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Notre Dame Des Eaux






West of St. Pol de Leon, on the sea-cliffs of Finisterre, stands the
ancient church of Notre Dame des Eaux. Five centuries of beating winds
and sweeping rains have moulded its angles, and worn its carvings and
sculpture down to the very semblance of the ragged cliffs themselves,
until even the Breton fisherman, looking lovingly from his boat as he
makes for the harbor of Morlaix, hardly can say where the crags end, and
where the church begins. The teeth of the winds of the sea have
devoured, bit by bit, the fine sculpture of the doorway and the thin
cusps of the window tracery; gray moss creeps caressingly over the worn
walls in ineffectual protection; gentle vines, turned crabbed by the
harsh beating of the fierce winds, clutch the crumbling buttresses,
climb up over the sinking roof, reach in even at the louvres of the
belfry, holding the little sanctuary safe in desperate arms against the
savage warfare of the sea and sky.

Many a time you may follow the rocky highway from St. Pol even around
the last land of France, and so to Brest, yet never see sign of Notre
Dame des Eaux; for it clings to a cliff somewhat lower than the road,
and between grows a stunted thicket of harsh and ragged trees, their
skeleton white branches, tortured and contorted, thrusting sorrowfully
out of the hard, dark foliage that still grows below, where the rise of
land below the highway gives some protection. You must leave the wood by
the two cottages of yellow stone, about twenty miles beyond St. Pol, and
go down to the right, around the old stone quarry; then, bearing to the
left by the little cliff path, you will, in a moment, see the pointed
roof of the tower of Notre Dame, and, later, come down to the side porch
among the crosses of the arid little graveyard.

It is worth the walk, for though the church has outwardly little but its
sad picturesqueness to repay the artist, within it is a dream and a
delight. A Norman nave of round, red stone piers and arches, a delicate
choir of the richest flamboyant, a High Altar of the time of Francis I.,
form only the mellow background and frame for carven tombs and dark old
pictures, hanging lamps of iron and brass, and black, heavily carved
choir-stalls of the Renaissance.

So has the little church lain unnoticed for many centuries; for the
horrors and follies of the Revolution have never come near, and the
hardy and faithful people of Finisterre have feared God and loved Our
Lady too well to harm her church. For many years it was the church of
the Comtes de Jarleuc; and these are their tombs that mellow year by
year under the warm light of the painted windows, given long ago by
Comte Robert de Jarleuc, when the heir of Poullaouen came safely to
shore in the harbor of Morlaix, having escaped from the Isle of Wight,
where he had lain captive after the awful defeat of the fleet of Charles
of Valois at Sluys. And now the heir of Poullaouen lies in a carven
tomb, forgetful of the world where he fought so nobly: the dynasty he
fought to establish, only a memory; the family he made glorious, a name;
the Chateau Poullaouen a single crag of riven masonry in the fields of
M. du Bois, mayor of Morlaix.

It was Julien, Comte de Bergerac, who rediscovered Notre Dame des Eaux,
and by his picture of its dreamy interior in the Salon of '86 brought
once more into notice this forgotten corner of the world. The next year
a party of painters settled themselves near by, roughing it as best they
could, and in the year following, Mme. de Bergerac and her daughter
Heloise came with Julien, and, buying the old farm of Pontivy, on the
highway over Notre Dame, turned it into a summer house that almost made
amends for their lost chateau on the Dordogne, stolen from them as
virulent Royalists by the triumphant Republic in 1794.

Little by little a summer colony of painters gathered around Pontivy,
and it was not until the spring of 1890 that the peace of the colony was
broken. It was a sorrowful tragedy. Jean d'Yriex, the youngest and
merriest devil of all the jolly crew, became suddenly moody and morose.
At first this was attributed to his undisguised admiration for Mlle.
Heloise, and was looked on as one of the vagaries of boyish passion; but
one day, while riding with M. de Bergerac, he suddenly seized the
bridle of Julien's horse, wrenched it from his hand, and, turning his
own horse's head towards the cliffs, lashed the terrified animals into a
gallop straight towards the brink. He was only thwarted in his mad
object by Julien, who with a quick blow sent him headlong in the dry
grass, and reined in the terrified animals hardly a yard from the
cliffs. When this happened, and no word of explanation was granted, only
a sullen silence that lasted for days, it became clear that poor Jean's
brain was wrong in some way. Heloise devoted herself to him with
infinite patience,--though she felt no special affection for him, only
pity,--and while he was with her he seemed sane and quiet. But at night
some strange mania took possession of him. If he had worked on his Prix
de Rome picture in the daytime, while Heloise sat by him, reading aloud
or singing a little, no matter how good the work, it would have vanished
in the morning, and he would again begin, only to erase his labor during
the night.

