The high roads stretched far way, white with moonlight.
The insurrectionary army was continuing its heroic march through the cold, clear country. It was like a mighty wave of enthusiasm. The thrill of patriotism, which transported Miette and Silvere, big children that they were, eager for love and liberty, sped, with generous fervour, athwart the sordid intrigues of the Macquarts and the Rougons. At intervals the trumpet-voice of the people rose and drowned the prattle of the yellow drawing-room and the hateful discourses of uncle Antoine. And vulgar, ignoble farce was turned into a great historical drama.
On quitting Plassans, the insurgents had taken the road to Orcheres. They expected to reach that town at about ten o’clock in the morning. The road skirts the course of the Viorne, following at some height the windings of the hillocks, below which the torrent flows. On the left, the plain spreads out like an immense green carpet, dotted here and there with grey villages. On the right, the chain of the Garrigues rears its desolate peaks, its plateaux of stones, its huge rusty boulders that look as though they had been reddened by the sun. The high road, embanked along the riverside, passes on amidst enormous rocks, between which glimpses of the valley are caught at every step. Nothing could be wilder or more strikingly grand than this road out of the hillside. At night time, especially, it inspires one with a feeling of deep awe. The insurgents advanced under the pale light, along what seemed the chief street of some ruined town, bordered on either side with fragments of temples. The moon turned each rock into a broken column, crumbling capital, or stretch of wall pierced with mysterious arches. On high slumbered the mass of the Garrigues, suffused with a milky tinge, and resembling some immense Cyclopean city whose towers, obelisks, houses and high terraces hid one half of the heavens; and in the depths below, on the side of the plain, was a spreading ocean of diffused light, vague and limitless, over which floated masses of luminous haze. The insurrectionary force might well have thought they were following some gigantic causeway, making their rounds along some military road built on the shore of a phosphorescent sea, and circling some unknown Babel.
On the night in question, the Viorne roared hoarsely at the foot of the rocks bordering the route. Amidst the continuous rumbling of the torrent, the insurgents could distinguish the sharp, wailing notes of the tocsin. The villages scattered about the plain, on the other side of the river, were rising, sounding alarm-bells, and lighting signal fires. Till daybreak the marching column, which the persistent tolling of a mournful knell seemed to pursue in the darkness, thus beheld the insurrection spreading along the valley, like a train of powder. The fires showed in the darkness like stains of blood; echoes of distant songs were wafted to them; the whole vague distance, blurred by the whitish vapours of the moon, stirred confusedly, and suddenly broke into a spasm of anger. For leagues and leagues the scene remained the same.
These men, marching on under the blind impetus of the fever with which the events in Paris had inspired Republican hearts, became elated at seeing that long stretch of country quivering with revolt. Intoxicated with enthusiastic belief in the general insurrection of which they dreamed, they fancied that France was following them; on the other side of the Viorne, in that vast ocean of diffused light, they imagined there were endless files of men rushing like themselves to the defence of the Republic. All simplicity and delusion, as multitudes so often are, they imagined, in their uncultured minds, that victory was easy and certain. They would have seized and shot as a traitor any one who had then asserted that they were the only ones who had the courage of their duty, and that the rest of the country, overwhelmed with fright, was pusillanimously allowing itself to be garrotted.
They derived fresh courage, too, from the welcome accorded to them by the few localities that lay along their route on the slopes of the Garrigues. The inhabitants rose en masse immediately the little army drew near; women ran to meet them, wishing them a speedy victory, while men, half clad, seized the first weapons they could find and rushed to join their ranks. There was a fresh ovation at every village, shouts of welcome and farewell many times reiterated.
Towards daybreak the moon disappeared behind the Garrigues and the insurgents continued their rapid march amidst the dense darkness of a winter night. They were now unable to distinguish the valley or the hills; they heard only the hoarse plaints of the bells, sounding through the deep obscurity like invisible drums, hidden they knew not where, but ever goading them on with despairing calls.
Miette and Silvere went on, all eagerness like the others. Towards daybreak, the girl suffered greatly from fatigue; she could only walk with short hurried steps, and was unable to keep up with the long strides of the men who surrounded her. Nevertheless she courageously strove to suppress all complaints; it would have cost her too much to confess that she was not as strong as a boy. During the first few leagues of the march Silvere gave her his arm; then, seeing that the standard was gradually slipping from her benumbed hands, he tried to take it in order to relieve her; but she grew angry, and would only allow him to hold it with one hand while she continued to carry it on her shoulder. She thus maintained her heroic demeanour with childish stubbornness, smiling at the young man each time he gave her a glance of loving anxiety. At last, when the moon hid itself, she gave way in the sheltering darkness. Silvere felt her leaning more heavily on his arm. He now had to carry the flag, and hold her round the waist to prevent her from stumbling. Nevertheless she still made no complaint.
“Are you very tired, poor Miette?” Silvere asked her.
“Yea, a little tired,” she replied in a weary tone.
“Would you like to rest a bit?”
She made no reply; but he realised that she was staggering. He thereupon handed the flag to one of the other insurgents and quitted the ranks, almost carrying the girl in his arms. She struggled a little, she felt so distressed at appearing such a child. But he calmed her, telling her that he knew of a cross-road which shortened the distance by one half. They would be able to take a good hour’s rest and reach Orcheres at the same time as the others.
It was then six o’clock. There must have been a slight mist rising from the Viorne, for the darkness seemed to be growing denser. The young people groped their way along the slope of the Garrigues, till they came to a rock on which they sat down. Around them lay an abyss of darkness. They were stranded, as it were, on some reef above a dense void. And athwart that void, when the dull tramp of the little army had died away, they only heard two bells, the one clear toned and ringing doubtless at their feet, in some village across the road; and the other far-off and faint, responding, as it were, with distant sobs to the feverish plaints of the first. One might have thought that these bells were recounting to each other, through the empty waste, the sinister story of a perishing world.
Miette and Silvere, warmed by their quick march, did not at first feel the cold. They remained silent, listening in great dejection to the sounds of the tocsin, which made the darkness quiver. They could not even see one another. Miette felt frightened, and, seeking for Silvere’s hand, clasped it in her own. After the feverish enthusiasm which for several hours had carried them along with the others, this sudden halt and the solitude in which they found themselves side by side left them exhausted and bewildered as though they had suddenly awakened from a strange dream. They felt as if a wave had cast them beside the highway, then ebbed back and left them stranded. Irresistible reaction plunged them into listless stupor; they forgot their enthusiasm; they thought no more of the men whom they had to rejoin; they surrendered themselves to the melancholy sweetness of finding themselves alone, hand in hand, in the midst of the wild darkness.
“You are not angry with me?” the girl at length inquired. “I could easily walk the whole night with you; but they were running too quickly, I could hardly breathe.”
“Why should I be angry with you?” the young man said.
“I don’t know. I was afraid you might not love me any longer. I wish I could have taken long strides like you, and have walked along without stopping. You will think I am a child.”
Silvere smiled, and Miette, though the darkness prevented her from seeing him, guessed that he was doing so. Then she continued with determination: “You must not always treat me like a sister. I want to be your wife some day.”
Forthwith she clasped Silvere to her bosom, and, still with her arms about him, murmured: “We shall grow so cold; come close to me that we may be warm.”
Then they lapsed into silence. Until that troublous hour, they had loved one another with the affection of brother and sister. In their ignorance they still mistook their feelings for tender friendship, although beneath their guileless love their ardent blood surged more wildly day by day. Given age and experience, a violent passion of southern intensity would at last spring from this idyll. Every girl who hangs on a youth’s neck is already a woman, a woman unconsciously, whom a caress may awaken to conscious womanhood. When lovers kiss on the cheeks, it is because they are searching, feeling for one another’s lips. Lovers are made by a kiss. It was on that dark and cold December night, amid the bitter wailing of the tocsin, that Miette and Silvere exchanged one of those kisses that bring all the heart’s blood to the lips.
