HERE ends the history of Germain’s marriage as he told it to me himself, good husbandman that he is. I ask your forgiveness, kind reader, that I know not how to translate it better; for it is a real translation that is needed by this old-fashioned and artless language of the peasants of the country “that I sing,” as they used to say. These people speak French that is too true for us, and since Rabelais and Montaigne, the advance of the language has lost for us many of its old riches. Thus it is with every advance, and we must make the best of it. Yet it is a pleasure still to hear those picturesque idioms used in the old districts in the center of France; all the more because it is the genuine expression of the laughing, quiet, and delightfully talkative character of the people who make use of it. Touraine has preserved a certain precious number of patriarchal phrases. But Touraine was civilized greatly during the Renaissance, and since its decline she is filled with fine houses and highroads, with foreigners and traffic. Berry remained as she was, and I think that after Brittany and a few provinces in the far south of France, it is the best preserved district to be found at the present day. Some of the costumes are so strange and so curious that I hope to amuse you a few minutes more, kind reader, if you will allow me to describe to you in detail a country wedding — Germain’s, for example — at which I had the pleasure of assisting several years ago.
For, alas! everything passes. During my life alone, more change has taken place in the ideas and in the customs of my village than had been seen in the centuries before the Revolution. Already half the ceremonies, Celtic, Pagan, or of the Middle Ages, that in my childhood I have seen in their full vigor, have disappeared. In a year or two more, perhaps, the railroads will lay their level tracks across our deep valleys, and will carry away, with the swiftness of lightning, all our old traditions and our wonderful legends.
It was in winter about the carnival season, the time of year when, in our country, it is fitting and proper to have weddings. In summer the time can hardly be spared, and the work of the farm cannot suffer three days’ delay, not to speak of the additional days impaired to a greater or to a less degree by the moral and physical drunkenness which follows a gala-day. I was seated beneath the great mantelpiece of the old-fashioned kitchen fireplace when shots of pistols, barking of dogs, and the piercing notes of the bagpipe told me that the bridal pair were approaching. Very soon Father and Mother Maurice, Germain, and little Marie, followed by Jacques and his wife, the closer relatives, and the godfathers and godmothers of the bride and groom, all made their entry into the yard.
Little Marie had not yet received her wedding-gifts — favors, as they call them — and was dressed in the best of her simple clothes, a dress of dark, heavy cloth, a white fichu with great spots of brilliant color, an apron of carnation — an Indian red much in vogue at the time, but despised nowadays — a cap of very white muslin after that pattern, happily still preserved, which calls to mind the head-dress of Anne Boleyn and of Agnes Sorrel. She was fresh and laughing, but not at all vain, though she had good reason to be so. Beside her was Germain, serious and tender, like young Jacob greeting Rebecca at the wells of Laban. Another girl would have assumed an important air and struck an attitude of triumph, for in every rank it is something to be married for a fair face alone. Yet the girl’s eyes were moist and shone with tenderness. It was plain that she was deep in love and had no time to think of the opinions of others. Her little air of determination was not absent, but everything about her denoted frankness and good-will. There was nothing impertinent in her success, nothing selfish in her sense of power. Never have I seen so lovely a bride, when she answered with frankness her young friends who asked if she were happy:
“Surely I have nothing to complain of the good Lord.”
Father Maurice was spokesman. He came forward to pay his compliments, and give the customary invitations. First he fastened to the mantelpiece a branch of laurel decked out with ribbons; this is known as the writ — that is to say, the letter of announcement. Next he gave to every guest a tiny cross made of a bit of blue ribbon sewn to a transverse bit of pink ribbon — pink for the bride, blue for the groom. The guests of both sexes were expected to keep this badge to adorn their caps or their button-holes on the wedding-day. This is the letter of invitation, the admission ticket.
Then Father Maurice paid his congratulations. He invited the head of the house and all his company — that is to say, all his children, all his friends, and all his servants — to the benediction, to the feast, to the sports, to the dance, and to everything that follows. He did not fail to say, “I have come to do you the honor of inviting you”; a very right manner of speech, even though it appears to us to convey the wrong meaning, for it expresses the idea of doing honor to those who seem worthy of it.
Despite the generosity of the invitation carried from house to house throughout the parish, politeness, which is very cautious amongst peasants, demands that only two persons from each family take advantage of it — one of the heads of the house, and one from the number of their children.
After the invitations were made, the betrothed couple and their families took dinner together at the farm.
Little Marie kept her three sheep on the common, and Germain tilled the soil as though nothing had happened.
About two in the afternoon before the day set for the wedding, the music came. The music means the players of the bagpipe and hurdy-gurdy, their instruments decorated with long streaming ribbons, playing an appropriate march to a measure which would have been rather slow for feet foreign to the soil, but admirably adapted to the heavy ground and hilly roads of the country.
Pistol-shots, fired by the young people and the children, announced the beginning of the wedding ceremonies. Little by little the guests assembled, and danced on the grass-plot before the house in order to enter into the spirit of the occasion. When evening was come they began strange preparations; they divided into two bands, and when night had settled down they proceeded to the ceremony of the favors.
All this passed at the dwelling of the bride, Mother Guillette’s cottage. Mother Guillette took with her her daughter, a dozen pretty shepherdesses, friends and relatives of her daughter, two or three respectable housewives, talkative neighbors, quick of wit and strict guardians of ancient customs. Next she chose a dozen stout fellows, her relatives and friends; and last of all the parish hemp-dresser, a garrulous old man, and as good a talker as ever there was.
