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

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The Flax-Crusher: Part IV[edit]

My mother, resuming her story, went on to say:--

"We are all, as a matter of fact, at the mercy of our illusions, and the proof of this is that in many cases nothing is easier than to take in Nature by devices which she is unable to distinguish from the reality. I shall never forget the daughter of Marzin, the carpenter in the High Street, who, losing her senses owing to a suppression of the maternal sentiment, took a log of wood, dressed it up in rags, placed on the top of it a sort of baby's cap, and passed the day in fondling, rocking, hugging, and kissing this artificial infant. When it was placed in the cradle beside her of an evening, she was quiet all night. There are some instincts for which appearances suffice, and which can be kept quiet by fictions. Thus it was that Kermelle's daughter succeeded in giving reality to her dreams. Her ideal was a life in common with the man she loved, and the one which she shared in fancy was not, of course, that of a priest, but the ordinary domestic life. She was meant for the conjugal existence, and her insanity was the result of an instinct for housekeeping being checkmated. She fancied that her aspiration was realized and that she was keeping house for the man whom she loved; and as she was scarcely capable of distinguishing between her dreams and the reality she was the victim of the most incredible aberrations, which prove in the most effectual way the sacred laws of nature and their inevitable fatality.

"She passed her time in hemming and marking linen, which, in her idea, was for the house where she was to pass her life at the feet of her adored one. The hallucination went so far that she marked the linen with the priest's initials; often with his and her own interlaced. She plied her needle with a very deft hand, and would work for hours at a stretch, absorbed in a delicious reverie. So she satisfied her cravings, and passed through moments of delight which kept her happy for days.

"Thus the weeks passed, while she traced the name so dear to her, and associated it with her own--this alone being a pastime which consoled her. Her hands were always busy in his service, and the linen which she had sewn for him seemed to be herself. It would be used and touched by him, and there was deep joy in the thought. She would be always deprived of him, it was true, but the impossible must remain the impossible, and she would have drawn herself as near to him as could be. For a whole year she fed in fancy upon her pitiful little happiness. Alone, and with her eyes intent upon her work, she lived in another world, and believed herself to be his wife in a humble measure. The hours flowed on slowly like the motion of her needle; her hapless imagination was relieved. And then she at times indulged in a little hope. Perhaps he would be touched, even to tears, when he made the discovery, testifying to her great love. 'He will see how I love him, and he will understand how sweet it is to be brought together.' She would be wrapped for days at a time in these dreams, which were nearly always followed by a period of extreme prostration.

"In course of time the work was completed, and then came the question, 'What should she do with it?' The idea of compelling him to accept a service, to be under some sort of obligation to her, took complete possession of her mind. She determined to steal his gratitude, if I may so express myself; to compel him by force to feel obliged to her; and this was the plan she resolved upon. It was devoid of all sense or reason, but her mind was gone, and she had long since been led away by the vagaries of her disordered imagination. The festivals of Christmas were about to be celebrated. After the midnight mass the priest was in the habit of entertaining the mayor and the notabilities of the village at supper. His house adjoined the church, and besides the principal door opening on to the village square, there were two others, one leading into the vestry and so into the church, and another into the garden and the fields beyond. Kermelle Manor was about five hundred yards distant, and to save the nephew--who took lessons from the priest--making a long round, he had been given a key of this back door. The daughter got possession of this key while the mass was being celebrated, and entered the house. The priest's servant had laid the cloth in advance, so as to be free to attend mass, and the poor daft girl hurriedly removed the tablecloth and napkins and hid them in the manor-house. When mass was over the theft was detected at once, and caused very great surprise, the first thing noticed being that the linen alone had been taken. The priest was unwilling to let his guests go away supperless, and while they were consulting as to what to do, the girl herself arrived, saying, 'You will not decline our good offices this time, Monsieur le Cure. You shall have our linen here in a few minutes.' Her father expressed himself in the same sense, and the priest could not but assent, little dreaming of what a trick had been played upon him by a person who was generally supposed to be so wanting in intelligence.