They remained silent, close to one another. A gentle glow soon penetrated them, languor overcame them, and steeped them in feverish drowsiness. They were quite warm at last, and lights seemed to flit before their closed eyelids, while a buzzing mounted to their brains. This state of painful ecstasy, which lasted some minutes, seemed endless to them. Then, in a kind of dream, their lips met. The kiss they exchanged was long and greedy. It seemed to them as if they had never kissed before. Yet their embrace was fraught with suffering and they released one another. And the chilliness of the night having cooled their fever, they remained in great confusion at some distance one from the other.
Meantime the bells were keeping up their sinister converse in the dark abyss which surrounded the young people. Miette, trembling and frightened, did not dare to draw near to Silvere again. She did not even know if he were still there, for she could no longer hear him move. The stinging sweetness of their kiss still clung to their lips, to which passionate phrases surged, and they longed to kiss once more. But shame restrained them from the expression of any such desire. They felt that they would rather never taste that bliss again than speak of it aloud. If their blood had not been lashed by their rapid march, if the darkness had not offered complicity, they would, for a long time yet, have continued kissing each other on the cheeks like old playfellows. Feelings of modesty were coming to Miette. She remembered Justin’s coarseness. A few hours previously she had listened, without a blush, to that fellow who called her a shameless girl. She had wept without understanding his meaning, she had wept simply because she guessed that what he spoke of must be base. Now that she was becoming a woman, she wondered in a last innocent transport whether that kiss, whose burning smart she could still feel, would not perhaps suffice to cover her with the shame to which her cousin had referred. Thereupon she was seized with remorse, and burst into sobs.
“What is the matter; why are you crying?” asked Silvere in an anxious voice.
“Oh, leave me,” she faltered, “I do not know.”
Then in spite of herself, as it were, she continued amidst her tears: “Ah! what an unfortunate creature I am! When I was ten years old people used to throw stones at me. To-day I am treated as the vilest of creatures. Justin did right to despise me before everybody. We have been doing wrong, Silvere.”
The young man, quite dismayed, clasped her in his arms again, trying to console her. “I love you,” he whispered, “I am your brother. Why say that we have been doing wrong? We kissed each other because we were cold. You know very well that we used to kiss each other every evening before separating.”
“Oh! not as we did just now,” she whispered. “It must be wrong, for a strange feeling came over me. The men will laugh at me now as I pass, and they will be right in doing so. I shall not be able to defend myself.”
The young fellow remained silent, unable to find a word to calm the agitation of this big child, trembling at her first kiss of love. He clasped her gently, imagining that he might calm her by his embrace. She struggled, however, and continued: “If you like, we will go away; we will leave the province. I can never return to Plassans; my uncle would beat me; all the townspeople would point their fingers at me —” And then, as if seized with sudden irritation, she added: “But no! I am cursed! I forbid you to leave aunt Dide to follow me. You must leave me on the highway.”
“Miette, Miette!” Silvere implored; “don’t talk like that.”
“Yes. I want to please you. Be reasonable. They have turned me out like a vagabond. If I went back with you, you would always be fighting for my sake, and I don’t want that.”
At this the young man again pressed a kiss upon her lips, murmuring: “You shall be my wife, and nobody will then dare to hurt you.”
“Oh! please, I entreat you!” she said, with a stifled cry; “don’t kiss me so. You hurt me.”
Then, after a short silence: “You know quite well that I cannot be your wife now. We are too young. You would have to wait for me, and meanwhile I should die of shame. You are wrong in protesting; you will be forced to leave me in some corner.”
At this Silvere, his fortitude exhausted, began to cry. A man’s sobs are fraught with distressing hoarseness. Miette, quite frightened as she felt the poor fellow shaking in her arms, kissed him on the face, forgetting she was burning her lips. But it was all her fault. She was a little simpleton to have let a kiss upset her so completely. She now clasped her lover to her bosom as if to beg forgiveness for having pained him. These weeping children, so anxiously clasping one another, made the dark night yet more woeful than before. In the distance, the bells continued to complain unceasingly in panting accents.
“It is better to die,” repeated Silvere, amidst his sobs; “it is better to die.”
“Don’t cry; forgive me,” stammered Miette. “I will be brave; I will do all you wish.”
When the young man had dried his tears: “You are right,” he said; “we cannot return to Plassans. But the time for cowardice has not yet come. If we come out of the struggle triumphant, I will go for aunt Dide, and we will take her ever so far away with us. If we are beaten ——”
“If we are beaten?” repeated Miette, softly.
“Then be it as God wills!” continued Silvere, in a softer voice. “I most likely shall not be there. You will comfort the poor woman. That would be better.”
“Ah! as you said just now,” the young girl murmured, “it would be better to die.”
At this longing for death they tightened their embrace. Miette relied upon dying with Silvere; he had only spoken of himself, but she felt that he would gladly take her with him into the earth. They would there be able to love each other more freely than under the sun. Aunt Dide would die likewise and join them. It was, so to say, a rapid presentiment, a desire for some strange voluptuousness, to which Heaven, by the mournful accents of the tocsin, was promising early gratification. To die! To die! The bells repeated these words with increasing passion, and the lovers yielded to the calls of the darkness; they fancied they experienced a foretaste of the last sleep, in the drowsiness into which they again sank, whilst their lips met once more.
Miette no longer turned away. It was she, now, who pressed her lips to Silvere’s, who sought with mute ardour for the delight whose stinging smart she had not at first been able to endure. The thought of approaching death had excited her; she no longer felt herself blushing, but hung upon her love, while he in faltering voice repeated: “I love you! I love you!”
But at this Miette shook her head, as if to say it was not true. With her free and ardent nature she had a secret instinct of the meaning and purposes of life, and though she was right willing to die she would fain have known life first. At last, growing calmer, she gently rested her head on the young man’s shoulder, without uttering a word. Silvere kissed her again. She tasted those kisses slowly, seeking their meaning, their hidden sweetness. As she felt them course through her veins, she interrogated them, asking if they were all love, all passion. But languor at last overcame her, and she fell into gentle slumber. Silvere had enveloped her in her pelisse, drawing the skirt around himself at the same time. They no longer felt cold. The young man rejoiced to find, from the regularity of her breathing, that the girl was now asleep; this repose would enable them to proceed on their way with spirit. He resolved to let her slumber for an hour. The sky was still black, and the approach of day was but faintly indicated by a whitish line in the east. Behind the lovers there must have been a pine wood whose musical awakening it was that the young man heard amidst the morning breezes. And meantime the wailing of the bells grew more sonorous in the quivering atmosphere, lulling Miette’s slumber even as it had accompanied her passionate fever.
Until that troublous night, these young people had lived through one of those innocent idylls that blossom among the toiling masses, those outcasts and folks of simple mind amidst whom one may yet occasionally find amours as primitive as those of the ancient Greek romances.
Miette had been scarcely nine years old at the time when her father was sent to the galleys for shooting a gendarme. The trial of Chantegreil had remained a memorable case in the province. The poacher boldly confessed that he had killed the gendarme, but he swore that the latter had been taking aim at him. “I only anticipated him,” he said, “I defended myself; it was a duel, not a murder.” He never desisted from this line of argument. The presiding Judge of the Assizes could not make him understand that, although a gendarme has the right to fire upon a poacher, a poacher has no right to fire upon a gendarme. Chantegreil escaped the guillotine, owing to his obviously sincere belief in his own innocence, and his previous good character. The man wept like a child when his daughter was brought to him prior to his departure for Toulon. The little thing, who had lost her mother in her infancy, dwelt at this time with her grandfather at Chavanoz, a village in the passes of the Seille. When the poacher was no longer there, the old man and the girl lived upon alms. The inhabitants of Chavanoz, all sportsmen and poachers, came to the assistance of the poor creatures whom the convict had left behind him. After a while, however, the old man died of grief, and Miette, left alone by herself, would have had to beg on the high roads, if the neighbours had not remembered that she had an aunt at Plassans. A charitable soul was kind enough to take her to this aunt, who did not, however, receive her very kindly.
