LITTLE MARIE seemed to give no more heed to the child’s odd words than to regard them as a proof of friendship. She wrapped him up with care, stirred the fire, and as the fog resting on the neighboring pool gave no sign of lifting, she advised Germain to lie near the fire and take a nap.
“I see that you are sleepy already,” said she, “for you don’t say a word and you gaze into the fire, just as your little boy was doing.”
“It is you who must sleep,” answered the husbandman, “and I will take care of both of you, for I have never felt less sleepy than I do now. I have fifty things to think of.”
“Fifty is a great many,” said the little girl, with a mocking accent. “There are lots of people who would be delighted to have one.”
“Well, if I am too stupid to have fifty, I have one, at least, which has not left me for the past hour.”
“And I shall tell it to you as well as I told you those you thought of before.”
“Yes, do tell me if you know, Marie. Tell me yourself. I shall be glad to hear.”
“An hour ago,” she answered, “your idea was to eat — and now it is to sleep.”
“Marie, I am only an ox-driver, but, upon my word, you take me for an ox. You are very perverse, and it is easy to see that you do not care to talk to me, so go to sleep. That will be better than to pick flaws in a man who is out of sorts.”
“If you wish to talk, let ‘s talk,” said the girl, half reclining near the child and resting her head against the saddle. “You torment yourself, Germain, and you do not show much courage for a man. What would n’t I say if I did n’t do my best to fight my own troubles?”
“Yes, that’s very true, and that ‘s just what I am thinking of, my poor child. You are going to live, away from your friends, in a horrid country full of moors and fens, where you will catch the autumn fevers. Sheep do not pay well there, and this is always discouraging for a shepherdess if she means well. Then you will be surrounded by strangers who may not be kind to you and will not know how much you are worth. It makes me more sorry than I can tell you, and I have a great desire to take you home to your mother instead of going on to Fourche.”
“You talk very kindly, but there is no reason for your misgivings, my poor Germain. You ought not to lose heart on your friend’s account, and instead of showing me the dark side of my lot, you should show me the bright side, as you did after lunch at Rebec’s.”
“What can I do? That ‘s the way it appeared to me then, and now my ideas are changed. It is best for you to take a husband.”
“That cannot be, Germain, and as it is out of the question, I think no more about it.”
“Yet such a thing might happen. Perhaps if you told me what kind of a man you want, I might imagine somebody.”
“Imagining is not finding. For myself, I never imagine, for it does no good.”
“You are not looking for a rich man?”
“Certainly not, for I am as poor as Job.”
“But if he were comfortably off, you would n’t be sorry to have a good house, and good food, and good clothes, and to live with an honest family who would allow you to help your mother.”
“Oh, yes indeed! It is my own wish to help my mother.”
“And if this man were to turn up, you would not be too hard to please, even if he were not so very young.”
“Ah! There you must excuse me, Germain. That is just the point I insist on. I could never love an old man.”
“An old man, of course not; but a man of my age, for example!”
“Your age is too old for me, Germain. I should like Bastien’s age, though Bastien is not so good-looking as you.”
“Should you rather have Bastien, the swineherd?” said Germain, indignantly. “A fellow with eyes shaped like those of the pigs he drives!”
“I could excuse his eyes, because he is eighteen.”
Germain felt terribly jealous.
“Well,” said he, “it’s clear that you want Bastien, but, none the less, it ‘s a queer idea.”
“Yes, that would be a queer idea,” answered little Marie, bursting into shouts of laughter, “and he would make a queer husband. You could gull him to your heart’s content. For instance, the other day, I had picked up a tomato in the curate’s garden. I told him that it was a fine, red apple, and he bit into it like a glutton. If you had only seen what a face he made. Heavens! how ugly he was!”
“Then you don’t love him, since you are making fun of him.”
“That would n’t be a reason. But I don’t like him. He is unkind to his little sister, and he is dirty.” “Don’t you care for anybody else?” “How does that concern you, Germain?” “Not at all, except that it gives me something to talk about. I see very well, little girl, that you have a sweetheart in your mind already.”
“No, Germain, you ‘re wrong. I have no sweetheart yet. Perhaps one may come later, but since I cannot marry until I have something laid by, I am destined to marry late in life and with an old man.” “Then take an old man without delay.” “No. When I am no longer young, I shall not care; for the present, it is different.” “I see that I displease you, Marie; that’s clear enough,” said Germain, impatiently, and without stopping to weigh his words.
Little Marie did not answer. Germain bent over her. She was sleeping. She had fallen back, overcome, stricken down, as it were, by slumber, as children are who sleep before they cease to babble.
