THERE is nothing more melancholy than a dark, cold, gusty evening in May; when the day seems to linger on as if to try our patience with the churlishness of winter, and yet we cannot draw the curtains and stir the fire, and turn that very churlishness into comfort. I never saw a greyer, chillier afternoon, nor a drearier and more blasted heath than once--it was in Whitsun week--when I was toiling across the vast common that skirts the little inland sea, called the Morbihan, in Brittany. Into this wild west of France, when the great and long battle between Paganism and Christianity was at an end, fled all the old superstitions, the deep-rooted heathen rites, intrenching themselves as a last refuge in that stormy peninsula that separates the English Channel from the Bay of Biscay. That country had for many ages been cursed with the foulest of all heathen abominations, serpent worship: those vast and dreary heaths, without a tree, without a sign of cultivation, swept by the fiercest winds, and deluged by the continual rains of the Atlantic, were well suited to the savage spirit of that religion. Here, every now and then, you see the rude, ghastly-looking, moss-grown Menhir, a kind of shapeless obelisk,--some are forty feet high,--which points out some now-forgotten spot of peculiar sanctity: or the Dolmen, a kind of table-stone, which probably was once dyed with the blood of human victims: or the Peulven, a lesser Menhir. Such power had Satan over this land; and here he still held sway, long after Paganism had been swept away from other parts of Europe. Here, in the wilder and more inaccessible valleys and islands--for the Morbihan is full of islands--as late as the end of the seventeenth century, men bowed down to gods of wood and stone. It is strange to think that while William III. was reigning in England, there existed idolaters in the strictest sense of the word, within a hundred miles of the Cornish coast.
The heavy black clouds that had for many hours being rolling up from the Atlantic, and that had three or four times that day drenched me to the skin, parted as if by magic, and a watery gleam of the sun shot forth between them, just as I came in sight of the wonderful monument of Carnac. Acres on acres of shapeless stones or pillars, dotted in giant lines from east to west: a petrified army, as it were, on the wild heath: once the scene of the chief rites and processions of serpent worship,--and now a place which no peasant would, for any earthly reward, visit after sunset. Sometimes, indeed, you may see a woman stealing along in the gathering twilight towards some of the more famous stones,--here, for example, or at Lokmariaker, or Plouarzel. Be very sure that it is a childless mother, in hopes of obtaining the dearest desire of her heart by touching with her breast--for so the superstition goes--the cold grey Menhir.
Now you understand what kind of place it is; and I will tell you a story which I read in a child's book, the evening before my visit to Carnac, in the quaint old town of S. Pol de Leon.
It was about the year 1700, when, although idols had been removed, the old belief still clung strongly to the hearts of the peasants. The great Menhir of Lokmariaker--it was sixty feet high--lay then as it still lies, prostrate, and in four pieces, upon the heath. But prostrate though it were, still the same sanctity was attached by popular opinion to the broken obelisk; and often and often, offerings of milk, or honey, or ears of corn were laid there by those who had a wish to be gratified, or a danger to escape.
The snow was on the ground; it was a bright, clear frost; the sun was going down in unclouded glory into the Atlantic. Father Kersanton, the village Curé, is out on his rounds: his breviary in his hand, his forefinger inserted in the hour which he is reciting: he has but one more cottage to go to, and that at the very extremity of his parish. It was one of those that one sees in the wilder parts of Brittany, built of pise, as they call it, that is, of unbaked clay, moulded in large frames as the wall is built, and overhung with shaggy thatch, now fringed with many an icicle.
He entered, and in one corner of the dark, smoky room---for what smoke there was found its way out at the aperture which served for window, a chimney being a luxury unknown in these parts--on a miserable mat, and covered over with a tattered thing that had once been a horseman's rug, lay a woman in the very fit of one of those agues which then desolated the un-drained confines of the Morbihan.
"How is your mother to-day, Melanie?" inquired the good priest of a pretty little girl, pretty in spite of rags and dirt, who was trying to coax some obstinate green wood into something like a flame. He spoke, not in French, but in the Bretagne language: for this is a part of what the old geographers call the Vraie Bretagne Bretonnante, and even now you may go from village to village, and find that not a syllable of French will be understood.
"She is very ill, Father," said the child; "but please"--and she made her little curtsey--"she will soon be better now."
"I hope she will, my child," said Father Kersanton, going up to the woman, and taking her hand; she, poor creature, hardly sensible of what was passing; "but I am afraid there is no great likelihood of it just yet. Why do you think she will be?"
"Because," replied Melanie, "I have taken a dish of milk to the broken Menhir; and they tell me that if any one offers it there to Thor on Thursday afternoon, he will be sure to get anything that he wants."
"Do you know what Thor was, my child?" asked the priest. And as Melanie's knowledge on the subject was not very extensive, the good Father spoke to her of the First Commandment, and told her how a certain king of Israel received a message, that because he had sent to inquire concerning his recovery of Baalzebub, and not of the one true GOD, he should not come up from that bed on which he lay, but should surely die.
