Long ago, in Brittany, under the government of St. Gildas the Wise, seventh abbot of Ruiz, there lived a young tenant of the abbey who was blind in the right eye and lame in the left leg. His name was Sylvestre Ker, and his mother, Josserande Ker, was the widow of Martin Ker, in his lifetime the keeper of the great door of the Convent of Ruiz.
The mother and the son lived in a tower, the ruins of which are seen at the foot of Mont Saint Michel de la Trinité, in the grove of chestnut-trees that belongs to Jean Maréchal, the mayor’s nephew. These ruins are now called the Wolf Tower, and the Breton peasants shudder as they pass through the chestnut-grove; for at midnight, around the Wolf Tower, and close to the first circle of great stones erected by the Druids at Carnac, are seen the phantoms of a young man and a young girl—Pol Bihan and Matheline du Coat-Dor.
The young girl is of graceful figure, with long, floating hair, but without a face; and the young man is tall and robust, but the sleeves of his coat hang limp and empty, for he is without arms.
Round and round the circle they pass in opposite directions, and, strange to tell, they never meet, nor do they ever speak to each other.
Once a year, on Christmas night, instead of walking they run; and all the Christians who cross the heath to go to the midnight Mass hear from afar the young girl cry,—
“Wolf Sylvestre Ker, give me back my beauty!” and the deep voice of the young man adds, “Wolf Sylvestre Ker, give me back my strength!”
And this has lasted for thirteen hundred years; therefore you may well think there is a story connected with it.
When Martin Ker, the husband of Dame Josserande, died, their son Sylvestre was only seven years old. The widow was obliged to give up the guardianship of the great door to a man-at-arms, and retire to the tower, which was her inheritance; but little Sylvestre Ker had permission to follow the studies in the convent school.
The boy showed natural ability, but he studied little except in the class of chemistry, taught by an old monk named Thaël, who was said to have discovered the secret of making gold out of lead by adding to it a certain substance which no one but himself knew; for certainly, if the fact had been communicated, all the lead in the country would have been quickly turned into gold.
As for Thaël himself, he had been careful not to profit by his secret, for Gildas the Wise had once said to him,—
“Thaël, Thaël, God does not wish you to change the work of His hands. Lead is lead, and gold is gold. There is enough gold, and not too much lead. Leave God’s works alone; if not, Satan will be your master.”
Most assuredly such precepts would not be well received by modern industry; but St. Gildas knew what he said, and Thaël died of extreme old age before he had changed the least particle of lead into gold. This, however, was not from want of will, which was proved after his death, as the rumor spread about that Thaël did not altogether desert his laboratory, but at times returned to his beloved labors. Many a time, in the lonely hours of the night, the fishermen, in their barks, watched the glimmer of the light in his former cell; and Gildas the Wise, having been warned of the fact, arose one night before Lauds, and with quiet steps crossed the corridors, thinking to surprise his late brother, and perhaps ask of him some details of the other side of the dreaded door which separates life from death.
When he reached the cell he listened, and heard Thaël’s great bellows puffing and blowing, although no one had yet been appointed to succeed him. Gildas suddenly opened the door with his master-key, and saw before him little Sylvestre Ker actively employed in relighting Thaël’s furnaces.
St. Gildas was not a man to give way to sudden wrath; he took the child by the ear, drew him outside, and said to him, gently,—
“Ker, my little Ker, I know what you are attempting and what tempts you to make the effort; but God does not wish it, nor I either, my little Ker.”
“I do it,” replied the boy, “because my dear mother is so poor.”
“Your mother is what she is; she has what God gives her. Lead is lead and gold is gold. If you go against the will of God, Satan will be your master.”
Little Ker returned to the tower crestfallen, and never again slipped into the cell of the dead Thaël; but when he was eighteen years old a modest inheritance was left him, and he bought materials for dissolving metals and distilling the juice of plants. He gave out that his aim was to learn the art of healing; for that great purpose he read great books which treated of medical science and many other things besides.
He was then a youth of fine appearance, with a noble, frank face, neither one-eyed nor lame, and led a retired life with his mother, who ardently loved her only son.
No one visited them in the tower except the laughing Matheline, the heiress of the tenant of Coat-Dor and god-daughter of Josserande; and Pol Bihan, son of the successor of Martin Ker as armed keeper of the great door.
Both Pol and Matheline often conversed together, and upon what subject do you think? Always of Sylvestre Ker. Was it because they loved him? No. What Matheline loved most was her own fair self, and Pol Bihan’s best friend was named Pol Bihan.
Matheline passed long hours before her little mirror of polished steel, which faithfully reflected her laughing mouth full of pearls; and Pol was proud of his great strength, for he was the best wrestler in the Carnac country. When they spoke of Sylvestre Ker, it was to say, “What if some fine morning he should find the secret of the fairy-stone that is the mother of gold!”
And each one mentally added,—
“I must continue to be friendly with him, for if he becomes wealthy he will enrich me.”
Josserande also knew that her beloved son sought after the fairy-stone, and even had mentioned it to Gildas the Wise, who shook his venerable head and said,—
“What God wills will be. Be careful that your son wears a mask over his face when he seeks the cursed thing; for what escapes from the crucible is Satan’s breath, and the breath of Satan causes blindness.”
Josserande, meditating upon these words, went to kneel before the cross of St. Cado, which is in front of the seventh stone of Cæsar’s camp,—the one that a little child can move by touching it with his finger, but that twelve horses harnessed to twelve oxen cannot stir from its solid foundation. Thus prostrate, she prayed: “O Lord Jesus! Thou who hast mercy for mothers on account of the Holy Virgin, Thy mother, watch well over my little Sylvestre, and take from his head this thought of making gold. Nevertheless, if it is Thy will that he should be rich, Thou art the Master of all things, my sweet Saviour!”
And as she rose she murmured: “What a beautiful boy he would be with a cloak of fine cloth and a hood bordered with fur, if he only had means to buy them.”
It came to pass that as all these young people, Pol Bihan, Matheline, and Sylvestre Ker, gained a year each time that twelve months rolled by, they reached the age to think of marriage; and Josserande, one morning, proceeded to the dwelling of the farmer of Coat-Dor to ask the hand of Matheline for her son, Sylvestre Ker; at which proposal Matheline opened her rosy mouth so wide, to laugh the louder, that far back she showed two pearls which had never before been seen.
When her father asked her if the offer suited her, she replied, “Yes, father and godmother, provided that Sylvestre Ker gives me a gown of cloth of silver embroidered with rubies, like that of the Lady of Lannelar, and that Pol Bihan may be our groomsman.”