Eulalie Chantegreil, the spouse of meger Rebufat, was a big, dark, stubborn creature, who ruled the home. She led her husband by the noise, said the people of the Faubourg of Plassans. The truth was, Rebufat, avaricious and eager for work and gain, felt a sort of respect for this big creature, who combined uncommon vigour with strict sobriety and economy.
Thanks to her, the household thrived. The meger grumbled one evening when, on returning home from work, he found Miette installed there. But his wife closed his mouth by saying in her gruff voice: “Bah, the little thing’s strongly built, she’ll do for a servant; we’ll keep her and save wages.”
This calculation pleased Rebufat. He went so far as to feel the little thing’s arms, and declared with satisfaction that she was sturdy for her age. Miette was then nine years old. From the very next day he made use of her. The work of the peasant-woman in the South of France is much lighter than in the North. One seldom sees them employed in digging the ground, carrying loads, or doing other kinds of men’s work. They bind sheaves, gather olives and mulberry leaves; perhaps their most laborious work is that of weeding. Miette worked away willingly. Open-air life was her delight, her health. So long as her aunt lived she was always smiling. The good woman, in spite of her roughness, at last loved her as her own child; she forbade her doing the hard work which her husband sometimes tried to force upon her, saying to the latter:
“Ah! you’re a clever fellow! You don’t understand, you fool, that if you tire her too much today, she won’t be able to do anything tomorrow!”
This argument was decisive. Rebufat bowed his head, and carried the load which he had desired to set on the young girl’s shoulders.
The latter would have lived in perfect happiness under the secret protection of her aunt Eulalie, but for the teasing of her cousin, who was then a lad of sixteen, and employed his idle hours in hating and persecuting her. Justin’s happiest moments were those when by means of some gross falsehood he succeeded in getting her scolded. Whenever he could tread on her feet, or push her roughly, pretending not to have seen her, he laughed and felt the delight of those crafty folks who rejoice at other people’s misfortunes. Miette, however, would stare at him with her large black childish eyes gleaming with anger and silent scorn, which checked the cowardly youngster’s sneers. In reality he was terribly afraid of his cousin.
The young girl was just attaining her eleventh year when her aunt Eulalie suddenly died. From that day everything changed in the house. Rebufat gradually come to treat her like a farm-labourer. He overwhelmed her with all sorts of rough work, and made use of her as a beast of burden. She never even complained, however, thinking that she had a debt of gratitude to repay him. In the evening, when she was worn out with fatigue, she mourned for her aunt, that terrible woman whose latent kindliness she now realised. However, it was not the hard work that distressed her, for she delighted in her strength, and took a pride in her big arms and broad shoulders. What distressed her was her uncle’s distrustful surveillance, his continual reproaches, and the irritated employer-like manner he assumed towards her. She had now become a stranger in the house. Yet even a stranger would not have been so badly treated as she was. Rebufat took the most unscrupulous advantage of this poor little relative, whom he pretended to keep out of charity. She repaid his harsh hospitality ten times over with her work, and yet never a day passed but he grudged her the bread she ate. Justin especially excelled in wounding her. Since his mother had been dead, seeing her without a protector, he had brought all his evil instincts into play in trying to make the house intolerable to her. The most ingenious torture which he invented was to speak to Miette of her father. The poor girl, living away from the world, under the protection of her aunt, who had forbidden any one ever to mention the words “galleys” or “convict” before her, hardly understood their meaning. It was Justin who explained it to her by relating, in his own manner, the story of the murder of the gendarme, and Chantegreil’s conviction. There was no end to the horrible particulars he supplied: the convicts had a cannonball fastened to one ankle by a chain, they worked fifteen hours a day, and all died under their punishment; their prison, too, was a frightful place, the horrors of which he described minutely. Miette listened to him, stupefied, her eyes full of tears. Sometimes she was roused to sudden violence, and Justin quickly retired before her clenched fists. However, he took a savage delight in thus instructing her as to the nature of prison life. When his father flew into a passion with the child for any little negligence, he chimed in, glad to be able to insult her without danger. And if she attempted to defend herself, he would exclaim: “Bah! bad blood always shows itself. You’ll end at the galleys like your father.”
At this Miette sobbed, stung to the heart, powerless and overwhelmed with shame.
She was already growing to womanhood at this period. Of precocious nature, she endured her martyrdom with extraordinary fortitude. She rarely gave way, excepting when her natural pride succumbed to her cousin’s outrages. Soon even, she was able to bear, without a tear, the incessant insults of this cowardly fellow, who ever watched her while he spoke, for fear lest she should fly at his face. Then, too, she learnt to silence him by staring at him fixedly. She had several times felt inclined to run away from the Jas–Meiffren; but she did not do so, as her courage could not brook the idea of confessing that she was vanquished by the persecution she endured. She certainly earned her bread, she did not steal the Rebufats’ hospitality; and this conviction satisfied her pride. So she remained there to continue the struggle, stiffening herself and living on with the one thought of resistance. Her plan was to do her work in silence, and revenge herself for all harsh treatment by mute contempt. She knew that her uncle derived too much advantage from her to listen readily to the insinuations of Justin, who longed to get her turned out of doors. And in a defiant spirit she resolved that she would not go away of her own accord.
Her continuous voluntary silence was full of strange fancies. Passing her days in the enclosure, isolated from all the world, she formed ideas for herself which would have strangely shocked the good people of the Faubourg. Her father’s fate particularly occupied her thoughts. All Justin’s abuse recurred to her; and she ended by accepting the charge of murder, saying to herself, however, that her father had done well to kill the gendarme who had tried to kill him. She had learnt the real story from a labourer who had worked for a time at the Jas–Meiffren. From that moment, on the few occasions when she went out, she no longer even turned if the ragamuffins of the Faubourg followed her, crying: “Hey! La Chantegreil!”
She simply hastened her steps homeward, with lips compressed, and black, fierce eyes. Then after shutting the gate, she perhaps cast one long glance at the gang of urchins. She would have become vicious, have lapsed into fierce pariah savagery, if her childishness had not sometimes gained the mastery. Her extreme youth brought her little girlish weaknesses which relieved her. She would then cry with shame for herself and her father. She would hide herself in a stable so that she might sob to her heart’s content, for she knew that, if the others saw her crying, they would torment her all the more. And when she had wept sufficiently, she would bathe her eyes in the kitchen, and then again subside into uncomplaining silence. It was not interest alone, however, which prompted her to hide herself; she carried her pride in her precocious strength so far that she was unwilling to appear a child. In time she would have become very unhappy. Fortunately she was saved by discovering the latent tenderness of her loving nature.
The well in the yard of the house occupied by aunt Dide and Silvere was a party-well. The wall of the Jas–Meiffren cut it in halves. Formerly, before the Fouques’ property was united to the neighbouring estate, the market-gardeners had used this well daily. Since the transfer of the Fouques’ ground, however, as it was at some distance from the outhouses, the inmates of the Jas, who had large cisterns at their disposal, did not draw a pail of water from it in a month. On the other side, one could hear the grating of the pulley every morning when Silvere drew the water for aunt Dide.
