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Over Strand and Field(Chapter6)

2006-08-28 23:29

  Chapter VI. Quimper.

  Quimper, although it is the centre of the real Brittany, is distinctly different from it. The elm-tree promenade that follows the winding river, which has quays and boats, renders the town very pretty and the big Hotel de la Prefecture, which alone covers the little western delta, gives it a thoroughly administrative and French appearance. You are aware that you are in the chef-lieu of a department, a fact brought home to you by the latter's division in arrondissements, with their large, medium, and small parishes, its committee of primary instruction, its saving banks, its town council and other modern inventions, which rob the cities of local colour, dear to the heart of the innocent tourist.

  With all due deference to the people who pronounce the name of Quimper-Corentin as the synonyme of all that is ridiculous and provincial, it is a most delightful place, and well worth other more respected ones. You will not, it is true, find the charms and riotous wealth of colouring possessed by Quimperle; still, I know of few things that can equal the charming appearance of that alley following the edge of the river and shaded by the escarpment of a neighbouring mountain, which casts the dark shadows of its luxuriant foliage over it.

  It does not take long to go through cities of this kind, and to know their most intimate recesses, and sometimes one stumbles across places that stay one's steps and fill one's heart with gladness.

  Small cities, like small apartments, seem warmer and cosier to live in. But keep this illusion! There are more draughts in such apartments than in a palace, and a city of this kind is more deadly monotonous than the desert.

  Returning to the hotel by one of those paths we dearly love, that rises and falls and winds, sometimes through a field, sometimes through grass and brambles, sometimes along a wall, which are filled in turn with daisies, pebbles and thistles, a path made for light thoughts and bantering conversation,——returning, I said, to the city, we heard cries and plaintive wails issue from under the slated roof of a square building. It was the slaughter-house.

  At that moment I thought of some terrible city, of some frightful and immense place like Babylon or Babel, filled with cannibals and slaughter-houses, where they butchered men instead of animals; and I tried to discover a likeness to human agonies in those bleating and sobbing voices. I thought of groups of slaves brought there with ropes around their necks, to be tied to iron rings, and killed in order to feed their masters, who would eat their flesh from tables of carved ivory and wipe their lips on fine linen. Would their attitudes be more dejected, their eyes sadder or their prayers more pitiful?

  While we were in Quimper, we went out one day through one side of the town and came back through the other, after tramping about eight hours.

  Our guide was waiting for us under the porch of the hotel. He started in front of us and we followed. He was a little white-haired man, with a linen cap and torn shoes, and he wore an old brown coat that was many sizes too large for him. He stuttered when he spoke, and when he walked he knocked his knees together; but in spite of all this, he managed to advance very quickly, with a sort of nervous, almost febrile perseverance. From time to time, he would pull a leaf off a tree and clap it over his mouth to cool his lips. His business consists in going from one place to another, attending to letters and errands. He goes to Douarnenez, Quimperle, Brest and even to Rennes, which is forty miles away (a journey which he accomplished in four days, including going and coming). His whole ambition, he said, was to return to Rennes once more during his lifetime. And only for the purpose, mind you, of going back, of making the trip, and being able to boast of it afterwards. He knows every road and every commune that has a steeple; he takes short cuts across the fields, opens gates, and when he passes in front of a farm, he never fails to greet its owners. Having listened to the birds all his life, he has learned to imitate their chirpings, and when he walks along the roads, under the trees, he whistles as his feathered friends do, in order to charm his solitude.

