Recollections of My Youth/The Flax-Crusher: Part III
The Flax-Crusher: Part III
"Do you remember the little village of Tredarzec, the steeple of which was visible from the turret of our house? About half a mile from the village, which consisted of little more than the church, the priest's house, and the mayor's office, stood the manor of Kermelle, which was, like so many others, a well-kept farmhouse, of very antiquated appearance, surrounded by a lofty wall, and grey with age. There was a large arched doorway, surmounted by a V-shaped shelter roofed with tiles, and at the side of this a smaller door for everyday use. At the further end of the courtyard stood the house with its pointed roof and its gables covered with ivy. The dovecote, a turret, and two or three well-constructed windows not unlike those of a church, proved that this was the residence of a noble, one of those old houses which were inhabited, previous to the Revolution, by a class of men whose habits and mode of life have now passed beyond the reach of imagination.
"These country nobles were mere peasants, but the first of their class. At one time there was only one in each parish, and they were regarded as the representatives and mouthpieces of the inhabitants, who scrupulously respected their right and treated them with great consideration. But towards the close of the last century they were beginning to disappear very fast. The peasants looked upon them as being the lay heads of the parish just as the priest was the ecclesiastical head. He who held this position at Tredarzec of whom I am speaking, was an elderly man of fine presence, with all the force and vigour of youth, and a frank and open face; he wore his hair long, but rolled up under a comb, only letting it fall on Sunday, when he partook of the Sacrament. I can still see him--he often came to visit us at Treguier--with his serious air and a tinge of melancholy, for he was almost the sole survivor of his order, the majority having disappeared altogether, while the others had come to live in towns. He was a universal favourite. He had a seat all to himself in church, and every Sunday he might be seen in it, just in front of the rest of the congregation, with his old-fashioned dress and his long gloves reaching almost to the elbow. When the Sacrament was about to be administered he withdrew to the end of the choir, unfastened his hair, laid his gloves upon a small stool placed expressly for him near the rood screen, and walked up the aisle unassisted and erect. No one approached the table until he had returned to his seat and put on his gauntlets.
"He was very poor, but he made a point of concealing it from the public. These country nobles used to enjoy certain privileges which enabled them to live rather better than the general mass of peasants, but these gradually faded away, and Kermelle was in a very embarrassed condition. He could not well work in the fields, and he kept in doors all day, having an occupation which could be followed under cover. When flax has ripened, it is put through a process of decortication, which leaves only the textile fibre, and this was the work which poor old Kermelle thought that he could do without loss of dignity. No one saw him at it, and thus appearances were saved; but the fact was generally known, and as it was the custom to give every one a nickname he was soon known all the country over as 'the flax-crusher.' This sobriquet, as so often happens, gradually took the place of his proper name, and as 'the flax-crusher' he was soon generally known.
"He was like a patriarch of old, and you would laugh if I told you how the flax-crusher eked out his subsistence, and added to the scanty wage which he received for this work. It was supposed that as head of the village he had special gifts of healing, and that by the laying on of his hands, and in other ways, he could cure many complaints. The popular belief was that this power was only possessed by those who had ever so many quartering, of nobility, and that he alone had the requisite number. On certain days his house was besieged by people who had come a distance of fifty miles. If a child was backward in learning to walk or was weak on its legs, the parents brought it to him. He moistened his fingers in his mouth and traced figures on the child's loins, the result being that it soon was able to walk. He was thoroughly in earnest, for these were the days of simple faith. Upon no account would he have taken any money, and for the matter of that the people who came to consult him were too poor to give him any, but one brought a dozen eggs, another a flitch of bacon, a third a jar of butter, or some fruit. He made no scruple about accepting these, and though the nobles in the towns ridiculed him, they were very wrong in doing so. He knew the country very well, and was the very incarnation and embodiment of it.
"At the outbreak of the Revolution he emigrated to Jersey, though why it is difficult to understand, for no one assuredly would have molested him, but the nobles of Treguier told him that such was the king's order, and he went off with the rest. He was not long away, and when he came back he found his old house, which had not been occupied, just as he had left it. When the indemnities were distributed some of his friends tried to persuade him to put in a claim; and there was much, no doubt, which could have been said in support of it. But though the other nobles were anxious to improve his position, he would not hear of any such thing, his sole reply to all arguments being, 'I had nothing, and I could lose nothing.' He remained, therefore, as poor as ever.