One day the pulley broke. The young wheelwright made a good strong one of oak, and put it up in the evening after his day’s work. To do this he had to climb upon the wall. When he had finished the job he remained resting astride the coping, and surveyed with curiosity the large expanse of the Jas–Meiffren. At last a peasant-girl, who was weeding the ground a few feet from him, attracted his attention. It was in July, and the air was broiling, although the sun had already sank to the horizon. The peasant-girl had taken off her jacket. In a white bodice, with a coloured neckerchief tied over her shoulders, and the sleeves of her chemise turned up as far as her elbows, she was squatting amid the folds of her blue cotton skirt, which was secured to a pair of braces crossed behind her back. She crawled about on her knees as she pulled up the tares and threw them into a basket. The young man could only see her bare, sun-tanned arms stretching out right and left to seize some overlooked weed. He followed this rapid play of her arms complacently, deriving a singular pleasure from seeing them so firm and quick. The young person had slightly raised herself on noticing that he was no longer at work, but had again lowered her head before he could distinguish her features. This shyness kept him in suspense. Like an inquisitive lad he wondered who this weeder could be, and while he lingered there, whistling and beating time with a chisel, the latter suddenly slipped out of his hand. It fell into the Jas–Meiffren, striking the curb of the well, and then bounding a few feet from the wall. Silvere looked at it, leaning forward and hesitating to get over. But the peasant-girl must have been watching the young man askance, for she jumped up without saying anything, picked up the chisel, and handed it to Silvere, who then perceived that she was a mere child. He was surprised and rather intimidated. The young girl raised herself towards him in the red glare of the sunset. The wall at this spot was low, but nevertheless too high for her to reach him. So he bent low over the coping, while she still raised herself on tiptoes. They did not speak, but looked at each other with an air of smiling confusion. The young man would indeed have liked to keep the girl in that position. She turned to him a charming head, with handsome black eyes, and red lips, which quite astonished and stirred him. He had never before seen a girl so near; he had not known that lips and eyes could be so pleasant to look at. Everything about the girl seemed to possess a strange fascination for him — her coloured neckerchief, her white bodice, her blue cotton skirt hanging from braces which stretched with the motion of her shoulders. Then his glance glided along the arm which was handing him the tool; as far as the elbow this arm was of a golden brown, as though clothed with sun-burn; but higher up, in the shadow of the tucked-up sleeve, Silvere perceived a bare, milk-white roundness. At this he felt confused; however, he leant further over, and at last managed to grasp the chisel. The little peasant-girl was becoming embarrassed. Still they remained there, smiling at each other, the child beneath with upturned face, and the lad half reclining on the coping of the wall. They could not part from each other. So far they had not exchanged a word, and Silvere even forgot to say, “Thank you.”
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Marie,” replied the peasant-girl; “but everybody calls me Miette.”
Again she raised herself slightly, and in a clear voice inquired in her turn: “And yours?”
“My name is Silvere,” the young workman replied.
A pause ensued, during which they seemed to be listening complacently to the music of their names.
“I’m fifteen years old,” resumed Silvere. “And you?”
“I!” said Miette; “oh, I shall be eleven on All Saints’ Day.”
The young workman made a gesture of surprise. “Ah! really!” he said, laughing, “and to think I took you for a woman! You’ve such big arms.”
She also began to laugh, as she lowered her eyes to her arms. Then they ceased speaking. They remained for another moment gazing and smiling at each other. And finally, as Silvere seemingly had no more questions to ask her, Miette quietly withdrew and went on plucking her weeds, without raising her head. The lad for his part remained on the wall for a while. The sun was setting; a stream of oblique rays poured over the yellow soil of the Jas–Meiffren, which seemed to be all ablaze — one would have said that a fire was running along the ground — and, in the midst of the flaming expanse, Silvere saw the little stooping peasant-girl, whose bare arms had resumed their rapid motion. The blue cotton skirt was now becoming white; and rays of light streamed over the child’s copper-coloured arms. At last Silvere felt somewhat ashamed of remaining there, and accordingly got off the wall.
In the evening, preoccupied with his adventure, he endeavoured to question aunt Dide. Perhaps she would know who this Miette was who had such black eyes and such red lips. But, since she had lived in the house in the alley, the old woman had never once given a look behind the wall of the little yard. It was, to her, like an impassable rampart, which shut off her past. She did not know — she did not want to know — what there might now be on the other side of that wall, in that old enclosure of the Fouques, where she had buried her love, her heart and her flesh. As soon as Silvere began to question her she looked at him with childish terror. Was he, then, going to stir up the ashes of those days now dead and gone, and make her weep like her son Antoine had done?
“I don’t know,” she said in a hasty voice; “I no longer go out, I never see anybody.”
Silvere waited the morrow with considerable impatience. And as soon as he got to his master’s workshop, he drew his fellow-workmen into conversation. He did not say anything about his interview with Miette; but spoke vaguely of a girl whom he had seen from a distance in the Jas–Meiffren.
“Oh! that’s La Chantegreil!” cried one of the workmen.
There was no necessity for Silvere to question them further, for they told him the story of the poacher Chantegreil and his daughter Miette, with that unreasoning spite which is felt for social outcasts. The girl, in particular, they treated in a foul manner; and the insulting gibe of “daughter of a galley-slave” constantly rose to their lips like an incontestable reason for condemning the poor, dear innocent creature to eternal disgrace.
However, wheelwright Vian, an honest, worthy fellow, at last silenced his men.
“Hold your tongues, you foul mouths!” he said, as he let fall the shaft of a cart that he had been examining. “You ought to be ashamed of yourselves for being so hard upon the child. I’ve seen her, the little thing looks a very good girl. Besides, I’m told she doesn’t mind work, and already does as much as any woman of thirty. There are some lazy fellows here who aren’t a match for her. I hope, later on, that she’ll get a good husband who’ll stop this evil talk.”
Silvere, who had been chilled by the workmen’s gross jests and insults, felt tears rise to his eyes at the last words spoken by Vian. However, he did not open his lips. He took up his hammer, which he had laid down near him, and began with all his might to strike the nave of a wheel which he was binding with iron.
In the evening, as soon as he had returned home from the workshop, he ran to the wall and climbed upon it. He found Miette engaged upon the same labour as the day before. He called her. She came to him, with her smile of embarrassment, and the charming shyness of a child who from infancy had grown up in tears.
“You’re La Chantegreil, aren’t you?” he asked her, abruptly.
She recoiled, she ceased smiling, and her eyes turned sternly black, gleaming with defiance. So this lad was going to insult her, like the others! She was turning her back upon him, without giving an answer, when Silvere, perplexed by her sudden change of countenance, hastened to add: “Stay, I beg you — I don’t want to pain you — I’ve got so many things to tell you!”
She turned round, still distrustful. Silvere, whose heart was full, and who had resolved to relieve it, remained for a moment speechless, not knowing how to continue, for he feared lest he should commit a fresh blunder. At last he put his whole heart in one phrase: “Would you like me to be your friend?” he said, in a voice full of emotion. And as Miette, in surprise, raised her eyes, which were again moist and smiling, he continued with animation: “I know that people try to vex you. It’s time to put a stop to it. I will be your protector now. Shall I?”
The child beamed with delight. This proffered friendship roused her from all her evil dreams of taciturn hatred. Still she shook her head and answered: “No, I don’t want you to fight on my account. You’d have too much to do. Besides which, there are persons from whom you cannot protect me.”
Silvere wished to declare that he would defend her against the whole world, but she closed his mouth with a coaxing gesture, as she added: “I am satisfied to have you as a friend.”
They then conversed together for a few minutes, lowering their voices as much as possible. Miette spoke to Silvere of her uncle and her cousin. For all the world she would not have liked them to catch him astride the coping of the wall. Justin would be implacable with such a weapon against her. She spoke of her misgivings with the fright of a schoolgirl on meeting a friend with whom her mother has forbidden her to associate. Silvere merely understood, however, that he would not be able to see Miette at his pleasure. This made him very sad. Still, he promised that he would not climb upon the wall any more. They were both endeavouring to find some expedient for seeing each other again, when Miette suddenly begged him to go away; she had just caught sight of Justin, who was crossing the grounds in the direction of the wall. Silvere quickly descended. When he was in the little yard again, he remained by the wall to listen, irritated by his flight. After a few minutes he ventured to climb again and cast a glance into the Jas–Meiffren, but he saw Justin speaking with Miette, and quickly withdrew his head. On the following day he could see nothing of his friend, not even in the distance; she must have finished her work in that part of the Jas. A week passed in this fashion, and the young people had no opportunity of exchanging a single word. Silvere was in despair; he thought of boldly going to the Rebufats to ask for Miette.