Pol, who was there, also laughed, and said, “I will assuredly be groomsman to my friend Sylvestre Ker, if he consents to give me a velvet mantle striped with gold, like that of the Castellan of Gâvre, the Lord of Carnac.”
Whereupon Josserande returned to the tower, and said to her son, “Ker, my darling, I advise you to choose another friend and another bride; for those two are not worthy of your love.”
But the young man began to sigh and groan, and answered, “No friendship or love will I ever know except for Pol, my dear comrade, and Matheline, your god-daughter, my beautiful playfellow.”
And Josserande having told him of the two new pearls that Matheline had shown in the back of her mouth, nothing would do but he must hurry to Coat-Dor to try and see them, also.
On the road from the tower to the farm of Coat-Dor is the Point of Hinnic, where the grass is salt, which makes the cows and rams very fierce while they are grazing.
As Sylvestre Ker walked down the path at the end of which is the Cross of St. Cado, he saw, on the summit of the promontory, Pol and Matheline strolling along, talking and laughing; so he thought,—
“I need not go far to see Matheline’s two pearls.”
And, in fact, the girl’s merry laughter could be heard below, for it always burst forth if Pol did but open his lips. When, lo, and behold! a huge old ram, which had been browsing on the salt grass, tossed back his two horns, and, fuming at the nostrils, bleated as loud as the stags cry when chased, and rushed in the direction of Matheline’s voice; for, as every one knows, the rams become furious if laughter is heard in their meadow.
He ran quickly, but Sylvestre Ker ran still faster, and arrived the first by the girl, so that he received the shock of the ram’s butting while protecting her with his body. The injury was not very great, only his right eye was touched by the curved end of one of the horns when the ram raised his head, and thus Sylvestre Ker became one-eyed.
The ram, prevented from slaughtering Matheline, dashed after Pol Bihan, who fled; reached him just at the end of the cliff, and pushed him into the sea, that beat against the rocks fifty feet below.
Well content with his work, the ram walked off, and the legend says he laughed behind his woolly beard.
But Matheline wept bitterly, and cried,—
“Ker, my handsome Ker, save Bihan, your sweet friend, from death, and I pledge my faith I will be your wife without any condition.”
At the same time, amid the roaring of the waves, was heard the imploring voice of Pol Bihan crying,—
“Sylvestre, O Sylvestre Ker! my only friend, I cannot swim. Come quickly and save me from dying without confession, and all you may ask of me you shall have, were it the dearest treasure of my heart.”
Sylvestre Ker asked,—
“Will you be my groomsman?” And Bihan replied,—
“Yes, yes; and I will give you a hundred crowns. And all that your mother may ask of me she shall have. But hasten, hasten, dear friend, or the waves will carry me off.”
Sylvestre Ker’s blood was pouring from the wound in his eye, and his sight was dimmed; but he was generous of heart, and boldly leaped from the top of the promontory. As he fell, his left leg was jammed against a jutting rock and broke, so there he was, lame as well as one-eyed; nevertheless, he dragged Bihan to the shore and asked,—
“When shall the wedding be?”
As Matheline hesitated in her answer—for Sylvestre’s brave deeds were too recent to be forgotten—Pol Bihan came to her assistance and gayly cried,—
“You must wait, Sylvestre, my saviour, until your leg and eye are healed.”
“Still longer,” added Matheline (and now Sylvestre Ker saw the two new pearls, for in her laughter she opened her mouth from ear to ear); “still longer, as limping, one-eyed men are not to my taste—no, no!”
“But,” cried Sylvestre Ker, “it is for your sakes that I am one-eyed and lame.”
“That is true,” said Bihan.
“That is true,” also repeated Matheline, for she always spoke as he did.
“Ker, my friend Ker,” resumed Bihan, “wait until to-morrow, and we will make you happy.”
And off they went, Matheline and he, arm-in-arm, leaving Sylvestre to go hobbling along to the tower, alone with his sad thoughts.
Would you believe it? Trudging wearily home, he consoled himself by thinking he had seen two new pearls behind the smile. You may, perhaps, think you have never met such a fool. Undeceive yourself; it is the same with all the men, who only look for laughing girls with teeth like pearls. But the sorrowful one was Josserande, the widow, when she saw her son with only one eye and one sound leg.
“Where did all this happen,” she asked, with tears.
And as Sylvestre Ker gently answered, “I have seen them, mother; they are very beautiful,” Josserande divined that he spoke of her god-daughter’s two pearls, and cried,—
“By all that is holy, he has also lost his mind!”
Then seizing her staff, she went to the Abbey of Ruiz to consult St. Gildas as to what could be done in this unfortunate case. And the wise man replied,—
“You should not have spoken of the two pearls; your son would have remained at home. But, now that the evil is done, nothing will happen to him contrary to God’s holy will. At high tide the sea comes foaming over the sands, yet see how quietly it retires. What is Sylvestre Ker doing now?”
“He is lighting his furnaces,” replied Josserande.
The wise man paused to reflect, and after a little while said,—
“In the first place, you must pray devoutly to the Lord our God, and afterwards look well before you to know where to put your feet. The weak buy the strong, the unhappy the happy; did you know that, my good woman? Your son will persevere in search of the fairy-stone that changes lead into gold, to pay for Pol’s wicked friendship and for the pearls behind the dangerous smiles of that Matheline. Since God permits it, all is right. Yet see that your son is well protected against the smoke of his crucible, for it is the very breath of Satan; and make him promise to go to the midnight Mass.”
For it was near the glorious Feast of Christmas.
Josserande had no difficulty in making Sylvestre Ker promise to go to the midnight Mass, for he was a good Christian; and she bought for him an iron armor to put on when he worked around his crucibles, so as to preserve him from Satan’s breath.
And it happened that, late and early, Pol Bihan now came to the tower, bringing with him the laughing Matheline; for it was rumored that at last Sylvestre Ker would soon find the fairy-stone and become a wealthy man.
It was not only two new pearls that Matheline showed at the corners of her rosy mouth, but a brilliant row that shone, and chattered, and laughed, from her lips down to her throat; for Pol Bihan had said to her: “Laugh as much as you can; for smiles attract fools, as the turning mirror catches larks.”
We have spoken of Matheline’s lips, of her throat, and of her smile, but not of her heart; of that we can only say the place where it should have been was nearly empty; so she replied to Bihan,—
“As much as you will. I can afford to laugh to be rich; and when the fool shall have given me all the gold of the earth, all the pleasures of the world, I will be happy, happy…. I will have them all for myself, for myself alone, and I will enjoy them.”
Pol Bihan clasped his hands in admiration, so lovely and wise was she for her age; but he thought: “I am wiser still than you, my beauty; we will share between us what the fool will give—one-half for me, and the other also; the rest for you. Let the water run under the bridge.”
