It was a great affair for the whole household when, every three months, Hubertine prepared the “lye” for the wash. A woman was hired to aid them, the Mother Gabet, as she was called, and for four days all embroidery was laid aside, while Angelique took her part in the unusual work, making of it a perfect amusement, as she soaped and rinsed the clothes in the clean water of the Chevrotte. The linen when taken from the ashes was wheeled to the Clos-Marie, through the little gate of communication in the garden. There the days were spent in the open air and the sunshine.
“I will do the washing this time, mother, for it is the greatest of delights to me.”
And gaily laughing, with her sleeves drawn up above her elbows, flourishing the beetle, Angelique struck the clothes most heartily in the pleasure of such healthy exercise. It was hard work, but she thoroughly enjoyed it, and only stopped occasionally to say a few words or to show her shiny face covered with foam.
“Look, mother! This makes my arms strong. It does me a world of good.”
The Chevrotte crossed the field diagonally, at first drowsily, then its stream became very rapid as it was thrown in great bubbles over a pebbly descent. It came from the garden of the Bishop, through a species of floodgate left at the foot of the wall, and at the other end it disappeared under an arched vault at the corner of the Hotel Voincourt, where it was swallowed up in the earth, to reappear two hundred yards farther on, as it passed along the whole length of the Rue Basse to the Ligneul, into which it emptied itself. Therefore it was very necessary to watch the linen constantly, for, run as fast as possible, every piece that was once let go was almost inevitably lost.
“Mother, wait, wait a little! I will put this heavy stone on the napkins. We shall then see if the river can carry them away. The little thief!”
She placed the stone firmly, then returned to draw another from the old, tumble-down mill, enchanted to move about and to fatigue herself; and, although she severely bruised her finger, she merely moistened it a little, saying, “Oh! that is nothing.”
During the day the poor people who sheltered themselves in the ruins went out to ask for charity from the passers-by on the highways. So the Clos was quite deserted. It was a delicious, fresh solitude, with its clusters of pale-green willows, its high poplar-trees, and especially its verdure, its overflowing of deep-rooted wild herbs and grasses, so high that they came up to one’s shoulders. A quivering silence came from the two neighbouring parks, whose great trees barred the horizon. After three o’clock in the afternoon the shadow of the Cathedral was lengthened out with a calm sweetness and a perfume of evaporated incense.
Angelique continued to beat the linen harder still, with all the force of her well-shaped white arms.
“Oh, mother dear! You can have no idea how hungry I shall be this evening! . . . Ah! you know that you have promised to give me a good strawberry-cake.”
On the day of the rinsing, Angelique was quite alone. The mere Gabet, suffering from a sudden, severe attack of sciatica, had not been able to come as usual, and Hubertine was kept at home by other household cares.
Kneeling in her little box half filled with straw, the young girl took the pieces one by one, shook them for a long time in the swiftly-rolling stream, until the water was no longer dimmed, but had become as clear as crystal. She did not hurry at all, for since the morning she had been tormented by a great curiosity, having seen, to her astonishment, an old workman in a white blouse, who was putting up a light scaffolding before the window of the Chapel Hautecoeur. Could it be that they were about to repair the stained-glass panes? There was, it must be confessed, great need of doing so. Several pieces were wanting in the figure of Saint George, and in other places, where in the course of centuries panes that had been broken had been replaced by ordinary glass. Still, all this was irritating to her. She was so accustomed to the gaps of the saint who was piercing the dragon with his sword, and of the royal princess as she led the conquered beast along with her scarf, that she already mourned as if one had the intention of mutilating them. It was sacrilege to think of changing such old, venerable things. But when she returned to the field after her lunch, all her angry feelings passed away immediately; for a second workman was upon the staging, a young man this time, who also wore a white blouse. And she recognised him! It was he! Her hero!
Gaily, without any embarrassment, Angelique resumed her place on her knees on the straw of her box. Then, with her wrists bare, she put her hands in the deep, clear water, and recommenced shaking the linen back and forth.