The part which, in Brittany, is played by the bazvalon, the village tailor, is taken in our part of the country by the hemp-dresser and the wool-carder, two professions which are unusually combined in one. He is present at all ceremonies, sad or gay, for he is very learned and a fluent talker, and on these occasions he must always figure as spokesman, in order to fulfil with exactitude certain formalities used from time immemorial. Traveling occupations, which bring a man into the midst of other families, without allowing him to shut himself up within his own, are well fitted to make him talker, wit, storyteller, and singer.
The hemp-dresser is peculiarly skeptical. He and another village functionary, of whom we have spoken before, the grave-digger, are always the daring spirits of the neighborhood. They have talked so much about ghosts, and they know so well all the tricks of which these malicious spirits are capable, that they fear them scarcely at all. It is especially at night that all of them — grave-diggers, hemp-dressers, and ghosts — do their work. It is also at night when the hemp-dresser tells his melancholy stories. Permit me to make a digression.
When the hemp has reached the right stage, that is to say, when it has been steeped sufficiently in running water, and half dried on the bank, it is brought into the yard and arranged in little upright sheaves, which, with their stalks divided at the base, and their heads bound in balls, bear in the dusk some small resemblance to a long procession of little white phantoms, standing on their slender legs, and moving noiselessly along the wall.
It is at the end of September, when the nights are still warm, that they begin to beat it by the pale light of the moon. By day the hemp has been heated in the oven; at night they take it out to beat it while it is still hot. For this they use a kind of horse surmounted by a wooden lever which falls into grooves and breaks the plant without cutting it. It is then that you hear in the night that sudden, sharp noise of three blows in quick succession. Then there is silence; it is the movement of the arm drawing out the handful of hemp to break it in a fresh spot. The three blows begin again; the other arm works the lever, and thus it goes on until the moon is hidden by the early streaks of dawn. As the work continues but a few days in the year, the dogs are not accustomed to it, and yelp their plaintive howls toward every point of the horizon.
It is the time of unwonted and mysterious sounds in the country. The migrating cranes fly so high that by day they are scarcely visible. By night they are only heard, and their hoarse wailing voices, lost in the clouds, sound like the parting cry of souls in torment, striving to find the road to heaven, yet forced by an unconquerable fate to wander near the earth about the haunts of men; for these errant birds have strange uncertainties, and many a mysterious anxiety in the course of their airy flight. Sometimes they lose the wind when the capricious gusts battle, or come and go in the upper regions. When this confusion comes by day, you can see the leader of the file fluttering aimlessly in the air, then turn about and take his place at the tail of the triangular phalanx, while a skilful manoeuver of his companions forms them soon in good order behind him. Often, after vain efforts, the exhausted leader relinquishes the guidance of the caravan; another comes forward, tries in his turn, and yields his place to a third, who finds the breeze, and continues the march in triumph. But what cries, what reproaches, what protests, what wild curses or anxious questionings are exchanged in an unknown tongue amongst these winged pilgrims!
Sometimes, in the resonant night, you can hear these sinister noises whirling for a long time above the housetops, and as you can see nothing, you feel, despite your efforts, a kind of dread and kindred discomfort, until the sobbing multitude is lost in boundless space.
There are other noises too which belong to this time of year, and which sound usually in the orchards. Gathering the fruit is not yet over, and the thousand unaccustomed cracklings make the tree seem alive. A branch groans as it bends beneath a burden which has reached, of a sudden, the last stage of growth; or perhaps an apple breaks from the twig, and falls on the damp earth at your feet with a dull sound. Then you hear rush by, brushing the branches and the grass, a creature you cannot see; it is the peasant’s dog, that prowling and uneasy rover, at once impudent and cowardly, always wandering, never sleeping, ever seeking you know not what, spying upon you, hiding in the brush, and taking flight at the sound of a falling apple, which he thinks a stone that you are throwing at him.
It is during those nights, nights misty and gray, that the hemp-dresser tells his weird stories of will-o’-the-wisps and milk-white hares, of souls in torment and wizards changed to wolves, of witches’ vigils at the cross-roads, and screech-owls, prophetesses of the graveyard. I remember passing the early hours of such a night while the hemp-dressing was going on, and the pitiless strokes, interrupting the dresser’s story at its most awful place, sent icy shivers through our veins. And often too the good man continued his story as he worked, and four or five words were lost, terrible words, no doubt, which we dared not make him repeat, and whose omission added a mystery yet more fearful to the dark mysteries of the story which had gone before. It was in vain the servants warned us that it was too late to stay without doors, and that bedtime had sounded for us long since; they too were dying to hear more; and then with what terror we crossed the hamlet on our way home! How deep did the church porch appear to us, and how thick and black the shadows of the old trees! The graveyard we dared not see; we shut our eyes tight as we passed it.
But no more than the sacristan is the hemp-dresser gifted solely with the desire of frightening; he loves to make people laugh; he is sarcastic and sentimental at need, when love and marriage are to be sung. It is he who collects and keeps stored in his memory the oldest songs, and who transmits them to posterity. And so it is he who acts at weddings the part we shall see him play at the presentation of little Marie’s favors.
WHEN all the guests were met together in the house, the doors and windows were closed with the utmost care; even the garret window was barricaded; boards and benches, logs and tables were placed behind every entrance, just as if the inhabitants were making ready to sustain a siege; and within these fortifications solemn stillness prevailed until at a distance were heard songs and laughter and the sounds of rustic music. It was the band of the bridegroom, Germain at the head, followed by his most trusty companions and by the grave-digger, relatives, friends, and servants, who formed a compact and merry train. Meanwhile, as they came nearer the house they slackened their pace, held a council of war, and became silent. The girls, shut up in the house, had arranged little loop-holes at the windows by which they could see the enemy approach and deploy in battle array. A fine, cold rain was falling, which added zest to the situation, while a great tire blazed on the hearth within. Marie wished to cut short the inevitable slowness of this well-ordered siege; she had no desire to see her lover catch cold, but not being in authority she had to take an ostensible share in the mischievous cruelty of her companions.
