Rousing himself at last, he proceeded mechanically to arrange his belongings in the room, formerly inhabited by his cousin de Buxieres. He had hardly finished when Zelie made her appearance with some plates and a tablecloth, and began to lay the covers. Seeing the fire had gone out, the little servant uttered an exclamation of dismay.
"Oh!" cried she, "so the wood didn't flare!"
He gazed at her as if she were talking Hebrew, and it was at least a minute before he understood that by "flare" she meant kindle.
"Well, well!" she continued, "I'll go and fetch some splinters."
She returned in a few moments, with a basket filled with the large splinters thrown off by the woodchoppers in straightening the logs: she piled these up on the andirons, and then, applying her mouth vigorously to a long hollow tin tube, open at both ends, which she carried with her, soon succeeded in starting a steady flame.
"Look there!" said she, in a tone implying a certain degree of contempt for the "city Monsieur" who did not even know how to keep up a fire, "isn't that clever? Now I must lay the cloth."
While she went about her task, arranging the plates, the water-bottle, and glasses symmetrically around the table, Julien tried to engage her in conversation. But the little maiden, either because she had been cautioned beforehand, or because she did not very well comprehend M. de Buxieres's somewhat literary style of French, would answer only in monosyllables, or else speak only in patois, so that Julien had to give up the idea of getting any information out of her. Certainly, Mademoiselle Vincart was right in saying that he did not know the language of these people.
He ate without appetite the breakfast on which Manette had employed all her culinary art, barely tasted the roast partridge, and to Zelie's great astonishment, mingled the old Burgundy wine with a large quantity of water.
"You will inform Madame Sejournant," said he to the girl, as he folded his napkin, "that I am not a great eater, and that one dish will suffice me in future."
He left her to clear away, and went out to look at the domain which he was to call his own. It did not take him very long. The twenty or thirty white houses, which constituted the village and lay sleeping in the wooded hollow like eggs in a nest, formed a curious circular line around the chateau. In a few minutes he had gone the whole length of it, and the few people he met gave him only a passing glance, in which curiosity seemed to have more share than any hospitable feeling. He entered the narrow church under the patronage of Our Lady; the gray light which entered through the moldy shutters showed a few scattered benches of oak, and the painted wooden altar. He knelt down and endeavored to collect his thoughts, but the rude surroundings of this rustic sanctuary did not tend to comfort his troubled spirit, and he became conscious of a sudden withering of all religious fervor. He turned and left the place, taking a path that led through the forest. It did not interest him more than the village; the woods spoke no language which his heart could understand; he could not distinguish an ash from an oak, and all the different plants were included by him under one general term of "weeds"; but he needed bodily fatigue and violent physical agitation to dissipate the overpowering feeling of discouragement that weighed down his spirits. He walked for several hours without seeing anything, nearly got lost, and did not reach home till after dark. Once more the little servant appeared with his meal, which he ate in an abstracted manner, without even asking whether he were eating veal or mutton; then he went immediately to bed, and fell into an uneasy sleep. And thus ended his first day.
The next morning, about nine o'clock, he was informed that the justice of the peace, the notary, and the clerk, were waiting for him below. He hastened down and found the three functionaries busy conferring in a low voice with Manette and Claudet. The conversation ceased suddenly upon his arrival, and during the embarrassing silence that followed, all eyes were directed toward Julien, who saluted the company and delivered to the justice the documents proving his identity, begging him to proceed without delay to the legal breaking of the seals. They accordingly began operations, and went through all the house without interruption, accompanied by Claudet, who stood stiff and sullen behind the justice, taking advantage of every little opportunity to testify his dislike and ill-feeling toward the legal heir of Claude de Buxieres. Toward eleven o'clock, the proceedings came to an end, the papers were signed, and Julien was regularly invested with his rights. But the tiresome formalities were not yet over: he had to invite the three officials to breakfast. This event, however, had been foreseen by Manette. Since early morning she had been busy preparing a bountiful repast, and had even called Julien de Buxieres aside in order to instruct him in the hospitable duties which his position and the customs of society imposed upon him.
As they entered the dining-room, young de Buxieres noticed that covers were laid for five people; he began to wonder who the fifth guest could be, when an accidental remark of the clerk showed him that the unknown was no other than Claudet. The fact was that Manette could not bear the idea that her son, who had always sat at table with the late Claude de Buxieres, should be consigned to the kitchen in presence of these distinguished visitors from Auberive, and had deliberately laid a place for him at the master's table, hoping that the latter would not dare put any public affront upon Claudet. She was not mistaken in her idea. Julien, anxious to show a conciliatory spirit, and making an effort to quell his own repugnance, approached the 'grand chasserot', who was standing at one side by himself, and invited him to take his seat at the table.
"Thank you," replied Claudet, coldly, "I have breakfasted." So saying, he turned his back on M. de Buxieres, who returned to the hall, vexed and disconcerted.
The repast was abundant, and seemed of interminable length to Julien. The three guests, whose appetites had been sharpened by their morning exercise, did honor to Madame Sejournant's cooking; they took their wine without water, and began gradually to thaw under the influence of their host's good Burgundy; evincing their increased liveliness by the exchange of heavy country witticisms, or relating noisy and interminable stories of their hunting adventures. Their conversation was very trying to Julien's nerves. Nevertheless, he endeavored to fulfil his duties as master of the house, throwing in a word now and then, so as to appear interested in their gossip, but he ate hardly a mouthful. His features had a pinched expression, and every now and then he caught himself trying to smother a yawn. His companions at the table could not understand a young man of twenty-eight years who drank nothing but water, scorned all enjoyment in eating, and only laughed forcedly under compulsion. At last, disturbed by the continued taciturnity of their host, they rose from the table sooner than their wont, and prepared to take leave. Before their departure, Arbillot the notary, passed his arm familiarly through that of Julien and led him into an adjoining room, which served as billiard-hall and library.
"Monsieur de Buxieres," said he, pointing to a pile of law papers heaped upon the green cloth of the table; "see what I have prepared for you; you will find there all the titles and papers relating to the real estate, pictures, current notes, and various matters of your inheritance. You had better keep them under lock and key, and study them at your leisure. You will find them very interesting. I need hardly say," he added, "that I am at your service for any necessary advice or explanation. But, in respect to any minor details, you can apply to Claudet Sejournant, who is very intelligent in such matters, and a good man of business. And, by the way, Monsieur de Buxieres, will you allow me to commend the young man especially to your kindly consideration."
But Julien interrupted him with an imperious gesture, and replied, frowning angrily:
"If you please, Maitre Arbillot, we will not enter upon that subject. I have already tried my best to show a kindly feeling toward Monsieur Claudet, but I have been only here twenty-four hours, and he has already found opportunities for affronting me twice. I beg you not to speak of him again."
The notary, who was just lighting his pipe, stopped suddenly. Moved by a feeling of good-fellowship for the 'grand chasserot', who had, however, enjoined him to silence, he had it on the tip of his tongue to inform Julien of the facts concerning the parentage of Claudet de Buxieres; but, however much he wished to render Claudet a service, he was still more desirous of respecting the feelings of his client; so, between the hostility of one party and the backwardness of the other, he chose the wise part of inaction.
"That is sufficient, Monsieur de Buxieres," replied he, "I will not press the matter."
Thereupon he saluted his client, and went to rejoin the justice and the clerk, and the three comrades wended their way to Auberive through the woods, discussing the incidents of the breakfast, and the peculiarities of the new proprietor.
"This de Buxieres," said M. Destourbet, "does not at all resemble his deceased cousin Claude!"
"I can quite understand why the two families kept apart from each other," observed the notary, jocosely.
"Poor 'chasserot'!" whined Seurrot the clerk, whom the wine had rendered tender-hearted; "he will not have a penny. I pity him with all my heart!"
As soon as the notary had departed, Julien came to the determination of transforming into a study the hall where he had been conferring with Maitre Arbillot, which was dignified with the title of "library," although it contained at the most but a few hundred odd volumes. The hall was spacious, and lighted by two large windows opening on the garden; the floor was of oak, and there was a great fireplace where the largest logs used in a country in which the wood costs nothing could find ample room to blaze and crackle. It took the young man several days to make the necessary changes, and during that time he enjoyed a respite from the petty annoyances worked by the steady hostility of Manette Sejournant and her son. To the great indignation of the inhabitants of the chateau, he packed off the massive billiard-table, on which Claude de Buxieres had so often played in company with his chosen friends, to the garret; after which the village carpenter was instructed to make the bookshelves ready for the reception of Julien's own books, which were soon to arrive by express. When he had got through with these labors, he turned his attention to the documents placed in his hands by the notary, endeavoring to find out by himself the nature of his revenues. He thought this would be a very easy matter, but he soon found that it was encumbered with inextricable difficulties.