Yes, it was he — tall, slight, a blonde, with his fine beard and his hair curled like that of a god, his complexion as fresh as when she had first seen him under the white shadow of the moonlight. Since it was he, there was nothing to be feared for the window; were he to touch it, he would only embellish it. And it was no disappointment to her whatever to find him in this blouse, a workman like herself, a painter on glass, no doubt. On the contrary, this fact made her smile, so absolutely certain was she of the eventual fulfillment of her dream of royal fortune. Now, it was simply an appearance, a beginning. What good would it do her to know who he was, from whence he came, or whither he was going? Some morning he would prove to be that which she expected him to be. A shower of gold would stream from the roof of the Cathedral, a triumphal march would break forth in the distant rumblings of the organ, and all would come true. She did not stay to ask herself how he could always be there, day and night. Yet it was evident either that he must live in one of the neighbouring houses, or he must pass by the lane des Guerdaches, which ran by the side of the Bishop’s park to the Rue Magloire.
Then a charming hour passed by. She bent forward, she rinsed her linen, her face almost touching the fresh water; but each time she took a different piece she raised her head, and cast towards the church a look, in which from the agitation of her heart, was a little good-natured malice. And he, upon the scaffolding, with an air of being closely occupied in examining the state of the window, turned towards her, glancing at her sideways, and evidently much disturbed whenever she surprised him doing so. It was astonishing how quickly he blushed, how dark red his face became. At the slightest emotion, whether of anger or interest, all the blood in his veins seemed to mount to his face. He had flashing eyes, which showed will; yet he was so diffident, that, when he knew he was being criticised, he was embarrassed as a little child, did not seem to know what to do with his hands, and stammered out his orders to the old man who accompanied him.
As for Angelique, that which delighted her most, as she refreshed her arms in this turbulent water, was to picture him innocent like herself, ignorant of the world, and with an equally intense desire to have a taste of life. There was no need of his telling to others who he was, for had not invisible messengers and unseen lips made known to her that he was to be her own? She looked once more, just as he was turning his head; and so the minutes passed, and it was delicious.
Suddenly she saw that he jumped from the staging, then that he walked backwards quite a distance through the grass, as if to take a certain position from which he could examine the window more easily. But she could not help smiling, so evident was it that he simply wished to approach her. He had made a firm decision, like a man who risks everything, and now it was touching as well as comical to see that he remained standing a few steps from her, his back towards her, not daring to move, fearing that he had been too hasty in coming as far as he had done. For a moment she thought he would go back again to the chapel-window as he had come from it, without paying any attention to her. However, becoming desperate, at last he turned, and as at that moment she was glancing in his direction, their eyes met, and they remained gazing fixedly at each other. They were both deeply confused; they lost their self-possession, and might never have been able to regain it, had not a dramatic incident aroused them.
“Oh dear! Oh dear!” exclaimed the young girl, in distress.
In her excitement, a dressing-sacque, which she had been rinsing unconsciously, had just escaped her, and the stream was fast bearing it away. Yet another minute and it would disappear round the corner of the wall of the Voincourt park, under the arched vault through which the Chevrotte passed.
There were several seconds of anxious waiting. He saw at once what had happened, and rushed forward. But the current, leaping over the pebbles, carried this sacque, which seemed possessed, as it went along, much more rapidly than he. He stooped, thinking he had caught it, but took up only a handful of soapy foam. Twice he failed. The third time he almost fell. Then, quite vexed, with a brave look as if doing something at the peril of his life, he went into the water, and seized the garment just as it was about being drawn under the ground.
Angelique, who until now had followed the rescue anxiously, quite upset, as if threatened by a great misfortune, was so relieved that she had an intense desire to laugh. This feeling was partly nervous, it is true, but not entirely so. For was not this the adventure of which she had so often dreamed? This meeting on the border of a lake; the terrible danger from which she was to be saved by a young man, more beautiful than the day? Saint George, the tribune, the warrior! These were simply united in one, and he was this painter of stained glass, this young workman in his white blouse! When she saw him coming back, his feet wet through and through, as he held the dripping camisole awkwardly in his hand, realising the ridiculous side of the energy he had employed in saving it from the waves, she was obliged to bite her tongue to check the outburst of gaiety which seemed almost to choke her.
