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Over Strand and Field(Chapter8)

2006-08-28 23:30

  Chapter VIII. Roaming.

  En route! the sky is blue, the sun is shining, and our feet are eager to tread on the grass. From Crozon to Leudevenec the country is quite flat, and there is not a house nor a tree to be seen. As far as the eye can reach, reddish moss spreads over the ground. Sometimes fields of ripe wheat rise above the little stunted sea-rushes. The latter are flowerless now, and look as they did before the springtime. Deep wagon-tracks, edged by rolls of dried mud, make their appearance and continue for a long time; then they suddenly describe a bend and are lost to the eye. Grass grows in large patches between these sunken furrows. The wind whistles over the flats; we walk on; a welcome breeze dries the beads of perspiration on our cheeks, and when we halted we were able to hear, above the sound of our beating arteries, the rustling of the wind in the grass.

  From time to time, a mill with rapidly revolving wheels would rise up and point the way. The creaking wooden fans descended, grazed the ground and then rose. Standing erect in the open garret-window, the miller watched us pass.

  We walked on; coming to a hedge of elm-trees which probably concealed a village, we caught sight of a man standing in a tree, at the foot of which was a woman with her blue apron spread out to catch the plums he was throwing to her. I recollect a crop of dark hair falling in masses over her shoulders, two uplifted arms, the movement of the supple neck and the sonorous laughter that floated over the hedge to me.

  The path we were following grew narrower. Presently the plain disappeared and we found ourselves on the crest of a promontory dominating the ocean. Looking towards Brest, it seemed to extend indefinitely; but on the other side, it projected its sinuosities into the land, between short hills covered with underwood. Each gulf is ensconced between two mountains; each mountain is flanked by two gulfs, and nothing can equal the beauty of those vast green slopes rising almost in a straight line out of the sea. The hills have rounded tops and flattened bases, and describe a wide, curved chain which joins the plateaux with the graceful sweep of a Moorish arch; following so closely upon one another, the colour of their foliage and their formation are almost exactly alike. Propelled by the sea-breeze, the breakers dashed up against the foot of these hills, and the sun, falling on them, made them gleam; the whole surface of the ocean was blue and glittering with silver, and we could not get enough of its beauty. Then we watched the sunbeams glide over the hills. One of the latter had already been deserted by them, and appeared more indistinct than the rest, while a broad black shadow was rapidly gathering over another. As we approached the level of the shore the mountains that faced us a moment ago seemed to grow loftier; the gulfs deepened and the ocean expanded. We walked on, oblivious to everything, and let our eyes roam at will, and the pebbles that our feet dislodged rolled down the hill quickly and disappeared in the bushes edging the road.

  The roads followed hedges that were as compact and thick as walls; we climbed up and we climbed down; meanwhile, it was growing dark, and the country was settling into the deep silence characteristic of midsummer evenings.

  As we failed to meet anybody who could show us the way, the few peasants we had questioned having responded by unintelligible cries, we produced our map and our compass, and, locating ourselves by the setting sun, we resolved to head straight for Daoulas. Instantly our vigour returned, and we started across the fields, vaulting fences and ditches, and uprooting, tearing and breaking everything in our way, without giving a thought to the stiles we left open or the damaged crops.

  At the top of a slope, we discovered the village of l'Hopital lying in a meadow watered by a stream. A bridge spans the latter and on this bridge is a mill; beyond the meadow is a hill, which we started to climb nimbly, when suddenly we saw, by a ray of light, a beautiful yellow and black salamander creeping along the edge of a ditch with its slender tail dragging in the dust and undulating with every motion of its speckled body. It had come from its retreat under a big stone covered with moss, and was hunting insects in the rotten trunks of old oak-trees.

  A pavement of uneven cobblestones echoed beneath our feet, and a street stretched out before us. We had arrived in Daoulas. There was light enough to enable us to distinguish a square sign swinging on an iron rod on one of the houses. We should have recognised the inn even without the sign, as houses, like men, have their professions stamped on their faces. So we entered, for we were ravenous, and told the host above all things not to keep us waiting.

  While we were sitting in front of the door, waiting for our dinner, a little girl in rags came along with a basket of strawberries on her head. She entered the inn and came out again after a short while, holding a big loaf of bread in both hands. Uttering shrill cries, she scampered off with the alertness of a kitten. Her dusty hair fluttered in the wind and stood out straight from her wizened face, and her bare legs, which she lifted high in the air when running, disappeared under the rags that covered her form.

