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The Database of Ornament

WE were driving along the road from Treguier to Kervanda.
We passed at a smart trot between the hedges topping
an earth wall on each side of the road ; then at the foot of
the steep ascent before Ploumar the horse dropped into
a walk, and the driver jumped down heavily from the box.
He flicked his whip and climbed the incline, stepping
clumsily uphill by the side of the carriage, one hand on the footboard, his eyes
on the ground. After a while he lifted his head, pointed up the road with the
end of the whip, and said—

“The idiot !”

The sun was shining violently upon the undulating surface of the land.
The rises were topped by clumps of meagre trees, with their branches showing
high on the sky as if they had been perched upon stilts. The small fields, cut
up by hedges and stone walls that zigzagged over the slopes, lay in rectangular
patches of vivid greens and yellows, resembling the unskilful daubs of a naive
picture. And the landscape was divided in two by the white streak of a road
stretching in long loops far away, like a river of dust crawling out of the hills on
its way to the sea.

” Here he is,” said the driver, again.

In the long grass bordering the road a face glided past the carriage at the
level of the wheels as we drove slowly by. The imbecile face was red, and the
bullet head with close-cropped hair seemed to lie alone, its chin in the dust.
The body was lost in the bushes growing thick along the bottom of the deep

It was a boy’s face. He might have been sixteen, judging from the size —
perhaps less, perhaps more. Such creatures are forgotten by time, and live
untouched by years till death gathers them up into its compassionate bosom :
the faithful death that never forgets in the press of work the most insignificant
of its children.

“Ah ! There’s another,” said the man, with a certain satisfaction in
his tone, as if he had caught sight of something expected.

12                              THE SAVOY

There was another. That one stood nearly in the middle of the road in
the blaze of sunshine at the end of his own short shadow. And he stood with
hands pushed into the opposite sleeves of his long coat, his head sunk between
the shoulders, all hunched up in the flood of heat. From a distance he had the
aspect of one suffering from intense cold.

“Those are twins,” explained the driver.

The idiot shuffled two paces out of the way and looked at us over his
shoulder when we brushed past him. The glance was unseeing and staring, a
fascinated glance; but he did not turn to look after us. Probably the image
passed before the eyes without leaving any trace on the misshapen brain of the
creature. When we had topped the ascent I looked over the hood. He stood
in the road just where we had left him.

The driver clambered into his seat, clicked his tongue, and we went down
hill. The brake squeaked horribly from time to time. At the foot he eased
off the noisy mechanism and said, turning half round on his box :

“We shall see some more of them by-and-by.”

“More idiots ? How many of them are there, then ?” I asked.

“There ‘s four of them—children of a farmer near Ploumar here. . . . The
parents are dead now,” he added, after a while. “The grandmother lives
on the farm. In the daytime they knock about on this road, and they come
home at dusk along with the cattle. . . . It’s a good farm.”

We saw the other two : a boy and a girl, as the driver said. They were
dressed exactly alike, in shapeless garments with petticoat-like skirts. The
imperfect thing that lived within them moved those beings to howl at us from
the top of the bank, where they sprawled amongst the tough stalks of furze.
Their cropped black heads stuck out from the bright yellow wall of countless
small blossoms. The faces were purple with the strain of yelling ; the voices
sounded blank and cracked like a mechanical imitation of old people’s voices ;
and suddenly ceased when we turned into a lane.

I saw them many times in my wanderings about the country. They lived
on that road, drifting along its length here and there, according to the inexplic-
able impulses of their monstrous darkness. They were an offence to the sun-
shine, a reproach to empty heaven, a blight on the concentrated and purposeful
vigour of the wild landscape. In time the story of their parents shaped itself
before me out of the listless answers to my questions, out of the indifferent
words heard in wayside inns or on the very road those idiots haunted. Some
of it was told by an emaciated and sceptical old fellow with a tremendous whip,
while we trudged together over the sands by the side of a two-wheeled cart

                          THE IDIOTS                                    13

loaded with dripping seaweed. Then at other times other people confirmed
and completed the story : till it stood at last before me, a tale formidable and
simple, as they always are, those disclosures of obscure trials endured by
ignorant hearts.

When he returned from his military service Jean Pierre Bacadou found the
old people very much aged. He remarked with pain that the work of the
farm was not satisfactorily done. The father had not the energy of old days.
The hands did not feel over them the eye of the master. Jean-Pierre noted
with sorrow that the heap of manure in the courtyard before the only entrance
to the house was not so large as it should have been. The fences were out of
repair, and the cattle suffered from neglect. At home the mother was practi-
cally bedridden, and the girls chattered loudly in the big kitchen, unrebuked,
from morning to night. He said to himself: “We must change all this.”
He talked the matter over with his father one evening when the rays of the
setting sun entering the yard between the outhouses ruled the heavy shadows with
luminous streaks. Over the manure heap floated a mist, opal-tinted and odorous,
and the marauding hens would stop in their scratching to examine with
a sudden glance of their round eye the two men, both lean and tall, talking
together in hoarse tones. The old man, all twisted with rheumatism and bowed
with years of work, the younger bony and straight, spoke without gestures in
the indifferent manner of peasants, grave and slow. But before the sun had set
the father had submitted to the sensible arguments of the son. “It is not for
me that I am speaking,” insisted Jean-Pierre. “It is for the land. It’s a pity
to see it badly used. I am not impatient for myself.” The old fellow nodded
over his stick. “I dare say ; I dare say,” he muttered. “You may be right.
Do what you like. It’s the mother that will be pleased.”