  Our first stop was at Loc-Maria, an ancient monastery, given in olden times by Conan III to the abbey of Fontevrault; it is situated a quarter of a mile from the town. This monastery has not been shamefully utilised like the abbey of poor Robert d'Arbrissel. It is deserted, but has not been sullied. Its Gothic portal does not re-echo the voices of jailers, and though there may not be much of it, one experiences neither disgust nor rebellion. In that little chapel, of a rather severe Romance style, the only curious thing is a large granite holy-water basin which stands on the floor and is almost black. It is wide and deep and represents to perfection the real Catholic holy-water basin, made to receive the entire body of an infant, and not in the least like those narrow shells in our churches in which you can only dip your fingers. With its clear water rendered more limpid by the contrast of a greenish bed, the vegetation which has grown all around it during the religious calm of centuries, its crumbling angles, and its great mass of bronzed stone, it looks like one of those hollowed rocks which contain salt water.

  After we had inspected the chapel carefully, we walked to the river, crossed it in a boat, and plunged into the country.

  It is absolutely deserted and strangely empty. Trees, bushes, sea-rushes, tamarisks, and heather grow on the edge of the ditches. We came to broad stretches of land, but we did not see a soul anywhere. The sky was bleak and a fine rain moistened the atmosphere and spread a grey veil over the country. The paths we chose were hollow and shaded by clusters of foliage, the branches of which, uniting, drooped over our heads and almost prevented us from walking erect. The light that filtered through the dome of leaves was greenish, and as dim as on a winter evening. But farther away, it was brilliant, and played around the edges of the leaves and accentuated their delicate pinking. Later we reached the top of a barren slope, which was flat and smooth, and without a blade of grass to relieve the monotony of its colour. Sometimes, however, we came upon a long avenue of beech-trees with moss growing around the foot of their thick, shining trunks. There were wagon-tracks in these avenues, as if to indicate the presence of a neighbouring castle that we might see at any moment; but they ended abruptly in a stretch of flat land that continued between two valleys, through which it would spread its green maze furrowed by the capricious meanderings of hedges, spotted here and there by a grove, brightened by clumps of sea-rushes, or by some field bordering the meadows which rose slowly to meet the hills and lost themselves in the horizon. Above these hills, far away in the mist, stretched the blue surface of the ocean.

  The birds are either absent or they do not sing; the leaves are thick, the grass deadens one's footfalls, and the country gazes at you like some melancholy countenance. It looks as if it had been created expressly to harbour ruined lives and shattered hopes, and to foster their bitterness beneath its weeping sky, to the low rustling of the trees and the heather. On winter nights, when the fox creeps stealthily over the dry leaves, when the tiles fall from the pigeon-house and the reeds bend in the marshes, when the beech-trees stoop in the wind, and the wolf ambles over the moonlit snow, while one is alone by the dying embers listening to the wind howl in the empty hallways, how charming it must be to let one's heart dwell on its most cherished despairs and long forgotten loves!

  We spied a hovel with a Gothic portal; further on was an old wall with an ogive door; a leafless bush swayed there in the breeze. In the courtyard the ground is covered with heather, violets, and pebbles; you walk in, look around and go out again. This place is called "The temple of the false gods," and used to be, it is thought, a commandery of Templars.

  Our guide started again and we followed him. Presently a steeple rose among the trees; we crossed a stubble-field, climbed to the top of a ditch and caught a glimpse of a few of dwellings: the village of Pomelin. A rough road constitutes the main street and the village consists of several houses separated by yards. What tranquillity! or rather what forlornness! The thresholds are deserted; the yards are empty.

  Where are the inhabitants? One would think that they had all left the village to lie in wait behind the furze-bushes to catch a glimpse of the Blues who are about to pass through the ravine.

  The church is poor and perfectly bare. No beautiful painted saints, no pictures on the walls or on the roof, no hanging lamp oscillating at the end of a long, straight cord. In a corner of the choir, a wick was burning in a glass filled with oil. Round wooden pillars hold up the roof, the blue paint of which has been freshened recently. The bright light of the fields, filtering through the green foliage which covers the roof of the church, shines through the white window-panes. The door, a little wooden door that closes with a latch, was open; a flight of birds came in, chirping and beating their wings against the walls; they fluttered for awhile beneath the vault and around the altar, two or three alighted upon the holy-water basin, to moisten their beaks, and then all flew away as suddenly as they had come.

