Spectre Laundresses

The Spectre Laundresses

The Bretons are born in sin, even as other men, but never have they been wanting in care for the souls of their faithful departed. They take tender pity upon those who burn in purgatory, and earnestly strive to redeem them from their fiery trial. Every Sunday, after Mass, they kneel and plead for their suffering souls upon the very earth in which their poor bodies are mouldering away.

It is in the Black Month,1  as they call November, that they especially attach themselves to this pious duty. When the Messenger of Winter 2  arrives, each one bethinks himself of those who are gone to the judgment-seat of God. Masses are said for them at the altar of the Dead; in their behalf are tapers kindled, and vows made to saints in highest veneration; little children are taken to offer their innocent prayers upon the grave-stones; and after Vespers the priest comes out of church to bless the earth to which their dust has been committed.

On this night also is it that our Lord vouchsafes some respite to their sufferings, and permits them to return once more and pay a visit to the hearth-stones of their former homes. Then are the dead as numerous in the homesteads of the living as the yellow leaves that rustle in the deep dry lanes; and therefore it is that all good Christians leave the board spread and the fire blazing, that the unwonted guests may, if they will, refresh themselves.

But if it is so with all who are truly devoted to the service of the Blessed Mother and her divine Son, there are also children of the Black Angel  (“l'ange noir ”), who forget those that were once nearest to their hearts. Wilherm Postik was one of these. His father had died without desiring to receive the last Sacraments; and, as the proverb has it, Kadiou is his father's own son. Wilherm gave himself up, body and soul, to forbidden pleasures, dancing during Mass-time, whenever he could find an opportunity, and drinking with rascally horse-dealers when he should have been in church. Nevertheless, God had not left him without enough of warnings. Within the same year had his mother, his sisters, and his wife been carried off by a contagious disease. Many a time, too, had the good curé exposed to him his evil deeds, showing him that he was a scandal to the whole parish, and urging him to repentance; but all was in vain.

Meanwhile the fine weather went by. The feast of All Souls arrived, and all good Christians, clad in decent mourning, repaired to church to pray for the faithful departed. But for Wilherm, he dressed himself out in his best, and set out for the neighbouring town, where he was sure to find plenty of reprobate sailors and reckless women.

All the time devoted by others to the solace of the suffering souls he spent there in drinking, gambling, and singing vile songs; nor did he think of returning till close upon midnight, when every body else had gone home wearied with iniquity. For him, he had a frame of iron for sinful pleasures; and he quitted the drinking-house as well disposed for a fresh bout as when he entered it.

Heated with drink, he went along, singing at the top of his voice, though his songs were such as the boldest are apt to give out in an undertone. He passed the wayside crosses without dropping his voice or uncovering his head, and struck out right and left with his walking-stick amongst the tufts of broom, regardless of the holy dead who thronged every path.

At last the road divided, giving him his choice of two ways homeward; the one longer about, but safer, under the blessing of God, the other more direct, but haunted by spirits. Many a one in passing by that way had heard noises and seen sights that could be only told of in a cheerful assembly, and within arm's-length of the holy-water stoup. But Wilherm feared nothing; so he struck at once into the shorter path, at a pace that made his heavy shoes ring against the stones.

Neither moon nor stars cheered the night, the leaves trooped before the driving wind, the brooks trickled dismally adown the hill-sides, the bushes shivered like a man afraid, and through the midnight stillness the steps of Wilherm echoed like a giant's tread. Yet nothing daunted him, and on he went.

But as he passed the ruins of the old manor-house, he plainly heard the weather-vane call to him as it creaked,

Go back, go back, go back!

Still Wilherm went on. He came up to the waterfall, and the water murmured,

Cross me not, cross me not, cross me not!

Wilherm set his foot upon the well-worn stepping stones, and crossed the stream. He came to an old hollow oak-tree, and the wind that whistled in its branches cried,

Stay here, stay here, stay here!

But he struck his staff against the dead tree in passing, and hurried onwards.

At last he came into the haunted vale, and midnight struck from the three parish-church towers. Wilherm began to whistle a jovial air; but just as he came to the fourth verse, he heard the sound of tireless wheels, and saw a cart approaching covered with a funeral pall.