"His wife died, I believe, while he was at Jersey, and he had a daughter who was born about the same time. She was a tall and handsome girl (you have only known her since she has lost her freshness), with much natural vigour, a beautiful complexion, and no lack of generous blood running through her veins. She ought to have been married young, but that was out of the question, for those wretched little starvelings of nobles in the small towns, who are good for nothing, and not to be compared with him, would not have heard of her for their sons. As a matter of etiquette she could not marry a peasant, and so the poor girl remained, as it were, in mid-air, like a wandering spirit. There was no place for her on earth. Her father was the last of his race, and it seemed as if she had been brought into the world with the destiny of not finding a place for herself in it. Endowed with great physical beauty, she scarcely had any soul, and with her instinct was everything. She would have made an excellent mother, but failing marriage a religious vocation would have suited her best, as the regular and austere mode of life would have calmed her temperament. But her father, doubtless, could not afford to provide her with a dowry, and his social condition forbade the idea of making her a lay-sister. Poor girl, driven into the wrong path, she was fated to meet her doom there. She was naturally upright and good, with a full knowledge of her duties, and her only fault was that she had blood in her veins. None of the young men in the village would have dreamt of taking a liberty with her, so much was her father respected. The feeling of her superiority prevented her from forming any acquaintance with the young peasants, and they never thought of paying their addresses to her. The poor girl lived, therefore, in a state of absolute solitude, for the only other inhabitant of the house was a lad of twelve or thirteen, a nephew, whom Kermelle had taken under his care and to whom the priest, a good man if ever there was one, taught what little Latin he knew himself.
"The Church was the only source of pleasure left for her. She was of a pious disposition, though not endowed with sufficient intelligence to understand anything of the mysteries of our religion. The priest, very zealous in the performance of his duties, felt no little respect for the flax-crusher, and spent whatever leisure time he had at his house. He acted as tutor to the nephew, treating the daughter with the reserve which the clergy of Brittany make a point of showing in their intercourse with the opposite sex. He wished her good day and inquired after her health, but he never talked to her except on commonplace subjects. The unfortunate girl fell violently in love with him. He was the only person of her own station, so to speak, whom she ever saw, and moreover, he was a young man of very taking appearance; combining with an attitude of great outward modesty an air of subdued melancholy and resignation. One could see that he had a heart and strong feeling, but that a more lofty principle held them in subjection, or rather that they were transformed into something higher. You know how fascinating some of our Breton clergy are, and this is a fact very keenly appreciated by women. The unshaken attachment to a vow, which is in itself a sort of homage to their power, emboldens, attracts, and flatters them. The priest becomes for them a trusty brother who has for their sake renounced his sex and carnal delights. Hence is begotten a feeling which is a mixture of confidence, pity, regret, and gratitude. Allow priests to marry and you destroy one of the most necessary elements of Catholic society. Women will protest against such a change, for there is something which they esteem even more than being loved, and that is for love to be made a serious business. Nothing flatters a woman more than to let her see that she is feared, and the Church by placing chastity in the first place among the duties of its ministers, touches the most sensitive chord of female vanity.
"The poor girl thus gradually became immersed in a deep love for the priest. The virtuous and mystic race to which she belonged knew nothing of the frenzy which overcomes all obstacles and which accounts nothing accomplished so long as anything remains to be accomplished. Her aspirations were very modest, and if he would only have admitted the fact of her existence she would have been content. She did not want so much as a look; a place in his thoughts would have been enough. The priest was, of course, her confessor, for there was no other in the parish. The mode of Catholic confession, so admirable in some respects, but so dangerous, had a great effect upon her imagination. It was inexpressibly pleasing to her to find herself every Saturday alone with him for half an hour, as if she were face to face with God, to see him discharging the functions of God, to feel his breath, to undergo the welcome humiliation of his reprimands, to confide to him her inmost thoughts, scruples, and fears. You must not imagine, however, that she told him everything, for a pious woman has rarely the courage to make use of the confessional for a love confidence. She may perhaps give herself up to the enjoyment of sentiments which are not devoid of peril, but there is always a certain degree of mysticism about them which is not to be conciliated with anything so horrible as sacrilege. At all events, in this particular case, the girl was so shy that the words would have died upon her lips, and her passion was a silent, inward, and devouring fire. And with all this, she was compelled to see him every day and many times a day; young and handsome, always following a dignified calling, officiating with the people on their knees before him, the judge and keeper of her own conscience. It was too much for her, and her head began to go. Her vigorous organization, deflected from its proper course, gave way, and her old father attributed to weakness of mind what was the result of the ravages wrought by the fantastic workings of a love-stricken heart.
