"Nay, Bebee, when one has to get one's bread that cannot be. But I am afraid my eyes are failing. That rose now, is it well done?"
"Beautifully done. Would the Baes take them if they were not? You know he is one that cuts every centime in four pieces."
"Ah! sharp enough, sharp enough, that is true. But I am always afraid of my eyes. I do not see the flags out there so well as I used to do."
"Because the sun is so bright, Annemie; that is all. I myself, when I have been sitting all day in the place in the light, the flowers look pale to me. And you know it is not age with me, Annemie?"
The old woman and the young girl laughed together at that droll idea.
"You have a merry heart, dear little one," said old Annemie. "The saints keep it to you always."
"May I tidy the room a little?"
"To be sure, dear, and thank you too. I have not much time, you see; and somehow my back aches badly when I stoop."
"And it is so damp here for you, over all that water!" said Bebee as she swept and dusted and set to rights the tiny place, and put in a little broken pot a few sprays of honeysuckle and rosemary that she had brought with her. "It is so damp here. You should have come and lived in my hut with me, Annemie, and sat out under the vine all day, and looked after the chickens for me when I was in the town. They are such mischievous little souls; as soon as my back is turned one or other is sure to push through the roof, and get out among the flower-beds. Will you never change your mind, and live with me, Annemie? I am sure you would be happy, and the starling says your name quite plain, and he is such a funny bird to talk to; you never would tire of him. Will you never come? It is so bright there, and green and sweet smelling; and to think you never even have seen it!—and the swans and all,—it is a shame."
"No, dear," said old Annemie, eating her last bunch of currants. "You have said so so often, and you are good and mean it, that I know. But I could not leave the water. It would kill me. Out of this window you know I saw my Jeannot's brig go away—away—away—till the masts were lost in the mists. Going with iron to Norway; the 'Fleur d'Epine' of this town, a good ship, and a sure, and her mate; and as proud as might be, and with a little blest Mary in lead round his throat. She was to be back in port in eight months, bringing timber. Eight months—that brought Easter time. But she never came. Never, never, never, you know. I sat here watching them come and go, and my child sickened and died, and the summer passed, and the autumn, and all the while I looked—looked—looked; for the brigs are all much alike; and only her I always saw as soon as she hove in sight (because he tied a hank of flax to her mizzen-mast); and when he was home safe and sound I spun the hank into hose for him; that was a fancy of his, and for eleven voyages, one on another, he had never missed to tie the flax nor I to spin the hose. But the hank of flax I never saw this time; nor the brave brig; nor my good man with his sunny blue eyes. Only one day in winter, when the great blocks of ice were smashing hither and thither, a coaster came in and brought tidings of how off in the Danish waters they had come on a water-logged brig, and had boarded her, and had found her empty, and her hull riven in two, and her crew all drowned and dead beyond any manner of doubt. And on her stern there was her name painted white, the 'Fleur d'Epine,' of Brussels, as plain as name could be; and that was all we ever knew: what evil had struck her, or how they had perished, nobody ever told. Only the coaster brought that bit of beam away, with the 'Fleur d'Epine' writ clear upon it. But you see I never know my man is dead. Any day—who can say?—any one of those ships may bring him aboard of her, and he may leap out on the wharf there, and come running up the stairs as he used to do, and cry, in his merry voice, 'Annemie, Annemie, here is more flax to spin, here is more hose to weave!' For that was always his homeward word; no matter whether he had had fair weather or foul, he always knotted the flax to his masthead. So you see, dear, I could not leave here. For what if he came and found me away? He would say it was an odd fashion of mourning for him. And I could not do without the window, you know. I can watch all the brigs come in; and I can smell the shipping smell that I have loved all the days of my life; and I can see the lads heaving, and climbing, and furling, and mending their bits of canvas, and hauling their flags up and down. And then who can say?—the sea never took him, I think—I think I shall hear his voice before I die. For they do say that God is good."
Bebee, sweeping very noiselessly, listened, and her eyes grew wistful and wondering. She had heard the story a thousand times; always in different words, but always the same little tale, and she knew how old Annemie was deaf to all the bells that tolled the time, and blind to all the whiteness of her hair and all the wrinkles of her face, and only thought of her sea-slain lover as he had been in the days of her youth.
But this afternoon the familiar history had a new patheticalness for her, and as the old soul put aside with her palsied hand the square of canvas that screened the casement, and looked out, with her old dim sad eyes strained in the longing that God never answered, Bebee felt a strange chill at her own heart, and wondered to herself,—
"What can it be to care for another creature like that? It must be so terrible, and yet it must be beautiful too. Does every one suffer like that?"
She did not speak at all as she finished sweeping the bricks, and went down-stairs for a metal cruche full of water, and set over a little charcoal on the stove the old woman's brass soup kettle with her supper of stewing cabbage.
Annemie did not hear or notice; she was still looking out of the hole in the wall on to the masts, and the sails, and the water.
It was twilight.
From the barges and brigs there came the smell of the sea. The sailors were shouting to each other. The craft were crowded close, and lost in the growing darkness. On the other side of the canal the belfries were ringing for vespers.
"Eleven voyages one and another, and he never forgot to tie the flax to the mast," Annemie murmured, with her old wrinkled face leaning out into the gray air. "It used to fly there,—one could see it coming up half a mile off,—just a pale yellow flake on the wind, like a tress of my hair, he would say. No, no, I could not go away; he may come to-night, to-morrow, any time; he is not drowned, not my man; he was all I had, and God is good, they say."
Bebee listened and looked; then kissed the old shaking hand and took up the lace patterns and went softly out of the room without speaking.
When old Annemie watched at the window it was useless to seek for any word or sign of her: people said that she had never been quite right in her brain since that fatal winter noon sixty years before, when the coaster had brought into port the broken beam of the good brig "Fleur d'Epine."
Bebee did not know about that, nor heed whether her wits were right or not.
She had known the old creature in the lace-room where Annemie pricked out designs, and she had conceived a great regard and sorrow for her; and when Annemie had become too ailing and aged to go herself any longer to the lace-maker's place, Bebee had begged leave for her to have the patterns at home, and had carried them to and fro for her for the last three or four years, doing many other little useful services for the lone old soul as well,—services which Annemie hardly perceived, she had grown so used to them, and her feeble intelligence was so sunk in the one absorbing idea that she must watch all the days through and all the years through for the coming of the dead man and the lost brig.
Bebee put the lace patterns in her basket, and trotted home, her sabots clattering on the stones.
"What it must be to care for any one like that!" she thought, and by some vague association of thought that she could not have pursued, she lifted the leaves and looked at the moss-rosebud.
It was quite dead.
As she got clear of the city and out on her country road, a shadow Fell across her in the evening light.
"Have you had a good day, little one?" asked a voice that made her stop with a curious vague expectancy and pleasure.
"It is you!" she said, with a little cry, as she saw her friend of the silk stockings leaning on a gate midway in the green and solitary road that leads to Laeken.
"Yes, it is I," he answered, as he joined her. "Have you forgiven me, Bebee?"
She looked at him with frank, appealing eyes, like those of a child in fault.
"Oh, I did not sleep all night!" she said, simply. "I thought I had been rude and ungrateful, and I could not be sure I had done right, though to have done otherwise would certainly have been wrong."
"Well, that is a clearer deduction than is to be drawn from most moral uncertainties. Do not think twice about the matter, my dear. I have not, I assure you."
She was a little disappointed. It seemed such an immense thing to her; and she had lain awake all the night, turning it about in her little brain, and appealing vainly for help in it to the sixteen sleep-angels.
"No, indeed. And where are you going so fast, as if those wooden shoes of yours were sandals of Mercury?"
"Mercury—is that a shoemaker?"
"No, my dear. He did a terrible bit of cobbling once, when he made Woman. But he did not shoe her feet with swiftness that I know of; she only runs away to be run after, and if you do not pursue her, she comes back—always."
Bebee did not understand at all.
"I thought God made women," she said, a little awe-stricken.
"You call it God. People three thousand years ago called it Mercury or Hermes. Both mean the same thing,—mere words to designate an unknown quality. Where are you going? Does your home lie here?"
"Yes, onward, quite far onward," said Bebee, wondering that he had forgotten all she had told him the day before about her hut, her garden, and her neighbors. "You did not come and finish your picture to-day: why was that? I had a rosebud for you, but it is dead now."
"I went to Anvers. You looked for me a little, then?"
"Oh, all day long. For I was so afraid I had been ungrateful."
"That is very pretty of you. Women are never grateful, my dear, except when they are very ill-treated. Mercury, whom we were talking of, gave them, among other gifts, a dog's heart."
Bebee felt bewildered; she did not reason about it, but the idle, shallow, cynical tone pained her by its levity and its unlikeness to the sweet, still, gray summer evening.
"Why are you in such a hurry?" he pursued. "The night is cool, and it is only seven o'clock. I will walk part of the way with you."
"I am in a hurry because I have Annemie's patterns to do," said Bebee, glad that he spoke of a thing that she knew how to answer. "You see, Annemie's hand shakes and her eyes are dim, and she pricks the pattern all awry and never perceives it; it would break her heart if one showed her so, but the Baes would not take them as they are; they are of no use at all. So I prick them out myself on fresh paper, and the Baes thinks it is all her doing, and pays her the same money, and she is quite content. And as I carry the patterns to and fro for her, because she cannot walk, it is easy to cheat her like that; and it is no harm to cheat so, you know." He was silent.