The mother was pleased with her daughter-in-law. Jean-Pierre brought
the two-wheeled spring-cart with a rush into the yard. The grey horse
galloped clumsily, and the bride and bridegroom, sitting side by side, were
jerked backwards and forwards by the up and down motion of the shafts, in a
manner regular and brusque. On the road the distanced wedding guests
straggled in pairs and groups. The men advanced with heavy steps, swinging
their idle arms. They were clad in town clothes : jackets cut with clumsy
smartness, hard black hats, immense boots, polished highly. Their women all
in simple black, with white caps and shawls of faded tints folded triangularly
on the back, strolled lightly by their side. In front the violin sang a strident
tune, and the biniou snored and hummed, while the player capered solemnly,
lifting high his heavy clogs. The sombre procession drifted in and out of the

14                              THE SAVOY

narrow lanes, through sunshine and through shade, between fields and hedge-
rows, scaring the little birds that darted away in troops right and left. In the
yard of Bacadou’s farm the dark ribbon wound itself up into a mass of men
and women pushing at the door with cries and greetings. The wedding
dinner was remembered for months. It was a splendid feast in the orchard.
Farmers of considerable means and excellent repute were to be found sleeping
in ditches, all along the road to Treguier, even as late as the afternoon of the
next day. All the countryside participated in the happiness of Jean-Pierre. He
remained sober, and, together with his quiet wife, kept out of the way, letting
father and mother reap their due of honour and thanks. But the next day he
took hold strongly, and the old folks felt a shadow—precursor of the grave—
fall upon them finally. The world is to the young.

When the twins were born there was plenty of room in the house, for the
mother of Jean-Pierre had gone away to dwell under a heavy stone in the
cemetery of Ploumar. On that day, for the first time since his son’s marriage,
the elder Bacadou, neglected by the cackling lot of strange women who
thronged the kitchen, left in the morning his seat under the mantel of the fire-
place, and went into the empty cow-house, shaking his white locks dismally.
Grandsons were all very well, but he wanted his soup at midday. When
shown the babies, he stared at them with a fixed gaze, and muttered some-
thing like : “It’s too much.” Whether he meant too much happiness, or
simply commented upon the number of his descendants, it is impossible to
say. He looked offended—as far as his old wooden face could express any-
thing ; and for days afterwards could be seen, almost any time of the day,
sitting at the gate, with his nose over his knees, a pipe between his gums, and
gathered up into a kind of raging concentrated sulkiness. Once he spoke to
his son, alluding to the newcomers with a groan : “They will quarrel over the
land.” “Don’t bother about that, father,” answered Jean-Pierre, stolidly, and
passed, bent double, towing a recalcitrant cow over his shoulder.

He was happy, and so was Susan, his wife. It was not an ethereal joy
welcoming new souls to struggle, perchance to victory. In fourteen years
both boys would be a help ; and, later on, Jean-Pierre pictured two big sons
striding over the land from patch to patch, wringing tribute from the earth
beloved and fruitful. Susan was happy too, for she did not want to be spoken
of as the unfortunate woman, and now she had children no one could call her
that. Both herself and her husband had seen something of the larger world
—he during the time of his service ; while she had spent a year or so in Paris
with a Breton family ; but had been too home-sick to remain longer away

                          THE IDIOTS                                    15

from the hilly and green country, set in a barren circle of rocks and sands,
where she had been born. She thought that one of the boys ought perhaps
to be a priest, but said nothing to her husband, who was a republican, and
hated the “crows,” as he called the ministers of religion. The christening was
a splendid affair. All the commune came to it, for the Bacadous were rich
and influential, and, now and then, did not mind the expense. The grand-
father had a new coat.

Some months afterwards, one evening when the kitchen had been swept,
and the door locked, Jean-Pierre, looking at the cot, asked his wife : “What’s
the matter with those children ?” And, as if these words, spoken calmly, had
been the portent of misfortune, she answered with a loud wail that must have
been heard across the yard in the pig-sty ; for the pigs (the Bacadous had
the finest pigs in the country), stirred and grunted complainingly in the night.
The husband went on grinding his bread and butter slowly, gazing at the wall,
the soup-plate smoking under his chin. He had returned late from the market,
where he had overheard (not for the first time) whispers behind his back. He
revolved the words in his mind as he drove back. “Simple ! Both of them.
. . . Never any use ! . . . Well ! May be, may be. One must see. Would ask
his wife.” This was her answer. He felt like a blow on his chest, but said
only : “Go, draw me some cider. I am thirsty !”

She went out moaning, an empty jug in her hand. Then he rose, took
up the light, and moved slowly towards the cradle. They slept. He looked
at them sideways, finished his mouthful there, went back heavily, and sat
down before his plate. When his wife returned he never looked up, but
swallowed a couple of spoonfuls noisily, and remarked, in a dull manner :

“When they sleep they are like other people’s children.”

She sat down suddenly on a stool near by, and shook with a silent tempest
of sobs, unable to speak. He finished his meal, and remained idly thrown back
in his chair, his eyes lost amongst the black rafters of the ceiling. Before him
the tallow candle flared red and straight, sending up a slender thread of smoke.
The light lay on the rough, sunburnt skin of his throat ; the sunk cheeks were
like patches of darkness, and his aspect was mournfully stolid, as if he had
ruminated with difficulty endless ideas. Then he said, deliberately :

“We must see . . . consult people. Don’t cry. . . . They won’t be all like
that . . . surely ! We must sleep now.”