When the two armies met, a discharge of firearms on the part of the besiegers set all the dogs in the neighborhood to barking. Those within the house dashed at the door with loud yelps, thinking that the attack was in earnest, and the children, little reassured by the efforts of their mothers, began to weep and to tremble. The whole scene was played so well that a stranger would have been deceived, and would have made his preparations to tight a band of brigands. Then the grave-digger, bard and orator of the groom, took his stand before the door, and with a rueful voice, exchanged the following dialogue with the hemp-dresser, who was stationed above the same door:
The Grave-digger: “Ah, my good people, my fellow-townsmen, for the love of Heaven, open the door.”
The Hemp-dresser: “Who are you, and what right have you to call us your dear fellow-townsmen? We don’t know you.”
The Grave-digger: “We are worthy folk in great distress. Don’t be afraid of us, my friends. Extend us your hospitality. Sleet is falling; our poor feet are frozen, and our journey home has been so long that our sabots are split.”
The Hemp-dresser: “If your sabots are split, you can look on the ground; you will find very soon a sprig of willow to make some arcelets [small curved blades of iron which are fastened on split sabots to hold them together].”
The Grave-digger: “Willow arcelets are scarcely strong enough. You are making fun of us, good people, and you would do better to open your doors. We can see a splendid fire blazing in your dwelling. The spit must be turning, and we can make merry with you, heart and belly. So open your doors to poor pilgrims who will die on the threshold if you are not merciful.”
The Hemp-dresser: “Ah ha! so you are pilgrims? You never told us that. And what pilgrimage do you come from, may I ask?”
The Grave-digger: “We shall tell you that when you open the door, for we come from so far that you would never believe it.”
The Hemp-dresser: “Open the door to you? I rather think not. We can’t trust you. Tell us, is it from Saint Sylvain of Pouligny that you come?”
The Grave-digger: “We have been at Saint Sylvain of Pouligny, but we have been farther still.”
The Hemp-dresser: “Then you have been as far as Saint Solange?”
The Grave-digger: “At Saint Solange we have been, sure enough, but we have been farther yet.”
The Hemp-dresser: “You are lying. You have never been as far as Saint Solange.”
The Grave-digger: “We have been farther, for now we are come from Saint Jacques of Compostelle.”
The Hemp-dresser: “What absurdity are you telling us? We don’t know that parish. We can easily see that you are bad people, brigands, nobodies, and liars. Go away with your nonsense. We are on our guard. You can’t come in.”
The Grave-digger: “Ah, my poor fellow, take pity on us. We are not pilgrims, as you have guessed, but we are unlucky poachers pursued by the keepers. Even the police are after us, and if you don’t hide us in your hay-loft, we shall be taken and led off to prison.”
The Hemp-dresser: “And who will prove you are what you say you are, this time? For you have told us one lie already that you can’t maintain.”
The Grave-digger: “If you will let us in, we shall show you a pretty piece of game we have killed.”
The Hemp-dresser: “Show it right away, for we have our suspicions.”
The Grave-digger: “All right, open the door or a window to let us pass the creature in.”
The Hemp-dresser: “Oh, no, not quite so foolish. I am looking at you through a little chink, and I can see neither hunters nor game amongst you.”
Here an ox-driver, a thick-set fellow of herculean strength, detached himself from a group where he had stood unperceived, and raised toward the window a plucked goose, spitted on a strong iron bar decorated with tufts of straw and ribbons.
“Ho, ho!” cried the hemp-dresser, after cautiously extending an arm to feel the roast. “That is n’t a quail nor a partridge; it is n’t a hare nor a rabbit; it ‘s something like a goose or a turkey. Upon my word, you ‘re clever hunters, and that game did n’t make you run very far. Move on, you rogues; we know all your lies, and you had best go home and cook your supper. You are not going to eat ours.”
The Grave-digger: “O Heavens, where can we go to cook our game? It is very little for so many as we, and, besides, we have neither place nor fire. At this time every door is closed, and every soul asleep. You are the only people who are celebrating a wedding at home, and you must he hardhearted indeed to let us freeze outside. Once again, good people, open the door; we shall not cost you anything. You can see that we bring our own meat; only a little room at your hearth, a little blaze to cook with, and we shall go on our way rejoicing.”
The Hemp-dresser: “Do you suppose that we have too much room here, and that wood is bought tor nothing?”
The Grave-digger: “We have here a small bundle of hay to make the fire. We shall be satisfied with that; only grant us leave to place the spit across your fireplace.”
The Hemp-dresser: “That will never do. We are disgusted, and don’t pity you at all. It is my opinion that you are drunk, that you need nothing, and that you only wish to come in and steal away our fire and our daughters.”
The Grave-digger: “Since you won’t listen to reason, we shall make our way in by force.”
The Hemp-dresser: “Try, if you want; we are shut in well enough to have no fear of you, and since you are impudent fellows, we shall not answer you again.”
Thereupon the hemp-dresser shut the garret window with a bang, and came down into the room below by a step-ladder. Then he took the bride by the hand, the young people of both sexes followed, and they all began to sing and chatter merrily, while the matrons sang in piercing voices, and shrieked with laughter in derision and bravado at those without who were attempting an attack.
The besiegers, on their side, made a great hubbub. They discharged their pistols at the doors, made the dogs growl, whacked the walls, shook the blinds, and uttered frightful shrieks. In short, there was such a pandemonium that nobody could hear, and such a cloud of dust that nobody could see.
And yet this attack was all a sham. The time had not come for breaking through the etiquette. If, in prowling about, anybody were to find an unguarded aperture, or any opening whatsoever, he might try to slip in unobserved, and then, if the carrier of the spit succeeded in placing his roast before the fire, and thus prove the capture of the hearth, the comedy was over and the bridegroom had conquered.