The party-well was a large one, but not very deep. On either side of the wall the curb formed a large semicircle. The water was only ten or twelve feet down at the utmost. This slumbering water reflected the two apertures of the well, two half-moons between which the shadow of the wall cast a black streak. On leaning over, one might have fancied in the vague light that the half-moons were two mirrors of singular clearness and brilliance. Under the morning sunshine, when the dripping of the ropes did not disturb the surface of the water, these mirrors, these reflections of the heavens, showed like white patches on the green water, and in them the leaves of the ivy which had spread along the wall over the well were repeated with marvellous exactness.
One morning, at an early hour, Silvere, as he came to draw water for aunt Dide, bent over the well mechanically, just as he was taking hold of the rope. He started, and then stood motionless, still leaning over. He had fancied that he could distinguish in the well the face of a young girl who was looking at him with a smile; however, he had shaken the rope, and the disturbed water was now but a dim mirror that no longer reflected anything clearly. Silvere, who did not venture to stir, and whose heart beat rapidly, then waited for the water to settle. As its ripples gradually widened and died away, he perceived the image reappearing. It oscillated for a long time, with a swing which lent a vague, phantom-like grace to its features, but at last it remained stationary. It was the smiling countenance of Miette, with her head and shoulders, her coloured neckerchief, her white bodice, and her blue braces. Silvere next perceived his own image in the other mirror. Then, knowing that they could see each other, they nodded their heads. For the first moment, they did not even think of speaking. At last they exchanged greetings.
“Good morning, Silvere.”
“Good morning, Miette.”
They were surprised by the strange sound of their voices, which became singularly soft and sweet in that damp hole. The sound seemed, indeed, to come from a distance, like the soft music of voices heard of an evening in the country. They understood that it would suffice to speak in a whisper in order to hear each other. The well echoed the faintest breath. Leaning over its brink, they conversed while gazing at one another’s reflection. Miette related how sad she had been the last week. She was now working at the other end of the Jas, and could only get out early in the morning. Then she made a pout of annoyance which Silvere distinguished perfectly, and to which he replied by nodding his head with an air of vexation. They were exchanging all those gestures and facial expressions that speech entails. They cared but little for the wall which separated them now that they could see each other in those hidden depths.
“I knew,” continued Miette, with a knowing look, “that you came here to draw water every morning at the same hour. I can hear the grating of the pulley from the house. So I made an excuse, I pretended that the water in this well boiled the vegetables better. I thought that I might come here every morning to draw water at the same time as you, so as to say good morning to you without anyone suspecting it.”
She smiled innocently, as though well pleased with her device, and ended by saying: “But I did not imagine we should see each other in the water.”
It was, in fact, this unhoped-for pleasure which so delighted them. They only spoke to see their lips move, so greatly did this new frolic amuse their childish natures. And they resolved to use all means in their power to meet here every morning. When Miette had said that she must go away, she told Silvere that he could draw his pail of water. But he did not dare to shake the rope; Miette was still leaning over — he could see her smiling face, and it was too painful to him to dispel that smile. As he slightly stirred his pail, the water murmured, and the smile faded. Then he stopped, seized with a strange fear; he fancied that he had vexed her and made her cry. But the child called to him, “Go on! go on!” with a laugh which the echo prolonged and rendered more sonorous. She herself then nosily sent down a pail. There was a perfect tempest. Everything disappeared under the black water. And Silvere made up his mind to fill two pitchers, while listening to the retreating steps of Miette on the other side of the wall.
From that day, the young people never missed their assignations. The slumbering water, the white mirrors in which they gazed at one another, imparted to their interviews a charm which long sufficed their playful, childish imaginations. They had no desire to see each other face to face: it seemed much more amusing to them to use the well as a mirror, and confide their morning greetings to its echo. They soon came to look upon the well as an old friend. They loved to bend over the motionless water that resembled molten silver. A greenish glimmer hovered below, in a mysterious half light, and seemed to change the damp hole into some hiding-place in the depths of a wood. They saw each other in a sort of greenish nest bedecked with moss, in the midst of fresh water and foliage. And all the strangeness of the deep spring, the hollow tower over which they bent, trembling with fascination, added unconfessed and delightful fear to their merry laughter. The wild idea occurred to them of going down and seating themselves on a row of large stones which formed a kind of circular bench at a few inches above the water. They would dip their feet in the latter, converse there for hours, and no one would think of coming to look for them in such a spot. But when they asked each other what there might be down there, their vague fears returned; they thought it quite sufficient to let their reflected images descend into the depths amidst those green glimmers which tinged the stones with strange moire-like reflections, and amidst those mysterious noises which rose from the dark corners. Those sounds issuing from the invisible made them particularly uneasy; they often fancied that voices were replying to their own; and then they would remain silent, detecting a thousand faint plaints which they could not understand. These came from the secret travail of the moisture, the sighs of the atmosphere, the drops that glided over the stones, and fell below with the sonorousness of sobs. They would nod affectionately to each other in order to reassure themselves. Thus the attraction which kept them leaning over the brink had a tinge of secret terror, like all poignant charms. But the well still remained their old friend. It was such an excellent pretext for meeting! Justin, who watched Miette’s every movement, never suspected the cause of her eagerness to go and draw some water every morning. At times, he saw her from the distance, leaning over and loitering. “Ah! the lazy thing!” he muttered; “how fond she is of dawdling about!” How could he suspect that, on the other side of the wall, there was a wooer contemplating the girl’s smile in the water, and saying to her: “If that red-haired donkey Justin should illtreat you, just tell me of it, and he shall hear from me!”
This amusement lasted for more than a month. It was July then; the mornings were sultry; the sun shone brightly, and it was quite a pleasure to come to that damp spot. It was delightful to feel the cold breath of the well on one’s face, and make love amidst this spring water while the skies were kindling their fires. Miette would arrive out of breath after crossing the stubble fields; as she ran along, her hair fell down over her forehead and temples; and it was with flushed face and dishevelled locks that she would lean over, shaking with laughter, almost before she had had time to set her pitcher down. Silvere, who was almost always the first at the well, felt, as he suddenly saw her smiling face in the water, as keen a joy as he would have experienced had she suddenly thrown herself into his arms at the bend of a pathway. Around them the radiant morning hummed with mirth; a wave of warm light, sonorous with the buzzing of insects, beat against the old wall, the posts, and the curbstone. They, however, no longer saw the shower of morning sunshine, nor heard the thousand sounds rising from the ground; they were in the depths of their green hiding-place, under the earth, in that mysterious and awesome cavity, and quivered with pleasure as they lingered there enjoying its fresh coolness and dim light.
On some mornings, Miette, who by nature could not long maintain a contemplative attitude, began to tease; she would shake the rope, and make drops of water fall in order to ripple the mirrors and deface the reflections. Silvere would then entreat her to remain still; he, whose fervour was deeper than hers, knew no keener pleasure than that of gazing at his love’s image reflected so distinctly in every feature. But she would not listen to him; she would joke and feign a rough old bogey’s voice, to which the echo imparted a raucous melodiousness.
“No, no,” she would say in chiding fashion; “I don’t love you today! I’m making faces at you; see how ugly I am.”
And she laughed at seeing the fantastic forms which their spreading faces assumed as they danced upon the disturbed water.
One morning she got angry in real earnest. She did not find Silvere at the trysting-place, and waited for him for nearly a quarter of an hour, vainly making the pulley grate. She was just about to depart in a rage when he arrived. As soon as she perceived him she let a perfect tempest loose in the well, shook her pail in an irritated manner, and made the blackish water whirl and splash against the stones. In vain did Silvere try to explain that aunt Dide had detained him. To all his excuses she replied: “You’ve vexed me; I don’t want to see you.”