  After our meal, which comprised, besides the unavoidable omelet and the fatal veal, the strawberries the little girl had brought, we went up to our rooms.

  The winding staircase with its worm-eaten steps groaned beneath our weight, like a sensitive woman under a new disillusion. At the top was a room with a door that closed on the outside with a hook. We slept there. The plaster on the once yellow walls was crumbling away; the beams of the ceiling bent beneath the weight of the slated roof, and on the window-panes was a layer of dust that softened the light like a piece of unpolished glass. The beds, four walnut boards carelessly put together, had big, round, worm-eaten knobs, and the wood was split by the dryness. On each bed was a mattress and a matting, covered with a ragged green spread. A piece of mirror in a varnished frame, an old game-bag on a nail, and a worn silk cravat which showed the crease of its folds, indicated that the room belonged to some one who probably slept there every night.

  Under one of the red cotton pillows I discovered a hideous object, a cap of the same color as the coverlet, but coated with a greasy glazing which prevented its texture from being recognisable; a worn, shapeless, clammy, oily thing. I am sure that its owner prizes it highly and that he finds it warmer than any other cap. A man's life, the perspiration of an entire existence, is secreted in this layer of mouldy cerate. How many nights it must have taken to make it so thick! How many nightmares have galloped under this cap? How many dreams have been dreamed beneath it? And charming ones, too, perhaps,——why not?

  If you are neither an engineer, nor a blacksmith, nor a builder, Brest will not interest you very much. The port is magnificent, I admit; beautiful, if you say so; gigantic, if you wish. It is imposing, you know, and gives the impression of a powerful nation. But those piles of cannons and anchors and cannon-balls, the infinite extension of those quays, which enclose a calm, flat sea that appears to be chained down, and those big workshops filled with grinding machinery, the never-ceasing clanking of galley chains, the convicts who pass by in regular gangs and work in silence,——this entire, pitiless, frightful, forced mechanism, this organized defiance, quickly disgusts the soul and tires the eye. The latter can rest only on cobblestones, shells, piles of iron, madriers, dry docks containing the naked hulls of vessels, and the grey walls of the prison, where a man leans out of the windows and tests the iron bars with a hammer.

  Nature is absent and more completely banished from this place, than from any other spot on the face of the earth; everywhere can be seen denial and hatred of it, as much in the crowbar which demolishes the rocks, as in the sabre of the garde-chiourme who watches over the convicts.

  Outside of the arsenal and the penitentiary, there is nothing but barracks, corps-de-garde, fortifications, ditches, uniforms, bayonets, sabres and drums. From morning until night, military music sounds under your windows, soldiers pass through the streets, come, go, and drill; the bugle sounds incessantly and the troops file past. You understand at once that the arsenal constitutes the real city and that the other is completely swallowed up by it. Everywhere and in every form reappear discipline, administration, ruled paper. Factitious symmetry and idiotic cleanliness are much admired. In the navy hospital for instance, the floors are so highly polished that a convalescent trying to walk on his mended leg would probably fall and break the other. But it looks nice. Between each ward is a yard, but the sun never shines in it, and the grass is carefully kept out. The kitchens are beautiful, but are situated so far from the main building that in winter the food must be cold before it reaches the patients. But who cares about them? Aren't the saucepans like polished suns? We saw a man who had broken his skull in falling from a vessel, and who for eighteen hours had received no medical assistance whatsoever; but his sheets were immaculate, for the linen department is very well kept.

  In the prison ward I was moved like a child by the sight of a litter of kittens playing on a convict's bed. He made them little paper balls, and they would chase them all over the bed-spread, and cling to its edges with their claws. Then he would turn them over, stroke them, kiss them and cuddle them to his heart. More than once, when he is put back to work and sits tired and depressed on his bench, he will dream of the quiet hours he spent alone with the little animals, and of the softness of their fur on his rough hands and the warmth of their little bodies against his breast. I believe, though, that the rules forbid this kind of recreation and that probably he had them through the kindness of the sister in charge.