"You are a good little girl, Bebee, I can see." he said at last, with a graver sound in his voice. "And who is this Annemie for whom you do so much? an old woman, I suppose."
"Oh, yes, quite old; incredibly old. Her man was drowned at sea sixty years ago, and she watches for his brig still, night and morning."
"The dog's heart. No doubt he beat her, and had a wife in fifty other ports."
"Oh, no!" said Bebee, with a little cry, as though the word against the dead man hurt her. "She has told me so much of him. He was as good as good could be, and loved her so, and between the voyages they were so happy. Surely that must have been sixty years now, and she is so sorry still, and still will not believe that he was drowned."
He looked down on her with a smile that had a certain pity in it.
"Well, yes; there are women like that, I believe. But be very sure, my dear, he beat her. Of the two, one always holds the whip and uses it, the other crouches."
"I do not understand," said Bebee.
"No; but you will."
He smiled again.
"Oh—to-morrow, perhaps, or next year—or when Fate fancies."
"Or rather, when I choose," he thought to himself, and let his eyes rest with a certain pleasure on the little feet, that went beside him in the grass, and the pretty fair bosom that showed ever and again, as the frills of her linen bodice were blown back by the wind and her own quick motion.
Bebee looked also up at him; he was very handsome, and looked so to her, after the broad, blunt, characterless faces of the Walloon peasantry around her. He walked with an easy grace, he was clad in picture-like velvets, he had a beautiful poetic head, and eyes like deep brown waters, and a face like one of Jordaens' or Rembrandt's cavaliers in the galleries where she used to steal in of a Sunday, and look up at the paintings, and dream of what that world could be in which those people had lived.
"You are of the people of Rubes' country, are you not?" she asked him.
"Of what country, my dear?"
"Of the people that live in the gold frames," said Bebee, quite seriously. "In the galleries, you know. I know a charwoman that scrubs the floors of the Arenberg Palace, and she lets me in sometimes to look; and you are just like those great gentlemen in the gold frames, only you have not a hawk and a sword, and they always have. I used to wonder where they came from, for they are not like any of us one bit, and the charwoman—she is Lisa Dredel, and lives in the street of the Pot d'Etain—always said. 'Dear heart, they all belong to Rubes' land: we never see their like nowadays.' But you must come out of Rubes' land; at least, I think so, do you not?"
He caught her meaning; he knew that Rubes was the homely abbreviation of Rubens that all the Netherlanders used, and he guessed the idea that was reality to this little lonely fanciful mind.
"Perhaps I do," he answered her with a smile, for it was not worth his while to disabuse her thoughts of any imagination that glorified him to her. "Do you not want to see Rubes' world, little one? To see the gold and the grandeur, and the glitter of it all?—never to toil or get tired?—always to move in a pageant?—always to live like the hawks in the paintings you talk of, with silver bells hung round you, and a hood all sewn with pearls?"
"No," said Bebee, simply. "I should like to see it, just to see it, as one looks through a grating into the king's grape-houses here. But I should not like to live in it. I love my hut, and the starling, and the chickens, and what would the garden do without me? and the children, and the old Annemie? I could not anyhow, anywhere, be any happier than I am. There is only one thing I wish."
"And what is that?"
"To know something; not to be so ignorant. Just look—I can read a Little, it is true: my Hours, and the letters, and when Krebs brings in a newspaper I can read a little of it, not much. I know French well, because Antoine was French himself, and never did talk Flemish to me; and they being Netherlanders, cannot, of course, read the newspapers at all, and so think it very wonderful indeed in me. But what I want is to know things, to know all about what was before ever I was living. St. Gudule now—they say it was built hundreds of years before; and Rubes again—they say he was a painter king in Antwerpen before the oldest, oldest woman like Annemie ever began to count time. I am sure books tell you all those things, because I see the students coming and going with them; and when I saw once the millions of books in the Rue du Musee, I asked the keeper what use they were for, and he said, 'To make men wise, my dear.' But Gringoire Bac, the cobbler, who was with me,—it was a fete day,—Bac, he said, 'Do not you believe that, Bebee; they only muddle folks' brains; for one book tells them one thing, and another book another, and so on, till they are dazed with all the contrary lying; and if you see a bookish man, be sure you see a very poor creature who could not hoe a patch, or kill a pig, or stitch an upper-leather, were it ever so.' But I do not believe that Bac said right. Did he?"
"I am not sure. On the whole, I think it is the truest remark on literature I have ever heard, and one that shows great judgment in Bac. Well?"
"Well, sometimes, you know," said Bebee, not understanding his answer, but pursuing her thoughts confidentially,—"sometimes I talk like this to the neighbors, and they laugh at me. Because Mere Krebs says that when one knows how to spin and sweep and make bread and say one's prayers and milk a goat or a cow, it is all a woman wants to know this side of heaven. But for me, I cannot help it, when I look at those windows in the cathedral, or at those beautiful twisted little spires that are all over our Hotel de Ville, I want to know who the men were that made them,—what they did and thought,—how they looked and spoke,—how they learned to shape stone into leaves and grasses like that,—how they could imagine all those angel faces on the glass. When I go alone in the quite early morning or at night when it is still—sometimes in winter I have to stay till it is dark over the lace—I hear their feet come after me, and they whisper to me close, 'Look what beautiful things we have done, Bebee, and you all forget us quite. We did what never will die, but our names are as dead as the stones.' And then I am so sorry for them and ashamed. And I want to know more. Can you tell me?"
He looked at her earnestly; her eyes were shining, her cheeks were warm, her little mouth was tremulous with eagerness.
"Did any one ever speak to you in that way?" he asked her.
"No," she answered him. "It comes into my head of itself. Sometimes I think the cathedral angels put it there. For the angels must be tired, you know; always pointing to God and always seeing men turn away, I used to tell Antoine sometimes. But he used to shake his head and say that it was no use thinking; most likely St. Gudule and St. Michael had set the church down in the night all ready made, why not? God made the trees, and they were more wonderful, he thought, for his part. And so perhaps they are, but that is no answer. And I do want to know. I want some one who will tell me; and if you come out of Rubes' country as I think, no doubt you know everything, or remember it?"
"The free pass to Rubes' country lies in books, pretty one. Shall I give you some?—nay, lend them, I mean, since giving you are too wilful to hear of without offence. You can read, you said?"
Bebee's eyes glowed as they lifted themselves to his.
"I can read—not very fast, but that would come with doing it more and more, I think, just as spinning does; one knots the thread and breaks it a million times before one learns to spin as fine as cobwebs. I have read the stories of St. Anne, and of St. Catherine, and of St. Luven fifty times, but they are all the books that Father Francis has; and no one else has any among us."
"Very well. You shall have books of mine. Easy ones first, and then those that are more serious. But what time will you have? You do so much; you are like a little golden bee."
Bebee laughed happily.
"Oh! give me the books and I will find the time. It is light so early now. That gives one so many hours. In winter one has so few one must lie in bed, because to buy a candle you know one cannot afford except, of course, a taper now and then, as one's duty is, for our Lady or for the dead. And will you really, really, lend me books?"
"Really, I will. Yes. I will bring you one to the Grande Place to-morrow, or meet you on your road there with it. Do you know what poetry is, Bebee?"
"But your flowers talk to you?"
"Ah! always. But then no one else hears them ever but me; and so no one else ever believes."
"Well, poets are folks who hear the flowers talk as you do, and the trees, and the seas, and the beasts, and even the stones; but no one else ever hears these things, and so, when the poets write them out, the rest of the world say, 'That is very fine, no doubt, but only good for dreamers; it will bake no bread.' I will give you some poetry; for I think you care more about dreams than about bread."
"I do not know," said Bebee; and she did not know, for her dreams, like her youth, and her innocence, and her simplicity, and her strength, were all unconscious of themselves, as such things must be to be pure and true at all.
Bebee had grown up straight, and clean, and fragrant, and joyous as one of her own carnations; but she knew herself no more than the carnation knows its color and its root,
"No. you do not know," said he, with a sort of pity; and thought within himself, was it worth while to let her know?
If she did not know, these vague aspirations and imaginations would drop off from her with the years of her early youth, as the lime-flowers drop downwards with the summer heats. She would forget them. They would linger a little in her head, and, perhaps, always wake at some sunset hour or some angelus chime, but not to trouble her. Only to make her cradle song a little sadder and softer than most women's was. Unfed, they would sink away and bear no blossom.
She would grow into a simple, hardy, hardworking, God-fearing Flemish woman like the rest. She would marry, no doubt, some time, and rear her children honestly and well; and sit in the market stall every day, and spin and sew, and dig and wash, and sweep, and brave bad weather, and be content with poor food to the end of her harmless and laborious days—poor little Bebee!
He saw her so clearly as she would be—if he let her alone.
A little taller, a little broader, a little browner, less sweet of voice, less soft of skin, less flower-like in face; having learned to think only as her neighbors thought, of price of wood and cost of bread; laboring cheerily but hardly from daybreak to nightfall to fill hungry mouths: forgetting all things except the little curly-heads clustered round her soup-pot, and the year-old lips sucking at her breasts.