The entrances of the house, however, were not numerous enough for any to be neglected in the customary precautions, and nobody might use violence before the moment fixed for the struggle.
When they were weary of dancing and screams, the hemp-dresser began to think of capitulation. He went up to his window, opened it with precaution, and greeted the baffled assailants with a burst of laughter.
“Well, my boys,” said he, “you look very sheep-faced. You thought there was nothing easier than to come in, and you see that our defense is good. But we are beginning to have pity on you, if you will submit and accept our conditions.”
The Grave-digger: “Speak, good people. Tell us what we must do to approach your hearth.”
The Hemp-dresser: “You must sing, my friends; but sing a song we don’t know — one that we can’t answer by a better.”
“That ‘s not hard to do,” answered the grave-digger, and he thundered in a powerful voice: “‘Six months ago, ’twas in the spring . . . ’”
“‘I wandered through the sprouting grass,’” answered the hemp-dresser in a slightly hoarse but terrible voice. “You must be jesting, my poor friends, singing us such time-worn songs. You see very well that we can stop you at the first word.”
“‘She was a prince’s daughter . . . ’”
“‘Right gladly would she wed,’” answered the hemp-dresser. “Come, move on to the next; we know that a little too well.”
The Grave-digger: “How do you like this one? —
“‘As I was journeying home from Nantes.’”
“‘Weary, oh, weary, was I, was I.’”
“That dates from my grandmother’s time. Let’s have another.”
“‘One day I went a-walking . . . ’”
“‘Along a lovely wood!’”
“That one is too stupid! Our little children would n’t take the trouble to answer you. What! Are these all you know?”
The Grave-digger: “Oh, we shall sing you so many that you will never be able to hear them all.”
In this way a full hour passed. As the two antagonists were champions of the country round in the matter of songs, and as their store seemed inexhaustible, the contest might last all night with ease, all the more because the hemp-dresser, with a touch of malice, allowed several ballads of ten, twenty, or thirty couplets to be sung through, feigning by his silence to admit his defeat. Then the bridegroom’s camp rejoiced and sang aloud in chorus, and thought that this time the foe was worsted; but at the first line of the last couplet, they heard the hoarse croaking of the old hemp-dresser bellow forth the second rhyme. Then he cried:
“You need not tire yourselves by singing such a long one, my children — we know that one to our finger-tips.”
Once or twice, however, the hemp-dresser made a wry face, contracted his brow, and turned toward the expectant housewives with a baffled air. The grave-digger was singing something so old that his adversary had forgotten it, or perhaps had never even heard it; but instantly the good gossips chanted the victorious refrain through their noses with voices shrill as a sea-mew’s, and the grave-digger, forced to surrender, went on to fresh attempts.
It would have taken too long to wait for a decision of the victory. The bride’s party declared itself disposed to be merciful, provided that the bride were given a present worthy of her.
Then began the song of the favors to a tune solemn as a church chant.
The men without sang together in bass voices:
“‘Open the door, true love,
Open the door; I have presents for you, love,
Oh, say not adieu, love.’”
To this the women answered from within in falsetto, with mournful voices:
“‘My father is sorry, my mother is sad,
And I am a maiden too kind by far
At such an hour my gate to unbar.’”
The men took up the first verse as far as the fourth line and modified it thus:
“‘And a handkerchief new, love.’”
But, on behalf of the bride, the women answered in the same way as at first.
For twenty couplets, at least, the men enumerated all the wedding-presents, always mentioning something new in the last line: a handsome apron, pretty ribbons, a cloth dress, laces, a golden cross, and even a hundred pins to complete the modest list of wedding-presents. The refusal of the women could not be shaken, but at length the men decided to speak of
“A good husband, too, love.”
And the women answered, turning toward the bride and singing in unison with the men:
“‘Open the door, true love,
Open the door;
Here’s a sweetheart for you, love,
Pray let us enter, too, love.’”
IMMEDIATELY the hemp-dresser drew back the wooden bolt which barred the door within. At this time it was still the only fastening known in most of the dwellings of our hamlet. The groom’s band burst into the bride’s house, but not without a struggle; for the young men quartered within, and even the old hemp-dresser and the gossips, made it their duty to defend the hearth. The spit-bearer, upheld by his supporters, had to plant the roast before the fireplace. It was a regular battle, although people abstained from striking, and there was no anger shown in this struggle. But everybody was pushing and shoving so hard, and there was so much playful pride in this display of muscular strength, that the results might well have been serious, although they did not appear so across the laughs and songs. The poor old hemp-dresser, fighting like a lion, was pinned to the wall and squeezed by the crowd until his breath almost left him. More than one champion was upset and trodden under foot involuntarily; more than one hand, jammed against the spit, was covered with blood. These games are dangerous, and latterly the accidents have been so severe that our peasants have determined to allow the ceremony of the favors to fall into disuse; I believe we saw the last at the marriage of François Meillant, although there was no real struggle on that occasion.
The battle was earnest enough, however, at Germain’s wedding. It was a point of honor on one side to invade, on the other to defend, Mother Guillette’s hearth. The great spit was twisted like a screw beneath the strong fists which fought for it A pistol-shot set fire to a small quantity of hemp arranged in sheaves and laid on a wicker shelf near the ceiling. This incident created a diversion, and while some of the company crowded about to extinguish the sparks, the grave-digger, who had climbed unbeknown into the garret, came down the chimney and seized the spit, at the very moment when the ox-driver, who was defending it near the hearth, raised it above his head to prevent it from being torn away. Some time before the attack, the women had taken the precaution to put out the fire lest in the struggle somebody should fall in and get burned. The jocular grave-digger, in league with the ox-driver, grasped the trophy and tossed it easily across the andirons. It was done! Nobody might interfere. The grave-digger sprang to the middle of the room and lighted a few wisps of straw, which he placed about the spit under pretense of cooking the roast, for the goose was in pieces and the floor was strewn with its scattered fragments.