The poor lad, in despair, vainly questioned that sombre cavity, now so full of lamentable sounds, where, on other days, such a bright vision usually awaited him amid the silence of the stagnant water. He had to go away without seeing Miette. On the morrow, arriving before the time, he gazed sadly into the well, hearing nothing, and thinking that the obstinate girl would not come, when she, who was already on the other side slyly watching his arrival, bent over suddenly with a burst of laughter. All was at once forgotten.
In this wise the well was the scene of many a little drama and comedy. That happy cavity, with its gleaming mirrors and musical echoes, quickly ripened their love. They endowed it with such strange life, so filled it with their youthful love, that, long after they had ceased to come and lean over the brink, Silvere, as he drew water every morning, would fancy he could see Miette’s smiling face in the dim light that still quivered with the joy they had set there.
That month of playful love rescued Miette from her mute despair. She felt a revival of her affections, her happy childish carelessness, which had been held in check by the hateful loneliness in which she lived. The certainty that she was loved by somebody, and that she was no longer alone in the world, enabled her to endure the persecutions of Justin and the Faubourg urchins. A song of joy, whose glad notes drowned their hootings, now sounded in her heart. She thought of her father with tender compassion, and did not now so frequently yield to dreams of bitter vengeance. Her dawning love cooled her feverish broodings like the fresh breezes of the dawn. At the same time she acquired the instinctive cunning of a young girl in love. She felt that she must maintain her usual silent and rebellious demeanour if she were to escape Justin’s suspicions. But, in spite of her efforts, her eyes retained a sweet unruffled expression when the lad bullied her; she was no longer able to put on her old black look of indignant anger. One morning he heard her humming to herself at breakfast-time.
“You seem very gay, Chantegreil!” he said to her suspiciously, glancing keenly at her from his lowering eyes. “I bet you’ve been up to some of your tricks again!”
She shrugged her shoulders, but she trembled inwardly; and she did all she could to regain her old appearance of rebellious martyrdom. However, though Justin suspected some secret happiness, it was long before he was able to discover how his victim had escaped him.
Silvere, on his side, enjoyed profound happiness. His daily meetings with Miette made his idle hours pass pleasantly away. During his long silent companionship with aunt Dide, he recalled one by one his remembrances of the morning, revelling in their most trifling details. From that time forward, the fulness of his heart cloistered him yet more in the lonely existence which he had adopted with his grandmother. He was naturally fond of hidden spots, of solitary retirement, where he could give himself up to his thoughts. At this period already he had eagerly begun to read all the old odd volumes which he could pick up at brokers’ shops in the Faubourg, and which were destined to lead him to a strange and generous social religion and morality. His reading — ill-digested and lacking all solid foundation — gave him glimpses of the world’s vanities and pleasures, especially with regard to women, which would have seriously troubled his mind if his heart had not been contented. When Miette came, he received her at first as a companion, then as the joy and ambition of his life. In the evening, when he had retired to the little nook where he slept, and hung his lamp at the head of his strap-bedstead, he would find Miette on every page of the dusty old volume which he had taken at random from a shelf above his head and was reading devoutly. He never came across a young girl, a good and beautiful creature, in his reading, without immediately identifying her with his sweetheart. And he would set himself in the narrative as well. If he were reading a love story, it was he who married Miette at the end, or died with her. If, on the contrary, he were perusing some political pamphlet, some grave dissertation on social economy, works which he preferred to romances, for he had that singular partiality for difficult subjects which characterises persons of imperfect scholarship, he still found some means of associating her with the tedious themes which frequently he could not even understand. For instance, he tried to persuade himself that he was learning how to be good and kind to her when they were married. He thus associated her with all his visionary dreamings. Protected by the purity of his affection against the obscenity of certain eighteenth-century tales which fell into his hands, he found particular pleasure in shutting himself up with her in those humanitarian Utopias which some great minds of our own time, infatuated by visions of universal happiness have imagined. Miette, in his mind, became quite essential to the abolition of pauperism and the definitive triumph of the principles of the Revolution. There were nights of feverish reading, when his mind could not tear itself from his book, which he would lay down and take up at least a score of times, nights of voluptuous weariness which he enjoyed till daybreak like some secret orgie, cramped up in that tiny room, his eyes troubled by the flickering yellow light, while he yielded to the fever of insomnia and schemed out new social schemes of the most absurdly ingenuous nature, in which woman, always personified by Miette, was worshipped by the nations on their knees.
He was predisposed to Utopian ideas by certain hereditary influences; his grandmother’s nervous disorders became in him so much chronic enthusiasm, striving after everything that was grandiose and impossible. His lonely childhood, his imperfect education, had developed his natural tendencies in a singular manner. However, he had not yet reached the age when the fixed idea plants itself in a man’s mind. In the morning, after he had dipped his head in a bucket of water, he remembered his thoughts and visions of the night but vaguely; nothing remained of his dreams save a childlike innocence, full of trustful confidence and yearning tenderness. He felt like a child again. He ran to the well, solely desirous of meeting his sweetheart’s smile, and tasting the delights of the radiant morning. And during the day, when thoughts of the future sometimes made him silent and dreamy, he would often, prompted by some sudden impulse, spring up and kiss aunt Dide on both cheeks, whereat the old woman would gaze at him anxiously, perturbed at seeing his eyes so bright, and gleaming with a joy which she thought she could divine.
At last, as time went on, Miette and Silvere began to tire of only seeing each other’s reflection. The novelty of their play was gone, and now they began to dream of keener pleasures than the well could afford them. In this longing for reality which came upon them, there was the wish to see each other face to face, to run through the open fields, and return out of breath with their arms around each other’s waist, clinging closely together in order that they might the better feel each other’s love. One morning Silvere spoke of climbing over the wall, and walking in the Jas with Miette. But the child implored him not to perpetrate such folly, which would place her at Justin’s mercy. He then promised to seek some other means.
The wall in which the well was set made a sudden bend a few paces further on, thereby forming a sort of recess, where the lovers would be free from observation, if they were to take shelter there. The question was how to reach this recess. Silvere could no longer entertain the idea of climbing over, as Miette had appeared so afraid. He secretly thought of another plan. The little door which Macquart and Adelaide had set up one night long years previously had remained forgotten in this remote corner. The owner of the Jas–Meiffren had not even thought of blocking it up. Blackened by damp and green with moss, its lock and hinges eaten away with rust, it looked like a part of the old wall. Doubtless the key was lost; the grass growing beside the lower boards, against which slight mounds had formed, amply proved that no one had passed that way for many a long year. However, it was the lost key that Silvere hoped to find. He knew with what devotion his aunt Dide allowed the relics of the past to lie rotting wherever they might be. He searched the house for a week without any result, and went stealthily night by night to see if he had at last put his hand on the right key during the daytime. In this way he tried more than thirty keys which had doubtless come from the old property of the Fouques, and which he found all over the place, against the walls, on the floors, and at the bottom of drawers. He was becoming disheartened, when all at once he found the precious key. It was simply tied by a string to the street door latch-key, which always remained in the lock. It had hung there for nearly forty years. Aunt Dide must every day have touched it with her hand, without ever making up her mind to throw it away, although it could now only carry her back sorrowfully into the past. When Silvere had convinced himself that it really opened the little door, he awaited the ensuing day, dreaming of the joyful surprise which he was preparing for Miette. He had not told her for what he had been searching.
On the morrow, as soon as he heard the girl set her pitcher down, he gently opened the door, sweeping away with a push the tall weeds which covered the threshold. Stretching out his head, he saw Miette leaning over the brink of the well, looking into the water, absorbed in expectation. Thereupon, in a couple of strides, he reached the recess formed by the wall, and thence called, “Miette! Miette!” in a soft voice, which made her tremble. She raised her head, thinking he was on the coping of the wall. But when she saw him in the Jas, at a few steps from her, she gave a faint cry of surprise, and ran up to him. They took each other’s hand, and looked at one another, delighted to be so near, thinking themselves far handsomer like this, in the warm sunshine. It was the middle of August, the Feast of the Assumption. In the distance, the bells were pealing in the limpid atmosphere that so often accompanies great days of festival, an atmosphere full of bright gaiety.
