GERMAIN came soon to the spot where he had passed the night on the border of the pool. The fire was smoking still. An old woman was gathering the remnants of the wood little Marie had piled there. Germain stopped to question her. She was deaf and mistook his inquiries.
“Yes, my son,” said she, “this is the Devil’s Pool. It is an evil spot, and you must not approach it without throwing in three stones with your left hand, while you cross yourself with the right. That drives away the spirits. Otherwise trouble comes to those who go around it.”
“I am not asking about that,” said Germain, moving nearer her, and screaming at the top of his lungs. “Have you seen a girl and a child walking through the wood?”
“Yes,” said the old woman, “a little child was drowned there.”
Germain shook from head to foot; but happily the hag added:
“That happened a long time ago. In memory of the accident they raised a handsome cross there. But one stormy night, the bad spirits threw it into the water. You can still see one end of it. If anybody were unlucky enough to pass the night here, he could never find his way out before daylight. He must walk and walk, and though he went two hundred leagues into the forest, he must always return to the same place.”
The peasant’s imagination was aroused in spite of himself, and the thought of the evils that must come in order that the old woman’s assertions might be vindicated, took so firm a hold of his mind that he felt chilled through and through. Hopeless of obtaining more news, he remounted, and traversed the woods afresh, calling Pierre with all his might, whistling, cracking his whip, and snapping the branches that the whole forest might reëcho with the noise of his coming; then he listened for an answering voice, but he heard no sound save the cowbells scattered through the glades, and the wild cries of the swine as they fought over the acorns.
At length Germain heard behind him the noise of a horse following in his traces, and a man of middle age, dark, sturdy, and dressed after the city fashion, called to him to stop. Germain had never seen the farmer of Ormeaux, but his instinctive rage told him at once that this was the man. He turned, and eyeing him from head to foot, waited for him to speak.
“Have not you seen a young girl of fifteen or sixteen go by with a small boy?” asked the farmer, with an assumed air of indifference, although he was evidently ill at ease.
“What do you want of her?” answered Germain, taking no pains to conceal his anger.
“I might tell you that that is none of your business, my friend. But as I have no reasons for secrecy, I shall tell you that she is a shepherdess whom I engaged for a year, before I knew her. When I saw her, she looked too young and frail to work on the farm. I thanked her, but I wished to pay the expenses of her short journey, and while my back was turned, she went off in a huff. She was in such a hurry that she forgot even some of her belongings and her purse, which has certainly not much in it, probably but a few pennies; but since I was going in this direction, I hoped to meet her, and give her back the things which she left behind, as well as what I owe her.”
Germain had too honest a heart not to pause at hearing a story which, however unlikely, was not impossible. He fastened his penetrating gaze on the farmer, who submitted to the examination with a plentiful supply of impudence or of good faith.
“I wish to get at the bottom of this matter,” said Germain; “and,” continued he, suppressing his indignation, “the girl lives in my village. I know her. She can’t be far away. Let ‘s ride on together; we shall find her, no doubt.”
“You are right,” said the farmer; “let’s move on; but if we do not find her before we reach the end of this road, I shall give up, for I must turn off toward Ardentes.”
“Oh, oh!” thought the peasant, “I shall not part with you, even if I have to follow you around the ‘Devil’s Pool for twenty-four hours.”
“Stop,” said Germain suddenly, fixing his eyes on a clump of broom which waved in a peculiar manner. “Halloa! halloa! Petit Pierre, is that you, my child?”
The boy recognized his father’s voice, and came out from the broom leaping like a young deer; but when he saw Germain in company with the farmer, he stopped dismayed, and stood irresolute. “Come, my Pierre, come. It is I,” cried the husbandman, as he leaped from his horse and ran toward his boy to take him in his arms; “and where is little Marie?”
“She is hiding there, because she is afraid of that dreadful black man, and so am I.”
“You need n’t be afraid. I am here. Marie, Marie. It is I.”
