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Littell's Living Age/Volume 132/Issue 1700/A Peasant Prometheus



I had once a class-mate in Paris, a medical student, who when he graduated (being a Breton) settled down in what has been called the Land's End of France. He went to live at Commana, a little hamlet in the mountains, near the extremity of that peninsula which breasts the full force of the Atlantic Ocean. His nearest town was Quimper, to which there is now a railroad, but no railroad had been even projected in Brittany in that day.

The country in which he lived was more wild, and yet more lovely, more lonely and yet more full of recollections, than any country I have ever been in. Wide moorlands, often divided by great banks and hedgerows (for no purpose one can imagine, since nothing grows in these enclosures but furze, fern, and heather) terminate in cliffs that go sheer down into the ocean. Here and there, like cracks in the brown moorland, are valleys of the loveliest green, with fields of hemp and buckwheat, meadows of rich grass, willow gardens, teeming orchards, and homesteads nestled in great clumps of elms. The shore of the bay is a succession of black cliffs and exquisite small beaches of white sand. The whole terminated by that astonishing place Penmarc'h, or the Torch of the Horse's Head.

Soon after he had settled at Commana, my friend the doctor sent me an invitation to come and stay with him. The travelling public had not then found out the attractions of Brittany, but I was a Breton born, though not from that part of the country.

I went down to Quimper by diligence, whence I hired a horse and guide to take me by peasant tracks over the purple moorland. Near Penmarc'h we passed over the ruins of what in the Middle Ages had been a great commercial city. A city which it is said in history could equip three thousand fighting men, and shelter seven hundred craft in its wide harbor. It was partly destroyed by the English in 1404, and wholly desolated, a century and a quarter later, in the wars of the League.

As I rode over its ruins, fragments of which stuck up like boulders through the purple heath and pale pink pimpernel, my guide said, — even where I could not see a stone, — "This is the goldsmiths' street, — now we are in the smiths' street, — this is the street of the stonemasons."

I grew sad, as I always do when moving among material ruins, but at Commana I was to see something sadder still, the ruins of a great genius chained by penury and circumstances to the rock of obscurity.

My friend the doctor was very glad to see me, and we spent a happy evening talking about Brittany, a subject always full of matters of discussion to her sons. In the course of conversation the doctor expressed great interest in a carpenter of the neighborhood, who, he told me, was gifted with an extraordinary turn for mechanics.

His rounds upon the morrow lying in the direction where his peasant genius lived, we agreed to go and see him the next morning.

The sun was just gilding the Black Range when we set out the purple moorland stretched on every side of us, dotted with black sheep under the charge of children, but there was not a trace around of trees, or any verdure. The air we breathed was fresh, pure, and exhilarating, the birds sang daily in the hidden valleys, the fragrance of some fields of flowering buckwheat, which lay also out of sight, perfumed the morning air. We walked on, chatting gaily, impregnated (if I may use the word) with the delicious freshness of so bright a morning.

When we came in sight of the little hill on which Jahona's house was built, the doctor paused and pointed it out to me. It was made out of a dovecote (a dovecote is a sort of stunted tower in Brittany) newly thatched, with windows broken through the walls at irregular intervals. My friend told me that Jahona's wife, who came of noble blood, had inherited this ruin, with half an acre of land attached to it, and that her husband had transformed it into a dwelling.

As we drew near we saw the master of the house at work before his door. My friend wished him good morning, and entered into conversation. While they were talking I took the opportunity of examining the work he was engaged upon. It was an oaken chest, very rudely executed, by no means corresponding to the idea I had formed of his workmanship. I expressed my disappointment to my friend in French, not supposing that Jahona knew any language except that of Brittany, but by his smile I saw I was understood.

"I do better than that sometimes, monsieur," he said. "But I cannot afford time over this common work, or my five little children would be crying for food. I have been two days already working over that chest, and one cannot get much buckwheat for three francs, you know."

"Are you paid no more for all this work?" I said.

"Those who have to pay always think that labor's dear," he answered, in the sententious manner very common among the peasants of Brittany.

"You must not judge Jahona by a thing like that," explained my friend. "Jahona when he pleases can work like the saints, both fast and well. He has carved nearly every crucifix in the surrounding parishes."

"Do you carve crucifixes too?" I asked the carpenter.

"When I have no oak chests in hand," he replied.

"That is a higher order of labor, surely that is better paid," I cried.

"Not much. I carve by the day's work generally. Sometimes I am paid by the piece — five francs a foot. Some curls want the spear and crown of thorns thrown in besides," replied Jahona.

At this moment a clear metallic sound came from the interior of the house, and was repeated seven times successively. I turned round in astonishment. "That is my clock, monsieur," said the carpenter.

"He made it himself, after studying over the old pendulum affair in my kitchen," said the doctor. "Come in and look at it."

Jahona pulled off his hat, with the politeness never wanting in a peasant of Brittany, and drew back, motioning us towards the door. We entered.