He forgot himself as he looked at her. She was like a most adorable child in this restrained mirth with which all her youth seemed to vibrate. Splashed with water, her arms almost chilled by the stream, she seemed to send forth from herself the purity and clearness of these living springs which rushed from the mossy woods. She was an impersonation of health, joy, and freshness, in the full sunlight. One could easily fancy that she might be a careful housekeeper and a queen withal as she was there, in her working dress, with her slender waist, her regal neck, her oval face, such as one reads of in fairy-tales. And he did not know how to give her back the linen, he found her exquisite, so perfect a representation of the beauty of the art he loved. It enraged him, in spite of himself, that he should have the air of an idiot, as he plainly saw the effort she made not to laugh. But he was forced to do something, so at last he gave her back the sacque.
Then Angelique realised that if she were to open her mouth and try to thank him, she would shout. Poor fellow! She sympathised with him and pitied him. But it was irresistible; she was happy, and needed to give expression to it; she must yield to the gaiety with which her heart overflowed. It was such lovely weather, and all life was so beautiful!
At last she thought she might speak, wishing simply to say: “Thank you, Monsieur.”
But the wish to laugh had returned, and made her stammer, interrupting her at each word. It was a loud, cheery laugh, a sonorous outpouring of pearly notes, which sang sweetly to the crystalline accompaniment of the Chevrotte.
The young man was so disconcerted that he could find nothing to say. His usually pale face had become very red, the timid, childlike expression of his eyes had changed into a fiery one, like that of an eagle, and he moved away quickly. He disappeared with the old workman, and even then she continued to laugh as she bent over the water, again splashing herself as she shook the clothes hither and thither, rejoicing in the brightness of the happy day.
On the morrow he came an hour earlier. But at five o’clock in the morning the linen, which had been dripping all night, was spread out on the grass. There was a brisk wind, which was excellent for drying. But in order that the different articles need not be blown away, they were kept in place by putting little pebbles on their four corners. The whole wash was there, looking of a dazzling whiteness among the green herbage, having a strong odour of plants about it, and making the meadow as if it had suddenly blossomed out into a snowy covering of daisies.
When Angelique came to look at it after breakfast, she was distressed, for so strong had become the gusts of wind that all threatened to be carried away. Already a sheet had started, and several napkins had gone to fasten themselves to the branches of a willow. She fortunately caught them, but then the handkerchiefs began to fly. There was no one to help her; she was so frightened that she lost all her presence of mind. When she tried to spread out the sheet again, she had a regular battle, for she was quite lost in it, as it covered her with a great crackling sound.
Through all the noise of the wind she heard a voice saying, “Mademoiselle, do you wish me to help you?”
It was he, and immediately she cried to him, with no other thought than her pre-occupation as a good housewife:
“Of course I wish it. Come and help me, then. Take the end over there, nearest to you. Hold it firm!”
The sheet, which they stretched out with their strong arms, flapped backwards and forwards like a sail. At last they succeeded in putting it on the ground, and then placed upon it much heavier stones than before. And now that, quite conquered, it sank quietly down, neither of them thought of leaving their places, but remained on their knees at the opposite corners, separated by this great piece of pure white linen.
She smiled, but this time without malice. It was a silent message of thanks. He became by degrees a little bolder.
“My name is Felicien.”
“And mine is Angelique.”
“I am a painter on glass, and have been charged to repair the stained-glass window of the chapel here.”
“I live over there with my father and mother, and I am an embroiderer of church vestments.”
The wind, which continued to be strong under the clear blue sky, carried away their words, lashed them with its purifying breath in the midst of the warm sunshine in which they were bathed.
They spoke of things which they already knew, as if simply for the pleasure of talking.
“Is the window, then, to be replaced?”
“No! oh no! it will be so well repaired that the new part cannot be distinguished from the old. I love it quite as much as you do.”
“Oh! it is indeed true that I love it! I have already embroidered a Saint George, but it was not so beautiful as this one.”
“Oh, not so beautiful! How can you say that? I have seen it, if it is the Saint George on the chasuble which the Abbot Cornille wore last Sunday. It is a marvellous thing.”
She blushed with pleasure, but quickly turned the conversation, as she exclaimed:
“Hurry and put another stone on the left corner of the sheet, or the wind will carry it away from us again.”
