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The Pipers of Tregastel

By Geoff Hellman

The Pipers of Tregastel

The following story was told to me by an old Breton farmer as we were having a well-earned drink together one hot summer’s day in his local bar, a building steeped in age, with a fascinating history of its own. I cannot vouch for its accuracy, but I can confirm that in the Parker Library at Corpus Christie College, Cambridge, there is a document written in Medieval French, around the end of the fifteenth century which tells the same tale.

Nearly everyone has heard the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamlin, when a strangely dressed piper rids the town of a plague of rats, but due to the parsimony of the inhabitants he does not get paid and as a consequence spirits away the local children; neither they nor the piper ever being seen again.

The events that I shall relate to you happened about 700 years ago, before the coming of the Black Death, in a small fishing village on the north coast of Brittany, called Tregastel. The village was ancient, even at the time of this event, and consisted of a scattering of thatched fisherman’s houses, a huge church, and a village square, where the annual Fest Noz, or village dance, was held on one evening at the beginning of June. A road ran down to the harbour where the local fishing boats were tied up when not out at sea, and where nets could often be seen drying, draped over the harbour wall.

One morning, towards the end of May, a strange vessel sailed into the tiny port. It was painted white all over, from the top of its main-mast down to the water line and even below, if you could see that far, and its sails were as white as the feathers of the swans which the fishermen sometimes saw flying overhead on their way south. No crew could be seen on the ship, and no anchor was thrown into the sea to keep it steady, but it remained riding the waves without moving, just the same.

The local people looked at this strange vessel with wonder, as they had never seen anything like it before. Soon, they found other things to occupy their minds. A north wind had started to blow in from the sea, and it grew stronger and stronger with each passing moment. In half an hour it was blowing a gale and was getting worse by the minute. The sea was very rough by now, but still the strange ship stayed where it was, even though the waves were washing over the harbour walls. The people did not know what to do. The thatch was blowing off the roofs of their houses, and the women had no one to turn to for help as all the menfolk were out in their fishing boats. In desperation, they ran into the church, slammed the huge oak door shut and cowered inside, women, children, a few old men, and the village priest, all of them listening in horror to the increasing intensity of the roar of the wind and the thunderous noise of the sea crashing over the harbour wall.

Suddenly, above the awful threnody of the wind, a wailing sound could be heard. Everyone listened, ears straining, mouths gaping. The sound seemed faint at first, rising and falling on the wind, seeming to appear and then disappear every few seconds, until it burst in upon the church. The great wooden door opened, and there stood a man dressed in a white jacket, white trousers and wearing white leather boots. He was bare headed, but his hair was tied in a pony tail and he was playing a set of Breton pipes. His companion, who may have been his wife, was clad also in white. She wore a white jacket and skirt, and had white kid boots on her feet. She was playing a black bombard.

They walked slowly to the centre of the church, the people drawing back as they were somewhat afraid.

What frightens you?” asked the piper.

The strength of the wind and the roughness of the sea”, they replied. “Our men are all out at sea, and we fear for their safety. We have come to pray for their safe return”.

Pray for their safe return”, the piper sneered. “You don’t think that that’s going to do much good, do you? I can guarantee to stop the wind and make the sea calm again in the time that it takes my companion and myself to walk the length of this church”.

That’s all very well”, said the priest, “but what do you want as payment?”

I want fifty gold pieces, and two of your children, a boy and a girl, to be my servants. I will collect these at your Fest Noz two weeks from now”.

As the sound of the wind grew ever louder the priest and the people gathered together in a huddle.

Where do we find the money?” asked one, “we’re only a poor village”.

Whose children do we give?” said another.

Don’t worry”, whispered the priest, “we’ll agree to his request and then refuse to pay him when he comes to the Fest Noz”.

So the people agreed. “We’ll accept your terms”, said the priest.

Just make sure you remember”, replied the piper, and with that, both he and his companion began to play. A peaceful melody filled the air, filling the church with a sweet sound, which grew in intensity until it burst outside and filled the air around the church. It was carried on the wind, which slowly died, and the sea became calm again.

The pipers left and no trace of them could be found. The white ship had also vanished, as mysteriously as it had arrived. “Gone to the bottom of the sea, I expect”, said an old crone. “Good riddance”, said another, looking furtively over her shoulder, and crossing herself, “that’s the last we’ll see of them, God willing”.