Wilherm knew it for a hearse. It was drawn by six black horses, and driven by Ankou 3 himself, with an iron whip in his hand, and ever crying as he went,

“Turn aside, or I turn thee back!”

Wilherm gave him way without being disconcerted.

“What are you doing here, Squire White?”4  he questioned boldly.

“I make prize, and by surprise,” replied Ankou.

“That is to say, you're thievish and treacherous,” continued Wilherm.

“I am he that strikes without distinction and without regret.”

“That is to say, a fool and a brute. Then I wonder no more, my fine fellow, that you're a regular inhabitant of the four bishoprics, for to you the whole proverb belongs.5  But what are you in such haste about to-day?”

“I am going to fetch Wilherm Postik,” replied the phantom as he passed on.

The profligate laughed aloud, and went on his way. As he came up to the little sloe-hedge leading to the washing-ground, he saw two white females hanging linen on the bushes.

“On my life,” said he, “here are some damsels not much afraid of the night-dews! What are you about here at this time, my little doves?”

“We wash, we dry, we sew!” replied the two women both at once.

“But what?” asked the young man.

“The winding-sheet of one that yet walks and speaks.”

“A corpse! Pardieu! Tell me his name.”

“Wilherm Postik.”

Louder than before laughed Wilherm, and went down the little rugged path.

But as he went on he heard more and more distinctly the beetle of the spectre laundresses striking on the douez 6  stones, and ere long they themselves were to be seen, beating at their death-shrouds, and chanting the sorrowful refrain:

“If no good soul our hands will stay,

We must toil till judgment-day;

In stormy wind, or clear moonlight,

We must wash the death-shroud white.”

As soon as they perceived this boon companion, they all rushed forward with loud cries, offering each her winding-sheet, that he might help them to wring out the water.

“Amongst friends we must not scruple to do a good turn,” replied Wilherm gaily; “but one at a time, my pretty laundresses, a man has but two hands.”

So laying down his walking-stick, he took the end of the shroud offered by one of the ghosts, taking care to wring the same way that she did; for he had heard of old that this was the only way to escape being shivered to atoms.

But whilst they thus wrung the winding-sheet, behold, the other spectres surrounded Wilherm, who recognised amongst them his aunt, his wife, his mother, and his sisters, who cried aloud,

“A thousand curses upon him who leaves his own flesh and blood to suffer torments! A thousand curses!”

And they shook their streaming locks, and whirled aloft their snow-white beetles; while from all the douez  of the valley, along the hedgerows, and floating over the commons far and wide, there came the sound of ghostly voices echoing the same cry,

“A thousand curses! a thousand curses!”

Wilherm, beside himself with terror, felt his hair stand up on end, and, forgetting in his confusion the precaution hitherto observed, he began to wring the contrary way. In the same instant the winding-sheet grasped his hands as in a vice, and he fell, brayed by the iron arms of the spectre laundress.

A young girl of Henvik, named Fantik-ar-Fur, passing at daybreak near the douez, saw Wilherm stretched upon the blue stones. Thinking that he had lain down there to sleep whilst tipsy, the child drew near to wake him with a sprig of broom; but finding he remained motionless, she took fright and ran to the village to tell the news.

A number of the inhabitants came with the curé, the sexton, and the notary, who was mayor of the place. The body was taken up, placed on a wagon, and drawn home by oxen; but the blessed candles that were lighted continually went out, a token of the fearful fate that had overtaken Wilherm Postik.

So his body was deposited outside the church-yard walls, in the resting-place of dogs and reprobates.

The belief in spectre laundresses is universal in Brittany.

1 Miz-du, Breton name of November.

2 A name given to All Saints.

3 L'Ankou, literally, “the agony;” a name generally given to the spectre of death.

4 M. de Ker-Gwen. A joke on the paleness of death; gwen  signifying white.

5 The allusion is to a proverbial Breton verse, in which the inhabitants of the four dioceses are facetiously characterised as thievish, false, stupid, and brutal.

6 Douez  signifies in Breton the moat of a fortified town; but as these moats were formerly full of water, and served the purposes of the washerwomen, the name douez  has gradually been appropriated to the washing-places.