The wife was seated, rocking her baby's cradle, but busy with her spinning. As we came in she rose and bade us welcome, laying aside her distaff and pushing back her wheel. The doctor began talking to her about her children, while Jahona took me up to a sort of wooden coffin fixed up against the wall. It was his clock. He opened the tall door of the pine box, and I gave a cry of wonder, at the sight of the interior.

Having nothing fit to make use of in the construction of a clock, the poor fellow had employed every kind of strange material. Bits of iron, copper, and stone had been worked into his purpose. In the whole clock there were no two scraps of anything that could ever have been expected to come together. Everything had been intended for something else. The clock-face was a large slate. The figures, and some arabesques very well executed, had been scratched upon its surface. The striker, whose clear sound had attracted my attention, was a bit of a copper basin, struck by a piece of iron with a brass knob, the remains of an old fire shovel. All the rest of the materials were equally incongruous. I was standing in mute astonishment before the case, when some one called Jahona.

"Well, mon cher," said the doctor, coming behind me. "What do you think of this thing?

"It must be an abominable timepiece, but it is a marvellous creation. I am almost afraid to think how much imagination, calculation, skill, and perseverance it must have taken to accomplish it. Your workman has a true genius for mechanical invention."

"There is no telling what he might not have become," said my friend, "had he been born where he had greater opportunities. He made everything you see about you. He fashioned all the furniture, repaired the walls, and thatched his dwelling. He works as well in wood and mason-work, as he does in metal. It is easier to him to invent a thing than to imitate. He has an especial gift for simplifying the conveniences of life. See this lock on his cupboard. There is not a particle of iron in its composition, and yet it is a capital lock. The key you see is made of a big nail and a wooden peg. You know how Breton chimneys smoke — look at his."

I turned towards the hearth. Jahona had gathered together at the back a heap of broken pottery, fragments of great earthen jars used for making lye in Brittany. By this means he had given his fireplace a semicircular form, which concentrated the heat, and increased it by reflection. It was the same idea as that of Count Rumford.

"He must have seen some modern fireplaces," said I to my companion.

"Never," he replied. "So far as I know there is nothing of the kind anywhere in this neighborhood, and Jahona has never been a dozen miles away from his own village. As I tell you, he is a born inventor. Whenever you see anything in this part of the country which strikes you as convenient or ingenious, you may be very sure somebody will tell you, 'That was made by Jahona.' But his inventive talent keeps him poor. Were it not for that be might live very comfortably; that is he might eat bacon on Sunday, and bread every day in the year. But when an inspiration comes upon him he is apt to neglect his every-day work, and disappoint his customers. He studied three years for the priesthood, and acquired the rudiments of Greek and Latin. I pity him profoundly. He must be an unhappy man. He would not tell you so. He may never have found it out, but watch him and you will soon see indications of his hidden struggle."

At this moment Jahona came back, accompanied by a priest, who I perceived at once was one of those (to be found even in Brittany), who rattle off God's work in a mere spirit of business, like a government official entrusted with local affairs.

When he saw us he pulled off his shovel hat and gave a jovial laugh as he accosted the doctor. He told us he had come to look after a statue of the Blessed Virgin which Jahona was carving for his church. He seemed very much annoyed by the unpunctuality of the workman, who had kept him waiting six weeks.

"You must make some allowance for Jahona," I said, "he is a very uncommon man."

"That's true," replied the curé, lowering his voice and whispering in my ear. "The poor devil, we all know, is three parts crazy."

Meantime Jahona had been getting out his statue, and brought it to the light for our inspection. He pulled off some coarse wrappings, and we perceived a statue of the Virgin nearly completed.

My first feeling was one of very great surprise. My idea of the Virgin Mother had till that moment never been dissociated from certain Raphaelesque forms, and I could hardly recognize her in this statue of Jahona.

I expected to see as usual a young girl with downcast eyes, holding a naked smiling infant in her arms. But when I had got over my first surprise, and began to examine the work carefully, the idea impressed itself upon me.

The mother of our Lord was seated in a position that expressed profound depression. The babe was sleeping on his mother's breast, but his face was entirely concealed from the spectator. The Virgin's face was full of sadness and anxiety. She pressed the infant to her heart with a convulsive movement, as if protecting him from some great peril. In spite of her depression and her look of care, a simple loving-kindliness beamed from her features. Her attitude was true to nature, though devoid of grace. The statue bore the stamp of Brittany, and that impression was completed by the costume. She was dressed as a peasant woman of that part of the country.

I stood looking in astonishment at this new conception of the Virgin. I had seen many statues of the mother of Jesus but till now I had seen no statue of the mother of the Redeemer.

It was the Virgin Mary overwhelmed by a sense of the dignity of her own offspring, — the child whom she had borne, — both God and man. It was the Virgin Mary face to face with the great mystery with which she was associated, with the sword piercing her own soul as she contemplated her son's fate and her own agony. It was a Virgin Mary whose woman's feelings made her shrink from the unknown, and made her for a moment oblivious of her divine mission, as she gazed into the darkness of the future, and beheld the great dim cross making ready for our redemption — the Virgin with a mother's instincts stirring in her heart, as she thought of the coming sacrifice of her beloved son.

