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Over Strand and Field(Chapter9)

2006-08-28 23:30

  Chapter IX. Brest.

  At the light-house of Brest. Here the Old World ends. This is its most advanced point; its farthest limit. Behind you spread Europe and Asia; before you lies the entire ocean. As great as space appears to our eye, does it not always seem limited as soon as we know that it has a boundary? Can you not see from our shores, across the Channel, the streets of Brighton and the fortresses of Provence; do you not always think of the Mediterranean as an immense blue lake ensconced in rocks, with promontories covered with falling monuments, yellow sands, swaying palm-trees and curved bays? But here nothing stops your eye. Thought can fly as rapidly as the winds, spread out, divagate, and lose itself, without finding anything but water, or perhaps vague America, nameless islands, or some country with red fruits, humming-birds and savages; or the silent twilight of the pole, with its spouting whales; or the great cities lighted by coloured glass, Japan with its porcelain roofs, and China with its sculptured staircases and its pagodas decorated with golden bells.

  Thus does the mind people and animate this infinity, of which it tires so soon, in order that it may appear less vast. One cannot think of the desert without its caravans, of the ocean without its ships, of the bowels of the earth without evoking the treasures that they are supposed to conceal.

  We returned to Conquet by way of the cliff. The breakers were dashing against its foot. Driven by a sea-breeze, they would come rushing in, strike the rocks and cover them with rippling sheets of water. Half an hour later, in a char-a-banc drawn by two sturdy little horses, we reached Brest, which we left with pleasure two days afterwards. When you leave the coast and approach the Channel, the country undergoes a marked change; it becomes less wild, less Celtic; the dolmens become scarcer, the flats diminish as the wheat fields grow more numerous, and, little by little, one reaches the fertile land of Leon, which is, as M. Pitre-Chevalier has gracefully put it, "the Attica of Brittany."

  Landerneau is a place where there is an elm-tree promenade, and where we saw a frightened dog running through the streets with a pan attached to its tail.

  In order to go to the Chateau de la Joyeuse-Garde, one must first follow the banks of the Eilorn and then walk through a forest, in a hollow where few persons go. Sometimes, when the underwood thins out and meadows appear between the branches, one catches sight of a boat sailing up the river.

  Our guide preceded us at quite a distance. Alone together we trod the good old earth, flecked with bunches of purple heather and fallen leaves. The air was perfumed with the breath of violets and strawberries; slender ferns spread over the trunks of the trees. It was warm; even the moss was hot. A cuckoo, hidden in the foliage, now and then gave out its long cry, and gnats buzzed in the glades. We walked on with a feeling of inward peace, and let our conversation touch on many subjects; we spoke of sounds and colours, of the masters and their works, and of the joys of the mind; we thought of different writings, of familiar pictures and poses; we recited aloud some wonderful verses, the beauty of which thrilled us so that we repeated the rhythm again and again, accentuating the words and cadencing them so that they were almost sung. Foreign landscapes and splendid figures rose before our mind's eye, and we dwelt with rapture on soft Asiatic nights with the moon shining on the cupolas; or our admiration was aroused by some sonorous name; or we delighted in the artlessness of some sentence standing out in relief in an ancient book.

  Stretched out in the courtyard of Joyeuse-Garde, near the filled-up subterranean vaults, beneath the semi-circle of its unique ivy-covered arcade, we talked of Shakespeare and wondered whether the stars were inhabited.

  Then we started off again, having given but a hasty glance at the crumbling home of good old Lancelot, the one a fairy stole from his mother and kept in a shining palace at the bottom of a lake. The dwarfs have disappeared, the drawbridge has flown away, and lizards now crawl where formerly the entrancing Genevieve dreamed of her lover gone to fight the giants in Trebizonde.

  We went back through the same paths to the forest; the shadows were lengthening, the flowers and shrubs were hardly visible, and the blue peaks of the low mountains opposite seemed to grow taller against the fading sky. The river, which is bordered by artificial quays for half a mile outside the city, now becomes free to spread its waters at will over the meadow; its wide curve stretched far away into the distance, and the pools of water coloured by the setting sun looked like immense golden platters forgotten on the grass.

  Till it reaches Roche-Maurice, the Eilorn follows the road, which winds around the foot of the rocky hills, the uneven eminences of which extend into the valley. We were riding in a gig driven by a boy who sat on one of the shafts. His hat had no strings and consequently blew off occasionally, and during his efforts to catch it, we had plenty of time to admire the landscape.

