THE gray was young, good-looking, and strong. She carried her double burden with ease, laying back her ears and champing her bit like the high-spirited mare she was. Passing in front of the pasture, she caught sight of her mother, whose name was the Old Gray as hers was the Young Gray, and she whinnied in token of good-by. The Old Gray came nearer the hedge, and striking her shoes together she tried to gallop along the edge of the field in order to follow her daughter; then seeing her fall into a sharp trot, the mare whinnied in her turn and stood in an uneasy attitude, her nose in the air and her mouth filled with grass that she had no thought of eating.
“That poor beast always knows her offspring,” said Germain, trying to keep Marie’s thoughts from her troubles. “That reminds me, I never kissed Petit–Pierre before I started. The naughty boy was not there. Last night he wished to make me promise to take him along, and he wept for an hour in bed. This morning again, he tried everything to persuade me. Oh, how sly and coaxing he is! But when he saw that he could not gain his point, the young gentleman got into a temper. He went off to the fields, and I have not seen him all day.”
“I have seen him,” said little Marie, striving to keep back her tears; “he was running toward the clearing with Soulas’ children, and I felt sure that he had been away from home a long time, for he was hungry and was eating wild plums and blackberries. I gave him the bread I had for lunch, and he said, ‘Thank you, dear Marie; when you come to our house, I will give you some cake.’ He is a dear little child, Germain.”
“Yes, he is,” answered the laborer; “and there is nothing I would not do for him. If his grandmother had not more sense than I, I could not have helped taking him with me, when I saw him crying as though his poor little heart would burst.”
“Then why did you not take him, Germain? He, would have been very little trouble. He is so good when you please him.”
“He would probably have been in the way in the place where I am going. At least Father Maurice thought so. On the other hand, I should have thought it well to see how they received him. For no one could help being kind to such a nice child. But at home they said that I must not begin by showing off all the cares of the household. I don’t know why I speak of this to you, little Marie; you can’t understand.”
“Oh, yes, I do; I know that you are going away to marry; my mother spoke to me about it, and told me not to mention it to a soul, either at home or at my destination, and you need not be afraid; I shall not breathe a word about it.”
“You are very right. For the deed is n’t done yet. Perhaps I shall not suit this woman.”
“I hope you will, Germain; why should you not suit her?”
“Who knows? I have three children, and that is a heavy burden for a woman who is not their mother.”
“Very true. But are not your children like other children?”
“Do you think so?”
“They are lovely as little angels, and so well brought up that you can’t find better children.”
“There ‘s Sylvain. He is none too obedient.”
“He is so very little. He can’t help being naughty. But he is very bright.”
“He is bright it is true, and very brave. He is not afraid of cows nor bulls, and if he were given his own way, he would be climbing on horseback already with his elder brother.”
“Had I been in your place, I would have taken the eldest boy along. Surely people would have liked you at once for having such a pretty child.”
“Yes, if a woman is fond of children. But if she is not.”
“Are there women who don’t love children?”
“Not many, I think, but still there are some, and that is what troubles me.”
“You don’t know this woman at all, then?”
“No more than you, and I fear that I shall not know her better after I have seen her. I am not suspicious. When people say nice things to me, I believe them, but more than once I have had good reason to repent, for words are not deeds.”
“They say that she is a very good woman.”
“Who says so? Father Maurice?”
“Yes, your father-inlaw.”
“That is all very well. But he knows her no more than I.”
“Well, you will soon see. Pay close attention, and let us hope that you will not be deceived.”
“I have it. Little Marie, I should be very much obliged if you would come into the house for a minute before you go straight on to Ormeaux. You are quick-witted; you have always shown that you are not stupid, and nothing escapes your notice. Should you see anything to rouse your suspicions, you must warn me of it very quietly.”
“Oh! no, Germain, I will not do that; I should be too much afraid of making a mistake; and, besides, if a word lightly spoken were to turn you against this marriage, your family would bear me a grudge, and I have plenty of troubles now without bringing any more on my poor dear mother.”
As they were talking thus, the gray pricked up her ears and shied; then returning on her steps, she approached the bushes, where she began to recognize something which had frightened her at first. Germain cast his eye over the thicket, and in a ditch, beneath the branches of a scrub-oak, still thick and green, he saw something which he took for a lamb.
“The little creature is strayed or dead, for it does not move. Perhaps some one is looking for it; we must see.”
“It is not an animal,” cried little Marie; “it is a sleeping child. It is your Petit–Pierre.”
“Heavens!” exclaimed Germain; “see the little scamp asleep so far away from home, and in a ditch where a snake might bite him!”