Marie crept toward them, but the moment she saw Germain with the farmer close behind, she sprang forward, and throwing herself into his arms, clung to him as a daughter to her father.
“Oh, my brave Germain!” she cried, “you will defend me. I am not afraid when you are near.”
Germain shuddered. He looked at Marie. She was pale; her clothes were torn by the thorns which had scratched her as she passed, rushing toward the brake like a stag chased by the hunters. But neither shame nor despair were in her face.
“Your master wishes to speak to you,” said he, his eyes fixed on her features.
“My master!” she exclaimed fiercely; “that man is no master of mine, and he never shall be. You, Germain, you are my master. I want you to take me home with you. I will be your servant for nothing.”
The farmer advanced, feigning impatience. “Little girl,” said he, “you left something behind at the farm, which I am bringing back to you.”
“No, you are not, sir,” answered little Marie. “I did n’t forget anything, and I have nothing to ask of you.”
“Listen a moment,” returned the farmer. “It ‘s I who have something to tell you. Come with me. Don’t be afraid. It’s only a word or two.”
“You may say them aloud. I have no secrets with you.”
“At any rate, do take your money.”
“My money? You owe me nothing, thank God!”
“I suspected as much,” said Germain under his breath, “but I don’t care, Marie. Listen to what he has to say to you, for — I am curious to know. You can tell me afterward. Go up to his horse. I shall not lose sight of you.”
Marie took three steps toward the farmer. He bent over the pommel of his saddle, and lowering his voice he said:
“Little girl, here is a bright golden louis for you. Don’t say anything about it; do you hear? I shall say that I found you too frail to work on my farm. There will be no more talk about that. I shall be passing by your house one of these days; and if you have not said anything, I will give you something more; and then if you are more sensible, you have only to speak. I will take you home with me, or I will come at dusk and talk with you in the meadows. What present would you like me to bring you?”
“Here, sir, is the present I have for you,” answered little Marie, aloud, as she threw the golden louis in his face with all her might. “I thank you heartily, and I beg that if you come anywhere near our house, you will be good enough to let me know. All the boys in the neighborhood will go out to welcome you, because, where I live, we are very fond of gentlemen who try to make love to poor girls. You shall see. They will be on the lookout for you.”
“You lie with your dirty tongue,” cried the farmer, raising his stick with a dangerous air. “You wish to make people believe what is not so, but you shall never get a penny out of me. We know what kind of a girl you are.”
Marie drew back, frightened, and Germain sprang to the bridle of the farmer’s horse and shook it violently.
“I understand now,” said he; “it is easy to see what is going on. Get down, my man, get down; I want to talk to you.”
The farmer was not eager to take up the quarrel. Anxious to escape, he set spurs to his horse and tried to loosen the peasant’s grasp by striking down his hands with a cane; but Germain dodged the blow, and seizing hold of his antagonist’s leg, he unseated him and flung him to the earth. The farmer regained his feet, but although he defended himself vigorously, he was knocked down once more. Germain held him to the ground. Then he said:
“Poor coward, I could thrash you if I wished. But I don’t want to do you an injury, and, besides, no amount of punishment would help your conscience — but you shall not stir from this spot until you beg the girl’s pardon, on your knees.”
The farmer understood this sort of thing, and wished to take it all as a joke. He made believe that his offense was not serious, since it lay in words alone, and protested that he was perfectly willing to ask her pardon, provided he might kiss the girl afterward. Finally, he proposed that they go and drink a pint of wine at the nearest tavern, and so part good friends.
“You are disgusting!” answered Germain, rubbing his victim’s head in the dirt, “and I never wish to see your nasty face again. So blush, if you are able, and when you come to our village, you had better slink along Sneak’s Alley.”*
He picked up the farmer’s holly-stick, broke it over his knee to show the strength of his wrists, and threw away the pieces with disgust Then giving one hand to his son and the other to little Marie, he walked away, still trembling with anger.
Last updated Friday, October 16, 2015 at 18:21