For the most part people were kind to her; they saw she was so very young and so poor.
Women would give her leave to bathe herself in their bedchambers, and children would ask her to wait on the village bench under the chestnut-tree, while they brought her their pet lamb or their tumbler pigeons to look at, but, for the most part—unless she was very, very tired—she would not wait. It took her so long, and who could tell how it fared with him in Paris?
Into the little churches, scattered over the wide countries between Charleroi and Erquelinnes, she would turn aside, indeed; but, then, that was only to say a prayer for him; that was not loss to him, but gain.
So she walked on until she reached the frontier of France. She began to get a little giddy; she began to see the blue sky and the green level always swirling round her as if some one were spinning them to frighten her, but still she would not be afraid; she went on, and on, and on, till she set her last step on the soil of Flanders.
Here a new, strange, terrible, incomprehensible obstacle opposed her: she had no papers; they thrust her back and spoke to her as if she were a criminal. She could not understand what they could mean. She had never heard of these laws and rules. She vaguely comprehended that she must not enter France, and stunned and heartbroken she dropped down under a tree, and for the first time sobbed as if her very life would weep itself away.
She could see nothing, understand nothing. There were the same road, the same hedges, the same fields, the same white cottages, and peasants in blue shirts and dun-hued oxen in the wagons. She saw no mark, no difference, ere they told her where she stood was Belgium, and where they stood was France, and that she must not pass from one into the other.
The men took no notice of her. They went back into their guard-house, and smoked and drank. A cat sunned herself under a scarlet bean. The white clouds sailed on before a southerly sky. She might die here—he there—and nothing seemed to care.
After a while an old hawker came up; he was travelling with wooden clocks from the Black Forest. He stopped and looked at her, and asked her what she ailed.
She knelt down at his feet in the dust.
"Oh, help me!" she cried to him. "Oh, pray, help me! I have walked all the way from Brussels—that is my country—and now they will not let me pass that house where the soldiers are. They say I have no papers. What papers should I have? I do not know. When one has done no harm, and does not owe a sou anywhere, and has walked all the way—Is it money that they want? I have none; and they stole my silver clasps in Brussels; and if I do not get to Paris I must die—die without seeing him again—ever again, dear God!"
She dropped her head upon the dust and crouched and sobbed there, her courage broken by this new barrier that she had never dreamed would come between herself and Paris.
The old hawker looked at her thoughtfully. He had seen much of men and women, and knew truth from counterfeit, and he was moved by the child's agony.
He stooped and whispered in her ear,—
"Get up quick, and I will pass you. It is against the law, and I may go to prison for it. Never mind; one must risk something in this world, or else be a cur. My daughter has stayed behind in Marbais sweethearting; her name is on my passport, and her age and face will do for yours. Get up and follow me close, and I will get you through. Poor little soul! Whatever your woe is it is real enough, and you are such a young and pretty thing. Get up, the guards are in their house, they have not seen; follow me, and you must not speak a word; they must take you for a German, dumb as wood."
She got up and obeyed him, not comprehending, but only vaguely seeing that he was friendly to her, and would pass her over into France.
The old man made a little comedy at the barrier, and scolded her as though she were his daughter for losing her way as she came to meet him, and then crying like a baby.
The guards looked at her carelessly, joked the hawker on her pretty face, looked the papers over, and let her through, believing her the child of the clock-maker of the Hartz. Some lies are blessed as truth.
"I have done wrong in the law, but not before God, I think, little one," said the pedler. "Nay, do not thank me, or go on like that; we are in sight of the customs men still, and if they suspected, it would be the four walls of a cell only that you and I should see to-night. And now tell me your story, poor maiden: why are you on foot through a strange country?"
But Bebee would not tell him her story: she was confused and dazed still. She did not know rightly what had happened to her; but she could not talk of herself, nor of why she travelled thus to Paris.