A blameless life, an eventless life, a life as clear as the dewdrop, and as colorless; a life opening, passing, ending in the little green wooded lane, by the bit of water where the swans made their nests under the willows; a life like the life of millions, a little purer, a little brighter, a little more tender, perhaps, than those lives usually are, but otherwise as like them as one ear of barley is like another as it rises from the soil, and blows in the wind, and turns brown in the strong summer sun, and then goes down to the sod again under the sickle.
He saw her just as she would be—if he let her alone.
But should he leave her alone?
He cared nothing; only her eyes had such a pretty, frank, innocent look like a bird's in them, and she had been so brave and bold with him about those silken stockings; and this little ignorant, dreamful mind of hers was so like a blush rosebud, which looks so close-shut, and so sweet-smelling, and so tempting fold within fold, that a child will pull it open, forgetful that he will spoil it forever from being a full-grown rose, and that he will let the dust, and the sun, and the bee into its tender bosom—and men are true children, and women are their rosebuds.
Thinking only of keeping well with this strange and beautiful wayfarer from that unknown paradise of Rubes' country, Bebee lifted up the vine-leaves of her basket.
"I took a flower for you to-day, but it is dead. Look; to-morrow, if you will be there, you shall have the best in all the garden."
"You wish to see me again then?" he asked her. Bebee looked at him with troubled eyes, but with a sweet frank faith that had no hesitation in it.
"Yes! you are not like anything I ever knew, and if you will only help me to learn a little. Sometimes I think I am not stupid, only ignorant; but I cannot be sure unless I try."
He smiled; he was listlessly amused; the day before he had tempted the child merely because she was pretty, and to tempt her in that way seemed the natural course of things, but now there was something in her that touched him differently; the end would be the same, but he would change the means.
The sun had set. There was a low, dull red glow still on the far edge of the plains—that was all. In the distant cottages little lights were twinkling. The path grew dark.
"I will go away and let her alone," he thought. "Poor little soul! it would give itself lavishly, it would never be bought. I will let it alone; the mind will go to sleep and the body will keep healthy, and strong, and pure, as people call it. It would be a pity to play with both a day, and then throw them away as the boy threw the pear-blossom. She is a little clod of earth that has field flowers growing in it. I will let her alone, the flowers under the plough in due course will die, and she will be content among the other clods,—if I let her alone."
At that moment there went across the dark fields, against the dusky red sky, a young man with a pile of brushwood on his back, and a hatchet in his hand.
"You are late, Bebee," he called to her in Flemish, and scowled at the stranger by her side.
"A good-looking lad; who is it?" said her companion.
"That is Jeannot, the son of old Sophie," she answered him. "He is so good—oh, so good, you cannot think; he keeps his mother and three little sisters, and works so very, very hard in the forest, and yet he often finds time to dig my garden for me, and he chops all my wood in winter."
They had come to where the road goes up by the king's summer palace. They were under great hanging beeches and limes. There was a high gray wall, and over it the blossoming fruit boughs hung. In a ditch full of long grass little kids bleated by their mothers. Away on the left went the green fields of colza, and beetroot, and trefoil, with big forest trees here and there in their midst, and, against the blue low line of the far horizon, red mill-sails, and gray church spires; dreamy plaintive bells far away somewhere were ringing the sad Flemish carillon.
He paused and looked at her.
"I must bid you good night, Bebee; you are near your home now."
She paused too and looked at him.
"But I shall see you to-morrow?"
There was the wistful, eager, anxious unconsciousness of appeal as when the night before she had asked him if he were angry.
He hesitated a moment. If he said no, and went away out of the city wherever his listless and changeful whim called him, he knew how it would be with her; he knew what her life would be as surely as he knew the peach would come out of the peach-flower rosy on the wall there: life in the little hut; among the neighbors; sleepy and safe and soulless;—if he let her alone.
If he stayed and saw her on the morrow he knew, too, the end as surely as he knew that the branch of white pear-blossom, which in carelessness he had knocked down with a stone on the grass yonder, would fade in the night and would never bring forth its sweet, simple fruit in the sunshine.
To leave the peach-flower to come to maturity and be plucked by a peasant, or to pull down the pear-blossom and rifle the buds?
Carelessly and languidly he balanced the question with himself, whilst Bebee, forgetful of the lace patterns and the flight of the hours, stood looking at him with anxious and pleading eyes, thinking only—was he angry again, or would he really bring her the books and make her wise, and let her know the stories of the past?
"Shall I see you to-morrow?" she said wistfully.
Should she?—if he left the peach-blossom safe on the wall, Jeannot the woodcutter would come by and by and gather the fruit.
If he left the clod of earth in its pasture with all its daisies untouched, this black-browed young peasant would cut it round with his hatchet and carry it to his wicker cage, that the homely brown lark of his love might sing to it some stupid wood note under a cottage eave.
The sight of the strong young forester going over the darkened fields against the dull red skies was as a feather that suffices to sway to one side a balance that hangs on a hair.
He had been inclined to leave her alone when he saw in his fancy the clean, simple, mindless, honest life that her fanciful girlhood would settle down into as time should go on. But when in the figure of the woodman there was painted visibly on the dusky sky that end for her which he had foreseen, he was not indifferent to it; he resented it; he was stirred to a vague desire to render it impossible.
If Jeannot had not gone by across the fields he would have left her and let her alone from that night thenceforwards; as it was,—
"Good night, Bebee," he said to her. "Tomorrow I will finish the Broodhuis and bring you your first book. Do not dream too much, or you will prick your lace patterns all awry. Good night, pretty one."
Then he turned and went back through the green dim lanes to the city.
Bebee stood a moment looking after him, with a happy smile; then she picked up the fallen pear-blossom, and ran home as fast as her feet would take her.
That night she worked very late watering her flowers, and trimming them, and then ironing out a little clean white cap for the morrow; and then sitting down under the open lattice to prick out all old Annemie's designs by the strong light of the full moon that flooded her hut with its radiance.
But she sang all the time she worked, and the gay, pretty, wordless songs floated across the water and across the fields, and woke some old people in their beds as they lay with their windows open, and they turned and crossed themselves, and said, "Dear heart!—this is the eve of the Ascension, and the angels are so near we hear them."
But it was no angel; only the thing that is nearer heaven than anything else,—a little human heart that is happy and innocent.
Bebee had only one sorrow that night. The pear-blossoms were all dead; and no care could call them back even for an hour's blooming.
"He did not think when he struck them down," she said to herself, regretfully.
"Can I do any work for you, Bebee?" said black Jeannot in the daybreak, pushing her gate open timidly with one hand.
"There is none to do, Jeannot. They want so little in this time of the year—the flowers," said she, lifting her head from the sweet-peas she was tying up to their sticks.
The woodman did not answer; he leaned over the half-open wicket, and swayed it backwards and forwards under his bare arm. He was a good, harmless, gentle fellow, swarthy as charcoal and simple as a child, and quite ignorant, having spent all his days in the great Soignies forests making fagots when he was a little lad, and hewing down trees or burning charcoal as he grew to manhood.
"Who was that seigneur with you last night, Bebee?" he asked, after a long silence, watching her as she moved.
Bebee's eyes grew very soft, but they looked up frankly.
"I am not sure—I think he is a painter—a great painter prince, I mean—as Rubes was in Antwerpen; he wanted roses the night before last in the cathedral."
"But he was walking with you?"
"He was in the lane as I came home last night—yes."
"What does he give you for your roses?"
"Oh! he pays me well. How is your mother this day, Jeannot?"
"You do not like to talk of him?"
"Why should you want to talk of him? He is nothing to you."
"Did you really see him only two days ago, Bebee?"
"Oh, Jeannot! did I ever tell a falsehood? You would not say that to one of your little sisters."
The forester swayed the gate to and fro drearily under his folded arms.
Bebee, not regarding him, cut her flowers, and filled her baskets, and did her other work, and set a ladder against the hut and climbed on its low roof to seek for eggs, the hens having green tastes sometimes for the rushes and lichens of its thatch. She found two eggs, which she promised herself to take to Annemie, and looking round as she sat on the edge of the roof, with one foot on the highest rung of the ladder, saw that Jeannot was still at the gate.
"You will be late in the forest, Jeannot," she cried to him. "It is such a long, long way in and out. Why do you look so sulky? and you are kicking the wicket to pieces."
"I do not like you to talk with strangers," said Jeannot, sullenly and sadly.
Bebee laughed as she sat on the edge of the thatch, and looked at the shining gray skies of the early day, and the dew-wet garden, and the green fields beyond, with happy eyes that made the familiar scene transfigured to her.
"Oh, Jeannot, what nonsense! As if I do not talk to a million strangers every summer! as if I could ever sell a flower if I did not! You are cross this morning; that is what it is."
"Do you know the man's name?" said Jeannot, suddenly.
Bebee felt her cheeks grow warm as with some noonday heat of sunshine. She thought it was with anger against blundering Jeannot's curiosity.
"No! and what would his name be to us, if I did know it? I cannot ask people's names because they buy my roses."
"As if it were only roses!"