A large part of the products of the domain consisted of lumber ready for sale. Claude de Buxieres had been in the habit of superintending, either personally or through his intermediate agents, one half of the annual amount of lumber felled for market, the sale of which was arranged with the neighboring forge owners by mutual agreement; the other half was disposed of by notarial act. This latter arrangement was clear and comprehensible; the price of sale and the amounts falling due were both clearly indicated in the deed. But it was quite different with the bargains made by the owner himself, which were often credited by notes payable at sight, mostly worded in confused terms, unintelligible to any but the original writer. Julien became completely bewildered among these various documents, the explanations in which were harder to understand than conundrums. Although greatly averse to following the notary's advice as to seeking Claudet's assistance, he found himself compelled to do so, but was met by such laconic and surly answers that he concluded it would be more dignified on his part to dispense with the services of one who was so badly disposed toward him. He therefore resolved to have recourse to the debtors themselves, whose names he found, after much difficulty, in the books. These consisted mostly of peasants of the neighborhood, who came to the chateau at his summons; but as soon as they came into Julien's presence, they discovered, with that cautious perception which is an instinct with rustic minds, that before them stood a man completely ignorant of the customs of the country, and very poorly informed on Claude de Buxieres's affairs. They made no scruple of mystifying this "city gentleman," by means of ambiguous statements and cunning reticence. The young man could get no enlightenment from them; all he clearly understood was, that they were making fun of him, and that he was not able to cope with these country bumpkins, whose shrewdness would have done honor to the most experienced lawyer.
After a few days he became discouraged and disgusted. He could see nothing but trouble ahead; he seemed surrounded by either open enemies or people inclined to take advantage of him. It was plain that all the population of the village looked upon him as an intruder, a troublesome master, a stranger whom they would like to intimidate and send about his business. Manette Sejournant, who was always talking about going, still remained in the chateau, and was evidently exerting her influence to keep her son also with her. The fawning duplicity of this woman was unbearable to Julien; he had not the energy necessary either to subdue her, or to send her away, and she appeared every morning before him with a string of hypocritical grievances, and opposing his orders with steady, irritating inertia. It seemed as if she were endeavoring to render his life at Vivey hateful to him, so that he would be compelled finally to beat a retreat.
One morning in November he had reached such a state of moral fatigue and depression that, as he sat listlessly before the library fire, the question arose in his mind whether it would not be better to rent the chateau, place the property in the hands of a manager, and take himself and his belongings back to Nancy, to his little room in the Rue Stanislaus, where, at any rate, he could read, meditate, or make plans for the future without being every moment tormented by miserable, petty annoyances. His temper was becoming soured, his nerves were unstrung, and his mind was so disturbed that he fancied he had none but enemies around him. A cloudy melancholy seemed to invade his brain; he was seized with a sudden fear that he was about to have an attack of persecution-phobia, and began to feel his pulse and interrogate his sensations to see whether he could detect any of the premonitory symptoms.
While he was immersing himself in this unwholesome atmosphere of hypochondria, the sound of a door opening and shutting made him start; he turned quickly around, saw a young woman approaching and smiling at him, and at last recognized Reine Vincart.
She wore the crimped linen cap and the monk's hood in use among the peasants of the richer class. Her wavy, brown hair, simply parted in front, fell in rebellious curls from under the border of her cap, of which the only decoration was a bow of black ribbon; the end floating gracefully over her shoulders. The sharp November air had imparted a delicate rose tint to her pale complexion, and additional vivacity to her luminous, dark eyes.
"Good-morning, Monsieur de Buxieres," said she, in her clear, pleasantly modulated voice; "I think you may remember me? It is not so long since we saw each other at the farm."
"Mademoiselle Vincart!" exclaimed Julien. "Why, certainly I remember you!"
He drew a chair toward the fire, and offered it to her. This charming apparition of his cordial hostess at La Thuiliere evoked the one pleasant remembrance in his mind since his arrival in Vivey. It shot, like a ray of sunlight, across the heavy fog of despair which had enveloped the new master of the chateau. It was, therefore, with real sincerity that he repeated:
"I both know you and am delighted to see you. I ought to have called upon you before now, to thank you for your kind hospitality, but I have had so much to do, and," his face clouding over, "so many annoyances!"
"Really?" said she, softly, gazing pityingly at him; "you must not take offence, but, it is easy to see you have been worried! Your features are drawn and you have an anxious look. Is it that the air of Vivey does not agree with you?"
"It is not the air," replied Julien, in an irritated tone, "it is the people who do not agree with me. And, indeed," sighed he, "I do not think I agree any better with them. But I need not annoy other persons merely because I am annoyed myself! Mademoiselle Vincart, what can I do to be of service to you? Have you anything to ask me?"
"Not at all!" exclaimed Reine, with a frank smile; "I not only have nothing to ask from you, but I have brought something for you—six hundred francs for wood we had bought from the late Monsieur de Buxieres, during the sale of the Ronces forest." She drew from under her cloak a little bag of gray linen, containing gold, five-franc pieces and bank-notes. "Will you be good enough to verify the amount?" continued she, emptying the bag upon the table; "I think it is correct. You must have somewhere a memorandum of the transaction in writing."
Julien began to look through the papers, but he got bewildered with the number of rough notes jotted down on various slips of paper, until at last, in an impatient fit of vexation, he flung the whole bundle away, scattering the loose sheets all over the floor.
"Who can find anything in such a chaos?" he exclaimed. "I can't see my way through it, and when I try to get information from the people here, they seem to have an understanding among themselves to leave me under a wrong impression, or even to make my uncertainties still greater! Ah! Mademoiselle Reine, you were right! I do not understand the ways of your country folk. Every now and then I am tempted to leave everything just as it stands, and get away from this village, where the people mistrust me and treat me like an enemy!"
Reine gazed at him with a look of compassionate surprise. Stooping quietly down, she picked up the scattered papers, and while putting them in order on the table, she happened to see the one relating to her own business.
"Here, Monsieur de Buxieres," said she, "here is the very note you were looking for. You seem to be somewhat impatient. Our country folk are not so bad as you think; only they do not yield easily to new influences. The beginning is always difficult for them. I know something about it myself. When I returned from Dijon to take charge of the affairs at La Thuiliere, I had no more experience than you, Monsieur, and I had great difficulty in accomplishing anything. Where should we be now, if I had suffered myself to be discouraged, like you, at the very outset?"
Julien raised his eyes toward the speaker, coloring with embarrassment to hear himself lectured by this young peasant girl, whose ideas, however, had much more virility than his own.
"You reason like a man, Mademoiselle Vincart," remarked he, admiringly, "pray, how old are you?"
"Twenty-two years; and you, Monsieur de Buxieres?"
"I shall soon be twenty-eight."
"There is not much difference between us; still, you are the older, and what I have done, you can do also."
"Oh!" sighed he, "you have a love of action. I have a love of repose—I do not like to act."
"So much the worse!" replied Reine, very decidedly. "A man ought to show more energy. Come now, Monsieur de Buxieres, will you allow me to speak frankly to you? If you wish people to come to you, you must first get out of yourself and go to seek them; if you expect your neighbor to show confidence and good-will toward you, you must be open and good-natured toward him."
"That plan has not yet succeeded with two persons around here," replied Julien, shaking his head.
"The Sejournants, mother and son. I tried to be pleasant with Claudet, and received from both only rebuffs and insolence."
"Oh! as to Claudet," resumed she, impulsively, "he is excusable. You can not expect he will be very gracious in his reception of the person who has supplanted him—"
"Supplanted?—I do not understand."
"What!" exclaimed Reine, "have they not told you anything, then? That is wrong. Well, at the risk of meddling in what does not concern me, I think it is better to put you in possession of the facts: Your deceased cousin never was married, but he had a child all the same—Claudet is his son, and he intended that he should be his heir also. Every one around the country knows that, for Monsieur de Buxieres made no secret of it."
"Claudet, the son of Claude de Buxieres?" ejaculated Julien, with amazement.
"Yes; and if the deceased had had the time to make his will, you would not be here now. But," added the young girl, coloring, "don't tell Claudet I have spoken to you about it. I have been talking here too long. Monsieur de Buxieres, will you have the goodness to reckon up your money and give me a receipt?"
She had risen, and Julien gazed wonderingly at the pretty country girl who had shown herself so sensible, so resolute, and so sincere. He bent his head, collected the money on the table, scribbled hastily a receipt and handed it to Reine.
"Thank you, Mademoiselle," said he, "you are the first person who has been frank with me, and I am grateful to you for it."
"Au revoir, Monsieur de Buxieres."
She had already gained the door while he made an awkward attempt to follow her. She turned toward him with a smile on her lips and in her eyes.
"Come, take courage!" she added, and then vanished.
