streets broken here and there by wide and stately avenues, with public squares and vast cirques (of such amphitheatres he counted no less than six) and walls commanded by a citadel.

But never door or window broke the face of any building, no chimney exhaled a breath of smoke, neither wheel nor foot disturbed these grass-grown thoroughfares.... Montpellier-the-Old indeed! Duchemin reflected; but rather Montpellier-the-Dead dead with the utter deadness of that which has never lived.

Marvelling, he went down into the city of stone and passed through its desolate ways, shaping a course for the southern limits, where he thought to find the road to Millau. Fatigue alone dictated this choice of the short cut. But for that, he confesses he might have gone the long way round; he was no more prone to childish terrors than any other man, but to his mind there was something sinister in the portentous immobility of the place; in its silence, its want of excuse for being, a sense of age-old evil like an inarticulate menace.

Out of this mood he failed to laugh himself. Time and again he would catch himself listening for he knew not what, approaching warily the corner of the next huge monolith as if thinking to surprise behind it some ghoulish rite, glancing apprehensively down the corridors he passed, or overshoulder for some nameless thing that stalked him and was never there when he looked, but ever lurked impishly just beyond the tail of his eye.

So that, when abruptly a man moved from behind a rock some thirty or forty paces ahead, Duchemin stopped short, with jangled nerves and a barely smothered exclamation. Possibly a shape of spectral terror would have been less startling; in that weird place and hour humanity seemed more incongruous than the supernatural. It was at once apparent that the man had neither knowledge of nor concern with the stranger. For an instant he stood with his back to the latter, peering intently down the aisle which Duchemin had been following, a stout body filling out too well the uniform of a private soldier in the American Expeditionary Forces that most ungainly, inutile, unbecoming costume that ever graced the form of man.

Then he half turned, beckoned hastily to one invisible to the observer, and furtively moved on. As furtively his signal was answered by a fellow who wore the nondescript garments of a peasant. And as suddenly as they had come into sight, the two slipped round a rocky shoulder, and the street of monoliths was empty.