THE DEVIL'S POOL
BIBLIOTHEQUE DES CHEFS-D'OEUVRE
DU ROMAN CONTEMPORAIN
THE DEVIL'S POOL
PRINTED FOR SUBSCRIBERS ONLY BY GEORGE BARRIE & SONS, Philadelphia
COPYRIGHT, 1901, BY GEORGE BARRIE & SON
THIS EDITION OF
THE DEVIL'S POOL
HAS BEEN COMPLETELY TRANSLATED
GEORGE B. IVES
THE ETCHINGS AND DRAWINGS ARE BY
When I began, with The Devil's Pool, a series of rustic pictures which I proposed to collect under the title of The Hemp-Beater's Tales, I had no theory, no purpose to effect a revolution in literature. No one can bring about a revolution by himself alone, and there are revolutions, especially in matters of art, which mankind accomplishes without any very clear idea how it is done, because everybody takes a hand in them. But this is not applicable to the romance of rustic manners: it has existed in all ages and under all forms, sometimes pompous, sometimes affected, sometimes artless. I have said, and I say again here: the dream of a country-life has always been the ideal of cities, aye, and of courts. I have done nothing new in following the incline that leads civilized man back to the charms of primitive life. I have not intended to invent a new language or to create a new style. I have been assured of the contrary in a large number of feuilletons, but I know better than any one what to think about my own plans, and I am always astonished that the critics dig so deep for them, when the simplest ideas, the most commonplace incidents, are the only inspirations to which the products of art owe their being. As for The Devil's Pool in particular, the incident that I have related in the preface, an engraving of Holbein's that had made an impression upon me, and a scene from real life that came under my eyes at the same moment, in sowing time,—those were what impelled me to write this modest tale, the scene of which is laid amid humble localities that I used to visit every day. If any one asks me my purpose in writing it, I shall reply that I desired to do a very simple and very touching thing, and that I have not succeeded as I hoped. I have seen, I have felt the beautiful in the simple, but to see and to depict are two different things! The most that the artist can hope to do is to induce those who have eyes to look with him. Therefore, my friends, look at simple things, look at the sky and the fields and the trees and the peasants, especially at what is good and true in them: you will see them to a slight extent in my book, you will see them much better in nature.
NOHANT, April 12, 1851.
THE DEVIL'S POOL
THE AUTHOR TO THE READER
A la sueur de ton visaige Tu gagnerois ta pauvre vie, Apres long travail et usaige, Voicy la mort qui te convie.
The quatrain in old French written below one of Holbein's pictures is profoundly sad in its simplicity. The engraving represents a ploughman driving his plough through a field. A vast expanse of country stretches away in the distance, with some poor cabins here and there; the sun is setting behind the hill. It is the close of a hard day's work. The peasant is a short, thick-set man, old, and clothed in rags. The four horses that he urges forward are thin and gaunt; the ploughshare is buried in rough, unyielding soil. A single figure is joyous and alert in that scene of sweat and toil. It is a fantastic personage, a skeleton armed with a whip, who runs in the furrow beside the terrified horses and belabors them, thus serving the old husbandman as ploughboy. This spectre, which Holbein has introduced allegorically in the succession of philosophical and religious subjects, at once lugubrious and burlesque, entitled the Dance of Death, is Death itself.
In that collection, or rather in that great book, in which Death, playing his part on every page, is the connecting link and the dominant thought, Holbein has marshalled sovereigns, pontiffs, lovers, gamblers, drunkards, nuns, courtesans, brigands, paupers, soldiers, monks, Jews, travellers, the whole world of his day and of ours; and everywhere the spectre of Death mocks and threatens and triumphs. From a single picture only, is it absent. It is that one in which Lazarus, the poor man, lying on a dunghill at the rich man's door, declares that he does not fear Death, doubtless because he has nothing to lose and his life is premature death.
Is that stoicist idea of the half-pagan Christianity of the Renaissance very comforting, and do devout souls find consolation therein? The ambitious man, the rascal, the tyrant, the rake, all those haughty sinners who abuse life, and whom Death holds by the hair, are destined to be punished, without doubt; but are the blind man, the beggar, the madman, the poor peasant, recompensed for their long life of misery by the single reflection that death is not an evil for them? No! An implacable melancholy, a ghastly fatality, overshadows the artist's work. It resembles a bitter imprecation upon the fate of mankind.
There truly do we find the grievous satire, the truthful picture of the society Holbein had under his eyes. Crime and misfortune, those are what impressed him; but what shall we depict, we artists of another age? Shall we seek in the thought of death the reward of mankind in the present day? Shall we invoke it as the punishment of injustice and the guerdon of suffering?
No, we have no longer to deal with Death, but with Life. We no longer believe either in the nothingness of the tomb or in salvation purchased by obligatory renunciation; we want life to be good because we want it to be fruitful. Lazarus must leave his dunghill, so that the poor may no longer rejoice at the death of the rich. All must be happy, so that the happiness of some may not be a crime and accursed of God. The husbandman as he sows his grain must know that he is working at the work of life, and not rejoice because Death is walking beside him. In a word, death must no longer be the punishment of prosperity or the consolation of adversity. God did not destine death as a punishment or a compensation for life; for he blessed life, and the grave should not be a refuge to which it is permitted to send those who cannot be made happy.
Certain artists of our time, casting a serious glance upon their surroundings, strive to depict grief, the abjectness of poverty, Lazarus's dunghill. That may be within the domain of art and philosophy; but, by representing poverty as so ugly, so base, and at times so vicious and criminal a thing, do they attain their end, and is the effect as salutary as they could wish? We do not dare to say. We may be told that by pointing out the abyss that yawns beneath the fragile crust of opulence, they terrify the wicked rich man, as, in the time of the Danse Macabre, they showed him its yawning ditch, and Death ready to wind its unclean arms about him. To-day, they show him the thief picking his lock, the assassin watching until he sleeps. We confess that we do not clearly understand how they will reconcile him with the humanity he despises, how they will move his pity for the sufferings of the poor man whom he fears, by showing him that same poor man in the guise of the escaped felon and the burglar. Ghastly Death, gnashing his teeth and playing the violin in the productions of Holbein and his predecessors, found it impossible in that guise to convert the perverse and to comfort their victims. Is it not a fact that the literature of our day is in this respect following to some extent in the footsteps of the artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance?
Holbein's drunkards fill their glasses in a sort of frenzied desire to put aside the thought of Death, who, unseen by them, acts as their cup-bearer. The wicked rich men of to-day demand fortifications and cannon to put aside the thought of a rising of the Jacquerie, whom art shows them at work in the shadow, separately awaiting the moment to swoop down upon society. The Church of the Middle Ages answered the terrors of the powerful ones of the earth by selling indulgences. The government of to-day allays the anxiety of the rich by making them pay for many gendarmes and jailers, bayonets and prisons.
Albert Duerer, Michael Angelo, Holbein, Callot, Goya, produced powerful satires upon the evils of their age and their country. They are immortal works, historical pages of unquestionable value; we do not undertake, therefore, to deny artists the right to probe the wounds of society and lay them bare before our eyes; but is there nothing better to be done to-day than to depict the terrifying and the threatening? In this literature of mysteries of iniquity, which talent and imagination have made fashionable, we prefer the mild, attractive figures to the villains for dramatic effect. The former may undertake and effect conversions, the others cause fear, and fear does not cure egoism, but increases it.
We believe that the mission of art is a mission of sentiment and love, that the novel of to-day ought to replace the parable and the fable of simpler times, and that the artist has a broader and more poetic task than that of suggesting a few prudential and conciliatory measures to lessen the alarm his pictures arouse. His object should be to make the objects of his solicitude lovable, and I would not reproach him for flattering them a little, in case of need. Art is not a study of positive reality, it is a quest for ideal truth, and the Vicar of Wakefield was a more useful and healthy book for the mind than the Paysan Perverti or the Liaisons Dangereuses.
Reader, pardon these reflections, and deign to accept them by way of preface. There will be no other to the little tale I propose to tell you, and it will be so short and so simple that I felt that I must apologize beforehand by telling you what I think of terrifying tales.
I allowed myself to be drawn into this digression apropos of a ploughman. It is the story of a ploughman that I set out to tell you, and will tell you forthwith.
I had been gazing for a long time and with profound sadness at Holbein's ploughman, and I was walking in the fields, musing upon country-life and the destiny of the husbandman. Doubtless it is a depressing thing to consume one's strength and one's life driving the plough through the bosom of the jealous earth, which yields the treasures of its fecundity only under duress, when a bit of the blackest and coarsest bread at the end of the day is the only reward and the only profit of such laborious toil. The wealth that covers the ground, the crops, the fruit, the proud cattle fattening on the long grass, are the property of a few, and the instruments of fatigue and slavery of the majority. As a general rule, the man of leisure does not love, for themselves, the fields, or the meadows, or the spectacle of nature, or the superb beasts that are to be converted into gold pieces for his use. The man of leisure comes to the country in search of a little air and health, then returns to the city to spend the fruit of his vassal's toil.
The man of toil, for his part, is too crushed, too wretched, and too frightened concerning the future, to enjoy the beauties of the landscape and the charms of rustic life. To him also the golden fields, the lovely meadows, the noble animals, represent bags of crowns, of which he will have only a paltry share, insufficient for his needs, and yet those cursed bags must be filled every year to satisfy the master and pay for the privilege of living sparingly and wretchedly on his domain.
And still nature is always young and beautiful and generous. She sheds poetry and beauty upon all living things, upon all the plants that are left to develop in their own way. Nature possesses the secret of happiness, and no one has ever succeeded in wresting it from her. He would be the most fortunate of men who, possessing the science of his craft and working with his hands, deriving happiness and liberty from the exercise of his intelligent strength, should have time to live in the heart and the brain, to understand his work, and to love the work of God. The artist has enjoyment of that sort in contemplating and reproducing the beauties of Nature; but, when he sees the suffering of the men who people this paradise called the earth, the just, kind-hearted artist is grieved in the midst of his enjoyment. Where the mind, heart, and arms work in concert under the eye of Providence, true happiness would be found, and a holy harmony would exist between the munificence of God and the delights of the human soul. Then, instead of piteous, ghastly Death walking in his furrow, whip in hand, the painter of allegories could place beside the ploughman a radiant angel, sowing the blessed grain in the smoking furrows with generous hand.