There was the length of the garden between them, and Bebee did not hear as she sat on the edge of her roof with that light dreamful enjoyment of air and sky and coolness, and all the beauty of the dawning day, which the sweet vague sense of a personal happiness will bring with it to the dullest and the coldest.
"You are cross, Jeannot, that is what it is," she said, after a while. "You should not be cross; you are too big and strong and good. Go in and get my bowl of bread and milk for me, and hand it to me up here. It is so pleasant. It is as nice as being perched on an apple-tree."
Jeannot went in obediently and handed up her breakfast to her, looking at her with shy, worshipping eyes. But his face was overcast, and he sighed heavily as he took up his hatchet and turned away; for he was the sole support of his mother and sisters, and if he did not do his work in Soignies they would starve at home.
"You will be seeing that stranger again?" he asked her.
"Yes!" she answered with a glad triumph in her eyes; not thinking at all of him as she spoke. "You ought to go, Jeannot, now; you are so late. I will come and see your mother to-morrow. And do not be cross, you dear big Jeannot. Days are too short to snip them up into little bits by bad temper; it is only a stupid sheep-shearer that spoils the fleece by snapping at it sharp and hard; that is what Father Francis says."
Bebee, having delivered her little piece of wisdom, broke her bread into her milk and ate it, lifting her face to the fresh wind and tossing crumbs to the wheeling swallows, and watching the rose-bushes nod and toss below in the breeze, and thinking vaguely how happy a thing it was to live.
Jeannot looked up at her, then went on his slow sad way through the wet lavender-shrubs and the opening buds of the lilies.
"You will only think of that stranger, Bebee, never of any of us—never again," he said; and wearily opened the little gate and went through it, and down the daybreak stillness of the lane. It was a foolish thing to say; but when were lovers ever wise?
Bebee did not heed; she did not understand herself or him; she only knew that she was happy; when one knows that, one does not want to seek much further.
She sat on the thatch and took her bread and milk in the gray clear air, with the swallows circling above her head, and one or two of them even resting a second on the edge of the bowl to peck at the food from the big wooden spoon; they had known her all the sixteen summers of her life, and were her playfellows, only they would never tell her anything of what they saw in winter over the seas. That was her only quarrel with them. Swallows do not tell their secrets They have the weird of Procne on them all.
The sun came and touched the lichens of the roof into gold.
Bebee smiled at it gayly as it rose above the tops of the trees, and shone on all the little villages scattered over the plains.
"Ah, dear Sun!" she cried to it. "I am going to be wise. I am going into great Rubes' country. I am going to hear of the Past and the Future. I am going to listen to what the Poets say. The swallows never would tell me anything; but now I shall know as much as they know. Are you not glad for me, O Sun?"
The Sun came over the trees, and heard and said nothing. If he had answered at all he must have said,—
"The only time when a human soul is either wise or happy is in that one single moment when the hour of my own shining or of the moon's beaming seems to that single soul to be past and present and future, to be at once the creation and the end of all things. Faust knew that; so will you."
But the Sun shone on and held his peace. He sees all things ripen and fall. He can wait. He knows the end. It is always the same.
He brings the fruit out of the peach-flower, and rounds it and touches it into ruddiest rose and softest gold: but the sun knows well that the peach must drop—whether into the basket to be eaten by kings, or on to the turf to be eaten by ants. What matter which very much after all?
The Sun is not a cynic; he is only wise because he is Life and he is Death, the creator and the corrupter of all things.
But Bebee, who only saw in the sun the sign of daily work, the brightness of the face of the world, the friend of the flowers, the harvest-man of the poor, the playmate of the birds and butterflies, the kindly light that the waking birds and the ringing carillon welcomed,—Bebee, who was not at all afraid of him, smiled at his rays and saw in them only fairest promise of a cloudless midsummer day as she gave her last crumb to the swallows, dropped down off the thatch, and busied herself in making bread that Mere Krebs would bake for her, until it was time to cut her flowers and go down into the town.
When her loaves were made and she had run over with them to the mill-house and back again, she attired herself with more heed than usual, and ran to look at her own face in the mirror of the deep well-water—other glass she had none.
She was used to hear herself called pretty; bat she had never thought about it at all till now. The people loved her; she had always believed that they had only said it as a sort of kindness, as they said, "God keep you." But now—
"He told me I was like a flower," she thought to herself, and hung over the well to see. She did not know very well what he had meant; but the sentence stirred in her heart as a little bird under tremulous leaves.
She waited ten minutes full, leaning and looking down, while her eyes, that were like the blue iris, smiled back to her from the brown depths below. Then she went and kneeled down before the old shrine in the wall of the garden.
"Dear and holy Mother of Jesus, I do thank you that you made me a little good to look at," she said, softly. "Keep me as you keep the flowers, and let my face be always fair, because it is a pleasure to be a pleasure. Ah, dear Mother, I say it so badly, and it sounds so vain, I know. But I do not think you will be angry, will you? And I am going to try to be wise."
Then she murmured an ave or two, to be in form as it were, and then rose and ran along the lanes with her baskets, and brushed the dew lightly over her bare feet, and sang a little Flemish song for very joyousness, as the birds sing in the apple bough.
She got the money for Annemie and took it to her with fresh patterns to prick, and the new-laid eggs.
"I wonder what he meant by a dog's heart?" she thought to herself, as she left the old woman sitting by the hole in the roof pricking out the parchment in all faith that she earned her money, and looking every now and then through the forests of masts for the brig with the hank of flax flying,—the brig that had foundered fifty long years before in the northern seas, and in the days of her youth.
"What is the dog's heart?" thought Bebee; she had seen a dog she knew—a dog which all his life long had dragged heavy loads under brutal stripes along the streets of Brussels—stretch himself on the grave of his taskmaster and refuse to eat, and persist in lying there until he died, though he had no memory except of stripes, and no tie to the dead except pain and sorrow. Was it a heart like this that he meant?
"Was her sailor, indeed, so good to her?" she asked an old gossip of Annemie's, as she went down the stairs.
The old soul stopped to think with difficulty of such a far-off time, and resting her brass flagon of milk on the steep step.
"Eh, no; not that I ever saw," she answered at length. "He was fond of her—very fond; but he was a wilful one, and he beat her sometimes when he got tired of being on land. But women must not mind that, you know, my dear, if only a man's heart is right. Things fret them, and then they belabor what they love best; it is a way they have."
"But she speaks of him as of an angel nearly!" said Bebee, bewildered.
The old woman took up her flagon, with a smile flitting across her wintry face.
"Ay, dear; when the frost kills your brave rose-bush, root and bud, do you think of the thorns that pricked you, or only of the fair, sweet-smelling things that flowered all your summer?"
Bebee went away thoughtfully out of the old crazy water-washed house by the quay; life seemed growing very strange and intricate and knotted about her, like the threads of lace that a bad fairy has entangled in the night.
Her stranger from Rubes' land was a great man in a certain world. He had become great when young, which is perhaps a misfortune. It indisposes men to be great at their maturity. He was famous at twenty, by a picture hectic in color, perfect in drawing, that made Paris at his feet. He became more famous by verses, by plays, by political follies, and by social successes. He was faithful, however, to his first love in art. He was a great painter, and year by year proved afresh the cunning of his hand. Purists said his pictures had no soul in them. It was not wonderful if they had none. He always painted soulless vice; indeed, he saw very little else.
One year he had some political trouble. He wrote a witty pamphlet that hurt where it was perilous to aim. He laughed and crossed the border, riding into the green Ardennes one sunny evening. He had a name of some power and sufficient wealth; he did not feel long exile. Meanwhile he told himself he would go and look at Scheffer's Gretchen.
The King of Thule is better; but people talk most of the Gretchen. He had never seen either.
He went in leisurely, travelling up the bright Meuse River, and across the monotony of the plains, then green with wheat a foot high, and musical with the many bells of the Easter kermesses in the quaint old-world villages.
There was something so novel, so sleepy, so harmless, so mediaeval, in the Flemish life, that it soothed him. He had been swimming all his life in salt sea-fed rapids; this sluggish, dull, canal water, mirroring between its rushes a life that had scarcely changed for centuries, had a charm for him.
He stayed awhile in Antwerpen. The town is ugly and beautiful; it is like a dull quaint gres de Flandre jug, that has precious stones set inside its rim. It is a burgher ledger of bales and barrels, of sale and barter, of loss and gain; but in the heart of it there are illuminated leaves of missal vellum, all gold and color, and monkish story and heroic ballad, that could only have been executed in the days when Art was a religion.
He gazed himself into an homage of Rubens, whom before he had slighted, never having known (for, unless you have seen Antwerp, it is as absurd to say that you have seen Rubens, as it is to think that you have seen Murillo out of Seville, or Raffaelle out of Rome); and he studied the Gretchen carefully, delicately, sympathetically, for he loved Scheffer; but though he tried, he failed to care for her.
"She is only a peasant; she is not a poem," he said to himself; "I will paint a Gretchen for the Salon of next year."
But it was hard for him to portray a Gretchen. All his pictures were Phryne,—Phryne in triumph, in ruin, in a palace, in a poor-house, on a bed of roses, on a hospital mattress; Phryne laughing with a belt of jewels about her supple waist; Phryne lying with the stones of the dead-house under her naked limbs,—but always Phryne. Phryne, who living had death in her smile; Phryne, who lifeless had blank despair on her face; Phryne, a thing that lived furiously every second of her days, but Phryne a thing that once being dead was carrion that never could live again.
