He had driven her into the subtleties of doubt, but the honest little soul in her found a way out, as a flower in a cellar finds its way through the stones to light.
He plucked the ivy leaves and threw them at the chickens on the bricks without, with a certain impatience in the action. The simplicity and the directness of the answer disarmed him; he was almost ashamed to use against her the weapons of his habitual warfare. It was like a maitre d'armes fencing with bare steel against a little naked child armed with a blest palm-sheaf.
When she had thus brought him all she had, and he to please her had sat down to the simple food, she gathered a spray of roses and set it in a pot beside him, then left him and went and stood at a little distance, waiting, with her hands lightly crossed on her chest, to see if there were anything that he might want.
He ate and drank well to please her, looking at her often as he did so.
"I break your bread, Bebee," he said, with a tone that seemed strange to her,—"I break your bread. I must keep Arab faith with you."
"What is that?"
"I mean—I must never betray you."
"Betray me How could you?"
"Well—hurt you in any way."
"Ah, I am sure you would never do that."
He was silent, and looked at the spray of roses.
"Sit down and spin," he said impatiently. "I am ashamed to see you stand there, and a woman never looks so well as when she spins. Sit down, and I will eat the good things you have brought me. But I cannot if you stand and look."
"I beg your pardon. I did not know," she said, ashamed lest she should have seemed rude to him; and she drew out her wheel under the light of the lattice, and sat down to it, and began to disentangle the threads.
It was a pretty picture—the low, square casement; the frame of ivy, the pink and white of the climbing sweet-peas: the girl's head; the cool, wet leaves: the old wooden spinning-wheel, that purred like a sleepy cat.
"I want to paint you as Gretchen, only it will be a shame." he said.
"Who is Gretchen?"
"You shall read of her by-and-by. And you live here all by yourself?"
"Since Antoine died—yes."
"And are never dull?"
"I have no time, and I do not think I would be if I had time—there is so much to think of, and one never can understand."
"But you must be very brave and laborious to do all your work yourself. Is it possible a child like you can spin, and wash, and bake, and garden, and do everything?"
"Oh, many do more than I. Babette's eldest daughter is only twelve, and she does much more, because she has all the children to look after; and they are very, very poor; they often have nothing but a stew of nettles and perhaps a few snails, days together."
"That is lean, bare, ugly, gruesome poverty; there is plenty of that everywhere. But you, Bebee—you are an idyll."
Bebee looked across the hut and smiled, and broke her thread. She did not know what he meant, but if she were anything that pleased him, it was well.
"Who were those beautiful women?" she said suddenly, the color mounting into her cheeks.
"What women, my dear?"
"Those I saw at the window with you, the other night—they had jewels."
"Oh!—women, tiresome enough. If I had seen you, I would have dropped you some fruit. Poor little Bebee! Did you go by, and I never knew?"
"You were laughing—"
"Yes, and they were beautiful."
"In their own eyes; not in mine."
She stopped her spinning and gazed at him with wistful, wondering eyes. Could it be that they were not beautiful to him? those deep red, glowing, sun-basked dahlia flowers?
"Do you know," she said very softly, with a flush of penitence that came and went, "when I saw them, I hated them; I confessed it to Father Francis next day. You seemed so content with, them, and they looked so gay and glad there—and then the jewels! Somehow, I seemed to myself such a little thing, and so ugly and mean. And yet, do you know—"
"They did not look to me good—those women," said Bebee, thoughtfully, looking across at him in deprecation of his possible anger. "They were great people, I suppose, and they appeared very happy; but though I seemed nothing to myself after them, still I think I would not change."
"You are wise without books, Bebee."
"Oh, no, I am not wise at all. I only feel. And give me books; oh, pray, give me books! You do not know; I will learn so fast; and I will not neglect anything, that I promise. The neighbors and Jeannot say that I shall let the flowers die, and the hut get dirty, and never spin or prick Annemie's patterns; but that is untrue. I will do all, just as I have done, and more too, if only you will give me things to read, for I do think when one is happy, one ought to work more—not less."
"But will these books make you happy? If you ask me the truth, I must tell you—no. You are happy as you are, because you know nothing else than your own little life; for ignorance is happiness, Bebee, let sages, ancient and modern, say what they will. But when you know a little, you will want to know more: and when you know much, you will want to see much also, and then—and then—the thing will grow—you will be no longer content. That is, you will be unhappy."
Bebee watched him with wistful eyes.
"Perhaps that is true. No doubt it is true, if you say it. But you know all the world seems full of voices that I hear, but that I cannot understand; it is with me as I should think it is with people who go to foreign countries and do not know the tongue that is spoken when they land; and it makes me unhappy, because I cannot comprehend, and so the books will not make me more so, but less. And as for being content—when I thought you were gone away out of the city, last night, I thought I would never be able to pray any more, because I hated myself, and I almost hated the angels, and I told Mary that she was cruel, and she turned her face from me—as it seemed, forever."
She spoke quite quietly and simply, spinning as she spoke, and looking across at him with earnest eyes, that begged him to believe her. She was saying the pure truth, but she did not know the force or the meaning of that truth.
He listened with a smile; it was not new to him; he knew her heart much better than she knew it herself, but there was an unconsciousness, and yet a strength, in the words that touched him though.
He threw the leaves away, irritably, and told her to leave off her spinning.
"Some day I shall paint you with that wheel as I painted the Broodhuis. Will you let me, Bebee?"
She answered him as she would have answered if he had told her to go on pilgrimage from one end of the Low Countries to the other.
"What were you going to do to-day?"
"I am going into the market with the flowers; I go every day."
"How much will you make?"
"Two or three francs, if I am lucky."
"And do you never have a holiday?"
"Oh, yes; but not often, you know, because it is on the fete days that the people want the most flowers."
"But in the winter?"
"Then I work at the lace."
"Do you never go into the woods?"
"I have been once or twice; but it loses a whole day."
"You are afraid of not earning?"
"Yes. Because I am afraid of owing people anything."
"Well, give up this one day, and we will make holiday. The people are out; they will not know. Come into the forest, and we will dine at a cafe in the woods; and we will be as poetic as you like, and I will tell you a tale of one called Rosalind, who pranked herself in boy's attire, all for love, in the Ardennes country yonder. Come, it is the very day for the forest; it will make me a lad again at Meudon, when the lilacs were in bloom. Poor Paris! Come."
"Do you mean it?"
The color was bright in her face, her heart was dancing, her little feet felt themselves already on the fresh green turf.
She had no thought that there could be any harm in it. She would have gone with Jeannot or old Bac.
"Of course I mean it. Come. I was going to Mayence to see the Magi and Van Dyck's Christ. We will go to Soignies instead, and study green leaves. I will paint your face by sunlight. It is the best way to paint you. You belong to the open air. So should Gretchen; or how else should she have the blue sky in her eyes?"
"But I have only wooden shoes!"
Her face was scarlet as she glanced at her feet; he who had wanted to give her the silk stockings—how would he like to be seen walking abroad with those two clumsy, clattering, work-a-day, little sabots?
"Never mind. My dear, in my time I have had enough of satin shoes and of silver gilt heels; they click-clack as loud as yours, and cost much more to those who walk with them, not to mention that they will seldom deign to walk at all. Your wooden shoes are picturesque. Paganini made a violin out of a wooden shoe. Who knows what music may lurk in yours, only you have never heard it. Perhaps I have. It was Bac who gave you the red shoes that was the barbarian, not I. Come."
"You really mean it?"
"But they will miss me at market."
"They will think you are gone on the pilgrimage: you need never tell them you have not."
"But if they ask me?"
"Does it never happen that you say any other thing than the truth?"
"Any other thing than the truth! Of course not. People take for granted that one tells truth; it would be very base to cheat them. Do you really mean that I may come?—in the forest!—and you will tell me stories like those you give me to read?"
"I will tell you a better story. Lock your hut, Bebee, and come."
"And to think you are not ashamed!"
"Yes, because of my wooden shoes."
Was it possible? Bebee thought, as she ran out into the garden and locked the door behind her, and pushed the key under the waterbutt as usual, being quite content with that prudent precaution against robbers which had served Antoine all his days. Was it possible, this wonderful joy?—her cheeks were like her roses, her eyes had a brilliance like the sun; the natural grace and mirth of the child blossomed in a thousand ways and gestures.
As she went by the shrine in the wall, she bent her knee a moment and made the sign of the cross; then she gathered a little moss-rose that nodded close under the border of the palisade, and turned and gave it to him.
"Look, she sends you this. She is not angry, you see, and it is much more pleasure when she is pleased—do you not know?"
He shrank a little as her fingers touched him.
"What a pity you had no mother, Bebee!" he said, on an impulse of emotion, of which in Paris he would have been more ashamed than of any guilt.
In the deserted lane by the swans' water, under the willows, the horses waited to take him to Mechlin; little, quick, rough horses, with round brass bells, in the Flemish fashion, and gay harness, and a low char-a-banc, in which a wolf-skin and red rugs, and all a painter's many necessities, were tossed together.
He lifted her in, and the little horses flew fast through the green country, ringing chimes at each step, till they plunged into the deep glades of the woods of Cambre and Soignies.