"Just as a mountain stream is turned from its course by some insuperable barrier, the poor girl, with no means of making her affection known to the object of it, found consolation in very insignificant ways: to secure his notice for a moment, to be able to render him any slight service, and to fancy that she was of use to him was enough, and she may have said to herself, who can tell? he is a man after all, and he may perhaps be touched in reality and only restrained from showing that he is through discipline. All these efforts broke against a bar of iron, a wall of ice. The priest maintained the same cool reserve. She was the daughter of the man for whom he felt the greatest respect; but she was a woman. Oh! if he had avoided her, if he had treated her harshly, that would have been a triumph and a proof that she had made his heart beat for her, but there was something terrible about his unvarying politeness and his utter disregard of the most potent signs of affection. He made no attempt to keep her at a distance, but merely continued steadfastly to treat her as a mere abstraction.
"After the lapse of a certain time things got very bad. Rejected and heartbroken, she began to waste away, and her eye grew haggard, but she put a restraint upon herself, no one knew her secret! 'What,' she would say to herself,' I cannot attract his notice for a moment; he will not even acknowledge my existence; do what I will, I can only be for him a shadow, a phantom, one soul among a hundred others. It would be too much to hope for his love, but his notice, a look from him.... To be the equal of one so learned, so near to God, is more than I could hope, and to bear him children would be sacrilege; but to be his, to be a Martha to him, to be his servant, discharging the modest duties of which I am capable, so as to have all in common with him, the household goods and all that concerns a humble woman who is not initiated in any higher ideas, that would be heavenly!' She would remain motionless for whole afternoons upon her chair, nursing this idea. She could see him and picture herself with him, loading him with attentions, keeping his house, and pressing the hem of his garment. She thrust away these idle dreams from her but after having been plunged in them for hours she was deadly pale and oblivious of all those who were about her. Her father might have noticed it, but what could the poor old man do to cure an evil which it would be impossible for a simple soul like his so much as to conceive.
"So things went on for about a year. The probability is that the priest saw nothing, so firmly do our clergy adhere to the resolution of living in an atmosphere of their own. This only added fuel to the fire. Her love became a worship, a pure adoration, and so she gained comparative peace of mind. Her imagination took quite a childish turn, and she wanted to be able to fancy that she was employed in doing things for him. She had got to dream while awake, and, like a somnambulist, to perform acts in a semi-unconscious state. Day and night, one thought haunted her: she fancied herself tending him, counting his linen, and looking after all the details of his household, which were too petty to occupy his thoughts. All these fancies gradually took shape, and led up to an act only to be explained by the mental state to which she had for some time been reduced."
What follows would indeed be incomprehensible without a knowledge of certain peculiarities in the Breton character. The most marked feature in the people of Brittany is their affection. Love is with them a tender, deep, and affectionate sentiment, rather than a passion. It is an inward delight which wears and consumes, differing toto caelo from the fiery passion of southern races.
The paradise of their dreams is cool and green, with no fierce heat. There is no race which yields so many victims to love; for, though suicide is rare, the gradual wasting away which is called consumption is very Prevalent. It is often so with the young Breton conscripts. Incapable of finding any satisfaction in mercenary intrigues, they succumb to an indefinable sort of languor, which is called home-sickness, though, in reality, love with them is indissolubly associated with their native village, with its steeple and vesper bells, and with the familiar scenes of home. The hot-blooded southerner kills his rival, as he may the object of his passion. The sentiment of which I am speaking is fatal only to him who is possessed by it, and this is why the people of Brittany are so chaste a race. Their lively imagination creates an aerial world which satisfies their aspirations. The true poetry of such a love as this is the sonnet on spring in the Song of Solomon, which is far more voluptuous than it is passionate. "Hiems transiit; imber abiit et recessit.... Vox turturis audita est in terra nostra.... Surge, amica mea, et veni."
- What grand landwehr leaders they would have made! There are no such men in the present day.