After the third child, also a boy, was born, Jean-Pierre went about his
work with tense hopefulness. His lips seemed more narrow, more tightly
compressed than before ; as if for fear of letting the earth he tilled hear the

16                              THE SAVOY

voice of hope that murmured within his breast. He watched the child,
stepping up to the cot with a heavy clang of sabots on the stone floor, and
glanced in, along his shoulder, with that indifference which is like a deformity
of peasant humanity. Like the earth they master and serve, those men, slow
of eye and speech, do not show the inner fire ; so that, at last, it becomes a
question with them as with the earth, what there is in the core : heat, violence,
a force mysterious and terrible—or nothing but a clod, a mass fertile and inert,
cold and unfeeling, ready to bear a crop of plants that sustain life or give death.

The mother watched with other eyes ; listened with otherwise expectant
ears. Under the high hanging shelves supporting great sides of bacon over-
head, her body was busy by the great fireplace, attentive to the pot swinging
on iron gallows, scrubbing the long table where the field hands would sit down
directly to their evening meal. Her mind remained by the cradle, night and
day on the watch, to hope and suffer. That child, like the other two, never
smiled, never stretched its hands to her, never spoke ; never had a glance of
recognition for her in its big black eyes, which could only stare fixedly at any
glitter, but failed hopelessly to follow the brilliance of a sun-ray slipping slowly
along the floor. When the men were at work she spent long days between
her three idiot children and the childish grandfather, who sat grim, angular,
and immovable, with his feet near the warm ashes of the fire. The feeble old
fellow seemed to suspect that there was something wrong with his grandsons.
Only once, moved either by affection or by the sense of proprieties, he attempted
to nurse the youngest. He took the boy up from the floor, clicked his tongue
at him, and essayed a shaky gallop of his bony knees. Then he looked closely
with his misty eyes at the child’s face and deposited him down gently on the
floor again. And he sat, his lean shanks crossed, nodding at the steam
escaping from the cooking-pot with a gaze senile and worried.

Then mute affliction dwelt in Bacadou’s farmhouse, sharing the breath
and the bread of its inhabitants ; and the priest of the Ploumar parish had
great cause for congratulation. He called upon the rich landowner, the Marquis
de Chavanes, on purpose to deliver himself with joyful unction of solemn
platitudes about the inscrutable ways of Providence. In the vast dimness of
the curtained drawing-room, the little man, resembling a black bolster, leaned
towards a couch, his hat on his knees, and gesticulated with a fat hand at the
elongated, gracefully-flowing lines of the clear Parisian toilette from within
which the half-amused, half-bored marquise listened with gracious languor.
He was exulting and humble, proud and awed. The impossible had come to
pass. Jean-Pierre Bacadou, the enraged republican farmer, had been to mass

                          THE IDIOTS                                    17

last Sunday—had proposed to entertain the visiting priests at the next festival
of Ploumar ! It was a triumph for the Church and for the good cause. “I
thought I would come at once to tell Monsieur le Marquis. I know how
anxious he is for the welfare of our country,” declared the priest, wiping his
face. He was asked to stay to dinner.

The Chavanes returning that evening, after seeing their guest to the main
gate of the park, discussed the matter while they strolled in the moonlight,
trailing their elongated shadows up the straight avenue of chestnuts. The
marquis, a royalist of course, had been mayor of the commune that includes
Ploumar, the scattered hamlets of the coast, and the stony islands that fringe the
yellow flatness of the sands. He had felt his position insecure, for there was a
strong republican element in that part of the country; but now the conversion
of Jean-Pierre made him safe. He was very pleased. “You have no idea how
influential those people are,” he explained to his wife. “Now, I am sure, the
next communal election will go all right. I shall be re-elected.” “Your
ambition is perfectly insatiable, Charles,” exclaimed the marquise, gaily. “But,
ma chère amie,” argued the husband, seriously, “it ‘s most important that the
right man should be mayor this year, because of the elections to the Chamber.
If you think it amuses me . . . .”

Jean-Pierre had surrendered to his wife’s mother. Madame Levaille was
a woman of business known and respected within a radius of at least fifteen
miles. Thickset and stout, she was seen about the country, on foot or in an
acquaintance’s cart, perpetually moving, in spite of her fifty-eight years, in
steady pursuit of business. She had houses in all the hamlets, she worked
quarries of granite, she freighted coasters with stone—even traded with the
Channel Islands. She was broad-cheeked, wide-eyed, persuasive in speech :
carrying her point with the placid and invincible obstinacy of an old woman
who knows her own mind. She very seldom slept for two nights together in the
same house ; and the wayside inns were the best places to inquire in as to her
whereabouts. She had either passed, or was expected to pass there at six ; or
somebody, coming in, had seen her in the morning, or expected to meet
her that evening. After the inns that command the roads, the churches were
the buildings she frequented most. Men of liberal opinions would induce small
children to run into sacred edifices to see whether Madame Levaille was there,
and to tell her that so-and-so was in the road waiting to speak to her—about
potatoes, or flour, or stones, or houses ; and she would curtail her devotions,
come out blinking and crossing herself into the sunshine ; ready to discuss
business matters in a calm sensible way across a table in the kitchen of the

18                              THE SAVOY

inn opposite. Latterly she had stayed for a few days several times with her
son-in-law ; arguing against sorrow and misfortune with composed face and
gentle tones. Jean-Pierre felt the convictions imbibed in the regiment torn
out of his breast—not by arguments, but by facts. Striding over his fields he
thought it over. There were three of them. Three ! All alike ! Why ?
Such things did not happen to everybody—to nobody he ever heard of. One
yet—it might pass. But three ! All three. For ever useless, to be fed while
he lived and …. What would become of the land when he died? This
must be seen to. He would sacrifice his convictions. One day he told
his wife :

“See what your God will do for us. Pay for some masses.”