And the dream of a peaceful, free, poetical, laborious, simple existence for the husbandman is not so difficult of conception that it need be relegated to a place among chimeras. The gentle, melancholy words of Virgil: "O how happy the life of the husbandman, if he but knew his happiness!" is an expression of regret; but, like all regrets, it is also a prediction. A day will come when the ploughman may be an artist, if not to express,—which will then matter but little, perhaps,—at all events, to feel, the beautiful. Do you believe that this mysterious intuition of poesy does not already exist within him in the state of instinct and vague revery? In those who have a little hoard for their protection to-day, and in whom excess of misery does not stifle all moral and intellectual development, pure happiness, felt and appreciated, is at the elementary stage; and, furthermore, if poets' voices have already arisen from the bosom of sorrow and fatigue, why should it be said that the work of the hands excludes the exercise of the functions of the mind? That exclusion is probably the general result of excessive toil and profound misery; but let it not be said that when man shall work only moderately and profitably, then there will be none but bad workmen and bad poets. He who derives noble enjoyment from the inward sentiment of poesy is a true poet, though he has never written a line in his life.
My thoughts had taken this course, and I did not notice that this confidence in man's capacity for education was strengthened in my mind by external influences. I was walking along the edge of a field which the peasants were preparing for the approaching sowing. The field was an extensive one, like that in Holbein's picture. The landscape, too, was of great extent and framed in broad lines of verdure, slightly reddened by the approach of autumn, the lusty brown earth, where recent rains had left in some of the furrows lines of water which sparkled in the sun like slender silver threads. It was a blight, warm day, and the ground, freshly opened by the sharp ploughshares, exhaled a slight vapor. At the upper end of the field, an old man, whose broad back and stern face recalled the man in Holbein's picture, but whose clothing did not indicate poverty, gravely drove his old-fashioned areau, drawn by two placid oxen, with pale yellow hides, veritable patriarchs of the fields, tall, rather thin, with long, blunt horns, hard-working old beasts whom long companionship has made brothers, as they are called in our country districts, and who, when they are separated, refuse to work with new mates and die of grief. People who know nothing of the country call this alleged friendship of the ox for his yoke-fellow fabulous. Let them go to the stable and look at a poor, thin, emaciated animal, lashing his sunken sides with his restless tail, sniffing with terror and contempt at the fodder that is put before him, his eyes always turned toward the door, pawing the empty place beside him, smelling the yoke and chains his companion wore, and calling him incessantly with a pitiful bellow. The driver will say: "There's a yoke of oxen lost; his brother's dead, and he won't work. We ought to fatten him for killing; but he won't eat, and he'll soon starve to death."
The old ploughman was working slowly, in silence, without useless expenditure of strength. His docile team seemed in no greater hurry than he; but as he kept constantly at work, never turning aside, and exerting always just the requisite amount of sustained power, his furrow was as quickly cut as his son's, who was driving four less powerful oxen on some harder and more stony land a short distance away.
But the spectacle that next attracted my attention was a fine one indeed, a noble subject for a painter. At the other end of the arable tract, a young man of attractive appearance was driving a superb team: four yoke of young beasts, black-coated with tawny spots that gleamed like fire, with the short, curly heads that suggest the wild bull, the great, wild eyes, the abrupt movements, the nervous, jerky way of doing their work, which shows that the yoke and goad still irritate them and that they shiver with wrath as they yield to the domination newly imposed upon them. They were what are called oxen freshly yoked. The man who was guiding them had to clear a field until recently used for pasturage, and filled with venerable stumps—an athlete's task which his energy, his youth, and his eight almost untamed beasts were hardly sufficient to accomplish.
A child of six or seven years, as beautiful as an angel, with a lamb's fleece covering his shoulders, over his blouse, so that he resembled the little Saint John the Baptist of the painters of the Renaissance, was trudging along in the furrow beside the plough and pricking the sides of the oxen with a long, light stick, the end of which was armed with a dull goad. The proud beasts quivered under the child's small hand, and made the yokes and the straps about their foreheads groan, jerking the plough violently forward. When the ploughshare struck a root, the driver shouted in a resonant voice, calling each beast by his name, but rather to soothe than to excite them; for the oxen, annoyed by the sudden resistance, started forward, digging their broad forked feet into the ground, and would have turned aside and dragged the plough across the field, had not the young man held the four leaders in check with voice and goad, while the child handled the other four. He, too, shouted, poor little fellow, in a voice which he tried to render terrible, but which remained as sweet as his angelic face. The whole picture was beautiful in strength and in grace: the landscape, the man, the child, the oxen under the yoke; and, despite the mighty struggle in which the earth was conquered, there was a feeling of peace and profound tranquillity hovering over everything. When the obstacle was surmounted and the team resumed its even, solemn progress, the ploughman, whose pretended violence was only to give his muscles a little practice and his vitality an outlet, suddenly resumed the serenity of simple souls and cast a contented glance upon his child, who turned to smile at him. Then the manly voice of the young paterfamilias would strike up the solemn, melancholy tune which the ancient tradition of the province transmits, not to all ploughmen without distinction, but to those most expert in the art of arousing and sustaining the spirit of working-cattle. That song, whose origin was perhaps held sacred, and to which mysterious influences seem to have been attributed formerly, is reputed even to the present day to possess the virtue of keeping up the courage of those animals, of soothing their discontent, and of whiling away the tedium of their long task. It is not enough to have the art of driving them so as to cut the furrow in an absolutely straight line, to lighten their labor by raising the share or burying it deeper in the ground: a man is not a perfect ploughman if he cannot sing to his cattle, and that is a special science which requires special taste and powers.
To speak accurately, this song is only a sort of recitative, broken off and taken up again at pleasure. Its irregular form and its intonations, false according to the rules of musical art, make it impossible to reproduce. But it is a fine song none the less, and so entirely appropriate to the nature of the work it accompanies, to the gait of the ox, to the tranquillity of rural scenes, to the simple manners of the men who sing it, that no genius unfamiliar with work in the fields could have invented it, and no singer other than a cunning ploughman of that region would know how to render it. At the time of year when there is no other work and no other sign of activity in the country than the ploughing, that sweet and powerful chant rises like the voice of the breeze, which it resembles somewhat in its peculiar pitch. The final word of each phrase, sustained at incredible length, and with marvellous power of breath, ascends a fourth of a tone, purposely making a discord. That is barbarous, perhaps, but the charm of it is indescribable, and when one is accustomed to hear it, one cannot conceive of any other song at that time and in those localities that would not disturb the harmony.
It happened, therefore, that I had before my eyes a picture in striking contrast with Holbein's, although it might be a similar scene. Instead of a sad old man, a cheerful young man; instead of a team of thin, sorry horses, two yoke of four sturdy, spirited cattle; instead of Death, a lovely child; instead of an image of despair and a suggestion of destruction, a spectacle of energetic action and a thought of happiness.
Then it was that the French quatrain:
"A la sueur de ton visaige," etc.,
and the O fortunatos——agricolas of Virgil, came to my mind simultaneously, and when I saw that handsome pair, the man and the child, performing a grand and solemn task under such poetic conditions, and with so much grace combined with so much strength, I had a feeling of profound compassion mingled with involuntary respect. Happy the husbandman. Yes, so I should be in his place, if my arm should suddenly become strong and my chest powerful, so that they could thus fertilize nature and sing to her, without my eyes losing the power to see and my brain to understand the harmony of colors and sounds, the delicacy of tones, and the gracefulness of contours,—in a word, the mysterious beauty of things, and, above all, without my heart ceasing to be in relation with the divine sentiment that presided at the immortal and sublime creation.
But, alas! that man has never understood the mystery of the beautiful, that child will never understand it! God preserve me from the thought that they are not superior to the animals they guide, and that they have not at times a sort of ecstatic revelation that charms away their weariness and puts their cares to sleep! I see upon their noble brows the seal of the Lord God, for they are born kings of the earth much more truly than they who possess it, because they have paid for it. And the proof that they feel that it is so is found in the fact that you cannot expatriate them with impunity, and that they love the ground watered by the sweat of their brow, that the true peasant dies of homesickness in the uniform of the soldier, far from the fields where he was born. But that man lacks a part of the enjoyments I possess, immaterial enjoyments to which he is abundantly entitled, he the workman in the vast temple which the heavens are vast enough to embrace. He lacks knowledge of his own sentiments. They who condemned him to servitude from his mother's womb, being unable to take from him the power of reverie, have taken the power of reflection.
Ah! well, such as he is, incomplete and doomed to never-ending childhood, he is nobler even so than he in whom knowledge has stifled sentiment. Do not place yourselves above him, you who consider yourselves endowed with the lawful and inalienable right to command him, for that terrible error proves that in you the mind has killed the heart and that you are the most incomplete and the blindest of men!—I prefer the simplicity of his mind to the false enlightenment of yours; and if I had to tell his life, it would be more pleasant for me to bring out its attractive and affecting aspects than it is creditable to you to depict the abject condition to which the scornful rigor of your social precepts may debase him.
I knew that young man and that beautiful child; I knew their story, for they had a story, everybody has his story, and everybody might arouse interest in the romance of his own life if he but understood it. Although a peasant and a simple ploughman, Germain had taken account of his duties and his affections. He had detailed them to me ingenuously one day, and I had listened to him with interest. When I had watched him at work for a considerable time, I asked myself why his story should not be written, although it was as simple, as straightforward, and as devoid of ornament as the furrow he made with his plough.