Then there was a great deal of laughter and much boastful dispute. Everybody showed the marks of the blows he had received, and as it was often a friend’s hand that had struck them, there was no word of complaint nor of quarreling. The hemp-dresser, half flattened out, kept rubbing the small of his back and saying that, although it made small difference to him, he protested against the ruse of his friend, the grave-digger, and that if he had not been half dead, the hearth had never been captured so easily. The women swept the floor and order was restored. The table was covered with jugs of new wine. When the contestants had drunk together and taken breath, the bridegroom was led to the middle of the chamber, and, armed with a wand, he was obliged to submit to a fresh trial.
During the struggle, the bride and three of her companions had been hidden by her mother, godmother, and aunts, who had made the four girls sit down in a remote corner of the room while they covered them with a large white cloth. Three friends of Marie’s height, with caps of a uniform size, were chosen, so that when they were enveloped from head to toe by the cloth it was impossible to tell them apart.
The bridegroom might not touch them, except with the tip of his staff, and then merely to designate which he thought to be his wife. They allowed him time enough to make an examination with no other help than his eyes afforded, and the women, placed on either side, kept zealous watch lest cheating should occur. Should he guess wrong, he might not dance, with his bride, but only with her he had chosen by mistake.
When Germain stood in front of these ghosts wrapped in the same shroud, he feared he should make a wrong choice; and, in truth, that had happened to many another, so carefully and conscientiously were the precautions made. His heart beat loud. Little Marie did her best to breathe hard and shake the cloth a little, but her malicious companions followed her example, and kept poking the cloth with their fingers, so that there were as many mysterious signals as there were girls beneath the canopy. The square head-dresses upheld the cloth so evenly that it was impossible to discern the contour of a brow outlined by its folds.
After ten minutes’ hesitation, Germain shut his eyes, commended his soul to God, and stretched out the wand at random. It touched the forehead of little Marie, who cast the cloth from her, and shouted with triumph. Then it was his right to kiss her, and lifting her in his strong arms, he bore her to the middle of the room, where together they opened the dance, which lasted until two in the morning. The company separated to meet again at eight. As many people had come from the country round, and as there were not beds enough for everybody, each of the village maidens took to her bed two or three other girls, while the men spread themselves pell-mell on the hay in the barn-loft. You can imagine well that they had little sleep, for they did nothing but wrestle and joke, and tell foolish stories. Properly, there were three sleepless nights at weddings, and these we cannot regret.
At the time appointed for departure, when they had partaken of milk-soup, seasoned with a strong dose of pepper to stimulate the appetite — for the wedding-feast gave promise of great bounty — the guests assembled in the farm-yard. Since our parish had been abolished, we had to go half a league from home to receive the marriage blessing. It was cool and pleasant weather, but the roads were in such wretched condition that everybody was on horseback, and each man took a companion on his crupper, whether she were young or old. Germain started on the gray, and the mare, well-groomed, freshly shod, and decked out with ribbons, pranced about and snorted fire from her nostrils. The husbandman went to the cottage for his bride in company with his brother-inlaw, Jacques, who rode the old gray, and carried Mother Guillette on the crupper, while Germain returned to the farm-yard in triumph, holding his dear little wife before him.
Then the merry cavalcade set out, escorted by the children, who ran ahead and fired off their pistols to make the horses jump. Mother Maurice was seated in a small cart, with Germain’s three children and the fiddlers. They led the march to the sound of their instruments. Petit–Pierre was so handsome that his old grandmother was pride itself. But the eager child did not stay long at her side. During a moment’s halt made on the journey, before passing through a difficult piece of road, he slipped away and ran to beg his father to carry him in front on the gray.
“No, no,” replied Germain, “that will call forth some disagreeable joke; we must n’t do it.”
“It’s little that I care what the people of Saint Chartier say,” said little Marie. “Take him up, Germain, please do; I shall be prouder of him than I am of my wedding-gown.”
Germain yielded, and the pretty trio darted into the crowd borne by the triumphant gallop of the gray.
And so it was; the people of Saint Chartier, although they were very sarcastic, and somewhat disdainful of the neighboring parishes which had been annexed to theirs, never thought of laughing when they saw such a handsome husband, such a lovely wife, and a child that a king’s wife might court. Petit–Pierre was all dressed in light blue cloth, with a smart red waistcoat so short that it descended scarcely below his chin. The village tailor had fitted his armholes so tight that he could not bring his two little hands together. But, oh, how proud he was! He wore a round hat, with a black-and-gold cord, and a peacock’s plume which stuck out proudly from a tuft of guinea feathers. A bunch of flowers, bigger than his head, covered his shoulder, and ribbons fluttered to his feet The hemp-dresser, who was also the barber and hair-dresser of the district, had cut his hair evenly, by covering his head with a bowl, and clipping off the protruding locks, an infallible method for guiding the shears. Thus arrayed, the poor child was less poetic, certainly, than with his curls streaming in the wind, and his Saint John Baptist’s sheepskin about him; but he knew nothing of this, and everybody admired him and said that he had quite the air of a little man. His beauty triumphed over everything, for what is there over which the exceeding beauty of childhood could not triumph?
His little sister, Solange, had, for the first time in her life, a peasant’s cap in place of the calico hood which little girls wear until they are two or three years old. And what a cap it was! Longer and larger than the poor little thing’s whole body. How beautiful she thought it! She dared not even turn her head; so she kept quite still and thought the people would take her for the bride.