Susan embraced her man. He stood unbending, then turned on his heels
and went out. But afterwards when a black soutane darkened his doorway
he did not object ; even offered some cider himself to the priest. He listened
to the talk meekly ; went to mass between the two women ; accomplished what
the priest called “his religious duties” at Easter. That morning he felt like a
man who had sold his soul. In the afternoon he fought ferociously with
an old friend and neighbour who had remarked that the priests had the best
of it and were going now to eat the priest-eater. He came home dishevelled
and bleeding, and happening to catch sight of his children (they were kept
generally out of the way), cursed and swore incoherently, banging the table.
Susan wept. Madame Levaille sat serenely unmoved. She assured her
daughter that “It will pass ;” and taking up her thick umbrella, departed
in haste to see after a schooner she was going to load with granite from
her quarry.

A year or so afterwards the girl was born. A girl ! Jean-Pierre heard of
it in the fields, and was so upset by the news that he sat down on the boundary
wall and remained there till the evening, instead of going home as he was
urged to do. A girl ! He felt half cheated. However, when he got home he
was partly reconciled to his fate. One could marry her to a good fellow—not
a good for nothing, but to a fellow with some understanding and a good pair
of arms. Besides, the next may be a boy, he thought. Of course they would
be all right. His new credulity knew of no doubt. The ill luck was broken.
He spoke cheerily to his wife. She was also hopeful. Three priests came to
that christening, and Madame Levaille was godmother. The child turned out
an idiot too.

Then on market days Jean-Pierre was seen bargaining bitterly, quarrel-
some and greedy ; then getting drunk with taciturn earnestness ; then driving

                          THE IDIOTS                                    19

home in the dusk at a rate fit for a wedding, but with a face gloomy enough
for a funeral. Sometimes he would insist for his wife to come with him ; and
they would drive in the early morning, shaking side by side on the narrow seat
above the helpless pig, that, with tied legs, grunted a melancholy sigh at every
rut. The morning drives were silent ; but in the evening, coming home, Jean-
Pierre, tipsy, was viciously muttering, and growled at the confounded woman
who could not rear children that were like anybody else’s. Susan, holding on
against the erratic swayings of the cart, pretended not to hear. Once, as they
were driving through Ploumar, some obscure and drunken impulse caused him
to pull up sharply opposite the church. The moon swam amongst light white
clouds. The tombstones gleamed pale under the fretted shadows of the trees
in the churchyard. Even the village dogs slept. Only the nightingales,
awake, spun out the thrill of their song above the silence of graves. Jean-
Pierre said thickly to his wife :

“What do you think is there ?”

He pointed his whip at the tower—in which the big dial of the clock
appeared high in the moonlight like a pallid face without eyes—and getting
out carefully, fell down at once by the wheel. He picked himself up and
climbed one by one the few steps to the iron gate of the churchyard. He put
his face to the bars and called out indistinctly :

“Hey there ! Come out !”

“Jean ! Return ! Return !” entreated his wife in low tones.

He took no notice, and seemed to wait there. The song of nightingales
beat on all sides against the high walls of the church, and flowed back
between stone crosses and flat grey slabs, engraved with words of hope and

“Hey ! Come out !” shouted Jean-Pierre loudly.

The nightingales ceased to sing.

“Nobody?” went on Jean-Pierre. “Nobody there. A swindle of
the crows. That’s what this is. Nobody anywhere. I despise it. Allez !
Houp !”

He shook the gate with all his strength, and the iron bars rattled with
a frightful clanging, like a chain dragged over stone steps. A dog near-by
barked hurriedly. Jean-Pierre staggered back, and after three successive
dashes got into his cart. Susan sat very quiet and still. He said to her with
drunken severity :

“See? Nobody. I’ve been made a fool ! Malheur! Somebody will pay
for it. The next one I see near the house I will lay my whip on . . . on the

20                              THE SAVOY

black spine … I will. I don’t want him in there … he only helps the
carrion crows to rob poor folk. I am a man. . . . We will see if I can’t have
children like anybody else . . . now you mind. . . . They won’t be all . . . all
. . . we see. . . .”

She burst out through the fingers that hid her face :

“Don’t say that, Jean ; don’t say that, my man !”

He struck her a swinging blow on the head with the back of his hand and
knocked her into the bottom of the cart, where she crouched, thrown about
lamentably by every jolt. He drove furiously, standing up, brandishing his
whip, shaking the reins over the grey horse that gallopped ponderously, making
the heavy harness leap upon his broad quarters. The country rang clamorous
in the night with the irritated barking of farm dogs, that followed the rattle of
wheels all along the road. A couple of belated wayfarers had only just time to
step into the ditch. At his own gate he caught the post and was shot out of
the cart head first. The horse went on slowly to the door. At Susan’s
piercing cries the farm hands rushed out. She thought him dead, but he was
only sleeping where he fell, and cursed his men who hastened to him for dis-
turbing his slumbers.

Autumn came. The clouded sky descended low upon the black con-
tours of the hills ; and the dead leaves danced in spiral whirls under naked
trees till the wind, sighing profoundly, laid them to rest in the hollows of bare
valleys. And from morning till night one could see all over the land black
denuded boughs, the boughs gnarled and twisted, as if contorted with pain,
swaying sadly between the wet clouds and the soaked earth. The clear and
gentle streams of summer days rushed discoloured and raging at the stones
that barred the way to the sea, with the fury of madness bent upon suicide.
From horizon to horizon the great road to the sands lay between the hills
in a dull glitter of empty curves, resembling an unnavigable river of mud.