Bebee sat breathless with delight.
She had never gone behind horses in all her life, except once or twice in a wagon when the tired teamsters had dragged a load of corn across the plains, or when the miller's old gray mare had hobbled wearily before a cart-load of noisy, happy, mischievous children going home from the masses and fairs, and flags, and flowers, and church banners, and puppet-shows, and lighted altars, and whirling merry-go-rounds of the Fete Dieu.
She had never known what it was to sail as on the wings of the wind along broad roads, with yellow wheat-lands, and green hedges, and wayside trees, and little villages, and reedy canal water, all flying by her to the sing-song of the joyous bells.
"Oh, how good it is to live!" she cried, clapping her hands in a very ecstasy, as the clear morning broadened into gold and the west wind rose and blew from the sands by the sea.
"Yes—it is good—if one did not tire so soon," said he, watching her with a listless pleasure.
But she did not hear; she was beyond the reach of any power to sadden her; she was watching the white oxen that stood on the purple brow of the just reapen lands, and the rosy clouds that blew like a shower of apple-blossoms across the sky to the south.
There was a sad darkling Calvary on the edge of the harvest-field that looked black against the blue sky; its shadow fell across the road, but she did not see it: she was looking at the sun.
There is not much change in the great Soignies woods. They are aisles on aisles of beautiful green trees, crossing and recrossing; tunnels of dark foliage that look endless; long avenues of beech, of oak, of elm, or of fir, with the bracken and the brushwood growing dense between; a delicious forest growth everywhere, shady even at noon, and by a little past midday dusky as evening; with the forest fragrance, sweet and dewy, all about, and under the fern the stirring of wild game, and the white gleam of little rabbits, and the sound of the wings of birds.
Soignies is not legend-haunted like the Black Forest, nor king-haunted like Fontainebleau, nor sovereign of two historic streams like the brave woods of Heidelberg; nor wild and romantic, arid broken with black rocks, and poetized by the shade of Jaques, and swept through by a perfect river, like its neighbors of Ardennes; nor throned aloft on mighty mountains like the majestic oak glades of the Swabian hills of the ivory carvers.
Soignies is only a Flemish forest in a plain, throwing its shadows over corn-fields and cattle pastures, with no panorama beyond it and no wonders in its depth. But it is a fresh, bold, beautiful forest for all that.
It has only green leaves to give,—green leaves always, league after league; but there is about it that vague mystery which all forests have, and this universe of leaves seems boundless, and Pan might dwell in it, and St. Hubert, and John Keats.
Bebee, in her rare holidays with the Bac children or with Jeannot's sisters, had never penetrated farther than the glades of the Cambre, and had never entered the heart of the true forest, which is much still what it must have been in the old days when the burghers of Brabant cut their yew bows and their pike staves from it to use against the hosts of Spain.
To Bebee it was as an enchanted land, and every play of light and shade, every hare speeding across the paths, every thrush singing in the leaves, every little dog-rose or harebell that blossomed in the thickets, was to her a treasure, a picture, a poem, a delight.
He had seen girls thus in the woods of Vincennes and of Versailles in the student days of his youth: little work-girls fresh from chalets of the Jura or from vine-hung huts of the Loire, who had brought their poor little charms to perish in Paris; and who dwelt under the hot tiles and amidst the gilded shop signs till they were as pale and thin as their own starved balsams; and who, when they saw the green woods, laughed and cried a little, and thought of the broad sun-swept fields, and wished that they were back again behind their drove of cows, or weeding among the green grapes.
But those little work-girls had been mere homely daisies, and daisies already with the dust of the pavement and of the dancing-gardens upon them.
Bebee was as pure and fresh as these dew-wet dog-roses that she found in the thickets of thorn.
He had meant to treat her as he had used to do those work-girls—a little wine, a little wooing, a little folly and passion, idle as a butterfly and brief as a rainbow—one midsummer day and night—then a handful of gold, a caress, a good-morrow, and forgetfulness ever afterwards—that was what he had meant when he had brought her out to the forest of Soignies.
But—she was different, this child.
He made the great sketch of her for his Gretchen, sitting on a moss-grown trunk, with marguerites in her hand; he sent for their breakfast far into the woods, and saw her set her pearly teeth into early peaches and costly sweetmeats; he wandered with her hither and thither, and told her tales out of the poets and talked to her in the dreamy, cynical, poetical manner that was characteristic of him, being half artificial and half sorrowful, as his temper was.
But Bebee, all unconscious, intoxicated with happiness, and yet touched by it into that vague sadness which the summer sun brings with it even to young things, if they have soul in them,—Bebee said to him what the work-girls of Paris never had done.
Beautiful things: things fantastic, ignorant, absurd, very simple, very unreasonable oftentimes, but things beautiful always, and sometimes even very wise by a wisdom not of the world; by a certain light divine that does shine now and then as through an alabaster lamp, through minds that have no grossness to obscure them.
Her words were not equal to the burden of her thoughts at times, but he knew how to take the pearl of the thought from the broken shell and tangled sea-weed of her simple, untutored speech.
"If there be a God anywhere," he thought to himself, "this little Fleming is very near him."
She was so near that, although he had no belief in any God, he could not deal with her as he had used to do with the work-girls in the primrose paths of old Vincennes.
"To be Gretchen, you must count the leaves of your daisies," he said to her, as he painted,—painted her just as she was, with her two little white feet in the wooden shoes, and the thick green leaves behind; the simplest picture possible, the dress of gray—only cool dark gray—with white linen bodice, and no color anywhere except in the green of the foliage; but where he meant the wonder and the charm of it to lie was in the upraised, serious, child-like face, and the gaze of the grave, smiling eyes.
It was Gretchen, spinning, out in the open air among the flowers. Gretchen, with the tall dog-daisies growing up about her feet, among the thyme and the roses, before she had had need to gather, one to ask her future of its parted leaves.
The Gretchen of Scheffer tells no tale; she is a fair-haired, hard-working, simple-minded peasant, with whom neither angels nor devils have anything to do, and whose eyes never can open to either hell or heaven. But the Gretchen of Flamen said much more than this: looking at it, men would sigh from shame, and women weep from sorrow.
"Count the daisies?" echoed Bebee. "Oh, I know what you mean. A little—much—passionately—until death—not at all. What the girls say when they want to see if any one loves them? Is that it?"
She looked at him without any consciousness, except as she loved the flowers.
"Do you think the daisies know?" she went on, seriously, parting their petals with her fingers. "Flowers do know many things—that is certain."
"Ask them for yourself."
"Ask them what?"
"How much—any one—loves you?"
"Oh, but every one loves me; there is no one that is bad. Antoine used to say to me. 'Never think of yourself, Bebee; always think of other people, so every one will love you.' And I always try to do that, and every one does."
"But that is not the love the daisy tells of to your sex."
"No; the girls that you see count the flowers—they are thinking, not of all the village, but of some one unlike all the rest, whose shadow falls across theirs in the moonlight! You know that?"
"Ah, yes—and they marry afterwards—yes."
She said it softly, musingly, with no embarrassment; it was an unreal, remote thing to her, and yet it stirred her heart a little with a vague trouble that was infinitely sweet.
There is little talk of love in the lives of the poor; they have no space for it; love to them means more mouths to feed, more wooden shoes to buy, more hands to dive into the meagre bag of coppers. Now and then a girl of the commune had been married, and had ploughing in the fields or to her lace-weaving in the city. Bebee had thought little of it.
"They marry or they do not marry. That is as it may be," said Flamen, with a smile. "Bebee, I must paint you as Gretchen before she made a love-dial of the daisies. What is the story? Oh, I have told you stories enough. Gretchen's you would not understand, just yet."
"But what did the daisies say to her?"
"My dear, the daisies always say the same thing, because daisies always tell the truth and know men. The daisies always say 'a little'; it is the girl's ear that tricks her, and makes her hear 'till death,'—a folly and falsehood of which the daisy is not guilty."
"But who says it if the daisy does not?"
"Ah, the devil perhaps—who knows? He has so much to do in these things."
But Bebee did not smile; she had a look of horror in her blue eyes; she belonged to a peasantry who believed in exorcising the fiend by the aid of the cross, and who not so very many generations before had driven him out of human bodies by rack and flame.
She looked with a little wistful fear on the white, golden-eyed marguerites that lay on her lap.
"Do you think the fiend is in these?" she whispered, with awe in her voice.
Flamen smiled. "When you count them he will be there, no doubt."
Bebee threw them with a shudder on the grass.
"Have I spoilt your holiday, dear?" he said, with a certain self-reproach.
She was silent a minute, then she gathered up the daisies again, and stroked them and put them to her lips.
"It is not they that do wrong. You say the girls' ears deceive them. It is the girls who want a lie and will not believe a truth because it humbles them; it is the girls that are to blame, not the daisies. As for me, I will not ask the daisies anything ever, so the fiend will not enter into them."
"Nor into you. Poor little Bebee!"
"Why, you pity me for that?"