  It is not an unusual thing to see birds in the Breton churches; many live there and fasten their nests to the stones of the nave; they are never disturbed. When it rains, they all gather in the church, but as soon as the sun pierces the clouds and the rain-spouts dry up, they repair to the trees again. So that during the storm two frail creatures often enter the blessed house of God together; man to pray and allay his fears, and the bird to wait until the rain stops and to warm the naked bodies of its frightened young.

  A peculiar charm pervades these churches. It is not their poverty that moves us, because even when they are empty, they appear to be inhabited. Is it not, then, their modesty that appeals to us? For, with their unpretentious steeples, and their low roofs hiding under the trees, they seem to shrink and humiliate themselves in the sight of God. They have not been upreared through a spirit of pride, nor through the pious fancy of some mighty man on his death-bed. On the contrary, we feel that it is the simple impression of a need, the ingenuous cry of an appetite, and, like the shepherd's bed of dried leaves, it is the retreat the soul has built for itself where it comes to rest when it is tired. These village churches represent better than their city sisters the distinctive features of the places where they are built, and they seem to participate more directly in the life of the people who, from father to son, come to kneel at the same place and on the same stone slab. Every day, every Sunday, when they enter and when they leave, do they not see the graves of their parents, are these not near them while they pray, and does it not seem to them as if the church was only a larger family circle from which the loved ones have not altogether departed? These places of worship thus have a harmonious sense, and the life of these people is influenced by it from the baptismal font to the grave. It is not the same with us, because we have relegated eternity to the outskirts of the city, have banished our dead to the faubourgs and laid them to rest in the carpenter's quarter, near the soda factories and night-soil magazines.

  About three o'clock in the afternoon, we arrived at the chapel of Kerfeunteun, near the entrance to Quimper. At the upper end of the chapel is a fine glass window of the sixteenth century, representing the genealogical tree of the Holy Trinity. Jacob forms the trunk, and the top is figured by the Cross surmounted by the Eternal Father with a tiara on His head. On each side, the square steeple represents a quadrilateral pierced by a long straight window. This steeple does not rest squarely on the roof, but instead, by means of a slender basis, the narrow sides of which almost touch, it forms an obtuse angle near the ridge of the roof. In Brittany, almost every church has a steeple of this kind.

  Before returning to the city, we made a detour in order to visit the chapel of La Mere-Dieu. As it is usually closed, our guide summoned the custodian, and the latter accompanied us with his little niece, who stopped along the road to pick flowers. The young man walked in front of us. His slender and flexible figure was encased in a jacket of light blue cloth, and the three velvet streamers of his black hat, which was carefully placed on the back of his head, over his knotted hair, hung down his back.

  At the bottom of a valley, or rather a ravine, can be seen the church of La Mere-Dieu, veiled by thick foliage. In this place, amid the silence of all these trees and because of its little Gothic portal (which appears to be of the thirteenth century, but which, in reality, is of the sixteenth), the church reminds one of the discreet chapels mentioned in old novels and old melodies, where they knighted the page starting for the Holy Land, one morning when the stars were dim and the lark trilled, while the mistress of the castle slipped her white hand through the bars of the iron gate and wept when he kissed her goodbye.

  We entered the church. The young custodian took off his hat and knelt on the floor. His thick, blond hair uncoiled and fell around his shoulders. It clung a moment to the coarse cloth of his jacket, and then, little by little, it separated and spread like the hair of a woman. It was parted in the middle and hung on both sides over his shoulders and neck. The golden mass rippled with light every time he moved his head bent in prayer.

  The little girl kneeled beside him and let her flowers fall to the ground. For the first time in my life, I understood the beauty of a man's locks and the fascination they may have for bare and playful arms. A strange progress, indeed, is that which consists in curtailing everywhere the grand superfetations nature has bestowed upon us, so that whenever we discover them in all their virgin splendour, they are a revelation to us.

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