“Good morning, Silvere!”
“Good morning, Miette!”
The voices in which they exchanged their morning greetings sounded strange to them. They knew only the muffled accents transmitted by the echo of the well. And now their voices seemed to them as clear as the notes of a lark. And ah! how delightful it was in that warm corner, in that holiday atmosphere! They still held each other’s hands. Silvere leaning against the wall, Miette with her figure slightly thrown backwards. They were about to tell each other all the soft things which they had not dared to confide to the reverberations of the well, when Silvere, hearing a slight noise, started, and, turning pale, dropped Miette’s hands. He had just seen aunt Dide standing before him erect and motionless on the threshold of the doorway.
The grandmother had come to the well by chance. And on perceiving, in the old black wall, the white gap formed by the doorway which Silvere had left wide open, she had experienced a violent shock. That open gap seemed to her like a gulf of light violently illumining her past. She once more saw herself running to the door amidst the morning brightness, and crossing the threshold full of the transports of her nervous love. And Macquart was there awaiting her. She hung upon his neck and pressed against his bosom, whilst the rising sun, following her through the doorway, which she had left open in her hurry, enveloped them with radiance. It was a sudden vision which roused her cruelly from the slumber of old age, like some supreme chastisement, and awakened a multitude of bitter memories within her. Had the well, had the entire wall, disappeared beneath the earth, she would not have been more stupefied. She had never thought that this door would open again. In her mind it had been walled up ever since the hour of Macquart’s death. And amidst her amazement she felt angry, indignant with the sacrilegious hand that had penetrated this violation, and left that white open space agape like a yawning tomb. She stepped forward, yielding to a kind of fascination, and halted erect within the framework of the door.
Then she gazed out before her, with a feeling of dolorous surprise. She had certainly been told that the old enclosure of the Fouques was now joined to the Jas–Meiffren; but she would never have thought the associations of her youth could have vanished so completely. It seemed as though some tempest had carried off everything that her memory cherished. The old dwelling, the large kitchen-garden, the beds of green vegetables, all had disappeared. Not a stone, not a tree of former times remained. And instead of the scene amidst which she had grown up, and which in her mind’s eye she had seen but yesterday, there lay a strip of barren soil, a broad patch of stubbles, bare like a desert. Henceforward, when, on closing her eyes, she might try to recall the objects of the past, that stubble would always appear to her like a shroud of yellowish drugget spread over the soil, in which her youth lay buried. In the presence of that unfamiliar commonplace scene her heart died, as it were, a second time. Now all was completely, finally ended. She was robbed even of her dreams of the past. Then she began to regret that she had yielded to the attraction of that white opening, of that doorway gaping upon the days which were now for ever lost.
She was about to retire and close the accursed door, without even seeking to discover who had opened it, when she suddenly perceived Miette and Silvere. And the sight of the two young lovers, who, with hanging heads, nervously awaited her glance, kept her on the threshold, quivering with yet keener pain. She now understood all. To the very end, she was destined to picture herself there, clasped in Macquart’s arms in the bright sunshine. Yet a second time had the door served as an accomplice. Where love had once passed, there was it passing again. ’Twas the eternal and endless renewal, with present joys and future tears. Aunt Dide could only see the tears, and a sudden presentiment showed her the two children bleeding, with stricken hearts. Overwhelmed by the recollection of her life’s sorrow, which this spot had just awakened within her, she grieved for her dear Silvere. She alone was guilty; if she had not formerly had that door made Silvere would not now be at a girl’s feet in that lonely nook, intoxicating himself with a bliss which prompts and angers the jealousy of death.
After a brief pause, she went up to the young man, and, without a word, took him by the hand. She might, perhaps, have left them there, chattering under the wall, had she not felt that she herself was, to some extent, an accomplice in this fatal love. As she came back with Silvere, she turned on hearing the light footfall of Miette, who, having quickly taken up her pitcher, was hastening across the stubble. She was running wildly, glad at having escaped so easily. And aunt Dide smiled involuntarily as she watched her bound over the ground like a runaway goat.
“She is very young,” she murmured, “she has plenty of time.”
She meant, no doubt, that Miette had plenty of time before her to suffer and weep. Then, turning her eyes upon Silvere, who with a glance of ecstasy had followed the child as she ran off in the bright sunshine, she simply added: “Take care, my boy; this sort of thing sometimes kills one.”
These were the only words she spoke with reference to the incident which had awakened all the sorrows that lay slumbering in the depths of her being. Silence had become a real religion with her. When Silvere came in, she double-locked the door, and threw the key down the well. In this wise she felt certain that the door would no longer make her an accomplice. She examined it for a moment, glad at seeing it reassume its usual gloomy, barrier-like aspect. The tomb was closed once more; the white gap was for ever boarded up with that damp-stained mossy timber over which the snails had shed silvery tears.
In the evening, aunt Dide had another of those nervous attacks which came upon her at intervals. At these times she would often talk aloud and ramble incoherently, as though she was suffering from nightmare. That evening, while Silvere held her down on her bed, he heard her stammer in a panting voice such words as “custom-house officer,” “fire,” and “murder.” And she struggled, and begged for mercy, and dreamed aloud of vengeance. At last, as always happened when the attack was drawing to a close, she fell into a strange fright, her teeth chattering, while her limbs quivered with abject terror. Finally, after raising herself into a sitting posture, she cast a haggard look of astonishment at one and another corner of the room, and then fell back upon the pillow, heaving deep sighs. She was, doubtless, a prey to some hallucination. However, she drew Silvere to her bosom, and seemed to some degree to recognise him, though ever and anon she confused him with someone else.
“There they are!” she stammered. “Do you see? They are going to take you, they will kill you again. I don’t want them to — Send them away, tell them I won’t; tell them they are hurting me, staring at me like that —”
Then she turned to the wall, to avoid seeing the people of whom she was talking. And after an interval of silence, she continued: “You are near me, my child, aren’t you? You must not leave me. I thought I was going to die just now. We did wrong to make an opening in the wall. I have suffered ever since. I was certain that door would bring us further misfortune — Oh! the innocent darlings, what sorrow! They will kill them as well, they will be shot down like dogs.”
Then she relapsed into catalepsy; she was no longer even aware of Silvere’s presence. Suddenly, however, she sat up, and gazed at the foot of her bed, with a fearful expression of terror.
“Why didn’t you send them away?” she cried, hiding her white head against the young man’s breast. “They are still there. The one with the gun is making signs that he is going to fire.”
Shortly afterwards she fell into the heavy slumber that usually terminated these attacks. On the next day, she seemed to have forgotten everything. She never again spoke to Silvere of the morning on which she had found him with a sweetheart behind the wall.
The young people did not see each other for a couple of days. When Miette ventured to return to the well, they resolved not to recommence the pranks which had upset aunt Dide. However, the meeting which had been so strangely interrupted had filled them with a keen desire to meet again in some happy solitude. Weary of the delights afforded by the well, and unwilling to vex aunt Dide by seeing Miette again on the other side of the wall, Silvere begged the girl to meet him somewhere else. She required but little pressing; she received the proposal with the willing smile of a frolicsome lass who has no thought of evil. What made her smile was the idea of outwitting that spy of a Justin. When the lovers had come to agreement, they discussed at length the choice of a favourable spot. Silvere proposed the most impossible trysting-places. He planned regular journeys, and even suggested meeting the young girl at midnight in the barns of the Jas–Meiffren. Miette, who was much more practical, shrugged her shoulders, declaring she would try to think of some spot. On the morrow, she tarried but a minute at the well, just time enough to smile at Silvere and tell him to be at the far end of the Aire Saint–Mittre at about ten o’clock in the evening. One may be sure that the young man was punctual. All day long Miette’s choice had puzzled him, and his curiosity increased when he found himself in the narrow lane formed by the piles of planks at the end of the plot of ground. “She will come this way,” he said to himself, looking along the road to Nice. But he suddenly heard a loud shaking of boughs behind the wall, and saw a laughing head, with tumbled hair, appear above the coping, whilst a joyous voice called out: “It’s me!”