"Yes. Because, if women never see the serpent's face, neither do they ever scent the smell of the paradise roses; and it will be hard for you to die without a single rose d'amour in your pretty breast, poor little Bebee?"
"I do not understand. But you frighten me a little."
He rose and left his easel and threw himself at her feet on the grass; he took the little wooden shoes in his hands as reverently as he would have taken the broidered shoes of a duchess; he looked up at her with tender, smiling eyes.
"Poor little Bebee!" he said again. "Did I frighten you indeed? Nay, that was very base of me. We will not spoil our summer holiday. There is no such thing as a fiend, my dear. There are only men—such as I am. Say the daisy spell over for me, Bebee. See if I do not love you a little, just as you love your flowers."
She smiled, and the happy laughter came again over her face.
"Oh, I am sure you care for me a little," she said, softly, "or you would not be so good and get me books and give me pleasure; and I do not want the daisies to tell me that, because you say it yourself, which is better."
"Much better." he answered her dreamily, and lay there in the grass, holding the little wooden shoes in his hands.
He was not in love with her. He was in no haste. He preferred to play with her softly, slowly, as one separates the leaves of a rose, to see the deep rose of its heart.
Her own ignorance of what she felt had a charm for him. He liked to lift the veil from her eyes by gentle degrees, watching each new pulse-beat, each fresh instinct tremble into life.
It was an old, old story to him; he knew each chapter and verse to weariness, though there still was no other story that he still read as often. But to her it was so new.
To him it was a long beaten track; he knew every turn of it; he recognized every wayside blossom; he had passed over a thousand times each tremulous bridge; he knew so well beforehand where each shadow would fall, and where each fresh bud would blossom, and where each harvest would be reaped.
But to her it was so new.
She followed him as a blind child a man that guides her through a garden and reads her a wonder tale.
He was good to her, that was all she knew. When he touched her ever so lightly she felt a happiness so perfect, and yet so unintelligible, that she could have wished to die in it.
And in her humility and her ignorance she wondered always how he—so great, so wise, so beautiful—could have thought it ever worth his while to leave the paradise of Rubes' land to wait with her under her little rush-thatched roof, and bring her here to see the green leaves and the living things of the forest.
As they went, a man was going under the trees with a load of wood upon his back. Bebee gave a little cry of recognition.
"Oh, look, that is Jeannot! How he will wonder to see me here!"
Flamen drew her a little downward, so that the forester passed onward without perceiving them.
"Why do you do that?" said Bebee. "Shall I not speak to him?"
"Why? To have all your neighbors chatter of your feast in the forest? It is not worth while."
"Ah, but I always tell them everything," said Bebee. whose imagination had been already busy with the wonders that she would unfold to Mere Krebs and the Varnhart children.
"Then you will see but little of me, my dear. Learn to be silent, Bebee. It is a woman's first duty, though her hardest."
She did not speak for some time. She could not imagine a state of things in which she would not narrate the little daily miracles of her life to the good old garrulous women and the little open-mouthed romps. And yet—she lifted her eyes to his.
"I am glad you have told me that," she said. "Though indeed. I do not see why one should not say what one does, yet—somehow—I do not like to talk about you. It is like the pictures in the galleries, and the music in the cathedral, and the great still evenings, when the fields are all silent, and it is as if Christ walked abroad in them; I do not know how to talk of those things to the others—only to you—and I do not like to talk about you to them—do you not know?"
"Yes, I know. But what affinity have I. Bebee, to your thoughts of your God walking in His cornfields?"
Bebee's eyes glanced down through the green aisle of the forests, with the musing seriousness in them that was like the child-angels of Botticelli's dreams.
"I cannot tell you very well. But when I am in the fields at evening and think of Christ. I feel so happy, and of such good will to all the rest, and I seem to see heaven quite plain through the beautiful gray air where the stars are—and so I feel when I am with you—that is all. Only—"
"Only in those evenings, when I was all alone, heaven seemed up there, where the stars are, and I longed for wings; but now, it is here, and I would only shut my wings if I had them, and not stir."
He looked at her, and took, her hands and kissed them—but reverently—as a believer may kiss a shrine. In that moment to Flamen she was sacred; in that moment he could no more have hurt her with passion than he could have hurt her with a blow.
It was an emotion with him, and did not endure. But whilst it lasted, it was true.
Then he took her to dine at one of the wooden cafes under the trees. There was a little sheet of water in front of it and a gay garden around. There was a balcony and a wooden stairway; there were long trellised arbors, and little white tables, and great rosebushes like her own at home. They had an arbor all to themselves; a cool sweet-smelling bower of green, with a glimpse of scarlet from the flowers of some twisting beans.
They had a meal, the like of which she had never seen; such a huge melon in the centre of it, and curious wines, and coffee or cream in silver pots, or what looked like silver to her—"just like the altar-vases in the church," she said to herself.
"If only the Varnhart children were here!" she cried; but he did not echo the wish.
It was just sunset. There was a golden glow on the little bit of water. On the other side of the garden some one was playing a guitar. Under a lime-tree some girls were swinging, crying, Higher! higher! at each toss.
In a longer avenue of trellised green, at a long table, there was a noisy party of students and girls of the city; their laughter was mellowed by distance as it came over the breadth of the garden, and they sang, with fresh shrill Flemish voices, songs from an opera bouffe of La Monnaie.
It was all pretty, and gay, and pleasant.
There was everywhere about an air of light-hearted enjoyment. Bebee sat with a wondering look in her wide-opened eyes, and all the natural instincts of her youth, that were like curled-up fruit buds in her, unclosed softly to the light of joy.
"Is life always like this in your Rubes' land?" she asked him; that vague far-away country of which she never asked him anything more definite, and which yet was so clear before her fancy.
"Yes," he made answer to her. "Only—instead of those leaves, flowers and pomegranates; and in lieu of that tinkling guitar, a voice whose notes are esteemed like king's jewels; and in place of those little green arbors, great white palaces, cool and still, with ilex woods and orange groves and sapphire seas beyond them. Would you like to come there, Bebee?—and wear laces such as you weave, and hear singing and laughter all night long, and never work any more in the mould of the garden, or spin any more at that tiresome wheel, or go any more out in the wind, and the rain, and the winter mud to the market?"
Bebee listened, leaning her round elbows on the table, and her warm cheeks on her hands, as a child gravely listens to a fairy story. But the sumptuous picture, and the sensuous phrase he had chosen, passed by her.
It is of no use to tempt the little chaffinch of the woods with a ruby instead of a cherry. The bird is made to feed on the brown berries, on the morning dews, on the scarlet hips of roses, and the blossoms of the wind-tossed pear boughs; the gem, though it be a monarch's, will only strike hard and tasteless on its beak.
"I would like to see it all," said Bebee, musingly trying to follow out her thoughts. "But as for the garden work and the spinning—that I do not want to leave, because I have done it all my life; and I do not think I should care to wear lace—it would tear very soon; one would be afraid to run; and do you see I know how it is made—all that lace. I know how blind the eyes get over it, and how the hearts ache; I know how the old women starve, and the little children cry; I know that there is not a sprig of it that is not stitched with pain; the great ladies do not think, I dare say, because they have never worked at it or watched the others: but I have. And so, you see, I think if I wore it I should feel sad, and if a nail caught on it I should feel as if it were tearing the flesh of my friends. Perhaps I say it badly; but that is what I feel."
"You do not say it badly—you speak well, for you speak from the heart," he answered her, and felt a tinge of shame that he had tempted her with the gold and purple of a baser world than any that she knew.
"And yet you want to see new lands?" he pursued. "What is it you want to see there?"
"Ah, quite other things than these," cried Bebee, still leaning her cheeks on her hands. "That dancing and singing is very pretty and merry, but it is just as good when old Claude fiddles and the children skip. This wine, you tell me, is something very great; but fresh milk is much nicer, I think. It is not these kind of things I want—I want to know all about the people who lived before us; I want to know what the stars are, and what the wind is; I want to know where the lark goes when you lose him out of sight against the sun; I want to know how the old artists got to see God, that they could paint him and all his angels as they have done; I want to know how the voices got into the bells, and how they can make one's heart beat, hanging up there as they do, all alone among the jackdaws; I want to know what it is when I walk in the fields in the morning, and it is all gray and soft and still, and the corn-crake cries in the wheat, and the little mice run home to their holes, that makes me so glad and yet so sorrowful, as if I were so very near God, and yet so all alone, and such a little thing; because you see the mouse she has her hole, and the crake her own people, but I—"
Her voice faltered a little and stopped: she had never before thought out into words her own loneliness; from the long green arbor the voices of the girls and the students sang,—
"Ah! le doux son d'un baiser tendre!"
Flamen was silent. The poet in him—and in an artist there is always more or less of the poet—kept him back from ridicule, nay, moved him to pity and respect.
They were absurdly simple words no doubt, had little wisdom in them, and were quite childish in their utterance, and yet they moved him curiously as a man very base and callous may at times be moved by the look in a dying deer's eyes, or by the sound of a song that some lost love once sang.
He rose and drew her hands away, and took her small face between his own hands instead.
"Poor little Bebee!" he said gently, looking down on her with a breath that was almost a sigh. "Poor little Bebee!—to envy the corncrake and the mouse!"