The old hawker got cross at her silence, and called her an unthankful jade, and wished that he had left her to her fate, and parted company with her at two cross-roads, saying his path did not lie with hers; and then when he had done that, was sorry, and being a tenderhearted soul, hobbled back, and would fain press a five-franc piece on her; and Bebee, refusing it all the while, kissed his old brown hands and blessed him, and broke away from him, and so went on again solitary towards St. Quentin.
The country was very flat and poor, and yet the plains had a likeness in them to her own wide Brabant downs, where the tall green wheat was blowing and the barges dropping down the sluggish streams.
She was very footsore; very weary; very hungry so often; but she was in France—in his country; and her spirit rose with the sense of that nearness to him.
After all, God was so good to her; there were fine bright days and nights; a few showers had fallen, but merely passing ones; the air was so cool and so balmy that it served her almost as food; and she seldom found people so unkind that they refused for her single little sou to give her a crust of bread and let her lie in an outhouse.
After all, God was very good; and by the sixteenth or seventeenth day she would be in the city of Paris.
She was a little light-headed at times from insufficient nourishment: especially after waking from strange dreams in unfamiliar places; sometimes the soil felt tremulous under her, and the sky spun round; but she struggled against the feeling, and kept a brave heart, and tried to be afraid of nothing.
Sometimes at night she thought she saw old Annemie. "But what if I do?" she said to herself; "Annemie never will hurt me."
And now, as she grew nearer her goal, her natural buoyancy of spirit returned as it had never done to her since the evening that he had kissed and left her. As her body grew lighter and more exhausted, her fancy grew keener and more dominant. All things of the earth and air spoke to her as she went along as they had used to do. All that she had learned from the books in the long cold months came to her clear and wonderful. She was not so very ignorant now—ignorant, indeed, beside him—but still knowing something that would make her able to read to him if he liked it, and to understand if he talked of grave things.
She had no fixed thought of what she would be to him when she reached him.
She fancied she would wait on him, and tend him, and make him well, and be caressed by him, and get all gracious pretty things of leaf and blossom about him, and kneel at his feet, and be quite happy if he only touched her now and then with his lips;—her thoughts went no further than that;—her love for him was of that intensity and absorption in which nothing But itself is remembered.
When a creature loves much, even when it is as little and as simple a soul as Bebee, the world and all its people and all its laws and ways are as naught. They cease to exist; they are as though they had never been.
Whoever recollects an outside world may play with passion, or may idle with sentiment, but does not love.
She did not hear what the villagers said to her. She did not see the streets of the towns as she passed them. She kept herself clean always, and broke fast now and then by sheer instinct of habit, nothing more. She had no perception what she did, except of walking—walking—walking always, and seeing the white road go by like pale ribbons unrolled.
She got a dreamy, intense, sleepless light in her blue eyes that frightened some of those she passed. They thought she had been fever-stricken, and was not in her senses.
So she went across the dreary lowlands, wearing out her little sabots, but not wearing out her patience and her courage.
She was very dusty and jaded. Her woollen skirt was stained with weather and torn with briers. But she had managed always to wash her cap white in brook water, and she had managed always to keep her pretty bright curls soft and silken—for he had liked them so much, and he would soon draw them through his hand again. So she told herself a thousand times to give her strength when the mist would come over her sight, and the earth would seem to tremble as she went. On the fifteenth day from the night when she had left her hut by the swans' water, Bebee saw Paris.
Shining away in the sun; white and gold; among woods and gardens she saw Paris.
She was so tired—oh, so tired—but she could not rest now. There were bells ringing always in her ears, and a heavy pain always in her head. But what of that?—she was so near to him.
"Are you ill, you little thing?" a woman asked her who was gathering early cherries in the outskirts of the great city.
Bebee looked at her and smiled: "I do not know—I am happy."
And she went onward.
It was evening. The sun had set. She had not eaten for twenty-four hours. But she could not pause for anything now. She crossed the gleaming river, and she heard the cathedral chimes. Paris in all its glory was about her, but she took no more note of it than a pigeon that flies through it intent on reaching home.
No one looked at or stopped her; a little dusty peasant with a bundle on a stick over her shoulder.
