WHEN they reached the village, the widow halted to allow them to catch up. She was bent upon making her entry with all her train; but Germain, denying her this pleasure, deserted Father Leonard, and after conversing with several acquaintances, he entered the church by another door. The widow was vexed.
When mass was over, she made her appearance in triumph on the lawn, where dancing was going on, and she began her dance with her three lovers in turn. Germain watched her and saw that she danced well, but with affectation.
“So, you don’t ask my daughter?” said Leonard, tapping him on the shoulder. “You are too easily frightened.”
“I have not danced since I lost my wife,” answered the husbandman.
“But now that you are looking for another, mourning ‘s over in heart as well as in clothes.”
“That ‘s no reason, Father Leonard. Besides, I am too old and I don’t care for dancing.”
“Listen,” said Father Leonard, drawing him toward a retired corner, “when you entered my house you were vexed to see the place already besieged, and I see that you are very proud. But that is not reasonable, my boy. My daughter is used to a great deal of attention, particularly since she left off her mourning two years ago, and it is not her place to lead you on.”
“Has your daughter been thinking of marrying for two years already without making her choice?” asked Germain.
“She does n’t wish to hurry, and she is right. Although she has lively manners, and although you may not think that she reflects a great deal, she is a woman of excellent common sense, and knows very well what she is about.”
“It does not appear to me so,” said Germain ingenuously, “for she has three suitors in her train, and if she knew her own mind, there are two of them, at least, whom she would find superfluous and request to stay at home.”
“Why, Germain, you don’t understand at all. She does n’t wish the old man, nor the blind man, nor the young man, I am quite certain; yet if she were to turn them off, people would think that she wished to remain a widow, and nobody else would come.”
“Oh, I see. These three are used for a guide-post.”
“As you like. What is the harm if they are satisfied?”
“Every man to his taste,” said Germain.
“I see that yours is different. Now supposing that you are chosen, then they would leave the coast clear.”
“Yes, supposing! and meanwhile how much time should I have to whistle?”
“That depends on your persuasive tongue, I suppose. Until now, my daughter has always thought that she would pass the best part of her life while she was being courted, and she is in no hurry to become the servant of one man when she can order so many others about. So she will please herself as long as the game amuses her; but if you please her more than the game, the game will cease. Only you must not lose courage. Come back every Sunday, dance with her, let her know that you are amongst her followers, and if she finds you more agreeable and better bred than the others, some fine day she will tell you so, no doubt.”
“Excuse me, Father Leonard. Your daughter has the right to do as she pleases, and it is not my business to blame her. If I were in her place, I should do differently. I should be more frank, and should not waste the time of men who have, doubtless, something better to do than dancing attendance on a woman who makes fun of them. Still, if that is what amuses her and makes her happy, it is no affair of mine. Only there is one thing I must tell you which is a little embarrassing, since you have mistaken my intentions from the start, for you are so sure of what is not so, that you have given me no chance to explain. You must know, then, that I did not come here to ask for your daughter in marriage, but merely to buy a pair of oxen which you are going to take to market next week, and which my father-inlaw thinks will suit him.”
“I understand, Germain,” answered Leonard very calmly; “you changed your plans when you saw my daughter with her admirers. It is as you please. It seems that what attracts some people repels others, and you are perfectly welcome to withdraw, for you have not declared your intentions. If you wish seriously to buy my cattle, come and see them in the pasture, and whether we make a bargain or not, you will come back to dinner with us before you return.”
“I don’t wish to trouble you,” answered Germain. “Perhaps you have something to do here. I myself am tired of watching the dancing and standing idle. I will go to see your cattle, and I will soon join you at your house.”