She was a little startled; her cheeks grew very warm under his touch, but her eyes looked still into his without fear.
He stooped and touched her forehead with his lips, gently and without passion, almost reverently; she grew rose-hued as the bright bean-flowers, up to the light gold ripples of her hair; she trembled a little and drew back, but she was not alarmed nor yet ashamed; she was too simple of heart to feel the fear that is born of passion and of consciousness.
It was as Jeannot kissed his sister Marie, who was fifteen years old and sold milk for the Krebs people in the villages with a little green cart and a yellow dog—no more.
And yet the sunny arbor leaves and the glimpse of the blue sky swam round her indistinctly, and the sounds of the guitar grew dull upon her ear and were lost as in a rushing hiss of water, because of the great sudden unintelligible happiness that seemed to bear her little life away on it as a sea wave bears a young child off its feet.
"You do not feel alone now, Bebee?" he whispered to her.
"No!" she answered him softly under her breath, and sat still, while all her body quivered like a leaf.
No; how could she ever be alone now that this sweet, soft, unutterable touch would always be in memory upon her; how could she wish ever again now to be the corn-crake in the summer corn or the gray mouse in the hedge of hawthorn?
At that moment a student went by past the entrance of the arbor; he had a sash round his loins and a paper feather in his cap; he was playing a fife and dancing; he glanced in as he went.
"It is time to go home, Bebee," said Flamen.
So it came to pass that Bebee's day in the big forest came and went as simply almost as any day that she had played away with the Varnhart children under the beech shadows of Cambre woods.
And when he took her to her hut at sunset before the pilgrims had returned there was a great bewildered tumult of happiness in her heart, but there was no memory with her that prevented her from looking at the shrine in the wall as she passed it, and saying with a quick gesture of the cross on brow and bosom,—
"Ah, dear Holy Mother, how good you have been! and I am back again, you see, and I will work harder than ever because of all this joy that you have given me."
And she took another moss-rose and changed it for that of the morning, which was faded, and said to Flamen.—
"Look—she sends you this. Now do you know what I mean? One is more content when She is content."
He did not answer, but he held her hands against him a moment as they fastened in the rose bud.
"Not a word to the pilgrims, Bebee—you remember?"
"Yes, I will remember. I do not tell them every time I pray—it will be like being silent about that—it will be no more wrong than that."
But there was a touch of anxiety in the words; she was not quite certain; she wanted to be reassured. Instinct moved her not to speak of him; but habit made it seem wrong to her to have any secret from the people who had been about her from her birth.
He did not reassure her; her anxiety was pretty to watch, and he left the trouble in her heart like a bee in the chalice of a lily. Besides, the little wicket gate was between them; he was musing whether he would push it open once more.
Her fate was in the balance, though she did not dream it: he had dealt with her tenderly, honestly, sacredly all that day—almost as much so as stupid Jeannot could have done. He had been touched by her trust in him, and by the unconscious beauty of her fancies, into a mood that was unlike all his life and habits. But after all, he said to himself—
Where he stood in the golden evening he saw the rosy curled mouth, the soft troubled eves, the little brown hands that still tried to fasten the rosebud, the young peach-like skin where the wind stirred the bodice;—she was only a little Flemish peasant, this poor little Bebee, a little thing of the fields and the streets, for all the dreams of God that abode with her. After all—soon or late—the end would be always the same. What matter!
She would weep a little to-morrow, and she would not kneel any more at the shrine in the garden wall; and then—and then—she would stay here and marry the good boor Jeannot, just the same after a while; or drift away after him to Paris, and leave her two little wooden shoes, and her visions of Christ in the fields at evening, behind her forevermore, and do as all the others did, and take not only silken stockings but the Cinderella slipper that is called Gold, which brings all other good things in its train;—what matter!
He had meant this from the first, because she was so pretty, and those little wooden sabots ran so lithely over the stones; though he was not in love with her, but only idly stretched his hand for her as a child by instinct stretches to a fruit that hangs in the sun a little rosier and a little nearer than the rest.
What matter—he said to himself—she loved him, poor little soul, though she did not know it; and there would always be Jeannot glad enough of a handful of bright French gold.
He pushed the gate gently against her; her hands fastened the rosebud and drew open the latch themselves.
"Will you come in a little?" she said, with the happy light in her face. "You must not stay long, because the flowers must be watered, and then there are Annemie's patterns—they must be done or she will have no money and so no food—but if you would come in for a little? And see, if you wait a minute I will show you the roses that I shall cut to-morrow the first thing, and take down to St. Guido to Our Lady's altar in thank-offering for to-day. I should like you to choose them—you yourself—and if you would just touch them I should feel as if you gave them to her too. Will you?"
She spoke with the pretty outspoken frankness of her habitual speech, just tempered and broken with the happy, timid hesitation, the curious sense at once of closer nearness and of greater distance, that had come on her since he had kissed her among the bright beanflowers.
He turned from her quickly.
"No, dear, no. Gather your roses alone, Bebee; if I touch them their leaves will fall."
Then, with a hurriedly backward glance down the dusky lane to see that none were looking, he bent his head and kissed her again quickly and with a sort of shame, and swung the gate behind him and went away through the boughs and the shadows.
Bebee looked after him wistfully till his figure was lost in the gloom.
The village was very quiet; a dog barking afar off and a cow lowing in the meadow were the only living things that made their presence heard; the pilgrims had not returned.
She leaned on the gate a few minutes in that indistinct, dreamy happiness which is the prerogative of innocent love.
"How wonderful it is that he should give a thought to me!" she said again and again to herself. It was as if a king had stooped for a little knot of daisied grass to set it in his crown where the great diamonds should be.
She did not reason. She did not question. She did not look beyond that hour—such is the privilege of youth.
"How I will read! How I will learn! How wise I will try to be; and how good, if I can!" she thought, swaying the little gate lightly under her weight, and looking with glad eyes at the goats as they frisked with their young in the pasture on the other side of the big trees, whilst one by one the stars came out, and an owl hooted from the palace woods, and the frogs croaked good-nights in the rushes.
Then, like a little day laborer as she was, with the habit of toil and the need of the poor upon her from her birth up, she shut down the latch of the gate, kissed it where his hand had rested, and went to the well to draw its nightly draught for the dry garden.
"Oh, dear roses!" she said to them as she rained the silvery showers over their nodding heads. "Oh, dear roses!—tell me—was ever anybody so happy as I am? Oh, if you say 'yes' I shall tell you you lie; silly flowers that were only born yesterday!"
But the roses shook the water off them in the wind, and said, as she wished them to say,—
"No—no one—ever before, Bebee—no one ever before."
For roses, like everything else upon earth, only speak what our own heart puts into them.
An old man went past up the lane; old Jehan, who was too ailing and aged to make one of the pilgrimage. He looked at the little quick-moving form, grayish white in the starlight, with the dark copper vessel balanced on her head, going to and fro betwixt the well and the garden.
"You did not go to the pilgrimage, poor little one!" he said across the sweetbrier hedge. "Nay, that was too bad; work, work, work—thy pretty back should not be bent double yet. You want a holiday, Bebee; well, the Fete Dieu is near. Jeannot shall take you, and maybe I can find a few sous for gingerbread and merry-go-rounds. You sit dull in the market all day; you want a feast."
Bebee colored behind the hedge, and ran in and brought three new-laid eggs that she had left in the flour-bin in the early morning, and thrust them on him through a break in the brier. It was the first time she had ever done anything of which she might not speak: she was ashamed, and yet the secret was so sweet to her.
"I am very happy, Jehan, thank God!" she murmured, with a tremulous breath and a shine in her eyes that the old man's ears and sight were too dull to discern.
"So was she" muttered Jehan, as he thrust the eggs into his old patched blue blouse,—"so was she. And then a stumble—a blow in the lane there—a horse's kick—and all was over. All over, my pretty one—for ever and ever."
On a sudden impulse Flamen, going through the woodland shadows to the city, paused and turned back; all his impulses were quick and swayed him now hither, now thither, in many contrary ways.
He knew that the hour was come—that he must leave her and spare her, as to himself he phrased it, or teach her the love words that the daisies whisper to women.
And why not?—anyway she would marry Jeannot.
He, half-way to the town, walked back again and paused a moment at the gate; an emotion half pitiful, half cynical, stirred in him.
Anyway he would leave her in a few days: Paris had again opened her arms to him; his old life awaited him; women who claimed him by imperious, amorous demands reproached him; and after all this day he had got the Gretchen of his ideal, a great picture for the future of his fame.
As he would leave her anyway so soon, he would leave her unscathed—poor little field flower—he could never take it with him to blossom or wither in Paris.
His world would laugh too utterly if he made for himself a mistress out of a little Fleming in two wooden shoes. Besides—
Besides, something that was half weak and half noble moved him not to lead this child, in her trust and her ignorance, into ways that when she awakened from her trance would seem to her shameful and full of sorrow. For he knew that Bebee was not as others are.
He turned back and knocked at the hut door and opened it.