  But here, as well as elsewhere, rules have their exceptions, for, in the first place, the distinction of caste does not disappear (equality being a lie, even in the penitentiary). Delicately scented locks sometimes show beneath the numbered caps, just as the sleeve of the red blouse often reveals a cuff surrounding a well-kept hand. Moreover, special favours are shown toward certain professions, certain men. How have they been able, in spite of the law and the jealousy of their fellow-prisoners, to attain this eccentric position which makes them almost amateur convicts, and keep it without anybody trying to wrest it from them? At the entrance to the workshop, where boats are built, you will find a dentist's table filled with instruments. In a pretty frame on the wall, rows of plates are exhibited, and when you pass, the artist utters a little speech to advertise his ability. He stays in his place all day, polishing his instruments and stringing teeth; he can talk to visitors without feeling the restraint of being watched, be informed of what is going on in the medical world, and practise his profession like a licensed dentist. At the present time, I daresay, he must use ether. More than that, he may have pupils and give lectures. But the man who has the most enviable position of all is the cure Delacollonge. He is the mediator between the convicts and the ban; the authorities use his ascendency over the prisoners, and they, in turn, address themselves to him when they want to obtain any favours.

  He lives apart from the rest of them in a neat little room, has a man to wait on him, eats big bowls of Plougastel strawberries, takes his coffee and reads the newspapers.

  If Delacollonge is the head of the penitentiary, Ambroise is its arm. Ambroise is a superb negro almost six feet tall, who would have made a fine servant for a sixteenth century man of quality. Heliogobalus must have kept some such fellow to furnish amusement for himself and his guests by strangling lions and fighting gladiators single-handed. His polished skin is quite black, with steely reflections; his body is well knit and as vigorous as a tiger's, and his teeth are so white that they almost frighten one.

  King of the penitentiary by right of strength, all the convicts fear and admire him; his athletic reputation compels him to test every newcomer, and up to the present time, all these contests have turned out in his favour. He can bend iron rods over his knee, carry three men with one hand, and knock down eight by opening his arms; he eats three times as much as an ordinary man, for he has an enormous appetite and a heroic constitution.

  When we saw him, he was watering the plants in the botanical garden. He is always hanging around the hot-house behind the plants and the palm-trees, digging the soil and cleansing the wood-work.

  On Thursday, when the public is admitted, Ambroise receives his mistresses behind the boxed orange-trees; he has several of them, in fact, more than he wishes. He knows how to procure them, whether by his charms, his strength or his money, which he always carries in quantities about his person and spends lavishly whenever he wishes to enjoy himself. So he is very popular among a certain class of women, and the people who have put him where he is, have never perhaps been loved as much as Ambroise.

  In the middle of the garden, in a little lake shaded by a willow-tree and bordered by plants, is a swan. With one stroke of its leg it can swim from one side of the pond to the other, and although it crosses it a hundred times a day and catches gold fishes to while away the time, it never thinks of wandering away.

  Further on, in a line against the wall, are some cages for rare animals from foreign lands destined for the Museum of Paris. Most of the cages, however, were empty. In front of one, in a narrow grated yard, a convict was teaching a young wild-cat to obey commands like a dog. Hasn't this man had enough of slavery himself? Why does he torment this poor little beast? The lashes with which he is threatened he gives the wild-cat, which, some day, will probably take its revenge by jumping over the iron railing and killing the swan.

  One moonlit evening, we decided to take a stroll through the streets known to be frequented by filles de joie. They are very numerous. The navy, the artillery, the infantry, each has its own particular streets, without mentioning the penitentiary, which covers a whole district of the city. Seven parallel streets ending at its walls, compose what is called Keravel, and are filled by the mistresses of jailers and convicts. They are old frame houses, crowded together, with every door and window closed tight. No sound issues from them, nobody is seen coming out, and there are no lights in the windows; at the end of each street is a lamp-post which the wind sways from side to side, thus making its long yellow rays oscillate on the sidewalk. The rest of the quarter is in absolute darkness. In the moonlight, these silent houses with their uneven roofs projected fantastic glimmerings.

  When do they open? At unknown hours, at the most silent time of the darkest nights. Then comes the jailer who has slipped away from his watch, or the convict who has managed to escape from the prison, though sometimes they arrive together, aiding and abetting each other; then, when daylight dawns, the jailer turns his head away and nobody is the wiser.

  In the sailor's district, on the contrary, everything is open and above-board. The disreputable houses are full of noise and light; there is dancing and shouting and fighting. On the ground floors, in the low rooms, women in filmy attire sit on the benches that line the white-washed walls lighted by an oil lamp; others, in the doorway, beckon to you, and their animated faces stand out in relief on the background of the lighted resort, from which issues the sound of clinking glasses and coarse caresses. You can hear the kisses which fall on the opulent shoulders of the women and the laughter of the girl who is sitting on some tanned sailor's lap, her unruly locks slipping from under her cap and her bare shoulders issuing from her chemise. The street is thronged, the place is packed, the door is wide open, anybody who wishes may go in. Men come and peep through the windows or talk in an undertone to some half-clad creature, who bends eagerly over their faces. Groups stand around and wait their turn. It is all quite informal and unrestrained.

