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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Washerwomen of Night
By Émile Souvestre (1806–1854)
 
From ‘Le Foyer Breton’

THE BRETONS are children of transgression like the rest, but they love their dead; they pity those who burn in Purgatory, and try to ransom them from the fire of probation. Every Sunday after mass, they pray for their souls on the spot where their poor bodies perished.  1
  It is especially in the black month [November] that they perform this Christian act. When the forerunner of winter comes [All-Saints’ Day], every one thinks of those who have gone to the judgment of God. They have masses said at the altar of the dead, they light candles to them, they confide them to the best saints, they take the little children to their tombs; and after vespers, the rector comes out of church to bless their graves.  2
  It is also upon this night that Christ grants some solace to the dead, and permits them to revisit the homes in which they lived. There are then as many dead in the houses of the living as there are yellow leaves in the rough roads. Therefore true Christians leave the table-cloth spread and the fire lighted, that the dead may take their meals, and warm the limbs stiffened by the cold of cemeteries.  3
  But if there are true adorers of the Virgin and her Son, there are also the children of the Black Angel [the Devil], who forget those who have been nearest their hearts. Wilherm Postik was one of the latter. His father had quitted life without having received absolution; and as the proverb says, “Kadion is always the son of his father.” Therefore he cared only for forbidden pleasures, danced during church-time when he could, and drank during mass with beggarly horse-jockeys. Yet God had not failed to send him warnings. In one year he had seen an ill wind strike his mother, his sisters, and his wife; but he had consoled himself for their deaths by inheriting their property.  4
  The rector vainly warned him in sermon, that he was a subject of scandal to all the parish. Far from correcting Wilherm, this public advice had only the result of making him give up church, as might easily have been foreseen; for it is not by snapping the whip one brings back a runaway horse. So he set about living more as he chose than ever,—as faithless and lawless as a fox in the brush.  5
  Now it happened in that time that the fine days came to an end, and the feast of the dead arrived. All baptized folk put on their mourning-garments, and went to church to pray for the dead; but Wilherm dressed himself in his best, and took the road to the neighboring town.  6
  All the time the others spent in relieving souls in pain, he passed there drinking brandy with the sailors, and singing verses composed by the millers [i.e., coarse songs]. He did this until nearly midnight; and did not think of returning until the others grew weary of wrong-doing. He had an iron constitution for pleasure; and he left the inn the last one, as steady and active as when he had entered.  7
  But his heart was hot with drink. He sang aloud along the road, songs which usually even the boldest would only whisper; he passed the crucifixes without lowering his voice or lifting his hat; and he struck the thickets of broom with his stick right and left, without fear of wounding the souls which fill the ways upon that day.  8
  He thus reached a crossway from which there were two paths to his village. The longer was under the protection of God, while the shorter was haunted by the dead. Many people crossing it by night had heard noises and seen things of which they did not speak, except when with others and within reach of holy-water. But Wilherm feared only thirst; therefore he took the shortest path, where his clogs clattered on the pebbles.  9
  Now the night was moonless; the wind rattled down the leaves, the springs rolled sadly along the bank, the bushes shivered like a man in fear; and in the silence, Wilherm’s steps sounded like those of giants: but nothing frightened him, and he kept on.  10
  As he passed the old ruined manor, he heard the weathercock, which said to him:—  11
  “Go back, go back, go back!”  12
  Wilherm went on his way. He reached the cascade, and the water murmured:—  13
  “Do not pass, do not pass, do not pass!”  14
  He set his foot on the stones polished by the stream, and crossed. As he reached a worm-eaten oak, the wind whistling through the branches repeated:—  15
  “Stay here, stay here, stay here!”  16
  But Wilherm struck the dead tree with his stick, and hurried on.  17
  At last he entered the haunted valley. Midnight sounded from three parishes. Wilherm began to whistle the tune of ‘Marionnik.’ But just as he was whistling the fourth verse, he heard the sound of a cart, and saw it coming towards him covered with a pall.  18
  Wilherm recognized the hearse. It was drawn by six black horses, and driven by the “Ankon” [phantom of death], who held an iron whip and repeated ceaselessly:—  19
  “Turn aside, or I will overturn you.”  20
  Wilherm made way for him without being disconcerted.  21
  “What are you doing here, Paleface?” he demanded boldly.  22
  “I seize and I surprise,” answered the Ankon.  23
  “So you are a robber and a traitor?” went on Wilherm.  24
  “I strike without look or thought.”  25
  “That is, like a fool or a brute. But why are you in such a hurry to-day?”  26
  “I am seeking Wilherm Postik,” answered the phantom, passing by.  27
  The merry Wilherm burst out laughing, and went on.  28
  As he reached the little hedge of blackthorn which led to the washing-place, he saw two women in white who were hanging linen on the bushes.  29
  “Upon my life! here are some girls who are not afraid of the dew,” said he. “Why are you out so late, little doves?”  30
  “We are washing, we are drying, we are sewing,” answered the two women at once.  31
  “But what?” asked the young man.  32
  “The shroud of a dead man who still talks and walks.”  33
  “A dead man! My faith! What is his name?”  34
  “Wilherm Postik.”  35
  The fellow laughed louder than at first, and went on down the rough little path. But as he advanced, he heard more and more distinctly the blows of wooden beetles against the stones; and soon he could see the washerwomen of night pounding their grave-clothes, as they sang the sad refrain:—
  “Unless a Christian our doom can stay,
Until Judgment Day we must wash away;
To the sound of the wind, in the moon’s pale light,
We must wash and wash our grave-clothes white.”
  36
  As soon as they saw the merry fellow, all cried out and ran up to him, offering him their winding-sheets and asking him to wring them out.  37
  “That’s too trifling a service to be refused among friends,” answered Wilherm gayly: “but one at a time, fair washerwomen; a man has only two hands for wringing as well as for embracing.”  38
  Then he set down his stick, and took the end of the shroud which one of the dead women offered him; being careful to twist the same way she did, for he had learned from old people that thus only could he escape being broken to pieces.  39
  But as the shroud was thus turning, behold, the other washerwomen surrounded Wilherm; and he recognized his aunt, his wife, his mother, and his sisters. They all cried, “A thousand curses on him who lets his people burn in hell! A thousand curses!” And they shook their thin hair, lifting their white beetles; and from all the washing-places of the valley, from the moors above, from all the hedges, voices repeated, “A thousand curses! a thousand curses!”  40
  Wilherm, frightened out of his wits, felt his hair standing up on his head. In his dismay, he forgot the precaution he had taken until then, and began to wring the other way. At the very same instant, the shroud pressed his hands like a vise, and he fell crushed by the iron arms of the washerwoman.  41
  At daybreak, while passing the washing-place, a young girl from Henvik named Fantik ar Fur, stopping to put a branch of holly in her pitcher of fresh milk, saw Wilherm stretched on the blue stones. She thought that brandy had overcome him there, and plucking a rush, drew near to waken him; but seeing that he remained motionless, she was frightened, and ran to the village to give the alarm. The people came with the rector, the bell-ringer, and the notary who was also the mayor. The body was lifted and placed on an ox-cart: but every time the blessed candles were lighted they went out, so it was evident that Wilherm Postik had gone to damnation; and his body was placed outside the cemetery, under the stone wall, where dogs and unbelievers rest.  42
 
 
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