The day before Christmas they came together to the tower,—Matheline carrying a basket of chestnuts, Pol a large jug, full of sweet cider,—to make merry with the godmother.
They roasted the chestnuts in the ashes, heated the cider before the fire, adding to it fermented honey, wine, sprigs of rosemary, and marjoram leaves; and so delicious was the perfume of the beverage that even Dame Josserande longed for a taste.
On the way thither, Pol had advised Matheline adroitly to question Sylvestre Ker, to know when he would at last find the fairy-stone.
Sylvestre Ker neither ate chestnuts nor drank wine, so absorbed was he in the contemplation of Matheline’s bewitching smiles; and she said to him,—
“Tell me, my handsome, lame, and one-eyed bridegroom, will I soon be the wife of a wealthy man?”
Sylvestre Ker, whose eye shot forth lurid flame, replied,—
“You would have been as rich as you are beautiful to-morrow, without fail, if I had not promised my dear mother to accompany her to the midnight Mass to-night. The favorable hour falls just at the first stroke of Matins.”
“Between to-day and to-morrow.”
“And can it not be put off?”
“Yes, it can be put off for seven years.”
Dame Josserande heard nothing, as Pol was relating an interesting story, so as to distract her attention; but, while talking, he listened with all his ears.
Matheline laughed no longer, and thought,—
“Seven years! Can I wait seven years?” Then she continued:
“Beautiful bridegroom, how do you know that the propitious moment falls precisely at the hour of Matins? Who told you so?”
“The stars,” replied Sylvestre Ker. “At midnight Mars and Saturn will arrive in diametrical opposition; Venus will seek Vesta; Mercury will disappear in the sun; and the planet without a name, that the deceased Thaël divined by calculation, I saw last night, steering its unknown route through space to come in conjunction with Jupiter. Ah! if I only dared disobey my dear mother.” He was interrupted by a distant vibration of the bells of Plouharnel, which rang out the first signal of the midnight Mass.
Josserande instantly left her wheel.
“It would be a sin to spin one thread more,” said she. “Come, my son Sylvestre, put on your Sunday clothes, and let us be off for the parish church, if you please.”
Sylvestre wished to rise, for never yet had he disobeyed his mother; but Matheline, seated at his side, detained him and murmured in silvery tones,—
“My handsome friend, you have plenty of time.”
Pol, on his side, said to Dame Josserande,—
“Get your staff, neighbor, and start at once, so as to take your time. Your god-daughter Matheline will accompany you; and I will follow with friend Sylvestre, for fear some accident might happen to him with his lame leg and sightless eye.” As he proposed, so it was done; for Josserande suspected nothing, knowing that her son had promised, and that he would not break his word.
As they were leaving, Pol whispered to Matheline,—
“Amuse the good woman well, for the fool must remain here.”
And the girl replied,—
“Try and see the caldron in which our fortune is cooking. You will tell me how it is done.”
Off the two women started; a large, kind mother’s heart full of tender love, and a sparrow’s little gizzard, narrow and dry, without enough room in it for one pure tear. For a moment Sylvestre Ker stood on the threshold of the open door to watch them depart. On the gleaming white snow their two shadows fell—the one bent and already tottering, the other erect, flexible, and each step seemed a bound. The young lover sighed. Behind him, in a low voice, Pol Bihan said,—
“Ker, my comrade, I know what you are thinking about, and you are right to think so; this must come to an end. She is as impatient as you are, for her love equals yours; for both of you it is too long to wait.”
Sylvestre Ker turned pale with joy.
“Do you speak truth?” he stammered. “Am I fortunate enough to be loved by her?”
“Yes, on my faith!” replied Pol Bihan; “she loves you too well for her own peace. When a girl laughs too much, it is to keep from weeping,—that’s the real truth.”
Well might they call him “the fool,” poor Sylvestre Ker! Not that he had less brains than another man,—on the contrary, he was now very learned—but love crazes him who places his affections on an unworthy object.
Sylvestre Ker’s little finger was worth two dozen Pol Bihan’s and fifty Matheline’s; in spite of which Matheline and Pol Bihan were perfectly just in their contempt, for he who ascends the highest falls lowest.
When Sylvestre had re-entered the tower, Pol commenced to sigh heavily, and said,—
“What a pity! What a great, great pity!”
“What is a pity?” asked Sylvestre Ker.
“It is a pity to miss such a rare opportunity.”
Sylvestre Ker exclaimed, “What opportunity? So you were listening to my conversation with Matheline?”
“Why, yes,” replied Pol. “I always have an ear open to hear what concerns you, my true friend. Seven years! Shall I tell you what I think? You would only have twelve months to wait to go with your mother to another Christmas Mass.”
“I have promised,” said Sylvestre.
“That is nothing: if your mother loves you truly, she will forgive you.”
“If she loves me!” cried Sylvestre Ker. “Oh, yes, she loves me with her whole heart.”
Some chestnuts still remained, and Bihan shelled one while he said,—
“Certainly, certainly, mothers always love their children; but Matheline is not your mother. You are one-eyed, you are lame, and you have sold your little patrimony to buy your furnaces. Nothing remains of it. Where is the girl that can wait seven years? Nearly the half of her age!… If I were in your place, I would not throw away my luck as you are about to do, but at the hour of Matins I would work for my happiness.”
Sylvestre Ker was standing before the fireplace. He listened, his eyes bent down, with a frown upon his brow.
“You have spoken well,” at last he said; “my dear mother will forgive me. I shall remain, and will work at the hour of Matins.”
“You have decided for the best!” cried Bihan. “Rest easy; I will be with you in case of danger. Open the door of your laboratory. We will work together; I will cling to you like your shadow!”
Sylvestre Ker did not move, but looked fixedly upon the floor, and then, as if thinking aloud, murmured,—
“It will be the first time I have ever caused my dear mother sorrow!”
He opened a door, but not that of the laboratory, pushed Pol Bihan outside, and said,—
“The danger is for myself alone; the gold will be for all. Go to the Christmas Mass in my place; say to Matheline that she will be rich, and to my dear mother that she will have a happy old age, since she will live and die with her fortunate son.”
When Sylvestre Ker was alone, he listened to the noise of the waves dashing upon the beach and the sighing of the wind among the great oaks,—two mournful sounds. And he looked with conflicting feelings at the empty seats of Matheline and of his dear mother Josserande. Little by little had he seen the black hair of the widow become gray, then white, around her sunken temples. That night memory carried him back even to his cradle, over which had bent the sweet, noble face of her who had always spoken to him of God.
