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
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 Comtés 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 Lozère, but by Dr. Charpentier
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
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
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.
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 Lozère.