The Spectre Laundresses
: Breton Legends
The Bretons are born in sin, even as other men, but never have they
been wanting in care for the souls of their faithful departed. They
take tender pity upon those who burn in purgatory, and earnestly
strive to redeem them from their fiery trial. Every Sunday, after
Mass, they kneel and plead for their suffering souls upon the very
earth in which their poor bodies are mouldering away.
It is in the Black M
nth, as they call November, that they
especially attach themselves to this pious duty. When the Messenger of
Winter arrives, each one bethinks himself of those who are gone to
the judgment-seat of God. Masses are said for them at the altar of the
Dead; in their behalf are tapers kindled, and vows made to saints in
highest veneration; little children are taken to offer their innocent
prayers upon the grave-stones; and after Vespers the priest comes out
of church to bless the earth to which their dust has been committed.
On this night also is it that our Lord vouchsafes some respite to their
sufferings, and permits them to return once more and pay a visit to the
hearth-stones of their former homes. Then are the dead as numerous in
the homesteads of the living as the yellow leaves that rustle in the
deep dry lanes; and therefore it is that all good Christians leave
the board spread and the fire blazing, that the unwonted guests may,
if they will, refresh themselves.
But if it is so with all who are truly devoted to the service of the
Blessed Mother and her divine Son, there are also children of the Black
Angel ("l'ange noir"), who forget those that were once nearest to their
hearts. Wilherm Postik was one of these. His father had died without
desiring to receive the last Sacraments; and, as the proverb has it,
Kadiou is his father's own son. Wilherm gave himself up, body and soul,
to forbidden pleasures, dancing during Mass-time, whenever he could
find an opportunity, and drinking with rascally horse-dealers when he
should have been in church. Nevertheless, God had not left him without
enough of warnings. Within the same year had his mother, his sisters,
and his wife been carried off by a contagious disease. Many a time,
too, had the good cure exposed to him his evil deeds, showing him that
he was a scandal to the whole parish, and urging him to repentance;
but all was in vain.
Meanwhile the fine weather went by. The feast of All Souls arrived,
and all good Christians, clad in decent mourning, repaired to church
to pray for the faithful departed. But for Wilherm, he dressed himself
out in his best, and set out for the neighbouring town, where he was
sure to find plenty of reprobate sailors and reckless women.
All the time devoted by others to the solace of the suffering souls
he spent there in drinking, gambling, and singing vile songs; nor
did he think of returning till close upon midnight, when every body
else had gone home wearied with iniquity. For him, he had a frame of
iron for sinful pleasures; and he quitted the drinking-house as well
disposed for a fresh bout as when he entered it.
Heated with drink, he went along, singing at the top of his voice,
though his songs were such as the boldest are apt to give out in
an undertone. He passed the wayside crosses without dropping his
voice or uncovering his head, and struck out right and left with his
walking-stick amongst the tufts of broom, regardless of the holy dead
who thronged every path.
At last the road divided, giving him his choice of two ways homeward;
the one longer about, but safer, under the blessing of God, the other
more direct, but haunted by spirits. Many a one in passing by that
way had heard noises and seen sights that could be only told of in a
cheerful assembly, and within arm's-length of the holy-water stoup. But
Wilherm feared nothing; so he struck at once into the shorter path,
at a pace that made his heavy shoes ring against the stones.
Neither moon nor stars cheered the night, the leaves trooped before
the driving wind, the brooks trickled dismally adown the hill-sides,
the bushes shivered like a man afraid, and through the midnight
stillness the steps of Wilherm echoed like a giant's tread. Yet
nothing daunted him, and on he went.
But as he passed the ruins of the old manor-house, he plainly heard
the weather-vane call to him as it creaked,
"Go back, go back, go back!"
Still Wilherm went on. He came up to the waterfall, and the water
"Cross me not, cross me not, cross me not!"
Wilherm set his foot upon the well-worn stepping stones, and crossed
the stream. He came to an old hollow oak-tree, and the wind that
whistled in its branches cried,
"Stay here, stay here, stay here!"