Jean-Pierre went from field to field, moving blurred and tall in the drizzle,
or striding on the crests of rises, lonely and high upon the grey curtain of
drifting clouds, as if he had been pacing along the very edge of the universe.
He looked at the black earth, at the earth mute and promising, at the
mysterious earth doing its work of life in death-like stillness under the veiled
sorrow of the sky. And it seemed to him that to a man worse than childless
there was no promise in the fertility of fields, that from him the earth escaped,
defied him, frowned at him like the clouds, sombre and hurried above his head.
Having to face alone his own fields, he felt the inferiority of man who passes
away before the clod that remains. Must he give up the hope of having by

                          THE IDIOTS                                    21

his side a son who would look at the turncd-up sods with a master’s eye ? A
man that would think as he thought, that would feel as he felt ; a man who
would be part of himself, and yet remain to trample masterfully on that earth
when he was gone ! He thought of some distant relations, and felt savage
enough to curse them aloud. They ! Never ! He turned homewards, going
straight at the roof of his dwelling visible between the enlaced skeletons of
trees. As he swung his legs over the stile a cawing flock of birds settled
slowly on the field ; dropped down, behind his back, noiseless and fluttering,
like flakes of soot.

That day Madame Levaille had gone early in the afternoon to the house
she had near Kervanion. She had to pay some of the men who worked in
her granite quarry there, and she went in good time because her little house
contained a shop where the workmen could spend their wages without the
trouble of going to town. The house stood alone amongst rocks. A lane of
mud and stones ended at the door. The sea-winds coming ashore on Stone-
cutter’s point, fresh from the fierce turmoil of the waves, howled violently at
the unmoved heaps of black boulders holding up steadily short-armed, high
crosses against the tremendous rush of the invisible. In the sweep of gales
the sheltered dwelling stood in a calm resonant and disquieting, like the
calm in the centre of a hurricane. On stormy nights, when the tide was out,
the bay of Fougère, fifty feet below the house, resembled an immense black
pit, from which ascended mutterings and sighs as if the sands down there had
been alive and complaining. At high tide the returning water assaulted the
ledges of rock in short rushes, ending in bursts of livid light and columns of
spray, that flew inland, stinging to death the grass of pastures.

The darkness came from the hills, flowed over the coast, put out the red
fires of sunset, and went on to seaward pursuing the retiring tide. The wind
dropped with the sun, leaving a maddened sea and a devastated sky. The
heavens above the house seemed to be draped in black rags, held up here and
there by pins of fire. Madame Levaille, for this evening the servant of her
own workmen, tried to induce them to depart. “An old woman like me
ought to be in bed at this late hour,” she good-humouredly repeated. The
quarrymen drank, asked for more. They shouted over the table as if they
had been talking across a field. At one end four of them played cards, bang-
ing the wood with their hard knuckles, and swearing at every lead. One sat
with a lost gaze, humming a bar of some song, which he repeated endlessly.
Two others, in a corner, were quarrelling confidentially and fiercely over some
woman, looking close into one another’s eyes as if they had wanted to tear

22                              THE SAVOY

them out, but speaking in whispers that promised violence and murder dis-
creetly, in a venomous sibillation of subdued words. The atmosphere in there
was thick enough to slice with a knife. Three candles burning about the long
room glowed red and dull like sparks expiring in ashes.

The slight click of the iron latch was at that late hour as unexpected and
startling as a thunder-clap. Madame Levaille put down a bottle she held
above a liqueur glass ; the players turned their heads ; the whispered quarrel
ceased ; only the singer, after darting a glance at the door, went on humming
with a stolid face. Susan appeared in the doorway, stepped in, flung the door
to, and put her back against it, saying, half aloud :

“Mother !”

Madame Levaille, taking up the bottle again, said calmly : “Here you are,
my girl. What a state you are in !” The neck of the bottle rang on the rim
of the glass, for the old woman was startled, and the idea that the farm had
caught fire had entered her head. She could think of no other cause for her
daughter’s appearance.

Susan, soaked and muddy, stared the whole length of the room towards
the men at the far end. Her mother asked :

“What has happened ? God guard us from misfortune !”

Susan moved her lips. No sound came. Madame Levaille stepped up to
her daughter, took her by the arm, looked into her face.

“In God’s name,” she said shakily, “what’s the matter ? You have been
rolling in mud. . . . Why did you come ? . . . Where’s Jean ?”

The men had all got up and approached slowly, staring with dull sur-
prise. Madame Levaille jerked her daughter away from the door, swung her
round upon a seat close to the wall. Then she turned fiercely to the men :

“Enough of this ! Out you go—you others ! I close.”

One of them observed, looking down at Susan collapsed on the seat :
“She is—one may say—half dead.”

Madame Levaille flung the door open.

“Get out ! March !” she cried, shaking nervously.

They dropped out into the night, laughing stupidly. Outside, the two
Lotharios broke out into loud shouts. The others tried to soothe them, all
talking at once. The noise went away up the lane with the men, who
staggered together in a tight knot, remonstrating with one another foolishly.

“Speak, Susan. What is it ? Speak !” entreated Madame Levaille, as
soon as the door was shut.

Susan pronounced some incomprehensible words, glaring at the table.

                          THE IDIOTS                                    23

The old woman clapped her hands above her head, let them drop, and stood
looking at her daughter with disconsolate eyes. Her husband had been
“deranged in his head” for a few years before he died, and now she began to
suspect her daughter was going mad. She asked, pressingly :

“Does Jean know where you are ? Where is Jean ?”

Susan pronounced with difficulty :

“He knows … he is dead.”

“What !” cried the old woman. She came up near, and peering at her
daughter, repeated three times : “What do you say ? What do you say ?
What do you say ?”