He made all possible haste, weighed down the linen, which had been in great commotion, like the wings of a great wounded bird trying its best to fly away. Finding that this time it would probably keep its place, the two young people rose up, and now Angelique went through the narrow, green paths between the pieces of linen, glancing at each one, while he followed her with an equally busy look, as if preoccupied by the possible loss of a dish-towel or an apron. All this seemed quite natural to them both. So she continued to chatter away freely and artlessly, as she told of her daily life and explained her tastes.
“For my part, I always wish that everything should be in its place. In the morning I am always awakened at the same hour by the striking of the cuckoo-clock in the workroom; and whether it is scarcely daylight or not, I dress myself as quickly as possible; my shoes and stockings are here, my soap and all articles of toilette there — a true mania for order. Yet you may well believe that I was not born so! Oh no! On the contrary, I was the most careless person possible. Mother was obliged to repeat to me the same words over and over again, that I might not leave my things in every corner of the house, for I found it easier to scatter them about. And now, when I am at work from morning to evening, I can never do anything right if my chair is not in the same place, directly opposite the light, Fortunately, I am neither right nor left handed, but can use both hands equally well at embroidering, which is a great help to me, for it is not everyone who can do that. Then, I adore flowers, but I cannot keep a bouquet near me without having a terrible headache. Violets alone I can bear, and that is surprising. But their odour seems to calm me, and at the least indisposition I have only need to smell them and I am at once cured.”
He was enraptured while listening to her prattle. He revelled in the beautiful ring of her voice, which had an extremely penetrating, prolonged charm; and he must have been peculiarly sensitive to this human music, for the caressing inflection on certain words moistened his eyelids.
Suddenly returning to her household cares she exclaimed:
“Oh, now the shirts will soon be dry!”
Then, in the unconscious and simple need of making herself known, she continued her confidences:
“For colouring, the white is always beautiful, is it not? I tire at times of blue, of red, and of all other shades; but white is a constant joy, of which I am never weary. There is nothing in it to trouble you; on the contrary, you would like to lose yourself in it. We had a white cat, with yellow spots, which I painted white. It did very well for a while, but it did not last long. Listen a minute. Mother does not know it, but I keep all the waste bits of white silk, and have a drawer full of them, for just nothing except the pleasure of looking at them, and smoothing them over from time to time. And I have another secret, but this is a very serious one! When I wake up, there is every morning near my bed a great, white object, which gently flies away.”
He did not smile, but appeared firmly to believe her. Was not all she said, in her simple way, quite natural? A queen in the magnificence of her courtly surroundings could not have conquered him so quickly. She had, in the midst of this white linen on the green grass, a charming, grand air, happy and supreme, which touched him to the heart, with an ever-increasing power. He was completely subdued. She was everything to him from this moment. He would follow her to the last day of his life, in the worship of her light feet, her delicate hands, of her whole being, adorable and perfect as a dream. She continued to walk before him, with a short quick step, and he followed her closely, suffocated by a thought of the happiness he scarcely dared hope might come to him.
But another sudden gust of wind came up, and there was a perfect flight into the distance of cambric collars and cuffs, of neckerchiefs and chemisettes of muslin, which, as they disappeared, seemed like a flock of white birds knocked about by the tempest.
Angelique began to run.
“Oh dear! What shall I do? You will have to come again and help me. Oh dear!”
They both rushed forward. She caught a kerchief on the borders of the Chevrotte. He had already saved two chemisettes which he found in the midst of some high thistles. One by one the cuffs and the collars were retaken. But in the course of their running at full speed, the flying folds of her skirt had at several different times brushed against him, and each time his face became suddenly red, and his heart beat violently. In his turn, he touched her face accidentally, as she jumped to recover the last fichu, which he had carelessly let go of. She was startled and stood quietly, but breathing more quickly. She joked no longer; her laugh sounded less clear, and she was not tempted to ridicule this great awkward, but most attractive fellow. The feminine nature so recently awakened in her softened her almost to tears, and with the feeling of inexplicable tenderness, which overpowered her, was mingled a half-fear.