Next year that furrow will be filled up and covered by a new furrow. Thus the majority of men make their mark and disappear in the field of humanity. A little earth effaces it, and the furrows we have made succeed one another like graves in the cemetery. Is not the furrow of the ploughman as valuable as that of the idler, who has a name, however, a name that will live, if, by reason of some peculiarity or some absurd exploit, he makes a little noise in the world?
So let us, if we can, rescue from oblivion the furrow of Germain, the cunning ploughman. He will know nothing about it, and will not be disturbed; but I shall have had a little pleasure in making the attempt.
"Germain," his father-in-law said to him one day, "you must make up your mind to marry again. It's almost two years since you lost my daughter, and your oldest boy is seven years old. You're getting on toward thirty, my boy, and when a man passes that age, you know, in our province, he's considered too old to begin housekeeping again. You have three fine children, and thus far they haven't been a trouble to us. My wife and daughter-in-law have looked after them as well as they could, and loved them as they ought. There's Petit-Pierre, he's what you might call educated; he can drive oxen very handily already; he knows enough to keep the cattle in the meadow, and he's strong enough to drive the horses to water. So he isn't the one to be a burden to us; but the other two—we love them, God knows! poor innocent creatures!—cause us much anxiety this year. My daughter-in-law is about lying-in, and she still has a little one in her arms. When the one we expect has come, she won't be able to look after your little Solange, and especially your little Sylvain, who isn't four years old and hardly keeps still a minute day or night. His blood is hot, like yours: he'll make a good workman, but he's a terrible child, and my old woman can't run fast enough now to catch him when he runs off toward the ditch or in among the feet of the cattle. And then, when my daughter-in-law brings this other one into the world, her last but one will be thrown on my wife's hands for a month, at least. So your children worry us and overburden us. We don't like to see children neglected; and when you think of the accidents that may happen to them for lack of watching, your mind's never at rest. So you must have another wife, and I another daughter-in-law. Think it over, my boy. I've already warned you more than once; time flies, and the years won't wait for you. You owe it to your children and to us, who want to have everything go right in the house, to marry as soon as possible."
"Well, father," the son-in-law replied, "if you really want me to do it, I must gratify you. But I don't propose to conceal from you that it will cause me a great deal of annoyance, and that I'd about as lief drown myself. You know what you've lost, and you don't know what you may find. I had an excellent wife, a good-looking wife, sweet and brave, good to her father and mother, good to her husband, good to her children, a good worker, in the fields or in the house, clever about her work, good at everything, in fact; and when you gave her to me, when I took her, it wasn't one of the conditions that I should forget her if I had the bad luck to lose her."
"What you say shows a good heart, Germain," rejoined Pere Maurice; "I know you loved my daughter, that you made her happy, and that if you could have satisfied Death by going in her place, Catherine would be alive at this moment and you in the cemetery. She well deserved to have you love her like that, and if you don't get over her loss, no more do we. But I'm not talking about forgetting her. The good God willed that she should leave us, and we don't let a day pass without showing Him, by our prayers, our thoughts, our words, our acts, that we respect her memory and are grieved at her departure. But if she could speak to you from the other world and tell you her will, she would bid you seek a mother for her little orphans. The question, then, is to find a woman worthy to take her place. It won't be very easy; but it isn't impossible; and when we have found her for you, you will love her as you loved my daughter, because you are an honest man and because you will be grateful to her for doing us a service and loving your children."
"Very good, Pere Maurice," said Germain, "I will do what you wish, as I always have done."
"I must do you the justice to say, my son, that you have always listened to the friendship and sound arguments of the head of your family. So let us talk over the matter of your choice of a new wife. In the first place, I don't advise you to take a young woman. That isn't what you need. Youth is fickle; and as it's a burden to bring up three children, especially when they're the children of another marriage, what you must have is a kind-hearted soul, wise and gentle, and used to hard work. If your wife isn't about as old as yourself, she won't have sense enough to accept such a duty. She will think you too old and your children too young. She will complain, and your children will suffer."
"That is just what disturbs me," said Germain. "Suppose she should hate the poor little ones, and they should be maltreated and beaten?"
"God forbid!" said the old man. "But evil-minded women are rarer in these parts than good ones, and a man must be a fool not to be able to put his hand on the one that suits him."
"True, father: there are some good girls in our village. There's Louise and Sylvaine and Claudie and Marguerite—any one you please, in fact."
"Softly, softly, my boy, all those girls are too young or too poor—or too pretty; for we must think of that, too, my son. A pretty woman isn't always as steady as a plainer one."
"Do you want me to take an ugly one, pray?" said Germain, a little disturbed.
"No, not ugly, for you will have other children by her, and there's nothing so sad as to have ugly, puny, unhealthy children. But a woman still in her prime, in good health and neither ugly nor pretty, would do your business nicely."
"It is easy to see," said Germain, smiling rather sadly, "that to get such a one as you want we must have her made to order; especially as you don't want her to be poor, and rich wives aren't easy to get, especially for a widower."
"Suppose she was a widow herself, Germain? what do you say to a widow without children, and a snug little property?"
"I don't know of any just now in our parish."
"Nor do I, but there are other places."
"You have some one in view, father; so tell me at once who it is."
GERMAIN, THE CUNNING PLOUGHMAN
"Yes, I have some one in view," replied Pere Maurice. "It's one Leonard, widow of one Guerin, who lives at Fourche."
"I don't know the woman or the place," replied Germain, resigned, but becoming more and more depressed.
"Her name is Catherine, like your deceased wife's."
"Catherine? Yes, I shall enjoy having to say that name: Catherine! And yet, if I can't love her as well as I loved the other, it will cause me more pain than pleasure, for it will remind me of her too often."
"I tell you that you will love her: she's a good creature, a woman with a big heart; I haven't seen her for a long time, she wasn't a bad-looking girl then; but she is no longer young, she is thirty-two. She belongs to a good family, all fine people, and she has eight or ten thousand francs in land which she would be glad to sell, and buy other land where she goes to live; for she, too, is thinking of marrying again, and I know that, if her disposition should suit you, she wouldn't think you a bad match."
"So you have arranged it all?"
"Yes, subject to the judgment of you two; and that is what you must ask each other after you are acquainted. The woman's father is a distant relation of mine and has been a very close friend. You know him, don't you—Pere Leonard?"
"Yes, I have seen him talking with you at the fairs, and at the last one you breakfasted together: is this what you were talking about at such length?"
"To be sure; he watched you selling your cattle and thought you did the business very well, that you were a fine-appearing fellow, that you seemed active and shrewd; and when I told him all that you are and how well you have behaved to us during the eight years we've lived and worked together, without ever an angry or discontented word, he took it into his head that you must marry his daughter; and the plan suits me, too, I confess, considering the good reputation she has, the integrity of her family, and what I know about their circumstances."
"I see, Pere Maurice, that you think a little about worldly goods."
"Of course I think about them. Don't you?"
"I will think about them, if you choose, to please you; but you know that, for my part, I never trouble myself about what is or is not coming to me in our profits. I don't understand about making a division, and my head isn't good for such things. I know about the land and cattle and horses and seed and fodder and threshing. As for sheep and vines and gardening, the niceties of farming, and small profits, all that, you know, is your son's business, and I don't interfere much in it. As for money, my memory is short, and I prefer to yield everything rather than dispute about thine and mine. I should be afraid of making a mistake and claiming what is not due me, and if matters were not simple and clear, I should never find my way through them."
"So much the worse, my son, and that's why I would like you to have a wife with brains to take my place when I am no longer here. You have never been willing to look into our accounts, and that might make trouble between you and my son, when you don't have me to keep the peace between you and tell you what is coming to each of you."
"May you live many years, Pere Maurice! But don't you worry about what will happen when you are gone; I shall never dispute with your son. I trust Jacques as I trust myself, and as I have no property of my own, as everything that can possibly come to me, comes to me as your daughter's husband and belongs to our children, I can be easy in my mind and so can you; Jacques would never try to defraud his sister's children for his own, as he loves them almost equally."
"You are right in that, Germain. Jacques is a good son, a good brother, and a man who loves the truth. But Jacques may die before you, before your children are grown up, and one must always have a care not to leave minors without a head to give them good advice and arrange their differences. Otherwise the lawyers interfere, set them at odds with each other, and make them eat everything up in lawsuits. So we ought not to think of bringing another person into our house, man or woman, without saying to ourselves that that person may some day have to direct the conduct and manage the business of thirty or more children, grandchildren, sons-in-law, and daughters-in-law. No one knows how much a family may grow, and when the hive is too full and the time has come to swarm, every one thinks about carrying off his honey. When I took you for my son-in-law, although my daughter was rich and you poor, I never reproached her for choosing you. I saw you were a good worker, and I knew well that the best sort of riches for country people like us is a good pair of arms and a heart like yours. When a man brings those things into a family, he brings enough. But it's different with a woman: her work in the house is to keep, not to get. Besides, now that you are a father and are looking for a wife, you must remember that your new children, having no sort of claim on the inheritance of your first wife's children, would be left in want if you should die, unless your wife had some property of her own. And then, it would cost something to feed the children you are going to add to our little colony. If that should fall on us alone, we would take care of them, never fear, and without complaining; but everybody's comfort would be diminished, and the first children would have to take their share of the privations. When families increase beyond measure, and their means do not increase in proportion, then want comes, however bravely we may struggle against it. This is all I have to say, Germain; think it over, and try to make yourself agreeable to Widow Guerin; for her good management and her crowns will bring us aid for the present and peace of mind for the future."
"Very good, father. I will try to like her and make her like me."
"To do that you must go to see her."
"At her home? At Fourche? That's a long way, isn't it? and we don't have much time to run about at this season."
"When a marriage for love is on the carpet, you must expect to waste time; but when it's a marriage of convenience between two people who have no whims and who know what they want, it's soon arranged. Tomorrow will be Saturday; you can shorten your day's ploughing a bit and start about two o'clock, after dinner; you will be at Fourche by night; there's a good moon just now, the roads are excellent, and it isn't more than three leagues. Fourche is near Magnier. Besides, you can take the mare."