But whence came those golden ringlets that mingled with Josserande’s black hair, and which shone in the sunlight above his mother’s snowy locks? And that laugh, oh! that silvery laugh of youth, which prevented Sylvestre Ker from hearing, in his pious recollections, the calm, grave voice of his mother. Whence did it come?
Seven years! Pol had said. “Where is the girl who can wait seven years?” and these words floated in the air. Never had the son of Martin Ker heard such strange voices amid the roaring of the ocean, nor in the rushing winds of the forest of the Druids.
Suddenly the tower also commenced to speak, not only through the cracks of the old windows where the mournful wind sighed, but with a confusion of sounds that resembled the busy whispering of a crowd, that penetrated through the closed doors of the laboratory, under which a bright light streamed. Sylvestre Ker opened the door, fearing to see all in a blaze, but there was no fire; the light that streamed under the door came from the round, red eye of his furnace, and happened to strike the stone of the threshold. No one was in the laboratory; still, the noises, similar to the chattering of an audience awaiting a promised spectacle, did not cease. The air was full of speaking things; the spirits could be felt swarming around, as closely packed as the wheat in the barn or the sand on the seashore. And, although not seen, they spoke all kinds of phantom-words, which were heard right and left, before and behind, above and below, and which penetrated through the pores of the skin like quicksilver passing through a cloth.
“The Magi has started, my friend.”
“My friend, the Star shines in the East.”
“My friend, my friend, the little King Jesus is born in the manger, upon the straw.”
“Sylvestre Ker will surely go with the shepherds.”
“Not at all; Sylvestre Ker will not go.”
“Good Christian he was.”
“Good Christian he is no longer.”
“He has forgotten the name of Joseph.”
“And the name of Mary.”
“No, no, no!”
“Yes, yes, yes!”
“He will go!”
“He will not go!”
“He will go, since he promised Dame Josserande.”
“He will not go, since Matheline told him to stay.”
“My friend, my friend, to-night Sylvestre Ker will find the golden secret.”
“To-night, my friend, my friend, he will win the heart of the one he loves.”
And the invisible spirits, thus disputing, sported through the air, mounting, descending, whirling around like atoms of dust in a sunbeam, from the flag-stones of the floor to the rafters of the roof.
Inside the furnace, in the crucible, some other thing responded, but it could not be well heard, as the crucible had been hermetically sealed.
“Go out from here, you wicked crowd,” cried Sylvestre Ker, sweeping around with a broom of holly branches. “What are you doing here? Go outside, cursed spirits, damned souls—go, go!”
From all the corners of the room came laughter; Matheline seemed everywhere. Suddenly there was profound silence, and the wind from the sea brought the sound of the bells of Plouharnel, ringing the second peal for the midnight Mass.
“My friend, what are they saying?”
“They say Christmas, my friend—Christmas, Christmas, Christmas!”
“Not at all! They say, Gold, gold, gold!”
“You lie, my friend!”
“My friend, you lie!”
And the other voices, those that were grumbling in the interior of the furnace, swelled and puffed.
The fire, that no person was blowing, kept up by itself, hot as the soul of a forge should be. The crucible became red, and the stones of the furnace were dyed a deep scarlet.
In vain did Sylvestre Ker sweep with his holly broom; between the branches, covered with sharp leaves, the spirits passed,—nothing could catch them; and the heat was so great the boy was bathed in perspiration.
After the bells had finished their second peal, he said,—
“I am stifling. I will open the window to let out the heat as well as this herd of evil spirits.”
But as soon as he opened the window, the whole country commenced to laugh under its white mantle of snow—barren heath, ploughed land, Druid stones, even to the enormous oaks of the forest, with their glistening summits, that shook their frosty branches, saying,—
“Sylvestre Ker will go! Sylvestre Ker will not go!”
Not a spirit from within flew out, while all the outside spirits entered, muttering, chattering, laughing,—
“Yes, yes, yes, yes! No, no, no, no!” And I believe they fought.
At the same time the sound of a cavalcade advancing was heard on the flinty road that passed before the tower; and Sylvestre Ker recognized the long procession of the monks of Ruiz, led by the grand abbot, Gildas the Wise, arrayed in cope and mitre, with his crozier in his hand, going to the Mass of Plouharnel, as the convent chapel was being rebuilt.
When the head of the cavalcade approached the tower, the grand abbot cried out,—
“My armed guards, sound your horns to awaken Dame Josserande’s son!”
And instantly there was a blast from the horns, which rang out until Gildas the Wise exclaimed,—
“Be silent, for there is my tenant wide awake at his window.”
When all was still, the grand abbot raised his crozier and said,—
“My tenant, the first hour of Christmas approaches, the glorious Feast of the Nativity. Extinguish your furnaces and hasten to Mass, for you have barely time.” And on he passed, while those in the procession, as they saluted Ker, repeated,—
“Sylvestre Ker, you have barely time; make haste!”
The voices of the air kept gibbering: “He will go! He will not go!” and the wind whistled in bitter sarcasm.
Sylvestre Ker closed his window. He sat down, his head clasped by his trembling hands. His heart was rent by two forces that dragged him, one to the right, the other to the left,—his Mother’s prayer and Matheline’s laughter.
He was no miser; he did not covet gold for the sake of gold, but that he might buy the row of pearls and smiles that hung from the lips of Matheline….
“Christmas!” cried a voice in the air.
“Christmas, Christmas, Christmas!” repeated all the other voices.
Sylvestre Ker suddenly opened his eyes, and saw that the furnace was fiery red from top to bottom, and that the crucible was surrounded with rays so dazzling he could not even look at it. Something was boiling inside that sounded like the roaring of a tempest.
“Mother! Oh, my dear mother!” cried the terrified man, “I am coming. I’ll run….”
But thousands of little voices stung his ears with the words,—
“Too late, too late, too late! It is too late!”
Alas! alas! the wind from the sea brought the third peal of the bells of Plouharnel, and they also said to him: “Too late.”
As the sound of the bells died away, the last drop of water fell from the clepsydra and marked the hour of midnight. Then the furnace opened and showed the glowing crucible, which burst with a terrible noise, and threw out a gigantic flame that reached the sky through the torn roof. Sylvestre Ker, enveloped by the fire, fell prostrate on the ground, suffocated in the burning smoke.
The silence of death followed. Suddenly an awful voice said to him: “Arise.” And he arose.
On the spot where had stood the furnace, of which not a vestige remained, was standing a man, or rather a colossus; and Sylvestre Ker needed but a glance to recognize in him the demon. His body appeared to be of iron, red-hot and transparent; for in his veins could be seen the liquid gold, flowing into, and then retreating from, his heart, black as an extinguished coal.
The creature, who was both fearful and beautiful to behold, extended his hand towards the side of the tower nearest the sea, and in the thick wall a large breach was made.