The days passed, the fishermen returned safely with a record catch, and everyone prepared for the Fest Noz. They were so busy, in fact, that they completely forgot about the pipers.

The fateful day arrived. It was evening, people had come from all the neighbouring villages. In the village square the dancing was in full swing. Then they heard it. A sound they hoped they would never hear again.

What’s that?” asked their neighbours, but the Tregastel folk were all struck dumb.

The music grew louder and louder until it seemed to fill everywhere with its strange lilting sound, and then the pipers appeared, both dressed in white as before.

We’ve come for our payment”, said the man, “fifty gold pieces, and two children, one boy and one girl”.

We can’t pay you said the priest. “We have very little money, and you certainly can’t have any of our children”.

With that, the pipers turned on their heel and started to play another tune. This time it was a dance, but one that no one had heard before. The pipers danced around followed by a line of village children weaving this way and that across the square. They all danced around the square and through the village down towards the harbour, and then onto the white ship, which weighed anchor and sailed away. And that’s the last that anyone saw of them. The adults were rooted to the spot and could not follow. Tregastel and the surrounding villages lost nearly all their children on that never to be forgotten day. There remained one little boy, however, who was unable to go to the festivities as he was sick in bed.

Memories are short. The Black Death arrived and decimated the whole of Europe, and the people in Brittany were not to be spared. Soon there was no one left in the village who remembered the pipers. They were either dead or had run away to avoid the plague. Much later, Tregestel became populated by new people from far away.

Exactly one hundred years to the day after the disappearance of the children, another Fest Noz was being held in the village square. Once again, people had come from miles around to join in the fun. The music was playing and the villagers were dancing when a ghostly sound filled the air. The music stopped and two strangers appeared. The man was dressed all in white, with a white jacket, white trousers and wearing white boots. His hair was in a pony tail and he was playing a set of Breton pipes. His companion, who may, or may not have been his wife, was dressed in a white jacket, white skirt and wore long white kid boots upon her feet. She was playing a black bombard.

Very soon the people, dressed in their best clothes and wearing thick wooden clogs on their feet started to dance, with the pipers in the centre of the village square and the villagers around them in a large circle. The pipers moved in and out of the dancers, first this way and then that, the woman sometimes bending down to play her bombard to a small child, and sometimes standing.

As the pipers played, the music seemed to get faster and faster with the dancers moving at an ever increasing speed. The pipers were now standing in the middle of the square, when another set of pipes could be heard. It was being played by an old man, dressed in a green jacket, green trousers and wearing heavy wooden clogs on his feet, and a battered hat upon his head. The vieillard matched their tune perfectly, when they slowed he slowed, and when they quickened he quickened his playing as well.

Then the old man started to play a different tune, and the pipers found themselves joining in. When he speeded up, they speeded up, when he slowed down, they also slowed down. They tried to break away, but something held them there, some strange force compelling them to join in the old man’s playing.

Gradually, the dancers formed into one huge circle. The old man played faster and faster, and the dancers quickened their steps to keep in time, un, deux, trois, quatre, un, deux trois, quatre, their clogs beating on the ground, keeping in time with the music. More and more people joined the dance and then the circle split into two, the new group being led by a young boy who leapt in the air twisting and turning and leading the other dancers. Now the circles broke and formed into two lines. As if by some magic, all the children were in one line moving round and round the square, weaving in and out of itself, until it reached the two pipers, making a circle around them. Un, deux, trois, quatre, un, deux, trois, quatre. Round and round the dancers twirled, faster and faster. Faster and faster the pipers played, the circle getting smaller and smaller, tighter and tighter. More and more children joined the throng.

Closer and closer to the pipers they danced, until all you could see was a huge mass of people, stamping their clogs in time with the music, un, deux, trois, quatre, un, deux, trois, quatre, the circle getting smaller and smaller all the while. Suddenly, the music stopped. The dancers unwound their circle, and there, in a heap on the floor were the two pipers, now completely lifeless, their pipes broken and their bodies bloody and shattered.

Everyone stared, and nobody said a word, except for one, “I remembered”, said the old man “I remembered”.




This page was amended on 01/08/2014
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