  The Chateau de la Roche-Maurice is a real burgrave's castle, a vulture's nest on the top of a mountain. It is reached by an almost perpendicular slope along which great blocks of stone are strewn in place Of steps. At the top is a wall built of huge stones laid one above another, and in the wall are large windows, through which the whole surrounding country can be viewed; the woods, the fields, the river, the long, white road, the mountains with their uneven peaks, and the great meadow, which separates them through the middle.

  A crumbling flight of steps leads to a dilapidated tower. Here and there stones crop out among the grass, and the rock shows amid the stones. Sometimes it seems as if this rock assumed artificial shapes, and as if the ruins, on the contrary, by crumbling more and more, had taken on a natural appearance and gone back to original matter.

  A whole side of the wall is covered with ivy; it begins at the bottom and spreads out in an inverted pyramid, the color of which grows darker towards the top. Through an aperture, the edges of which are concealed by the foliage, one can see a section of the blue sky.

  It was in these parts that the famous dragon lived, which was killed in olden times by knight Derrien, who was returning from the Holy Land with his friend, Neventer. Derrien attacked it as soon as he had rescued the unfortunate Eilorn who, after giving over his slaves, his vassals and his servants (he had no one left but his wife and son), had thrown himself headlong from the top of the tower into the river; but the monster, mortally wounded, and bound by the sash of its conqueror, soon drowned itself in the sea, at Poulbeunzual, like the crocodile of Batz island, which obeyed the behest of Saint Pol de Leon and drowned itself with the stole of the Breton saint wound around it. The gargoyle of Rouen met a similar fate with the stole of Saint Romain.

  How beautiful those terrific old dragons were, with their gaping, fire-spitting jaws, their scales, their serpent-tails, their bat-wings, their lion-claws, their equine bodies and fantastic heads! And the knight who overpowered them was a wonderfully fine specimen of manhood! First, his horse grew frightened and reared, and his lance broke on the scales of the monster, whose fiery breath blinded him. Finally he alighted, and after a day's battle, succeeded in sinking his sword up to the hilt in the beasts belly. Black blood flowed in streams from the wound, the audience escorted the knight home in triumph, and he became king and married a fair maiden.

  But where did the dragons come from? Are they a confused recollection of the monsters that existed before the flood? Were they conceived from the contemplation of the carcasses of the ichthyosaurus and pteropod, and did the terror of men hear the sound of their feet in the tall grass and the wind howl when their voices filled the caves? Are we not, moreover, in the land of fairies, in the home of the Knights of the Round Table and of Merlin, in the mythological birthplace of vanished epopees? These, no doubt, revealed something of the old worlds which have become mythical, and told something of the cities that were swallowed up, of Is and Herbadilla, splendid and barbaric places, filled with the loves of their bewitching queens, but now doubly wiped out, first, by the ocean which has obliterated them and then by religion, which has cursed their memory.

  There is much to be said on this subject. And, indeed, what is there on which much cannot be said? It might perhaps be Landivisian, for even the most prolix man is obliged to be concise in his remarks, when there is a lack of matter. I have noticed that good places are usually the ugliest ones. They are like virtuous women; one respects them, but one passes on in search of others. Here, surely, is the most productive spot of all Brittany; the peasants are not as poor as elsewhere, the fields are properly cultivated, the colza is superb, the roads are in good condition, and it is frightfully dreary.

  Cabbages, turnips, beets and an enormous quantity of potatoes, all enclosed by ditches, cover the entire country from Saint Pol de Leon to Roscoff. They are forwarded to Brest, Rennes, and even to Havre; it is the industry of the place, and a large business is done with them.

  Roscoff has a slimy beach and a narrow bay, and the surrounding sea is sprinkled with tiny black islands that rise like the backs of so many turtles.