Germain was glad that she had not caught his last words. He felt that they were unwise, and he turned his back to distract his attention and change his thoughts.
It was all in vain. He could neither sleep nor think of anything except the words he had just spoken. He walked about the fire twenty times; he moved away; he came back. At last, feeling himself tremble as though he had swallowed gunpowder, he leaned against the tree which sheltered the two children, and watched them as they slept.
“I know not how it is,” thought he; “I have never noticed that little Marie is the prettiest girl in the countryside. She has not much color, but her little face is fresh as a wild rose. What a charming mouth she has, and how pretty her little nose is! She is not large for her age, but she is formed like a little quail and is as light as a bird. I cannot understand why they made so much fuss at home over a big, fat woman with a bright red face. My wife was rather slender and pale, and she pleased me more than any one else. This girl is very frail, but she is healthy, and she is pretty to watch as a white kid. And then she has such a gentle, frank expression. You can read her good heart in her eyes even though they are closed in sleep. As to wit, I must confess she has more than ever my dear Catherine had, and she would never become wearisome. She is gay, wise, industrious, loving, and she is amusing. I don’t know what more I could wish for. . . .
“But what is the use of thinking of all this?” Germain went on, trying to look in another direction. “My father-inlaw would not hear of it, and all the family would think me mad! Besides, she would not have me herself, poor child! She thinks me too old; she told me so. She is unselfish, and does not mind poverty and worry, wearing old clothes, and suffering from hunger for two or three months every year, so long as she can satisfy her heart some day and give herself to the man she loves. She is right. I should do the same in her place, and even now, if I had my own way, instead of marrying a wife whom I don’t care for, I would choose a girl after my own heart.”
The more Germain tried to compose himself by reasoning, the further he was from succeeding. He walked away a dozen steps, to lose himself in the fog; then, all of a sudden, he found himself on his knees beside the two sleeping children. Once he wished to kiss Petit–Pierre, who had one arm about Marie’s neck, and made such a mistake that Marie felt a breath, hot as fire, cross her lips, and awaking, looked about her with a bewildered expression, totally ignorant of all that was passing within his mind.
“I did n’t see you, my poor children,” said Germain, retreating rapidly. “I almost stumbled over you and hurt you.”
Little Marie was so innocent that she believed him, and fell asleep again. Germain walked to the opposite side of the fire, and swore to God that he would not stir until she had waked. He kept his word, but not without a struggle. He thought that he would go mad.
At length, toward midnight, the fog lifted, and Germain could see the stars shining through the trees. The moon freed herself from the mist which had hidden her, and began to sow her diamonds over the damp moss. The trunks of the oak-trees remained in impressive darkness, but beyond, the white branches of the birch-trees seemed a long line of phantoms in their shrouds. The fire cast its reflection in the pool; and the frogs, growing accustomed to the light, hazarded a few shrill and uneasy notes; the rugged branches of the old trees, bristling with dim-colored lichens, crossed and intertwined themselves, like great gaunt arms, above the travelers’ heads. It was a lovely spot, but so lonely and so sad that Germain, unable to endure it more, began to sing and throw stones into the water to forget the dread weariness of solitude. He was anxious also to wake little Marie, and when he saw her rise and look about at the weather, he proposed that they start on their journey.
“In two hours,” said he, “the approach of morning will chill the air so that we can’t stay here in spite of our fire. Now we can see our way, and we shall soon find a house which will open its doors to us, or at least a barn where we can pass the rest of the night under shelter.”
Marie had no will of her own, and although she was longing to sleep, she made ready to follow Germain. The husbandman took his boy in his arms without awaking him, and beckoned Marie to come nearer, in order to cover her with his cloak. For she would not take her own mantle, which was wrapped about the child.
When he felt the young girl so close to him, Germain, who for a time had succeeded in distracting his mind and raising his spirits, began to lose his head once more. Two or three times he strode ahead abruptly, leaving her to walk alone. Then seeing how hard it was for her to follow, he waited, drew her quickly to his side, and pressed her so tight that she was surprised, and even angry, though she dared not say so.
As they knew not the direction whence they had come, they had no idea of that in which they were going. So they crossed the wood once more, and found themselves afresh before the lonely moor. Then they retraced their steps, and after much turning and twisting they spied a light across the branches.
“Good enough! Here ‘s a house,” exclaimed Germain. “And the people are already astir, for the fire is lighted. It must be very late.”
It was no house, but the camp-fire, which they had covered before they left, and which had sprung up in the breeze.
They had tramped for two hours, only to find themselves at the very place from which they had started.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:59