What was the matter with her that she was less gay, and that she was so overcome by this delicious pang? When he held out the kerchief to her, their hands, by chance, touched for a moment. They trembled, as they looked at each other inquiringly. Then she drew back quickly, and for several seconds seemed not to know what she should do under the extraordinary circumstances which had just occurred. At last she started. Gathering up all the smaller articles of linen in her arms, and leaving the rest, she turned towards her home.
Felicien then wished to speak . . . “Oh, I beg your pardon. . . . I pray you to ——”
But the wind, which had greatly increased, cut off his words. In despair he looked at her as she flew along, as if carried away by the blast. She ran and ran, in and out, among the white sheets and tablecloths, under the oblique, pale golden rays of the sun. Already the shadow of the Cathedral seemed to envelop her, and she was on the point of entering her own garden by the little gate which separated it from the Clos, without having once glanced behind her. But on the threshold she turned quickly, as if seized with a kind impulse, not wishing that he should think she was angry, and confused, but smiling, she called out:
“Thank you. Thank you very much.”
Did she wish to say that she was grateful to him for having helped her in recovering the linen? Or was it for something else? She disappeared, and the gate was shut after her.
And he remained alone in the middle of the field, under the great regular gusts, which continued to rage, although the sky was still clear and pure. The elms in the Bishop’s garden rustled with a long, billowy sound, and a loud voice seemed to clamour through the terraces and the flying buttresses of the Cathedral. But he heard only the light flapping of a little morning cap, tied to a branch of a lilac bush, as if it were a bouquet, and which belonged to her.
From that date, each time that Angelique opened her window she saw Felicien over there in the Clos-Marie. He passed days in the field, having the chapel window as an excuse for doing so, on which, however, the work did not advance the least in the world. For hours he would forget himself behind a cluster of bushes, where, stretched out on the grass, he watched through the leaves. And it was the greatest of pleasures to smile at each other every morning and evening. She was so happy that she asked for nothing more. There would not be another general washing for three months, so, until then, the little garden-gate would seldom be open. But three months would pass very quickly, and if they could see each other daily, was not that bliss enough? What, indeed, could be more charming than to live in this way, thinking during the day of the evening look, and during the night of the glance of the early morrow? She existed only in the hope of that desired moment; its joy filled her life. Moreover, what good would there be in approaching each other and in talking together? Were they not constantly becoming better acquainted without meeting? Although at a distance, they understood each other perfectly; each penetrated into the other’s innermost thoughts with the closest intimacy. At last, they became so filled one with the other that they could not close their eyes without seeing before them, with an astonishing clearness of detail, the image of their new friend; so, in reality, they were never separated.
It was a constant surprise to Angelique that she had unbosomed herself at once to Felicien. At their first meeting she had confided in him, had told him everything about her habits, her tastes, and the deepest secrets of her heart. He, more silent, was called Felicien, and that was all she knew. Perhaps it was quite right that it should be so; the woman giving everything, and the man holding himself back as a stranger. She had no premature curiosity. She continued to smile at the thought of things which would certainly be realised. So for her, that of which she was ignorant counted for nothing. The only important fact in her mind was the intimacy between them, which united them, little by little, apart from the world. She knew nothing about him, yet she was so well acquainted with his nature that she could read his thoughts in a simple look or smile. He, her hero, had come as she always said he would. She had at once recognised him, and they loved each other.
So they enjoyed most thoroughly this true possession from a distance. They were certainly encouraged by the new discoveries they made. She had long, slender hands, roughened a little at the ends of the fingers by her constant use of the needle, but he adored them. She noticed that his feet were small, and was proud of the fact. Everything about him flattered her; she was grateful to him for being so handsome; and she was overcome with joy the evening that she found his beard to be of a lighter shade than his hair, which fact gave a greater softness to his smile. He went away transported when, one morning, as she leaned over the balcony, he saw a little red spot on her pretty neck. Their hearts being thus laid open, new treasures were daily found. Certainly the proud and frank manner in which she opened her window showed that, even in her ignorance as a little embroiderer, she had the royal bearing of a princess. In the same way she knew that he was good, from seeing how lightly he walked over the herbs and the grass. Around them was a radiance of virtues and graces from the first hour of their meeting. Each interview had its special charm. It seemed to them as if their felicity in seeing each other could never be exhausted.