As for little Sylvain, he was still in long clothes, and, fast asleep on his grandmother’s knees, he did not even know what a wedding was.
Germain looked at his children tenderly, and when they reached the town hall, he said to his bride:
“Marie, I have come here with a happier heart than I had the day when I brought you home from the forest of Chanteloube, thinking that you could never love me. I took you in my arms to put you on the ground as I do here; but I thought that never again should we be mounted on the good gray with the child on our knees. I love you so dearly, I love these little creatures so dearly, I am so happy that you love me and that you love them, and that my family love you, and I love your mother so well and all my friends so well, and everybody else so well today, that I wish I had three or four hearts to fill all of them; for surely one is too small to hold so much love and so much happiness. It almost makes my stomach ache.”
There was a crowd at the door of the town hall and another at the church to see the pretty bride. Why should we not tell about her dress? it became her so well. Her muslin cap, without spot and covered with embroidery, had lappets trimmed with lace. At that time peasant women never allowed a single lock to be seen, and, although they conceal beneath their caps splendid coils of hair tied up with tape to hold the coif in place, even today it would be thought a scandal and a shame for them to show themselves bareheaded to men. Nowadays, however, they allow a slender braid to appear over their foreheads, and this improves their appearance very much. Yet I regret the classic head-dress of my time; its spotless laces next the bare skin gave an effect of pristine purity which seemed to me very solemn; and when a face looked beautiful thus it was with a beauty of which nothing can express the charm and unaffected majesty.
Little Marie wore her cap thus, and her forehead was so white and so pure that it defied the whiteness of linen to cast it in the shade. Although she had not closed an eye the night before, the morning air and, yet more, the joy within of a soul pure as the heaven, and, more than all, a small secret flame guarded with the modesty of girlhood, caused a bloom to mount to her cheeks delicate as the peach-blossom in the first beams of an April sun.
Her white scarf, modestly crossed over her breast, left visible only the soft curves of a neck rounded like a turtle-dove’s; her home-made cloth gown of myrtle-green outlined her pretty figure, which looked already perfect, yet which must still grow and develop, for she was but seventeen. She wore an apron of violet silk with the bib our peasant women were so foolish as to suppress, which added so much elegance and decency to the breast. Nowadays they display their scarfs more proudly, but there is no longer in their dress that delicate flower of the purity of long ago, which made them look like Holbein’s virgins. They are more forward and more profuse in their courtesies. The good old custom used to be a kind of staid reserve which made their rare smile deeper and more ideal.
During the offertory, after the fashion of the day, Germain placed the “thirteen”— that is to say, thirteen pieces of silver — in his bride’s hand. He slipped over her finger a silver ring of a form unchanged for centuries, but which is replaced for henceforth by the golden wedding-ring. As they walked out of church, Marie said in a low voice:
“Is this really the ring I wanted? Is it the one I asked you for, Germain?”
“Yes,” answered he, “my Catherine wore it on her finger when she died. There is but one ring for both my weddings.”
“Thank you, Germain,” said the young woman, in a serious and impressive tone. “I shall die with it on, and if I go before you, you must keep it for the marriage of your little Solange.”
THEY mounted and returned very quickly to Belair. The feast was bountiful, and, mingled with songs and dances, it lasted until midnight. For fourteen hours the old people did not leave the table. The grave-digger did the cooking, and did it very well. He was celebrated for this, and he would leave his fire to come in and dance and sing before and after every course. And yet this poor Father Bontemps was epileptic. Who would have thought it? He was fresh and strong, and merry as a young man. One day we found him in a ditch, struck down by his malady at nightfall. We carried him home with us, in a wheelbarrow, and we spent all night in caring for him. Three days afterward, he was at a wedding, singing like a thrush, jumping like a kid, and bustling about after his old fashion. When he left a marriage, he would go to dig a grave, and nail up a coffin. Then he would become very grave, and though nothing of this appeared in his gay humor, it left a melancholy impression which hastened the return of his attacks. His wife was paralyzed, and had not stirred from her chair for twenty years. His mother is living yet, at a hundred and forty, but he, poor man, so happy and good and amusing, was killed last year by falling from his loft to the sidewalk. Doubtless he died a victim to a fatal attack of his disease, and, as was his habit, had hidden in the hay, so as not to frighten and distress his family. In this tragic manner he ended a life strange as his disposition — a medley of things sad and mad, awful and gay; and, in the midst of all, his heart was ever good and his nature kind.
Now we come to the third day of the wedding, the most curious of all, which is kept today in all its vigor. We shall not speak of the roast which they carry to the bridal bed; it is a very silly custom, and hurts the self-respect of the bride, while it tends to ruin the modesty of the attendant girls. Besides, I believe that it is practised in all the provinces, and does not belong peculiarly to our own.
Just as the ceremony of the wedding favors is a symbol that the heart and home of the bride are won, that of the cabbage is a symbol of the fruit-fulness of marriage. When breakfast is over on the day after the wedding, this fantastic representation begins. Originally of Gallic derivation, it has passed through primitive Christianity, and little by little it has become a kind of mystery, or droll morality-play of the Middle Ages.
Two boys, the merriest and most intelligent of the company, disappear from breakfast, and after costuming themselves, return escorted by dogs, children, and pistol-shots. They represent a pair of beggars — husband and wife — dressed in rags. The husband is the filthier of the two; it is vice which has brought him so low; the wife is unhappy and degraded only through the misdeeds of her husband.
They are called the gardener and the gardener’s wife, and they pretend it is their duty to guard and care for the sacred cabbage. The husband has several names, each with a meaning. Sometimes they call him the “scarecrow,” because his head is covered with straw or hemp, and because his legs and a portion of his body are surrounded with straw to hide his nakedness, ill concealed by his rags. He has also a great belly, or hump, constructed of straw or hay underneath his blouse. Then he is known as the “ragamuffin,” on account of his covering of rags. Lastly he is termed the “infidel,” and this is most significant of all, because by his cynicism and his debauchery he is supposed to typify the opposite of every Christian virtue.