“Look!” said Satan.
Sylvestre Ker obeyed. He saw, as though distance were annihilated, the interior of the humble church of Plouharnel where the faithful We assembled. The officiating priest had just ascended the altar, brilliant with the Christmas candles, and there was great pomp and splendor; for the many monks of Gildas the Wise were assisting the poor clergy of the parish.
In a corner, under the shadow of a column knelt Dame Josserande in fervent prayer, but often did the dear woman turn towards the door to watch for the coming of her son.
Not far from her was Matheline du Coat-Dor, bravely attired and very beautiful, but lavishing the pearls of her smiles upon all who sought them, forgetting no one but God; and, close to Matheline, Pol Bihan squared his broad shoulders. Then, even as Satan had given to Sylvestre Ker’s sight the power of piercing the walls, so did he permit him to look into the depth of hearts. In his mother’s heart he saw himself as in a mirror. It was full of him. Good Josserande prayed for him; she prayed to Jesus, whose feast is Christmas, in the pious prayer which fell from her lips; and ever and ever said her heart to God: “My son, my son, my son!”
In the heart of Pol, Sylvestre Ker saw pride of strength and gross cupidity; in the spot where should have been the heart of Matheline, he saw Matheline, and nothing but Matheline, in adoration before Matheline.
“I have seen enough,” said Sylvestre Ker.
“Then,” replied Satan, “listen!” And immediately the sacred music resounded in the ears of the young tenant of the tower as plainly as though he was in the church of Plouharnel. They were singing the Sanctus: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts! The heavens and the earth are full of Thy glory. Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is He that cometh in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!”
Dame Josserande repeated the words with the others, but the refrain of her heart continued: “O Jesus, Infinite Goodness! may he be happy. Deliver him from all evil, from all sin. I have only him to love…. Holy, holy, holy, give me all the suffering and keep for him all the happiness!”
Can you believe it? Even while piously inhaling the perfume of this celestial hymn, the young tenant wished to know what Matheline was saying to God. Everything speaks to God,—the wild beasts in the forest, the birds in the air, even the plants, whose roots are in the ground.
But miserable girls who sell the pearls of their smiles are lower than the animals and vegetables. Nothing is beneath them,—Pol Bihan excepted. Instead of speaking to God, Pol Bihan and Matheline whispered together, and Sylvestre Ker heard them as distinctly as if he had been between them.
“How much will the fool give?” asked Matheline.
“The idiot will give you all,” replied Pol.
“And must I really squint with that one-eyed creature, and limp with the lame wretch?”
Sylvestre Ker felt his heart die away within him.
Meanwhile, Josserande prayed earnestly for Sylvestre Ker.
“Never mind,” continued Bihan; “it is worth while limping and squinting for a time to win all the money in the world.”
“That is true; but for how long?”
Sylvestre Ker held his breath to hear the better.
“As long as you please,” answered Pol Bihan.
There was a pause, after which the gay Matheline resumed in a lower tone,—
“But … they say after a murder one can never laugh, and I wish to laugh always….”
“Will I not be there?” replied Bihan. “Some time or other the idiot will certainly seek a quarrel with me, and I will crack his bones by only squeezing him in my arms; you can count upon my strength.”
“I have heard enough,” said Sylvestre Ker to Satan.
“And do you still love this Bihan?”
“No: I despise him.”
“And Matheline,—do you love her yet?”
“Yes, oh! yes!… but … I hate her!”
“I see,” said Satan, “that you are a coward, and wicked like all men. Since you have heard and seen enough at a distance, listen, and look at your feet….”
The wall closed with a loud crash of the stones as they came together, and Sylvestre Ker saw that he was surrounded by an enormous heap of gold-pieces, as high as his waist, which gently floated, singing the symphony of riches. All around him was gold, and through the gap in the roof the shower of gold fell, and fell, and fell.
“Am I the master of all this?” asked Sylvestre Ker.
“Yes,” replied Satan; “you have compelled me, who am gold, to come forth from my caverns; you are therefore the master of gold, provided you purchase it at the price of your soul. You cannot have both God and gold. You must choose one or the other.”
“I have chosen,” said Sylvestre Ker. “I keep my soul.”
“You have firmly decided?”
“Once, twice, … reflect! You have just acknowledged that you still love the laughing Matheline.”
“And that I hate her…. Yes, … it is so…. But in eternity I wish to be with my dear mother, Josserande.”
“Were there no mothers,” growled Satan, “I could play my game much better in the world!”
And he added,—
“For the third time, … adjudged!”
The heap of gold became as turbulent as the water of a cascade, and leaped and sang; the millions of little sonorous coins clashed against each other, and then all was silent and they vanished.
The room appeared as black as a place where there had been a fire; nothing could be seen but the lurid gleam of Satan’s iron body. Then said Sylvestre Ker,—
“Since all is ended, retire!”
But the demon did not stir.
“Do you think, then,” he asked, “that you have brought me hither for nothing? There is the law. You are not altogether my slave, since you have kept your soul; but as you have freely called me, and I have come, you are my vassal. I have a half claim over you. The little children know that; I am astonished at your ignorance…. From midnight to three o’clock in the morning you belong to me, in the form of an animal, restless, roving, complaining, without help from God. This is what you owe to your strong friend and beautiful bride. Let us settle the affair before I depart. What animal do you wish to be,—roaring lion, bellowing ox, bleating sheep, crowing cock? If you become a dog, you can crouch at Matheline’s feet, and Bihan can lead you by a leash to hunt in the woods….”
“I wish,” cried Sylvestre Ker, whose anger burst forth at these words, “I wish to be a wolf, to devour them both!”
“So be it,” said Satan; “wolf you shall be three hours of the night during your mortal life…. Leap, wolf!”
And the wolf, Sylvestre Ker, leaped, and with one dash shattered the casement of the window as he cleared it with a bound. Through the aperture in the roof Satan escaped, and, spreading a pair of immense wings, rapidly disappeared in an opposite direction from the steeple of Plouharnel, whose chimes were ringing across the snow.
I do not know if you have ever seen a Breton village come forth after the midnight Mass. It is a joyous sight, but a brief one, as all are in a hurry to return home, where the midnight meal awaits them,—a frugal feast, but eaten with such cheerful hearts. The people, for a moment massed in the cemetery, exchange hospitable invitations, kind wishes, and friendly jokes; then divide into little caravans, which hurry along the roads, laughing, talking, singing. If it is a clear, cold night, the clicking of their wooden shoes may be heard for some time; but if it is damp weather, the sound is stifled, and after a few moments the faint echo of an “adieu” or Christmas greeting is all that can be heard around the church as the beadle closes it.
