A Breton Survival

THERE is an element of pleasure in ignorance that it is sometimes an unkindness to attempt to take away. With the loss of ignorance goes the loss of satisfaction in making one’s discovery for one’s self. It would be difficult indeed, after experiencing it, to forget the exquisite surprise of coming suddenly upon one of the familiar customs of Brittany, and having its meaning and its historical association gradually dawn upon the mind. Brittany is full of an atmosphere of hoariness. Dolmens and menhirs, “ lines ” and tumuli, mark, of course, the far-off culminating point of her antiquity. But the rocks and even the vegetation seem here more rusted and time-worn than they do in other old provinces. The very broom that mingles everywhere its yellow blossoms with the pink of the heather smacks, to the imagination, of the centuries when it gave its name to the Plantagenets of England. Yet in spite of the vast age and awesomeness of the prehistoric remains, the attractiveness and interest of the architecture of the towns and churches, and the beauty of the scenery, there is nothing that fascinates the eye more at the time, or that fastens itself more tenderly in the memory afterwards, than the bit of battered shrub that hangs by a nail in the wall over the front door of every wayside inn or tavern.

It is true that the prevalence everywhere of this primitive signboard eloquently contradicts the proverb commonly attributed to our own greatest poet, who is quoted as saying that “ good wine needs no bush.” But it is with the axiom of the poet, and not with the custom of the country, that one finds one’s self ready to fall out in rustic Brittany. It is impossible not to feel that the local advertisement of a host’s good cheer is the most apposite that could be found. To realize its complete appropriateness, one must come upon a tavern where the bush over the doorway has been freshly renewed. Then it is easy to see what in the dried and shriveled state of the bunch may have escaped notice, namely, that it is of mistletoe. But the mistletoe in Brittany grows upon the pommiers, or apple trees ; the pommiers give the fruit for cider; cider is the drink of the country ; it is to a cup of good, homely, home-made, familiar cider that the thirsty wayfarer is hidden to come and sit down. Could the chain of logic, even with the logical French disposition, be better sustained ? And is it any wonder that, as one bowls along the hard, white, hoardlike Breton roads, one is tempted, in passing an orchard, to keep an open eye for the curious green of the leaves of the shy parasite that feeds on the substance of the oldest of the gnarly, aged Breton apple trees ?

Once in a while, though this is rare, there is to be seen swinging in the breeze, beside the ubiquitous tuft of gui, or mistletoe, still another bait hung out for the enticement of dry throats. This is, in shape and color, something like an old battered straw hat, though it has not the remotest kinship to the fascinating felt or muslin head covering of the Breton man or woman. Possibly an ingenious tourist may at once penetrate its identity and its significance. But there have been those who have been able to discover only by dint of questioning that the strange affiche is a beehive, and that its announcement is that a drink concocted of honey is sold on the premises. When the interpretation has been learned, the mead of our own Saxon forefathers flashes into recollection, and once more one enjoys the rare sensation of coming face to face with something that is part and parcel of a remote past.

The Breton peasant is not, even in modern France, the sole survivor in the old custom of advertising his wine by a bush. On turning a corner within a stone’s throw of the stately Cathedral of St. Gatien, at Tours, one comes suddenly upon a large sapling of evergreen, which projects from over a barkeeper’s front door halfway across the narrow street. It is by no means the only one of its kind in the elegant modernized little capital. By looking carefully along the vista of any of the narrower streets one is almost sure to catch a glimpse of a bouchon de cabaret, as it is technically called, though bouchon short and simple is its familiar designation. Sometimes the bouchon is a mere dried stick, sometimes it is a lively fresh evergreen ; but always, in Tours, whatever its state of preservation, it is a bush of a goodly size, and of the fir species. The vintner who hangs it out does, unconsciously, more than offer to slake the thirst of a customer : he helps to appease the desire for the picturesque which, in a more or less insistent form, is chronic with the sightseer from overseas.

The choice of the bough of sapin by the publicans of Tours is not made from lack of a supply of mistletoe. Mistletoe in Touraine is as thick as blackberry bushes in New England. It has a more airy lodgment, in the branches of the tall poplar, and is always tantalizingly out of reach of the would-be possessor of a bit fresh from the limb. But there is not a poplar grove in the valleys of the Cher and the Loire that is not richly ornamented with the yellowish tufts of this mystic plant. Nor were its waxen berries lacking in England in the days when Rosalind was made to declare that “ to good wine they do put good bushes.” To Shakespeare, however, it was the “ baleful mistletoe,” which grew, not on the social, liberal apple tree, but in lonely solitudes, upon trees “ forlorn and lean,” a companion to the “ nightly owl or fatal raven.” Why the ivy should have seemed to his contemporaries a growth of genial omen is a point not clear to the uninstructed. But if scholarship and tradition are not at fault, it was a clump of this last-named evergreen that composed the bush at the vintner’s door in Elizabethan England. It no doubt served its purpose excellently in catching the willing eye of the passer-by. To one traveler’s mind, at least, they have made, nevertheless, a more poetical and more suggestive choice of a bush in the picturesque corner of France that has been a fountain of so much happy inspiration to the painter and the novelist.