"This singular robbery was further investigated the next day. There was no sign of any force having been used to get into the house. The main door and the one leading into the garden were untouched and locked as usual. It never occurred to any one that the key intrusted to young Kermelle could have been used to commit the robbery. It followed, therefore, that the theft must have been committed by way of the vestry door. The clerk had been in the church all the time, but his wife had been in and out. She had been to the fire to get some coals for the censers, and had attended to two or three other little details; and so suspicion fell on her. She was a very respectable woman, and it seemed most improbable that she would be guilty of such an offence, but the appearances were dead against her. There was no getting away from the argument that the thief had entered by the vestry door, that she alone could have gone through this door, and that, as she herself admits, she did go through it. The far too prevalent idea of those days was that every offence must be followed by an arrest. This gave a very high idea of the extraordinary sagacity of justice, of its prompt perspicacity, and of the rapidity with which it tracked out crime. The unfortunate woman was walked off between two gendarmes. The effect produced by the gendarmes, with their burnished arms and imposing cross-belts, when they made their appearance in a village, was very great. All the spectators were in tears; the prisoner alone retained her composure, and told them all that she was convinced her innocence would be made clear.

"As a matter of fact, within forty-eight hours it was seen that a blunder had been committed. Upon the third day, the villagers hardly ventured to speak to one another on the subject, for they all of them had the same idea in their heads, though they did not like to give utterance to it. The idea seemed to them not less absurd than it was self-evident, viz., that the flax-crusher's key must have been used for the robbery. The priest remained within doors so as to avoid having to give utterance to the suspicion which obtruded itself upon him. He had not as yet examined very closely the linen which had been sent from the manor in place of his own. His eyes happened to fall upon the initials, and he was too surprised to understand the mysterious allusion of the two letters, being unable to follow the strange hallucinations of an unhappy lunatic.

"While he was immersed in melancholy reflection, the flax-crusher entered the room, with his figure as upright as ever but pale as death. The old man stood up in front of the priest and burst into tears, exclaiming: 'It is my miserable girl. I ought to have kept a closer watch over her and have found out what her thoughts were about, but with her constant melancholy she gave me the slip.' He then revealed the secret, and within an hour the stolen linen was brought back to the priest's house. The delinquent had hoped that the scandal would soon be forgotten, and that she would revel in peace over the success of her little plot, but the arrest of the clerk's wife and the sensation which it caused spoilt the whole thing. If her moral sense had not been entirely obliterated, her first thought would have been to get the clerk's wife set at liberty, but she paid little or no heed to that. She was plunged in a kind of stupor which had nothing in common with remorse, and what so prostrated her was the evident failure of her attempt to move the feelings of the priest. Most men would have been touched by the revelation of so ardent a passion, but the priest was unmoved. He banished all thought of this remarkable event from his mind, and when he was fully convinced of the imprisoned woman's innocence he went to sleep, celebrated mass the next morning, and recited his breviary just as if nothing had happened.

"That a blunder had been committed in arresting this woman then became painfully evident, as but for this the matter might have been hushed up. There had been no actual robbery, but after an innocent woman had been several days in prison on the charge of theft, it was very difficult to let the real culprit go unpunished. Her insanity was not self-evident, and it may even be said that there were no outward signs of it. Up to that time it had never occurred to anyone that she was insane, for there was nothing singular in her conduct except her extreme taciturnity. It was easy, therefore, to question her insanity, while the true explanation of the act was so incredible and so strange that her friends could not well bring it forward. The fact of having allowed the clerk's wife to be arrested was inexcusable. If the taking of the linen had only been a joke, the perpetrator ought to have brought it to an end when a third person was made a victim of it. She was arrested and taken to St. Brieuc for the assizes. Her prostration was so complete that she seemed to be out of the world. Her dream was over, and the fancy upon which she had fed and which had sustained her for a time had fled. She was not in the least violent but so dejected that when the medical men examined her they at once saw what was the true state of the case.