Phryne has many painters in this school, as many as Catherine and Cecilia had in the schools of the Renaissance, and he was chief amidst them.
How could he paint Gretchen if the pure Scheffer missed? Not even if, like the artist monks of old, he steeped his brushes all Lent through in holy water.
And in holy water he did not believe.
One evening, having left Antwerpen ringing its innumerable bells over the grave of its dead Art, he leaned out of the casement of an absent friend's old palace in the Brabant street that is named after Mary of Burgundy; an old casement crusted with quaint carvings, and gilded round in Spanish fashion, with many gargoyles and griffins, and illegible scutcheons.
Leaning there, wondering with himself whether he would wait awhile and paint quietly in this dim street, haunted with the shades of Memling and Maes, and Otto Veneris and Philip de Champagne, or whether he would go into the East and seek new types, and lie under the red Egyptian heavens and create a true Cleopatra, which no man has ever done yet,—young Cleopatra, ankle-deep in roses and fresh from Caesar's kisses,—leaning there, he saw a little peasant go by below, with two little white feet in two wooden shoes, and a face that had the pure and simple radiance of a flower.
"There is my Gretchen," he thought to himself, and went down and followed her into the cathedral. If he could get what was in her face, he would get what Scheffer could not.
A little later walking by her in the green lanes, he meditated, "It is the face of Gretchen, but not the soul—the Red Mouse has never passed this child's lips. Nevertheless—"
"Nevertheless—" he said to himself, and smiled.
For he, the painter all his life long of Phryne living and of Phryne dead, believed that every daughter of Eve either vomits the Red Mouse or swallows it.
It makes so little difference which,—either way the Red Mouse has been there the evening towards this little rush-covered hut, he forgot the Red Mouse, and began vaguely to see that there are creatures of his mother's sex from whom the beast of the Brocken slinks away.
But he still said to himself, "Nevertheless." "Nevertheless,"—for he knew well that when the steel cuts the silk, when the hound hunts the fawn, when the snake wooes the bird, when the king covets the vineyard, there is only one end possible at any time. It is the strong against the weak, the fierce against the feeble, the subtle against the simple, the master against the slave; there is no equality in the contest and no justice—it is merely inevitable, and the issue of it is written.
The next day she had her promised book hidden under the vine-leaves of her empty basket as she went homeward, and though she had not seen him very long or spoken to him very much, she was happy.
The golden gates of knowledge had just opened to her; she saw a faint, far-off glimpse of the Hesperides gardens within; of the dragon she had never heard, and had no fear.
"Might I know your name?" she had asked him wistfully, as she had given him the rosebud, and taken the volume in return that day.
"They call me Flamen."
"It is your name?"
"Yes, for the world. You must call me Victor, as other women do. Why do you want my name?"
"Jeannot asked it of me."
"Oh, Jeannot asked it, did he?"
"Yes; besides," said Bebee, with her eyes very soft and very serious, and her happy voice hushed,—"besides, I want to pray for you of course, every day; and if I do not know your name, how can I make Our Lady rightly understand? The flowers know you without a name, but she might not, because so very many are always beseeching her, and you see she has all the world to look after."
He had looked at her with a curious look, and had bade her farewell, and let her go home alone that night.
Her work was quickly done, and by the light of the moon she spread her book on her lap in the porch of the hut and began her new delight.
The children had come and pulled at her skirts and begged her to play. But Bebee had shaken her head.
"I am going to learn to be very wise, dear," she told them; "I shall not have time to dance or to play."
"But people are not merry when they are wise, Bebee," said Franz, the biggest boy.
"Perhaps not," said Bebee: "but one cannot be everything, you know, Franz."
"But surely, you would rather be merry than anything else?"
"I think there is something better, Franz. I am not sure; I want to find out; I will tell you when I know."
"Who has put that into your head, Bebee?"
"The angels in the cathedral," she told them; and the children were awed and left her, and went away to play blind-man's-buff by themselves, on the grass by the swan's water.
"But for all that the angels have said it," said Franz to his sisters, "I cannot see what good it will be to her to be wise, if she will not care any longer afterwards for almond gingerbread and currant cake."
It was the little tale of "Paul and Virginia" that he had given her to begin her studies with: but it was a grand copy, full of beautiful drawings nearly at every page.
It was hard work for her to read at first, but the drawings enticed and helped her, and she soon sank breathlessly into the charm of the story. Many words she did not know; many passages were beyond her comprehension; she was absolutely ignorant, and had nothing but the force of her own fancy to aid her.
But though stumbling at every step, as a lame child through a flowery hillside in summer, she was happy as the child would be, because of the sweet, strange air that was blowing about her, and the blossoms that she could gather into her hand, so rare, so wonderful, and yet withal so familiar, because they were blossoms.
With her fingers buried in her curls, with her book on her knee, with the moon rays white and strong on the page, Bebee sat entranced as the hours went by; the children's play shouts died away; the babble of the gossip at the house doors ceased; people went by and called good night to her; the little huts shut up one by one, like the white and purple convolvulus cups in the hedges.
Bebee did not stir, nor did she hear them; she was deaf even to the singing of the nightingales in the willows, where she sat in her little thatch above, and the wet garden-ways beyond her.
A heavy step came tramping down the lane. A voice called to her,—
"What are you doing, Bebee, there, this time of the night? It is on the strike of twelve."
She started as if she were doing some evil thing, and stretched her arms out, and looked around with blinded, wondering eyes, as if she had been rudely wakened from her sleep.
"What are you doing up so late?" asked Jeannot; he was coming from the forest in the dead of night to bring food for his family; he lost his sleep thus often, but he never thought that he did anything except his duty in those long, dark, tiring tramps to and fro between Soignies and Laeken.
Bebee shut her book and smiled with dreaming eyes, that saw him not at all.
"I was reading—and, Jeannot, his name is Flamen for the world, but I may call him Victor."
"What do I care for his name?"
"You asked it this morning."
"More fool I. Why do you read? Reading is not for poor folk like you and me."
Bebee smiled up at the white clear moon that sailed above the woods.
She was not awake out of her dream. She only dimly heard the words he spoke.
"You are a little peasant," said Jeannot roughly, as he paused at the gate. "It is all you can do to get your bread. You have no one to stand between you and hunger. How will it be with you when the slug gets your roses, and the snail your carnations, and your hens die of damp, and your lace is all wove awry, because your head runs on reading and folly, and you are spoilt for all simple pleasures and for all honest work?"
She smiled, still looking up at the moon, with the dropping ivy touching her hair.
"You are cross, dear Jeannot. Good night."
A moment afterwards the little rickety door was shut, and the rusty bolt drawn within it; Jeannot stood in the cool summer night all alone, and knew how stupid he had been in his wrath.
He leaned on the gate a minute; then crossed the garden as softly as his wooden shoes would let him. He tapped gently on the shutter of the lattice.
"Bebee—Bebee—just listen. I spoke roughly, dear—I know I have no right. I am sorry. Will you be friends with me again?—do be friends again."
She opened the shutter a little way, so that he could see her pretty mouth speaking, "we are friends—we will always be friends, of course—only you do not know. Good night."
He went away with a heavy heart and a long-drawn step. He would have preferred that she should have been angry with him.
Bebee, left alone, let the clothes drop off her pretty round shoulders and her rosy limbs, and shook out her coils of hair, and kissed the book, and laid it under her head, and went to sleep with a smile on her face.
Only, as she slept, her ringers moved as if she were counting her beads, and her lips murmured,—
"Oh, dear Holy Mother, you have so much to think of—yes. I know—all the poor, and all the little children. But take care of him; he is called Flamen, and he lives in the street of Mary of Burgundy; you cannot miss him; and if you will look for him always, and have a heed that the angels never leave him, I will give you my great cactus glower—my only one—on your Feast of Roses this very year. Oh, dear Mother, you will not forget!"
Bebee was a dreamer in her way, and aspired to be a scholar too. But all the same, she was not a little fool.
She had been reared in hardy, simple, honest ways of living, and would have thought it as shameful as a theft to have owed her bread to other folk.
So, though she had a wakeful, restless night, full of strange fantasies, none the less was she out in her garden by daybreak; none the less did she sweep out her floor and make her mash for the fowls, and wash out her bit of linen and hang it to dry on a line among the tall, flaunting hollyhocks that were so proud of themselves because they reached to the roof.
"What do you want with books, Bebee?" said Reine, the sabot-maker's wife, across the privet hedge, as she also hung out her linen. "Franz told me you were reading last night. It is the silver buckles have done that: one mischief always begets another."
"Where is the mischief, good Reine?" said Bebee, who was always prettily behaved with her elders, though, when pushed to it, she could hold her own.
"The mischief will be in discontent," said the sabot-maker's wife. "People live on their own little patch, and think it is the world; that is as it should be—everybody within his own, like a nut in its shell. But when you get reading, you hear of a swarm of things you never saw, and you fret because you cannot see them, and you dream, and dream, and a hole is burnt in your soup-pot, and your dough is as heavy as lead. You are like bees that leave their own clover fields to buzz themselves dead against the glass of a hothouse."
