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Over Strand and Field(Chapter7)

2006-08-28 23:30

  Chapter VII. Pont-l'Abbe.

  At five o'clock in the evening, we arrived at Pont-l'Abbe, covered with quite a respectable coating of mud and dust, which fell from our clothing upon the floor of the inn with such disastrous abundance, every time we moved, that we were almost mortified at the mess we made.

  Pont-l'Abbe is a peaceful little town, cut in two in its entire length by a broad, paved street. Its modest inhabitants cannot possibly look any more stupid or insignificant than the place itself.

  For those who must see something wherever they go, there are the unimportant remains of the castle and the church, an edifice that would be quite passable were it not for the thick coat of paint that covers it. The chapel of the Virgin was a bower of flowers; bunches of jonquils, pansies, roses, jessamine, and honeysuckle were arranged in blue glasses or white china vases and spread their bright colours over the altar and upward between the two tall candlesticks framing the Virgin's face and her silver crown, from which fell a long veil caught on the gold star of the plaster Infant she held in her arms. One could smell the odour of the holy water and the flowers. It was a perfumed, mysterious little nook all by itself, a hidden retreat decorated by loving hands, and peculiarly adapted for the exhalation of mystical desires and long, heart-broken orisons. All his heart's sensuousness, compressed by the climate and numbed by misery, is brought here by man and laid at the feet of Mary, the Divine Mother, and he is thus able to satisfy his unquenchable longing for love and enjoyment. No matter if the roof leaks and there are no benches or chairs in the rest of the church, you will always find the chapel of the Virgin bright with flowers and lights, for it seems as if all the religious tenderness of Brittany has concentrated there; it is the softest spot of its heart; it is its weakness, its passion, its treasure. Though there are no flowers in these parts, there are flowers in the church; though the people are poor, the Virgin is always sumptuous and beautiful. She smiles at you, and despairing souls go to warm themselves at her knees as at a hearthstone that is never extinguished. One is astonished at the way these people cling to their belief; but does one know the pleasure and voluptuousness they derive from it? Is not asceticism superior epicureanism, fasting, refined gormandising? Religion can supply one with almost carnal sensations; prayer has its debauchery and mortification its raptures; and the men who come at night and kneel in front of this dressed statue, feel their hearts beat thickly and a sort of vague intoxication, while in the streets of the city, the children on their way home from school stop and gaze dreamily at the woman who smiles at them from the stained window of the church.

  But you must attend a fete in order to gain an insight into the gloomy character of these people. They don't dance; they merely turn; they don't sing; they only whistle. That very evening we went to a neighbouring village to be present at the inauguration of a threshing-floor. Two biniou players were stationed on top of the wall surrounding the yard, and played continuously while two long lines of men and women, following in one anothers' footsteps, trotted around the place and described several figures. The lines would turn, break up and form again at irregular intervals. The heavy feet of the dancers struck the ground without the slightest attempt at rhythm, while the shrill notes of the music succeeded one another rapidly and with desperate monotony. The dancers who tired withdrew without interrupting the dance, and when they had rested, they re-entered it. During the whole time we watched this peculiar performance, the crowd stopped only once, while the musicians drank some cider; then, when they had finished, the lines formed anew and the dance began again. At the entrance of the yard was a table covered with nuts; beside it stood a pitcher of brandy and on the ground was a keg of cider; near by stood a citizen in a green frock coat and a leather cap; a little farther away was a man wearing a jacket and a sword suspended from a white shoulder-belt; they were the commissaire de police, of Pont-l'Abbe and his garde-champetre. Suddenly, M. le commissaire pulled out his watch and motioned to the garde. The latter drew several peasants aside, spoke to them in a low tone, and presently the assembly broke up.

  All four of us returned to the city together, which afforded us the opportunity of again admiring mother of the harmonious combinations of Providence which had created this commissaire de police for this garde-champetre and this garde-champetre for his commissaire de police. They were made for each other. The same fact would give rise in both of them to the same reflections; from the same idea both would draw parallel conclusions. When the commissaire laughed, the garde grinned; when he assumed a serious expression, his shadow grew gloomy; if the frock-coat said, "This must be done," the jacket replied, "I think so, too;" if the coat added, "It is necessary;" the waistcoat affirmed: "It is indispensable." Notwithstanding this inward comprehension, their outward relations of rank and authority remained unchanged. For the garde spoke in a lower tone than the commissaire, and was a trifle shorter and walked behind him. The commissaire was polished, important, fluent; he consulted himself, ruminated, talked to himself, and smacked his tongue; the garde was deferential, attentive, pensive and observing, and would utter an exclamation from time to time and scratch his nose. On the way, he inquired about the news, asked the commissaire's advice, and solicited his orders, while his superior questioned, meditated, and issued commands.

