Country of culture, fertile valleys, green pastures, rivers full of fish, the Cotentin, this Tempé of France, this lush and stirred land, has nevertheless, like Brittany, its neighbor, the poor broom, of these parts barren and bare, where man passes and nothing comes, except a rare grass and a few heather, soon withered. These gaps in culture, these places empty of vegetation, these bald heads, so to speak, usually form a[Pg 10] striking contrast with the land that surrounds them. They are arid oases in these cultivated countries, just as there are green oases in the sands of the desert. They throw into these fresh, laughing and fruitful landscapes sudden interruptions of melancholy, anxious airs, severe aspects. They shade them with a darker shade … Generally these moors have a fairly narrow horizon. The traveler, on entering them, looks over them with a glance, and sees their limit. From everywhere, the hedges of plowed fields circumscribe them. But if, by exception, we find them of a vast breadth of circuit, we cannot say the effect they produce on the imagination of those who pass through them, with what bizarre and profound charm they seize the eyes and the heart. Who does not know the charm of the moors? … There is perhaps only the maritime landscapes, the sea and its shores, which have such an expressive character and which move you more. They are like the shreds, left on the ground, of a primitive and savage poetry that the hand and the harrow of man have torn. Sacred rags which will disappear on the first day under the breath of modern industrialism; because our time, crudely materialistic and utilitarian, has for claim to make disappear all kind of wasteland and brushwood as well from the globe as from the soul Sacred rags which will disappear on the first day under the breath of modern industrialism; because our time, crudely materialistic and utilitarian, has for claim to make disappear all kind of wasteland and undergrowth as well of the globe as of the soul Sacred rags which will disappear on the first day under the breath of modern industrialism; because our time, crudely materialistic and utilitarian, has for claim to make disappear all kind of wasteland and brushwood as well from the globe as from the soul[Pg 11] human. Enslaved to the ideas of report, society, this old housewife who has nothing more young than her needs and who rambles with her enlightenment, does not understand the divine ignorance of the mind, this poetry of the soul, any more than she does. she wants to exchange for unfortunate knowledge which is always incomplete, which she does not admit the poetry of the eyes, hidden and visible under the apparent uselessness of things. As long as this frightful movement of modern thought continues, we will no longer have, in a few years, a poor piece of moor where the imagination can put its foot to dream, like the heron on one of its legs. So, under this reign of the thick genius of the physical ease that we take for civilization and progress, there will be no ruins, no beggars, no wasteland,
It was this double poetry of the lack of culture of the soil and the ignorance of those who haunted it, that we still found, a few years ago, in the wild and famous moor of Lessay. Those who have passed by then could attest to it. Placed between La Haie-du-Puits and Coutances, this Norman desert where you did not meet any trees, houses, hedges or traces[Pg 12] of man or beast than those of the passer-by or of the morning flock in the dust, if it was dry, or in the soggy clay of the path, if it had rained, displayed a grandeur of loneliness and desolate sadness that ‘it was not easy to forget. The moor, it was said, was seven leagues around. What is certain is that, to cross it, in a straight line, a man on horseback, and well mounted, needed more than a couple of hours. In the opinion of the whole country, it was a dreadful passage. When from Saint-Sauveur-le-Vicomte, this pretty town like a Scottish village and which saw du Guesclin defend its keep against the English, or from the coast of the peninsula, we were dealing with Coutances and that, for to arrive faster, we wanted to take the crossing, because the departmental road and the public cars were not on this side, we joined together several to cross the terrible moor; and it was such a custom, that people cited for a long time as reckless, in the parishes, the men, in very small numbers, it is true, who had spent alone at Lessay, night or day.
There was vaguely talk of assassinations that had been committed there at other times. And really such a place lent itself to such traditions. It would have been difficult to choose a more convenient place to rob a traveler or to[Pg 13] dispatch an enemy. The expanse, in front of and around you, was so considerable and so clear that you could discover from a great distance, to avoid or flee from them, the people who could have come to the aid of the people attacked by the bandits of these areas. , and, in the night, such a vast silence would have devoured all the cries that one would have uttered in her bosom. But that was not all.
