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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

At the Pardon

By Blanche Willis Howard (1847–1898)

[Born in Bangor, Me., 1847. Died in Munich, Germany, 1898. Guenn: A Wave on the Breton Coast. 1883.]

THE PARDON was a ceremony centuries old—a festival that would have taken place had never a strange foot trod Nevin streets, had never a stranger’s eye rolled in a fine frenzy before Nevin picturesqueness. But the young men in brown velveteen, and the young women in Rubens hats and Velasquez frills, mingled with the folk with amiable condescension, smiling graciously upon the motley costumes and the rough sport. “For us these attitudes, for us these colors, for us this naive display of the habits of a primitive people. How picturesquely historic, how vividly antique!” So with a cormorant power of appropriation the strangers swallowed the Breton Pardon.

Guenn was everywhere present. A score of voices asked: “Who is that beautiful girl with the bold eyes and the graceful movements?” The peasants answered: “It’s Guenn Rodellec, of course; who else could she be?” The painters: “It’s Hamor’s model; lucky dog!”…

Guenn was staring in a friendly way at them all, her hands on her hips, swinging herself gently to and fro in time to the enlivening strains of the carousal, where Nannie, dizzy but ecstatic, was soaring proudly aloft, taking his seventh aerial excursion upon a foaming wooden charger with scarlet ears.

“Your name is Guenn?” asked the artist, merely to prolong the conversation.

“Yes, I’m Guenn,” wondering if Hamor liked a plain gray dress and linen collar, and wishing she could see the lady’s hands ungloved.

“But you do not know me?”

“Oh, yes, I do: you are Monsieur Staunton’s sweetheart.”

The stranger blushed deeply. She and Staunton were still in the stage of vague and pleasurable uncertainty, and she was not prepared for this uncompromising directness.

The young Englishman came promptly to the rescue: “But, Guenn, you wear no end of pretty things; why have you more than anybody else?”

“Because I am the favorite, to be sure,” raising her eyebrows with some surprise, as if everybody ought to know that self-evident truth. “Good-day; I’m going.”

“I should like to see you again,” remarked the young lady, recovering her composure.

“Oh, you’ll see me dance, of course,” Guenn said brightly; “everybody’ll see me dance. You’d better get a good place soon,” she said eagerly to Hamor, “so that you can see me wherever I go. Hark! Don’t you hear? That’s the call: we’re going to begin.” She clasped her hands above her head, and giving him one intense look of excitement, joy, and devotion, she sprang rapidly through the crowd, pushing and elbowing her way freely towards Alain, who was spinning along with equal momentum from the opposite direction. Smiling broadly upon the three judges with a deliberate intention of prejudicing their opinion, she took her place in the line; but such audacious wiles were superfluous; for, had her feet been less light and untiring, her movements less elastic and graceful, where was the man who could resist her lovely face?

The gavotte began. The bagpipes shrieked their monotonous shrill tune. Back and forward, balancing, turning, passing on, wreathed the interminable line of couples—peasants in the distinctive dress of their villages and districts; heavy young men and women taking their pleasure soberly, not knowing what to do with their feet, but pushing on with stolid endurance; awkward and grinning youths and maidens taking their pleasure shyly, but yielding gradually to its intoxication; handsome sailors from the Merle, dancing easily with a superior air of worldliness, giving one another knowing winks in the midst of their rustic conquests; peasant heiresses, conscious of their prerogative and of much silver embroidery, and over-careful of their steps—such were the dancers springing, shuffling, moving on and on, as a rule with more good faith than grace, to the indefatigable shriek of the bagpipes and their own ever-increasing laughter and noisy talk.

Perfect in rhythm, exquisite in the free grace of her motion, Guenn Rodellac danced with a passionate abandon which captivated the painters and turned the elderly brains of the rustic judges. Her small head erect, her smiles by turns mocking and sweet, her cheeks flushed deliriously, her light little figure balancing, swaying, retreating, beckoning the enamoured Alain on, her clear eyes seeking Hamor’s with a kind of proud pleading—the girl was a breathing poem.