Bebee smiled, reaching to spread out her linen. But she said nothing.
"What good is it talking to them?" she thought; "they do not know."
Already the neighbors and friends of her infancy seemed so far, far away; creatures of a distant world, that she had long left; it was no use talking, they never would understand.
"Antoine should never have taught you your letters," said Reine, groaning under the great blue shirts she was hanging on high among the leaves. "I told him so at the time. I said, 'The child is a good child, and spins, and sews, and sweeps, rare and fine for her age; why go and spoil her?' But he was always headstrong. Not a child of mine knows a letter, the saints be praised! nor a word of any tongue but our own good Flemish. You should have been brought up the same. You would have come to no trouble then."
"I am in no trouble, dear Reine," said Bebee, scattering the potato-peels to the clacking poultry, and she smiled into the faces of the golden oxlips that nodded to her back again in sunshiny sympathy.
"Not yet," said Reine, hanging her last shirt.
But Bebee was not hearing; she was calling the chickens, and telling the oxlips how pretty they looked in the borders; and in her heart she was counting the minutes till the old Dutch cuckoo-clock at Mere Krebs's—the only clock in the lane—should crow out the hour at which she went down to the city.
She loved the hut, the birds, the flowers; but they were little to her now compared with the dark golden picturesque square, the changing crowds, the frowning roofs, the gray stones, and colors and shadows of the throngs for one face and for one smile.
"He is sure to be there," she thought, and started half an hour earlier than was her wont. She wanted to tell him all her rapture in the book; no one else could understand.
But all the day through he never came.
Bebee sat with a sick heart and a parched little throat, selling her flowers and straining her eyes through the tumult of the square.
The whole day went by, and there was no sign of him.
The flowers had sold well: it was a feast day; her pouch was full of pence—what was that to her?
She went and prayed in the cathedral, but it seemed cold, and desolate, and empty; even the storied windows seemed dark.
"Perhaps he is gore out of the city," she thought; and a terror fell on her that frightened her, it was so unlike any fear that she had ever known—even the fear when she had seen death on old Antoine's face had been nothing like this.
Going home through the streets, she passed the cafe of the Trois Freres that looks out on the trees of the park, and that has flowers in its balconies, and pleasant windows that stand open to let the sounds of the soldiers' music enter. She saw him in one of the windows. There were amber and scarlet and black; silks and satins and velvets. There was a fan painted and jewelled. There were women's faces. There was a heap of purple fruit and glittering sweetmeats. He laughed there. His beautiful Murillo head was dark against the white and gold within.
Bebee looked up,—paused a second,—then went onward, with a thorn in her heart.
He Had not seen her.
"It is natural, of course—he has his world—he does not think often of me—there is no reason why he should be as good as he is," she said to herself as she went slowly over the stones.
She had the dog's soul—only she did not know it.
But the tears Fell down her cheeks, as she walked.
It looked so bright in there, so gay, with the sound of the music coming in through the trees, and those women,—she had seen such women before; sometimes in the winter nights, going home from the lacework, she had stopped at the doors of the palaces, or of the opera house, when the carriages were setting down their brilliant burdens; and sometimes on the great feast days she had seen the people of the court going out to some gala at the theatre, or some great review of troops, or some ceremonial of foreign sovereigns; but she had never thought about them before; she had never wondered whether velvet was better to wear than woollen serge, or-diamonds lighter on the head than a little cap of linen.
Those women seemed to her so dazzling, so wondrously, so superhumanly beautiful; they seemed like some of those new dahlia flowers, rose and purple and gold, that outblazed the sun on the south border of her little garden, and blanched all the soft color out of the homely roses, and pimpernels, and sweet-williams, and double-stocks, that had bloomed there ever since the days of Waterloo.
But the dahlias had no scent; and Bebee wondered if these women had any heart in them,—they looked all laughter, and glitter, and vanity. To the child, whose dreams of womanhood were evolved from the face of the Mary of the Assumption, of the Susannah of Mieris, and of that Angel in the blue coif whose face has a light as of the sun,—to her who had dreamed her way into vague perceptions of her own sex's maidenhood and maternity by help of those great pictures which had been before her sight from infancy, there was some taint, some artifice, some want, some harshness in these jewelled women; she could not have reasoned about it, but she felt it, as she felt that the grand dahlias missed a flower's divinity, being scentless.
She was a little bit of wild thyme herself; hardy, fragrant, clean, tender, flowering by the wayside, full of honey, though only nourished on the turf and the stones, these gaudy, brilliant, ruby-bright, scarlet-mantled dahlias hurt her with a dim sense of pain and shame.
Fasting, next day at sunrise she confessed to Father Francis:—
"I saw beautiful rich women, and I envied them; and I could not pray to Mary last night for thinking of them, for I hated them so much."
But she did not say,—
"I hated them because they were with him."
Out of the purest little soul, Love entering drives forth Candor.
"That is not like you at all, Bebee," said the good old man, as she knelt at his feet on the bricks of his little bare study, where all the books he ever spelt out were treatises on the art of bee-keeping.
"My dear, you never were covetous at all, nor did you ever seem to care for the things of the world. I wish Jehan had not given you those silver buckles; I think they have set your little soul on vanities."
"It is not the buckles; I am not covetous," said Bebee; and then her face grew warm. She did not know why. and she did not hear the rest of Father Francis's admonitions.
But the next noon-time brought him to the market stall, and the next also, and so the summer days slipped away, and Bebee was quite happy if she saw him in the morning time, to give him a fresh rose, or at evening by the gates, or under the beech-trees, when he brought her a new book, and sauntered awhile up the green lane beside her.
An innocent, unconscious love like Bebee's wants so little food to make it all content. Such mere trifles are beautiful and sweet to it. Such slender stray gleams of light suffice to make a broad, bright golden noon of perfect joy around it.
All the delirium, and fever, and desire, and despair, that are in maturer passion, are far away from it: far as is the flash of the meteor across sultry skies from the blue forget-me-not down in the brown meadow brook.
It was very wonderful to Bebee that he, this stranger from Rubes' fairyland, could come at all to keep pace with her little clattering wooden shoes over the dust and the grass in the dim twilight time. The days went by in a trance of sweet amaze, and she kept count of the hours no more by the cuckoo-clock of the mill-house, or the deep chimes of the Brussels belfries; but only by such moments as brought her a word from his lips, or even a glimpse of him from afar, across the crowded square.
She sat up half the nights reading the books he gave her, studying the long cruel polysyllables, and spelling slowly through the phrases that seemed to her so cramped and tangled, and which yet were a pleasure to unravel forsake of the thought they held.
For Bebee, ignorant little simple soul that she was, had a mind in her that was eager, observant, quick to acquire, skilful to retain; and it would happen in certain times that Flamen, speaking to her of the things which he gave to her to read, would think to himself that this child had more wisdom than was often to be found in schools.
Meanwhile he pondered various studies in various stages of a Gretchen, and made love to Bebee—made love at least by his eyes and by his voice, not hurrying his pleasant task, but hovering about her softly, and mindful not to scare her, as a man will gently lower his hand over a poised butterfly that he seeks to kill, and which one single movement, a thought too quick, may scare away to safety.
Bebee knew where he lived in the street of Mary of Burgundy: in an old palace that belonged to a great Flemish noble, who never dwelt there himself; but to ask anything about him—why he was there? what his rank was? why he stayed in the city at all?—was a sort of treason that never entered her thoughts.
Psyche, if she had been as simple and loyal as Bebee was, would never have lighted her own candle; but even Psyche would not have borrowed any one else's lamp to lighten the love darkness.
To Bebee he was sacred, unapproachable, unquestionable; he was a wonderful, perfect happiness that had fallen into her life; he was a gift of God, as the sun was.
She took his going and coming as she took that of the sun, never dreaming of reproaching his absence, never dreaming of asking if in the empty night he shone on any other worlds than hers.
It was hardly so much a faith with her as an instinct; faith must reason ere it know itself to be faith. Bebee never reasoned any more than her roses did.
The good folks in the market place watched her a little anxiously; they thought ill of that little moss-rose that every day found its way to one wearer only; but after all they did not see much, and the neighbors nothing at all. For he never went home to her, nor with her, and most of the time that he spent with Bebee was in the quiet evening shadows, as she went up with her empty basket through the deserted country roads.
Bebee was all day long in the city, indeed, as other girls were, but with her it had always been different. Antoine had always been with her up to the day of his death; and after his death she had sat in the same place, surrounded by the people she had known from infancy, and an insult to her would have been answered by a stroke from the cobbler's strap or from the tinker's hammer. There was one girl only who ever tried to do her any harm—a good-looking stout wench, who stood at the corner of the Montagne de la Cour with a stall of fruit in the summer time, and in winter time drove a milk cart over the snow. This girl would get at her sometimes, and talk of the students, and tell her how good it was to get out of the town on a holiday, and go to any one of the villages where there was Kermesse and dance, and drink the little blue wine, and have trinkets bought for one, and come home in the moonlight in a char-a-banc, with the horns sounding, and the lads singing, and the ribbons flying from the old horse's ears.
"She is such a little close sly thing!" thought the fruit girl, sulkily. To vice, innocence must always seem only a superior kind of chicanery.