Julien went back dreamily, and sat down again before the hearth. The revelation made by Reine Vincart had completely astounded him. Such was his happy inexperience of life, that he had not for a moment suspected the real position of Manette and her son at the chateau. And it was this young girl who had opened his eyes to the fact! He experienced a certain degree of humiliation in having had so little perception. Now that Reine's explanation enabled him to view the matter from a different standpoint, he found Claudet's attitude toward him both intelligible and excusable. In fact, the lad was acting in accordance with a very legitimate feeling of mingled pride and anger. After all, he really was Claude de Buxieres's son—a natural son, certainly, but one who had been implicitly acknowledged both in private and in public by his father. If the latter had had time to draw up the incomplete will which had been found, he would, to all appearances, have made Claudet his heir. Therefore, the fortune of which Julien had become possessed, he owed to some unexpected occurrence, a mere chance. Public opinion throughout the entire village tacitly recognized and accepted the 'grand chasserot' as son of the deceased, and if this recognition had been made legally, he would have been rightful owner of half the property.
"Now that I have been made acquainted with this position of affairs, what is my duty?" asked Julien of himself. Devout in feeling and in practice, he was also very scrupulous in all matters of conscience, and the reply was not long in coming: that both religion and uprightness commanded him to indemnify Claudet for the wrong caused to him by the carelessness of Claude de Buxieres. Reine had simply told him the facts without attempting to give him any advice, but it was evident that, according to her loyal and energetic way of thinking, there was injustice to be repaired. Julien was conscious that by acting to that effect he would certainly gain the esteem and approbation of his amiable hostess of La Thuiliere, and he felt a secret satisfaction in the idea. He rose suddenly, and, leaving the library, went to the kitchen, where Manette Sejournant was busy preparing the breakfast.
"Where is your son?" said he. "I wish to speak with him."
Manette looked inquiringly at him.
"My son," she replied, "is in the garden, fixing up a box to take away his little belongings in—he doesn't want to stay any longer at other peoples' expense. And, by the way, Monsieur de Buxieres, have the goodness to provide yourself with a servant to take my place; we shall not finish the week here."
Without making any reply, Julien went out by the door, leading to the garden, and discovered Claudet really occupied in putting together the sides of a packing-case. Although the latter saw the heir of the de Buxieres family approaching, he continued driving in the nails without appearing to notice his presence.
"Monsieur Claudet," said Julien, "can you spare me a few minutes? I should like to talk to you."
Claudet raised his head, hesitated for a moment, then, throwing away his hammer and putting on his loose jacket, muttered:
"I am at your service."
They left the outhouse together, and entered an avenue of leafy lime-trees, which skirted the banks of the stream.
"Monsieur," said Julien, stopping in the middle of the walk, "excuse me if I venture on a delicate subject—but I must do so—now that I know all."
"Beg pardon—what do you know?" demanded Claudet, reddening.
"I know that you are the son of my cousin de Buxieres," replied the young man with considerable emotion.
The 'grand chasserot' knitted his brows.
"Ah!" said he, bitterly, "my mother's tongue has been too long, or else that blind magpie of a notary has been gossiping, notwithstanding my instructions."
"No; neither your mother nor Maitre Arbillot has been speaking to me. What I know I have learned from a stranger, and I know also that you would be master here if Claude de Buxieres had taken the precaution to write out his will. His negligence on that point has been a wrong to you, which it is my duty to repair."
"What's that!" exclaimed Claudet. Then he muttered between his teeth: "You owe me nothing. The law is on your side."
"I am not in the habit of consulting the law when it is a question of duty. Besides, Monsieur de Buxieres treated you openly as his son; if he had done what he ought, made a legal acknowledgment, you would have the right, even in default of a will, to one half of his patrimony. This half I come to offer to you, and beg of you to accept it."
Claudet was astonished, and opened his great, fierce brown eyes with amazement. The proposal seemed so incredible that he thought he must be dreaming, and mistrusted what he heard.
"What! You offer me half the inheritance?" faltered he.
"Yes; and I am ready to give you a certified deed of relinquishment as soon as you wish—"
Claudet interrupted him with a violent shrug of the shoulders.
"I make but one condition," pursued Julien.
"What is it?" asked Claudet, still on the defensive.
"That you will continue to live here, with me, as in your father's time."
Claudet was nearly overcome by this last suggestion, but a lingering feeling of doubt and a kind of innate pride prevented him from giving way, and arrested the expression of gratitude upon his lips.
"What you propose is very generous, Monsieur," said he, "but you have not thought much about it, and later you might regret it. If I were to stay here, I should be a restraint upon you—"
"On the contrary, you would be rendering me a service, for I feel myself incapable of managing the property," replied Julien, earnestly. Then, becoming more confidential as his conscience was relieved of its burden, he continued, pleasantly: "You see I am not vain about admitting the fact. Come, cousin, don't be more proud than I am. Accept freely what I offer with hearty goodwill!"
As he concluded these words, he felt his hand seized, and affectionately pressed in a strong, robust grip.
"You are a true de Buxieres!" exclaimed Claudet, choking with emotion. "I accept—thanks—but, what have I to give you in exchange?—nothing but my friendship; but that will be as firm as my grip, and will last all my life."
ETEXT EDITOR'S BOOKMARKS:
Amusements they offered were either wearisome or repugnant Dreaded the monotonous regularity of conjugal life Fawning duplicity Had not been spoiled by Fortune's gifts Hypocritical grievances I am not in the habit of consulting the law It does not mend matters to give way like that Opposing his orders with steady, irritating inertia There are some men who never have had any childhood To make a will is to put one foot into the grave Toast and white wine (for breakfast) Vague hope came over him that all would come right
A WOODLAND QUEEN
('Reine des Bois')
By ANDRE THEURIET
THE DAWN OF LOVE
Winter had come, and with it all the inclement accompaniments usual in this bleak and bitter mountainous country: icy rains, which, mingled with sleet, washed away whirlpools of withered leaves that the swollen streams tossed noisily into the ravines; sharp, cutting winds from the north, bleak frosts hardening the earth and vitrifying the cascades; abundant falls of snow, lasting sometimes an entire week. The roads had become impassable. A thick, white crust covered alike the pasture-lands, the stony levels, and the wooded slopes, where the branches creaked under the weight of their snowy burdens. A profound silence encircled the village, which seemed buried under the successive layers of snowdrifts. Only here and there, occasionally, did a thin line of blue smoke, rising from one of the white roofs, give evidence of any latent life among the inhabitants. The Chateau de Buxieres stood in the midst of a vast carpet of snow on which the sabots of the villagers had outlined a narrow path, leading from the outer steps to the iron gate. Inside, fires blazed on all the hearths, which, however, did not modify the frigid atmosphere of the rudely-built upper rooms.
Julien de Buxieres was freezing, both physically and morally, in his abode. His generous conduct toward Claudet had, in truth, gained him the affection of the 'grand chasserot', made Manette as gentle as a lamb, and caused a revulsion of feeling in his favor throughout the village; but, although his material surroundings had become more congenial, he still felt around him the chill of intellectual solitude. The days also seemed longer since Claudet had taken upon himself the management of all details. Julien found that re-reading his favorite books was not sufficient occupation for the weary hours that dragged slowly along between the rising and the setting of the sun. The gossipings of Manette, the hunting stories of Claudet had no interest for young de Buxieres, and the acquaintances he endeavored to make outside left only a depressing feeling of ennui and disenchantment.
His first visit had been made to the cure of Vivey, where he hoped to meet with some intellectual resources, and a tone of conversation more in harmony with his tastes. In this expectation, also, he had been disappointed. The Abbe Pernot was an amiable quinquagenarian, and a 'bon vivant', whose mind inclined more naturally toward the duties of daily life than toward meditation or contemplative studies. The ideal did not worry him in the least; and when he had said his mass, read his breviary, confessed the devout sinners and visited the sick, he gave the rest of his time to profane but respectable amusements. He was of robust temperament, with a tendency to corpulency, which he fought against by taking considerable exercise; his face was round and good-natured, his calm gray eyes reflected the tranquillity and uprightness of his soul, and his genial nature was shown in his full smiling mouth, his thick, wavy, gray hair, and his quick and cordial gestures.
When Julien was ushered into the presbytery, he found the cure installed in a small room, which he used for working in, and which was littered up with articles bearing a very distant connection to his pious calling: nets for catching larks, hoops and other nets for fishing, stuffed birds, and a collection of coleopterx. At the other end of the room stood a dusty bookcase, containing about a hundred volumes, which seemed to have been seldom consulted. The Abbe, sitting on a low chair in the chimney-corner, his cassock raised to his knees, was busy melting glue in an old earthen pot.
"Aha, good-day! Monsieur de Buxieres," said he in his rich, jovial voice, "you have caught me in an occupation not very canonical; but what of it? As Saint James says: 'The bow can not be always bent.' I am preparing some lime-twigs, which I shall place in the Bois des Ronces as soon as the snow is melted. I am not only a fisher of souls, but I endeavor also to catch birds in my net, not so much for the purpose of varying my diet, as of enriching my collection!"
"You have a great deal of spare time on your hands, then?" inquired Julien, with some surprise.