Susan sat dry-eyed and stony before Madame Levaille, who contemplated
her, feeling a strange sense of inexplicable horror creep into the silence of the
house. She had hardly realized the news, further than to understand that she
had been brought in one short moment face to face with something unexpected
and final. It did not even occur to her to ask for any explanation. She
thought : accident—terrible accident—blood to the head—fell down a trap
door in the loft She remained there, distracted and mute, blinking her
old eyes.

Suddenly, Susan said :

“I have killed him.”

For a moment the mother stood still, almost unbreathing, but with com-
posed face. The next second, she burst out into a shout :
“You miserable madwoman . . . they will cut your neck . . . .”

She fancied the gendarmes entering the house, saying to her : “We want
your daughter ; give her up :” the gendarmes with the severe, hard faces of
men on duty. She knew the brigadier well—an old friend, familiar and
respectful, saying heartily, “To your good health, madame !” before lifting to
his lips the small glass of cognac—out of the special bottle she kept for friends.
And now ! . . . . She was losing her head. She rushed here and there, as if
looking for something urgently needed—gave that up, stood stock still in the
middle of the room, and screamed at her daughter :
“Why? Say! Say! Why?”

The other seemed to leap out of her strange apathy.
“Do you think I am made of stone ?” she shouted back, striding towards
her mother.

“No! It’s impossible” said Madame Levaille, in a convinced

“You go and see, mother,” retorted Susan, looking at her with blazing

24                              THE SAVOY

eyes. “There ‘s no mercy in heaven—no justice. No ! …. I did not know
…. Do you think I have no heart ? Do you think I have never heard people
jeering at me, pitying me, wondering at me ? Do you know how some of them
were calling me ? The mother of idiots—that was my nickname ! And my
children never would know me, never speak to me. They would know
nothing ; neither men—nor God. Haven’t I prayed ! But the Mother of God
herself would not hear me. A mother ! . . . . Who is accursed—I, or the man
who is dead ? Eh ? Tell me. I took care of myself. Do you think I would
defy the anger of God and have my house full of those things—that are worse
than animals who know the hand that feeds them ? Who blasphemed in the
night at the very church door ? Was it I ? …. I only wept and prayed for
mercy …. and I feel the curse at every moment of the day—I see it round
me from morning to night . . . I’ve got to keep them alive— to take care of
my misfortune and shame. And he would come. I begged him and Heaven
for mercy. . . . No ! . . . Then we shall see. . . . He came this evening. I
thought to myself: ‘Ah ! again !’ . . . I had my long scissors. I heard him
shouting. … I saw him near. … I must—must I ? . . . Then take ! . . .
And I struck him in the throat above the breast-bone. … I never heard him
even sigh. … I left him standing. … It was a minute ago. . . . How did
I come here ?”

Madame Levaille shivered. A wave of cold ran down her back, down her
fat arms under her tight sleeves, made her stamp gently where she stood.
Quivers ran over the broad cheeks, across the thin lips, ran amongst the wrinkles
at the corners of her steady old eyes. She stammered :
“You wicked woman— you disgrace me. But there ! You always re-
sembled your father. What do you think will become of you … in the other
world? In this . . . Oh misery!”

She was very hot now. She felt burning inside. She wrung her per-
spiring hands—and suddenly, starting in great haste, began to look for her big
shawl and umbrella, feverishly, never once glancing at her daughter, who stood
in the middle of the room following her with a gaze distracted and cold.

“Nothing worse than in this,” said Susan.

Her mother, umbrella in hand and trailing the shawl over the floor,
groaned profoundly.

“I must go to the priest,” she burst out passionately. “I do not know
whether you even speak the truth ! You are a horrible woman. They will
find you anywhere. You may stay here—or go. There is no room for you in
this world.”

                          THE IDIOTS                                    25

Ready now to depart, she yet wandered aimlessly about the room, putting
the bottles on the shelf, trying to fit with trembling hands the covers on card-
board boxes. Whenever the real sense of what she had heard emerged for a
second from the haze of her thoughts she would fancy that something had
exploded in her brain without, unfortunately, bursting her head to pieces—
which would have been a relief. She blew the candles out one by one without
knowing it, and was horribly startled by the darkness. She fell on a bench
and began to whimper. After a while she ceased, and sat listening to the
breathing of her daughter, whom she could hardly see, still and upright, giving
no other sign of life. She was becoming old rapidly at last, during those
minutes. She spoke in tones unsteady, cut about by the rattle of teeth, like
one shaken by a deadly cold fit of ague.

“I wish you had died little. I will never dare to show my old head in the
sunshine again. There are worse misfortunes than idiot children. I wish you
had been born to me simple—like your own. . . .”

She saw the figure of her daughter pass before the faint and livid clearness
of a window. Then it appeared in the doorway for a second, and the door
swung to with a clang. Madame Levaille, as if awakened by the noise from a
long nightmare, rushed out.

“Susan !” she shouted from the doorstep.

She heard a stone roll a long time down the declivity of the rocky beach
above the sands. She stepped forward cautiously, one hand on the wall of the
house, and peered down into the smooth darkness of the empty bay. Once
again she cried :

“Susan ! You will kill yourself there.”

The stone had taken its last leap in the dark, and she heard nothing now.
A sudden thought seemed to strangle her, and she called no more. She turned
her back upon the black silence of the pit and went up the lane towards
Ploumar, stumbling along with sombre determination, as if she had started on
a desperate journey that would last, perhaps, to the end of her life. A sullen
and periodic clamour of waves rolling over reefs followed her far inland between
the high hedges sheltering the gloomy solitude of the fields.