The click-clack of her wooden shoes on the hot pavements made none look up; little rustics came up every day like this to make their fortunes in Paris. Some grew into golden painted silken flowers, the convolvuli of their brief summer days; and some drifted into the Seine water, rusted, wind-tossed, fallen leaves, that were wanted of no man. Anyhow it was so common to see them, pretty but homely things, with their noisy shoes and their little all in a bundle, that no one even looked once at Bebee.
She was not bewildered. As she had gone through her own city, only thinking of the roses in her basket and of old Annemie in her garret, so she went through Paris, only thinking of him for whose sake she had come thither.
Now that she was really in his home she was happy,—happy though her head ached with that dull odd pain, and all the sunny glare went round and round like a great gilded humming-top, such as the babies clapped their hands at, at the Kermesse.
She was happy: she felt sure now that God would not let him die till she got to him. She was quite glad that he had left her all that long, terrible winter, for she had learned so much and was so much more fitted to be with him.
Weary as she was, and strange as the pain in her head made her feel, she was happy, very happy; a warm flush came on her little pale cheeks as she thought how soon he would kiss them, her whole body thrilled with the old sweet nameless joy that she had sickened for in vain so long.
Though she saw nothing else that was around her, she saw some little knots of moss-roses that a girl was selling on the quay, as she used to sell them in front of the Maison du Roi. She had only two sous left, but she stopped and bought two little rosebuds to take to him. He had used to care for them so much in the summer in Brabant.
The girl who sold them told her the way to the street he lived in; it was not very far of the quay. She seemed to float on air, to have wings like the swallows, to hear beautiful musk all around. She felt for her beads, and said aves of praise. God was so good.
It was quite night when she reached the street, and sought the number of his house. She spoke his name softly, and trembling very much with joy, not with any fear, but it seemed to her too sacred a thing ever to utter aloud.
An old man looked out of a den by the door, and told her to go straight up the stairs to the third floor, and then turn to the right. The old man chuckled as he glanced after her, and listened to the wooden shoes pattering wearily up the broad stone steps.
Bebee climbed them—ten, twenty, thirty, forty. "He must be very poor!" she thought, "to live so high"; and yet the place was wide and handsome, and had a look of riches. Her heart beat so fast, she felt suffocated; her limbs shook, her eyes had a red blood-like mist floating before them; but she thanked God each step she climbed; a moment, and she would look upon the only face she loved.
"He will be glad; oh, I am sure he will be glad!" she said to herself, as a fear that had never before come near her touched her for a moment—if he should not care?
But even then, what did it matter? Since he was ill she should be there to watch him night and day; and when he was well again, if he should wish her to go away—one could always die.
"But he will be glad—oh, I know he will be glad!" she said to the rosebuds that she carried to him. "And if God will only let me save his life, what else do I want more?"
His name was written on a door before her. The handle of a bell hung down; she pulled it timidly. The door unclosed; she saw no one, and went through. There were low lights burning. There were heavy scents that were strange to her. There was a fantastic gloom from old armor, and old weapons, and old pictures in the dull rich chambers. The sound of her wooden shoes was lost in the softness and thickness of the carpets.
It was not the home of a poor man. A great terror froze her heart,—if she were not wanted here?
She went quickly through three rooms, seeing no one and at the end of the third there were folding doors.
"It is I—Bebee." she said softly, as she pushed them gently apart; and she held out the two moss-rosebuds.
Then the words died on her lips, and a great horror froze her, still and silent, there.
She saw the dusky room as in a dream. She saw him stretched on the bed, leaning on his elbow, laughing, and playing cards upon the lace coverlet. She saw women with loose shining hair and bare limbs, and rubies and diamonds glimmering red and white. She saw men lying about upon the couch, throwing dice and drinking and laughing one with another.
Beyond all she saw against the pillows of his bed a beautiful brown wicked looking thing like some velvet snake, who leaned over him as he threw down the painted cards upon the lace, and who had cast about his throat her curved bare arm with the great coils of dead gold all a-glitter on it.