At last his growing insanity reached its climax; and one day in Notre
Dame, when he had painted better than usual, he suddenly stopped,
seized a palette knife, and slashed the great canvas in strips. Heloise
sprang forward to stop him, and in crazy fury he turned on her, striking
at her throat with the palette knife. The thin steel snapped, and the
white throat showed only a scarlet scratch. Heloise, without that
ordinary terror that would crush most women, grasped the thin wrists of
the madman, and, though he could easily have wrenched his hands away,
d'Yriex sank on his knees in a passion of tears. He shut himself in his
room at Pontivy, refusing to see any one, walking for hours up and down,
fighting against growing madness. Soon Dr. Charpentier came from Paris,
summoned by Mme. de Bergerac; and after one short, forced interview,
left at once for Paris, taking M. d'Yriex with him.

A few days later came a letter for Mme. de Bergerac, in which Dr.
Charpentier confessed that Jean had disappeared, that he had allowed him
too much liberty, owing to his apparent calmness, and that when the
train stopped at Le Mans he had slipped from him and utterly vanished.

During the summer, word came occasionally that no trace had been found
of the unhappy man, and at last the Pontivy colony realized that the
merry boy was dead. Had he lived he must have been found, for the
exertions of the police were perfect; yet not the slightest trace was
discovered, and his lamentable death was acknowledged, not only by Mme.
de Bergerac and Jean's family,--sorrowing for the death of their
first-born, away in the warm hills of Lozere,--but by Dr. Charpentier as
well.

So the summer passed, and the autumn came, and at last the cold rains of
November--the skirmish line of the advancing army of winter--drove the
colony back to Paris.

It was the last day at Pontivy, and Mlle. Heloise had come down to Notre
Dame for a last look at the beautiful shrine, a last prayer for the
repose of the tortured soul of poor Jean d'Yriex. The rains had ceased
for a time, and a warm stillness lay over the cliffs and on the creeping
sea, swaying and lapping around the ragged shore. Heloise knelt very
long before the Altar of Our Lady of the Waters; and when she finally
rose, could not bring herself to leave as yet that place of sorrowful
beauty, all warm and golden with the last light of the declining sun.
She watched the old verger, Pierre Polou, stumping softly around the
darkening building, and spoke to him once, asking the hour; but he was
very deaf, as well as nearly blind, and he did not answer.

So she sat in the corner of the aisle by the Altar of Our Lady of the
Waters, watching the checkered light fade in the advancing shadows,
dreaming sad day-dreams of the dead summer, until the day-dreams merged
in night-dreams, and she fell asleep.

Then the last light of the early sunset died in the gleaming quarries of
the west window; Pierre Polou stumbled uncertainly through the dusky
shadow, locked the sagging doors of the mouldering south porch, and took
his way among the leaning crosses up to the highway and his little
cottage, a good mile away,--the nearest house to the lonely Church of
Notre Dame des Eaux.

With the setting of the sun great clouds rose swiftly from the sea; the
wind freshened, and the gaunt branches of the weather-worn trees in the
churchyard lashed themselves beseechingly before the coming storm. The
tide turned, and the waters at the foot of the rocks swept uneasily up
the narrow beach and caught at the weary cliffs, their sobbing growing
and deepening to a threatening, solemn roar. Whirls of dead leaves rose
in the churchyard, and threw themselves against the blank windows. The
winter and the night came down together.

Heloise awoke, bewildered and wondering; in a moment she realized the
situation, and without fear or uneasiness. There was nothing to dread in
Notre Dame by night; the ghosts, if there were ghosts, would not trouble
her, and the doors were securely locked. It was foolish of her to fall
asleep, and her mother would be most uneasy at Pontivy if she realized
before dawn that Heloise had not returned. On the other hand, she was in
the habit of wandering off to walk after dinner, often not coming home
until late, so it was quite possible that she might return before Madame
knew of her absence, for Polou came always to unlock the church for the
low mass at six o'clock; so she arose from her cramped position in the
aisle, and walked slowly up to the choir-rail, entered the chancel, and
felt her way to one of the stalls, on the south side, where there were
cushions and an easy back.

It was really very beautiful in Notre Dame by night; she had never
suspected how strange and solemn the little church could be when the
moon shone fitfully through the south windows, now bright and clear, now
blotted out by sweeping clouds. The nave was barred with the long
shadows of the heavy pillars, and when the moon came out she could see
far down almost to the west end. How still it was! Only a soft low
murmur without of the restless limbs of the trees, and of the creeping
sea.

It was very soothing, almost like a song; and Heloise felt sleep coming
back to her as the clouds shut out the moon, and all the church grew
black.

She was drifting off into the last delicious moment of vanishing
consciousness, when she suddenly came fully awake, with a shock that
made every nerve tingle. In the midst of the far faint sounds of the
tempestuous night she had heard a footstep! Yet the church was utterly
empty, she was sure. And again! A footstep dragging and uncertain,
stealthy and cautious, but an unmistakable step, away in the blackest
shadow at the end of the church.