"I should rather go afoot in this cool weather."
"True, but the mare's a fine beast, and a suitor makes a better appearance if he comes well mounted. You must wear your new clothes and carry a nice present of game to Pere Leonard. You will say that you come with a message from me, you will talk with him, you will pass the Sunday with his daughter, and you will return with a yes or a no on Monday morning."
"Very good," replied Germain calmly, and yet he was not altogether calm.
Germain had always lived a virtuous life, as hard-working peasants do. Married at twenty, he had loved but one woman in his life, and since he had become a widower, although he was naturally impulsive and vivacious, he had never laughed and dallied with any other. He had faithfully cherished a genuine regret in his heart, and he did not yield to his father-in-law without a feeling of dread and melancholy; but the father-in-law had always managed his family judiciously, and Germain, who had devoted himself unreservedly to the common work, and consequently to him who personified it, the father of the family,—Germain did not understand the possibility of rebelling against sound arguments, against the common interest of all.
Nevertheless, he was sad. Few days passed that he did not weep for his wife in secret, and, although solitude was beginning to weigh upon him, he was more terrified at the thought of forming a new union, than desirous to escape from his grief. He said to himself vaguely that love might have consoled him if it had taken him by surprise, for love does not console otherwise. One cannot find it by seeking it; it comes to us when we do not expect it. This project of marriage, conceived in cold blood, which Pere Maurice laid before him, the unknown fiancee, and, perhaps, even all the good things that were said of her common-sense and her virtue, gave him food for thought. And he went his way, musing as a man muses who has not enough ideas to fight among themselves; that is to say, not formulating in his mind convincing reasons for selfish resistance, but conscious of a dull pain, and not struggling against an evil which it was necessary to accept.
Meanwhile, Pere Maurice had returned to the farm-house, while Germain employed the last hour of daylight, between sunset and darkness, in mending the breaches made by the sheep in the hedge surrounding a vineyard near the farm buildings. He raised the stalks of the bushes, and supported them with clods of earth, while the thrushes chattered in the neighboring thicket, and seemed to call to him to make haste, they were so curious to come to examine his work as soon as he had gone.
Pere Maurice found in the house an elderly neighbor, who had come to have a chat with his wife, and borrow some embers to light her fire. Mere Guillette lived in a wretched hovel within two gunshots of the farm. But she was a decent woman and a woman of strong will. Her poor house was neat and clean, and her carefully patched clothes denoted proper self-respect with all her poverty.
"You came to get some fire for the night, eh, Mere Guillette?" said the old man. "Is there anything else you would like?"
"No, Pere Maurice," she replied; "nothing just now. I'm no beggar, you know, and I don't abuse my friends' kindness."
"That's the truth; and so your friends are always ready to do you a service."
"I was just talking with your wife, and I was asking her if Germain had at last made up his mind to marry again."
"You're no gossip," replied Pere Maurice, "and one can speak before you without fear of people talking; so I will tell my wife and you that Germain has really made up his mind; he starts to-morrow for Fourche."
"Bless me!" exclaimed Mere Maurice; "the poor fellow! God grant that he may find a wife as good and honest as himself!"
"Ah! he is going to Fourche?" observed La Guillette. "Just see how things turn out! that helps me very much, and as you asked me just now, Pere Maurice, if there was anything I wanted, I'll tell you what you can do to oblige me."
"Tell us, tell us, we shall be glad to oblige."
"I would like to have Germain take the trouble to take my daughter with him."
"Where? to Fourche?"
"Not to Fourche, but to Ormeaux, where she is going to stay the rest of the year."
"What!" said Mere Maurice, "are you going to part from your daughter?"
"She has got to go out to service and earn something. It comes hard enough to me and to her, too, poor soul! We couldn't make up our minds to part at midsummer; but now Martinmas is coming, and she has found a good place as shepherdess on the farms at Ormeaux. The farmer passed through here the other day on his way back from the fair. He saw my little Marie watching her three sheep on the common land.—'You don't seem very busy, my little maid,' he said; 'and three sheep are hardly enough for a shepherd. Would you like to keep a hundred? I'll take you with me. The shepherdess at our place has been taken sick and she's going back to her people, and if you'll come to us within a week, you shall have fifty francs for the rest of the year, up to midsummer.'—The child refused, but she couldn't help thinking about it and telling me when she came home at night and found me sad and perplexed about getting through the winter, which is sure to be hard and long, for we saw the cranes and wild geese fly south this year a full month earlier than usual. We both cried; but at last we took courage. We said to each other that we couldn't stay together, because there's hardly enough to keep one person alive on our little handful of land; and then Marie's getting old—here she is nearly sixteen—and she must do as others do, earn her bread and help her poor mother."
"Mere Guillette," said the old ploughman, "if fifty francs was all that was needed to put an end to your troubles and make it unnecessary for you to send your daughter away, why, I would help you to find them, although fifty francs begins to mean something to people like us. But we must consult good sense as well as friendship in everything. If you were saved from want for this winter, you wouldn't be safe from future want, and the longer your daughter postpones taking the step, the harder it will be for you and for her to part. Little Marie is getting to be tall and strong, and she has nothing to do at home. She might fall into lazy habits—"
"Oh! as far as that goes, I'm not afraid," said Mere Guillette. "Marie's as brave as a rich girl at the head of a big establishment could be. She doesn't sit still a minute with her arms folded, and when we haven't any work, she cleans and rubs our poor furniture and makes every piece shine like a looking-glass. She's a child that's worth her weight in gold, and I'd have liked it much better to have her come to you as a shepherdess instead of going so far away among people I don't know. You'd have taken her at midsummer if we could have made up our minds; but now you've hired all your help, and we can't think of it again until midsummer next year."
"Oh! I agree with all my heart, Guillette! I shall be very glad to do it. But, meanwhile, she will do well to learn a trade and get used to working for others."
"Yes, of course; the die is cast. The farmer at Ormeaux sent for her this morning; we said yes, and she must go. But the poor child doesn't know the way, and I shouldn't like to send her so far all alone. As your son-in-law is going to Fourche to-morrow, he can just as well take her. It seems that it's very near the farm she's going to, according to what they tell me; for I have never been there myself."
"They're right side by side, and my son-in-law will take her. That's as it should be; indeed, he can take her behind him on the mare, and that will save her shoes. Here he is, coming in to supper. I say, Germain, Mere Guillette's little Marie is going to Ormeaux as shepherdess. You'll take her on your horse, won't you?"
"Very well," said Germain, who was preoccupied, but always ready to do his neighbor a service.
In our world, it would never occur to a mother to entrust a daughter of sixteen to a man of twenty-eight! for Germain was really only twenty-eight, and although, according to the ideas of his province, he was considered an old man so far as marriage was concerned, he was still the handsomest man in the neighborhood. Work had not furrowed and wrinkled his face, as is the case with most peasants who have ten years of ploughing behind them. He was strong enough to plough ten more years without looking old, and the prejudice of age must have been very strong in a young girl's mind to prevent her remarking that Germain had a fresh complexion, a bright eye, blue as the heavens in May, ruddy lips, superb teeth, and a body as graceful and supple as that of a colt that has never left the pasture.
But chastity is a sacred tradition in certain country districts, far removed from the corrupt animation of large cities, and Maurice's family was noted among all the families of Belair for uprightness, and fidelity to the truth. Germain was going in search of a wife; Marie was too young and too pure for him to think of her in that light, and, unless he was a heartless, bad man, it was impossible that he should have a guilty thought in connection with her. Pere Maurice was in no way disturbed, therefore, to see him take the pretty girl en croupe; La Guillette would have considered that she was insulting him if she had requested him to respect her as his sister. Marie mounted the mare, weeping bitterly, after she had kissed her mother and her young friends twenty times over. Germain, who was also in a melancholy mood, had the more sympathy with her grief, and rode away with a grave face, while the neighbors waved their hands in farewell to poor Marie, with no thought of evil to come.
Grise was young and strong and handsome. She carried her double load easily, putting back her ears and champing her bit like the proud, high-spirited mare she was. As they rode by the long pasture, she spied her mother—who was called Old Grise, as she was called Young Grise—and neighed an adieu. Old Grise approached the fence, making her hopples ring, tried to leap over into the road to follow her daughter; then, seeing that she started off at a fast trot, she neighed in her turn, and stood looking after her, pensive and disturbed in mind, with her nose in the air, and her mouth filled with grass which she forgot to eat.
"The poor creature still knows her progeny," said Germain to divert little Marie's thoughts from her grief. "That makes me think that I didn't kiss my Petit-Pierre before I started. The bad boy wasn't there. Last night, he strove to make me promise to take him along, and he cried a good hour in his bed. This morning again he tried everything to persuade me. Oh! what a shrewd, wheedling little rascal he is! but when he saw that it couldn't be, monsieur lost his temper: he went off into the fields, and I haven't seen him all day."
"I saw him," said Marie, trying to force back her tears. "He was running toward the woods with the Soulas children, and I thought it likely he had been away for some time, for he was hungry, and was eating wild plums and blackberries off the bushes. I gave him some bread from my luncheon, and he said: 'Thanks, my dear little Marie; when you come to our house, I'll give you some cake.' The little fellow is just too winning, Germain!"
"Yes, he is a winning child, and I don't know what I wouldn't do for him," the ploughman replied. "If his grandmother hadn't had more sense than I, I couldn't have kept from taking him with me when I saw him crying so hard that his poor little heart was all swollen."
"Well! why didn't you bring him, Germain? he wouldn't have been in the way; he's so good when you do what he wants you to."
"It seems that he would have been in the way where I am going. At least, that was Pere Maurice's opinion.—For my part, I should have said, on the contrary, that we ought to see how he would be received, and that nobody could help taking kindly to such a dear child.—But they say at the house that I mustn't begin by exhibiting the burdens of the household.—I don't know why I talk to you about this, little Marie: you don't understand it."