And above it all there were odors of wines and flowers, clouds of smoke, shouts of laughter, music of shrill gay voices.
She stood like a frozen creature and saw—the rosebuds' in her hand. Then with a great piercing cry she let the little roses fall, and turned and fled. At the sound he looked up and saw her, and shook his beautiful brown harlot off him with an oath.
But Bebee flew down through the empty chambers and the long stairway as a hare flies from the hounds; her tired feet never paused, her aching limbs never slackened; she ran on, and on, and on, into the lighted streets, into the fresh night air; on, and on, and on, straight to the river.
From its brink some man's strength caught and held her. She struggled with it.
"Let me die! let me die!" she shrieked to him, and strained from him to get at the cool gray silent water that waited for her there.
Then she lost all consciousness, and saw the stars no more.
When she came back to any sense of life, the stars were shining still, and the face of Jeannot was bending over her, wet with tears.
He had followed her to Paris when they had missed her first, and had come straight by train to the city, making sure it was thither she had come, and there had sought her many days, watching for her by the house of Flamen.
She shuddered away from him as he held her, and looked at him with blank, tearless eyes.
"Do not touch me—take me home."
That was all she ever said to him. She never asked him or told him anything. She never noticed that it was strange that he should have been here upon the river-bank. He let her be, and took her silently in the cool night back by the iron ways to Brabant.
She sat quite still and upright in the wagon with the dark lands rushing by her. She never spoke at all. She had a look that frightened him upon her face. When he tried to touch her hand, she shivered away from him.
The charcoal-burner, hardy and strong among forest-reared men, cowered like a child in a corner, and covered his eyes and wept.
So the night wore away.
She had no perception of anything that happened to her until she was led through her own little garden in the early day, and her starling cried to her, "Bonjour, Bonjour!" Even then she only looked about her in a bewildered way, and never spoke.
Were the sixteen days a dream?
She did not know.
The women whom Jeannot summoned, his mother and sisters, and Mere Krebs, and one or two others, weeping for what had been the hardness of their hearts against her, undressed her, and laid her down on her little bed, and opened the shutters to the radiance of the sun.
She let them do as they liked, only she seemed neither to hear nor speak, and she never spoke.
All that Jeannot could tell was that he had found her in Paris, and had saved her from the river.
The women were sorrowful, and reproached themselves. Perhaps she had done wrong, but they had been harsh, and she was so young.
The two little sabots with the holes worn through the soles touched them; and they blamed themselves for having shut their hearts and their doors against her as they saw the fixed blue eyes, without any light in them, and the pretty mouth closed close against either sob or smile.
After all she was Bebee—the little bright blithe thing that had danced with their children, and sung to their singing, and brought them always the first roses of the year. If she had been led astray, they should have been gentler with her.
So they told themselves and each other.
What had she seen in that terrible Paris to change her like this?—they could not tell She never spoke.
The cock crowed gayly to the sun. The lamb bleated in the meadow. The bees boomed among the pear-tree blossoms. The gray lavender blew in the open house door. The green leaves threw shifting shadows on the floor.
All things were just the same as they had been the year before, when she had woke to the joy of being a girl of sixteen.
But Bebee now lay quite still and silent on her little bed; as quiet as the waxen Gesu that they laid in the manger at the Nativity.
"If she would only speak!" the women and the children wailed, weeping sorely.
But she never spoke; nor did she seem to know any one of them. Not even the starling as he flew on her pillow and called her.
"Give her rest," they all said; and one by one moved away, being poor folk and hard working, and unable to lose a whole day.
Mere Krebs stayed with her, and Jeannot sat in the porch where her little spinning-wheel stood, and rocked himself to and fro; in vain agony, powerless.
He had done all he could, and it was of no avail.
Then people who had loved her, hearing, came up the green lanes from the city—the cobbler and the tinman, and the old woman who sold saints' pictures by the Broodhuis. The Varnhart children hung about the garden wicket, frightened and sobbing. Old Jehan beat his knees with his hands, and said only over and over again, "Another dead—another dead!—the red mill and I see them all dead!"