"We dance almost every evening, the children and I," Bebee had answered when urged fifty times by this girl to go to fairs, and balls at the wine shops. "That does just as well. And I have seen Kermesse once at Malines—it was beautiful. I went with Mere Dax, but it cost a great deal I know, though she did not let me pay."
"You little fool!" the fruit girl would say, and grin, and eat a pear.
But the good honest old women who sat about in the Grande Place, hearing, had always taken the fruit girl to task, when they got her by herself.
"Leave the child alone, you mischievous one," said they. "Be content with being base yourself. Look you, Lisette; she is not one like you to make eyes at the law students, and pester the painter lads for a day's outing. Let her be, or we will tell your mother how you leave the fruit for the gutter children to pick and thieve, while you are stealing up the stairs into that young French fellow's chamber. Oh, oh! a fine beating you will get when she knows!"
Lisette's mother was a fierce and strong old Brabantoise who exacted heavy reckoning with her daughter for every single plum and peach that she sent out of her dark sweet-smelling fruit shop to be sunned in the streets, and under the students' love-glances.
So the girl took heed, and left Bebee alone.
"What should I want her to come with us for?" she reasoned with herself. "She is twice as pretty as I am; Jules might take to her instead—who knows?"
So that she was at once savage and yet triumphant when she saw, as she thought, Bebee drifting down the high flood of temptation.
"Oh, oh, you dainty one!" she cried one day to her. "So you would not take the nuts and mulberries that do for us common folk, because you had a mind for a fine pine out of the hothouses! That was all, was it? Eh, well; I do not begrudge you. Only take care; remember, the nuts and mulberries last through summer and autumn, and there are heaps of them on every fair-stall and street corner; but the pine, that is eaten in a day, one springtime, and its like does not grow in the hedges. You will have your mouth full of sugar an hour,—and then, eh!—you will go famished all the year."
"I do not understand," said Bebee, looking up, with her thoughts far away, and scarcely hearing the words spoken to her.
"Oh, pretty little fool! you understand well enough," said Lisette, grinning, as she rubbed up a melon. "Does he give you fine things? You might let me see."
"No one gives me anything."
"Chut! you want me to believe that. Why Jules is only a lad, and his father is a silk mercer, and only gives him a hundred francs a month, but Jules buys me all I want—somehow—or do you think I would take the trouble to set my cap straight when he goes by? He gave me these ear-rings, look. I wish you would let me see what you get."
But Bebee had gone away—unheeding—dreaming of Juliet and of Jeanne d'Arc, of whom he had told her tales.
He made sketches of her sometimes, but seldom pleased himself.
It was not so easy as he had imagined that it would prove to portray this little flower-like face, with the clear eyes and the child's open brow. He who had painted Phryne so long and faithfully had got a taint on his brush—he could not paint this pure, bright, rosy dawn—he who had always painted the glare of midnight gas on rouge or rags. Yet he felt that if he could transfer to canvas the light that was on Bebee's face he would get what Scheffer had missed. For a time it eluded him. You shall paint a gold and glistening brocade, or a fan of peacock's feathers, to perfection, and yet, perhaps, the dewy whiteness of the humble little field daisy shall baffle and escape you.
He felt, too, that he must catch her expression flying as he would do the flash of a swallow's wing across a blue sky; he knew that Bebee, forced to studied attitudes in an atelier, would be no longer the ideal that he wanted.
More than once he came and filled in more fully his various designs in the little hut garden, among the sweet gray lavender and the golden disks of the sunflowers; and more than once Bebee was missed from her place in the front of the Broodhuis.
The Varnhart children would gather now and then open-mouthed at the wicket, and Mere Krebs would shake her head as she went by on her sheepskin saddle, and mutter that the child's head would be turned by vanity; and old Jehan would lean on his stick and peer through the sweetbrier, and wonder stupidly if this strange man who could make Bebee's face beam over again upon that panel of wood could not give him back his dead daughter who had been pushed away under the black earth so long, long before, when the red mill had been brave and new, the red mill that the boys and girls called old.
But except these, no one noticed much.
Painters were no rare sights in Brabant.
The people were used to see them coming and going, making pictures of mud and stones, and ducks and sheep, and of all common and silly things.
"What does he pay you, Bebee?" they used to ask, with the shrewd Flemish thought after the main chance.
"Nothing," Bebee would answer, with a quick color in her face; and they would reply in contemptuous reproof, "Careless little fool; you should make enough to buy you wood all winter. When the man from Ghent painted Trine and her cow, he gave her a whole gold bit for standing still so long in the clover. The Krebs would be sure to lend you her cow, if it be the cow that makes the difference."
Bebee was silent, weeding her carnation bed;—what could she tell them that they would understand?
She seemed so far away from them all—those good friends of her childhood—now that this wonderful new world of his giving had opened to her sight.
She lived in a dream.
Whether she sat in the market place taking copper coins, or in the moonlight with a book on her knees, it was all the same. Her feet ran, her tongue spoke, her hands worked; she did not neglect her goat or her garden, she did not forsake her house labor or her good deeds to old Annemie; but all the while she only heard one voice, she only felt one touch, she only saw one face.
Here and there—one in a million—there is a female thing that can love like this, once and forever.
Such an one is dedicated, birth upwards, to the Mater Dolorosa.
He had something nearer akin to affection for her than he had ever had in his life for anything, but he was never in love with her—no more in love with her than with the moss-rosebuds that she fastened in his breast. Yet he played with her, because she was such a little, soft, tempting female thing; and because, to see her face flush, and her heart heave, to feel her fresh feelings stir into life, and to watch her changes from shyness to confidence, and from frankness again into fear, was a natural pastime in the lazy golden weather.
That he spared her as far as he did,—when after all she would have married Jeannot anyhow,—and that he sketched her face in the open air, and never entered her hut and never beguiled her to his own old palace in the city, was a new virtue in himself for which he hardly knew whether to feel respect or ridicule; anyway, it seemed virtue to him.
So long as he did not seduce the body, it seemed to him that it could never matter how he slew the soul,—the little, honest, happy, pure, frank soul, that amidst its poverty and hardships was like a robin's song to the winter sun.
"Hoot, toot, pretty innocent, so you are no better than the rest of us," hissed her enemy, Lisette, the fruit girl, against her as she went by the stall one evening as the sun set. "Prut! so it was no such purity after all that made you never look at the student lads and the soldiers, eh? You were so dainty of taste, you must needs pick and choose, and, Lord's sake, after all your coyness, to drop at a beckoning finger as one may say—pong!—in a minute, like an apple over-ripe! Oh he, you sly one!"
Bebee flushed red, in a sort of instinct of offence; not sure what her fault was, but vaguely stung by the brutal words.
Bebee walked homeward by him, with her empty baskets: looked at him with grave wondering eyes.
"What did she mean? I do not understand. I must have done some wrong—or she thinks so. Do you know?"
Flamen laughed, and answered her evasively,—
"You have done her the wrong of a fair skin when hers is brown, and a little foot while hers is as big as a trooper's; there is no greater sin, Bebee, possible in woman to woman."
"Hold your peace, you shrill jade," he added, in anger to the fruiterer, flinging at her a crown piece, that the girl caught, and bit with her teeth with a chuckle. "Do not heed her, Bebee. She is a coarse-tongued brute, and is jealous, no doubt."
The word had no meaning to Bebee.
"That I am not a student or a soldier, as her lovers are."
As her lovers were! Bebee felt her face burn again. Was he her lover then? The child's innocent body and soul thrilled with a hot, sweet delight and fear commingled.
Bebee was not quite satisfied until she had knelt down that night and asked the Master of all poor maidens to see if there were any wickedness in her heart, hidden there like a bee in a rose, and if there were to take it out and make her worthier of this wonderful new happiness in her life.
The next day, waking with a radiant little soul as a bird in a forest wakes in summer Bebee was all alone in the lane by the swans' water. In the gray of the dawn all the good folk except herself and lame old Jehan had tramped off to a pilgrimage, Liege way, which the bishop of the city had enjoined on all the faithful as a sacred duty.
Bebee doing her work, singing, thinking how good God was, and dreaming over a thousand fancies of the wonderful stories he had told her, and of the exquisite delight that would lie for her in watching for him all through the shining hours, Bebee felt her little heart leap like a squirrel as the voice that was the music of heaven to her called through the stillness,—"Good day, pretty one! you are as early as the lark, Bebee. I go to Mayence, so I thought I would look at you one moment as I pass."
Bebee ran down through the wet grass in a tumult of joy. She had never seen him so early in the day—never so early as this, when nobody was up and stirring except birds and beasts and peasant folk.
She did not know how pretty she looked herself; like a rain-washed wild rose; her feet gleaming with dew, her cheeks warm with health and joy; her sunny clustering hair free from the white cap and tumbling a little about her throat, because she had been stooping over the carnations.
Flamen loosed the wicket latch, and thought there might be better ways of spending the day than in the gray shadows of old Mechlin.
"Will you give me a draught of water?" he asked her as he crossed the garden.
"I will give you breakfast," said Bebee, happy as a bird. She felt no shame for the smallness of her home; no confusion at the poverty of her little place; such embarrassments are born of self-consciousness, and Bebee had no more self-consciousness than her own sweet, gray lavender-bush blowing against the door.