In the midst of all this cheerfulness Josserande alone returned with a sad heart; for through the whole Mass she had in vain watched for her beloved son. She walked fifty paces behind the cavalcade of the monks of Ruiz, and dared not approach the Grand Abbot Gildas, for fear of being questioned about her boy. On her right was Matheline du Coat-Dor, on her left Bihan,—both eager to console her; for they thought that by that time Sylvestre Ker must have learned the wonderful secret which would secure him untold wealth, and to possess the son they should cling to the mother; therefore there were promises and caresses, and “will you have this, or will you have that?”
“Dear godmother, I shall always be with you,” said Matheline, “to comfort and rejoice your old age; for your son is my heart.”
Pol Bihan continued,—
“I will never marry, but always remain with my friend, Sylvestre Ker, whom I love more than myself. And nothing must worry you; if he is weak, I am strong, and I will work for two.”
To pretend that Dame Josserande paid much attention to all these words would be false; for her son possessed her whole soul, and she thought,—
“This is the first time he has ever disobeyed and deceived me. The demon of avarice has entered into him. Why does he want so much money? Can all the riches in the world pay for one of the tears that the ingratitude of a beloved son draws from his mother’s eyes?”
Suddenly her thoughts were arrested, for the sound of a trumpet was heard in the still night.
“It is the convent horn,” said Matheline.
“And it sounds the wolf-alarm,” added Pol.
“What harm can the wolf do,” asked Josserande, “to a well-mounted troop like the cavalry of Gildas the Wise? And, besides, cannot the holy abbot with a single word put to flight a hundred wolves?”
They arrived at the heath of Carnac, where are the two thousand seven hundred and twenty-nine Druid stones, and the monks had already passed the round point where nothing grows, neither grass nor heath, and which resembles an enormous caldron,—a caldron wherein to make oaten-porridge,—or rather a race-course, to exercise horses.
On one side might be seen the town, dark and gloomy; on the other, as far as the eye could reach, rows of rugged obelisks, half-black, half-white, owing to the snow, which threw into bold relief each jagged outline. Josserande, Matheline, and Pol Bihan had just turned from the sunken road which branches towards Plouharnel; and the moon played hide-and-go-seek behind a flock of little clouds that flitted over the sky like lambs.
Then a strange thing happened. The cavalcade of monks was seen to retreat from the entrance of the avenues to the middle of the circle, while the horn sounded the signal of distress, and loud cries were heard of “Wolf! wolf! wolf!” At the same time could be distinguished the clashing of arms, the stamping of horses, and all the noise of a ferocious struggle, above which rose the majestic tones of Gildas the Wise, as he said, with calmness,—
“Wolf, wicked wolf, I forbid you to touch God’s servants!” But it seemed that the wicked wolf was in no hurry to obey, for the cavalcade plunged hither and thither as though shaken by convulsion; and the moon having come forth from the clouds, there was seen an enormous beast struggling with the staffs of the monks, the halberds of the armed guard, the pitchforks and spears of the peasants, who had hastened from all directions at the trumpet-call from Ruiz.
The animal received many wounds, but it was fated not to die. Again and again it charged upon the crowd, rushed up and down, round and round, biting, tearing with its great teeth so fearfully that a large circle was made around the grand abbot, who was finally left alone in face of the wolf. For a wolf it was. And the grand abbot having touched it with his crosier, the wolf crouched at his feet, panting, trembling, and bloody.
Gildas the Wise bent over it, looked at it attentively, then said,—
“Nothing happens contrary to God’s will. Where is Dame Josserande?”
“I am here,” replied a mournful voice full of tears, “and I dread a great misfortune.”
She also was alone; for Matheline and Pol Bihan, seized with terror, had rushed across the fields at the first alarm and abandoned their precious charge. The grand abbot called Josserande and said,—
“Woman, do not despair. Above you is the Infinite Goodness, who holds in His hands the heavens and the whole earth. Meanwhile, protect your wolf; we must return to the monastery to gain from sleep strength to serve the Lord our God!”
And he resumed his course, followed by his escort.
The wolf did not move; his tongue lay on the snow, which was reddened by his blood. Josserande knelt beside him and prayed fervently. For whom? For her beloved son. Did she already know that the wolf was Sylvestre Ker? Certainly; such a thing could scarcely be divined; but under what form cannot a mother discover her darling child?
She defended the wolf against the peasants, who had returned to strike him with their pitchforks and pikes, as they believed him dead. The two last who came were Pol Bihan and Matheline. Pol Bihan kicked him on the head, and said, “Take that, you fool!” and Matheline threw stones at him, and cried: “Idiot, take that, and that, and that!”
They had hoped for all the gold in the world, and this dead beast could give them nothing more.
After a while two ragged beggars passed by and assisted Josserande in carrying the wolf into the tower. Where is charity most often found? Among the poor, who are the figures Of Jesus Christ.
Day dawned. A man slept in the bed of Sylvestre Ker, where widow Josserande had laid a wolf. The room still bore the marks of a fire, and snow fell through the hole in the roof. The young tenant’s face was disfigured with blows, and his hair, stiffened with blood, hung in heavy locks. In his feverish sleep he talked, and the name that escaped his lips was Matheline’s. At his bedside the mother watched and prayed.
When Sylvestre Ker awoke he wept, for the thought of his condemnation returned; but the remembrance of Pol and Matheline dried the tears in his burning eyes.
“It was for those two,” said he, “that I forgot God and my mother. I still feel my friend’s heel upon my forehead, and even to the bottom of my heart the shock of the stones thrown at me by my betrothed!”
“Dearest,” murmured Josserande, “dearer to me than ever, I know nothing; tell me all.”
Sylvestre Ker obeyed, and when he had finished, Josserande kissed him, took up her staff, and proceeded towards the convent of Ruiz to ask, according to her custom, aid and counsel from Gildas the Wise. On the way, men, women, and children looked curiously at her, for throughout the country it was already known that she was the mother of a wolf. Even behind the hedge which enclosed the abbey orchard Matheline and Pol were hidden to see her pass; and she heard Pol say,—
“Will you come to-night to see the wolf run around?”
“Without fail,” replied Matheline; and the sting of her laughter pierced Josserande like a poisonous thorn.
The grand abbot received her, surrounded by great books and dusty manuscripts. When she wished to explain her son’s case, he stopped her, and said,—
“Widow of Martin Ker, poor, good woman, since the beginning of the world, Satan, the demon of gold and pride, has worked many such wickednesses. Do you remember the deceased brother, Thaël, who is a saint for having resisted the desire of making gold,—he who had the power to do it?”
“Yes,” answered Josserande; “and would to heaven my Sylvestre had imitated him!”
