Round the Sofa; vol. 2_ The Accursed Race, The Doom of the Griffiths, Half a Life-Time Ago, The Poor Clare & The Half-Brothers.
ROUND THE SOFA.
BY THE AUTHOR OF
“Mary Barton,” “Life of Charlotte Bronte,” &c. &c.
SAMPSON LOW, SON & CO., 47 LUDGATE HILL.
LONDON: PRINTED BY WILLIAM CLOWES AND SONS, STAMFORD STREET.
|The Accursed Race||3|
|The Doom of the Griffiths||32|
|Half a Life-Time ago||97|
|The Poor Clare||179|
Mr. Dawson had often come in and out of the room during the time thathis sister had been telling us about Lady Ludlow. He would stop, andlisten a little, and smile or sigh as the case might be. The Mondayafter the dear old lady had wound up her tale (if tale it could becalled), we felt rather at a loss what to talk about, we had grown soaccustomed to listen to Mrs. Dawson. I remember I was saying, “Oh, dear!I wish some one would tell us another story!” when her brother said, asif in answer to my speech, that he had drawn up a paper all ready forthe Philosophical Society, and that perhaps we might care to hear itbefore it was sent off: it was in a great measure compiled from aFrench book, published by one of the Academies, and rather dry initself; but to which Mr. Dawson’s attention had been directed, after atour he had made in England during the past year, in which he hadnoticed small walled-up doors in unusual parts of some old parishchurches, and had been told that they had formerly been appropriated tothe use of some half-heathen race, who, before the days of gipsies, heldthe same outcast pariah position in most of the countries of westernEurope. Mr. Dawson had been recommended to the French book which henamed, as containing the fullest and most authentic account of thismysterious race, the Cagots. I did not think I should like hearing thispaper as much as a story; but, of course, as he meant it kindly, we werebound to submit, and I found it, on the whole, more interesting than Ianticipated.
We have our prejudices in England. Or, if that assertion offends any ofmy readers, I will modify it: we have had our prejudices in England. Wehave tortured Jews; we have burnt Catholics and Protestants, to saynothing of a few witches and wizards. We have satirised Puritans, and wehave dressed-up Guys. But, after all, I do not think we have been sobad as our Continental friends. To be sure, our insular position haskept us free, to a certain degree, from the inroads of alien races; who,driven from one land of refuge, steal into another equally unwilling toreceive them; and where, for long centuries, their presence is barelyendured, and no pains is taken to conceal the repugnance which thenatives of “pure blood” experience towards them.
There yet remains a remnant of the miserable people called Cagots in thevalleys of the Pyrenées; in the Landes near Bourdeaux; and, stretchingup on the west side of France, their numbers become larger in LowerBrittany. Even now, the origin of these families is a word of shame tothem among their neighbours; although they are protected by the law,which confirmed them in the equal rights of citizens about the end ofthe last century. Before then they had lived, for hundreds of years,isolated from all those who boasted of pure blood, and they had been,all this time, oppressed by cruel local edicts. They were truly whatthey were popularly called, The Accursed Race.
All distinct traces of their origin are lost. Even at the close of thatperiod which we call the Middle Ages, this was a problem which no onecould solve; and as the traces, which even then were faint anduncertain, have vanished away one by one, it is a complete mystery atthe present day. Why they were accursed in the first instance, whyisolated from their kind, no one knows. From the earliest accounts oftheir state that are yet remaining to us, it seems that the names whichthey gave each other were ignored by the population they lived amongst,who spoke of them as Crestiaa, or Cagots, just as we speak of animals bytheir generic names. Their houses or huts were always placed at somedistance out of the villages of the country-folk, who unwillingly calledin the services of the Cagots as carpenters, or tilers, orslaters—trades which seemed appropriated by this unfortunate race—whowere forbidden to occupy land, or to bear arms, the usual occupationsof those times. They had some small right of pasturage on the commonlands, and in the forests: but the number of their cattle and livestockwas strictly limited by the earliest laws relating to the Cagots. Theywere forbidden by one act to have more than twenty sheep, a pig, a ram,and six geese. The pig was to be fattened and killed for winter food;the fleece of the sheep was to clothe them; but, if the said sheep hadlambs, they were forbidden to eat them. Their only privilege arisingfrom this increase was, that they might choose out the strongest andfinest in preference to keeping the old sheep. At Martinmas theauthorities of the commune came round, and counted over the stock ofeach Cagot. If he had more than his appointed number, they wereforfeited; half went to the commune, and half to the baillie, or chiefmagistrate of the commune. The poor beasts were limited as to the amountof common land which they might stray over in search of grass. While thecattle of the inhabitants of the commune might wander hither and thitherin search of the sweetest herbage, the deepest shade, or the coolestpool in which to stand on the hot days, and lazily switch their dappledsides, the Cagot sheep and pig had to learn imaginary bounds, beyondwhich if they strayed, any one might snap them up, and kill them,reserving a part of the flesh for his own use, but graciously restoringthe inferior parts to their original owner. Any damage done by the sheepwas, however, fairly appraised, and the Cagot paid no more for it thanany other man would have done.