He comes with his face all smeared with soot and the lees of wine, and sometimes made yet more hideous by a grotesque mask. An earthenware cup, notched and broken, or an old sabot attached to his girdle by a cord, shows that he has come to beg for alms of wine. Nobody refuses him, and he pretends to drink; then he pours the wine on the ground by way of libation. At every step he falls, rolls in the mud, and feigns to be a prey to the most shameful drunkenness. His poor wife runs after him, picks him up, calls for help, arranges his hempen locks, which straggle forth in unkempt wisps from beneath his filthy hat, sheds tears over her husband’s degradation, and pours forth pathetic reproaches.
“Wretched man,” she cries, “see the misery to which your wickedness has brought us. I have to spend all my time sewing and working for you, mending your clothes. You tear and bedraggle yourself incessantly. You have eaten up all my little property; our six children lie on straw, and we are living in a stable with the beasts. Here we are forced to beg for alms, and, besides, you are so ugly and vile and despicable that very soon they will be tossing us bread as if we were dogs. Ah, my poor people, take pity on us! Take pity on me! I have n’t deserved my lot, and never had woman a more dirty and detestable husband. Help me to pick him up, else the wagons will run over him as they run over broken bottles, and I shall be a widow, and that will end by killing me with grief, though all the world says it would be an excellent riddance for me.” Such is the part of the gardener’s wife, and her continued lamentations last during the entire play. For it is a genuine spontaneous comedy acted on the spur of the moment in the open air, along the roads and across the fields, aided by every chance occurrence that presents itself. Everybody shares in the acting, people within the wedding-party and people without, wayfarers and dwellers in houses, for three or four hours of the day, as we shall see. The theme is always the same, but the variations are infinite; and it is here that we can see the instinct of mimicry, the abundance of droll ideas, the fluency, the wit at repartee, and even the natural eloquence of our peasants.
The rôle of gardener’s wife is intrusted commonly to a slender man, beardless and fresh of face, who can give a great appearance of truth to his personification and plays the burlesque despair naturally enough to make people sad and glad at once, as they are in real life. These thin, beardless men are not rare among us, and, strangely enough, they are sometimes most remarkable for their muscular strength.
When the wife’s misfortunes have been explained, the young men of the company try to persuade her to leave her drunken husband and to amuse herself with them. They offer her their arms and drag her away. Little by little she gives way; her spirits rise, and she begins to run about, first with one and then with another, and grows more scandalous in her behavior: a fresh “morality”; the ill-conduct of the husband excites and aggravates the evil in the wife.
Then the “infidel” wakes from his drunkenness. He looks about for his companion, arms himself with a rope and a stick and rushes after her. They make him run, they hide, they pass the wife from one to another, they try to divert her attention and to deceive her jealous spouse. His friends try to get him drunk. At length he catches his unfaithful wife, and wishes to beat her. What is truest and most carefully portrayed in this play is that the jealous husband never attacks the men who carry off his wife. He is very polite and prudent with them, and wishes only to take vengeance on the sinning woman, because she is supposed to be too feeble to offer resistance.
At the moment, however, when he raises his stick and prepares his cord to strike the delinquent, all the men in the party interpose and throw themselves between husband and wife.
“Don’t strike her! Never strike your wife,” is the formula repeated to satiety during these scenes. They disarm the husband, and force him to pardon and to kiss his wife, and soon he pretends to love her better than ever. He walks along, his arm linked in hers, singing and dancing until, in a new access of drunkenness, he rolls upon the ground, and then begin all over again the lamentations of the wife, her discouragements, her pretended unfaithfulness, her husband’s jealousy, the interference of the neighbors, and the reconciliation. In all this there is a simple and even coarse lesson, which, though it savors strongly of its Middle–Age origin, does not fail to fix its impression if not on the married folk, who are too loving or too sensible to have need of it, at least upon the children and the young people. The “infidel,” racing after young girls and pretending to wish to kiss them, frightens and disgusts them to such a degree that they fly in unaffected terror. His dirty face and his great stick, harmless as it is, make the children shriek aloud. It is the comedy of customs in their most elementary but their most striking state.
When this farce is well under way, people make ready to hunt for the cabbage. They bring a stretcher and place upon it the “infidel,” armed with a spade, a cord, and a large basket. Four powerful men raise him on their shoulders. His wife follows on foot, and after her come the “elders” in a body with serious and thoughtful looks; then the wedding-march begins by couples to a step tuned to music. Pistol-shots begin anew, and dogs bark louder than ever at the sight of the filthy “infidel” borne aloft in triumph. The children swing incense in derision with sabots fastened at the end of a cord.
But why this ovation to an object so repulsive? They are marching to the capture of the sacred cabbage, emblem of the fruitfulness of marriage, and it is this drunkard alone who can bear the symbolic plant in his hand. Doubtless, there is in it a preChristian mystery which recalls the Saturnalian feasts or some rout of the Bacchanals. Perhaps this “infidel,” who is, at the same time, preeminently a gardener, is none other than Priapus himself, god of gardens and of drunkenness, a divinity who must have been pure and serious in his origin as is the mystery of birth, but who has been degraded bit by bit through license of manners and distraction of thought.
