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.