“Very well,” replied Gildas the Wise. “Instead of sleeping, I passed the rest of the night with St. Thaël, seeking a means to save your son, Sylvestre Ker.”
“And have you found it, father?”
The grand abbot neither answered yes nor no, but he began to turn over a very thick manuscript filled with pictures; and, while turning the leaves, he said,—
“Life springs from death, according to the divine word; death seizes the living, according to the pagan law of Rome; and it is nearly the same thing in the order of miserable temporal ambition, whose inheritance is a strength, a life, shot forth from a coffin. This is a book of the defunct Thaël’s, which treats of the question of maladies caused by the breath of gold,—a deadly poison…. Woman, would you have the courage to strike your wolf a blow on his head powerful enough to break the skull?”
At these words Josserande fell her full length upon the tiles, as if she had been stabbed to the heart; but in the very depth of her agony—for she thought herself dying—she replied,—
“If you should order me to do it, I would.”
“You have this great confidence in me, poor woman?” cried Gildas, much moved.
“You are a man of God,” answered Josserande, “and I have faith in God.”
Gildas the Wise prostrated himself on the ground and struck his breast, knowing that he had felt a movement of pride. Then, standing up, he raised Josserande, and kissed the hem of her robe, saying,—
“Woman, I adore you in the most holy faith. Prepare your axe, and sharpen it!”
In the days of Gildas the Wise, intense silence always reigned at night through the dense oak forest of the Armorican country. One of the most lonely places was Cæsar’s camp, the name was given to the huge masses of stone that encumbered the barren heath; and it was the common opinion that the pagan giants, supposed to be buried under them, rose from their graves at midnight and roamed up and down the long avenues, watching for the late passers-by, to twist their necks.
This night, however,—the night after Christmas,—many persons could be seen, about eleven o’clock, on the heath before the stones of Carnac, all around the Great Basin or circle, whose irregular outline was clearly visible by moonlight. The enclosure was entirely empty. Outside no one was seen, it is true; but many could be heard gabbling in the shadow of the high rocks, under the shelter of the stumps of oaks, even in the tufts of thorny brambles; and all this assemblage watched for something, and that something was the wolf, Sylvestre Ker. They had come from Plouharnel, and also from Lannelar, from Carnac, from Kercado, even from the old town of Crach, beyond La Trinité.
Who had brought together all these people, young and old, men and women? The legend does not say; but very probably Matheline had strewn around the cruel pearls of her laughter, and Pol Bihan had not been slow to relate what he had seen after the midnight Mass.
By some means or other, the entire country around for five or six leagues knew that the son of Martin Ker, the tenant of the abbey, had become a man-wolf, and that he was doomed to expiate his crime in the spot haunted by the phantoms,—the Great Basin of the Pagans, between the tower and the Druid stones.
Many of the watchers had never seen a man-wolf, and there reigned in the crowd, scattered in invisible groups, a fever of curiosity, terror, and impatience; the minutes lengthened as they passed, and it seemed as though midnight, stopped on the way, would never come.
There were at that time no clocks in the neighborhood to mark the hour, but the matin-bell of the convent of Ruiz gave notice that the wished-for moment had arrived.
While waiting there was busy conversation: they spoke of the man-wolf, of phantoms, and also of betrothals, for the rumor was spread that the bans of Matheline du Coat-Dor, the promised bride of Sylvestre Ker, with the strong Pol Bihan, who had never found a rival in the wrestling-field, would be published on the following Sunday; and I leave you to imagine how Matheline’s laughter ran in pearly cascades when congratulated on her approaching marriage.
By the road which led up to the tower a shadow slowly descended; it was not the wolf, but a poor woman in mourning, whose head was bent upon her breast, and who held in her hand an object that shone like a mirror, and the brilliant surface of which reflected the moonbeams.
“It is Josserande Ker!” was whispered around the circle, behind the rocks, in the brambles, and under the stumps of the oaks.
“‘Tis the widow of the armed keeper of the great door!”
“‘Tis the mother of the wolf, Sylvestre Ker!”
“She also has come to see….”
“But what has she in her hand?”
Twenty voices asked the question. Matheline, who had good eyes, and such beautiful ones, replied,—
“It looks like an axe…. Happy am I to be rid of those two, the mother and son! With them I could never laugh.”
But there were two or three good souls who said in low tones,—
“Poor widow! her heart must be full of sorrow.”
“But what does she want with that axe?”
“It is to defend her wolf,” again replied Matheline, who carried a pitchfork.
Pol Bihan held an enormous hollow stick which resembled a club. Every one was armed either with threshing-flails or rakes or hoes; some even bore scythes, carried upright; for they had not only come to look on, but to make an end of the man-wolf.
Again was heard the chime of the matin-bells of the convent of Ruiz, and immediately a smothered cry ran from group to group,—
“Wolf! wolf! wolf!”
Josserande heard it, for she paused in her descent and cast an anxious look around; but, seeing no one, she raised her eyes to heaven and clasped her hands over the handle of her axe.
The wolf, in the meantime, with fuming nostrils and eyes which looked like burning coals, leaped over the stones of the enclosure and began to run around the circle.
“See, see!” said Pol Bihan; “he no longer limps.” And Matheline, dazzled by the red light from his eyes, added: “It seems he is no longer one-eyed!”
Pol brandished his club, and continued,—
“What are we waiting for? Why not attack him?”
“Go you first,” said the men.
“I caught cold the other day, and my leg is stiff, which keeps me from running,” answered Pol.
“Then I will go first!” cried Matheline, raising her pitchfork. “I will soon show how I hate the wretch!”
Dame Josserande heard her, and sighed,—
“Girl, whom I blessed in baptism, may God keep me from cursing you now!”
This Matheline, whose pearls were worth nothing, was no coward; for she carried out her words, and marched straight up to the wolf, while Bihan stayed behind and cried,—
“Go, go, my friends; don’t be afraid! Ah! but for my stiff leg, I would soon finish the wolf, for I am the strongest and bravest.”
Round and round the circle galloped the wolf as quickly as a hunted stag; his eyes darted fire, his tongue was hanging from his mouth. Josserande, seeing the danger that threatened him, wept and cried out,—
“O Bretons! is there among you all not one kind soul to defend the widow’s son in the hour when he bitterly expiates his sin?”
“Let us alone, godmother,” boldly replied Matheline.
And from afar Pol Bihan added: “Don’t listen to the old woman; go!”
But another voice was heard in answer to Dame Josserande’s appeal, and it said,—
“As last night, we are here!”
Standing in front of Matheline and barring the passage were two ragged beggars, with their wallets, leaning upon their staffs. Josserande recognized the two poor men who had so charitably aided her the night before; and one of them, who had snow-white hair and beard, said,—
“My brethren, why do you interfere in this? God rewards and punishes. This poor man-wolf is not a damned soul, but one expiating a great crime. Leave justice to God, if you do not wish some great misfortune to happen to you.”