Nevertheless, Felicien soon showed certain signs of impatience, and he no longer remained for hours concealed behind a bush in the immobility of an absolute happiness. As soon as Angelique appeared at her window, he was restless, and tried to approach her as he glided from willow to willow. At length she was a little disturbed, fearing that someone might see him. One day there was almost a quarrel, for he came even to the wall of the house, so she was obliged to leave the balcony. It was a great shock to him that she should be offended, and he showed in the expression of his face so mute a prayer of submission that the next day she pardoned him, and opened her window at the usual hour.
But although expectation was delightful, it was not sufficient for him, and he began again. Now he seemed to be everywhere at once: he filled the Clos-Marie with his restlessness; he came out from behind every tree; he appeared above every bunch of brambles. Like the wood-pigeons of the great elms in the Bishop’s garden, he seemed to have his habitation between two branches in the environs. The Chevrotte was an excuse for his passing entire days there, on its willowy banks, bending over the stream, in which he seemed to be watching the floating of the clouds.
One day she saw that he had climbed up on the ruins of the old mill, and was standing on the framework of a shed, looking happy to have thus approached her a little, in his regret at not being able to fly even so far as her shoulder.
Another day she stifled a slight scream as she saw him far above her, leaning on an ornamented balustrade of the Cathedral, on the roof of the chapels of the choir, which formed a terrace. In what way could he have reached this gallery, the door of which was always fastened, and whose key no one had a right to touch but the beadle? Then again, a little later on, how was it that she should find him up in the air among the flying buttresses of the nave and the pinnacles of the piers? From these heights he could look into every part of her chamber, as the swallows who, flying from point to point among the spires, saw everything that was therein, without her having the idea of hiding herself from them. But a human eye was different, and from that day she shut herself up more, and an ever-increasing trouble came to her at the thought that her privacy was being intruded upon, and that she was no longer alone in the atmosphere of adoration that surrounded her. If she were really not impatient, why was it that her heart beat so strongly, like the bell of the clock-tower on great festivals?
Three days passed without Angelique showing herself, so alarmed was she by the increasing boldness of Felicien. She vowed in her mind that she would never see him again, and wound herself up to such a degree of resentment, that she thought she hated him. But he had given her his feverishness. She could not keep still, and the slightest pretext was enough for an excuse to leave the chasuble upon which she was at work.
So, having heard that mere Gabet was ill in bed, in the most profound poverty, she went to see her every morning. Her room was on the Rue des Orfevres, only three doors away from the Huberts. She would take her tea, sugar, and soup, then, when necessary, go to buy her medicine at the druggist’s on the Grand Rue. One day, as she returned with her hands full of the little phials, she started at seeing Felicien at the bedside of the old sick woman. He turned very red, and slipped away awkwardly, after leaving a charitable offering. The next day he came in as she was leaving, and she gave him her place, very much displeased. Did he really intend to prevent her from visiting the poor?
In fact, she had been taken with one of her fits of charity, which made her give all she owned that she might overwhelm those who had nothing. At the idea of suffering, her whole soul melted into a pitiful fraternity. She went often to the pere Mascart’s, a blind paralytic on the Rue Basse, whom she was obliged to feed herself the broth she carried him; then to the Chouteaux, a man and his wife, each one over ninety years of age, who lived in a little hut on the Rue Magloire, which she had furnished for them with articles taken from the attic of her parents. Then there were others and others still whom she saw among the wretched populace of the quarter, and whom she helped to support from things that were about her, happy in being able to surprise them and to see them brighten up for a little while. But now, strange to say, wherever she went she encountered Felicien! Never before had she seen so much of him; she who had avoided going to her window for fear that he might be near. Her trouble increased, and at last she was very angry.
But the worst of all in this matter was that Angelique soon despaired of her charity. This young man spoilt all her pleasure of giving. In other days he might perhaps have been equally generous, but it was not among the same people, not her own particular poor, of that she was sure. And he must have watched her and followed her very closely to know them all and to take them so regularly one after the other.