"Well, yes—yes—quite a good deal. The parish is not very extensive, as you have doubtless noticed; my parishioners are in the best possible health, thank God! and they live to be very old. I have barely two or three marriages in a year, and as many burials, so that, you see, one must fill up one's time somehow to escape the sin of idleness. Every man must have a hobby. Mine is ornithology; and yours, Monsieur de Buxieres?"
Julien was tempted to reply: "Mine, for the moment, is ennui." He was just in the mood to unburden himself to the cure as to the mental thirst that was drying up his faculties, but a certain instinct warned him that the Abbe was not a man to comprehend the subtle complexities of his psychological condition, so he contented himself with replying, briefly:
"I read a great deal. I have, over there in the chateau, a pretty fair collection of historical and religious works, and they are at your service, Monsieur le Cure!"
"A thousand thanks," replied the Abbe Pernot, making a slight grimace; "I am not much of a reader, and my little stock is sufficient for my needs. You remember what is said in the Imitation: 'Si scires totam Bibliam exterius et omnium philosophorum dicta, quid totum prodesset sine caritate Dei et gratia?' Besides, it gives me a headache to read too steadily. I require exercise in the open air. Do you hunt or fish, Monsieur de Buxieres?"
"Neither the one nor the other."
"So much the worse for you. You will find the time hang very heavily on your hands in this country, where there are so few sources of amusement. But never fear! You can not be always reading, and when the fine weather comes you will yield to the temptation; all the more likely because you have Claudet Sejournant with you. A jolly fellow he is; there is not one like him for killing a snipe or sticking a trout! Our trout here on the Aubette, Monsieur de Buxieres, are excellent—of the salmon kind, and very meaty."
Then came an interval of silence. The Abbe began to suspect that this conversation was not one of profound interest to his visitor, and he resumed:
"Speaking of Claudet, Monsieur, allow me to offer you my congratulations. You have acted in a most Christian-like and equitable manner, in making amends for the inconceivable negligence of the deceased Claude de Buxieres. Then, on the other hand, Claudet deserves what you have done for him. He is a good fellow, a little too quick-tempered and violent perhaps, but he has a heart of gold. Ah! it would have been no use for the deceased to deny it—the blood of de Buxieres runs in his veins!"
"If public rumor is to be believed," said Julien timidly, rising to go, "my deceased cousin Claude was very much addicted to profane pleasures."
"Yes, yes, indeed!" sighed the Abbe, "he was a devil incarnate—but what a magnificent man! What a wonderful huntsman! Notwithstanding his backslidings, there was a great deal of good in him, and I am fain to believe that God has taken him under His protecting mercy."
Julien took his leave, and returned to the chateau, very much discouraged. "This priest," thought he to himself, "is a man of expediency. He allows himself certain indulgences which are to be regretted, and his mind is becoming clogged by continual association with carnal-minded men. His thoughts are too much given to earthly things, and I have no more faith in him than in the rest of them."
So he shut himself up again in his solitude, with one more illusion destroyed. He asked himself, and his heart became heavy at the thought, whether, in course of time, he also would undergo this stultification, this moral depression, which ends by lowering us to the level of the low-minded people among whom we live.
Among all the persons he had met since his arrival at Vivey, only one had impressed him as being sympathetic and attractive: Reine Vincart—and even her energy was directed toward matters that Julien looked upon as secondary. And besides, Reine was a woman, and he was afraid of women. He believed with Ecclesiastes the preacher, that "they are more bitter than death . . . and whoso pleaseth God shall escape from them." He had therefore no other refuge but in his books or his own sullen reflections, and, consequently, his old enemy, hypochondria, again made him its prey.
Toward the beginning of January, the snow in the valley had somewhat melted, and a light frost made access to the woods possible. As the hunting season seldom extended beyond the first days of February, the huntsmen were all eager to take advantage of the few remaining weeks to enjoy their favorite pastime. Every day the forest resounded with the shouts of beaters-up and the barking of the hounds. From Auberive, Praslay and Grancey, rendezvous were made in the woods of Charbonniere or Maigrefontaine; nothing was thought of but the exploits of certain marksmen, the number of pieces bagged, and the joyous outdoor breakfasts which preceded each occasion. One evening, as Julien, more moody than usual, stood yawning wearily and leaning on the corner of the stove, Claudet noticed him, and was touched with pity for this young fellow, who had so little idea how to employ his time, his youth, or his money. He felt impelled, as a conscientious duty, to draw him out of his unwholesome state of mind, and initiate him into the pleasures of country life.
"You do not enjoy yourself with us, Monsieur Julien," said he, kindly; "I can't bear to see you so downhearted. You are ruining yourself with poring all day long over your books, and the worst of it is, they do not take the frowns out of your face. Take my word for it, you must change your way of living, or you will be ill. Come, now, if you will trust in me, I will undertake to cure your ennui before a week is over."
"And what is your remedy, Claudet?" demanded Julien, with a forced smile.
"A very simple one: just let your books go, since they do not succeed in interesting you, and live the life that every one else leads. The de Buxieres, your ancestors, followed the same plan, and had no fault to find with it. You are in a wolf country—well, you must howl with the wolves!"
"My dear fellow," replied Julien, shaking his head, "one can not remake one's self. The wolves themselves would discover that I howled out of tune, and would send me back to my books."
"Nonsense! try, at any rate. You can not imagine what pleasure there is in coursing through the woods, and suddenly, at a sharp turn, catching sight of a deer in the distance, then galloping to the spot where he must pass, and holding him with the end of your gun! You have no idea what an appetite one gets with such exercise, nor how jolly it is to breakfast afterward, all together, seated round some favorite old beech-tree. Enjoy your youth while you have it. Time enough to stay in your chimney-corner and spit in the ashes when rheumatism has got hold of you. Perhaps you will say you never have followed the hounds, and do not know how to handle a gun?"
"That is the exact truth."
"Possibly, but appetite comes with eating, and when once you have tasted of the pleasures of the chase, you will want to imitate your companions. Now, see here: we have organized a party at Charbonniere to-morrow, for the gentlemen of Auberive; there will be some people you know—Destourbet, justice of the Peace, the clerk Seurrot, Maitre Arbillot and the tax-collector, Boucheseiche. Hutinet went over the ground yesterday, and has appointed the meeting for ten o'clock at the Belle-Etoile. Come with us; there will be good eating and merriment, and also some fine shooting, I pledge you my word!"
Julien refused at first, but Claudet insisted, and showed him the necessity of getting more intimately acquainted with the notables of Auberive—people with whom he would be continually coming in contact as representing the administration of justice and various affairs in the canton. He urged so well that young de Buxieres ended by giving his consent. Manette received immediate instructions to prepare eatables for Hutinet, the keeper, to take at early dawn to the Belle-Etoile, and it was decided that the company should start at precisely eight o'clock.
The next morning, at the hour indicated, the 'grand chasserot' was already in the courtyard with his two hounds, Charbonneau and Montagnard, who were leaping and barking sonorously around him. Julien, reminded of his promise by the unusual early uproar, dressed himself with a bad grace, and went down to join Claudet, who was bristling with impatience. They started. There had been a sharp frost during the night; some hail had fallen, and the roads were thinly coated with a white dust, called by the country people, in their picturesque language, "a sugarfrost" of snow. A thick fog hung over the forest, so that they had to guess their way; but Claudet knew every turn and every sidepath, and thus he and his companion arrived by the most direct line at the rendezvous. They soon began to hear the barking of the dogs, to which Montagnard and Charbonneau replied with emulative alacrity, and finally, through the mist, they distinguished the group of huntsmen from Auberive.
The Belle-Etoile was a circular spot, surrounded by ancient ash-trees, and formed the central point for six diverging alleys which stretched out indefinitely into the forest. The monks of Auberive, at the epoch when they were the lords and owners of the land, had made this place a rendezvous for huntsmen, and had provided a table and some stone benches, which, thirty years ago, were still in existence. The enclosure, which had been chosen for the breakfast on the present occasion, was irradiated by a huge log-fire; a very respectable display of bottles, bread, and various eatables covered the stone table, and the dogs, attached by couples to posts, pulled at their leashes and barked in chorus, while their masters, grouped around the fire, warmed their benumbed fingers over the flames, and tapped their heels while waiting for the last-comers.
At sight of Julien and Claudet, there was a joyous hurrah of welcome. Justice Destourbet exchanged a ceremonious hand-shake with the new proprietor of the chateau. The scant costume and tight gaiters of the huntsman's attire, displayed more than ever the height and slimness of the country magistrate. By his side, the registrar Seurrot, his legs encased in blue linen spatterdashes, his back bent, his hands crossed comfortably over his "corporation," sat roasting himself at the flame, while grumbling when the wind blew the smoke in his eyes. Arbillot, the notary, as agile and restless as a lizard, kept going from one to the other with an air of mysterious importance. He came up to Claudet, drew him aside, and showed him a little figure in a case.
