The Flax Pounder

The General Hospital, so called because illness, old age, and wretchedness chose it for their meeting place, was an enormous building, covering, like all old constructions, a great deal of space, and lodging a very few people. Before the door was a little pent-roof where, when it was fine, the convalescent, and the able-bodied gathered together. In fact, the hospital did not only house those who were sick; it included also poor folks, handed over to public charity, and even guests who for an insignificant capital lived there in a mean fashion, but without care. All that company used to come, at each ray of the sun, to the shade of the pent-roof, and seat themselves on old straw-bottomed chairs. It was the most lively spot in the little town. As we passed, my friend Guyomar and I, we greeted them and received their greeting: for though we were very young, we were already considered as being in Holy Orders. That seemed natural to us: one thing alone excited our surprise. Although we were too inexperienced to see in it anything that might have been inferred from a knowledge of life, there was among the poor folk at the hospital, one person before whom we never passed without a certain astonishment.

This was an old maid of forty-five, wearing on her head a large hood of a shape impossible to classify. Usually she was almost motionless, with a sombre, distracted air, her eyes lustreless and fixed. When she saw us those dead eyes came to life. She followed us with a strange look, sometimes gentle and sad, sometimes hard and almost ferocious. Turning round, we would find her expression cruel and angry. We looked at each other without comprehension. This interrupted our conversation and threw a cloud over our gaiety. She did not make us precisely afraid. She was considered mad: now, madmen in those days were not treated in the cruel way that administrative custom has invented since. Far from shutting them up, they were allowed to wander about all day. The village of Tréguier had usually a great number of madmen: like all dreamy races, who wear themselves out in the pursuit of an ideal, the Bretons of those parts, when they are not sustained by an energetic will, slip too easily into a state intermediate between drunkenness and madness, which is often only the aberrations of an unsatisfied heart.

The madwoman of the General Hospital spoke to nobody. Nobody gave her a thought; her story was evidently forgotten. She never said a single word to us: but her wild haggard eyes affected us profoundly, disturbed us. I have often thought since of this enigma without being able to explain it. I found the key to it eight years ago when my mother, who had reached the age of eight-five without infirmities, was smitten with a cruel illness which slowly undermined her.

My mother belonged by her sentiments and memories altogether to this old world. She spoke Breton admirably, and knew all the sailors’ proverbs, and a crowd of things that to one in the world knows to- day. Everything in her was knit to the people, and her native wit gave a surprising life to the long stories which she told and which she was almost the only one to remember.

One day the conversation turned on the General Hospital. She told me all its history.

‘And that madwoman,’ I said to her, ‘who was usually sitting under the pent-roof, and who frightened Guyomar and me?’

She thought a moment to recollect of whom I spoke, and went on briskly.

‘Ah, that woman, my son, was the daughter of the flax pounder.’

‘What’s a flax pounder?’

‘I have never told you that story. You see, my boy, that isn’t understood nowadays: it’s a story of too long ago. Since I have come to this parish of yours, there are things I dare not speak of…These country nobility were so respected! I have always considered that they were the real nobles. Ah! if I said that to these Parisians they would laugh. They recognize nothing but their own Paris; I find them fundamentally limited. No, you cannot realize any more how those old country nobles were looked up to, though they were poor.’

She stopped a little while and then went on.

  By PanEris using Melati.

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