The long golden day drifted away, and the swans swayed to and fro, and the willows grew silver in the sunshine.
Bebee, only, lay quite still and never spoke. The starling sat above her head; his wings drooped, and he was silent too.
Towards sunset Bebee raised herself and called aloud: they ran to her.
"Get me a rosebud—one with the moss round it," she said to them.
They went out into the garden, and brought her one wet with dew.
She kissed it, and laid it in one of her little wooden shoes that stood upon the bed.
"Send them to him," she said wearily; "tell him I walked all the way."
Then her head drooped; then momentary consciousness died out: the old dull lifeless look crept over her face again like the shadow of death.
The starling spread his broad black wings above her head. She lay quite still once more. The women left the rosebud in the wooden shoe, not knowing what she meant.
Night fell. Mere Krebs watched beside her. Jeannot went down to the old church to beseech heaven with all his simple, ignorant, tortured soul. The villagers hovered about, talking in low sad voices, and wondering, and dropping one by one into their homes. They were sorry, very sorry; but what could they do?
It was quite night. The lights were put out in the lane. Jeannot, with Father Francis, prayed before the shrine of the Seven Sorrows. Mere Krebs slumbered in her rush-bottomed chair; she was old and worked hard. The starling was awake.
Bebee rose in her bed, and looked around, as she had done when she had asked for the moss-rosebud.
A sense of unutterable universal pain ached over all her body.
She did not see her little home, its four white walls, its lattice shining in the moon, its wooden bowls and plates, its oaken shelf and presses, its plain familiar things that once had been so dear,—she did not see them; she only saw the brown woman with her arm about his throat.
She sat up in her bed and slipped her feet on to the floor; the pretty little rosy feet that he had used to want to clothe in silken stockings.
Poor little feet! she felt a curious compassion for them; they had served her so well, and they were so tired.
She sat up a moment with that curious dull agony, aching everywhere in body and in brain. She kissed the rosebud once more and laid it gently down in the wooden shoe. She did not see anything that was around her. She felt a great dulness that closed in on her, a great weight that was like iron on her head.
She thought she was in the strange, noisy, cruel city, with' the river close to her, and all her dead dreams drifting down it like murdered children, whilst that woman kissed him.
She slipped her feet on to the floor, and rose and stood upright. There was a door open to the moonlight—the door where she had sat spinning and singing in a thousand happy days; the lavender blew; the tall, unbudded green lilies swayed in the wind; she looked at them, and knew none of them.
The night air drifted through her linen dress, and played on her bare arms, and lifted the curls of her hair; the same air that had played with her so many times out of mind when she had been a little tottering thing that measured its height by the red rosebush. But it brought her no sense of where she was.
All she saw was the woman who kissed him.
There was the water beyond; the kindly calm water, all green with the moss and the nests of the ouzels and the boughs of the hazels and willows, where the swans were asleep in the reeds, and the broad lilies spread wide and cool.
But she did not see any memory in it. She thought it was the cruel gray river in the strange white city: and she cried to it; and went out into the old familiar ways, and knew none of them; and ran feebly yet fleetly through the bushes and flowers, looking up once at the stars with a helpless broken blind look, like a thing that is dying.
"He does not want me!" she said to them; "he does not want me!—other women kiss him there!"
Then with a low fluttering sound like a bird's when its wings are shot, and yet it tries to rise, she hovered a moment over the water, and stretched her arms out to it.
"He does not want me!" she murmured; "he does not want me—and I am so tired. Dear God!"
Then she crept down, as a weary child creeps to its mother, and threw herself forward, and let the green dark waters take her where they had found her amidst the lilies, a little laughing yearling thing.
There she soon lay, quite quiet, with her face turned to the stars, and the starling poised above to watch her as she slept.
She had been only Bebee: the ways of God and man had been too hard for her.
When the messengers of Flamen came that day, they took him back a dead moss-rose and a pair of little wooden shoes worn through with walking.
"One creature loved me once," he says to women who wonder why the wooden shoes are there.