"Look here!" whispered he, "we shall have some fun; as I passed by the Abbe Pernot's this morning, I stole one of his stuffed squirrels."
He stooped down, and with an air of great mystery poured into his ear the rest of the communication, at the close of which his small black eyes twinkled maliciously, and he passed the end of his tongue over his frozen moustache.
"Come with me," continued he; "it will be a good joke on the collector."
He drew Claudet and Hutinet toward one of the trenches, where the fog hid them from sight.
During this colloquy, Boucheseiche the collector, against whom they were thus plotting, had seized upon Julien de Buxieres, and was putting him through a course of hunting lore. Justin Boucheseiche was a man of remarkable ugliness; big, bony, freckled, with red hair, hairy hands, and a loud, rough voice.
He wore a perfectly new hunting costume, cap and gaiters of leather, a havana-colored waistcoat, and had a complete assortment of pockets of all sizes for the cartridges. He pretended to be a great authority on all matters relating to the chase, although he was, in fact, the worst shot in the whole canton; and when he had the good luck to meet with a newcomer, he launched forth on the recital of his imaginary prowess, without any pity for the hearer. So that, having once got hold of Julien, he kept by his side when they sat down to breakfast.
All these country huntsmen were blessed with healthy appetites. They ate heartily, and drank in the same fashion, especially the collector Boucheseiche, who justified his name by pouring out numerous bumpers of white wine. During the first quarter of an hour nothing could be heard but the noise of jaws masticating, glasses and forks clinking; but when the savory pastries, the cold game and the hams had disappeared, and had been replaced by goblets of hot Burgundy and boiling coffee, then tongues became loosened. Julien, to his infinite disgust, was forced again to be present at a conversation similar to the one at the time of the raising of the seals, the coarseness of which had so astonished and shocked him. After the anecdotes of the chase were exhausted, the guests began to relate their experiences among the fair sex, losing nothing of the point from the effect of the numerous empty bottles around. All the scandalous cases in the courts of justice, all the coarse jokes and adventures of the district, were related over again. Each tried to surpass his neighbor. To hear these men of position boast of their gallantries with all classes, one would have thought that the entire canton underwent periodical changes and became one vast Saturnalia, where rustic satyrs courted their favorite nymphs. But nothing came of it, after all; once the feast was digested, and they had returned to the conjugal abode, all these terrible gay Lotharios became once more chaste and worthy fathers of families. Nevertheless, Julien, who was unaccustomed to such bibulous festivals and such unbridled license of language, took it all literally, and reproached himself more than ever with having yielded to Claudet's entreaties.
At last the table was deserted, and the marking of the limits of the hunt began.
As they were following the course of the trenches, the notary stopped suddenly at the foot of an ash-tree, and took the arm of the collector, who was gently humming out of tune.
"Hush! Collector," he whispered, "do you see that fellow up there, on the fork of the tree? He seems to be jeering at us."
At the same time he pointed out a squirrel, sitting perched upon a branch, about halfway up the tree. The animal's tail stood up behind like a plume, his ears were upright, and he had his front paws in his mouth, as if cracking a nut.
"A squirrel!" cried the impetuous Boucheseiche, immediately falling into the snare; "let no one touch him, gentlemen—I will settle his account for him."
The rest of the hunters had drawn back in a circle, and were exchanging sly glances. The collector loaded his gun, shouldered it, covered the squirrel, and then let go.
"Hit!" exclaimed he, triumphantly, as soon as the smoke had dispersed.
In fact, the animal had slid down the branch, head first, but, somehow, he did not fall to the ground.
"He has caught hold of something," said the notary, facetiously.
"Ah! you will hold on, you rascal, will you?" shouted Boucheseiche, beside himself with excitement, and the next moment he sent a second shot, which sent the hair flying in all directions.
The creature remained in the same position. Then there was a general roar.
"He is quite obstinate!" remarked the clerk, slyly.
Boucheseiche, astonished, looked attentively at the tree, then at the laughing crowd, and could not understand the situation.
"If I were in your place, Collector," said Claudet, in an insinuating manner, "I should climb up there, to see—"
But Justin Boucheseiche was not a climber. He called a youngster, who followed the hunt as beater-up.
"I will give you ten sous," said he; "to mount that tree and bring me my squirrel!"
The young imp did not need to be told twice. In the twinkling of an eye he threw his arms around the tree, and reached the fork. When there, he uttered an exclamation.
"Well?" cried the collector; impatiently, "throw him down!"
"I can't, Monsieur," replied the boy, "the squirrel is fastened by a wire." Then the laughter burst forth more boisterously than before.
"A wire, you young rascal! Are you making fun of me?" shouted Boucheseiche, "come down this moment!"
"Here he is, Monsieur," replied the lad, throwing himself down with the squirrel which he tossed at the collector's feet.
When Boucheseiche verified the fact that the squirrel was a stuffed specimen, he gave a resounding oath.
"In the name of—-! who is the miscreant that has perpetrated this joke?"
No one could reply for laughing. Then ironical cheers burst forth from all sides.
"Brave Boucheseiche! That's a kind of game one doesn't often get hold of!"
"We never shall see any more of that kind!"
"Let us carry Boucheseiche in triumph!"
And so they went on, marching around the tree. Arbillot seized a slip of ivy and crowned Boucheseiche, while all the others clapped their hands and capered in front of the collector, who, at last, being a good fellow at heart, joined in the laugh at his own expense.
Julien de Buxieres alone could not share the general hilarity. The uproar caused by this simple joke did not even chase the frown from his brow. He was provoked at not being able to bring himself within the diapason of this somewhat vulgar gayety: he was aware that his melancholy countenance, his black clothes, his want of sympathy jarred unpleasantly on the other jovial guests. He did not intend any longer to play the part of a killjoy. Without saying anything to Claudet, therefore, he waited until the huntsmen had scattered in the brushwood, and then, diving into a trench, in an opposite direction, he gave them all the slip, and turned in the direction of Planche-au-Vacher.
As he walked slowly, treading under foot the dry frosty leaves, he reflected how the monotonous crackling of this foliage, once so full of life, now withered and rendered brittle by the frost, seemed to represent his own deterioration of feeling. It was a sad and suitable accompaniment of his own gloomy thoughts.
He was deeply mortified at the sorry figure he had presented at the breakfast-table. He acknowledged sorrowfully to himself that, at twenty-eight years of age, he was less young and less really alive than all these country squires, although all, except Claudet, had passed their fortieth year. Having missed his season of childhood, was he also doomed to have no youth? Others found delight in the most ordinary amusements, why, to him, did life seem so insipid and colorless?
Why was he so unfortunately constituted that all human joys lost their sweetness as soon as he opened his heart to them? Nothing made any powerful impression on him; everything that happened seemed to be a perpetual reiteration, a song sung for the hundredth time, a story a hundred times related.
He was like a new vase, cracked before it had served its use, and he felt thoroughly ashamed of the weakness and infirmity of his inner self. Thus pondering, he traversed much ground, hardly knowing where he was going. The fog, which now filled the air and which almost hid the trenches with its thin bluish veil, made it impossible to discover his bearings. At last he reached the border of some pastureland, which he crossed, and then he perceived, not many steps away, some buildings with tiled roofs, which had something familiar to him in their aspect. After he had gone a few feet farther he recognized the court and facade of La Thuiliere; and, as he looked over the outer wall, a sight altogether novel and unexpected presented itself.
Standing in the centre of the courtyard, her outline showing in dark relief against the light "sugar-frosting," stood Reine Vincart, her back turned to Julien. She held up a corner of her apron with one hand, and with the other took out handfuls of grain, which she scattered among the birds fluttering around her. At each moment the little band was augmented by a new arrival. All these little creatures were of species which do not emigrate, but pass the winter in the shelter of the wooded dells. There were blackbirds with yellow bills, who advanced boldly over the snow up to the very feet of the distributing fairy; robin redbreasts, nearly as tame, hopping gayly over the stones, bobbing their heads and puffing out their red breasts; and tomtits, prudently watching awhile from the tops of neighboring trees, then suddenly taking flight, and with quick, sharp cries, seizing the grain on the wing. It was charming to see all these little hungry creatures career around Reine's head, with a joyous fluttering of wings. When the supply was exhausted, the young girl shook her apron, turned around, and recognized Julien.
"Were you there, Monsieur de Buxieres?" she exclaimed; "come inside the courtyard! Don't be afraid; they have finished their meal. Those are my boarders," she added, pointing to the birds, which, one by one, were taking their flight across the fields. "Ever since the first fall of snow, I have been distributing grain to them once a day. I think they must tell one another under the trees there, for every day their number increases. But I don't complain of that. Just think, these are not birds of passage; they do not leave us at the first cold blast, to find a warmer climate; the least we can do is to recompense them by feeding them when the weather is too severe! Several know me already, and are very tame. There is a blackbird in particular, and a blue tomtit, that are both extremely saucy!"