"Yes, I do, Germain; I know you are going to get a wife; my mother told me, and bade me not mention it to any one, either at home or where I am going, and you needn't be afraid: I won't say a word."
"You will do well, for it isn't settled; perhaps I shan't suit the lady in question."
"We must hope you will, Germain. Pray, why shouldn't you suit her?"
"Who knows? I have three children, and that's a heavy load for a woman who isn't their mother!"
"That's true; but your children aren't like other children."
"Do you think so?"
"They are as beautiful as little angels, and so well brought up that you can't find more lovable children anywhere."
"There's Sylvain, he's not over good."
"He's very small! he can't be anything but terrible; but he's so bright!"
"True, he is bright: and such courage! he isn't a bit afraid of cows or bulls, and if I would permit him, he'd be climbing up on the horses with his older brother."
"If I had been in your place, I'd have brought the older one. Your having such a beautiful child would surely make her love you on the spot!"
"Yes, if the woman is fond of children; but suppose she doesn't like them?"
"Are there women who don't like children?"
"Not many, I think; but there are some, and that is what worries me."
"Then you don't know this woman at all?"
"No more than you do, and I am afraid I shall not know her any better after I have seen her. I am not suspicious. When any one says pleasant words to me, I believe them; but I have had reason to repent more than once, for words are not deeds."
"They say she's a fine woman."
"Who says so? Pere Maurice?"
"Yes, your father-in-law."
"That's all right; but he doesn't know her, either."
"Well, you will soon see her; you will be very careful, and it's to be hoped you won't make any mistake, Germain."
"Look you, little Marie, I should be very glad if you would go into the house for a little while before going on to Ormeaux: you're a shrewd girl, you have always shown that you have a keen mind, and you notice everything. If you see anything that makes you think, you can quietly tell me about it."
"Oh! no, Germain, I wouldn't do that! I should be too much afraid of being mistaken; and, besides, if a word spoken thoughtlessly should disgust you with this marriage, your people would blame me for it, and I have enough troubles without bringing fresh ones on my poor dear mother's head."
As they were talking thus, Grise pricked up her ears and shied, then retraced her steps and approached the hedge, where there was something which had frightened her at first, but which she now began to recognize. Germain looked at the hedge and saw something that he took for a lamb in the ditch, under the branches of an oak still thick and green.
"It's a stray lamb," he said, "or a dead one, for it doesn't move. Perhaps some one is looking for it; we must see."
"It isn't a lamb," cried little Marie; "it's a child asleep; it's your Petit-Pierre."
"Upon my word!" exclaimed Germain, dismounting; "just see the little imp lying there asleep, so far from home, and in a ditch, where a snake might find him!"
He raised the child, who opened his eyes and smiled at him, saying, as he threw his arms around his neck:
"Little father, you're going to take me with you!"
"Oh, yes! still the same song! what were you doing there, naughty Pierre?"
"I was waiting for my little father to pass; I was looking out on the road, and I looked so hard I went to sleep."
"And if I had passed without seeing you, you would have stayed out all night and the wolf would have eaten you!"
"Oh! I knew you'd see me!" rejoined Petit-Pierre confidently.
"Well, kiss me now, Pierre, bid me good-by, and run back to the house if you don't want them to have supper without you."
"Why, ain't you going to take me with you?" cried the child, beginning to rub his eyes to show that he proposed to weep.
"You know grandpa and grandma don't approve of it," said Germain, taking refuge behind the authority of the old people, like one who places but slight reliance on his own.
But the child heard nothing. He began to cry in good earnest, saying that as long as his father took little Marie, he could take him too. He was told that they would have to go through great forests, that there were many wicked animals there that ate little children, that Grise would not carry three, that she said so when they started, and that in the country they were going to there was no bed or supper for little monkeys. All these excellent reasons did not convince Petit-Pierre; he threw himself on the grass and rolled about, crying that his father did not love him, and that, if he refused to take him with him, he would not go back to the house day or night.
Germain's fatherly heart was as soft and weak as a woman's. His wife's death, the care he had been compelled to bestow upon his little ones, together with the thought that the poor motherless children needed to be dearly loved, had combined to make it so, and such a hard struggle took place within him, especially as he was ashamed of his weakness, and tried to conceal his distress from little Marie, that the perspiration stood out on his forehead and his eyes were bordered with red as if they, too, were all ready to shed tears. Finally, he tried to be angry; but as he turned to little Marie, as if to call her to witness his firmness of will, he saw that the dear girl's face was bathed in tears, and, all his courage deserting him, it was impossible for him to keep back his own, although he continued to scold and threaten.
"Really, your heart is too hard," said little Marie at last, "and for my part, I could never hold out like that against a child who is so unhappy. Come, Germain, take him along. Your mare is used to carrying two grown people and a child, for your brother-in-law and his wife, who is much heavier than I am, go to market every Saturday, with their boy, on the honest creature's back. You can put him up in front of you; indeed, I'd rather go all alone on foot than make the little fellow suffer so."
"Don't be disturbed about that," said Germain, who was dying with anxiety to be persuaded. "Grise is strong, and would carry two more if there was room on her backbone. But what shall we do with the child on the way? he will be cold and hungry—and who will look after him to-night and to-morrow, put him to bed, wash him and dress him? I don't dare put that trouble on a woman whom I don't know, and who will think, I have no doubt, that I stand very little on ceremony with her for a beginning."
"According to the good-will or annoyance she shows, you will be able to judge her at once, Germain, believe me; and at all events, if she doesn't take to your Pierre, I will take charge of him. I will go to her house to dress him, and I'll take him into the fields to-morrow. I'll amuse him all day, and see that he has all he needs."
"And he'll tire you out, my poor girl! He'll be a burden to you! a whole day—that's a long while!"
"On the contrary, I shall enjoy it; he will be company for me, and make me less unhappy the first day I shall have to pass in a new country. I shall fancy I am still at home."
The child, seeing that little Marie was taking his part, had clung to her skirt and held it so tight that she would have had to hurt him to take it away. When he saw that his father was yielding, he took Marie's hand in both his little sunburned ones and kissed it, leaping for joy, and pulling her toward the mare with the burning impatience that children show in all their desires.
"Well, well," said the girl, taking him in her arms, "we must try to soothe this poor heart that is jumping like a little bird's, and if you feel cold when night comes, my Pierre, just tell me, and I'll wrap you in my cloak. Kiss your little father, and ask him to forgive you for being such a bad boy. Tell him that it shall never happen again! never, do you hear?"
"Yes, yes, on condition that I always do what he wants me to, eh?" said Germain, wiping the little fellow's eyes with his handkerchief. "Ah! Marie, you will spoil the rascal for me!—And really, little Marie, you're too good. I don't know why you didn't come to us as shepherdess last midsummer. You could have taken care of my children, and I would rather have paid you a good price for waiting on them than go in search of a wife who will be very likely to think that she's doing me a great favor by not detesting them."
"You mustn't look on the dark side of things like that," replied little Marie, holding the rein while Germain placed his son on the front of the heavy goat-skin-covered saddle; "if your wife doesn't like children, you can hire me next year, and I'll amuse them so well that they won't notice anything, never you fear."
ON THE MOOR
"By the way," said Germain, when they had ridden on a short distance, "what will they think at home when this little man doesn't appear? The old people will be anxious, and they will scour the country for him."
"You can tell the man working on the road yonder that you have taken him with you, and send him back to tell your people."
"True, Marie, you think of everything! It didn't even occur to me that Jeannie would be in this neighborhood."
"He lives close to the farm, too: he won't fail to do your errand."
When they had taken that precaution, Germain started the mare off at a trot, and Petit Pierre was so overjoyed that he did not notice at first that he had not dined; but as the rapid movement of the horse dug a pit in his stomach, he began, after a league or more, to yawn and turn pale, and at last confessed that he was dying of hunger.
"Now he's beginning," said Germain. "I knew that we shouldn't go far before monsieur would cry from hunger or thirst."
"I'm thirsty, too!" said Petit-Pierre.
"Well, we will go to Mere Rebec's wine-shop at Corlay, at the sign of the Break of Day. A fine sign, but a poor inn! Come, Marie, you will drink a finger of wine too."
"No, no, I don't need anything," she said, "I'll hold the mare while you go in with the little one."
"But now I think of it, my dear girl, you gave the bread you had for your luncheon to my Pierre, and you haven't had anything to eat; you refused to dine with us at the house, and did nothing but weep."
"Oh! I wasn't hungry, I was too sad! and I promise you that I haven't the slightest desire to eat now."
"We must force you to, little one; otherwise you'll be sick. We have a long way to go, and we mustn't arrive there half-starved, and ask for bread before we say good-day. I propose to set you the example, although I'm not very hungry; but I shall make out to eat, considering that I didn't dine very well, either. I saw you and your mother weeping, and it made my heart sick. Come, come, I will tie Grise at the door; get down, I insist upon it."
All three entered Mere Rebec's establishment, and in less than a quarter of an hour the stout, limping hostess succeeded in serving them an omelet of respectable appearance with brown-bread and light wine.
Peasants do not eat quickly, and Petit-Pierre had such an enormous appetite that nearly an hour passed before Germain could think of renewing their journey. Little Marie ate to oblige at first; then her appetite came, little by little; for at sixteen one cannot fast long, and the country air is an imperious master. The kind words Germain said to her to comfort her and give her courage also produced their effect; she made an effort to persuade herself that seven months would soon be passed, and to think how happy she would be to be at home once more, in her own village, since Pere Maurice and Germain were agreed in promising to take her into their service. But as she was beginning to brighten up and play with Petit-Pierre, Germain conceived the unfortunate idea of telling her to look out through the wine-shop window at the lovely view of the valley, which they could see throughout its whole length from that elevation, laughing and verdant and fertile. Marie looked, and asked if they could see the houses at Belair from there.
"To be sure," replied Germain, "and the farm, and your house too. Look, that little gray speck, not far from the great poplar at Godard, just below the church-spire."
"Ah! I see it," said the girl; and thereupon she began to weep again.
