Now the road led me on past fields where women were out working, the men meeting, an old dame with rugged face & white cap like a sugar cone, seated in her lip-cart & driving a horse of immense proportions past huts thatched with straw, walled with stone & moss covered. Among these led little lanes in which men, women, boys & girls & infants all stared at the pilgrim…
Bordeaux, September 28, 1870
My head is full of the jumble & Babel which assails my ears incessantly. Parisian French has ceased to be spoken & now uncouth, harsh sounds are heard on every side, poured forth with frightful volubility. Yet if I address them in book French, they immediately reply so that I can understand them & immediately return to their patios.
Possessed with an insane desire to see everything, I came to this little village, or hamlet, filled like all the other towns at present with the garde mobile, in order to visit the Druidic monuments. The distance between the stones, however, & Auray is eight miles & to Loch Maria Ker ten miles, & when one has reached the place it requires two or three miles more of walking or boating to visit them all, so scattered are they & so extensive. Behold me starting off at eight o’clock in the morning while the bell for mass was ringing. This mass is said everywhere for the French army. People were just coming with prayer books in hand, out of the houses. The road led for some distance between gardens completely enclosed by high stone walls, sometimes with a fierce & terrible aspect caused by the bits of glass stuck in the mortar at the top. The stone breakers & ditches, called here “cantonniers,” were just commencing their work for the day. In the forest, woodcutters were lopping off limbs, by no means dropping down trees in the wholesale way we have at home, but here a twig & there a branch. Everywhere the pine trees present this disfigured mutilated appearance. Great wounds on the trunk while atop the foliage is left to grow. Along the Loire, the willow trees are completely trimmed as fast as a new crop has grown & instead of beautiful waving willows there is only a succession of stumps.
Boys & girls now began to drive their little black & white cows to pasture, where little grass grew in the midst of much heath. Great heaps of fertilization showed themselves in the fields around which women in red skirts of diminutive length, barefoot, were working with fork & shovel. Here an old woman was cutting off the tops of potato vines, & yonder men & women were busily putting the potatoes into large sacks. At intervals along the road, old crones sat on the stone wall & watched a cow or black sheep, all the while knitting unceasingly black thunder clouds of stockings, one of the things which make the landscape of Brittany so dark & somber.
A windmill on every little eminence, at present their sails folded & only presenting an array of bare, rough sticks. I had a most curious sight of these from the summit of a hill near Dol. I could count eighteen of these madmen along the seacoast & on the ridge of hills extending around all jollily waving their arms & seeming to be in an ecstasy, sometime two close by each other would turn in opposite directions as if whacking each other in good earnest. It makes me laugh to see these old fellows go at each other in that way, each with a prop to his back. Every little while a crucifix lifted itself up by the wayside on pedestals, all in the coarse stone of the country, sometimes with rude attempts at carving a rough outline of a figure. In this respect, I fancy I find a difference between Normandy & Brittany—for in Normandy, the Calvary as it [is] called or in French “Calvaire” is of wood with a carved image of the same material & sometimes a spear & rod with a sponge at the end crossing below each other, but in Brittany usually only a stone crucifix.
Now I met the postman trudging along with mailbag on his back, or a lip-cart packed with women in white caps, black dresses & red cheeks, who stared vehemently at the stranger. All along the sides of the road, except where cultivated, grew this thorny heath, now become of a dully brown color & the nearer I approached the sea the more this covered the ground. Now & then little dolmens showed themselves. I turned aside to see three & had just got into a field to look at another when I saw a lot of girls leaning against it, which frightened me away. An old priest directed me to a long heath covered mound at the eastern extremity of which was an immense dolmen called “Table des Marchands.” An enormous block of stone formed the roof of a chamber, partially underground. The end of this chamber was formed by a large cone shaped column or boulder, the point of which supported the ends of the roof-boulder. At the opposite side an alley of stones commenced partially roofed & gradually narrowing down. The sides, or “parois,” were stones of a rude, rectangular shape, sometimes almost shapeless, but all destitute of any nicely marked angles. I could easily stand upright in it. The boulder forming the end of the chamber was entirely covered with figures, like pot-hooks, “par example” [an ink sketch is drawn here]. On the roof, a rude hatchet-shaped figure. On the sides, figures called “Caltae,” thus. But one marvel was the immensity of the stone which formed the roof, its underside convex, its upper surface almost perfectly level. The whole was supported on three points. A fragment large enough to make a second dolmen had been removed by some means to the other end of the mound. Very near this were the pieces of a huge Menhir, three facing toward the village, the remaining fragment being at right angles. Each of the pieces were enormous by themselves, when forming a whole one cannot estimate the strength required to lift such a mass into the air. It is the bulk, the mass, the density, combined with its size which impresses so forcibly the spectator. There one gets an idea of weight, of gravity, which is wanting in all polylithic structures. The stones were ten or twelve f[ee]t wide and six feet thick & all together the height over fifty feet. The material is surprising since it differs so much from the common stone or the country. The crystals are very large & the grain very coarse, resembling very much our Concord [Massachusetts] granite.