"The case was soon disposed of in court. She would not reply a word to the examining judge. The flax-crusher came into court erect and self-possessed as usual, with a look of resignation on his face. He came up to the bar of the witness-box and deposited upon the ledge his gloves, his cross of St. Louis, and his scarf. 'Gentlemen of the jury,' he said. 'I can only put these on again if you tell me to do so; my honour is in your hands. She is the culprit, but she is not a thief. She is ill.' The poor fellow burst into tears, and his utterance was choked with them. There was a general murmur of 'Don't carry it any further.' The counsel for the Crown had the tact not to enter upon a dissertation as to a singular case of amorous physiology and abandoned the prosecution.

"The jury, all of whom were in tears, did not take long to deliberate. When the verdict of acquittal was recorded the flax-crusher put on his decorations again and left the court as quickly as possible, taking his daughter back with him to the village at nightfall.

"The scandal was such a public one that the priest could not fail to learn the truth in respect to many matters which he had endeavoured to ignore. This, however, did not affect him, and he did not ask the bishop to remove him to another parish, nor did the bishop suggest any change. It might be thought that he must have felt some embarrassment the first time that he met Kermelle and his daughter. But such was not the case. He went to the manor at an hour when he knew that he would find Kermelle and his daughter at home, and addressing himself to the latter he said: 'You have been guilty of a great sin, not so much by your folly, for which God will forgive you, but in allowing one of the best of women to be sent to gaol. An innocent woman has, by your misconduct, been treated for several days as a thief, and carried off to prison by gendarmes in the sight of the whole parish. You owe her some sort of reparation. On Sunday, the clerk's wife will be seated as usual in the last row, near the church-door; at the Belief, you will go and fetch her and lead her by the hand to your seat of honour, which she is better worthy to occupy than you are."

The poor creature did mechanically what she was bid, and she had ceased to be a sentient being. From this time forth, little was ever seen of the flax-crusher and his family. The manor had become, as it were, a tomb, from which issued no sign of life.

The clerk's wife was the first to die. The emotion had been too much for this simple soul. She had never doubted the goodness of Providence, but the whole business had upset her, and she gradually grew weaker. She was a saintly woman, with the most exquisite sentiment of devotion for the Church. This would scarcely be understood now in Paris, where the church, as a building, goes for so little. One Saturday evening, she felt her end approaching, and her joy was great. She sent for the priest, her mind full of a long-cherished project, which was that during high mass on Sunday her body should be laid upon the trestles which are used for the coffins. It would be joy indeed to hear mass once again, even in death, to listen to those words of consolation and those hymns of salvation; to be present there beneath the funeral pall, amid the assembled congregation, the family which she had so dearly loved, to hear them all, herself unseen, while all their thoughts and prayers were for her, to hold communion once again with these pious souls before being laid in the earth. Her prayer was granted, and the priest pronounced a very edifying discourse over her grave.

"The old man lived on for several years, dying inch by inch, secluded in his house, and never conversing with the priest. He attended church, but did not occupy his front seat. He was so strong that his agony lasted eight or ten years.

"His walks were confined to the avenue of tall lime-trees which skirted the manor. While pacing up and down there one day, he saw something strange upon the horizon. It was the tricolour flag floating from the steeple of Treguier; the Revolution of 1830 had just been effected. When he learnt that the king was an exile, he saw only too well that he had been bearing his part in the closing scenes of a world. The professional duty to which he had sacrificed everything ceased to have any object. He did not regret having formed too high an idea of duty, and it never occurred to him that he might have grown rich as others had done; but he lost faith in all save God. The Carlists of Treguier went about declaring that the new order of things would not last, and that the rightful king would soon return. He only smiled at these foolish predictions, and died soon afterwards, assisted in his last moments by the priest, who expounded to him that beautiful passage in the burial service: 'Be not like the heathen, who are without hope.'

"After his death his daughter was totally unprovided for, and arrangements were made for placing her in the hospital where you saw her. No doubt she, too, is dead ere this, and another sleeps in her bed at the hospital."