She sat up, frozen with the fear that comes at night and that is
overwhelming, her hands clutching the coarse carving of the arms of the
stall, staring down into the dark.

Again the footstep, and again,--slow, measured, one after another at
intervals of perhaps half a minute, growing a little louder each time, a
little nearer.

Would the darkness never be broken? Would the cloud never pass? Minute
after minute went like weary hours, and still the moon was hid, still
the dead branches rattled clatteringly on the high windows.
Unconsciously she moved, as under a magician's spell, down to the
choir-rail, straining her eyes to pierce the thick night. And the step,
it was very near! Ah, the moon at last! A white ray fell through the
westernmost window, painting a bar of light on the floor of sagging
stone. Then a second bar, then a third, and a fourth, and for a moment
Heloise could have cried out with relief, for nothing broke the lines of
light,--no figure, no shadow. In another moment came a step, and from
the shadow of the last column appeared in the pallid moonlight the
figure of a man. The girl stared breathless, the moonlight falling on
her as she stood rigid against the low parapet. Another step and
another, and she saw before her--was it ghost or living man?--a white
mad face staring from matted hair and beard, a tall thin figure half
clothed in rags, limping as it stepped towards her with wounded feet.
From the dead face stared mad eyes that gleamed like the eyes of a cat,
fixed on hers with insane persistence, holding her, fascinating her as a
cat fascinates a bird.

One more step,--it was close before her now! those awful, luminous eyes
dilating and contracting in awful palpitations. And the moon was going
out; the shadows swept one by one over the windows; she stared at the
moonlit face for a last fascinated glance--Mother of God! it was---- The
shadow swept over them, and now only remained the blazing eyes and the
dim outline of a form that crouched waveringly before her as a cat
crouches, drawing its vibrating body together for the spring that blots
out the life of the victim.

In another instant the mad thing would leap; but just as the quiver
swept over the crouching body, Heloise gathered all her strength into
one action of desperate terror.

"Jean, stop!"

The thing crouched before her paused, chattering softly to itself; then
it articulated dryly, and with all the trouble of a learning child, the
one word, "Chantez!"

Without a thought, Heloise sang; it was the first thing that she
remembered, an old Provencal song that d'Yriex had always loved. While
she sang, the poor mad creature lay huddled at her feet, separated from
her only by the choir parapet, its dilating, contracting eyes never
moving for an instant. As the song died away, came again that awful
tremor, indicative of the coming death-spring, and again she sang,--this
time the old Pange lingua, its sonorous Latin sounding in the deserted
church like the voice of dead centuries.

And so she sang, on and on, hour after hour,--hymns and chansons,
folk-songs and bits from comic operas, songs of the boulevards
alternating with the Tantum ergo and the O Filii et Filiae. It
mattered little what she sang. At last it seemed to her that it mattered
little whether she sang or no; for her brain whirled round and round
like a dizzy maelstrom, her icy hands, griping the hard rail, alone
supported her dying body. She could hear no sound of her song; her body
was numb, her mouth parched, her lips cracked and bleeding; she felt
the drops of blood fall from her chin. And still she sang, with the
yellow palpitating eyes holding her as in a vice. If only she could
continue until dawn! It must be dawn so soon! The windows were growing
gray, the rain lashed outside, she could distinguish the features of the
horror before her; but the night of death was growing with the coming
day, blackness swept down upon her; she could sing no more, her tortured
lips made one last effort to form the words, "Mother of God, save me!"
and night and death came down like a crushing wave.

But her prayer was heard; the dawn had come, and Polou unlocked the
porch-door for Father Augustin just in time to hear the last agonized
cry. The maniac turned in the very act of leaping on his victim, and
sprang for the two men, who stopped in dumb amazement. Poor old Pierre
Polou went down at a blow; but Father Augustin was young and fearless,
and he grappled the mad animal with all his strength and will. It would
have gone ill even with him,--for no one can stand against the bestial
fury of a man in whom reason is dead,--had not some sudden impulse
seized the maniac, who pitched the priest aside with a single movement,
and, leaping through the door, vanished forever.

Did he hurl himself from the cliffs in the cold wet morning, or was he
doomed to wander, a wild beast, until, captured, he beat himself in vain
against the walls of some asylum, an unknown pauper lunatic? None ever
knew.

The colony at Pontivy was blotted out by the dreary tragedy, and Notre
Dame des Eaux sank once more into silence and solitude. Once a year
Father Augustin said mass for the repose of the soul of Jean d'Yriex;
but no other memory remained of the horror that blighted the lives of an
innocent girl and of a gray-haired mother mourning for her dead boy in
far Lozere.





Next: The Dead Valley

Previous: Sister Maddelena



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