Bebee was just beginning to undress herself; she had taken off her white kerchief and her wooden shoes; her pretty shoulders and her little neck shone white in the moon; her feet were bare on the mud floor.
She started with a cry and threw the handkerchief again on her shoulders, but there was no fear of him; only the unconscious instinct of her girlhood.
He thought for a moment that he would not go away until the morrow—
"Did you want me?" said Bebee softly, with happy eyes of surprise and yet a little startled, fearing some evil might have happened to him that he should have returned thus.
"No; I do not want you, dear," he said gently; no—he did not want her, poor little soul; she wanted him, but he—there were so many of these things in his life, and he liked her too well to love her.
"No, dear, I did not want you," said Flamen, drawing her arms about him, and feeling her flutter like a little bird, while the moonlight came in through the green leaves and fell in fanciful patterns on the floor. "But I came to say—you have had one happy day. Wholly happy, have you not, poor little Bebee?"
"Ah, yes!" she sighed rather than said the answer in her wondrous gladness; drawn there close to him, with the softness of his lips upon her. Could he have come back only to ask that?
"Well, that is something. You will remember it always, Bebee?" he murmured in his unconscious cruelty. "I did not wish to spoil your cloudless pleasure, dear—for you care for me a little, do you not?—so I came back to tell you only now, that I go away for a little while to-morrow."
She trembled in his arms and turned cold as ice; a great terror and darkness fell upon her; she had never thought that he would ever go away. He caressed her, and played with her as a boy may with a bird before he wrings its neck.
"You will come back?"
He kissed her: "Surely."
"Nay—not so soon."
"In a week?"
"In a month, then?"
"Before winter, anyway?"
He looked aside from the beseeching, tearful, candid eyes, and kissed her hair and her throat, and said, "Yes, dear—beyond a doubt."
She clung to him, crying silently; he wished that women would not weep.
"Come, Bebee, listen," he said coaxingly, thinking to break the bitterness to her. "This is not wise, and it gives me pain. There is so much for you to do. You know so little. There is so much to learn. I will leave you many books, and you must grow quite learned in my absence. The Virgin is all very well in her way, but she cannot teach us much, poor lady. For her kingdom is called Ignorance. You must teach yourself. I leave you that to do. The days will go by quickly if you are laborious and patient. Do you love me, little one?"
For an answer she kissed his hand.
"You are a busy little Bebee always," he said, with his lips caressing her soft brown arms that were round his neck. "But you must be busier than ever whilst I am gone. So you will forget. No, no, I do not mean that:—I mean so the time will pass quickest. And I shall finish your picture, Bebee, and all Paris will see you, and the great ladies will envy the little girl with her two wooden shoes. Ah! that does not please you?—you care for none of these vanities. No. Poor little Bebee, why did God make you, or Chance breathe life into you? You are so far away from us all. It was cruel. What harm has your poor little soul ever done that, pure as a flower, it should have been sent to the hell of this world?"
She clung to him, sobbing without sound. "You will come back? You will come back?" she moaned, clasping him closer and closer.
Flamen's own eyes grew dim. But he lied to her: "I will—I promise."
It was so much easier to say so, and it would break her sorrow. So he thought.
For the moment again he was tempted to take her with him—but, he resisted it—he would tire, and she would cling to him forever.
There was a long silence. The bleating of the little kid in the shed without was the only sound; the gray lavender blew to and fro.
Her arms were close about his throat; he kissed them again, and kissed her eyes, her cheek, her mouth; then put her from him quickly and went out.
She ran to him, and threw herself on the damp ground and held him there, and leaned her forehead on his feet. But though he looked at her with wet eyes, he did not yield, and he still said,—
"I will come back soon—very soon; be quiet, dear, let me go."
Then he kissed her once more many times, and put her gently within the door and closed it.
A low, sharp, sudden cry reached him, went to his heart, but he did not turn; he went on through the wet, green little garden, and the curling leaves, where he had found peace and had left desolation.
"I will let her alone, and she will marry Jeannot," thought Flamen; and he believed himself a good man for once in his life, and pitied himself for having become a sentimentalist.
She would marry Jeannot, and bear many children, as those people always did; and ruddy little peasants would cling about these pretty, soft, little breasts of hers; and she would love them after the manner of such women, and be very content clattering over the stones in her wooden shoes; and growing brown and stout, and more careful after money, and ceasing to dream of unknown things, and not seeing God at all in the fields, but looking low and beholding only the ears of the gleaning wheat and the feet of the tottering children; and so gaining her bread, and losing her soul, and stooping nearer and nearer to earth till she dropped into it like one of her own wind-blown wall-flowers when the bee has sucked out all its sweetness and the heats have scorched up all its bloom:—yes, of course, she would marry Jeannot and end so!
Meanwhile he had his Gretchen, and that was the one great matter.
So he left the street of Mary of Burgundy, and went on his way out of the chiming city as its matin bells were rung, and took with him a certain regret, and the only innocent affection that had ever awakened in him; and thought of his self-negation with half admiration and half derision; and so drifted away into the whirlpool of his amorous, cynical, changeful, passionate, callous, many-colored life, and said to himself as he saw the last line of the low green plains shine against the sun, "She will marry Jeannot—of course, she will marry Jeannot. And my Gretchen is greater than Scheffer's."
What else mattered very much, after all, except what they would say in Paris of Gretchen?
People saw that Bebee had grown very quiet. But that was all they saw.
Her little face was pale as she sat among her glowing autumn blossoms, by the side of the cobbler's stall; and when the Varnhart children cried at the gate to her to come and play, she would answer gently that she was too busy to have play-time now.
The fruit girl of the Montagne de la Cour hooted after her, "Gone so soon?—oh he! what did I say?—a fine pine is sugar in the teeth a second only, but the brown nuts you may crack all the seasons round. Well, did you make good harvest while it lasted? has Jeannot a fat bridal portion promised?"
And old Jehan, who was the tenderest soul of them all in the lane by the swans' water, would come and look at her wistfully as she worked among the flowers, and would say to her,—
"Dear little one, there is some trouble: does it come of that painted picture? You never laugh now, Bebee, and that is bad. A girl's laugh is pretty to hear; my girl laughed like little bells ringing—and then it stopped, all at once; they said she was dead. But you are not dead, Bebee. And yet you are so silent; one would say you were."
But to the mocking of the fruit girl, as to the tenderness of old Jehan, Bebee answered nothing; the lines of her pretty curled mouth grew grave and sad, and in her eyes there was a wistful, bewildered, pathetic appeal like the look in the eyes of a beaten dog, which, while it aches with pain, does not cease to love its master.
One resolve upheld and made her feet firm on the stones of the streets and her lips mute under all they said to her. She would learn all she could, and be good, and patient, and wise, if trying could make her wise, and so do his will in all things—until he should come back.
"You are not gay, Bebee," said Annemie, who grew so blind that she could scarce see the flags at the mastheads, and who still thought that she pricked the lace patterns and earned her bread. "You are not gay, dear. Has any lad gone to sea that your heart goes away with, and do you watch for his ship coming in with the coasters? It is weary work waiting; but it is all the men think us fit for, child. They may set sail as they like; every new port has new faces for them; but we are to sit still and to pray if we like, and never murmur, be the voyage ever so long, but be ready with a smile and a kiss, a fresh pipe of tobacco, and a dry pair of socks;—that is a man. We may have cried our hearts out; we must have ready the pipe and the socks, or, 'Is that what you call love?' they grumble. You want mortal patience if you love a man,—it is like a fretful child that thumps you when your breast is bare to it. Still, be you patient, dear, just as I am, just as I am."
And Bebee would shudder as she swept the cobwebs from the garret walls,—patient as she was, she who had sat here fifty years watching for a dead man and for a wrecked ship.
The wheat was reapen in the fields, and the brown earth turned afresh. The white and purple chrysanthemums bloomed against the flowerless rose-bushes, and the little gray Michaelmas daisy flourished where the dead carnations had spread their glories. Leaves began to fall and chilly winds to sigh among the willows; the squirrels began to store away their nuts, and the poor to pick up the broken bare boughs.
"He said he would come before winter," thought Bebee, every day when she rose and felt each morning cooler and grayer than the one before it; winter was near.
Her little feet already were cold in their wooden shoes; and the robin already sang in the twigs of the sear sweetbrier; but she had the brave sweet faith which nothing kills, and she did not doubt—oh! no, she did not doubt, she was only tired.
Tired of the strange, sleepless, feverish nights; tired of the long, dull, empty days: tired of watching down the barren, leafless lane: tired of hearkening breathless to each step on the rustling dead leaves; tired of looking always, always, always, into the ruddy autumn evenings and the cold autumn starlight, and never hearing what she listened for, never seeing what she sought; tired as a child may be lost in a wood, and wearily wearing its small strength and breaking its young heart in search of the track forever missed, of the home forever beyond the horizon.
Still she did her work and kept her courage.