  Being conscientious travellers, and desiring to see and study everything at close range, we entered.

  In a room papered in red, three or four girls were sitting at a round table, and a man with a cap on his head and a pipe in his mouth was reclining on the sofa; he bowed politely when we entered. The women wore Parisian dresses and were modest in their demeanour. The mahogany furniture was covered with red plush, the floor was polished and engravings of battles decorated the walls. O Virtue! you are beautiful, for very stupid is vice. The woman who was sitting by my side had hands which were sufficient in themselves to make a man forget her sex, and not knowing how to spend our time we treated the whole company to drinks. Then I lighted a cigar, stretched out on the divan, and, sad and depressed, while the voices of the women rose shrilly and the glasses were being drained, I said to myself:

  Where is she? Where can she be? Is she dead to the world, and will men never see her again?

  She was beautiful, in olden times, when she walked up the steps leading to the temple, when on her shell-like feet fell the golden fringe of her tunic, or when she lounged among Persian cushions, twirling her collar of cameos and chatting with the wise men and the philosophers.

  She was beautiful when she stood naked on the threshold of her cella in the street of Suburra, under the rosin torchlight that blazed in the night, slowly chanting her Campanian lay, while from the Tiber came the refrains of the orgies.

  She was beautiful, too, in her old house of the Cite behind the Gothic windows, among the noisy students and dissipated monks, when, without fear of the sergeants, they struck the oaken tables with their pewter mugs, and the worm-eaten beds creaked beneath the weight of their bodies.

  She was beautiful when she leaned over the green cloth and coveted the gold of the provincials; then she wore high heels and had a small waist and a large wig which shed its perfumed powder on her shoulders, a rose over her ear and a patch on her cheek.

  She was beautiful also among the goat-skins of the Cossacks and the English uniforms, pushing her way through the throngs of men and letting her bare shoulders dazzle them on the steps of the gambling houses, under the jewellers' windows, beneath the lights of the cafes, between starvation and wealth.

  What are you regretting? I am regretting the fille de joie.

  On the boulevard, one evening, I caught a glimpse of her as she passed under the gaslight, with watchful and eager eyes, dragging her feet over the sidewalk. I saw her pale face on the street-corner, while the rain wet the flowers in her hair, and heard her soft voice calling to the men, while her flesh shivered in her low-necked bodice.

  It was her last day; after that she disappeared.

  Fear not that she will ever return, for she is dead, quite dead! Her dress is made high, she has morals, objects to coarse language, and puts the sous she earns in a savings bank.

  Cleared of her presence, the street has lost the only poetry it still retained; they have filtered the gutter and sorted the garbage.

  In a little while, the mountebanks will also have disappeared, in order to make room for magnetic seances and reform banquets, and the rope-dancer with her spangled skirt and long balancing-pole will be as remote from us as the bayadere of the Ganges.

  Of all that beautiful, glittering world as flighty as fancy itself, so melancholy and sonorous, so bitter and yet so gay, full of inward pathos and glaring sarcasms, where misery was warm and grace was sad, the last vestige of a lost age, a distant race, which, we are told, came from the other end of the earth and brought us in the tinkling of its bells the echo and vague memory of idolised joys; some covered wagon moving slowly along the road, with rolled tents on its roof and muddy dogs beneath it, a man in a yellow jacket, selling muscade in tin cups, the poor marionnettes in the Champs-Elysees, and the mandolin players who visit the cafes in the outskirts of the city, are all that is left.

  Since then, it is true, we have had a number of farces of a higher class of humour. But is the new as good as the old? Do you prefer Tom Thumb or the Museum of Versailles?

  On a wooden stand that formed a balcony around a square tent of grey canvas, a man in a blouse was beating a drum; behind him was a big painted sign representing a sheep and a cow, and some ladies, gentlemen, and soldiers. The animals were the two young phenomena from Guerande, with one arm and four shoulders. Their exhibitor, or editor, was shouting himself hoarse and announcing that besides these two beautiful things, battles between wild beasts would take place at once. Under the wooden stand stood a donkey and three bears, and the barking of the dogs, which proceeded from the interior of the tent, mingled with the beating of the drum, the shouts of the owner of the two phenomena and the cries of another fellow who was not as jovial and fat as the former, but tall and lanky, with a funereal expression and ragged clothes. This was the partner; they had met on the road and had combined their shows. The lean one contributed his bears, his dogs and his donkey, while the fat man brought his two phenomena and a grey felt hat which was used in their performance.