The music stopped. They called her name. She went forward to receive the prize for the best dancing. It was a long light silver chain. She took it with a little cry of pleasure. Hamor, smiling kindly at her, was standing near. “Let me put it on for you,” he said, throwing it lightly over her shoulders. Guenn’s eyelids drooped till the dark lashes shaded her cheeks, and her heart beat faster from his attention than from all her rapid exercise.

“Aha,” laughed a Nevin artist. “You flirt with them, do you?”

“Never,” returned Hamor with dignity. “I am merely kind to them.”

After a pause, of inhuman brevity it would have seemed to most people, the musician sounded the call, and the same couples for the most part formed for the more important trial, the longest continued dancing.

“This is the greater honor,” Guenn confided to Hamor in an excited whisper.

“Then I hope you may get it.”

“Ah, now I have no fear,” she said sweetly.

She took her place, smoothed her coiffe, already as smooth as glass, re-pinned her red kerchief, and patted her skirts, as if some unforeseen looseness, some stray end or fold in her extremely compact little costume might impede her movements or lessen her powers of endurance. This was going to be a very different kind of contest, she well knew. It was not speed or lightness this time, and other girls were sound of wind and strong of limb. She straightened herself and looked very much in earnest. “We must not laugh and talk at first, Alain,” she warned. Alain assented, as deeply impressed as she with the vastness of the moment. Guenn turned and cleverly measured her foes. “There’s that proud thing from Trévignan. She tossed her head at me. She thinks she’s going to win.”

“Toss yours”

“Why, I did, simpleton. I’ve tossed it at every good dancer in the line. Alain, I shall die if we don’t win! Wait”——

She had spied Nannic leaning on a cider-keg in a corner. In an instant she was near him. “Nannic—Nannic, is it luck?” bending over the pale face of the self-appointed oracle. “Quick, “she begged softly, “is it luck?”

“It is luck, this time,” croaked the child with mysterious emphasis.

Back she flew to Alain just in time to begin. “Luck, luck!” cried the bagpipes, “Luck!” echoed her happy heart, and she heard an emphatic “Luck!” in every stamp with which honest Alain marked the time—self-contained reserved stamps indeed, now since breath was precious. She saw Hamor’s face and Nannic’s; her own grew white with excitement as she moved at first with measured gentle step. On went the monotonous horn-pipe or jig; round and round moved the long circle of the gavotte, after a half-hour growing perceptibly smaller. The Trévignan heiress was crimson to the temples, and panting audibly. Many an honorable rival had retreated to gasp for breath outside. Then Guenn threw prudence to the winds. “Allons!” she cried, and danced as she never danced before. “Faster!” she called to the last relay of musicians, then laughingly beckoned them to descend from their perch. Wondering, steadily playing, they slowly obeyed. Every eye was on her. Her magnetism controlled the room. Not a trace of fatigue showed itself in her brilliant little face or in her buoyant movements. Imperious, lovely, audacious, laughing, she led the dancers with a sudden bound out of the building into the village-street, where, in this vital moment, the free air and sunshine summoned her with irresistible force. By the booths and the hurdy-gurdies back and forth went the line, now reduced to ten or fifteen couples, and followed by the crowd with the intense interest which a genuine race of any description always inspires. Again Guenn’s clever eyes took account of the weaknesses of her adversaries. “Brigitte has her hand on her side, and Marie is pale about the mouth. O joy!” Towards the church where the Pardon ceremonies that morning had begun with the procession of chanting priests, and the train of men and women with tall tapers, and gold and white banners, moving three times round the graveyard, this charming little imitation of the Pied Piper was now leading them, with a refinement of strategy, up hill. But the exhausted nature of the whole assembly could endure no more. One after another, the couples retired to private life. Last of all the bagpipes expired with a wheeze of fatigue. Alain, whether from gallantry or want of breath, had already stopped, and Guenn stood facing the crowd alone and victorious.