She took her way into the town with her basket full of the ruby and amber of the dusky autumn blossoms, and when those failed, and the garden was quite desolate, except for a promise of haws and of holly, she went, as she had always done, to the lace-room, and gained her bread and the chickens' corn each day by winding the thread round the bobbins; and at nightfall when she had plodded home through the darksome roads and over the sodden turf, and had lit her rushlight and sat down to her books, with her hand buried in her hair, and her eyes smarting from the strain of the lace-work and her heart aching with that new and deadly pain which never left her now, she would read—read—read—read, and try and store her brain with knowledge, and try and grasp these vast new meanings of life that the books opened to her, and try and grow less ignorant against he should return.
There was much she could not understand, bait there was also much she could.
Her mind was delicate and quick, her intelligence swift and strong; she bought old books at bookstalls with pence that she saved by going without her dinner. The keeper of the stall, a shrewd old soul, explained some hard points to her, and chose good volumes for her, and lent others to this solitary little student in her wooden shoes and with her pale child's face.
So she toiled hard and learned much, and grew taller and very thin, and got a look in her eyes like a lost dog's, and yet never lost heart or wandered in the task that he had set her, or in her faith in his return.
"Burn the books, Bebee," whispered the children again and again, clinging to her skirts. "Burn the wicked, silent things. Since you have had them you never sing, or romp, or laugh, and you look so white—so white."
Bebee kissed them, but kept to her books.
Jeannot going by from the forest night after night saw the light twinkling in the hut window, and sometimes crept softly up and looked through the chinks of the wooden shutter, and saw her leaning over some big old volume with her pretty brows drawn together, and her mouth shut close in earnest effort, and he would curse the man who had changed her so and go away with rage in his breast and tears in his eyes, not daring to say anything, but knowing that never would Bebee's little brown hand lie in love within his own.
Nor even in friendship, for he had rashly spoken rough words against the stranger from Rubes' land, and Bebee ever since then had passed him by with a grave, simple greeting, and when he had brought her in timid gifts a barrow-load of fagots, had thanked him, but had bidden him take the wood home to his mother.
"You think evil things of me, Bebee?" good Jeannot had pleaded, with a sob in his voice; and she had answered gently,—
"No; but do not speak to me, that is all."
Then he had cursed her absent lover, and Bebee gone within and closed her door.
She had no idea that the people thought ill of her. They were cold to her, and such coldness made her heart ache a little more. But the one great love in her possessed her so strongly that all other things were half unreal.
She did her daily housework from sheer habit, and she studied because he had told her to do it, and because with the sweet, stubborn, credulous faith of her youth, she never doubted that he would return.
Otherwise there was no perception of real life in her; she dreamed and prayed, and prayed and dreamed, and never ceased to do either one or the other, even when she was scattering potato-peels to the fowls, or shaking carrots loose of the soil, or sweeping the snow from her hut door, or going out in the raw dark dawn as the single little sad bell of St. Guido tolled through the stillness for the first mass.
For though even Father Francis looked angered at her because he thought she was stubborn, and hid some truth and some shame from him at confession, yet she went resolutely and oftener than ever to kneel in the dusty, dusky, crumbling old church, for it was all she could do for him who was absent—so she thought—and she did not feel quite so far away from him when she was beseeching Christ to have care of his soul and of his body.
All her pretty dreams were dead.
She never heard any story in the robin's song, or saw any promise in the sunset clouds, or fancied that angels came about her in the night—never now.
The fields were gray and sad; the birds were little brown things; the stars were cold and far off; the people she had used to care for were like mere shadows that went by her meaningless and without interest, and all she thought of was the one step that never came: all she wanted was the one touch she never felt.
"You have done wrong, Bebee, and you will not own it," said the few neighbors who ever spoke to her.
Bebee looked at them with wistful, uncomprehending eyes.
"I have done no wrong," she said gently, but no one believed her.
A girl did not shut herself up and wane pale and thin for nothing, so they reasoned. She might have sinned as she had liked if she had been sensible after it, and married Jeannot.
But to fret mutely, and shut her lips, and seem as though she had done nothing,—that was guilt indeed.
For her village, in its small way, thought as the big world thinks.
Full winter came.
The snow was deep, and the winds drove the people with whips of ice along the dreary country roads and the steep streets of the city. The bells of the dogs and the mules sounded sadly through the white misty silence of the Flemish plains, and the weary horses slipped and fell on the frozen ruts and on the jagged stones in the little frost-shut Flemish towns. Still the Flemish folk were gay enough in many places.
There were fairs and kermesses; there were puppet plays and church feasts; there were sledges on the plains and skates on the canals; there were warm woollen hoods and ruddy wood fires; there were tales of demons and saints, and bowls of hot onion soup; sugar images for the little children, and blessed beads for the maidens clasped on rosy throats with lovers' kisses; and in the city itself there was the high tide of the winter pomp and mirth, with festal scenes in the churches, and balls at the palaces, and all manner of gay things in toys and jewels, and music playing cheerily under the leafless trees, and flashes of scarlet cloth, and shining furs, and happy faces, and golden curls, in the carriages that climbed the Montagne de la Cour, and filled the big place around the statue of stout Godfrey.
In the little village above St. Guido, Bebee's neighbors were merry too, in their simple way.
The women worked away wearily at their lace in the dim winter light, and made a wretched living by it, but all the same they got penny playthings for their babies, and a bit of cake for their Sunday-hearth. They drew together in homely and cordial friendship, and of an afternoon when dusk fell wove their lace in company in Mere Krebs's mill-house kitchen with the children and the dogs at their feet on the bricks, so that one big fire might serve for all, and all be lighted with one big rush candle, and all be beguiled by chit-chat and songs, stories of spirits, and whispers of ghosts, and now and then when the wind howled at its worst, a paternoster or two said in common for the men toiling in the barges or drifting up the Scheldt.
In these gatherings Bebee's face was missed, and the blithe soft sound of her voice, like a young thrush singing, was never heard.
The people looked in, and saw her sitting over a great open book; often her hearth had no fire.
Then the children grew tired of asking her to play; and their elders began to shake their heads; she was so pale and so quiet, there must be some evil in it—so they began to think.
Little by little people dropped away from her. Who knew, the gossips said, what shame or sin the child might not have on her sick little soul?
True, Bebee worked hard just the same, and just the same was seen trudging to and fro in the dusk of dawns and afternoons in her two little wooden shoes. She was gentle and laborious, and gave the children her goat's milk, and the old women the brambles of her garden.
But they grew afraid of her—afraid of that sad, changeless, far-away look in her eves, and of the mute weariness that was on her—and, being perplexed, were sure, like all ignorant creatures, that what was secret must be also vile.
So they hung aloof, and let her alone, and by and by scarcely nodded as they passed her but said to Jeannot,—
"You were spared a bad thing, lad: the child was that grand painter's light-o'-love, that is plain to see. The mischief all comes of the stuff old Antoine filled her head with—a stray little by-blow of chickweed that he cockered up like a rare carnation. Oh! do not fly in a rage, Jeannot; the child is no good, and would have made an honest man rue. Take heart of grace, and praise the saints, and marry Katto's Lisa."
But Jeannot would never listen to the slanderers, and would never look at Lisa, even though the door of the little hut was always closed against him; and whenever he met Bebee on the highway she never seemed to see him more than she saw the snow that her sabots were treading.
One night in the midwinter-time old Annemie died.
Bebee found her in the twilight with her head against the garret window, and her left side all shrivelled and useless. She had a little sense left, and a few fleeting breaths to draw.
"Look for the brig," she muttered. "You will not see the flag at the masthead for the fog to-night; but his socks are dry and his pipe is ready. Keep looking—keep looking—she will be in port to-night."
But her dead sailor never came into port; she went to him. The poor, weakened, faithful old body of her was laid in the graveyard of the poor, and the ships came and went under the empty garret window, and Bebee was all alone.
She had no more anything to work for, or any bond with the lives of others. She could live on the roots of her garden and the sale of her hens' eggs, and she could change the turnips and carrots that grew in a little strip of her ground for the quantity of bread that she needed.
So she gave herself up to the books, and drew herself more and more within from the outer world. She did not know that the neighbors thought very evil of her; she had only one idea in her mind—to be more worthy of him against he should return.
The winter passed away somehow, she did not know how.
It was a long, cold, white blank of frozen silence: that was all. She studied hard, and had got a quaint, strange, deep, scattered knowledge out of her old books; her face had lost all its roundness and color, but, instead, the forehead had gained breadth and the eyes had the dim fire of a student's.
Every night when she shut her volumes she thought,—
"I am a little nearer him. I know a little more."
Just so every morning, when she bathed her hands in the chilly water, she thought to herself, "I will make my skin as soft as I can for him, that it may be like the ladies' he has loved."
Love to be perfect must be a religion, as well as a passion. Bebee's was so. Like George Herbert's serving-maiden, she swept no specks of dirt away from a floor without doing it to the service of her lord.
Only Bebee's lord was a king of earth, made of earth's dust and vanities.
But what did she know of that?
The winter went by, and the snow-drops and crocus and pale hepatica smiled at her from the black clods. Every other springtime Bebee had run with fleet feet under the budding trees down into the city, and had sold sweet little wet bunches of violets and brier before all the snow was melted from the eaves of the Broodhuis.
"The winter is gone," the townspeople used to say; "look, there is Bebee with the flowers."