These remarks were of a nature to please Julien. They went straight to the heart of the young mystic; they recalled to his mind St. Francis of Assisi, preaching to the fish and conversing with the birds, and he felt an increase of sympathy for this singular young girl. He would have liked to find a pretext for remaining longer with her, but his natural timidity in the presence of women paralyzed his tongue, and, already, fearing he should be thought intruding, he had raised his hat to take leave, when Reine addressed him:
"I do not ask you to come into the house, because I am obliged to go to the sale of the Ronces woods, in order to speak to the men who are cultivating the little lot that we have bought. I wager, Monsieur de Buxieres, that you are not yet acquainted with our woods?"
"That is true," he replied, smiling.
"Very well, if you will accompany me, I will show you the canton they are about to develop. It will not be time lost, for it will be a good thing for the people who are working for you to know that you are interested in their labors."
Julien replied that he should be happy to be under her guidance.
"In that case," said Reine, "wait for me here. I shall be back in a moment."
She reappeared a few minutes later, wearing a white hood with a cape, and a knitted woolen shawl over her shoulders.
"This way!" said she, showing a path that led across the pasture-lands.
They walked along silently at first. The sky was clear, the wind had freshened. Suddenly, as if by enchantment, the fog, which had hung over the forest, became converted into needles of ice. Each tree was powdered over with frozen snow, and on the hillsides overshadowing the valley the massive tufts of forest were veiled in a bluish-white vapor.
Never had Julien de Buxieres been so long in tete-a-tete with a young woman. The extreme solitude, the surrounding silence, rendered this dual promenade more intimate and also more embarrassing to a young man who was alarmed at the very thought of a female countenance. His ecclesiastical education had imbued Julien with very rigorous ideas as to the careful and reserved behavior which should be maintained between the sexes, and his intercourse with the world had been too infrequent for the idea to have been modified in any appreciable degree. It was natural, therefore, that this walk across the fields in the company of Reine should assume an exaggerated importance in his eyes. He felt himself troubled and yet happy in the chance afforded him to become more closely acquainted with this young girl, toward whom a secret sympathy drew him more and more. But he did not know how to begin conversation, and the more he cudgelled his brains to find a way of opening the attack, the more he found himself at sea. Once more Reine came to his assistance.
"Well, Monsieur de Buxieres," said she, "do matters go more to your liking now? You have acted most generously toward Claudet, and he ought to be pleased."
"Has he spoken to you, then?"
"No; not himself, but good news, like bad, flies fast, and all the villagers are singing your praises."
"I only did a very simple and just thing," replied Julien.
"Precisely, but those are the very things that are the hardest to do. And according as they are done well or ill, so is the person that does them judged by others."
"You have thought favorably of me then, Mademoiselle Vincart," he ventured, with a timid smile.
"Yes; but my opinion is of little importance. You must be pleased with yourself—that is more essential. I am sure that it must be pleasanter now for you to live at Vivey?"
"Hm!—more bearable, certainly."
The conversation languished again. As they approached the confines of the farm they heard distant barking, and then the voices of human beings. Finally two gunshots broke on the air.
"Ha, ha!" exclaimed Reine, listening, "the Auberive Society is following the hounds, and Claudet must be one of the party. How is it you were not with them?"
"Claudet took me there, and I was at the breakfast—but, Mademoiselle, I confess that that kind of amusement is not very tempting to me. At the first opportunity I made my escape, and left the party to themselves."
"Well, now, to be frank with you, you were wrong. Those gentlemen will feel aggrieved, for they are very sensitive. You see, when one has to live with people, one must yield to their customs, and not pooh-pooh their amusements."
"You are saying exactly what Claudet said last night."
"Claudet was right."
"What am I to do? The chase has no meaning for me. I can not feel any interest in the butchery of miserable animals that are afterward sent back to their quarters."
"I can understand that you do not care for the chase for its own sake; but the ride in the open air, in the open forest? Our forests are so beautiful—look there, now! does not that sight appeal to you?"
From the height they had now gained, they could see all over the valley, illuminated at intervals by the pale rays of the winter sun. Wherever its light touched the brushwood, the frosty leaves quivered like diamonds, while a milky cloud enveloped the parts left in shadow. Now and then, a slight breeze stirred the branches, causing a shower of sparkling atoms to rise in the air, like miniature rainbows. The entire forest seemed clothed in the pure, fairy-like robes of a virgin bride.
"Yes, that is beautiful," admitted Julien, hesitatingly; "I do not think I ever saw anything similar: at any rate, it is you who have caused me to notice it for the first time. But," continued he, "as the sun rises higher, all this phantasmagoria will melt and vanish. The beauty of created things lasts only a moment, and serves as a warning for us not to set our hearts on things that perish."
Reine gazed at him with astonishment.
"Do you really think so?" exclaimed she: "that is very sad, and I do not know enough to give an opinion. All I know is, that if God has created such beautiful things it is in order that we may enjoy them. And that is the reason why I worship these woods with all my heart. Ah! if you could only see them in the month of June, when the foliage is at its fulness. Flowers everywhere—yellow, blue, crimson! Music also everywhere—the song of birds, the murmuring of waters, and the balmy scents in the air. Then there are the lime-trees, the wild cherry, and the hedges red with strawberries—it is intoxicating. And, whatever you may say, Monsieur de Buxieres, I assure you that the beauty of the forest is not a thing to be despised. Every season it is renewed: in autumn, when the wild fruits and tinted leaves contribute their wealth of color; in winter, with its vast carpets of snow, from which the tall ash springs to such a stately height-look, now! up there!"
They were in the depths of the forest. Before them were colonnades of slim, graceful trees, rising in one unbroken line toward the skies, their slender branches forming a dark network overhead, and their lofty proportions lessening in the distance, until lost in the solemn gloom beyond. A religious silence prevailed, broken only by the occasional chirp of the wren, or the soft pattering of some smaller fourfooted race.
"How beautiful!" exclaimed Reine, with animation; "one might imagine one's self in a cathedral! Oh! how I love the forest; a feeling of awe and devotion comes over me, and makes me want to kneel down and pray!"
Julien looked at her with an uneasy kind of admiration. She was walking slowly now, grave and thoughtful, as if in church. Her white hood had fallen on her shoulders, and her hair, slightly stirred by the wind, floated like a dark aureole around her pale face. Her luminous eyes gleamed between the double fringes of her eyelids, and her mobile nostrils quivered with suppressed emotion. As she passed along, the brambles from the wayside, intermixed with ivy, and other hardy plants, caught on the hem of her dress and formed a verdant train, giving her the appearance of the high-priestess of some mysterious temple of Nature. At this moment, she identified herself so perfectly with her nickname, "queen of the woods," that Julien, already powerfully affected by her peculiar and striking style of beauty, began to experience a superstitious dread of her influence. His Catholic scruples, or the remembrance of certain pious lectures administered in his childhood, rendered him distrustful, and he reproached himself for the interest he took in the conversation of this seductive creature. He recalled the legends of temptations to which the Evil One used to subject the anchorites of old, by causing to appear before them the attractive but illusive forms of the heathen deities. He wondered whether he were not becoming the sport of the same baleful influence; if, like the Lamias and Dryads of antiquity, this queen of the woods were not some spirit of the elements, incarnated in human form and sent to him for the purpose of dragging his soul down to perdition.
In this frame of mind he followed in her footsteps, cautiously, and at a distance, when she suddenly turned, as if waiting for him to rejoin her. He then perceived that they had reached the end of the copse, and before them lay an open space, on which the cut lumber lay in cords, forming dark heaps on the frosty ground. Here and there were allotments of chosen trees and poles, among which a thin spiral of smoke indicated the encampment of the cutters. Reine made straight for them, and immediately presented the new owner of the chateau to the workmen. They made their awkward obeisances, scrutinizing him in the mistrustful manner customary with the peasants of mountainous regions when they meet strangers. The master workman then turned to Reine, replying to her remarks in a respectful but familiar tone:
"Make yourself easy, mamselle, we shall do our best and rush things in order to get through with the work. Besides, if you will come this way with me, you will see that there is no idling; we are just now going to fell an oak, and before a quarter of an hour is over it will be lying on the ground, cut off as neatly as if with a razor."
They drew near the spot where the first strokes of the axe were already resounding. The giant tree did not seem affected by them, but remained haughty and immovable. Then the blows redoubled until the trunk began to tremble from the base to the summit, like a living thing. The steel had made the bark, the sapwood, and even the core of the tree, fly in shivers; but the oak had resumed its impassive attitude, and bore stoically the assaults of the workmen. Looking upward, as it reared its proud and stately head, one would have affirmed that it never could fall. Suddenly the woodsmen fell back; there was a moment of solemn and terrible suspense; then the enormous trunk heaved and plunged down among the brushwood with an alarming crash of breaking branches. A sound as of lamentation rumbled through the icy forest, and then all was still.
