“THIS time I give up,” said Germain, stamping I his foot. “We are bewitched, that is certain, and we shall not get away from here before broad day. The devil is in this place!”
“Well, it’s of no use to get angry,” said Marie. “We must take what is given us. Let us make a big fire. The child is so well wrapped up that he is in no danger, and we shall not die from a single night out of doors. Where have you hidden the saddle, Germain? Right in the midst of the holly-bushes — what a goose you are! It ‘s very convenient to get it from there!”
“Stop, child; hold the boy while I pull his bed from the thorns. I did n’t want you to scratch your hands.”
“It ‘s all done. Here ‘s the bed, and a few scratches are not saber-cuts,” replied the brave girl.
She proceeded to put the child to bed again, and Petit–Pierre was so sound asleep this time that he knew nothing of his last journey. Germain piled so much wood on the fire that the forest all about glowed with the light.
Little Marie had come to the end of her powers, and although she did not complain, her legs would support her no longer. She was white, and her teeth chattered with cold and weakness. Germain took her in his arms to warm her. The uneasiness, the compassion, the tenderness of movement he could not repress, took possession of his heart and stilled his senses. As by a miracle his tongue was loosened, and every feeling of shame vanished.
“Marie,” said he, “I like you, and I am very sorry that you don’t like me. If you would take me for your husband, there are no fathers, nor family, nor neighbors, nor arguments which could prevent me from giving myself to you. I know how happy you would make my children, and that you would teach them to love the memory of their mother, and with a quiet conscience I could satisfy the wishes of my heart. I have always been fond of you, and now I love you so well that were you to ask me to spend all my life in doing your pleasure, I would swear to do it on the instant. Please think how much I love you, and try to forget my age. Think that it is a wrong notion to believe that a man of thirty is old. Besides, I am but twenty-eight. A young girl is afraid that people will talk about her if she takes a man ten or twelve years older than she, simply because that is not the custom in our country, but I have heard say that in other countries people don’t look at it in this light, and that they had rather allow a sensible man of approved courage to support a young girl, than trust her to a mere boy, who may go astray, and, from the honest fellow they thought him, turn into a good-for-nothing. And then years don’t always make age. That depends on the health and strength a person has. When a man is used up by overwork and poverty, or by a bad life, he is old before twenty-five. While I— but Marie, you are not listening. . . . ” “Yes I am, Germain; I hear you perfectly,” answered little Marie, “but I am thinking over what my mother used to tell me so often: that a woman of sixty is to be pitied greatly when her husband is seventy or seventy-five and can no longer work to support her. He grows feeble, and it becomes her duty to nurse him at the very age when she begins to feel great need of care and rest herself, and so it is that the end comes in a garret.”
“Parents do well to say so, I admit,” answered Germain, “but then they would sacrifice all their youth, the best years of their life, to calculating what will become of them at the age when a person is no longer good for anything, and when it is a matter of indifference which way death comes. But I am in no danger of starving in my old age. I am even going to lay by something, since I live with my wife’s parents and spend nothing. And then, you see, I shall love you so well that I can never grow old. They say that when a man is happy he keeps sound, and I know well that in love for you, I am younger than Bastien; for he does not love you; he is too stupid, too much of a child to understand how pretty and how good you are, and how you were made for people to court. Do not hate me, Marie. I am not a bad man. I made my Catherine happy, and on her death-bed she swore before God that she had had only happiness of me, and she asked me to marry again. Her spirit must have spoken to her child to-night. Did you not hear the words he said? How his little lips quivered as his eyes stared upward, watching something that we could not see! He was surely looking at his mother, and it was she who made him say that he wished you to take her place.”
“Germain,” answered Marie, amazed and yet thoughtful, “you speak frankly, and everything that you say is true. I am sure that I should do well to love you if it did not displease your parents too much. But what can I do? My heart does not speak for you. I am very fond of you, but though your age does not make you ugly, it makes me afraid. It seems as if you were some such relation to me, as an uncle or a godfather, that I must be respectful toward you, and that there might be moments when you would treat me like a little girl rather than like your wife and your equal. And perhaps my friends would make fun of me, and although it would be silly to give heed to that, I think that I should be a little sad on my wedding-day.”
“Those are but childish reasons, Marie; you speak like a child.”
“Yes, that is true; I am a child,” said she, “and it is on that account I am afraid of too sensible a man. You must see that I am too young for you, since you just found fault with me for speaking foolishly. I can’t have more sense than my age allows.”