But this year they did not see the little figure itself like a rosy crocus standing against the brown timbers of the Maison de Roi.
Bebee had not heart to pluck a single blossom of them all. She let them all live, and tended them so that the little garden should look its best and brightest to him when his hand should lift its latch.
Only he was so long coming—so very long; the violets died away, and the first rosebuds came in their stead, and still Bebee looked every dawn and every nightfall vainly down the empty road.
Nothing kills young creatures like the bitterness of waiting.
Pain they will bear, and privation they will pass through, fire and water and storm will not appall them, nor wrath of heaven and earth, but waiting—the long, tedious, sickly, friendless days, that drop one by one in their eternal sameness into the weary past, these kill slowly but surely, as the slow dropping of water frets away rock.
The summer came.
Nearly a year had gone by. Bebee worked early and late. The garden bloomed like one big rose, and the neighbors shook their heads to see the flowers blossom and fall without bringing in a single coin.
She herself spoke less seldom than ever; and now when old Jehan, who never had understood the evil thoughts of his neighbors, asked her what ailed her that she looked so pale and never stirred down to the city, now her courage failed her, and the tears brimmed over her eyes, and she could not call up a brave brief word to answer him. For the time was so long, and she was so tired.
Still she never doubted that her lover would comeback: he had said he would come: she was as sure that he would come as she was sure that God came in the midst of the people when the silver bell rang and the Host was borne by on high.
Bebee did not heed much, but she vaguely-felt the isolation she was left in: as a child too young to reason feels cold and feels hunger.
"No one wants me here now that Annemie is gone," she thought to herself, as the sweet green spring days unfolded themselves one by one like the buds of the brier-rose hedges.
And now and then even the loyal little soul of her gave way, and sobbing on her lonely bed in the long dark nights, she would cry out against him, "Oh, why not have left me alone? I was so happy—so happy!"
And then she would reproach herself with treason to him and ingratitude, and hate herself and feel guilty in her own sight to have thus sinned against him in thought for one single instant.
For there are natures in which the generosity of love is so strong that it feels its own just pain to be disloyalty; and Bebee's was one of them. And if he had killed her she would have died hoping only that no moan had escaped her under the blow that ever could accuse him.
These natures, utterly innocent by force of self-accusation and self-abasement, suffer at once the torment of the victim and the criminal.
One day in the May weather she sat within doors with a great book upon her table, but no sight for it in her aching eyes. The starling hopped to and fro on the sunny floor; the bees boomed in the porch; the tinkle of sheep's bells came in on the stillness. All was peaceful and happy except the little weary, breaking, desolate heart that beat in her like a caged bird's.
"He will come; I am sure he will come," she said to herself; but she was so tired, and it was so long—oh, dear God!—so very long.
A hand tapped at the lattice. The shrill voice of Reine, the sabot-maker's wife, broken with anguish, called through the hanging ivy,—
"Bebee, you are a wicked one, they say, but the only one there is at home in the village this day. Get you to town for the love of Heaven, and send Doctor Max hither, for my pet, my flower, my child lies dying, and not a soul near, and she black as a coal with choking—go, go, go!—and Mary will forgive you your sins. Save the little one, dear Bebee, do you hear? and I will pray God and speak fair the neighbors for you. Go!"
Bebee rose up, startled by the now unfamiliar sound of a human voice, and looked at the breathless mother with eyes of pitying wonder.
"Surely I will go," she said, gently; "but there is no need to bribe me. I have not sinned greatly—that I know."
Then she went out quickly and ran through the lanes and into the city for the sick child, and found the wise man, and sent him, and did the errand rather in a sort of sorrowful sympathetic instinct than in any reasoning consciousness of doing good.
When she was moving through the once familiar and happy ways as the sun was setting on the golden fronts of the old houses, and the chimes were ringing from the many towers, a strange sense of unreality, of non-existence, fell upon her.
Could it be she?—she indeed—who had gone there the year before the gladdest thing that the earth bore, with no care except to shelter her flowers from the wind, and keep the freshest blossoms for the burgomaster's housewife?
She did not think thus to herself; but a vague doubt that she could ever have been the little gay, laborious, happy Bebee, with troops of friends and endless joys for every day that dawned, came over her as she went by the black front of the Broodhuis.
The strong voice of Lisa, the fruit girl, jarred on her as she passed the stall under its yellow awning that was flapping sullenly in the evening wind.
"Oh he, little fool," the mocking voice cried, "the rind of the fine pine is full of prickles, and stings the lips when the taste is gone?—to be sure—crack common nuts like me and you are never wanting—hazels grow free in every copse. Prut, tut! your grand lover lies a-dying; so the students read out of this just now; and you such a simpleton as not to get a roll of napoleons out of him before he went to rot in Paris. I dare say he was poor as sparrows, if one knew the truth. He was only a painter after all."
Lisa tossed her as she spoke a torn sheet, in which she was wrapping gentians: it was a piece of newspaper some three weeks old, and in it there was a single line or so which said that the artist Flamen, whose Gretchen was the wonder of the Salon of the year, lay sick unto death in his rooms in Paris.
Bebee stood and read; the strong ruddy western light upon the type, the taunting laughter of the fruit girl on her ear.
A bitter shriek rang from her that made even the cruelty of Lisa's mirth stop in a sudden terror.
She stood staring like a thing changed to stone down on the one name that to her rilled all the universe.
"Ill—he is ill—do you hear?" she echoed piteously, looking at Lisa; "and you say he is poor?"
"Poor? for sure! is he not a painter?" said the fruit girl, roughly. She judged by her own penniless student lads; and she was angered with herself for feeling sorrow for this little silly thing that she had loved to torture.
"You have been bad and base to me; but now—I bless you, I love you, I will pray for you," said Bebee, in a swift broken breath, and with a look upon her face that startled into pain her callous enemy.
Then without another word, she thrust the paper in her bosom, and ran out of the square breathless with haste and with a great resolve.
He was ill—and he was poor! The brave little soul of her leaped at once to action. He was sick, and far away; and poor they said. All danger and all difficulty faded to nothing before the vision of his need.
Bebee was only a little foundling who ran about in wooden shoes; but she had the "dog's soul" in her—the soul that will follow faithfully though to receive a curse, that will defend loyally though to meet a blow, and that will die mutely loving to the last.
She went home, how she never knew; and without the delay of a moment packed up a change of linen, and fed the fowls and took the key of the hut down to old Jehan's cabin. The old man was only half-witted by reason of his affliction for his dead daughter, but he was shrewd enough to understand what she wanted of him, and honest enough to do it.
"I am going into the city," she said to him: "and if I am not back to-night, will you feed the starling and the hens, and water the flowers for me?"
Old Jehan put his head out of his lattice: it was seven in the evening, and he was going to bed.
"What are you after, little one?" he asked: going to show the fine buckles at a students' ball? Nay, fie; that is not like you."
"I am going to—pray—dear Jehan," she answered, with a sob in her throat and the first falsehood she ever had told. "Do what I ask you—do for your dead daughter's sake—or the birds and the flowers will die of hunger and thirst. Take the key and promise me."
He took the key, and promised.
"Do not let them see those buckles shine; they will rob you," he added.
Bebee ran from him fast; every moment that was lost was so precious and so terrible. To pause a second for fear's sake never occurred to her. She went forth as fearlessly as a young swallow, born in northern April days, flies forth on instinct to new lands and over unknown seas when autumn falls.
Necessity and action breathed new life into her. The hardy and brave peasant ways of her were awoke once more. She had been strong to wait silently with the young life in her dying out drop by drop in the heart-sickness of long delay. She was strong now to throw herself into strange countries and dim perils and immeasurable miseries, on the sole chance that she might be of service to him.
A few human souls here and there can love like dogs. Bebee's was one.
It was dark. The May days are short in the north lands of the Scheldt.
She had her little winter cloak of frieze and her wooden shoes and her little white cap with the sunny curls rippling out of it in their pretty rebellion. She had her little lantern too; and her bundle, and she had put a few fresh eggs in her basket, with some sweet herbs and the palm-sheaf that Father Francis had blessed last Easter; for who could tell, she thought, how ill he might not be, or how poor?
She hardly gave a look to the hut as she ran by its garden gate; all her heart was on in front, in the vague far-off country where he lay sick unto death.
She ran fast through the familiar lanes into the city. She was not very sure where Paris was, but she had the name clear and firm, and she knew that people were always coming and going thence and thither, so that she had no fear she should not find it.
She went straight to the big, busy, bewildering place in the Leopold quarter where the iron horses fumed every day and night along the iron ways. She had never been there before, but she knew it was by that great highway that the traffic to Paris was carried on, and she knew that it would carry people also as well.
There were bells clanging, lights flashing, and crowds pushing and shouting, as she ran up—a little gray figure, with the lantern-spark glimmering like any tiny glow-worm astray in a gas-lit city.
"To Paris?" she asked, entreatingly, going where she saw others going, to a little grated wicket in a wall.
