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In the Land of the Basques
By FRANCIS AUGUSTUS RUGG
Photographs by the author
FTER many months of photographing scenes of desolation and picturing the doughboy at play, I longed for the opportunity to travel with my camera through a peaceful country, remote from ravages of war. My chief desire was to wander at will through the domain of the Basques, those "warders of the Pyrenees," whose remarkable history makes them one of the most fascinating races of Europe.
Descended from the original Iberians, they still cling to the mountain country whence their ancestors were driven by the Aryans, and where, in later years, their forefathers preserved the faith of the cross when Mohammedanism had virtually conquered Spain. To-day they are found on both sides of the Pyrenees, but those now known as French Basques share in common with their brethren across the Spanish border the glorious heritage of their very ancient race.
Therefore it was with keenest anticipation that I caught my first glimpse of the twin spires of the cathedral at Bayonne on a Sunday afternoon in August, knowing I had arrived at the very threshold of the Basque country.
A holiday crowd was thronging the spacious bridges and passing under the triumphal arch, draped with the tricolor and bearing the inscription "Gloire à nos Poilus." I looked in vain for some trace of a national costume, and I listened without immediate reward for a word of this strangest of all the languages of Europe, for Bayonne to-day differs little from any other modern French town, and has lost much of its former distinctive character. Later, in a little pâtisserie, I caught a bit of conversation between two women which differed from anything I had ever heard in France. During my two years overseas I had become familiar with French in all its purity, with the patois of the Ardèche and of Allier, with Italian and Niçois along the Riviera, and the language of Mistral in Nîmes and Arles; but this smoothly flowing speech, with its many final vowels, its multitude of g's and k's, was like none of these, and lacked the harsher, guttural sounds that somewhat mar the musical quality of Spanish.
Whenever later in my travels I made inquiries for some books in the native tongue, there was always an instant endeavor to dissuade me from any attempt to learn Basque, as it was the most
Copyright, 1920, by THE CENTURY Co. All rights reserved.
difficult study in all the world. Did I not know that the devil himself, after seven long weary years spent in the effort to master its intricacies, gave up in despair, admitting that he was completely baffled, without having learned a single word.
"Oh," I replied, "I was told that he succeeded in adding three words to his vocabulary."
"And what were the three?" was the eager demand. That was a question I could not answer, but, anyway, so the story goes, Satan, because of his ignorance of the language, has never been able to interfere with the Basque people in the exercise of their simple religious faith.
As I boarded the evening train, I realized it would carry me through the gateway into the very midst of the hills that have proved to be the citadel of the Pays Basque for generations past. I knew that nearly fifty years had elapsed since this liberty-loving people, who had long maintained their civil and religious integrity, had lost the special privileges jealously guarded by their fathers, and I was anxious to see if the famous Basque provinces still retained the characteristics which had impressed travelers of an earlier period. Obeying a cardinal principle of a foreign traveler seeking local color, I turned my back on the first-class carriages and climbed into a secondclass compartment, where I soon had an