But he struck his staff against the dead tree in passing, and hurried
At last he came into the haunted vale, and midnight struck from the
three parish-church towers. Wilherm began to whistle a jovial air;
but just as he came to the fourth verse, he heard the sound of tireless
wheels, and saw a cart approaching covered with a funeral pall.
Wilherm knew it for a hearse. It was drawn by six black horses,
and driven by Ankou himself, with an iron whip in his hand,
and ever crying as he went,
"Turn aside, or I turn thee back!"
Wilherm gave him way without being disconcerted.
"What are you doing here, Squire White?" he questioned boldly.
"I make prize, and by surprise," replied Ankou.
"That is to say, you're thievish and treacherous," continued Wilherm.
"I am he that strikes without distinction and without regret."
"That is to say, a fool and a brute. Then I wonder no more, my fine
fellow, that you're a regular inhabitant of the four bishoprics,
for to you the whole proverb belongs. But what are you in such
haste about to-day?"
"I am going to fetch Wilherm Postik," replied the phantom as he
The profligate laughed aloud, and went on his way. As he came up to
the little sloe-hedge leading to the washing-ground, he saw two white
females hanging linen on the bushes.
"On my life," said he, "here are some damsels not much afraid of the
night-dews! What are you about here at this time, my little doves?"
"We wash, we dry, we sew!" replied the two women both at once.
"But what?" asked the young man.
"The winding-sheet of one that yet walks and speaks."
"A corpse! Pardieu! Tell me his name."
Louder than before laughed Wilherm, and went down the little rugged
But as he went on he heard more and more distinctly the beetle of
the spectre laundresses striking on the douez stones, and ere
long they themselves were to be seen, beating at their death-shrouds,
and chanting the sorrowful refrain:
"If no good soul our hands will stay,
We must toil till judgment-day;
In stormy wind, or clear moonlight,
We must wash the death-shroud white."
As soon as they perceived this boon companion, they all rushed forward
with loud cries, offering each her winding-sheet, that he might help
them to wring out the water.
"Amongst friends we must not scruple to do a good turn," replied
Wilherm gaily; "but one at a time, my pretty laundresses, a man has
but two hands."
So laying down his walking-stick, he took the end of the shroud offered
by one of the ghosts, taking care to wring the same way that she did;
for he had heard of old that this was the only way to escape being
shivered to atoms.
But whilst they thus wrung the winding-sheet, behold, the other
spectres surrounded Wilherm, who recognised amongst them his aunt,
his wife, his mother, and his sisters, who cried aloud,
"A thousand curses upon him who leaves his own flesh and blood to
suffer torments! A thousand curses!"
And they shook their streaming locks, and whirled aloft their
snow-white beetles; while from all the douez of the valley, along
the hedgerows, and floating over the commons far and wide, there came
the sound of ghostly voices echoing the same cry,
"A thousand curses! a thousand curses!"
Wilherm, beside himself with terror, felt his hair stand up on end,
and, forgetting in his confusion the precaution hitherto observed, he
began to wring the contrary way. In the same instant the winding-sheet
grasped his hands as in a vice, and he fell, brayed by the iron arms
of the spectre laundress.
A young girl of Henvik, named Fantik-ar-Fur, passing at daybreak near
the douez, saw Wilherm stretched upon the blue stones. Thinking that
he had lain down there to sleep whilst tipsy, the child drew near to
wake him with a sprig of broom; but finding he remained motionless,
she took fright and ran to the village to tell the news.
A number of the inhabitants came with the cure, the sexton, and the
notary, who was mayor of the place. The body was taken up, placed on
a wagon, and drawn home by oxen; but the blessed candles that were
lighted continually went out, a token of the fearful fate that had
overtaken Wilherm Postik.
So his body was deposited outside the church-yard walls, in the
resting-place of dogs and reprobates.
The belief in spectre laundresses is universal in Brittany.