The men, with unconscious emotion, stood contemplating the monarch oak lying prostrate on the ground. Reine had turned pale; her dark eyes glistened with tears.
"Let us go," murmured she to Julien; "this death of a tree affects me as if it were that of a Christian."
They took leave of the woodsmen, and reentered the forest. Reine kept silence and her companion was at a loss to resume the conversation; so they journeyed along together quietly until they reached a border line, whence they could perceive the smoke from the roofs of Vivey.
"You have only to go straight down the hill to reach your home," said she, briefly; "au revoir, Monsieur de Buxieres."
Thus they quitted each other, and, looking back, he saw that she slackened her speed and went dreamily on in the direction of Planche-au-Vacher.
In the mountainous region of Langres, spring can hardly be said to appear before the end of May. Until that time the cold weather holds its own; the white frosts, and the sharp, sleety April showers, as well as the sudden windstorms due to the malign influence of the ice-gods, arrest vegetation, and only a few of the more hardy plants venture to put forth their trembling shoots until later. But, as June approaches and the earth becomes warmed through by the sun, a sudden metamorphosis is effected. Sometimes a single night is sufficient for the floral spring to burst forth in all its plenitude. The hedges are alive with lilies and woodruffs; the blue columbines shake their foolscap-like blossoms along the green side-paths; the milky spikes of the Virgin plant rise slender and tall among the bizarre and many-colored orchids. Mile after mile, the forest unwinds its fairy show of changing scenes. Sometimes one comes upon a spot of perfect verdure; at other times one wanders in almost complete darkness under the thick interlacing boughs of the ashtrees, through which occasional gleams of light fall on the dark soil or on the spreading ferns. Now the wanderer emerges upon an open space so full of sunshine that the strawberries are already ripening; near them are stacked the tender young trees, ready for spacing, and the billets of wood piled up and half covered with thistle and burdock leaves; and a little farther away, half hidden by tall weeds, teeming with insects, rises the peaked top of the woodsman's hut. Here one walks beside deep, grassy trenches, which appear to continue without end, along the forest level; farther, the wild mint and the centaurea perfume the shady nooks, the oaks and lime-trees arch their spreading branches, and the honeysuckle twines itself round the knotty shoots of the hornbeam, whence the thrush gives forth her joyous, sonorous notes.
Not only in the forest, but also in the park belonging to the chateau, and in the village orchards, spring had donned a holiday costume. Through the open windows, between the massive bunches of lilacs, hawthorn, and laburnum blossoms, Julien de Buxieres caught glimpses of rolling meadows and softly tinted vistas. The gentle twittering of the birds and the mysterious call of the cuckoo, mingled with the perfume of flowers, stole into his study, and produced a sense of enjoyment as novel to him as it was delightful. Having until the present time lived a sedentary life in cities, he had had no opportunity of experiencing this impression of nature in her awakening and luxuriant aspect; never had he felt so completely under the seductive influence of the goddess Maia than at this season when the abundant sap exudes in a white foam from the trunk of the willow; when between the plant world and ourselves a magnetic current seems to exist, which seeks to wed their fraternizing emanations with our own personality. He was oppressed by the vividness of the verdure, intoxicated with the odor of vegetation, agitated by the confused music of the birds, and in this May fever of excitement, his thoughts wandered with secret delight to Reine Vincart, to this queen of the woods, who was the personification of all the witchery of the forest. Since their January promenade in the glades of Charbonniere, he had seen her at a distance, sometimes on Sundays in the little church at Vivey, sometimes like a fugitive apparition at the turn of a road. They had also exchanged formal salutations, but had not spoken to each other. More than once, after the night had fallen, Julien had stopped in front of the courtyard of La Thuiliere, and watched the lamps being lighted inside. But he had not ventured to knock at the door of the house; a foolish timidity had prevented him; so he had returned to the chateau, dissatisfied and reproaching himself for allowing his awkward shyness to interpose, as it were, a wall of ice between himself and the only person whose acquaintance seemed to him desirable.
At other times he would become alarmed at the large place a woman occupied in his thoughts, and he congratulated himself on having resisted the dangerous temptation of seeing Mademoiselle Vincart again. He acknowledged that this singular girl had for him an attraction against which he ought to be on his guard. Reine might be said to live alone at La Thuiliere, for her father could hardly be regarded seriously as a protector. Julien's visits might have compromised her, and the young man's severe principles of rectitude forbade him to cause scandal which he could not repair. He was not thinking of marriage, and even had his thoughts inclined that way, the proprieties and usages of society which he had always in some degree respected, would not allow him to wed a peasant girl. It was evident, therefore, that both prudence and uprightness would enjoin him to carry on any future relations with Mademoiselle Vincart with the greatest possible reserve.
Nevertheless, and in spite of these sage reflections, the enchanting image of Reine haunted him more than was at all reasonable. Often, during his hours of watchfulness, he would see her threading the avenues of the forest, her dark hair half floating in the breeze, and wearing her white hood and her skirt bordered with ivy. Since the spring had returned, she had become associated in his mind with all the magical effects of nature's renewal. He discovered the liquid light of her dark eyes in the rippling darkness of the streams; the lilies recalled the faintly tinted paleness of her cheeks; the silene roses, scattered throughout the hedges, called forth the remembrance of the young maiden's rosy lips, and the vernal odor of the leaves appeared to him like an emanation of her graceful and wholesome nature.
This state of feeling began to act like an obsession, a sort of witchcraft, which alarmed him. What was she really, this strange creature? A peasant indeed, apparently; but there was also something more refined and cultivated about her, due, doubtless, to her having received her education in a city school. She both felt and expressed herself differently from ordinary country girls, although retaining the frankness and untutored charm of rustic natures. She exercised an uneasy fascination over Julien, and at times he returned to the superstitious impression made upon him by Reine's behavior and discourse in the forest. He again questioned with himself whether this female form, in its untamed beauty, did not enfold some spirit of temptation, some insidious fairy, similar to the Melusine, who appeared to Count Raymond in the forest of Poitiers.
Most of the time he would himself laugh at this extravagant supposition, but, while endeavoring to make light of his own cowardice, the idea still haunted and tormented him. Sometimes, in the effort to rid himself of the persistence of his own imagination, he would try to exorcise the demon who had got hold of him, and this exorcism consisted in despoiling the image of his temptress of the veil of virginal purity with which his admiration had first invested her. Who could assure him, after all, that this girl, with her independent ways, living alone at her farm, running through the woods at all hours, was as irreproachable as he had imagined? In the village, certainly, she was respected by all; but people were very tolerant—very easy, in fact—on the question of morals in this district, where the gallantries of Claude de Buxieres were thought quite natural, where the illegitimacy of Claudet offended no one's sense of the proprieties, and where the after-dinner conversations, among the class considered respectable, were such as Julien had listened to with repugnance. Nevertheless, even in his most suspicious moods, Julien had never dared broach the subject to Claudet.
Every time that the name of Reine Vincart had come to his lips, a feeling of bashfulness, in addition to his ordinary timidity, had prevented him from interrogating Claudet concerning the character of this mysterious queen of the woods. Like all novices in love-affairs Julien dreaded that his feelings should be divined, at the mere mention of the young girl's name. He preferred to remain isolated, concentrating in himself his desires, his trouble and his doubts.
Yet, whatever efforts he made, and however firmly he adhered to his resolution of silence, the hypochondria from which he suffered could not escape the notice of the 'grand chasserot'. He was not clear-sighted enough to discern the causes, but he could observe the effects. It provoked him to find that all his efforts to enliven his cousin had proved futile. He had cudgelled his brains to comprehend whence came these fits of terrible melancholy, and, judging Julien by himself, came to the conclusion that his ennui proceeded from an excess of strictness and good behavior.
"Monsieur de Buxieres," said he, one evening when they were walking silently, side by side, in the avenues of the park, which resounded with the song of the nightingales, "there is one thing that troubles me, and that is that you do not confide in me."
"What makes you think so, Claudet?" demanded Julien, with surprise.
"Paybleu! the way you act. You are, if I may say so, too secretive. When you wanted to make amends for Claude de Buxieres's negligence, and proposed that I should live here with you, I accepted without any ceremony. I hoped that in giving me a place at your fire and your table, you would also give me one in your affections, and that you would allow me to share your sorrows, like a true brother comrade—"
"I assure you, my dear fellow, that you are mistaken. If I had any serious trouble on my mind, you should be the first to know it."
"Oh! that's all very well to say; but you are unhappy all the same—one can see it in your mien, and shall I tell you the reason? It is that you are too sedate, Monsieur de Buxieres; you have need of a sweetheart to brighten up your days."
"Ho, ho!" replied Julien, coloring, "do you wish to have me married, Claudet?"
"Ah! that's another affair. No; but still I should like to see you take some interest in a woman—some gay young person who would rouse you up and make you have a good time. There is no lack of such in the district, and you would only have the trouble of choosing."