Susan had run out, swerving sharp to the left at the door, and on the edge
of the slope crouched down behind a boulder. A dislodged stone went
on downwards, rattling as it leaped. When Madame Levaille called out,
Susan could have, by stretching her hand, touched her mother’s skirt, had she
had the courage to move a limb. She saw the old woman go away, and she
remained still, closing her eyes and pressing her side to the hard and rugged

26                              THE SAVOY

surface of the rock. After a while a familiar face with fixed eyes and an open
mouth became visible in the intense obscurity amongst the boulders. She
uttered a low cry and stood up. The face vanished, leaving her to gasp and
shiver alone in the wilderness of stone heaps. But as soon as she had crouched
down again to rest, with her head against the rock, the face returned, came very
near, appeared eager to finish the speech that had been cut short by death, only
a moment ago. She scrambled quickly to her feet and said : “Go away, or I
will do it again.” The thing wavered, swung to the right, to the left. She
moved this way and that, stepped back, fancied herself screaming at it, and was
appalled by the unbroken stillness of the night. She tottered on the brink, felt
the steep declivity under her feet, and rushed down blindly to save herself from
a headlong fall. The shingle seemed to wake up ; the pebbles began to roll
before her, pursued her from above, raced down with her on both sides, rolling
past with an increasing clatter. In the peace of the night the noise grew,
deepening to a rumour, continuous and violent, as if the whole semicircle of the
stony beach had started to tumble down into the bay. Susan’s feet hardly
touched the slope that seemed to run down with her. At the bottom she
stumbled, shot forward, throwing her arms out, and fell heavily. She jumped
up at once and turned swiftly to look back, her clenched hands full of sand she
had clutched in her fall. The face was there, keeping its distance, visible in its
own sheen that made a pale stain in the night. She shouted, “Go away”—
she shouted at it with pain, with fear, with all the rage of that useless stab that
could not keep him quiet, keep him out of her sight. What did he want now ?
He was dead. Dead men have no children. Would he never leave her alone ?
She shrieked at it—waved her outstretched hands. She seemed to feel the
breath of parted lips, and, with a long cry of discouragement, fled across the
level bottom of the bay.

She ran lightly, unaware of any effort of her body. High sharp rocks
that, when the bay is full, show above the glittering plain of blue water like
pointed towers of submerged churches, glided past her, rushing to the land at
a tremendous pace. To the left, in the distance, she could see something
shining : a broad disc of light in which narrow shadows pivoted round the
centre like the spokes of a wheel. She heard a voice calling, “Hey ! There !”
and answered with a wild scream. So, he could call yet ! He was calling
after her to stop. Never ! . . . She tore through the night, past the startled
group of seaweed-gatherers who stood round their lantern paralysed with fear at
the unearthly screech coming from that fleeing shadow. The men leaned on
their pitchforks staring fearfully. A woman fell on her knees, and, crossing

                          THE IDIOTS                                    27

herself, began to pray aloud. A little girl with her ragged skirt full of slimy sea-
weed began to sob despairingly, lugging her soaked burden close to the man who
carried the light. Somebody said : “The thing ran out towards the sea.”
Another voice exclaimed : “And the sea is coming back ! Look at the spread-
ing puddles. Do you hear—you woman—there ! Get up !” Several voices
cried together. “Yes, let us be off! Let the accursed thing go to the sea !”
They moved on, keeping close round the light. Suddenly a man swore loudly.
He would go and see what was the matter. It had been a woman’s voice.
He would go. There were shrill protests from women—but his high form
detached itself from the group and went off running. They sent an unanimous
call of scared voices after him. A word, insulting and mocking, came back,
thrown at them through darkness. A woman moaned. An old man said
gravely : “Such things ought to be left alone.” They went on slower, now
shuffling in the yielding sand and whispering to one another that Millot feared
nothing, having no religion, but that it would end badly some day.

Susan met the incoming tide by the Raven islet and stopped, panting,
with her feet in the water. She heard the murmur and felt the cold caress of
the sea, and, calmer now, could seethe sombre and confused mass of the Raven
on one side and on the other the long white streak of Molène sands that are
left high above the dry bottom of Fougère Bay at every ebb. She turned
round and saw far away, along the starred background of the sky, the ragged
outline of the coast. Above it, nearly facing her, appeared the tower of
Ploumar church ; a slender and tall pyramid shooting up dark and pointed into
the clustered glitter of the stars. She felt strangely calm. She knew where
she was, and began to remember how she came there—and why. She peered
into the smooth obscurity near her. She was alone. There was nothing there ;
nothing near her, either living or dead.

The tide was creeping in quietly, putting out long impatient arms of
strange rivulets that ran towards the land between ridges of sand. Under the
night the pools grew bigger with mysterious rapidity, while the great sea, yet
far off, thundered in a regular rhythm along the indistinct line of the horizon.
Suzan splashed her way back for a few yards without being able to get clear of
the water that murmured tenderly all around and, suddenly, with a spiteful
gurgle, nearly took her off her feet. Her heart thumped with fear. This
place was too big and too empty to die in. To-morrow they would do with
her what they liked. But before she died she must tell them—tell the gentle-
man in black clothes that there are things no woman can bear. She must ex-
plain how it happened. . . . She splashed through a pool, getting wet to the

28                              THE SAVOY

waist, too preoccupied to care. . . . She must explain. “He came in the same
way as ever and said, just so : ‘Do you think I am going to leave the land to
those people from Morbihan that I do not know? Do you? We shall see!
Come along, you creature of mischance !’ And he put his arms out Then,
Messieurs, I said : ‘Before God—never !’ And he said, striding at me with
open palms : ‘There is no God to hold me ! Do you understand, you useless
carcase. I will do what I like.’ And he took me by the shoulders. Then I,
Messieurs, called to God for help, and next minute, while he was shaking me,
I felt my long scissors in my hand. His shirt was unbuttoned, and, by the
candle-light, I saw the hollow of his throat. I cried : ‘Let go !’ He was
crushing my shoulders. He was strong, my man was ! Then I thought : No !
. . . Must I ? . . . Then take !—and I struck in the hollow place. I never saw
him fall. Never ! Never ! . . . Never saw him fall. . . . The old father never
turned his head. He is deaf and childish, gentlemen. . . . Nobody saw him
fall. I ran out. . . . Nobody saw. . . .”