"I did wrong to remind you of that," said Germain, "I keep doing foolish things to-day! Come, Marie, my girl, let's be off; the days are short, and when the moon comes up, an hour from now, it won't be warm."
They resumed their journey, and rode across the great heath, and as Germain did not urge the mare, in order not to fatigue the girl and the child by a too rapid gait, the sun had set when they left the road to enter the woods.
Germain knew the road as far as Magnier; but he thought that he could shorten it by not taking the avenue of Chanteloube, but going by Presles and La Sepulture, a route which he was not in the habit of taking when he went to the fair. He went astray and lost a little more time before entering the woods; even then he did not enter at the right place, and failed to discover his mistake, so that he turned his back to Fourche and headed much farther up, in the direction of Ardentes.
He was prevented then from taking his bearings by a mist which came with the darkness, one of those autumn evening mists which the white moonlight makes more vague and more deceptive. The great pools of water which abound in the clearings exhaled such dense vapor that when Grise passed through them, they only knew it by the splashing of her feet and the difficulty she had in pulling them out of the mud.
When they finally found a straight, level path, and had ridden to the end of it, Germain, upon endeavoring to ascertain where he was, realized that he was lost; for Pere Maurice, in describing the road, had told him that, on leaving the woods, he would have to descend a very steep hill, cross a very large meadow, and ford the river twice. He had advised him to be cautious about riding into the river, because there had been heavy rains at the beginning of the season, and the water might be a little high. Seeing no steep hill, no meadow, no river, but the level moor, white as a sheet of snow, Germain drew rein, looked about for a house, waited for some one to pass, but saw nothing to give him any information. Thereupon he retraced his steps, and rode back into the woods. But the mist grew denser, the moon was altogether hidden, the roads were very bad, the ruts deep. Twice Grise nearly fell; laden as she was, she lost courage, and although she retained sufficient discernment to avoid running against trees, she could not prevent her riders from having to deal with huge branches which barred the road at the level of their heads and put them in great danger. Germain lost his hat in one of these encounters, and had great difficulty in finding it. Petit-Pierre had fallen asleep, and, lying back like a log, so embarrassed his father's arms that he could not hold the mare up or guide her.
"I believe we're bewitched," said Germain, drawing rein once more: "for these woods aren't big enough for a man to lose himself in unless he's drunk, and here we have been riding round and round for two hours, unable to get out of them. Grise has only one idea in her head, and that is to go back to the house, and she was the one that made me go astray. If we want to go home, we have only to give her her head. But when we may be within two steps of the place where we are to spend the night, we should be mad to give up finding it, and begin such a long ride over again. But I don't know what to do. I can't see either the sky or the ground, and I am afraid this child will take the fever if we stay in this infernal fog, or be crushed by our weight if the horse should fall forward."
"We mustn't persist in riding any farther," said little Marie. "Let's get down, Germain; give me the child; I can carry him very well, and keep him covered up with the cloak better than you can. You can lead the mare, and perhaps we shall see better when we're nearer the ground."
That expedient succeeded only so far as to save them from a fall, for the fog crawled along the damp earth and seemed to cling to it. It was very hard walking, and they were so exhausted by it that they stopped when they at last found a dry place under some great oaks. Little Marie was drenched, but she did not complain or seem disturbed. Thinking only of the child, she sat down in the sand and took him on her knees, while Germain explored the neighborhood after throwing Grise's rein over the branch of a tree.
But Grise, who was thoroughly disgusted with the journey, jumped back, released the reins, broke the girths, and, kicking up her heels higher than her head some half-dozen times, by way of salutation, started off through the brush, showing very plainly that she needed no one's assistance in finding her way.
"Well, well," said Germain, after he had tried in vain to catch her, "here we are on foot, and it would do us no good if we should find the right road, for we should have to cross the river on foot; and when we see how full of water these roads are, we can be sure that the meadow is under water. We don't know the other fords. So we must wait till the mist rises; it can't last more than an hour or two. When we can see, we will look for a house, the first one we can find on the edge of the wood; but at present we can't stir from here; there's a ditch and a pond and I don't know what not in front of us; and I couldn't undertake to say what there is behind us, for I don't know which way we came."
UNDER THE GREAT OAKS
"Oh! well, Germain, we must be patient," said little Marie. "We are not badly off on this little knoll. The rain doesn't come through the leaves of these great oaks, for I can feel some old broken branches that are dry enough to burn. You have flint and steel, Germain? You were smoking your pipe just now."
"I had them. My steel was in the bag on the saddle with the game I was carrying to my intended; but the cursed mare carried off everything, even my cloak, which she will lose or tear on all the branches." "Oh! no, Germain; the saddle and cloak and bag are all there on the ground, by your feet. Grise broke the girths and threw everything off when she left."
"Great God, that's so!" said the ploughman; "and if we can feel round and find a little dead wood, we can succeed in drying and warming ourselves."
"That's not hard to do," said little Marie; "the dead wood cracks under your feet wherever you step; but give me the saddle first."
"What are you going to do with it?"
"Make a bed for the little one: no, not like that; upside-down, so he won't roll out; and it's still warm from the mare's back. Prop it up on each side with those stones you see there."
"I don't see them! Your eyes are like a cat's, aren't they?"
"There! now that's done, Germain! Give me your cloak to wrap up his little feet, and I'll put mine over his body. Look! isn't he as comfortable there as he would be in his bed? and feel how warm he is!"
"Yes, indeed! you know how to take care of children, Marie!"
"That doesn't take much magic. Now look for your steel in your bag, and I'll fix the wood."
"That wood will never light, it's too damp."
"You doubt everything, Germain! Why, can't you remember taking care of sheep and making big fires in the fields when it was raining hard?"
"Yes, that's a knack that children who tend sheep have; but I've been an ox-driver ever since I knew how to walk."
"That's how you came to be stronger in your arms than clever with your hands. There's your fire all built; now you'll see if it won't burn! Give me the fire and a few dry ferns. Good! now blow; you're not weak-lunged, are you?"
"Not that I know of," said Germain, blowing like a forge-bellows. In a moment, the flame shot up, cast a red light at first, and finally rose in bluish flashes under the branches of the oaks, struggling with the mist, and gradually drying the atmosphere for ten feet around.
"Now, I'll sit down beside the little one and see that no sparks fall on him," said the girl. "You must throw on wood and keep the fire bright, Germain! we shall not catch cold or the fever here, I promise you."
"Faith, you're a smart girl," said Germain, "and you can make a fire like a little witch. I feel like a new man, and my courage is coming back to me; for, with my legs wet to the knees, and the prospect of staying here till daybreak in that condition, I was in a very bad humor just now."
"And when one is in a bad humor, one never thinks of anything," rejoined little Marie.
"And are you never in a bad humor, pray?"
"Oh! no, never! What's the use?"
"Why, it's of no use, that's certain; but how can you help it, when you have things to annoy you? God knows that you have plenty of them, poor child; for you haven't always been happy!"
"True, my poor mother and I have suffered. We have been unhappy, but we never lost courage."
"I wouldn't lose courage for any work that ever was," said Germain; "but poverty would grieve me, for I have never lacked anything. My wife made me rich, and I am rich still; I shall be as long as I work at the farm: that will be always, I hope; but every one has his own troubles! I have suffered in another way."
"Yes, you lost your wife, and it was a great pity!"
"Oh! I cried bitterly for her, Germain, I tell you! for she was so kind! But let's not talk about her any more or I shall cry again; all my sorrows seem to be coming back to me to-day."
"Indeed, she loved you dearly, little Marie; she thought a deal of you and your mother. What! you are crying! Come, come, my girl, I don't want to cry, you know—"
"But you are crying, Germain! You are crying, too! Why should a man be ashamed to cry for his wife? Cry on, don't mind me! I share that grief with you!"
"You have a kind heart, Marie, and it does me good to weep with you. But put your feet near the fire; your skirts are all damp, too, poor little girl! Let me take your place by the child, and do you warm yourself better than that."
"I'm warm enough," said Marie; "if you want to sit down, take a corner of the cloak; I am very comfortable."
"To tell the truth, we're not badly off here," said Germain, seating himself close beside her. "The only thing that troubles me now is hunger. It must be nine o'clock, and I had such hard work walking in those wretched roads, that I feel all fagged out. Aren't you hungry, too, Marie?"
"I? Not at all. I'm not used to four meals a day as you are, and I have been to bed without supper so many times, that once more doesn't worry me much."
"Well, a wife like you is a great convenience; she doesn't cost much," said Germain, with a smile.
"I am not a wife," said Marie artlessly, not perceiving the turn the ploughman's ideas were taking. "Are you dreaming?"
"Yes, I believe I am dreaming," was Germain's reply; "perhaps it's hunger that makes my mind wander."
"What a gourmand you must be!" she rejoined, brightening up a little in her turn; "well, if you can't live five or six hours without eating, haven't you some game in your bag, and fire to cook it with?"
"The devil! that's a good idea! but what about the gift to my future father-in-law?"
"You have six partridges and a hare! I don't believe you need all that to satisfy your hunger, do you?"
"But if we undertake to cook it here, without a spit or fire-dogs, we shall burn it to a cinder!"
"Oh! no," said little Marie; "I'll agree to cook it for you in the ashes so it won't smell of smoke. Didn't you ever catch larks in the fields, and haven't you cooked them between two stones? Ah! true! I forget that you never tended sheep! Come, pluck that partridge! Not so hard! you'll pull off the skin!"
"You might pluck another one to show me how!"
"What! do you propose to eat two? What an ogre! Well, there they are all plucked, and now I'll cook them."
"You would make a perfect cantiniere, little Marie; but unluckily you haven't any canteen, and I shall be reduced to drink water from this pool."
"You'd like some wine, wouldn't you? Perhaps you need coffee, too? you imagine you're at the fair under the arbor! Call the landlord: liquor for the cunning ploughman of Belair!"
"Ah! bad girl, you're laughing at me, are you? You wouldn't drink some wine, I suppose, if you had some?"