If we are to believe the stories of the carters who lingered there, the Lessay moor was the scene of the most singular appearances. In the language of the country, he came back to it . For these muscular, brave and prudent populations, who arm themselves with precautions and courage against a tangible and certain danger, this was the truly sinister and threatening side of the moor, for the imagination will continue to be, of here a long time, the most powerful reality that there is in the life of the men. So that alone, much more than the idea of a nocturnal attack, made the ash tree tremble in the hand of the most vigorous fellow who ventured to pass Lessay at dusk. Especially if he had had fun around Red Bull , a rather bad-looking cabaret that stood, without any neighborhood, on the bare horizon, near Coutances, there was no doubt that the friend saw in the[Pg 14] the fog of his brain and the trembling lines of these solitary spaces, clouds of evening vapors or white with dew, of those things which, the next day, in his stories, were to add to the fearful fame of these deserted places. One of the most inexhaustible sources of bad noise, as they said, who ran on Lessay and the surroundings, it was an old abbey, which the revolution of 1789 had destroyed, and which, rich and famous, was known for thirty leagues around under the name of the abbey from Blanchelande. Founded in the twelfth century by the favorite of Henry II, King of England, Normand Richard de la Haye, and by his wife Mathilde de Vernon, this abbey, close to Lessay and whose ruins could still be seen a few years ago , once stood in a spacious valley, shallow, enclosed by woods, between the parishes of Varenguebec, Lithaire and Neufmesnil. The monks, who had always lived there, were of these powerful canons of the order of Saint-Norbert, who were more commonly called Premonstratensian. As for the name so picturesque, so poetic and almost virginal of the abbey of Blanchelande – the name, that last sigh which remains of things! – the antique dealers do not give it, alas! than the most uncertain etymologies. Did it come from that the lands which[Pg 15] surrounding the abbey had for background a pale clay, or the white clothes of the canons, or canvases which were to become the linen of the community, and which were spread around the abbey, on the grounds which were the dependences, to whiten them in the night dew? Whatever the case may be in this regard, if we were to believe the irreverent chronicles of the region, the monastery of Blanchelande had never had a virginal other than its name. It was whispered that some terrible scenes had taken place there a few years before the revolution broke out. What credence could one give to such stories? Why should the enemies of the Church, who needed motives to destroy religious monuments of another age, not begin to demolish through slander what they had to finish with the ax and the hammer? Or indeed, in these times when faith was weakening in the aged hearts of peoples, had unbelief really caused corruption to germinate in these asylums consecrated to the most holy virtues? Who knew? No one. But still it is that, false or true, these alleged scandals at the foot of the altars, these excesses hidden by the cloister, these sacrileges that God had finally punished by a social shock more terrible than the lightning of his clouds, had left, in rightly or wrongly, a trail[Pg 16] of stories in the memory of the populations, eager to welcome also, by a double instinct of human nature, all that is criminal, depraved, fatal, and all that is marvelous.
A few years ago, I was traveling in these parts of which I wanted so much to make understand the striking aspect to the reader. I was coming back from Coutances, a dreary town, although episcopal, with damp and narrow streets, where I had been obliged to spend several days, and which had perhaps predisposed me to the deep impressions of the landscape I was traversing. My soul then harmonized perfectly with all that smacked of isolation and sadness. It was October, that ripe season, which falls into the basket of Time like a cluster of gold bruised by its fall, and although I am not of a dreamy nature, I fully enjoyed these last and touching beautiful days of year when melancholy has its intoxications. I was interested in all the road accidents that I followed. I traveled on horseback, like crossroad runners. As I did not hate moonlight and adventure, as a worthy son of the Chouans, my ancestors, I was armed as much as Surcouf the privateer, from whom I had just left the city, and I could hardly see the night fall. sure[Pg 17] my coat! However, just a few minutes before the dog and wolf, which comes very quickly, as everyone knows, in the autumn season, I found myself opposite the cabaret du Taureau rouge., which was red only the ocher color of its shutters, and which, placed at the edge of the Lessay moor, seemed, on this side, to guard the entrance. Stranger, although from the country, which I had long abandoned, but passing for the first time in these moors, flat like a sea of land, where sometimes the men who roam them usually get lost when night has come, or, at least, have great difficulty in keeping to their path, I thought it prudent to orient myself before embarking on the treacherous expanse, and to ask for some information on the path I should follow. I therefore directed my horse towards the house of frail appearance which I had just reached, and whose door, surmounted by a large plug of withered thorns, let through the sound of some harsh voices probably belonging to people who were drinking and chatting in the interior of the house. The oblique setting sun, twice as sad as usual, for it marked two declines, that of the day and that of the year, tinged with an anxious yellow this cottage brown as a sepia, and whose fireplace half-collapsed sent dreamily[Pg 18] towards the calm sky the thin and small blue smoke of those peat fires which the poor people cover with cabbage leaves, to slow down their too rapid consumption. I had seen from afar a little girl in rags, who was throwing alfalfa at a cow tied by a straw rope braided to the bracing of the cabaret, and I asked her, as I approached her, what I was doing. wanted to know. But the lovely child did not see fit to answer me, or perhaps she did not understand me, for she looked at me with two large gray eyes, calm and mute like two steel discs, and, showing me the heel of her bare feet, she walked into the house, twisting her tow-colored bun over her head, from which it had come loose as I spoke to her. whoever I wanted , in a drawling, snarling voice.