A gentleman in the cars gave me as his opinion that the stones were brought from Egypt. I should put an emphatic interrogation mark after that sentiment. The guide bade me stand at one end & put my ear to the stone while he tapped lightly on the end with the other & a sound otherwise hardly sensible became thus a clear, ringing note. Nearby were two smaller monuments, a dolmen & broken menhir. The guide then took me to the remains of [a] Roman circus. It was simply a stone wall with square stones on the exterior & where this had broken away, great masses of mortar & tile appeared. Everywhere in this region this tile shows itself sometimes in large fragments, usually in small bits.
The radius of the circus I should judge to have been fifty feet or more, but both that & the height I could not determine because a great part had been broken away by two roads of which it formed the angle & also a graveyard with an ossuary filled up its interior. For I was now in the country of the Veneti & it was in these morasses of the sea that Caesar found such resistance. It was at Vannes, the ancient Dariorlk, that the great sea fight took place. This whole region goes by the name of Mor-Bihan.
After obtaining a drink of cider at a café in the village, I secured two boatmen to row me over to Gavi’ Mnis [Gavrinis], an island about two or three miles away. They pulled hard against the tide, taking a circuitous course among the islands which they told me equaled in number the days of the year. All around, fishing boats, windmills & now retiring into the distance the little town of Loch Maria Ker. A great heap of stones forming a rude mound now arose before us & a little distance from it a farmhouse with apple trees around. The fishermen landed me on the opposite side just in an angle formed by the island & the ebb tide which now shot past on its way to the sea. After obtaining the key from the farmhouse & a stump of a candle & making a vain attempt to get some more cider, we returned to the mound in the side of which we found a little iron door to which several steps descended. This opened, showed a long low, narrow gallery or alley ending in a small square chamber. The floor was made up of rough stones forming in rude, clumsy way an ascent of several steps towards the chamber. The sides were slabs or stones somewhat rectangular & supported a roof of boulders. They were evenly arranged & the surface more regular than I had noticed in the others & all were carved in a most strange way. Generally in the centre would be a series of concentric circles & around the outer ring concentric half circles covering thus the whole surface & scattered here & there sculptures like Celtare—columns of Greek Lambdas, serpent like figures & hatchets visible here & there. On one of the stones, the carvings seemed to take the form of a human skeleton, but perhaps it was only a fancy natural to my underground situation. From one rock projected two handles like those of an urn, formed partly also by cutting out the material behind. As yet no one knows the meaning of these marks or whether they have any meaning at all, but are only decorations of the tomb.
On emerging from this cavern & ascending the summit of the tumulus, a beautiful view disclosed itself. The islands, just separated from each other by narrow strips of sea flowing between, while on some were to be seen other tumuli similar to the one on Gavi’ Mnis. From the open sea, visible in the distance, to all around was the Morbihan where the hardy Veneti had their haunts. Scattered over the calm surface were the rough boats of the fishermen. Little villages were scattered along the shore & the coast gave a comfortable, cozy aspect to the view by its brown heath.
Another pull thro’ the winding channel & we landed at a point of land a short ways from the village where an officer of the coast guard was stationed who must have a look at my passport. Being more easily satisfied than some other officials I have met, he did not detain me long & with the fishermen I went into a café & gave them each a cents worth of cider & plenty at that, which they enjoyed hugely. On my rising to depart they were so moved that they took off their hats & shook hands most cordially, wishing me a hearty “bon voyage.”
On going thro’ the village, I peeped into an ossuary in the old church-yard, a mere rough shed with slats on one side, like a prison house, allowing one to see the little coffin like boxes which contain the bones of those who have died. For the Bretons after a certain time (on one box I made out ten years) open the graves of their relatives, carefully disintegrate them & pack in small boxes which they deposit in a house or shed in the graveyard. Some of them had broken open & on the ground I saw some bones & [a]skull which grinned horribly. You may guess that I enjoyed my dinner that day.
Another trip was taken to Carnac to visit the stone phalanxes there at a distance of about eight miles. There are three eminences & each has its array of Menhirs. I found a ragged little [man] seated in the top of one whom I hired for ten cents to show me the groups. He first led me a long distance thro’ the woods & meadows to a group forming the Eastern extremity. At first very small, with scarcely any regularity, the stones gradually come into line at the same time growing larger & larger until they end in eleven or twelve huge boulders, twelve to eighteen feet high, each forming the head of a column. They form also one side of a rectangle which terminates the group. A tumulus forms the North side & menhirs the remaining sides.