And Josserande, who was kneeling down, said imploringly,—
“Listen, listen to the saint!”
But from behind, Pol Bihan cried out,—
“Since when have beggars been allowed to preach sermons? Ah! if it were not for my stiff leg…. Kill him, kill him!… wolf! wolf!”
“Wolf! wolf!” repeated Matheline, who tried to drive off the old beggar with her pitchfork. But the fork broke like glass in her hands as it touched the poor man’s tatters, and at the same time twenty voices cried,—
“The wolf! the wolf! Where has the wolf gone?”
Soon it was seen where the wolf had gone. A black mass dashed through the crowd, and Pol Bihan uttered a horrible cry,—
“Help! help! Matheline!”
You have often heard the noise made by a dog when crunching a bone. This was the noise they heard, but louder, as though there were many dogs crunching many bones. And a strange voice, like the growling of a wolf, said,—
“The strength of a man is a dainty morsel for a wolf to eat. Bihan, traitor, I eat your strength!”
The black mass again bounded through the terrified crowd, his bloody tongue hanging from his mouth, his eyes darting fire.
This time it was from Matheline that a scream still more horrible than that of Pol’s was heard; and again there was the noise of another terrible feast, and the voice of the wild beast, which had already spoken, growled,—
“The pearls of a smile make a dainty morsel for a wolf to eat. Matheline, serpent that stung my heart, seek for your beauty. I have eaten it!”
The white-haired beggar had endeavored to protect Matheline against the wolf, but he was very old, and his limbs would not move as quickly as his heart. He only succeeded in throwing down the wolf. It fell at Josserande’s feet and licked her knees, uttering doleful moans. But the people, who had come thither for entertainment, were not well pleased with what had happened. There was now abundance of light, as men with torches had arrived from the abbey in search of Gildas the Wise, whose cell had been found empty at the hour of Compline.
The glare from the torches shone upon two hideous wounds made by the wolf, who had devoured Matheline’s beauty and Pol’s strength,—that is to say, the face of the one and the arms of the other—flesh and bones. It was frightful to behold. The women wept while looking at the repulsive, bleeding mass which had been Matheline’s smiling face; the men sought in the double bloody gaps some traces of Pol’s arms, for the powerful muscles, the glory of the athletic games; and every heart was filled with wrath.
And the legend says that the tenant of Coat-Dor, Matheline’s poor father, knelt beside his daughter and felt around in the blood for the scattered pearls, which were now as red as holly-berries.
“Alas!” said he, “of these dead, stained things, which when living were so beautiful, which were admired and envied and loved, I was so proud and happy.”
Alas! indeed, alas! Perhaps it was not the girl’s fault that her heart was no larger than a little bird’s; and yet for this defect was not Matheline cruelly punished?
“Death to the wolf! death to the wolf! death to the wolf!”
From all sides was this cry heard, and brandishing pitchforks, cudgels, ploughshares, and mallets, came rushing the people towards the wolf, who still lay panting, with open jaws and pendent tongue, at the feet of Dame Josserande.
Around them the torch-bearers formed a circle: not to throw light upon the wolf and Dame Josserande, but to render homage to the white-haired beggar, in whom, as though the scales had suddenly fallen from their eyes, every one recognized the Grand Abbot of Ruiz, Gildas the Wise.
The grand abbot raised his hand, and the armed crowd’s eager advance was checked, as if their feet had been nailed to the ground. Calmly he surveyed them, blessed them, and said,—
“Christians, the wolf did wrong to punish, for chastisement belongs to God alone; therefore the wolf’s fault should not be punished by you. In whom resides the power of God? In the holy authority of fathers and mothers. So here is my penitent Josserande, who will rightfully judge the wolf and punish him; she is his mother.”
When Gildas the Wise ceased speaking, you could have heard a mouse run across the heath. Each one thought to himself: “So the wolf is really Sylvestre Ker.” But not a word was uttered, and all looked at Dame Josserande’s axe, which glistened in the moonlight.
Josserande’s heart sank within her, and she murmured,—
“My beloved one, my beloved one, whom I have borne in my arms and nourished with my milk,—ah! me, can the Lord God inflict this cruel martyrdom upon me?”
No one replied, not even Gildas the Wise, who silently adjured the All-Powerful, and recalled to Him the sacrifice of Abraham.
Josserande raised her axe, but she had the misfortune to look at the wolf, who fixed his eyes, full of tears, upon her, and the axe fell from her hands.
It was the wolf who picked it up, and when he gave it back to her, he said,—
“I weep for you, my mother.”
“Strike!” cried the crowd; for what remained of Pol and Matheline uttered terrible groans. “Strike! strike!”
While Josserande again seized her axe, the grand abbot had time to say,—
“Do not complain, you two unhappy ones; for your suffering here below changes your hell into heaven.”
Three times Josserande raised the axe, three times she let it fall without striking; but at last she said, in a hoarse tone that sounded like a death-rattle, “I have great faith in the good God!” and then she struck boldly, for the wolf’s head split in two halves.
A sudden wind extinguished the torches, and some one prevented Dame Josserande from falling, as she sank fainting to the ground, by supporting her in his arms.
By the light of the halo which shone around the blessed head of Gildas the Wise, the good people saw that this somebody was the young tenant, Sylvestre Ker, no longer lame and one-eyed, but with two straight legs and two perfect eyes.
At the same time there were heard voices in the clouds chanting. And why? Because heaven and earth quivered with emotion at witnessing this supreme act of faith soaring from the depth of anguish in a mother’s heart.
This is the legend that for many centuries has been related at Christmas-time on the shores of the Petite-Mer, which, in the Breton tongue, is called Armor bihan, the Celtic name of Brittany.
If you ask what moral these good people draw from this strange story, I will answer that it contains a basketful. Pol and Matheline, condemned to walk around the Basin of the Pagans until the end of time,—one without arms, the other without a face,—offer a severe lesson to those who are too proud of their broad shoulders and brute force, and gossiping flirts of girls with smiling faces and wicked hearts; the case of Sylvestre Ker teaches young men not to listen to the demon of money; the blow of Josserande’s axe shows the miraculous power of faith.
Still further, that you may bind together these diverse morals in one, here is a proverb which is current in the province: “Never stoop to pick up the pearls of a smile.” After this, ask me no more.
As to the authenticity of the story, I have already said that the chestnut-grove belongs to the mayor’s nephew, which is one guarantee; and I will add that the spot is called Sylvestre-ker, and that the ruins hung with moss have no other name than “The Wolf Tower.”