She had been scrambling amongst the boulders of the Raven and now
found herself, all out of breath, standing amongst the heavy shadows of the
rocky islet The Raven is connected with the main land by a natural pier of
immense and slippery stones. She intended to return home that way. Was
he still standing there ? At home. Home ! Four idiots and a corpse. She
must go back and explain. Anybody would understand. . . .

Below her the night or the sea seemed to pronounce distinctly :

“Aha ! I see you at last !”

She started, slipped, fell ; and without attempting to rise, listened, terrified.
She heard heavy breathing, a clatter of wooden clogs. It stopped.

“Where the devil did you pass ?” said an invisible man, hoarsely.

She held her breath. She recognized the voice. She had not seen him fall.
Was he pursuing her there dead, or perhaps . . . alive ?

She lost her head. She cried from the crevice where she lay huddled,
“Never, never !”

“Ah ! You are still there. You led me a fine dance. Wait, my beauty,
I must see how you look after all this. You wait. . . .

Millot was stumbling, laughing, swearing meaninglessly out of pure satis-
faction, pleased with himself for having run down that fly-by-night. “As if
there were such things as ghosts ! Bah ! It took an old African soldier to
show those clodhoppers. . . . But it was curious. Who the devil was she ?”

Susan listened, crouching. He was coming for her, this dead man. There
was no escape. What a noise he made amongst the stones. . . . She saw his

                          THE IDIOTS                                    29

head rise up, then the shoulders. He was tall—her own man ! His long
arms waved about, and it was his own voice sounding a little strange . . .
because of the scissors. She scrambled out quickly, rushed to the edge of
the causeway, and turned round. The man stood still on a high stone, de-
taching himself in dead black on the glitter of the sky.

“Where are you going to ?” he called roughly.

She answered, “Home !” and watched him intensely. He made a striding,
clumsy leap on to another boulder, and stopped again, balancing himself, then
said :

“Ha! ha! Well, I am going with you. It’s the least I can do. Ha!
ha ! ha !”

She stared at him till her eyes seemed to become glowing coals that
burned deep into her brain, and yet she was in mortal fear of making out the
well-known features. Below her the sea lapped softly against the rock with a
splash, continuous and gentle.

The man said, advancing another step :

“I am coming for you. What do you think ?”

She trembled. Coming for her ! There was no escape, no peace, no
hope. She looked round despairingly. Suddenly the whole shadowy coast,
the blurred islets, the heaven itself, swayed about twice, then came to a rest.
She closed her eyes and shouted :

“Can’t you wait till I am dead !”

She was shaken by a furious hate for that shade that pursued her in this
world, unappeased even by death in its longing for an heir that would be like
other people’s children.

“Hey ! What ?” said Millot, keeping his distance prudently. He was
saying to himself : “Lookout! Some lunatic. An accident happens soon.”

She went on, wildly :

“I want to live. To live alone—for a week—for a day. I must explain
to them. … I would tear you to pieces, I would kill you twenty times over
rather than let you touch me while I live. How many times must I kill you
—you blasphemer ! Satan sends you here. I am damned too !”

“Come,” said Millot, alarmed and conciliating. I am perfectly alive ! . . .
Oh, my God !”

She had screamed, “Alive !” and at once vanished before his eyes,
as if the islet itself had swerved aside from under her feet. Millot rushed
forward, and fell flat with his chin over the edge. Far below he saw the water
whitened by her struggles, and heard one shrill cry for help that seemed to

30                              THE SAVOY

dart upwards along the perpendicular face of the rock, and soar past, straight
into the high and impassive heaven.

Madame Levaille sat, dry-eyed, on the short grass of the hill side, with
her thick legs stretched out, and her old feet turned up in their black cloth
shoes. Her clogs stood near by, and further off the umbrella lay on the
withered sward like a weapon dropped from the grasp of a vanquished warrior.
The Marquis of Chavanes, on horseback, one gloved hand on thigh, looked
down at her as she got up laboriously, with groans. On the narrow track of
the seaweed-carts four men were carrying inland Susan’s body on a hand-
barrow, while several others straggled listlessly behind. Madame Levaille
looked after the procession. “Yes, Monsieur le Marquis,” she said dispas-
sionately, in her usual calm tone of a reasonable old woman. “There are
unfortunate people on this earth. I had only one child. Only one ! And
they won’t bury her in consecrated ground !”

Her eyes filled suddenly, and a short shower of tears rolled down the
broad cheeks. She pulled the shawl close about her. The Marquis leaned
slightly over in his saddle, and said :

“It is very sad. You have all my sympathy. I shall speak to the Cure.
She was unquestionably insane, and the fall was accidental. Millot says so
distinctly. Good-day, Madame.”

And he trotted off, thinking to himself: I must get this old woman
appointed guardian of those idiots, and administrator of the farm. It would
be much better than having here one of those other Bacadous, probably a red
republican, corrupting my commune.

                                                                        JOSEPH CONRAD.

MLA citation:

Conrad, Joseph. “The Idiots.” The Savoy vol. 6, October 1896, pp. 11-30. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019.