Now retracing our steps, we came to a windmill “moulin a vent,” remarking all the way stones scattered here & there without any order. From the windmill, another group begins to form in the same way. From disorder & from little rocks, lines of mighty stones developing—rudely aiming at a conical shape as it seems, covered with moss & almost looking like some of the old Druids, petrified while marching in solemn procession. Some are fallen as if conquered in the Cadmean strife. There they are arrayed in order, but waiting as if for the return of those who were to guide them, but who have forsaken them. They stand there unable, as it were, to move or to speak, meaning something, but unable or forbidden to reveal it. At the head of this column was a Dolmen.
Crossing now the road between Carnac & Auray, soon another row appeared forming in similar manner & now terminating on a circular enclosure in which little cottages have been erected. The whole distance that we had traversed was about two miles. From this hill or rising ground, one could look back upon the long rows stretching away back over hill & valley & along the meadows, like great stone armies, their arrangement due to no glacier movement, but their bulky parts disposed by men if by main strength then with Titan toil & gigantic strength or if by artificial means then with awls & more of our modern implements.
Alas, among this people, no legend, such as Greece or Rome would have devised, is thrown around these remains. No gods or mighty heroes have people this land. They have never ascended higher than man, and instead of a golden age, nothing remains but these memorials of a hard, stern, cruel, rocky age. Yet on such a coast whose pasture is thorn & heath, where the sea extends its barren surface, extends into all manner of nooks & openings, making mere morsels of land whose whole coast is a graveyard, where fog, rain & terrible winters rule, all sentiment & romance must be washed out, or frozen out. Here stand these monuments, huge [and] hoary with age, the pendant moss bespeaking veneration & reverence, but silent, horribly silent—a silence which repels & terrifies. Is it that they dare not tell of the barbarities & cruelties of their savage antiquity, that of the shadows cast upon their surface by worshippers or revelers, all is too terrible for revelation? No romance, no glowing tale or love or valor, no legend of fairy power or hero’s might. Nothing but rough, shapeless masses on a bleak, gloomy, heath-covered coast. This mystery is not delightful.
But such a jolly time as I have had travelling in Normandy. I visited it just in the right time & obtained the first I could possibly eat & cider. If it does not flow in the streets, it was because such a tremendous absorbent as myself was found. But such landscapes as one finds in Normandy. I spent three days in Rouen & had a glorious time ransacking the churches, towers, museums, old building & all places where anything was ever done or said. It has a most delightful situation on the banks of the Seine, which here becomes a broad stream fitted for larger vessels. Around are high hills forming almost a cup for Rouen. It is easy enough to climb them, by reason of the magnificent roads which ascent by easy grades to the summits. I took one morning the road which leads to the Abbey of Jumieges. It winds along the brow of the hill which slopes toward the river & at every turn in the road, the meadow broad, magnificent, perfectly level, stretching away from the stream, not a fence to be seen upon their surface, but only variegated by the contrasts of the crops & newly plowed earth. The Seine with little islands shown only by heaps of foliage, the banks lined with shrubbery from which arose the tall, graceful popular & settled cozily the little country houses & chateaus, all assume new positions, each [surpassing] the others in beauty. From the summit one could look away into the valley with now the warm tins of its fields. The glitter of the river in the sun with the city for a dark background lifting up its spires & lanterns from St. Owen & the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
Now the road led me on past fields where women were out working, the men meeting, an old dame with rugged face & white cap like a sugar cone, seated in her lip-cart & driving a horse of immense proportions past huts thatched with straw, walled with stone & moss covered. Among these led little lanes in which men, women, boys & girls & infants all stared at the pilgrim. I wish I could adequately describe the glorious walks I have taken, both around Rouen & Caen. In Rouen itself, too, I could have spent weeks. Many boulevards have been made thus sweeping away much that was curious & antique, but a great deal still was left.
One night I had been rambling about the streets when suddenly at nine o’clock the great bell of an ancient tower began to ring the curfew. It sounded strangely to hear that deep solemn sound, repeating its old command to disobedience & forgetful ears. But still it rung in its vehement way as strongly as in the days of old when at its voice every household ceased its occupation & darkness nited thro’ all the village. I almost forgot the present as I stood beneath, in the little narrow land & imagined I shared in it longing for the past when it was not as now an unmeaning custom.
Not far from this tower is the little square in which Joan of Arc was burned. Perhaps it is absurd, but since I have seen so many of the places where she showed forth her mission & since so much of her history is forced upon my attention, I feel something like a superstitious veneration for her & this little neglected square seemed almost like holy ground. The surroundings are not attractive. Old dilapidated buildings around & in the centre a poor statue serving as a fountain for cabmen to water their horses, but one sweeps away all these profanities brings back the infamous scene that was enacted here all of which was yet glorified by her death. It becomes a spot not easy to forget & even a place of pilgrimage.
As Paris is just now shut up, it would be best to direct letters:
Care of Maguay Pakenham & Hooker
Please remember me to your Father & Mother & Brother.
If you can just let me know what Drew is doing. He had about the same questions as to a profession that I had. Just remember [me] to any of the fellows you see.
Sept 28, 1870
En route for Pau, Toulouse, Marseilles & Italie.