However this may be, the triumphal procession arrives at the bride’s house, and enters the garden. Then they select the choicest cabbage, and this is not done very quickly, for the old people keep consulting and disputing interminably, each one pleading for the cabbage he thinks most suitable. They put it to vote, and when the choice is made the gardener fastens his cord to the stalk, and moves away as far as the size of the garden permits. The gardener’s wife takes care that the sacred vegetable shall not be hurt in its fall. The wits of the wedding, the hemp-dresser, the grave-digger, the carpenter, and the sabot-maker, form a ring about the cabbage, for men who do not till the soil, but pass their lives in other people’s houses, are thought to be, and are really, wittier and more talkative than simple farmhands. One digs, with a spade, a ditch deep enough to uproot an oak. Another places on his nose a pair of wooden or cardboard spectacles. He fulfils the duties of “engineer,” walks up and down, constructs a plan, stares at the workmen through his glasses, plays the pedant, cries out that everything will be spoiled, has the work stopped and begun afresh as his fancy directs, and makes the whole performance as long and ridiculous as he can. This is an addition to the formula of an ancient ceremony held in mockery of theorists in general, for peasants despise them royally, or from hatred of the surveyors who decide boundaries and regulate taxes, or of the workmen employed on bridges and causeways, who transform commons into highways, and suppress old abuses which the peasants love. Be this as it may, this character in the comedy is called the “geometrician,” and does his best to make himself unbearable to those who are toiling with pickaxe and shovel.
After a quarter of an hour spent in mummery, and difficulties raised in order to avoid cutting the roots, and to transplant the cabbage without injury, while shovelfuls of dirt are tossed into the faces of the onlookers — so much the worse for him who does not retreat in time, for were he bishop or prince he must receive the baptism of earth — the “infidel” pulls the rope, the “infidel’s wife” holds her apron, and the cabbage falls majestically amidst the applause of the spectators. Then a basket is brought, and the “infidel” pair plant the cabbage therein with every care and precaution. They surround it with fresh earth, and support it with sticks and strings, such as city florists use for their splendid potted camellias; they fix red apples to the points of the sticks, and twist sprigs of thyme, sage, and laurel all about them; they bedeck the whole with ribbons and streamers; they place the trophy upon the stretcher with the “infidel,” whose duty it is to maintain its equilibrium and preserve it from harm; and, at length, they move away from the garden in good order and in marching step.
But when they are about to pass the gate, and again when they enter the yard of the bridegroom’s house, an imaginary obstacle blocks the way. The bearers of the burden stagger, utter loud cries, retreat, advance once more, and, as though crushed by a resistless force, they pretend to sink beneath its weight. While this is going on, the bystanders shout loudly, exciting and steadying this human team.
“Slowly, slowly, my child. There, there, courage! Look out! Be patient! Lower your head; the door is too low! Close up; it’s too narrow! A little more to the left; now to the right; on with you; don’t be afraid; you ‘re almost there.”
Thus it is that in years of plentiful harvest, the ox-cart, loaded to overflowing with hay or corn, is too broad or too high to enter the barn door. Thus it is that the driver shouts at the strong beasts, to restrain them or to urge them on; thus it is that with skill and mighty efforts they force this mountain of riches beneath the rustic arch of triumph. It is, above all, the last load, called “the cart of sheaves,” which requires these precautions, for this is a rural festival, and the last sheaf lifted from the last furrow is placed on the top of the cart-load ornamented with ribbons and flowers, while the foreheads of the oxen and the whip of the driver are decorated also. The triumphant and toilsome entry of the cabbage into the house is a symbol of the prosperity and fruitfulness it represents.
Safe within the bridegroom’s yard, the cabbage is taken from its stretcher and borne to the topmost peak of the house or barn. Whether it be a chimney, a gable, or a dove-cote that crowns the roof, the burden must, at any risk, be carried to the very highest point of the building. The “infidel” accompanies it as far as this, sets it down securely, and waters it with a great pitcher of wine, while a salvo of pistol-shots and demonstrations of joy from the “infidel’s wife” proclaim its inauguration.
Without delay, the same ceremony is repeated all over again. Another cabbage is dug from the garden of the husband and is carried with the same formalities and laid upon the roof which his wife has deserted to follow him. These trophies remain in their places until the wind and the rain destroy the baskets and carry away the cabbage. Yet their lives are long enough to give some chance of fulfilment to the prophecies which the old men and women make with bows and courtesies.
“Beautiful cabbage,” they say, “live and flourish that our young bride may have a fine baby before a year is over; for if you die too quickly it is a sign of barrenness, and you will stick up there like an ill omen.”
The day is already far gone when all these things are accomplished. All that remains undone is to take home the godfathers and godmothers of the newly married couple. When the so-called parents dwell at a distance, they are accompanied by the music and the whole wedding procession as far as the limits of the parish; there they dance anew on the highroad, and everybody kisses them good-by. The “infidel” and his wife are then washed and dressed decently, if the fatigue of their parts has not already driven them away to take a nap.
Everybody was still dancing and singing and eating in the Town Hall of Belair at midnight on this third day of the wedding when Germain was married. The old men at table could not stir, and for good reason. They recovered neither their legs nor their wits until dawn on the morrow. While they were regaining their dwellings, silently and with uncertain steps, Germain, proud and active, went out to hitch his oxen, leaving his young wife to slumber until daylight. The lark, caroling as it mounted to the skies, seemed to him the voice of his heart returning thanks to Providence. The hoar-frost, sparkling on the leafless bushes, seemed to him the whiteness of April flowers that comes before the budding leaves. Everything in nature was laughing and happy for him. Little Pierre had laughed and jumped so much the evening before that he did not come to help lead his oxen; but Germain was glad to be alone. He fell on his knees in the furrow he was about to plow afresh, and said his morning prayer with such a burst of feeling that two tears rolled down his cheeks, still moist with sweat.
Afar off he heard the songs of the boys from neighboring villages, who were starting on their return home, singing again in their hoarse voices the happy tunes of the night before.
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Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54