"Twenty-seven francs—quick!" they demanded of her. Bebee gave a great cry, and stood still, trembling and trying not to sob aloud. She had never thought of money; she had forgotten that youth and strength and love and willing feet and piteous prayers,—all went for nothing as this world is made.
A hope flashed on her and a glad thought. She loosed the silver buckles, and held them out.
"Would you take these? They are worth much more."
There was a derisive laughter; some one bade her with an oath begone; rough shoulders jostled her away. She stretched her arms out piteously.
"Take me—oh, pray take me! I will go with the sheep, with the cattle—only, only take me!"
But in the rush and roar none heeded her; some thief snatched the silver buckles from her hand, and made off with them and was lost in the throng; a great iron beast rushed by her, snorting flame and bellowing smoke; there was a roll like thunder, and all was dark; the night express had passed on its way to Paris.
Bebee stood still, crushed for a moment with the noise and the cruelty and the sense of absolute desolation; she scarcely noticed that the buckles had been stolen; she had only one thought—to get to Paris.
"Can I never go without money?" she asked at the wicket; the man there glanced a moment, with a touch of pity, at the little wistful face.
"The least is twenty francs—surely you must know that?" he said, and shut his grating with a clang.
Bebee turned away and went out of the great cruel, tumultuous place; her heart ached and her brain was giddy, but the sturdy courage of her nature rose to need.
"There is no way at all to go without money to Paris, I suppose?" she asked of an old woman whom she knew a little, who sold nuts and little pictures of saints and wooden playthings under the trees, in the avenue hard by.
The old woman shook her head.
"Eh?—no, dear. There is nothing to be done anywhere in the world without money. Look, I cannot get a litre of nuts to sell unless I pay beforehand."
"Would it be far to walk?"
"Far! Holy Jesus! It is right away in the heart of France—over two hundred miles, they say; straight out through the forest. Not but what my son did walk it once;—and he a shoemaker, who knows what walking costs; and he is well-to-do there now—not that he ever writes. When they want nothing people never write."
"And he walked into Paris?"
"Yes, ten years ago. He had nothing but a few sous and an ash stick, and he had a fancy to try his luck there. And after all our feet were given us to travel with. If you go there and you see him, tell him to send me something—I am tired of selling nuts."
Bebee said nothing, but went on her road; since there was no other way but to walk, she would take that way; the distance and the hardship did not appall two little feet that were used to traverse so many miles of sun-baked summer dust and of frozen winter mud unblenchingly year after year.
The time it would take made her heart sink indeed. He was ill. God knew what might happen. But neither the length of leagues nor the fatigue of body daunted her. She only saw his eyes dim with pain and his lips burned with fever.
She would walk twenty miles a day, and then, perhaps, she might get lifts here and there on hay wagons or in pedlers' carts; people had always used to be kind to her. Anyhow she counted she might reach Paris well in fifteen days.
She sat under a shrine in a by street a moment, and counted the copper pieces she had on her; they were few, and the poor pretty buckles that she might have sold to get money were stolen.
She had some twenty sous and a dozen eggs; she thought she might live on that; she had wanted to take the eggs to him, but after all, to keep life in her until she could reach Paris was the one great thing.
"What a blessing it is to have been born poor; and to have lived hardly—one wants so little!" she thought to herself.
Then she put up the sous in the linen bosom of her gown, and trimmed her little lantern and knelt down in the quiet darkness and prayed a moment, with the hot agonized tears rolling down her face, and then rose and stepped out bravely in the cool of the night, on the great southwest road towards Paris.
The thought never once crossed her to turn back, and go again into the shelter of her own little hut among the flowers. He was sick there, dying, for anything she knew; that was the only thing she remembered.
It was a clear, starlit night, and everywhere the fragrance of the spring was borne in from the wide green plains, and the streams where the rushes were blowing.
She walked ten miles easily, the beautiful gray shadow all about her. She had never been so far from home in all her life, except to that one Kermesse at Mechlin. But she was not afraid.
With the movement, and the air, and the sense that she was going to him, which made her happy even in her misery, something of the old, sweet, lost fancies came to her.
She smiled at the stars through her tears, and as the poplars swayed and murmured in the wind, they looked to her like the wings and the swords of a host of angels.
Her way lay out through the forest, and in that sweet green woodland she was not afraid—no more afraid than the fawns were.
At Boitsfort she shrank a little, indeed. Here there were the open-air restaurants, and the cafe gardens all alight for the pleasure-seekers from the city; here there were music and laughter, and horses with brass bells, and bright colors on high in the wooden balconies, and below among the blossoming hawthorn hedges. She had to go through it all, and she shuddered a little as she ran, thinking of that one priceless, deathless forest day when he had kissed her first.
But the pleasure-people were all busied with their mirth and mischief, and took no notice of the little gray figure in the starry night. She went on along the grassy roads, under the high arching trees, with the hoot of the owls and the cry of the rabbits on the stillness.
At Groenendael, in the heart of the forest midnight was striking as she entered the village. Every one was asleep. The lights were all out The old ruined priory frowned dark under the clouds.
She shivered a little again, and began to feel chill and tired, yet did not dare to knock at any one of the closed house doors—she had no money.
So she walked on her first ten unknown miles, meeting a few people only, and being altogether unmolested—a small gray figure, trotting in two little wooden shoes.
They thought her a peasant going to a fair or a lace mill, and no one did her more harm than to wish her good night in rough Flemish.
When the dawn began to whiten above the plains of the east, she saw an empty cow-shed filled with hay; she was a little tired, and lay down and rested an hour or two, as a young lamb might have lain on the dried clover, for she knew that she must keep her strength and husband her power, or never reach across the dreary length of the foreign land to Paris.
But by full sunrise she was on her way again, bathing her face in a brook and buying a sou's worth of bread and flet-milk at the first cottage that she passed in bright, leaf-bowered Hoey-laert.
The forest was still all around her, with its exquisite life of bough and blossom, and murmur of insect and of bird. She told her beads, praying as she went, and was almost happy.
God would not let him die. Oh, no, not till she had kissed him once more, and could die with him.
The hares ran across the path, and the blue butterflies flew above-head. There was purple gloom of pine wood, and sparkling verdure of aspen and elm. There were distant church carillons ringing, and straight golden shafts of sunshine streaming.
She was quite sure God would not let him die.
She hoped that he might be very poor. At times he had talked as if he were, and then she might be of so much use. She knew how to deal with fever and suffering. She had sat up many a night with the children of the village. The gray sisters had taught her many of their ways of battling with disease; and she could make fresh cool drinks, and she could brew beautiful remedies from simple herbs. There was so much that she might do; her fancy played with it almost happily. And then, only to touch his hand, only to hear his voice; her heart rose at the thought, as a lark to its morning song.
At Rixensart, buried in its greenery, as she went through it in morning light, some peasants greeted her cheerily, and called to her to rest in a house porch, and gave her honey and bread. She could not eat much; her tongue was parched and her throat was dry, but the kindness was precious to her, and she went on her road the stronger for it.
"It is a long way to walk to Paris," said the woman, with some curious wonder. Bebee smiled, though her eyes grew wet.
"She has the look of the little Gesu," said the Rixensart people; and they watched her away with a vague timid pity.
So she went on through Ottignies and La Roche to Villers, and left the great woods and the city chimes behind her, and came through the green abbey valleys through Tilly and Ligny, and Fleurus, and so into the coal and iron fields that lie round Charleroi.
Here her heart grew sick, and her courage sank under the noise and the haste, before the blackness and the hideousness. She had never seen anything like it. She thought it was hell, with the naked, swearing, fighting people, and the red fires leaping night and day. Nevertheless, if hell it were, since it lay betwixt her and him, she found force to brave and cross it.
The miners and glass-blowers and nail-makers, rough and fierce and hard, frightened her. The women did not look like women, and the children ran and yelled at her, and set their dogs upon her. The soil was thick with dust like soot, and the trees were seared and brown. There was no peace in the place, and no loveliness. Eighty thousand folks toiled together in the hopeless Tophet, and swarmed, and struggled, and labored, and multiplied, in joyless and endless wrestling against hunger and death.
She got through it somehow, hiding often from the ferocious youngsters, and going sleepless rather than lie in those dens of filth; but she seemed so many, many years older when Charleroi lay at last behind her,—so many, many years older than when she had sat and spun in the garden at home.
When she was once in the valley of the Sambre she was more herself again, only she felt weaker than she had ever done, because she only dared to spend one of her sous each day, and one sou got so little food.
In the woods and fields about Alne she began to breathe again, like a bird loosed to the air after being shut in a wooden trap. Green corn, green boughs, green turf, mellow chimes of church bells, humming of golden bees, cradle songs of women spinning, homely odors of little herb gardens and of orchard trees under cottage walls,—these had been around her all her life; she only breathed freely among them.
She often felt tired, and her wooden shoes were wearing so thin that the hot dust of the road at noonday burnt her feet through them. Sometimes, too, she felt a curious brief faintness, such as she had never known, for the lack of food and the long fatigue began to tell even on her hardy little body.
But she went on bravely, rarely doing less than her twenty miles a day, and sometimes more, walking often in the night to save time, and lying down in cow-sheds or under haystacks in the noontide.