Poor Melanie began to cry. "I am sure I did not mean any harm," she said. "What shall I do? Oh, what shall I do? For if anything should happen to my mother, I should think that it was all my fault."
"This you shall do," said the Priest. "As soon as you can get any of the neighbours to come in to-morrow, go down to the Menhir, and take away that wicked offering; then kneel down and ask GOD to forgive you for having ever made it, and to show His power by raising up your mother. I will come up again in the course of to-morrow; but now I will pray by her, and then bid you good night." He did so, and Melanie was left alone. The sick woman grew more and more restless. Evening closed in, the frost became more and more bitter, and the poor child was lonely and miserable indeed.
It was quite dark; and might have been about seven o'clock, when one of the neighbours looked in.
"I will go this very night," said Melanie to herself, "if I can but get her to stay. I want to go out," she said aloud. "Sophie, will you sit with my mother till I come back? I shall be gone about an hour."
"You go out, child?" said the visitor. "Why, where, in our Lady's name, do you want to go to-night?"
"To the Menhir," replied the little girl rather shyly.
"The Menhir! are you mad? What can take you there?"
"Father Kersanton told me that I must go there," said Melanie. "I made an offering there this afternoon for my mother, and he said that it was a wicked thing to do, and that I was to take it away as soon as I could."
"Your mother will die if you do," said Sophie.
"Father Kersanton says," persisted Melanie, "that it is very wicked to trust in such things; and that if I wished to have GOD'S blessing on my mother, I must ask Him for it, and not Thor."
"Take your own way," said the other; "but I am older than you, or for the matter of that, than the Father either; and I know that the best cure for an ague is to make an offering at the Menhir. Why, it always has been so: all the country round knows it as well as I do."
Melanie thought of the dark night, the long distance, and all their prophecies of evil, and her courage very nearly failed. But she had a brave little heart under the rags which she wore; and better than courage, GOD'S grace was acting upon her. So she said, "If you will only do what I ask you, I will go. I believe what the Father told me."
"I will stay," said the woman; "but you will be sorry enough you did not take my advice. Go, if you will; I will wait till you return."
"Take care of my mother, then, and I will be as quick as I can!"
It was a wild, lonely road as any one could tread, a path hardly to be traced even in summer; and now, with the snow on the ground, impossible to be found, except by one who had been used to it from infancy. The wild, lonely heath all round; the Morbihan moaning in the distance; here and there a grey Peulven standing up above the snow: the rushlight in the cottage growing fainter and fainter in the distance; and worse than all this, tales of demons, goblins, and spirits, that haunted the heath: of wretched men that had here made a covenant with the Evil One, and had sold their souls for worldly honour and wealth, for twenty or thirty years, and whose shrieks might now be heard in the wail of the wind, or the dismal moaning of the sea. Dreadfully frightened was Melanie, as she hurried along, past this Peulven, keeping that heap of stones (Kistvaen, they call it) to the left, and still never once missing her way, till, aided by the faintest gleam of the moon, then struggling behind thick clouds, (for at sunset, as usual, the clouds had rolled up from the Atlantic,) the little girl stood by the Menhir. Her offering was as she had left it; and as she stretched out her hand to take it, What, she thought, if after all the old tale should be true? What, if these gods, or spirits, should, as every one had once believed, and so many did believe still, have power to send sickness or health? And what, if some hideous form should appear to her--she had heard of such things--for violating the sanctity of the Menhir?
"I will believe what he told me," she said out loud, "though they tear me in pieces for it." And first making the sign of the Cross, she took up the saucer and flung the milk away; and then knelt down and prayed to GOD in her own simple and earnest words, that He would have mercy on her mother.
The clouds rolled off, and the moon walked in brightness through a clear space of blue sky. Melanie's heart felt lighter; she thought no more of goblins or evil spirits, and hastened back with the full assurance that her errand would not have been in vain.
"Why, my child, where have you been?" said the good Priest, as he met her some quarter of a mile from her mother's cottage. He had been on some errand of mercy to another part of his wide, wild parish, and was returning.
"To the Menhir, Father, as you told me."
"I said to-morrow, my child. Were you not afraid to go at night?"
"I was afraid, Father: but I hoped that GOD would take care of me."
"Well, then, I will walk back with you, and we will see how your mother is. Good evening, my daughter," he continued, as he entered, and saw Sophie. "How is your patient?"
"Asleep, Father," said the woman. "I believe she is going to die. I would not have gone on that child's errand for all the world."
"And I am sure she is going to live," said the Father, bending over the woman, and gently feeling her pulse; "she has no more fever than you or I have. If GOD spare me to work among you all, Sophie," (Father Kersanton had not been long in the village,) "I hope I shall teach you all to know as well as I do myself, that these offerings you make are downright idolatry; and that it is the LORD That killeth and maketh alive, and bringeth down to the grave, and bringeth up."
And years after, when the Priest had kept his word, he set up a Cross by the fallen Menhir, which stood there till it was destroyed in the Great Revolution.