M. de Buxieres's color deepened, and he was visibly annoyed.
"That is a singular proposition," exclaimed he, after awhile; "do you take me for a libertine?"
"Don't get on your high horse, Monsieur de Buxieres! There would be no one hurt. The girls I allude to are not so difficult to approach."
"That has nothing to do with it, Claudet; I do not enjoy that kind of amusement."
"It is the kind that young men of our age indulge in, all the same. Perhaps you think there would be difficulties in the way. They would not be insurmountable, I can assure you; those matters go smoothly enough here. You slip your arm round her waist, give her a good, sounding salute, and the acquaintance is begun. You have only to improve it!"
"Enough of this," interrupted Julien, harshly, "we never can agree on such topics!"
"As you please, Monsieur de Buxieres; since you do not like the subject, we will not bring it up again. If I mentioned it at all, it was that I saw you were not interested in either hunting or fishing, and thought you might prefer some other kind of game. I do wish I knew what to propose that would give you a little pleasure," continued Claudet, who was profoundly mortified at the ill-success of his overtures. "Now! I have it. Will you come with me to-morrow, to the Ronces woods? The charcoal-dealers who are constructing their furnaces for the sale, will complete their dwellings this evening and expect to celebrate in the morning. They call it watering the bouquet, and it is the occasion of a little festival, to which we, as well at the presiding officials of the cutting, are invited. Naturally, the guests pay their share in bottles of wine. You can hardly be excused from showing yourself among these good people. It is one of the customs of the country. I have promised to be there, and it is certain that Reine Vincart, who has bought the Ronces property, will not fail to be present at the ceremony."
Julien had already the words on his lips for declining Claudet's offer, when the name of Reine Vincart produced an immediate change in his resolution. It just crossed his mind that perhaps Claudet had thrown out her name as a bait and an argument in favor of his theories on the facility of love-affairs in the country. However that might be, the allusion to the probable presence of Mademoiselle Vincart at the coming fete, rendered young Buxieres more tractable, and he made no further difficulties about accompanying his cousin.
The next morning, after partaking hastily of breakfast, they started on their way toward the cutting. The charcoal-dealers had located themselves on the border of the forest, not far from the spot where, in the month of January, Reine and Julien had visited the wood cutters. Under the sheltering branches of a great ash tree, the newly erected but raised its peaked roof covered with clods of turf, and two furnaces, just completed, occupied the ground lately prepared. One of them, ready for use, was covered with the black earth called 'frazil', which is extracted from the site of old charcoal works; the other, in course of construction, showed the successive layers of logs ranged in circles inside, ready for the fire. The workmen moved around, going and coming; first, the head-man or patron, a man of middle age, of hairy chest, embrowned visage, and small beady eyes under bushy eyebrows; his wife, a little, shrivelled, elderly woman; their daughter, a thin awkward girl of seventeen, with fluffy hair and a cunning, hard expression; and finally, their three boys, robust young fellows, serving their apprenticeship at the trade. This party was reenforced by one or two more single men, and some of the daughters of the woodchoppers, attracted by the prospect of a day of dancing and joyous feasting.
These persons were sauntering in and out under the trees, waiting for the dinner, which was to be furnished mainly by the guests, the contribution of the charcoal-men being limited to a huge pot of potatoes which the patroness was cooking over the fire, kindled in front of the hut.
The arrival of Julien and Claudet, attended by the small cowboy, puffing and blowing under a load of provisions, was hailed with exclamations of gladness and welcome. While one of the assistants was carefully unrolling the big loaves of white bread, the enormous meat pastry, and the bottles encased in straw, Reine Vincart appeared suddenly on the scene, accompanied by one of the farm-hands, who was also tottering under the weight of a huge basket, from the corners of which peeped the ends of bottles, and the brown knuckle of a smoked ham. At sight of the young proprietress of La Thuiliere, the hurrahs burst forth again, with redoubled and more sustained energy. As she stood there smiling, under the greenish shadow cast by the ashtrees, Reine appeared to Julien even more seductive than among the frosty surroundings of the previous occasion. Her simple and rustic spring costume was marvellously becoming: a short blue-and-yellow striped skirt, a tight jacket of light-colored material, fitted closely to the waist, a flat linen collar tied with a narrow blue ribbon, and a bouquet of woodruff at her bosom. She wore stout leather boots, and a large straw hat, which she threw carelessly down on entering the hut. Among so many faces of a different type, all somewhat disfigured by hardships of exposure, this lovely face with its olive complexion, lustrous black eyes, and smiling red lips, framed in dark, soft, wavy hair resting on her plump shoulders, seemed to spread a sunshiny glow over the scene. It was a veritable portrayal of the "queen of the woods," appearing triumphant among her rustic subjects. As an emblem of her royal prerogative, she held in her hand an enormous bouquet of flowers she had gathered on her way: honeysuckles, columbine, all sorts of grasses with shivering spikelets, black alder blossoms with their white centres, and a profusion of scarlet poppies. Each of these exhaled its own salubrious springlike perfume, and a light cloud of pollen, which covered the eyelashes and hair of the young girl with a delicate white powder.
"Here, Pere Theotime," said she, handing her collection over to the master charcoal-dealer, "I gathered these for you to ornament the roof of your dwelling."
She then drew near to Claudet; gave him her hand in comrade fashion, and saluted Julien:
"Good-morning, Monsieur de Buxieres, I am very glad to see you here. Was it Claudet who brought you, or did you come of your own accord?"
While Julien, dazed and bewildered, was seeking a reply, she passed quickly to the next group, going from one to another, and watching with interest the placing of the bouquet on the summit of the hut. One of the men brought a ladder and fastened the flowers to a spike. When they were securely attached and began to nod in the air, he waved his hat and shouted: "Hou, houp!" This was the signal for going to table.
The food had been spread on the tablecloth under the shade of the ash-trees, and all the guests sat around on sacks of charcoal; for Reine and Julien alone they had reserved two stools, made by the master, and thus they found themselves seated side by side. Soon a profound, almost religious, silence indicated that the attack was about to begin; after which, and when the first fury of their appetites had been appeased, the tongues began to be loosened: jokes and anecdotes, seasoned with loud bursts of laughter, were bandied to and fro under the spreading branches, and presently the wine lent its aid to raise the spirits of the company to an exuberant pitch. But there was a certain degree of restraint observed by these country folk. Was it owing to Reine's presence? Julien noticed that the remarks of the working-people were in a very much better tone than those of the Auberive gentry, with whom he had breakfasted; the gayety of these children of the woods, although of a common kind, was always kept within decent limits, and he never once had occasion to feel ashamed. He felt more at ease among them than among the notables of the borough, and he did not regret having accepted Claudet's invitation.
"I am glad I came," murmured he in Reine's ear, "and I never have eaten with so much enjoyment!"
"Ah! I am glad of it," replied the young girl, gayly, "perhaps now you will begin to like our woods."
When nothing was left on the table but bones and empty bottles, Pere Theotime took a bottle of sealed wine, drew the cork, and filled the glasses.
"Now," said he, "before christening our bouquet, we will drink to Monsieur de Buxieres, who has brought us his good wine, and to our sweet lady, Mademoiselle Vincart."
The glasses clinked, and the toasts were drunk with fervor.
"Mamselle Reine," resumed Pere Theotime, with a certain amount of solemnity, "you can see, the hut is built; it will be occupied to-night, and I trust good work will be done. You can perceive from here our first furnace, all decorated and ready to be set alight. But, in order that good luck shall attend us, you yourself must set light to the fire. I ask you, therefore, to ascend to the top of the chimney and throw in the first embers; may I ask this of your good-nature?"
"Why, certainly!" replied Reine, "come, Monsieur de Buxieres, you must see how we light a charcoal furnace."
All the guests jumped from their seats; one of the men took the ladder and leaned it against the sloping side of the furnace. Meanwhile, Pere Theotime was bringing an earthen vase full of burning embers. Reine skipped lightly up the steps, and when she reached the top, stood erect near the orifice of the furnace.
Her graceful outline came out in strong relief against the clear sky; one by one, she took the embers handed her by the charcoal-dealer, and threw them into the opening in the middle of the furnace. Soon there was a crackling inside, followed by a dull rumbling; the chips and rubbish collected at the bottom had caught fire, and the air-holes left at the base of the structure facilitated the passage of the current, and hastened the kindling of the wood.
"Bravo; we've got it!" exclaimed Pere Theotime.
"Bravo!" repeated the young people, as much exhilarated with the open air as with the two or three glasses of white wine they had drunk. Lads and lasses joined hands and leaped impetuously around the furnace.
"A song, Reine! Sing us a song!" cried the young girls.
She stood at the foot of the ladder, and, without further solicitation, intoned, in her clear and sympathetic voice, a popular song, with a rhythmical refrain:
My father bid me Go sell my wheat. To the market we drove "Good-morrow, my sweet! How much, can you say, Will its value prove?"