He lifted up the child, who smiled as he opened his eyes and threw his arms about his father’s neck, saying: “Dear little father, you are going to take me with you.”
“Oh, yes; always the same tune. What were you doing there, you naughty Pierre?”
“I was waiting for my little father to go by. I was watching the road, and I watched so hard that I fell asleep.”
“And if I had passed by without seeing you, you would have been out of doors all night, and a wolf would have eaten you up.”
“Oh, I knew very well that you would see me,” answered Petit–Pierre, confidently.
“Well, kiss me now, bid me good-by, and run back quickly to the house, unless you wish them to have supper without you.”
“Are you not going to take me, then?” cried the little boy, beginning to rub his eyes to show that he was thinking of tears.
“You know very well that grandpapa and grand-mama do not wish it,” said Germain, fortifying himself behind the authority of his elders, like a man who distrusts his own.
The child would not listen. He began to cry with all his might, saying that as long as his father was taking little Marie, he might just as well take him too. They replied that they must pass through great woods filled with wicked beasts who eat up little children. The gray would not carry three people; she had said so when they were starting, and in the country where they were going there was no bed and no supper for little boys. All these good reasons could not persuade Petit–Pierre; he threw himself on the ground, and rolled about, shrieking that his little father did not love him any more, and that if he did not take him he would never go back to the house at all, day or night.
Germain had a father’s heart, as soft and weak as a woman’s. His-wife’s death, and the care which he had been obliged to bestow all alone on his little ones, as well as the thought that these poor motherless children needed a great deal of love, combined to make him thus. So such a sharp struggle went on within him, all the more because he was ashamed of his weakness and tried to hide his confusion from little Marie, that the sweat started out on his forehead, and his eyes grew red and almost ready to weep. At last he tried to get angry, but as he turned toward little Marie in order to let her witness his strength of mind, he saw that the good girls face was wet with tears; all his courage forsook him and he could not keep back his own, scold and threaten as he would.
“Truly your heart is too hard,” said little Marie at last, “and for myself I know that I never could refuse a child who felt so badly. Come, Germain, let ‘s take him. Your mare is well used to carrying two people and a child, for you know that your brother-inlaw and his wife, who is much heavier than I, go to market every Saturday with their boy on this good beast’s back. Take him on the horse in front of you. Besides, I should rather walk on foot all alone than give this little boy so much pain.”
“Never mind,” answered Germain, who was dying to allow himself to give way. “The gray is strong, and could carry two more if there were room on her back. But what can we do with this child on the way? He will be cold and hungry, and who will take care of him to-night and tomorrow, put him to bed, wash him, and dress him? I don’t dare give this trouble to a woman I don’t know, who will think, doubtless, that I am exceedingly free and easy with her to begin with.”
“Trust me, Germain, you will know her at once by the kindness or the impatience that she shows. If she does not care to receive your Pierre, I will take charge of him myself. I will go to her house and dress him, and I will take him to the fields with me tomorrow. I will amuse him all day long, and take good care that he does not want for anything.”
“He will tire you, my poor girl, and give you trouble. A whole day is a long time.”
“Not at all; it will give me pleasure; he will keep me company, and that will make me less sad the first day that I must pass in a new place. I shall fancy that I am still at home.”
Seeing that little Marie was pleading for her, the child seized upon her skirt and held it so tight that they must have hurt him in order to tear it away. When he perceived that his father was weakening, he took Marie’s hand in both his tiny sunburned fists and kissed her, leaping for joy, and pulling her toward the mare with the burning impatience children feel in their desires.
“Come along,” said the young girl, lifting him in her arms; “let us try to quiet his poor little heart. It is fluttering like a little bird; and if you feel the cold when night comes on, tell me, my Pierre, and I will wrap you in my cape. Kiss your little father, and beg his pardon for being naughty. Tell him that you will never, never be so again. Do you hear?”
“Yes, yes, provided that I always do just as he wishes. Is n’t it so?” said Germain, drying the little boy’s eyes with his handkerchief. “Marie, you are spoiling the little rascal. But really and truly, you are too good, little Marie. I don’t know why you did not come to us as shepherdess last Saint John’s Day. You would have taken care of my children, and I should much rather pay a good price for their sake than try to find a woman who will think, perhaps, she is doing me a great kindness if she does not detest them.”
“You must not look on the dark side of things,” answered little Marie, holding the horse’s bridle while Germain placed his son in front of the big pack-saddle covered with goatskin. “If your wife does not care for children, take me into your service next year, and you may be sure I shall amuse them so well that they will not notice anything.”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:54