Recollections of My Youth/The Flax-Crusher: Part II

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The Flax-Crusher: Part II[edit]

The education which these worthy priests gave me was not a very literary one. We turned out a good deal of Latin verse, but they would not recognize any French poetry later than the Religion of Racine the younger. The name of Lamartine was pronounced only with a sneer, and the existence of M. Hugo was not so much as known. To compose French verse was regarded as a very dangerous habit, and would have been sufficient to get a pupil expelled. I attribute partly to this my inability to express thoughts in rhyme, and this inability has often caused me great regret, for I have frequently felt a sort of inspiration to do so, but have invariably been checked by the association of ideas which has led me to regard versification as a defect. Our studies of history and of the natural sciences were not carried far, but, on the other hand, we went deep into mathematics, to which I applied myself with the utmost zest, these abstract combinations exercising a wonderful fascination over me. Our professor, the good Abbe Duchesne, was particularly attentive in his lessons to me and to my close friend and fellow-student Guyomar, who displayed a great aptitude for this branch of study. We always returned together from the college. Our shortest cut was by the square, and we were too conscientious to deviate from the most direct route; but when we had had to work out some problem more intricate than usual our discussion of it lasted far beyond class-time, and on those occasions we made our way home by the hospital. This road took us past several large doors which were always shut, and upon which we worked out our calculations and drew our figures in chalk. Traces of them are perhaps visible there still, for these were the doors of large monasteries, where nothing ever changes.

The hospital-general, so called because it was the trysting-place alike of disease, old age, and poverty, was a very large structure, standing, like all old buildings, upon a good deal of ground, and having very little accommodation. Just in front of the entrance there was a small screen, where the inmates who were either well or recovering from illness used to meet when the weather was fine, for the hospital contained not only the sick, but the paupers, and even persons who paid a small sum for board and lodging. At the first glimpse of sunshine they all came to sit out beneath the shade of the screen upon old cane chairs, and it was the most animated place in the town. Guyomar and myself always exchanged the time of day with these good people as we passed, and we were greeted with no little respect, for though young we were regarded as already clerks of the Church. This seemed quite natural, but there was one thing which excited our astonishment, though we were too inexperienced to know much of the world.

Among the paupers in the hospital was a person whom we never passed without surprise. This was an old maid of about five-and-forty, who always wore over her head a hood of the most singular shape; as a rule she was almost motionless, with a sombre and lost expression of countenance, and with her eyes glazed and hard-set. When we went by her countenance became animated, and she cast strange looks at us, sometimes tender and melancholy, sometimes hard and almost ferocious. If we looked back at her she seemed to be very much put out. We could not understand all this, but it had the effect of checking our conversation and any inclination to merriment. We were not exactly afraid of her, for though she was supposed to be out of her mind, the insane were not treated with the cruelty which has since been imported into the conduct of asylums. So far from being sequestered they were allowed to wander about all day long. There is as a rule a good deal of insanity at Treguier, for, like all dreamy races, which exhaust their mental energies in pursuit of the ideal, the Bretons of this district only too readily allow themselves to sink, when they are not supported by a powerful will, into a condition half way between intoxication and folly, and in many cases brought about by the unsatisfied aspirations of the heart. These harmless lunatics, whose insanity differed very much in degree, were looked upon as part and parcel of the town, and people spoke about "our lunatics" just as at Venice people say "nostre carampane." One was constantly meeting them, and they passed the time of day with us and made some joke, at which, sickly as it was, we could not help smiling. They were treated with kindness, and they often did a service in their turn. I shall never forget a poor fellow called Brian, who believed that he was a priest, and who passed part of the day in church, going through the ceremonies of mass. There was a nasal drone to be heard in the cathedral every afternoon, and this was Brian reciting prayers which were doubtless not less acceptable than those of other people. The cathedral officials had the good sense not to interfere with him, and not to draw frivolous distinctions between the simple and the humble who came to kneel before their God.

The insane woman at the hospital was much less popular, on account of her taciturn ways. She never spoke to any one, and no one knew anything of her history. She never said a word to us boys, but her haggard and wild look made a deep and painful impression upon us. I have often thought since of this enigma, though without being able to decipher it; but I obtained a clue to it eight years ago, when my mother, who had attained the age of eighty-five without loss of health, was overtaken by an illness which slowly undermined her strength.

My mother was in every respect, whether as regarded her ideas or her associations, one of the old school. She spoke Breton perfectly, and had at her fingers' ends all the sailors' proverbs and a host of things which no one now remembers. She was a true woman of the people, and her natural wit imparted a wonderful amount of life to the long stories which she told and which few but herself knew. Her sufferings did not in any way affect her spirits, and she was quite cheerful the afternoon of her death. Of an evening I used to sit with her for an hour in her room, with no other light--for she was very fond of this semi-obscurity--than that of the gas-lamp in the street. Her lively imagination would then assume free scope, and, as so often happens with old people, the recollections of her early days came back with special force and clearness. She could remember what Treguier and Lannion were before the Revolution, and she would describe what the different houses were like, and who lived in them. I encouraged her by questions to wander on, as it amused her and kept her thoughts away from her illness.

Upon one occasion we began to talk of the hospital, and she gave me the complete history of it. "Many changes," to use her own words, "have occurred there since I first knew it. No one need ever feel any shame at having been an inmate of it, for the most highly respected persons have resided there. During the First Empire, and before the indemnities were paid, it served as an asylum for the poor daughters of the nobles, who might be seen sitting out at the entrance upon cane chairs. Not a complaint ever escaped their lips, but when they saw the persons who had acquired possession of their family property rolling by in carriages, they would enter the chapel and engage in devotions so as not to meet them. This was done not so much to avoid regretting the loss of goods, of which they had made a willing sacrifice to God, as from a feeling of delicacy lest their presence might embarrass these parvenus. A few years later the parts were completely reversed, but the hospital still continued to receive all sorts of wreckage. It was there that your uncle, Pierre Renan, who led a vagabond life, and passed all his time in taverns reading to the tipplers the books he borrowed from us, died; and old Systeme, whom the priests disliked though he was a very good man; and Gode, the old sorceress, who, the day after you were born, went to tell your fortune in the Lake of the Minihi; and Marguerite Calvez, who perjured herself and was struck down with consumption the very day she heard that St. Yves had been implored to bring about her death within the year."[1]

"And who," I asked her, "was that mad woman who used to sit under the screen, and of whom Guyomar and myself were so afraid?"

Reflecting a moment to remember whom I meant, she replied, "Why, she was the daughter of the flax-crusher."

"Who was he?"

"I have never told you that story. It is too old-fashioned to be understood at the present day. Since I have come to Paris there are many things to which I have never alluded.... These country nobles were so much respected. I always considered them to be the genuine noblemen. It would be no use telling this to the Parisians, they would only laugh at me. They think that their city is everything, and in my view they are very narrow-minded. People have no idea in the present day how these old country noblemen were respected, poor as they were."

Here my mother paused for a little, and then went on with the story, which I will tell in her own words.


  1. I may perhaps relate all these anecdotes at a future time.