Now, go when she might with a little basket of provisions to the Chouteaux, there was always money on the table. One day, when she went to pere Mascart, who was constantly complaining that he had no tobacco, she found him very rich, with a shining new louis d’or on his table. Strangest of all, once when visiting mere Gabet, the latter gave her a hundred franc note to change, and with it she was enabled to buy some high-priced medicines, of which the poor woman had long been in need, but which she never hoped to obtain, for where could she find money to pay for them?
Angelique herself could not distribute much money, as she had none. It was heart-breaking to her to realise her powerlessness, when he could so easily empty his purse. She was, of course, happy that such a windfall had come to the poor, but she felt as if she were greatly diminished in her former self-estimation. She no longer had the same happiness in giving, but was disturbed and sad that she had so little to distribute, while he had so much.
The young man, not understanding her feelings, thinking to conquer her esteem by an increase of gifts, redoubled his charity, and thus daily made hers seem less.
Was not it exasperating to run against this fellow everywhere; to see him give an ox wherever she offered an egg? In addition to all this, she was obliged to hear his praises sung by all the needy whom he visited: “a young man so good, so kind, and so well brought up.” She was a mere nothing now. They talked only of him, spreading out his gifts as if to shame hers. Notwithstanding her firm determination to forget him, she could not refrain from questioning them about him. What had he left? What had he said? He was very handsome, was he not? Tender and diffident as a woman! Perhaps he might even have spoken of her! Ah, yes indeed! That was true, for he always talked of her. Then she was very angry; yes, she certainly hated him, for at last she realised that he weighed on her breast too heavily.
But matters could not continue in this way for ever, a change must take place; and one May evening, at a wondrously beautiful nightfall, it came. It was at the home of the Lemballeuse, the family who lived in the ruins of the mill. There were only women there; the old grandmother, seamed with wrinkles but still active, her daughter, and her grandchildren. Of the latter, Tiennette, the elder, was a large, wild-looking girl, twenty years of age, and her two little sisters, Rose and Jeanne, had already bold, fearless eyes, under their unkempt mops of red hair. They all begged during the day on the highway and along the moat, coming back at night, their feet worn out from fatigue in their old shoes fastened with bits of string. Indeed, that very evening Tiennette had been obliged to leave hers among the stones, and had returned wounded and with bleeding ankles. Seated before their door, in the midst of the high grass of the Clos-Marie, she drew out the thorns from her flesh, whilst her mother and the two children surrounded her and uttered lamentations.
Just then Angelique arrived, hiding under her apron the bread which she had brought them, as she did once every week. She had entered the field by the little garden-gate, which she had left open behind her, as she intended to go back as quickly as possible. But she stopped on seeing all the family in tears.
“What is the matter? Why are you in such distress?”
“Ah, my good lady!” whined the mother Lemballeuse, “do not you see in what a terrible state this great foolish girl has put herself? To-morrow she will not be able to walk, so that will be a whole day lost. She must have some shoes!”
Rose and Jeanne, with their eyes snapping from under their tangled hair, redoubled their sobs, as they cried out loudly —
“Yes, yes! She must have some shoes! She must have some shoes!”
Tiennette, half lifting up her thin, dark face, looked round furtively. Then, fiercely, without a word, she made one of her feet bleed still more, maddened over a long splinter which she had just drawn out by the aid of a pin, and which must have pained her intensely.
Angelique, quite touched by the scene, offered her the gift.
“See! Here at least is some bread.”
“Oh, bread!” said the mother. “No doubt it is necessary to eat. But it is not with bread that she will be able to walk again, of that I am certain! And we were to go to the fair at Bligny, a fair where, every year, she makes at least two francs. Oh, good heavens! What will become of us if she cannot go there?”
Pity and embarrassment rendered Angelique mute. She had exactly five sous in her pocket. It surely was not with five sous that one could buy a pair of shoes, even at an auction sale. As it had often done before, her want of money now paralysed her. And that which exasperated her still more and made her lose her self-control was that at this moment, as she looked behind her, she saw Felicien, standing a few feet from her in the darkening shadow. Without doubt he had heard all that had been said; perhaps even he had been there for a great while, for he always appeared to her in this way when least expected without her ever knowing whence he came or whither he was going.
She thought to herself, “He will give the shoes.”