Then Germain made his escape, and walked away toward the meadows where Leonard had pointed out to him some of his cattle. It was true that Father Maurice intended to buy, and Germain thought that if he were to bring home a fine pair of oxen at a reasonable price, he might more easily receive a pardon for wilfully relinquishing the purpose of his journey. He walked rapidly, and soon found himself at some distance from Ormeaux. Then of a sudden, he felt a desire to kiss his son and to see little Marie once again, although he had lost all hope and even had chased away the thought that he might some day owe his happiness to her. Everything that he had heard and seen: this woman, flirtatious and vain; this father, at once shrewd and short-sighted, encouraging his daughter in habits of pride and untruth; this city luxury, which seemed to him a transgression against the dignity of country manners; this time wasted in foolish, empty words; this home so different from his own; and above all, that deep uneasiness which comes to a laborer of the fields when he leaves his accustomed toil: all the trouble and annoyance of the past few hours made Germain long to be with his child and with his little neighbor. Even had he not been in love, he would have sought her to divert his mind and raise his spirits to their wonted level.
But he looked in vain over the neighboring meadows. He saw neither little Marie nor little Pierre, and yet it was the hour when shepherds are in the fields. There was a large flock in a pasture. He asked of a young boy who tended them whether the sheep belonged to the farm of Ormeaux.
“Yes,” said the child.
“Are you the shepherd? Do boys tend the flocks of the farm, amongst you?”
“No, I am taking care of them today, because the shepherdess went away. She was ill.”
“But have you not a new shepherdess, who came this morning?”
“Yes, surely; but she, too, has gone already.”
“What! gone? Did she not have a child with her?”
“Yes, a little boy who cried. They both went away after they had been here two hours.”
“Went away! Where?”
“Where they came from, I suppose. I did n’t ask them.”
“But why did they go away?” asked Germain, growing more and more uneasy.
“How the deuce do I know?”
“Did they not agree about wages? Yet that must have been settled before.”
“I can tell you nothing about it I saw them come and go, nothing more.”
Germain walked toward the farm and questioned the farmer. Nobody could give him an explanation; but after speaking with the farmer, he felt sure that the girl had gone without saying a word, and had taken the weeping child with her.
“Can they have been ill-treating my son?” cried Germain.
“It was your son, then? How did he happen to be with the little girl? Where do you come from, and what is your name?”
Germain, seeing that after the fashion of the country they were answering him with questions, stamped his foot impatiently, and asked to speak with the master.
The master was away. Usually, he did not spend the whole day when he came to the farm. He was on horseback, and he had ridden off to one of his other farms.
“But, honestly,” said Germain, growing very anxious, “can’t you tell me why this girl left?”
The farmer and his wife exchanged an odd smile. Then the former answered that he knew nothing, and that it was no business of his. All that Germain could learn was that both girl and child had started off toward Fourche. He rushed back to Fourche. The widow and her lovers were still away; so was Father Leonard. The maid told him that a girl and a child had come to ask for him, but that as she did not know them, she did not wish to let them in, and had advised them to go to Mers.
“And why did you refuse to let them in?” said Germain, angrily. “People are very suspicious in this country, where nobody opens the door to a neighbor.”
“But you see,” answered the maid, “in a house as rich as this, I must keep my eyes open. When the master is away, I am responsible for everything, and I cannot open the door to the first person that comes along.”
“It is a bad custom,” said Germain, “and I had rather be poor than to live in constant fear like that. Good-by to you, young woman, and good-by to your vile country.”
He made inquiries at the neighboring house. The shepherdess and child had been seen. As the boy had left Belair suddenly, carelessly dressed, with his blouse torn, and his little lambskin over his shoulders, and as little Marie was necessarily poorly clad at all times, they had been taken for beggars. People had offered them bread. The girl had accepted a crust for the child, who was hungry, then she had walked away with him very quickly, and had entered the forest.
Germain thought a minute, then he asked whether the farmer of Ormeaux had not been at Fourche.
“Yes,” they answered, “he passed on horseback a few seconds after the girl.”
“Was he chasing her?”
“Oh, so you understand?” answered the village publican, with a laugh. “Certain it is that he is the devil of a fellow for running after girls. But I don’t believe that he caught her; though, after all, if he had seen her —”
“That is enough, thank you!” And he flew rather than ran to Leonard’s stable. Throwing the saddle on the gray’s back, he leaped upon it, and set off at full gallop toward the wood of Chanteloube.
His heart beat hard with fear and anger; the sweat poured down his forehead; he spurred the mare till the blood came, though the gray needed no pressing when she felt herself on the road to her stable.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59