And I, as I knew I was in Normandy, the land of the land where one hears the best things of practical life, and where the politics of interests dominate everything at all levels, I tell him to give a good measure oats to my horse and sprinkle it with a pint of[Pg 19] cider, and that afterwards I would explain to him better what I had to ask him. The old woman obeyed with the speed of excited interest. Her reluctant, dull face began to shine like one of the big bucks she was going to earn. She brought the oats in a sort of wooden trough, mounted on three lame legs; but she did not understand that the cider, made for a Christian , was the baton of an anima. So I was obliged to repeat the order to bring me the pint I had requested, and I poured it over the oats which filled the manger, apparently to her scandal, for she slammed one against the other his two broad, brown hands, like two beaters that would have stayed a long time in the water of a ditch, and murmured I don’t know what in a dialect whose obscurity perhaps hid insolence.
-Well! mother, I said to her, watching my horse eat, you are going to tell me now which way I must follow to reach La Haie-du-Puits in the night and without losing my way.
Then she stretched out her dry arm, and, showing me the line to follow, she gave me one of those complicated, unintelligible explanations in which the sly malice of the peasant, who foresees the embarrassments of others and who does not gausse[Pg 20] in advance, mingles with the absence of clarity which distinguishes coarse and naturally enveloped minds from low-class people.
I hadn’t understood anything she was telling me. So I was preparing, while bridling my horse, to make her repeat and clarify her unfortunate explanation, when, realizing an expedient which animated her face like a discovery, she turned on the heel of her shod hooves, and s ‘cried in a shrill voice, halfway entering the cabaret:
-Hey! Master Tainnebouy, here’s a mônsieu who asks for the quemin de la Haie-du-Puits, and who, if you come, will go as and you !
On my word, I didn’t care too much about the companion she gave me with her private authority. The Red Bull was ill-famed, and the old woman’s air was not very reassuring. If it was, as we said, an asylum for funny people of all kinds, for all vagabonds without confession, that this tavern, which seemed to have been built by the devil who became a mason for the accomplishment of some fatal design, we would find natural that I hardly incline to receive from the hand of the queen of this hovel a guide or a companion for my journey in this dangerous moor which it was necessary to cross and which the night would soon cover.
But these reflections, which passed in less time in my brain than I take to express them, did not keep, despite the darkening hour, the miserable reputation of the Red Bull.and the grim look of her hostess, against the presence of the man she had called and who came to me from inside the house, showing to my pleasantly surprised sight one of those rich-looking fellows, which do not need a certificate of good life and morals, issued by a parish priest or by a mayor, because God has written them a magnificent one and readable in all the lines of their person. As soon as I looked him over, my defiant thoughts flew away like a cloud of crows suddenly unearthed from an old castle by a merry rifle shot fired in the distance across the plain. I saw immediately what kind of man I was dealing with. He seemed to have all the qualities necessary for the passage of the moor, that is to say, in short,
He was a man of about forty-five, built in strength, as they say energetically in the country, for such men are buildings, one of those virile beings, with a bold countenance, with a frank and firm look, who make you think[Pg 22] that after all, the male of the female also has her kind of beauty. He was about five feet four inches tall, but never the refrain of the old Norman song:
It is in the English Channel
That we find the right arm,
had found no happier and more complete application. It seemed to me at first glance, and what followed proved to me that I was not mistaken, of a well-to-do farmer from the peninsula, who was returning from some nearby market. . With the exception of the hat with a tank cover , which he had replaced by a hat with narrower brim and more convenient for trotting on horseback against the wind, he had the costume that the Cotentin peasants still wore in my youth: the round jacket of blue druggist, cut like that of the majoSpanish, but less elegant and fuller, and the short breeches, the color of sheep’s wool, as tight as suede breeches, and fixed at the knee with three copper buttons. And it must be said, since he did not think about it, this sort of clothing suited him really well, and designed a musculature of which the man least concerned with his advantages would have had the right to be proud. He had passed, over his blue ribbed woolen stockings, stretched out over the calves[Pg 23] heart, those old footless boots that went down from the knee to the ankle and into which one entered with one’s shoes. These old boots, which had only one spur, and which we left in the stable with his horse, when we arrived, were, on the legs of our Cotentinais, covered with a dried mud which studded with mud. fresh, and they said enough that they had seen a way, and a bad way, that day. Mud also soiled to a great height the club of the ash tree foot which he held in his hand, and which a leather thong, forming a whip, fastened to his solid wrist, in numerous coils.