The lavender-bush has no splendor like the roses, has no colors like the hollyhocks; it is a simple, plain, gray thing that the bees love and that the cottagers cherish, and that keeps the moth from the homespun linen, and that goes with the dead to their graves.
It has many virtues and infinite sweetness, but it does not know it or think of it; and if the village girls ever tell it so, it fancies they only praise it out of kindness as they put its slender fragrant spears away in their warm bosoms. Bebee was like her lavender, and now that this beautiful Purple Emperor butterfly came from the golden sunbeams to find pleasure for a second in her freshness, she was only very grateful, as the lavender-bush was to the village girls.
"I will give you your breakfast," said Bebee, flushing rosily with pleasure, and putting away the ivy coils that he might enter.
"I have very little, you know," she added, wistfully. "Only goat's milk and bread; but if that will do—and there is some honey—and if you would eat a salad, I would cut one fresh."
He did enter, and glanced round him with a curious pity and wonder both in one.
It was such a little, small, square place; and its floor was of beaten clay; and its unceiled roof he could have touched; and its absolute poverty was so plain,—and yet the child looked so happy in it, and was so like a flower, and was so dainty and fresh, and even so full of grace.
She stood and looked at him with frank and grateful eyes; she could hardly believe that he was here; he, the stranger of Rubes' land, in her own little rush-covered home.
But she was not embarrassed by it; she was glad and proud.
There is a dignity of peasants as well as of kings,—the dignity that comes from all absence of effort, all freedom from pretence. Bebee had this, and she had more still than this: she had the absolute simplicity of childhood with her still.
Some women have it still when they are four-score.
She could have looked at him forever, she was so happy; she cared nothing now for those dazzling dahlias—he had left them; he was actually here—here in her own, little dear home, with the cocks looking in at the threshold, and the sweet-peas nodding at the lattice, and the starling crying, "Bonjour! Bonjour!"
"You are tired, I am sure you must be tired," she said, pulling her little bed forward for him to sit on, for there were only two wooden stools in the hut, and no chair at all.
Then she took his sketching-easel and brushes from his hand, and would have kneeled and taken the dust off his boots if he would have let her; and went hither and thither gladly and lightly, bringing him a wooden bowl of milk and the rest of the slender fare, and cutting as quick as thought fresh cresses and lettuce from her garden, and bringing him, as the crown of all, Father Francis's honey-comb on vine-leaves, with some pretty sprays of box and mignonette scattered about it—doing all this with a swift, sweet grace that robbed the labor of all look of servitude, and looking at him ever and again with a smile that said as clearly as any words, "I cannot do much, but what I do, I do with all my heart."
There was something in the sight of her going and coming in those simple household errands, across the sunlit floor, that moved him as some mountain air sung on an alp by a girl driving her cows to pasture may move a listener who indifferent has heard the swell of the organ of La Hague, or the recitative of a great singer in San Carlo.
The gray lavender blowing at the house door has its charm for those who are tired of the camellias that float in the porcelain bowls of midnight suppers.
This man was not good. He was idle and vain, and amorous and cold, and had been spoiled by the world in which he had passed his days; but he had the temper of an artist: he had something, too, of a poet's fancy; he was vaguely touched and won by this simple soul that looked at him out of Bebee's eyes with some look that in all its simplicity had a divine gleam in it that made him half ashamed.
He had known women by the thousand, good women and bad; women whom he had dealt ill with and women who had dealt ill with him; but this he had not known—this frank, fearless, tender, gay, grave, innocent, industrious little life, helping itself, feeding itself, defending itself, working for itself and for others, and vaguely seeking all the while some unseen light, some unknown god, with a blind faith so infinitely ignorant and yet so infinitely pathetic.
"All the people are gone on a pilgrimage," she explained to him when he asked her why her village was so silent this bright morning. "They are gone to pray for a fine harvest, and that she wants herself as well—it costs seven francs apiece. They take their food with them; they go and laugh and eat in the fields. I think it is nonsense. One can say one's prayers just as well here. Mere Krebs thinks so too, but then she says, 'If I do not go, it will look ill; people will say I am irreligious; and as we make so much by flour, God would think it odd for me to be absent; and, besides, it is only seven francs there and back; and if it does please Heaven, that is cheap, you know. One will get it over and over again in Paradise.' That is what Mere Krebs says. But, for me, I think it is nonsense. It cannot please God to go by train and eat galette and waste a whole day in getting dusty.
"When I give the Virgin my cactus flower, I do give up a thing I love, and I let it wither on her altar instead of pleasing me in bloom here all the week, and then, of course, she sees that I have done it out of gratitude. But that is different: that I am sorry to do, and yet I am glad to do it out of love. Do you not know?"
"Yes, I know very well. But is the Virgin all that you love like this?"
"No; there is the garden, and there is Antoine—he is dead, I know. But I think that we should love the dead all the better, not the less, because they cannot speak or say that they are angry; and perhaps one pains them very much when one neglects them, and if they are ever so sad, they cannot rise and rebuke one—that is why I would rather forget the flowers for the Church than I would the flowers for his grave, because God can punish me, of course, if he like, but Antoine never can—any more—now."
"You are logical in your sentiment, my dear," said Flamen, who was more moved than he cared to feel. "The union is a rare one in your sex. Who taught you to reason?"
"No one. And I do not know what to be logical means. Is it that you laugh at me?"
"No. I do not laugh. And your pilgrims—they are gone for all day?"
"Yes. They are gone to the Sacred Heart at St. Marie en Bois. It is on the way to Liege. They will come back at nightfall. And some of them will be sure to have drunk too much, and the children will get so cross. Prosper Bar, who is a Calvinist, always says, 'Do not mix up prayer and play; you would not cut a gherkin in your honey'; but I do not know why he called prayer a gherkin, because it is sweet enough—sweeter than anything, I think. When I pray to the Virgin to let me see you next day, I go to bed quite happy, because she will do it, I know, if it will be good for me."
"But if it were not good for you, Bebee? Would you cease to wish it then?"
He rose as he spoke, and went across the floor and drew away her hand that was parting the flax, and took it in his own and stroked it, indulgently and carelessly, as a man may stroke the soft fur of a young cat.
Leaning against the little lattice and looking down on her with musing eyes, half smiling, half serious, half amorous, half sad, Bebee looked up with a sudden and delicious terror that ran through her as the charm of the snake's gaze runs through the bewildered bird.
"Would you cease to wish it if it were not good?" he asked again.
Bebee's face grew pale and troubled. She left her hand in his because she did not think any shame of his taking it. But the question suddenly flung the perplexity and darkness of doubt into the clearness of her pure child's conscience. All her ways had been straight and sunlit before her.
She had never had a divided duty.
The religion and the pleasure of her simple little life had always gone hand-in-hand, greeting one another, and never for an instant in conflict. In any hesitation of her own she had always gone to Father Francis, and he had disentangled the web for her and made all plain.
But here was a difficulty in which she could never go to Father Francis.
Right and wrong, duty and desire, were for the first time arrayed before her in their ghastly and unending warfare.
It frightened her with a certain breathless sense of peril—the peril of a time when in lieu of that gentle Mother of Roses whom she kneeled to among the flowers, she would only see a dusky shadow looming between her and the beauty of life and the light of the sun.
What he said was quite vague to her. She attached no definite danger to his words. She only thought—to see him was so great a joy—if Mary forbade it, would she not take it if she could notwithstanding, always, always, always?
He kept her hand in his, and watched with contentment the changing play of the shade and sorrow, the fear and fascination, on her face.
"You do not know, Bebee?" he said at length, knowing well himself; so much better than ever she knew. "Well, dear, that is not flattering to me. But it is natural. The good Virgin of course gives you all you have, food, and clothes, and your garden, and your pretty plump chickens; and I am only a stranger. You could not offend her for me; that is not likely."
The child was cut to the heart by the sadness and humility of words of whose studied artifice she had no suspicion.
She thought that she seemed to him ungrateful and selfish, and yet all the mooring-ropes that held her little boat of life to the harbor of its simple religion seemed cut away, and she seemed drifting helpless and rudderless upon an unknown sea.
"I never did do wrong—that I know," she said, timidly, and lifted her eyes to his with an unconscious appeal in them.
"But—I do not see why it should be wrong to speak with you. You are good, and you lend me beautiful things out of other men's minds that will make me less ignorant: Our Lady could not be angry with that—she must like it."
"Our Lady?—oh, poor little simpleton!—where will her reign be when Ignorance has once been cut down root and branch?" he thought to himself: but he only answered,—
"But whether she like it or not, Bebee?—you beg the question, my dear; you are—you are not so frank as usual—think, and tell me honestly?"
He knew quite well, but it amused him to see the perplexed trouble that this, the first divided duty of her short years, brought with it.
Bebee looked at him, and loosened her hand from his, and sat quite still. Her lips had a little quiver in them.
"I think." she said at last, "I think—if it be wrong, still I will wish it—yes. Only I will not tell myself it is right. I will just say to Our Lady, 'I am wicked, perhaps, but I cannot help it' So, I will not deceive her at all; and perhaps in time she may forgive. But I think you only say it to try me. It cannot, I am sure, be wrong—any more than it is to talk to Jeannot or to Bac."