Chapter II. Men
The peasant has confidence in the field that nourishes him, no less than in the wood that serves to hide him. It is no easy matter to conceive an idea of the forests of Brittany. They were cities in themselves. Nothing could be more secret, more silent, or more impenetrable than those tangled thickets of briers and branches offering shelter, repose, and silence. No solitude could seem more death-like and sepulchral; if one could, like a flash of lightning, have felled the entire forest at a single stroke, a swarm of human beings would have stood forth revealed within those shades.
Concealed on the outside by coverings of stones and branches were wells, round and narrow, sinking at first vertically and then horizontally, widening under the ground like funnels, and ending in dark chambers. Wells like these discovered by Westermann in Brittany were also found in Egypt by Cambyses, – with this difference, that while the Egyptian caves in the desert held dead men only, those in the forests of Brittany contained living human beings. One of the wildest glades in the woods of Misdon, intersected by subterranean passages and cells, wherein a mysterious population moved to and fro, was called “la Grande Ville.” Another glade, just as deserted above ground, and no less populous below, was called “la Place Royale.”
This subterranean life in Brittany had existed from time immemorial. Man had there sought refuge from his brother man. Hence these hiding-places, like the dens of reptiles, hollowed out under the trees. They dated from the times of the Druids, and some of the crypts were as old as the dolmens. All the evil spirits of legend and the monsters of history passed over this gloomy land, – Teutates, Cæsar, Hoël, Néomène, Geoffrey of England, Alain of the iron glove, Pierre Mauclerc, the French house of Blois and the English house of Montfort, kings and dukes, the nine barons of Brittany, the judges of the Great Days, the counts of Nantes who wrangled with the counts of Rennes, highwaymen, banditti, Free Lances, René II., the Viscount de Rohan, the king’s governors, the “good Duke de Chaulnes” who hung the peasants under the windows of Madame de Sévigné, the seignorial butcheries in the fifteenth century, religious wars in the sixteenth and seventeenth, and the thirty thousand dogs trained to hunt men in the eighteenth. During this wild trampling, the people made up their minds that it would be better for them to disappear. One after the other, the troglodytes seeking to escape from the Celts, the Celts from the Romans, the Bretons from the Normans, the Huguenots from the Catholics, and the smugglers from the excise officers, had sought refuge first in the forests, then underground. It is thus that tyranny forces the nations to the last resource of the hunted beast. For two thousand years had despotism, in all its varied forms, – of conquest, vassalage, fanaticism, and taxation, – hunted down this unfortunate and distracted Brittany; it was like an inexorable battue constantly changing its method of attack. Men disappeared underground. While that terror which is a sort of rage was brooding in human souls, and the dens in the forests were in waiting for them, the French Republic sprang into existence. Brittany, thinking this compulsory deliverance but a new form of oppression, broke into open rebellion, – a mistake usually made by enslaved peoples.