“I have never,” he said to me with his native accent and simple, cordial politeness, “refused a good companion when God sent him on my way. He lifted his hat slightly and put it back on his strong brown head, whose thick, straight hair, cut squarely and marked with the scissors of the frater who had chopped it with an unskilful hand, fell to his shoulders, around him. a Herculean neck, barely tied by a tie that made only one turn, like sailors. Old Mere Giguet said, sir, that you are going to La Haie-du-Puits, where I am also going for the fair of tomorrow. As I don’t have[Pg 24] oxen to lead, for you have too ardent a horse to follow a herd of oxen calmly, I can, if you find it good, make the journey together and we go chatting, boot to boot, like honest people, and , with all due respect, a pair of friends. The Whiteis not so tired, the poor beast, that it cannot play the part of your horse well. I know her. She has self-esteem like a person. With your horse, she will sniff nicely! The moor is bad, and, if it is like last night, in the moors of Muneville and Montsurvent, the fog will take us long before we are out of it. I think that a stranger, as you seem to be, would not be able to pull himself out of such a step and could well seek his way again tomorrow morning at sunrise, that is to say say in the middle of the morning, because the sun begins to be late in this late season.
I thanked him for his politeness and accepted his offer wholeheartedly. There was something in the man’s manner, the voice, the look of this man which attracted and which would have forced confidence. Although he was Norman, his shrewd face was not cunning. It was almost as black as a piece of buckwheat bread; but, tanned as he was by the sun and fatigue,[Pg 25] he also had the colors of health and strength. He breathed the daring security of a man always up and down, as he was by the fact of his occupations and his trade, and who, like the knights of old, should not count, to get out of good embarrassments and many difficulties, only on his vigor and his personal bravery.
The accent of his country, which I said he had, was not pronounced and almost barbaric like that of the old hostess of the Red Bull. He was what he must have been in the mouth of a man who, like him, traveled and haunted the cities … Only, this accent gave what he said a taste of the land, and he was doing so well. to the whole of his life and of his person, that if he hadn’t had it, he would have missed something. I told him frankly how happy I considered myself to have him as a traveling companion. circle of bluish vapors which had been dancing on the horizon since the setting sun had carried away the last crimson reflections which it left behind in the sky. long time.
“It’s the truth,” he said. It’s time to thread our knot, as the sailors say. La Blanche has eaten her tremaine, and I’ll be with you in a minute . Mother Giguet, “he resumed in her strong, imperious voice,” how much the Blanche and I owe you?
I saw him plunge his hand into a leather belt with pockets, such as the pastures of the valley of Auge wear, and he paid what he owed the hostess, standing on the threshold watching us. He went to fetch his Blanche , as he called her, and who was worthy of his name, for she was a beautiful mare as white as a milk bowl, with pink nostrils, and who, muddy up to the cinch, was all the more worthy of his very filthy rider. She was eating her tremaine , as he had said, attached to an iron ring embedded in the gable of the tavern. Hidden by a corner of the wall, I hadn’t noticed it. Scarcely had she heard her master’s voice when she began to neigh and strike the ground with her hoof with a gaiety which resembled violence.
Master Tainnebouy, since that was the name of my traveling companion, tightened an enormous blue coat, placed in a suitcase on his saddle, bridled his mare and climbed nimbly on her back with the ease of habit and a poise that had does honor to a consummate squire.[Pg 27] I have seen many daredevils in my life but, in my life, I have not seen one that looked like this! Once in the saddle, he hugged the animal he was riding between his thighs and made him cry.
“Here is what will prove to you,” he said to me with the rather savage pride of a son of the Normans of Rollo, “that if we are attacked in our crossing, I am a man to give you, so much only with my ash foot ,” a good helping hand!
Like him, I had paid the hostess of the Red Bull , and I was back on my horse. We took our place as he had said, boot to boot, and we entered this moor of Lessay with its gloomy fame, and which, from the first steps that we took there, especially as we took, at the fall of ‘one fall day, seemed darker than its name.