Margot Fresquyl had allowed herself to be tempted for the first time by the delicious intoxication of the mortal sin of loving, on the evening of Midsummer Day.
While most of the young people were holding each others’ hands and dancing in a circle round the burning logs, the girl had slyly taken the deserted road which led to the wood, leaning on the arm of her partner, a tall, vigorous farm servant, whose Christian name was Tiennou, which, by the way, was the only name he had borne from his birth. For he was entered on the register of births with this curt note: Father and mother unknown; he having been found on St. Stephen’s Day under a shed on a farm, where some poor, despairing wretch had abandoned him, perhaps even without turning her head round to look at him.
For months Tiennou had madly worshiped that fair, pretty girl, who was now trembling as he clasped her in his arms, under the sweet coolness of the leaves. He religiously rememberd how she had dazzled him — like some ecstastic vision, the recollection of which always remains imprinted on the eyes — the first time that he saw her in her father’s mill, where he had gone to ask for work. She stood out all rosy from the warmth of the day, amidst the impalpable clouds of flour, which diffused an indistinct whiteness through the air. With her hair hanging about her in untidy curls, as if she had just awakened from a profound sleep, she stretched herself lazily, with her bare arms clasped behind her head, and yawned so as to show her white teeth, which glistened like those of a young wolf, and her maiden nudity appeared beneath her unbuttoned bodice with innocent immodesty. He told her that he thought her adorable, so stupidly, that she made fun of him and scourged him with her cruel laughter; and, from that day he spent his life in Margot’s shadow. He might have been taken for one of those wild beasts ardent with desire, which ceaselessly utter maddened cries to the stars on nights when the constellations bathe the dark coverts in warm light. Margot met him wherever she went, and seized with pity, and by degrees agitated by his sobs, by his dumb entreaties, by the burning looks which flashed from his large eyes, she had returned his love; she had dreamt restlessly that during a whole night she had been in his vigorous arms which pressed her like corn that is being crushed in the mill, that she was obeying a man who had subdued her, and learning strange things which the other girls talked about in a low voice when they were drawing water at the well.
She had, however, been obliged to wait until Midsummer Day, for the miller watched over his heiress very carefully.
The two lovers told each other all this as they were going along the dark road, and innocently giving utterance to words of happiness, which rise to the lips like the forgotten refrain of a song. At times they were silent, not knowing what more to say, and not daring to embrace each other any more. The night was soft and warm, the warmth of a half-closed alcove in a bedroom, and which had the effect of a tumbler of new wine.
The leaves were sleeping motionless and in supreme peace, and in the distance they could hear the monotonous sound of the brooks as they flowed over the stones. Amidst the dull noise of the insects, the nightingales were answering each other from tree to tree, and everything seemed alive with hidden life, and the sky was bright with such a shower of falling stars, that they might have been taken for white forms wandering among the dark trunks of the trees.
“Why have we come?” Margot asked, in a panting voice. “Do you not want me any more, Tiennou?”
“Alas! I dare not,” he replied. “Listen: you know that I was picked up on the high road, that I have nothing in the world except my two arms, and that Miller Fresquyl will never let his daughter marry a poor devil like me.”
She interrupted him with a painful gesture, and putting her lips to his, she said:
“What does that matter? I love you, and I want you . . . Take me . . . ”
And it was thus, on St. John’s night, Margot Fresquyl for the first time yielded to the mortal sin of love.
Did the miller guess his daughter’s secret, when he heard her singing merrily from dawn till dusk, and saw her sitting dreaming at her window instead of sewing as she was in the habit of doing?
Did he see it when she threw ardent kisses from the tips of her fingers to her lover at a distance?
However that might have been, he shut poor Margot in the mill as if it had been a prison. No more love or pleasure, no more meetings at night at the verge of the wood. When she chatted with the passers-by, when she tried furtively to open the gate of the enclosure and to make her escape, her father beat her as if she had been some disobedient animal, until she fell on her knees on the floor with clasped hands, scarcely able to move and her whole body covered with purple bruises.
She pretended to obey him, but she revolted in her whole being, and the string of bitter insults which he heaped upon her rang in her head. With clenched hands, and a gesture of terrible hatred, she cursed him for standing in the way of her love, and at night, she rolled about on her bed, bit the sheets, moaned, stretched herself out for imaginary embraces, maddened by the sensual heat with which her body was still palpitating. She called out Tiennou’s name aloud, she broke the peaceful stillness of the sleeping house with her heartrending sobs, and her dejected voice drowned the monotonous sound of the water that was dripping under the arch of the mill, between the immovable paddles of the wheel.
Then there came that terrible week in October when the unfortunate young fellows who had drawn bad numbers had to join their regiments.1 Tiennou was one of them, and Margot was in despair to think that she should not see him for five interminable years, that they could not even, at that hour of sad farewells, be alone and exchange those consoling words which afterwards alleviate the pain of absence.
1 Written before universal service was obligatory, and when soldiers were selected by conscription, a certain amount of those who drew high numbers, being exempt from service. — TRANSLATOR.]
Tiennou prowled about the house, like a starving beggar, and one morning, while the miller was mending the wheel, he managed to see Margot.
“I will wait for you in the old place to-night,” he whispered, in terrible grief. “I know it is the last time . . . I shall throw myself into some deep hole in the river if you do not come! . . . ”
“I will be there, Tiennou,” she replied, in a bewildered manner. “I swear I will be there . . . even if I have to do something terrible to enable me to come!”
The village was burning in the dark night, and the flames, fanned by the wind, rose up like sinister torches. The thatched roofs, the ricks of corn, the haystacks, and the barns fell in, and crackled like rockets, while the sky looked as if they were illuminated by an aurora borealis. Fresquyl’s mill was smoking, and its calcined ruins were reflected on the deep water. The sheep and cows were running about the fields in terror, the dogs were howling, and the women were sitting on the broken furniture, and were crying and wringing their hands; while during all this time Margot was abandoning herself to her lover’s ardent caresses, and with her arms round his neck, she said to him, tenderly:
“You see that I have kept my promise . . . I set fire to the mill so that I might be able to get out. So much the worse if all have suffered. But I do not care as long as you are happy in having me, and love me!”
And pointing to the fire which was still burning fiercely in the distance, she added with a burst of savage laughter:
“Tiennou, we shall not have such beautiful tapers at out wedding Mass when you come back from your regiment!”
And thus it was that for the second time Margot Fresquyl yielded to the mortal sin of love.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53