Indeed, he had already come forward. The first stars were appearing in the pale sky. A sweet, gentle quiet seemed to fall down from on high, soothing to sleep the Clos-Marie, whose willows were lost in the dusk. The Cathedral itself was only a great black bar in the West.
“Yes, certainly, now he will offer to give the shoes.”
And at this probability she was really quite discouraged. Was he always, then, to give everything? Could she never, even once, conquer him? Never! Her heart beat so rapidly that it pained her. She wished that she might be very rich, to show him that she, too, could make others happy.
But the Lemballeuse had seen the good gentleman. The mother had rushed forward; the two little sisters moaned as they held out their hands for alms, whilst the elder one, letting go of her wounded ankles, looked at the new-comer inquiringly with her wild eyes.
“Listen, my noisy children,” said Felicien. Then, addressing the mother, he continued, “You may go to the Grand Rue, at the corner of the Rue Basse —”
Angelique had understood immediately, for the shoemaker had his shop there. She interrupted him quickly, and was so agitated that she stammered her words at random.
“But that is a useless thing to do! What would be the good of it? It is much more simple —”
Yet she could not find in her own mind the more simple thing she desired. What could she do? What could she invent, so to be before him in giving her charity? Never had it seemed to her possible she could detest him as she did now.
“You will say from me, that it is I who have sent you,” continued Felicien. “You will ask —”
Again she interrupted him. The contest lasted a moment longer. She repeated in an anxious way:
“It is, indeed, much more simple; it is much easier —”
Suddenly she was calm. She seated herself upon a stone, thoughtfully examined her shoes, took them off, and then drew off her stockings, saying:
“Look! This is the best thing to do, after all! Why should you have any trouble about the matter?”
“Oh, my good young lady! God will reward you!” exclaimed the mother Lemballeuse, as she turned over the shoes and found they were not only excellent and strong, but almost new. “I will cut them a trifle on the top, to make them a little larger — Tiennette, why do you not thank her, stupid creature?”
Tiennette snatched from the hands of Rose and Jeanne the stockings they were coveting. She did not open her lips; she only gave one long, fixed, hard look.
But now Angelique realised that her feet were bare, and that Felicien saw them. She blushed deeply, and knew not what to do. She dared not move, for, were she to rise to get up, he would only see them all the more. Then, frightened, she rose quickly, and without realising what she was doing, began to run. In the grass her flying feet were very white and small. The darkness of the evening had increased, and the Clos-Marie was a lake of shadow between the great trees on one side and the Cathedral on the other. And on the ground the only visible light came from those same little feet, white and satiny as the wing of a dove.
Startled and afraid of the water, Angelique followed the bank of the Chevrotte, that she might cross it on a plank which served as a bridge. But Felicien had gone a shorter way through the brambles and brushwood. Until now he had always been overcome by his timidity, and he had turned redder than she as he saw her bare feet, pure and chaste as herself. Now, in the overflow of his ignorant youth, passionately fond of beauty and desirous for love, he was impatient to cry out and tell her of the feeling which had entirely taken possession of him since he had first seen her. But yet, when she brushed by him in her flight, he could only stammer, with a trembling voice, the acknowledgment so long delayed and which burnt his lips:
“I love you.”
She stopped in surprise. For an instant she stood still, and, slightly trembling, looked at him. Her anger and the hate she thought she had for him all vanished at once, and melted into a most delicious sentiment of astonishment. What had he said, what was the word he had just pronounced, that she should be so overcome by it? She knew that he loved her; yet when he said so, the sound of it in her ear overwhelmed her with an inexplicable joy. It resounded so deeply through her whole being, that her fears came back and were enlarged. She never would dare reply to him; it was really more than she could bear; she was oppressed.
He, grown more bold, his heart touched and drawn nearer to hers by their united deeds of charity, repeated:
“I love you.”
And she, fearing the lover, began to run. That was surely the only way to escape such a danger; yet it was also a happiness, it was all so strange. The Chevrotte was gaily singing, and she plunged into it like a startled fawn. Among its pebbles her feet still ran on, under the chill of icy water. The garden-gate was at last reached, it closed, and she disappeared.
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:15