  The environs of Saint Pol are dreary and cheerless. The bleak tint of the flats mingles without transition with the paleness of the sky, and the short perspective has no large lines in its proportions, nor change of colour on the edges. Here and there, while strolling through the fields, you may come across some silent farm behind a grey stone wall, an abandoned manor deserted by its owners. In the yard the pigs are sleeping on the manure heap and the chickens are pecking at the grass that grows among the loose stones; the sculptured shield above the door has worn away under the action of rain and atmosphere. The rooms are empty and are used for storage purposes; the plaster on the ceiling is peeling off, and so are the remaining decorations, which, besides, have been tarnished by the cobwebs of the spiders one sees crawling around the joists. Wild mignonette has grown on the door of Kersa-lion; near the turret is a pointed window flanked by a lion and a Hercules, which stand out in bold relief on the wall like two gargoyles. At Kerland, I stumbled against a wolf-trap while I was ascending the large winding staircase. Ploughshares, rusted shovels, and jars filled with dried grain were scattered around the rooms or on the wide stone window-seats.

  Kerousere has retained its three turrets with machicolations; in the courtyard can still be seen the deep furrows of the trenches that have been filled up little by little, and are now on level with the ground; they are like the track of a bark, which spreads and spreads over the water till it finally disappears. From the platform of one of the towers (the others have pointed roofs), one can see the ocean between two low, wooded hills. The windows on the first floor are half stopped up, so as to keep the rain out; they look out into a garden enclosed by a high wall. The grass is covered with thistles and wheat grows in the flower-beds surrounded by rose-bushes.

  A narrow path wends its way between a field where the ripe wheat sways in the breeze and a line of elm-trees growing on the edge of a ditch. Poppies gleamed here and there amongst the wheat; the ditch was edged with flowers, brambles, nettles, sweet-brier, long prickly stems, broad shining leaves, blackberries and purple digitalis, all of which mingled their colours and various foliage and uneven branches, and crossed their shadows on the grey dust like the meshes of a net.

  When you have crossed a meadow where an old mill reluctantly turns its clogged wheel, you follow the wall by stepping on large stones placed in the water for a bridge; you soon come to the road that leads to Saint-Pol, at the end of which rises the slashed steeple of Kreisker; tall and slender, it dominates a tower decorated with a balustrade and produces a fine effect at a distance; but the nearer one gets to it, the smaller and uglier it becomes, till finally one finds that it is nothing more than an ordinary church with a portal devoid of statues. The cathedral also is built in a rather clumsy Gothic style, and is overloaded with ornaments and embroideries: but there is one notable thing, at least, in Saint-Pol, and that is the table d'hote of the inn.

  The girl who waits on it has gold earrings dangling against her white neck and a cap with turned up wings, like Moliere's soubrettes, and her sparkling blue eyes would incline anyone to ask her for something more than mere plates. But the guests! What guests! All habitues! At the upper end sat a creature in a velvet jacket and a cashmere waistcoat. He tied his napkin around the bottles that had been uncorked, in order to be able to distinguish them. He ladled the soup. On his left, sat a man in a light grey frock-coat, with the cuffs and collar trimmed with a sort of curly material representing fur; he ate with his hat on and was the professor of music at the local college. But he has grown tired of his profession and is anxious to find some place that would bring him from eight to twelve hundred francs at the most. He does not care so much about the salary, what he desires is the consideration that attaches to such a place. As he was always late, he requested that the courses be brought up again from the kitchen, and if he did not like them, he would send them back untouched; he sneezed and expectorated and rocked his chair and hummed and leaned his elbows on the table and picked his teeth.

  Everybody respects him, the waitress admires everything he says, and is, I am sure, in love with him. The high opinion he has of himself shows in his smile, his speech, his gestures, his silence, and in his way of wearing his hair; it emanates from his entire obnoxious personality.

  Opposite to us sat a grey-haired, plump man with red hands and thick, moist lips, who looked at us so persistently and annoyingly, while he masticated his food, that we felt like throwing the carafes at him. The other guests were insignificant and only contributed to the picture.

  One evening the conversation fell upon a woman of the environs who had left her husband and gone to America with her lover, and who, the previous week, and passed through Saint-Pol on her way home, and had stopped at the inn. Everybody wondered at her audacity, and her name was accompanied by all sorts of unflattering epithets. Her whole life was passed in review by these people, and they all laughed contemptuously and insulted her and grew quite hot over the argument. They would have liked to have her there to tell her what they thought of her and see what she would say. Tirades against luxury, virtuous horror, moral maxims, hatred of wealth, words with a double meaning, shrugs, everything, in fact, was used to crush this woman, who, judging by the ferocity these ruffians displayed in their attacks, must have been pretty, refined, and charming. Our hearts beat indignantly in our breasts, and if we had taken another meal in Saint-Pol, I am sure that something would have happened.

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