“O Heavens! How unlucky I am to be so clumsy and to express so ill what I think!” cried Germain. “Marie, you don’t love me. That is the long and short of it. You find me too simple and too dull. If you loved me at all, you would not see my faults so clearly. But you do not love me. That is the whole story.”
“That is not my fault,” answered she, a little hurt that he was speaking with less tenderness. “I am doing my best to hear you, but the more I try the less I can get it into my head that we ought to be husband and wife.”
Germain did not answer. His head dropped into his hands, and little Marie could not tell whether he wept or sulked or was fast asleep. She felt uneasy when she saw him so cast down, and could not guess what was passing in his mind. But she dared not speak to him more, and as she was too astonished at what had passed to have any desire to sleep, she waited impatiently for dawn, tending the fire with care and watching over the child, whose existence Germain appeared to forget. Yet Germain was not asleep. He did not mope over his lot. He made no plans to encourage himself, nor schemes to entrap the girl. He suffered; he felt a great weight of grief at his heart. He wished that he were dead. The world seemed to turn against him, and if he could have wept at all, his tears would have come in floods. But mingled with his sorrow there was a feeling of anger against himself, and he felt choked, without the power or the wish to complain.
When morning came, and the sounds of the country brought it to Germain’s senses, he lifted his head from his hands and rose. He saw that little Marie had slept no more than he, but he knew no words in which to tell her of his anxiety. He was very discouraged. Hiding the gray’s saddle once more in the thicket, he slung his sack over his shoulder and took his son by the hand.
“Now, Marie,” said he, “we are going to try to end our journey. Do you wish me to take you to Ormeaux?”
“Let us leave the woods together,” answered she, “and when we know where we are, we shall separate, and go our different ways.”
Germain did not answer. He felt hurt that the girl did not ask him to take her as far as Ormeaux, and he did not notice that he had asked her in a tone well fitted to provoke a refusal.
After a few hundred steps, they met a wood-cutter, who pointed out the highroad, and told them that when they had crossed the plain, one must turn to the right, the other to the left, to gain their different destinations, which were so near together that the houses of Fourche were in plain sight from the farm of Ormeaux, and vice versa.
When they had thanked him and passed on, the wood-cutter called them back to ask whether they had not lost a horse.
“Yes,” he said, “I found a pretty gray mare in my yard, where perhaps a wolf had driven her to seek refuge; my dogs barked the whole night long, and at daybreak I saw the mare under my shed. She is there now. Come along with me, and if you recognize her, you may take her.”
When Germain had given a description of the gray, and felt convinced that it was really she, he started back to find his saddle. Little Marie offered to take his child to Ormeaux, whither he might go to get him after he had introduced himself at Fourche.
“He is rather dirty after the night that we have passed,” said she. “I will brush his clothes, wash his pretty face, and comb his hair, and when he looks neat and clean, you can present him to your new family.”
“Who told you that I wish to go to Fourche?” answered Germain, petulantly. “Perhaps I shall not go.”
“But truly, Germain, it is your duty to go there. You will go there,” replied the girl.
“You seem very anxious to have me married off, so that you may be quite sure that I shall not trouble you again?”
“Germain, you must not think of that any more. It is an idea which came to you in the night, because this unfortunate mishap took away your spirits. But now you must come to your senses. I promise you to forget everything that you said to me, and not to breathe it to a soul.”
“Oh, say what you wish. It is not my custom to deny what I have spoken. What I told you was true and honest, and I shall not blush for it before anybody.”
“Yes, but if your wife were to know that just before you came you were thinking of another woman, it would prejudice her against you. So take care how you speak now. Don’t look at me before everybody with such a rapt expression. Think of Father Maurice, who relies on your obedience, and who would be enraged at me if I were to turn you from his will. Good-by, Germain. I take Petit–Pierre in order to force you to go to Fourche. He is a pledge which I keep on your behalf.”
“So you want to go with her?” said the husbandman to his son, seeing that the boy had clasped Marie’s hands and was following her resolutely.
“Yes, father,” answered the child, who had heard the conversation and understood after his own fashion the words spoken so unguardedly before him. “I am going away with my dearest little Marie. You shall come to find me when you have done marrying, but I wish Marie to be my little mother.”
“You see how much he wishes it,” said Germain to the girl. “Listen to me, Petit–Pierre,” he added. “I wish her to be your mother and to stay with you always. It is she who does not wish to. Try to make her grant you what she has denied me.”
“Don’t be afraid, father, I shall make her say yes. Little Marie does everything that I wish.”
He walked away with the young girl. Germain stood alone, sadder and more irresolute than ever.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59