Did a Cagot leave his poor cabin, and venture into the towns, even torender services required of him in the way of his trade, he was bidden,by all the municipal laws, to stand by and remember his rude old state.In all the towns and villages in the large districts extending on bothsides of the Pyrenées—in all that part of Spain—they were forbidden tobuy or sell anything eatable, to walk in the middle (esteemed thebetter) part of the streets, to come within the gates before sunrise, orto be found after sunset within the walls of the town. But still, as theCagots were good-looking men, and (although they bore certain naturalmarks of their caste, of which I shall speak by-and-by) were not easilydistinguished by casual passers-by from other men, they were compelledto wear some distinctive peculiarity which should arrest the eye; and,in the greater number of towns, it was decreed that the outward sign ofa Cagot should be a piece of red cloth sewed conspicuously on the frontof his dress. In other towns, the mark of Cagoterie was the foot of aduck or a goose hung over their left shoulder, so as to be seen by anyone meeting them. After a time, the more convenient badge of a piece ofyellow cloth cut out in the shape of a duck’s foot, was adopted. If anyCagot was found in any town or village without his badge, he had to paya fine of five sous, and to lose his dress. He was expected to shrinkaway from any passer-by, for fear that their clothes should touch eachother; or else to stand still in some corner or by-place. If the Cagotswere thirsty during the days which they passed in those towns wheretheir presence was barely suffered, they had no means of quenching theirthirst, for they were forbidden to enter into the little cabarets ortaverns. Even the water gushing out of the common fountain wasprohibited to them. Far away, in their own squalid village, there wasthe Cagot fountain, and they were not allowed to drink of any otherwater. A Cagot woman having to make purchases in the town, was liable tobe flogged out of it if she went to buy anything except on a Monday—aday on which all other people who could, kept their houses for fear ofcoming in contact with the accursed race.
In the Pays Basque, the prejudices—and for some time the laws—ranstronger against them than any which I have hitherto mentioned. TheBasque Cagot was not allowed to possess sheep. He might keep a pig forprovision, but his pig had no right of pasturage. He might cut and carrygrass for the ass, which was the only other animal he was permitted toown; and this ass was permitted, because its existence was rather anadvantage to the oppressor, who constantly availed himself of theCagot’s mechanical skill, and was glad to have him and his tools easilyconveyed from one place to another.
The race was repulsed by the State. Under the small local governmentsthey could hold no post whatsoever. And they were barely tolerated bythe Church, although they were good Catholics, and zealous frequentersof the mass. They might only enter the churches by a small door setapart for them, through which no one of the pure race ever passed. Thisdoor was low, so as to compel them to make an obeisance. It wasoccasionally surrounded by sculpture, which invariably represented anoak-branch with a dove above it. When they were once in, they might notgo to the holy water used by others. They had a bénitier of their own;nor were they allowed to share in the consecrated bread when that washanded round to the believers of the pure race. The Cagots stood afaroff, near the door. There were certain boundaries—imaginary lines—onthe nave and in the aisles which they might not pass. In one or two ofthe more tolerant of the Pyrenean villages, the blessed bread wasoffered to the Cagots, the priest standing on one side of the boundary,and giving the pieces of bread on a long wooden fork to each personsuccessively.
When the Cagot died, he was interred apart, in a plot of burying-groundon the north side of the cemetery. Under such laws and prescriptions asI have described, it is no wonder that he was generally too poor to havemuch property for his children to inherit; but certain descriptions ofit were forfeited to the commune. The only possession which all who werenot of his own race refused to touch, was his furniture. That wastainted, infectious, unclean—fit for none but Cagots.
When such were, for at least three centuries, the prevalent usages andopinions with regard to this oppressed race, it is not surprising thatwe read of occasional outbursts of ferocious violence on their part. Inthe Basses-Pyrenées, for instance, it is only about a hundred yearssince, that the Cagots of Rehouilhes rose up against the inhabitants ofthe neighbouring town of Lourdes, and got the better of them, by theirmagical powers, as it is said. The people of Lourdes were conquered andslain, and their ghastly, bloody heads served the triumphant Cagots forballs to play at ninepins with! The local parliaments had begun, by thistime, to perceive how oppressive was the ban of public opinion underwhich the Cagots lay, and were not inclined to enforce too severe apunishment. Accordingly, the decree of the parliament of Toulousecondemned only the leading Cagots concerned in this affray to be put todeath, and that henceforward and for ever no Cagot was to be permittedto enter the town of Lourdes by any gate but that called Capdet-pourtet:they were only to be allowed to walk under the rain-gutters, and neitherto sit, eat, nor drink in the town. If they failed in observing any ofthese rules, the parliament decreed, in the spirit of Shylock, that thedisobedient Cagots should have two strips of flesh, weighing never morethan two ounces a-piece, cut