It was not the usual Virgin, calmly glorious in a sweet consciousness of her divine maternity — it was a sad and troubled woman laden with cares and fears, the true type of peasant womanhood.

I was absorbed in the suggestions of this work, when the priest, who had been joking with my friend, came up and stood beside me.

"Well, monsieur," he said, "and what is your opinion?"

I could not answer him immediately. He began to examine it more closely.

"Why, what's the reason," he cried out, "that you have given the Blessed Virgin such a dismal look, Jahona?"

"I am sorry, monsieur le recteur, if it does not please you; but when the infant Jesus was that age the Blessed Virgin was escaping from the massacre of the innocents, and was afraid of King Herod."

I had not thought of this, which gave the statue a new charm of historical verity. The priest however did not see it so.

"What matter for that?" he said. "You ought to have made her smile, as she always does in pictures. Was not the Virgin a mother above everything?"

"Yes – mater dolorosa," murmured Jahona, with a peculiar smile.

"And the child Jesus," said the priest. "One can't see what his face is like, all muffled up in that way. Why didn't you let us see his face, Jahona?"

"Because I did not know how to make the face of the Son of God."

The priest shrugged his shoulders; then looking at the statue he resumed, —

"Well! luckily the house-painters are coming to paint our church in a month or two. A little paint will do wonders for your statue. We'll dress the Blessed Virgin in bright colors, and make her smile in spite of the massacre of the innocents!"

He laughed at his own wit, which he seemed to consider capital; and after directing Jahona to get it done as soon as possible, went away.

We staid on, talking with the artist, who showed us several half-finished carvings. We were just leaving when my eyes fell on a great lot of thick oak planks which I had noticed when I first came in, and which seemed to be intended for some kind of building or carpentry.

"What are those?" I asked Jahona.

He hesitated a little, and replied, —

"Part of a windmill."

"What! you build windmills too?" I exclaimed.

"He wants to build one for himself," said my friend, laughing. "Jahona wants to transform his dovecote into a windmill. There are not enough mills in this neighborhood to supply the wants of the inhabitants. Jahona is quite right in thinking that if he could build one he might make it very profitable. Unhappily time and money have been wanting thus far, though he began his mill long ago."

"Seven years ago this month, monsieur, said Jahona, "seven years ago!"

"Have you made much progress?"

His face assumed its saddest look, as he answered slowly, —

"I finished it all last year. I had nothing to get except the millstones. But the winter was very severe. There was no work, and fuel is scarce in this neighborhood. My good wife burnt up some of my mill to warm the poor little ones who were crying with cold. I had to begin all over again."

"You were not discouraged?"

"No, — if it should take another seven years, I mean to have my windmill. Long as the road is between Quimper and Commana, a child may walk it, just by putting one little foot — step after step — before the other."

"Have you never had any wish to leave your native place?" I said. "You might find that in some of the cities your genius, if recognized, might make you rich much sooner than here."

He shook his head.

"Money is seldom found where people go to look for it," he said quietly. "Good luck is where God means it to be found. The happy lark picks up her little grain as often in the fields as in the courtyard of the château."

"But don't you sometimes feel sorry that you have never risen to be more than a country workman? Are you not grieved when you have finished anything as fine as your carving of the Virgin, to have people come here and tell you it is bad?"

Jahona shrugged his shoulders and smiled, but I thought his smile was very sad.

"Those who pay have a right to find fault, monsieur," he answered.

I cannot describe how his brave words affected me.

We left the house, and when we had gone a few yards we turned and looked behind us.

Jahona was standing outside his tall cottage looking up at it with an expression in his face, as if he saw in "his mind's eye"the great white sails of his windmill turning slowly in the air.

Our eyes met, and he saw I knew what he was thinking.

"Yes, monsieur," he said, smiling, "one of these days I make sure of seeing four strong arms up yonder doing my work for me, — great arms of oak and canvas which will work, and not grow weary; and when that comes to pass I shall live at my ease for the future. I shall be able to think and plan in peace without having my customers displeased because I have not finished the work I promised them. A miller's life is a very easy one. So long as he hears his sails creak he may make himself contented. The wind of the good Master is providing his daily bread. If you ever come back into this neighborhood, monsieur, and catch a glimpse from the hills yonder of four sails revolving in this direction, you may safely say, 'There lives a man who has nothing more to ask from the kind hand of his Heavenly Father.'"

After saying these words with a sort of rustic elegance, and great depth of feeling, Jahona took off his broad hat, and went back into his dwelling.

"Well!" said my friend the doctor, when we had gone a little way, "what do you think of him?"

"That he is a great genius, whose powers will result in nothing, alas! but a bad timepiece and a windmill."

"Provided he ever builds his mill," said my companion.

"Why shouldn't he build his windmill?"

"He has disease of the heart, but does not know it," replied the doctor. "In eighteen months from now he will be dead, and will never have finished his windmill."

I stopped short, with a sharp cry, and gave a frightened glance back at the curious cottage.

Its poor proprietor had again come out, and stood before his door, looking upward with a smile, and his three little children were playing on the threshold.