Mathilde Alanic: Shine! (part twenty-five)
Before the end of a fortnight, the novice tourist found herself at Vannes.
Already childishly delighted by the diversion of the train ride along the smiling valley of the Loire, towards Redon succeeded by a more rugged landscape of dry-spined hills and fields of apple trees heavily fruited, Annie with a sense of well-being inhaled the fresh, crisp air. From her first steps in the old city, she was conquered.
Light through transparent clouds gave to all a captivating charm. What simplicity in the archaic lines, seen from the heights of the Garenne, worthy of Robida’s pencil! The edifices looked arranged as in an old engraving, the mighty cathedral emerging from houses snugged to its apse, the crenellated ramparts commanded by the imperious tower of the Constable.
And in the crooked little lanes, the silhouettes of ancient roofs that met like hooded figures conferring! Then the sunlit expanse of the bay, dotted with its islands of emerald!
But above all Annie loved, with an easy sympathy, the active and self-reliant people who livened the marketplace, the waterfront—and who crowded themselves on Sundays into the forecourts of the churches, in their headdresses of mousseline and large velvet hats.
After two days of wandering, Annie, retracing her steps by tram, disembarked at Elven, the true goal of her excursion.
From the tender that brought her to the village, she had seen the high walls of the fortress of Largouët, made famous by Octave Feuillet. But she hardly thought of The Story of a Poor Young Man. Kerbestous and Alban Le Goël occupied all her attention. As soon as her feet touched earth, she began to educate herself.
Kerbestous was, as foreseen by M. Conan, at the extreme limit of the commune. Roads impossible to extricate led there, where a traveler would certainly lose herself without a guide. But the proprietor of the Soleil d’Or promised to take her by cart the next morning. This agreed, Annie made for the town hall to consult the municipal archives.
The secretary proved intelligent and helpful, speedy in locating the dusty boxes, and searching out parish records escaped from that idiotic devastation of civil strife…a few, the oldest, sat enclosed in the precious leaves of an illuminated antiphonary.
Births, marriages, deaths…
How many lives summarized, long gone from the world, whose traces, glimpsed, fell again into oblivion!
A glorious name she had not expected called attention to itself: that of Descartes, proudly affixed to the record of a baptism. Then were numerous years of short notes mentioning christenings and burials, all followed by the official formula: “The witnesses stated they could not sign.”
After a century and a half, shaky crosses or lines like spindly sticks appeared, rude attempts at a Roman hand, and in the middle of these formless beginnings, the name of Alban Le Goël jumped out, inscribed in a hand as firm and practiced as that of the rector.
Annie trembled, as though this ancestor had risen from the page. His signature witnessed a marriage. Catherine, the sister of Alban, becoming duly wed spouse of Louis Le Filleul, with all rights and prerogatives accorded to notables, the ringing of bells, the dispensations, etc…
“But the answer I want is whether Alban himself was married.”
The registries of this troubled period, with parishes sacked in the war between the Whites and the Blues, held nothing but indications, without sequel. No marriage; and the death of Alban not even mentioned.
Annie waited with impatience for the following day, made restless by the problem confronting her, of Alban’s shadowed fate. At least she would go to this Kerbestous, where he had spent his entire life, and know it for herself.
At seven she climbed the high step of a little cart, harnessed to a surefooted horse. Beyond the village outskirts, the road mounted between embankments shaded by tall elms. The local herds were scattered over the plains, lost in the distance to a bluish fog.
Several kilometers went by, then a lordly avenue opened at a crossroads. Soon, smothered among the leaves, roofs began to show. The cart came to a culvert bridging a ditch, at the base of which sparkled a thread of water.
“The Ars,” said the innkeeper. “And here is the Château de Kerléon. To reach Kerbestous, we’ll have a right turn round the property!”
Annie leaned to see, shivering. What! Had Alban perished in this narrow runlet, this gully? The sight rendered the idea more tragic. If such a death were voluntary, it would need cold and tenacious decision, the suppressing of all instinct to survive… And to have held himself still, waiting the last breath! Was it not more believable to suppose a criminal assault, as M. Conan had imagined?
Her conductor’s commentary, just then, touched on this question. He pointed with his whip through an elegant ironwork gate, to an entry of horseshoe-shaped steps, a castle of balconies and balustrades.
“All that was burned in the Revolution, and rebuilt from the old plans…ha! We’ve known some free-for-alls around here! Nothing like it, when they sold the national goods. My grandfather told me some families did their buying with a mind to make restitution—one better day—to the rightful owners. And then they had to bear for a long time with the other side’s hate, and their backhanded dealing!”
Antiphonary: A book of the Roman Catholic liturgy, containing traditionally-worded prayer responses.
A link to view examples of Breton headdresses: Bonjour from Brittany: An Icon of Brittany
In the French Revolution, the Whites were the royalist side, and the Blues were the Republican (in favor of forming a republic, as opposed to monarchal government) side.
(2021, translation, Stephanie Foster; 1922, Mathilde Alanic, Rayonne!)