"I? I drank with you to-night at La Rebec's for the second time in my life; but if you'll be very good, I will give you a bottle almost full, and of good wine too!"
"What, Marie, are you really a magician?"
"Weren't you foolish enough to order two bottles of wine at La Rebec's? You drank one with the boy, and I took barely three drops out of the one you put before me. But you paid for both of them without looking to see."
"Well, I put the one you didn't drink in my basket, thinking that you or the little one might be thirsty on the way; and here it is."
"You are the most thoughtful girl I ever saw. Well, well! the poor child was crying when we left the inn, but that didn't prevent her from thinking more of others than herself! Little Marie, the man who marries you will be no fool."
"I hope not, for I shouldn't like a fool. Come, eat your partridges, they are cooked to a turn; and, having no bread, you must be satisfied with chestnuts."
"And where the devil did you get chestnuts?"
"That's wonderful, certainly! why, all along the road, I picked them from the branches as we passed, and filled my pockets with them."
"Are they cooked, too?"
"What good would my wits do me if I hadn't put some chestnuts in the fire as soon as it was lighted? We always do that in the fields."
"Now, little Marie, we will have supper together! I want to drink your health and wish you a good husband—as good as you would wish yourself. Tell me what you think about it!"
"I should have hard work, Germain, for I never yet gave it a thought."
"What! not at all? never?" said Germain, falling to with a ploughman's appetite, but cutting off the best pieces to offer his companion, who obstinately refused them, and contented herself with a few chestnuts. "Tell me, little Marie," he continued, seeing that she did not propose to reply, "haven't you ever thought about marrying? you're old enough, though!"
"Perhaps I am," she said; "but I am too poor. You need at least a hundred crowns to begin housekeeping, and I shall have to work five or six years to save that much."
"Poor girl! I wish Pere Maurice would let me have a hundred crowns to give you."
"Thank you very much, Germain. What do you suppose people would say about me?"
"What could they say? everybody knows that I'm an old man and can't marry you. So they wouldn't imagine that I—that you—"
"Look, ploughman! here's your son waking up," said little Marie.
THE EVENING PRAYER
Petit-Pierre had sat up, and was looking all about with a thoughtful expression.
"Ah! the rascal never does anything else when he hears anybody eating!" said Germain; "a cannon-shot wouldn't wake him, but move your jaws in his neighborhood, and he opens his eyes at once."
"You must have been like that at his age," said little Marie, with a mischievous smile. "Well, my little Pierre, are you looking for the top of your cradle? It's made of green leaves to-night, my child; but your father's having his supper, all the same. Do you want to sup with him? I haven't eaten your share; I thought you would probably claim it!"
"Marie, I insist on your eating," cried the ploughman; "I shan't eat any more. I am a glutton, a boor; you go without on our account, and it's not right; I'm ashamed of myself. It takes away my appetite, I tell you; I won't let my son have any supper unless you take some."
"Let us alone," replied little Marie, "you haven't the key to our appetites. Mine is closed to-day, but your Pierre's is wide open, like a little wolf's. Just see how he goes at it! Oh! he'll be a sturdy ploughman, too!"
In truth, Petit-Pierre soon showed whose son he was, and, although he was hardly awake and did not understand where he was or how he came there, he began to devour. Then, when his hunger was appeased, being intensely excited as children generally are when their regular habits are interrupted, he exhibited more quick wit, more curiosity, and more shrewdness than usual. He made them tell him where he was, and when he learned that he was in the middle of a forest, he was a little afraid.
"Are there naughty beasts in this forest?" he asked his father.
"No, there are none at all," was the reply. "Don't be afraid."
"Then you lied when you told me that the wolves would carry me off if I went through the big forest with you?"
"Do you hear this reasoner?" said Germain in some embarrassment.
"He is right," replied little Marie, "you told him that; he has a good memory, and he remembers it. But you must understand, my little Pierre, that your father never lies. We passed the big forest while you were asleep, and now we're in the little forest, where there aren't any naughty beasts."
"Is the little forest very far from the big one?"
"Pretty far; and then the wolves never leave the big forest. Even if one should come here, your father would kill him."
"And would you kill him, too, little Marie?"
"We would all kill him, for you would help us, my Pierre, wouldn't you? You're not afraid, I know. You would hit him hard!"
"Yes, yes," said the child, proudly, assuming a heroic attitude, "we would kill 'em."
"There's no one like you for talking to children," said Germain to little Marie, "and for making them hear reason. To be sure, it isn't long since you were a child yourself, and you remember what your mother used to say to you. I believe that the younger one is, the better one understands the young. I am very much afraid that a woman of thirty, who doesn't know what it is to be a mother, will find it hard to learn to prattle and reason with young brats."
"Why so, Germain? I don't know why you have such a bad idea of this woman; you'll get over it!"
"To the devil with the woman!" said Germain. "I would like to go home and never come back here. What do I need of a woman I don't know!"
"Little father," said the child, "why do you keep talking about your wife to-day, when she is dead?"
"Alas! you haven't forgotten your poor dear mother, have you?"
"No, for I saw them put her in a pretty box of white wood, and my grandma took me to her to kiss her and bid her good-by!—She was all white and cold, and every night my aunt tells me to pray to the good Lord to let her get warm with Him in heaven. Do you think she's there now?"
"I hope so, my child; but you must keep on praying: that shows your mother that you love her."
"I am going to say my prayer," replied the child; "I did not think of saying it this evening. But I can't say it all by myself; I always forget something. Little Marie must help me."
"Yes, Pierre, I will help you," said the girl. "Come, kneel here by my side."
The child knelt on the girl's skirt, clasped his little hands, and began to repeat his prayer with interest and fervently at first, for he knew the beginning very well; then more slowly and hesitatingly, and at last repeating word for word what Marie dictated to him, when he reached that point in his petition beyond which he had never been able to learn, as he always fell asleep just there every night. On this occasion, the labor of paying attention and the monotony of his own tones produced their customary effect, so that he pronounced the last syllables only with great effort, and after they had been repeated three times; his head grew heavy, and fell against Marie's breast: his hands relaxed, separated, and fell open upon his knees. By the light of the camp-fire, Germain looked at his little angel nodding against the girl's heart, while she, holding him in her arms and warming his fair hair with her sweet breath, abandoned herself to devout reverie and prayed mentally for Catherine's soul.
Germain was deeply moved, and tried to think of something to say to little Marie to express the esteem and gratitude she inspired in him, but he could find nothing that would give voice to his thoughts. He approached her to kiss his son, whom she was still holding against her breast, and it was hard for him to remove his lips from Petit-Pierre's brow.
"You kiss him too hard," said Marie, gently pushing the ploughman's head away, "you will wake him. Let me put him to bed again, for he has gone back to his dreams of paradise."
The child let her put him down, but as he stretched himself out on the goat-skin of the saddle, he asked if he were on Grise. Then, opening his great blue eyes, and gazing at the branches for a moment, he seemed to be in a waking dream, or to be impressed by an idea that had come into his mind during the day and took shape at the approach of sleep. "Little father," he said, "if you're going to give me another mother, I want it to be little Marie."
And, without awaiting a reply, he closed his eyes and went to sleep.
DESPITE THE COLD
Little Marie seemed to pay no further heed to the child's strange words than to look upon them as a proof of friendship; she wrapped him up carefully, stirred the fire, and, as the mist lying upon the neighboring pool gave no sign of lifting, she advised Germain to lie down near the fire and have a nap.
"I see that you're almost asleep now," she said, "for you don't say a word, and you are staring at the fire just as your little one did just now. Come, go to sleep, and I will watch over you and the child."
"You're the one to go to sleep," replied the ploughman, "and I will watch both of you, for I never was less inclined to sleep; I have fifty ideas in my head."
"Fifty, that's a good many," said the maiden, with some suggestion of mockery in her tone; "there are so many people who would like to have one!"
"Well, if I am not capable of having fifty, at all events I have one that hasn't left me for an hour."
"And I'll tell you what it is, as well as the ones you had before it."
"Very good! tell me, if you can guess, Marie; tell me yourself, I shall like that."
"An hour ago," she retorted, "you had the idea of eating, and now you have the idea of sleeping."
"Marie, I am only an ox-driver at best, but really, you seem to take me for an ox. You're a bad girl, and I see that you don't want to talk with me. Go to sleep, that will be better than criticising a man who isn't in good spirits."
"If you want to talk, let us talk," said the girl, half-reclining beside the child and resting her head against the saddle. "You're determined to worry, Germain, and in that you don't show much courage for a man. What should I not say, if I didn't fight as hard as I can against my own grief?"
"What, indeed; and that is just what I have in my head, my poor child! You're going to live far away from your people in a wretched place, all moors and bogs, where you will catch the fever in autumn, where there's no profit in raising sheep for wool, which always vexes a shepherdess who is interested in her business; and then you will be among strangers who may not be kind to you, who won't understand what you are worth. Upon my word, it pains me more than I can tell you, and I have a mind to take you back to your mother, instead of going to Fourche."
"You speak very kindly, but without sense, my poor Germain; one shouldn't be cowardly for his friends, and instead of pointing out the dark side of my lot, you ought to show me the bright side, as you did when we dined at La Rebec's."
"What would you have? that's the way things looked to me then, and they look different now. You would do better to find a husband."
"That can't be, Germain, as I told you; and as it can't be, I don't think about it."
"But suppose you could find one, after all? Perhaps, if you would tell me what sort of a man you'd like him to be, I could succeed in thinking up some one."
"To think up some one is not to find him. I don't think about it at all, for it's of no use."
"You have never thought of finding a rich husband?"
"No, of course not, as I am poor as Job."
"But if he should be well off, you wouldn't be sorry to be well lodged, well fed, well dressed, and to belong to a family of good people who would allow you to help your mother along?"
"Oh! as to that, yes! to help my mother is my only wish."
"And if you should meet such a man, even if he wasn't in his first youth, you wouldn't object very much?"