She extended her arms wide and threw them back, as if to exhibit beyond a doubt to all mankind the veritable person of the victor, then let them slowly fall, her lips parted, breathing fast more from excitement than fatigue. It was the zenith of her glory. She raised her impassioned eyes towards the sky; she saw the green hill-slopes and tree-tops beyond the narrow village-street, and the small stone houses and the waiting crowd with all the familiar faces watching her. Her father and Loïc and Hoël; the handsome sailors of the Merle; Meurice and André smiling broadly at her; the girls she had always known; and all the fish-wives of Plouvenec. It was her world witnessing her triumph. She could lay it now at Hamor’s feet. These poor laurels, fairly won, were the best she knew. Trembling with emotion, her whole ardent soul called to Hamor’s. Her beautiful eyes sought his with a passionate yet childlike prayer. “Your smile too, O my master!” they pleaded, “your smile, to crown my joy.”

Hamor had watched her steadily and with extreme pleasure, but at this moment he happened to be discussing a moral point with considerable animation. The Danish girl had remarked that it would be a pity little Hélène should grow vain and spoiled—posing so young, and continually hearing her beauty discussed in detail. Hamor argued that she was far better off, serving as a useful study to the painters, whatever the stimulating effects upon her self-esteem, than if she should grow up in utter unconsciousness of her beauty to toil and become coarse and ugly with sardine-packing and rough work.

Guenn saw his face turned from her—his face alone, in this great moment—his face alone in this great crowd. She pressed her hand suddenly to her side. What she felt was akin to strong physical pain. There was, with the cruel disappointment, a look of startled incredulity in her face. She stretched her head forward. Her eyes dilated. He would surely look. Bending easily towards the young artist, Hamor was fluently expounding his comfortable sophistries. Guenn made one impetuous step towards him. Her nature instinctively prompted a fierce attack of the lady and a storm of open reproach to Hamor. But love and pain had begun their work of discipline. She turned to Alain and Jeanne, who were nearest, and, moving heavily, as if all her strength and buoyancy had left her, said with a strained look about the mouth: “I shall never dance again!”

What was it all worth! The long waiting; the glowing anticipations; the sacrifice of her soft, shining hair; her eager hope to please him with the poor little gown so dearly bought; the admiration in the bold eyes of the Merle sailors; the envy of the girls; the stirring call of the bagpipes; the rapture of the circling gavotte; the joy in being young and strong and lightest of foot and prettiest of face; and all the exuberance of life and pride and ambition that had caused her in the intensity of her triumph to face the whole village and the whole unknown world beyond in tacit challenge—imperiously demanding, “Is there then anything more glorious than this, to be Guenn Rodellac and win both prizes in public contest with the best dancers of all Cornouaille?”—what was it worth? What was life itself worth? He had turned away his face. If she could flee into dark woods and crawl into a cave and lie upon the ground and die! It was too light here, and the people made a cruel noise.

“Take me away,” she cried hoarsely to Alain.

“But the prize, Guenn, the prize!” exclaimed Jeanne. “They are waiting to give it to you. Oh, it is beautiful! Oh, how glad I am! Oh, I knew you would win!”

“Have I won?” Guenn shivered from head to foot.

“Are you mad?” laughed Jeanne.

“It is fatigue. She must have one swallow of grog—no more,” Alain said authoritatively. “Jeanne, you wait here with her. I will bring it.”

“And you can wear the beautiful silver embroidery when you dance at the next Pardon.”

“I shall never dance again,” Guenn repeated with a pitiful wail in her voice.

Patient Jeanne shrugged her shoulders. Was not Guenn always odd?

But Nannic, who unperceived had limped up to them, stood looking at his sister, nodding his head in slow, solemn acquiescence, not with his mocking air, but as if something akin to pity were stirring in his ugly face.

“O Nannic! O Nannic!” Guenn grasped his arms convulsively.

“Go and get the prize,” said the boy in a curt tone. “All the fools are watching. Go, Guenn.”