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THE MONTH OF MARY
In the soft dusk of the May evening, a heavy waggon, drawn by a yoke of cream-coloured oxen, lumbers down the cobbled main street of St. Jean de Luz. The tired beasts with their linen coats and shaggy red head-dresses patiently follow the driver, a handsome Basque in a slouch hat and blue sash, who walks a few yards in front, holding his long pole and his arms outstretched to point the way. The day's work is done. The load of sweet-smelling hay has been deposited in the barn, but the waggon is not empty. It is filled with a chattering crowd of children, mainly little girls, hatless, after the female fashion of their race, and they have begged a ride from the good-natured driver. They laugh and clap their hands as the waggon sways
and creaks beneath them, and they are very loth to jump out, each in turn, when their respective homes are reached. They are not going to bed however. Quite late into the summer night they will play hide and seek about the streets, which, being empty, they now regard as their own. In the daytime they prefer to keep to the back quarters of the town, where they may be seen chasing the untethered donkeys under the acacia trees or sliding down the stone balustrades upon their faces, one baby tugging another by his pinafore to give him greater impetus in his descent.
The Basque children are sturdy, merry little things, clean and tidy rather than picturesque, but, in spite of the independence of spirit which has characterised their race since its foundation in the mists of antiquity, they are extremely well-mannered. In the schools they learn French, and for a time speak it; but once emancipated from the thraldom of education they make haste to relapse into their native Basque, that most difficult and mysterious language which is said so effectually to have baffled Satan when he tried to land on the shores of the Bay of Biscay. For the boys this deliberate forgetfulness proves a short-sighted policy, since, when the military service begins, the conscripts have to devote many weary hours to the re-acquisition of the French tongue. Life is not all playtime, however, even for the children. It is the duty of one little boy-he cannot be more than eight or nine at the outside—to light the lamps in the roads of St. Jean de Luz.
be met every evening, as the darkness swallows up the brief twilight, flitting swiftly along, as if all the witches of his ancestral legend were upon his track, his bare legs twinkling under the blackbelted pinafore, his feet encased in red cloth shoes, the espadrilles of the country, and carrying the lighter, a stick at least three times as long as himself. On wet nights he is dressed in a dark cape and hood, which give him a very elf-like appearance.
But on this warm May evening neither play nor work is the only consideration. The · Mois de Marie' has a peculiar significance for the Basques, who are essentially devout. Every evening there is a service in the Church of St. Jean Baptiste, whose fête will be kept with much civic and religious ceremony a month later. So a great many of the children are captured by pious mothers and are borne off to the large sombre church where Louis the Fourteenth was married to Maria Teresa, Infanta of Spain. The magnificent vestments worn by the Roi Soleil on that occasion are preserved at Fuenterrabia, across the Bidassoa, where the wedding procession took place, and little enough remains in the gloomy interior of the church at St. Jean de Luz to suggest so gorgeous a ceremony. It is a solid, plain building, devoid of ornament, for the Renaissance never penetrated to this south-west corner of France, and, like the majority of the churches in this country, it seems to indicate the Basque temperament, strength and solidity rather than beauty being the keynotes of the structure. There is, however, a fine outside stone staircase leading up to the men's galleries, three tiers of which, magnificently carved in black oak, form the most noticeable feature of the interior. These, and the profusely gilded high altar are hardly distinguishable at this evening service. All the light is concentrated upon the altar of Mary, set at the foot of the steps outside the chancel rail, and the air is heavy with the scent of roses, white stocks, lilies, and acacia blossom, piled up high amidst its myriad candles, heaped in masses upon the altar itself, and arranged in green jars upon the steps. These floral tributes are renewed daily through the month of May, and the sisters having been banished by the State from their ministry, the labours of the sacristan must be heavy.
The floor of the nave is closely packed with women and children, only discernible in the gloom as a dark and solid mass, and that the galleries are at least equally crowded is proved by the volume of bass voices in the hymns to the Virgin, of which, besides the prayers of the Rosary, the service mainly consists. In the front row, where the lights from the altar fall full upon them, are three or four especially well-conducted children, belonging obviously to a class rather above those who ride in ox waggons and slide down balustrades upon their faces. Of these one tiny face seems in its preternatural sharpness to shadow forth the capable business woman of the future. It is the
face of a baby-its owner cannot be more than five-but it is a baby who is very wide awake. Her hair is short and elaborately curled and extremely glossy, and her eyes, which are not devoutly closed, like those of her companions, are remarkably bright and are taking in every detail of the altar of Mary. At intervals and with the help of a sharp elbow she endeavours vainly to arouse an equally intelligent interest in a sleepy brother.
Just a year ago, upon the Sunday after Ascension Day, Marthe Marie Etcheverry—for such is her name—was brought to the church and dedicated to the Virgin, in company with several other little girls of extremely tender years, as is the Basque fashion. Marthe retains a dim but glorified recollection of her short and stiff white skirt, her veil, and her couronne of artificial flowers, and she feels now that the altar of Mary is in some sense her especial property, and the religious observances of the month of May have for her infant mind a distinct significance. She does not, of course, know that this year these have been threatened with some abridgment, since for the first time for many years the Republican party has come into power in St. Jean de Luz. The anti-Church feeling, however, is less strong here than in other parts of France, because the Basques are, as we have said, essentially devout, and beyond removing the occupier of every church appointment, including the old woman at the bathing establishment, and depriving the curé of an annual income of 301. because he persists in preaching one Basque sermon a year, the authorities do not seem disposed to interfere seriously with the religious festivities of the people. This is as well, for these form the one picturesque element in their industrious but otherwise unimaginative lives.