"Oh! excuse me, Germain. That's just the thing I am particular about. I shouldn't like an old man."
"An old man, of course not; but a man of my age, for instance?"
"Your age is old for me, Germain; I should prefer Bastien so far as age goes, though Bastien isn't such a good-looking man as you."
"You would prefer Bastien the swineherd?" said Germain bitterly. "A fellow with eyes like the beasts he tends!"
"I would overlook his eyes for the sake of his eighteen years."
Germain had a horrible feeling of jealousy.—"Well, well," he said, "I see that your mind is set on Bastien. It's a queer idea, all the same!"
"Yes, it would be a queer idea," replied little Marie, laughing heartily, "and he would be a queer husband. You could make him believe whatever you chose. For instance, I picked up a tomato in monsieur le cure's garden the other day; I told him it was a fine red apple, and he bit into it like a glutton. If you had seen the wry face he made! Mon Dieu, how ugly he was!"
"You don't love him then, as you laugh at him?"
"That wouldn't be any reason. But I don't love him: he's cruel to his little sister, and he isn't clean."
"Very good! and you don't feel inclined toward anybody else?"
"What difference does it make to you, Germain?"
"No difference, it's just for something to talk about. I see, my girl, that you have a sweetheart in your head already."
"No, Germain, you're mistaken, I haven't one yet; it may come later: but as I shall not marry till I have saved up a little money, it will be my lot to marry late and to marry an old man."
"Well, then, take an old man now."
"No indeed! when I am no longer young myself, it will be all the same to me; now it would be different."
"I see, Marie, that you don't like me; that's very clear," said Germain angrily, and without weighing his words.
Little Marie did not reply. Germain leaned over her: she was asleep; she had fallen back, conquered, struck down, as it were, by drowsiness, like children who fall asleep while they are prattling.
Germain was well pleased that she had not heard his last words; he realized that they were unwise, and he turned his back upon her, trying to change the current of his thoughts.
But it was of no avail, he could not sleep, nor could he think of anything else than what he had just said. He walked around the fire twenty times, walked away and returned; at last, feeling as excited as if he had swallowed a mouthful of gunpowder, he leaned against the tree that sheltered the two children and watched them sleeping.
"I don't know why I never noticed that little Marie is the prettiest girl in the province!" he thought. "She hasn't a great deal of color, but her little face is as fresh as a wild rose! What a pretty mouth and what a cunning little nose!—She isn't tall for her age, but she's built like a little quail and light as a lark!—I don't know why they think so much at home of a tall, stout, red-faced woman. My wife was rather thin and pale, and she suited me above all others.—This girl is delicate, but she's perfectly well and as pretty to look at as a white kid! And what a sweet, honest way she has! how well you can read her kind heart in her eyes, even when they are closed in sleep!—As for wit, she has more than my dear Catherine had, I must admit, and one would never be bored with her.—She's light-hearted, she's virtuous, she's a hard worker, she's affectionate, and she's amusing.—I don't see what more one could ask.
"But what business have I to think of all that?" resumed Germain, trying to look in another direction. "My father-in-law wouldn't listen to it, and the whole family would treat me as a madman! Besides, she herself wouldn't have me, poor child!—She thinks I am too old: she told me so. She isn't interested; it doesn't worry her much to think of being in want and misery, of wearing poor clothes and suffering with hunger two or three months in the year, provided that she satisfies her heart some day and can give herself to a husband who suits her—and she's right, too! I would do the same in her place—and at this moment, if I could follow my own will, instead of embarking on a marriage that I don't like the idea of, I would choose a girl to my taste."
The more Germain strove to argue with himself and calm himself, the less he succeeded. He walked twenty steps away, to lose himself in the mist; and then he suddenly found himself on his knees beside the two sleeping children. Once he even tried to kiss Petit-Pierre, who had one arm around Marie's neck, and he went so far astray that Marie, feeling a breath as hot as fire upon her lips, awoke and looked at him in terror, understanding nothing of what was taking place within him.
"I didn't see you, my poor children!" said Germain, quickly drawing back. "I came very near falling on you and hurting you."
Little Marie was innocent enough to believe him and went to sleep again. Germain went to the other side of the fire, and vowed that he would not stir until she was awake. He kept his word, but it was a hard task. He thought that he should go mad.
At last, about midnight, the fog disappeared, and Germain could see the stars shining through the trees. The moon also shook itself clear of the vapors that shrouded it and began to sow diamonds on the damp moss. The trunks of the oak-trees remained in majestic obscurity; but, a little farther away, the white stems of the birches seemed like a row of phantoms in their shrouds. The fire was reflected in the pool; and the frogs, beginning to become accustomed to it, hazarded a few shrill, timid notes; the knotty branches of the old trees, bristling with pale lichens, crossed and recrossed, like great fleshless arms, over our travellers' heads; it was a lovely spot, but so lonely and melancholy that Germain, weary of suffering there, began to sing and to throw stones into the water to charm away the ghastly ennui of solitude. He wanted also to wake little Marie; and when he saw her rise and look about to see what the weather was like, he suggested that they should resume their journey.
"In two hours," he said, "the approach of dawn will make the air so cold that we couldn't stay here, notwithstanding our fire.—Now we can see where we are going, and we shall be sure to find a house where they will let us in, or at least a barn where we can pass the rest of the night under cover."
Marie had no wish in the matter; and although she was still very sleepy, she prepared to go with Germain.
He took his son in his arms without waking him, and insisted that Marie should come and take a part of his cloak as she would not take her own from around Petit-Pierre.
When he felt the girl so near him, Germain, who had succeeded in diverting his thoughts and had brightened up a little for a moment, began to lose his head again. Two or three times he walked abruptly away from her and left her to walk by herself. Then, seeing that she had difficulty in keeping up with him, he waited for her, drew her hastily to his side, and held her so tight that she was amazed and angry too, although she dared not say so.
As they had no idea in what direction they had started out, they did not know in what direction they were going; so that they passed through the whole forest once more, found themselves again on the edge of the deserted moor, retraced their steps, and, after turning about and walking a long while, they spied a light through the trees.
"Good! there's a house," said Germain, "and people already awake, as the fire's lighted. Can it be very late?"
But it was not a house: it was their camp-fire which they had covered when they left it, and which had rekindled in the breeze.
They had walked about for two hours, only to find themselves back at their starting-point.
IN THE OPEN AIR
"This time I give it up!" said Germain, stamping on the ground. "A spell has been cast on us, that's sure, and we shall not get away from here till daylight. This place must be bewitched."
"Well, well, let's not lose our tempers," said Marie, "but let us make the best of it. We'll make a bigger fire, the child is so well wrapped up that he runs no risk, and it won't kill us to pass a night out-of-doors. Where did you hide the saddle, Germain? In the middle of the holly-bushes, you great stupid! It's such a convenient place to go and get it!"
"Here, take the child, while I pull his bed out of the brambles; I don't want you to prick your fingers."
"It's all done, there's the bed, and a few pricks aren't sword-cuts," retorted the brave girl.
She proceeded to put little Pierre to bed once more; the boy was so sound asleep by that time, that he knew nothing about their last journey. Germain piled so much wood on the fire that it lighted up the forest all around; but little Marie was at the end of her strength, and, although she did not complain, her legs refused to hold her. She was deathly pale, and her teeth chattered with cold and weakness. Germain took her in his arms to warm her; and anxiety, compassion, an irresistible outburst of tenderness taking possession of his heart, imposed silence on his passions. His tongue was loosened, as if by a miracle, and as all feeling of shame disappeared, he said to her:
"Marie, I like you, and I am very unfortunate in not making you like me. If you would take me for your husband, neither father-in-law nor relations nor neighbors nor advice could prevent me from giving myself to you. I know you would make my children happy and teach them to respect their mother's memory, and, as my conscience would be at rest, I could satisfy my heart. I have always been fond of you, and now I am so in love with you that if you should ask me to spend my life fulfilling your thousand wishes, I would swear on the spot to do it. Pray, pray, see how I love you and forget my age! Just think what a false idea it is that people have that a man of thirty is old. Besides, I am only twenty-eight! a girl is afraid of being criticised for taking a man ten or twelve years older than she is, because it isn't the custom of the province; but I have heard that in other places they don't think about that; on the other hand, they prefer to give a young girl, for her support, a sober-minded man and one whose courage has been put to the test, rather than a young fellow who may go wrong, and turn out to be a bad lot instead of the nice boy he is supposed to be. And then, too, years don't always make age. That depends on a man's health and strength. When a man is worn out by overwork and poverty, or by evil living, he is old before he's twenty-five. While I—But you're not listening to me, Marie."
"Yes, I am, Germain, I hear what you say," replied little Marie; "but I am thinking of what my mother has always told me: that a woman of sixty is much to be pitied when her husband is seventy or seventy-five and can't work any longer to support her. He grows infirm, and she must take care of him at an age when she herself is beginning to have great need of care and rest. That is how people come to end their lives in the gutter."
"Parents are right to say that, I agree, Marie," said Germain; "but, after all, they would sacrifice the whole of youth, which is the best part of life, to provide against what may happen at an age when one has ceased to be good for anything, and when one is indifferent about ending his life in one way or another. But I am in no danger of dying of hunger in my old age. I am in a fair way to save up something, because, living as I do with my wife's people, I work hard and spend nothing. Besides, I will love you so well, you know, that that will prevent me from growing old. They say that when a man's happy he retains his youth, and I feel that I am younger than Bastien just from loving you; for he doesn't love you, he's too stupid, too much of a child to understand how pretty and good you are, and made to be courted. Come, Marie, don't hate me, I am not a bad man; I made my Catherine happy; she said before God, on her death-bed, that she had never been anything but contented with me, and she advised me to marry again. It seems that her heart spoke to her child to-night, just as he went to sleep. Didn't you hear what he said? and how his little mouth trembled while his eyes were looking at something in the air that we couldn't see! He saw his mother, you may be sure, and she made him say that he wanted you to take her place."