  We had just come in sight of the first houses of the city, when we heard shrieks issue from one of them. The street was blocked by an excited crowd, and several persons rushed up to the commissaire and exclaimed: "Come, come quickly, Monsieur, they're having a fight! Two women are being killed!"

  "By whom?"

  "We don't know."

  "Why?"

  "They are bleeding."

  "But with what?"

  "With a rake."

  "Where's the murderer?"

  "One on the head and the other on the arm. Go in, they're waiting for you; the women are there."

  So the commissaire went in and we followed. We heard sobs, screams, and excited conversation and saw a jostling, curious mob. People stepped on one another's toes, dug one another's ribs, cursed, and caused general confusion.

  The commissaire got angry; but as he could not speak Breton, the garde got angry for him and chased the crowd out, taking each individual by his shoulders and shoving him through the door into the street.

  When the room had been cleared of all except a dozen persons, we managed to discover in a corner, a piece of flesh hanging from an arm and a mass of black hair dripping with blood. An old woman and a young girl had been hurt in the fight. The old woman was tall and angular and had skin as yellow and wrinkled as parchment; she was standing up, groaning and holding her left arm with her right hand; she did not seem to be suffering much, but the girl was crying. She was sitting on a chair with her hands spread out on her knees and her head bent low; she was trembling convulsively and shaking with low sobs. As they replied by complaints to all our questions, and as the testimony of the witnesses was conflicting, we could not ascertain who had started the fight or what it was about. Some said that a husband had surprised his wife; others, that the women had started the row and that the owner of the house had tried to kill them in order to make them stop. But no one knew anything definite. M. le commissaire was greatly perplexed and the garde perfectly nonplussed.

  As the doctor was away, and as it might be that the good people did not wish his services, because it meant expense, we had the audacity to offer the help of our limited knowledge and rushed off for our satchels, a piece of cerecloth, and some linen and lint which we had brought with us in anticipation of possible accidents.

  It would really have been an amusing sight for our friends, had they been able to see us spread out our bistoury, our pincers, and three pairs of scissors, one with gold branches, on the table of this hut. The commissaire praised our philanthropy, the women watched us in awed silence, and the tallow candle melted and ran down the iron candle-stick in spite of the efforts of the garde, who kept trimming the wick with his fingers. We attended to the old woman first. The cut had been given conscientiously; the bare arm showed the bone, and a triangle of flesh about four inches long hung over it like a cuff. We tried to put this back in its place by adjusting it carefully over the edge of the gaping wound and bandaging the arm. It is quite possible that the violent compression the member was subjected to caused mortification to set in, and that the patient may have died.

  We did not know exactly what ailed the girl. The blood trickled through her hair, but we could not see whence it came; it formed oily blotches all over it and ran down into her neck. The garde, our interpreter, bade her remove the cotton band she wore on her head, and her tresses tumbled down in a dull, dark mass and uncoiled like a cascade full of bloody threads. We parted the thick, soft, abundant locks, and found a swelling as large as a nut and pierced by an oval hole on the back of her head. We shaved the surrounding parts; and after we had washed and stanched the wound, we melted some tallow and spread it over some lint, which we adapted to the swelling with strips of diachylum. Over this we placed first a bandage, then the cotton band, and then the cap. While this was taking place, the justice of the peace arrived. The first thing he did was to ask for the rake, and the only thing he seemed to care about was to examine it. He took hold of the handle, counted the teeth, waved it in the air, tested the iron and bent the wood.

  "Is this," he demanded, "the instrument with which the assault was committed? Jerome, are you sure it is?"

  "They say so, Monsieur."

  "You were not present, Monsieur le commissaire?"

  "No, Monsieur le juge de paix."

  "I would like to know whether the blows were really dealt with a rake or whether they were given with a blunt instrument. Who is the assailant? And did the rake belong to him or to some one else? Was it really with this that these women were hurt? Or was it, I repeat, with a blunt instrument? Do they wish to lodge a complaint? What do you think about it, Monsieur le commissaire?"

  The victims said little, remarking only that they suffered great pain; so they were given over night to decide whether or not they wished to seek redress by law. The young girl could hardly speak, and the old woman's ideas were muddled, seeing that she was drunk, according to what the neighbours intimated,——a fact which explained her insensibility when we had endeavoured to relieve her suffering.

  After they had looked at us as keenly as they could in order to ascertain who we were, the authorities of Pont-l'Abbe bade us good night and thanked us for the services we had rendered the community. We put our things back into our satchel, and the commissaire departed with the garde, the garde with his sword, and the justice of the peace with the rake.

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