At all events the Rogation processions upon the three days preceding Ascension Day, when a blessing is invoked upon the earth, that she may bring forth her increase, are observed with all the usual piety and devotion. For these three days the weather is glorious and the sun blazes hotly upon Monsieur le cure and his band of faithful followers, who trudge off at daybreak along the white and dusty roads to some distant farm, where Mass is celebrated at an altar raised in the open fields. All along the way the shrines are decorated with greenery and fresh flowers, and the procession is swelled as it proceeds by contributions, mainly of men, from each village through which it passes. Monsieur le curé is an elderly man, and these long tramps into the country tire him considerably. He is, however, said to prefer them to the later ceremony in the month of June, when he goes out in a small boat to the mouth of the harbour to ask for a blessing upon the sea and all that therein is, an expedition which, being a bad sailor, he particularly dislikes. In old days whale-fishing was the great industry of St. Jean de Luz, and possibly the priests felt it better worth while to suffer some personal inconvenience in so profitable a cause ; but the sardines have long survived the whales, and Monsieur
le curé must be forgiven if he is inclined to grudge to such small fry his annual attack of mal de mer.
Meantime one wonders if he is at all conscious that in these Rogation processions, which are so full of satisfaction and promise to the rustic community, he is helping to perpetuate a very sacred rite of the most ancient fraternity of ancient Rome. From the records which they have left upon the walls of their temples, reared late in their own history, in the days of the Emperor Augustus, we learn that the fraternity of the Arvales was founded in order that its members might pray to the Dea Dia, the Divine Goddess, and invoke her blessing upon the fields. Apparently the feast of this goddess belonged to the order of the feriæ conceptive and was as movable as our own Easter. The date would be announced at the Ides of January by the president of the community, standing upon the steps of the Pantheon, his head veiled and his face turned towards the east. As a rule it fell towards the end of May, when the corn was beginning to ripen, and, like the Rogation days, it lasted for three days, during which time there was a complicated series of processions, sacrifices, and banquets. When Monsieur le curé puts on his purple cope with the silver fringe to walk in the dust of the high-road, he is perhaps unaware that he is obeying the orders of the founder of the Arvales, Romulus himself, according to the legend, that a band of purple should be worn by the brothers upon their togas in the processions. When the people bring their roses to the church to be blessed, the Sunday after Ascension Day, they do not know that they are commemorating the exchange of bouquets of roses, an important ceremony at the close of the feast of the Divine Goddess. Rites of the same sort were undoubtedly observed by the early Christians, who called for a blessing upon the fruits of the earth in the middle of Mass on Ascension Day, and it is curious to note the many small points of resemblance to the pagan festival which have survived through the ages, and are still carefully adhered to in the Rogation processions of Southern Europe. With the Arvales the second day of the festivity was the most important, and so it is with the Basques, but in a different fashion, for whereas it was the only day upon which the Roman ceremony took place in the country the second day is the only one on which the Basques confine their procession to the town.
In the church of St. Jean Baptiste, sombre and cool on this hot May morning of the second Rogation day, a few of the faithful have begun to assemble towards ten o'clock. At present they are mainly women, the older ones with their heads tied up in black handkerchiefs, according to custom. Amongst them there is a decided preponderance of widows, with the long soft black shawl over their heads and hanging to the hem of their skirts. There are also children, and I recognise a little Spanish boy and girl, Fernando and Gloria, who have come to St. Jean de Luz for the sea bathing, and with their mother, a grown-up brother, five elder sisters, several dogs, and an automobile are packed happily and noisily into a house which might comfortably have held a family of four persons. Fernando and Gloria are handsome children, with wonderful black eyes, clear olive complexions, and slim well-formed little bodies. At home they are also extremely naughty, as, our gardens adjoining, I have cause to know; but in church their manners suggest all the pride and aloofness of their race, and they sit motionless on their chairs whilst their nurse devoutly kneels upon her prie-Dieu between them. A much less patient little figure presently flits out of the sunshine into the deep shadow of the porch. It is Marthe, and she is apparently unattended, or at all events she has escaped from her guardian. Marthe has a great and boundless admiration for the Spanish children who are lodged nearly opposite her own home, but they are much too proud and aristocratic to respond to the advances of the little Basque girl. Every afternoon the old man with the paralysed hand, playing on his pan pipes, comes up the road under the acacias, followed by his little flock of goats and their kids, carefully guarded by a big shaggy sheep dog. Fernando and Gloria run down to the door with their glasses, the pipes stop playing, the goats group themselves picturesquely, and the sheep dog lies down in the dust with a sigh of relief. He keeps one watchful eye upon the kids however, who, their mothers and the goatherd being occupied, are apt to make raids upon the more succulent vegetation of a neighbouring garden. While the goats are milked into six glasses for the Spanish family Marthe stands at her gate across the road and enviously watches. She too would like goat's milk, but still better she would like to play with Gloria and Fernando. One afternoon her feelings get the better of her, and she boldly crosses the road with a china mug in her hand and followed by her puppy Bijou. But the bell-wether of the flock, a large beast with twisted horns and his hair done up in tight curls to match the dignity of his position, and whose temper has been tried by Fernando's attentions, does not approve of either Marthe or the puppy. He advances to meet them at a slow trot with his head ominously down. Marthe screams, Bijou yaps, and the goat who is being milked and is a nervous lady kicks out and breaks the sixth glass, which has just been filled. Gloria explains in shrill and fluent French that Marthe is an intruder, but the discomfited child has already fled to the shelter of her own home, leaving the undaunted Bijou to exchange views with the sheep dog. This was only yesterday, and this morning the Spanish children deliberately ignore her presence. Marthe has an incurably sociable and consequently forgiving disposition, but having circled vainly two or three times round their isolated group of chairs, she flits out again into the sunlight, shaking out a diminutive but elegant white parasol as she goes. At this moment two little acolytes appear on the steps of the choir, followed by a couple of