  The theatre was roofless and its walls were of grey canvas; they fluttered in the wind and would have blown down had it not been for the poles which held them. Along the sides of the ring was a railing, behind which was the audience, and in a reserved corner we perceived the two phenomena nibbling at a bundle of hay half concealed by a gorgeous blanket. In the middle of the ring a high post was sunk in the ground, and here and there, attached to smaller posts, were dogs, barking and tugging at their chains. The men continued to shout and beat the drum, the bears growled, and the crowd began to file in.

  First they brought out a poor, half-paralyzed bear, which seemed considerably bored. It wore a muzzle and had a big collar with an iron chain around its neck, a rope in its nose, to make it obey commands promptly, and a sort of leather hood over its ears. They tied bruin to the centre post, and the barks grew louder and fiercer. The dogs stood up, a bristling, scratching crew, their hind-quarters elevated, their snouts near the ground, their legs spread, while their masters stood in opposite corners of the ring and yelled at them in order to increase their ferocity. They let three bull-dogs go and the brutes rushed at the bear, which began to dodge around the post. The dogs followed, crowding and barking; sometimes the bear would upset them and trample them with its huge paws, but they would immediately scramble to their feet and make a dash for its head, clinging to its neck so that it was unable to shake off their wriggling bodies. With watchful eye, the two masters waited the moment when it looked as if the bear would be strangled; then they rushed at the dogs, tore them away, pulled their necks and bit their tails to make them unlock their jaws. The brutes whined with pain, but they would not let go. The bear struggled to free itself from the dogs, the dogs bit the bear, and the men bit the dogs. One young bull-dog especially, was remarkable for its ferocity; it clung to the bear's back and would not let go, though they chewed and bent its tail, and lacerated its ears. The men were compelled to get a mattock to loosen its jaws. When they had all been disentangled, everyone took a rest; the bear lay down on the ground, the gasping dogs hung their tongues out, and the perspiring men pulled the hairs from between their teeth, while the dust that had arisen during the fight scattered in the atmosphere and settled on the heads of the spectators.

  Two more bears were led into the ring, and one acted the gardener of the fable, went on a hunting trip, waltzed, took off its hat, and played dead. After this performance came the donkey. But it defended itself well; its kicks sent the dogs flying through the air like balloons; with its tail between its legs and its ears back, it ran around the ring trying to get its foes under its forelegs while they endeavoured to run around it and fasten their teeth in its throat. When the men finally rescued it, it was completely winded and shaking with fright; it was covered with drops of blood which trickled down its legs (on which repeated wounds had left scars), and, mingling with sweat, moistened its worn hoofs.

  But the best of the performance was the general fight between the dogs; all took part in it, the big and the little ones, the bull-dogs, the sheep-dogs, the white ones, the black ones, the spotted ones, and the russet variety. Fully fifteen minutes were spent in bringing them to the proper pitch of excitement. The owners held them between their legs and pointing their heads in the direction of their adversaries, would knock them together violently. The thin man, especially, worked with great gusto. With much effort he succeeded in producing a ferocious, hoarse chest-note that maddened the whole irritated pack. As serious as an orchestra leader, he would absorb the discordant harmony, and direct and strengthen its emission; but when the brutes were let loose and the howling band tore one another to pieces, he would be in a frenzy of enthusiasm and delight. He would applaud and bark and stamp his feet and imitate all the motions of the dogs; he would have enjoyed biting and being bitten, would gladly have been a dog himself with a snout, so that he could wallow in the dust and blood, and sink his teeth in the hairy skins and warm flesh, and enjoy the fray to his heart's content.

  There was a critical moment when all the dogs, one on top of another, formed a wriggling mass of legs, backs, tails and ears, which oscillated to and fro in the ring without separating, and in another instant had torn down the railing and threatened to harm the two young phenomena. The owner's face paled and he hastily sprang forward, while his partner rushed to his side. Then tails were bitten, and kicks and blows were distributed right and left! They grabbed the dogs everywhere, pulled them away and flung them over their shoulders like bundles of hay. It was all over in a second, but I had seen the moment when the two young phenomena were near being reduced to chopped meat, and I trembled for the safety of the arm which grows on their back.

  Flustered, no doubt, by their narrow escape, they did not care to be shown off. The cow backed and the sheep bucked; but finally the green blanket with yellow fringe was removed and their appendage was exhibited to the public, and then the performance ended……

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