And it was, in fact, Miette, who had climbed like an urchin up one of the mulberry-trees, which even nowadays still border the boundary of the Jas–Meiffren. In a couple of leaps she reached the tombstone, half buried in the corner at the end of the lane. Silvere watched her descend with delight and surprise, without even thinking of helping her. As soon as she had alighted, however, he took both her hands in his, and said: “How nimble you are! — you climb better than I do.”
It was thus that they met for the first time in that hidden corner where they were destined to pass such happy hours. From that evening forward they saw each other there nearly every night. They now only used the well to warn each other of unforeseen obstacles to their meetings, of a change of time, and of all the trifling little news that seemed important in their eyes, and allowed of no delay. It sufficed for the one who had a communication to make to set the pulley in motion, for its creaking noise could be heard a long way off. But although, on certain days, they summoned one another two or three times in succession to speak of trifles of immense importance, it was only in the evening in that lonely little passage that they tasted real happiness. Miette was exceptionally punctual. She fortunately slept over the kitchen, in a room where the winter provisions had been kept before her arrival, and which was reached by a little private staircase. She was thus able to go out at all hours, without being seen by Rebufat or Justin. Moreover, if the latter should ever see her returning she intended to tell him some tale or other, staring at him the while with that stern look which always reduced him to silence.
Ah! how happy those warm evenings were! The lovers had now reached the first days of September, a month of bright sunshine in Provence. It was hardly possible for them to join each other before nine o’clock. Miette arrived from over the wall, in surmounting which she soon acquired such dexterity that she was almost always on the old tombstone before Silvere had time to stretch out his arms. She would laugh at her own strength and agility as, for a moment, with her hair in disorder, she remained almost breathless, tapping her skirt to make it fall. Her sweetheart laughingly called her an impudent urchin. In reality he much admired her pluck. He watched her jump over the wall with the complacency of an older brother supervising the exercises of a younger one. Indeed, there was yet much that was childlike in their growing love. On several occasions they spoke of going on some bird’s-nesting expedition on the banks of the Viorne.
“You’ll see how I can climb,” said Miette proudly. “When I lived at Chavanoz, I used to go right up to the top of old Andre’s walnut-trees. Have you ever taken a magpie’s nest? It’s very difficult!”
Then a discussion arose as to how one ought to climb a poplar. Miette stated her opinions, with all a boy’s confidence.
However, Silvere, clasping her round the knees, had by this time lifted her to the ground, and then they would walk on, side by side, their arms encircling each other’s waist. Though they were but children, fond of frolicsome play and chatter, and knew not even how to speak of love, yet they already partook of love’s delight. It sufficed them to press each other’s hands. Ignorant whither their feelings and their hearts were drifting, they did not seek to hide the blissful thrills which the slightest touch awoke. Smiling, often wondering at the delight they experienced, they yielded unconsciously to the sweetness of new feelings even while talking, like a couple of schoolboys, of the magpies’ nests which are so difficult to reach.
And as they talked they went down the silent path, between the piles of planks and the wall of the Jas–Meiffren. They never went beyond the end of that narrow blind alley, but invariably retraced their steps. They were quite at home there. Miette, happy in the knowledge of their safe concealment, would often pause and congratulate herself on her discovery.
“Wasn’t I lucky!” she would gleefully exclaim. “We might walk a long way without finding such a good hiding-place.”
The thick grass muffled the noise of their footsteps. They were steeped in gloom, shut in between two black walls, and only a strip of dark sky, spangled with stars, was visible above their heads. And as they stepped along, pacing this path which resembled a dark stream flowing beneath the black star-sprent sky, they were often thrilled with undefinable emotion, and lowered their voices, although there was nobody to hear them. Surrendering themselves as it were to the silent waves of night, over which they seemed to drift, they recounted to one another, with lovers’ rapture, the thousand trifles of the day.
At other times, on bright nights, when the moonlight clearly outlined the wall and the timber-stacks, Miette and Silvere would romp about with all the carelessness of children. The path stretched out, alight with white rays, and retaining no suggestion of secrecy, and the young people laughed and chased each other like boys at play, at times venturing even to climb upon the piles of timber. Silvere was occasionally obliged to frighten Miette by telling her that Justin might be watching her from over the wall. Then, quite out of breath, they would stroll side by side, and plan how they might some day go for a scamper in the Sainte–Claire meadows, to see which of the two would catch the other.
Their growing love thus accommodated itself to dark and clear nights. Their hearts were ever on the alert, and a little shade sufficed to sweeten the pleasure of their embrace, and soften their laughter. This dearly-loved retreat — so gay in the moonshine, so strangely thrilling in the gloom — seemed an inexhaustible source of both gaiety and silent emotion. They would remain there until midnight, while the town dropped off to sleep and the lights in the windows of the Faubourg went out one by one.
They were never disturbed in their solitude. At that late hour children were no longer playing at hide-and-seek behind the piles of planks. Occasionally, when the young couple heard sounds in the distance — the singing of some workmen as they passed along the road, or conversation coming from the neighbouring sidewalks — they would cast stealthy glances over the Aire Saint–Mittre. The timber-yard stretched out, empty of all, save here and there some falling shadows. On warm evenings they sometimes caught glimpses of loving couples there, and of old men sitting on the big beams by the roadside. When the evenings grew colder, all that they ever saw on the melancholy, deserted spot was some gipsy fire, before which, perhaps, a few black shadows passed to and fro. Through the still night air words and sundry faint sounds were wafted to them, the “good-night” of a townsman shutting his door, the closing of a window-shutter, the deep striking of a clock, all the parting sounds of a provincial town retiring to rest. And when Plassans was slumbering, they might still hear the quarrelling of the gipsies and the crackling of their fires, amidst which suddenly rose the guttural voices of girls singing in a strange tongue, full of rugged accents.
But the lovers did not concern themselves much with what went on in the Aire Saint–Mittre; they hastened back into their own little privacy, and again walked along their favourite retired path. Little did they care for others, or for the town itself! The few planks which separated them from the wicked world seemed to them, after a while, an insurmountable rampart. They were so secluded, so free in this nook, situated though it was in the very midst of the Faubourg, at only fifty paces from the Rome Gate, that they sometimes fancied themselves far away in some hollow of the Viorne, with the open country around them. Of all the sounds which reached them, only one made them feel uneasy, that of the clocks striking slowly in the darkness. At times, when the hour sounded, they pretended not to hear, at other moments they stopped short as if to protest. However, they could not go on for ever taking just another ten minutes, and so the time came when they were at last obliged to say good-night. Then Miette reluctantly climbed upon the wall again. But all was not ended yet, they would linger over their leave-taking for a good quarter of an hour. When the girl had climbed upon the wall, she remained there with her elbows on the coping, and her feet supported by the branches of the mulberry-tree, which served her as a ladder. Silvere, perched on the tombstone, was able to take her hands again, and renew their whispered conversation. They repeated “till tomorrow!” a dozen times, and still and ever found something more to say. At last Silvere began to scold.
“Come, you must get down, it is past midnight.”
But Miette, with a girl’s waywardness, wished him to descend first; she wanted to see him go away. And as he persisted in remaining, she ended by saying abruptly, by way of punishment, perhaps: “Look! I am going to jump down.”
Then she sprang from the mulberry-tree, to the great consternation of Silvere. He heard the dull thud of her fall, and the burst of laughter with which she ran off, without choosing to reply to his last adieu. For some minutes he would remain watching her vague figure as it disappeared in the darkness, then, slowly descending, he regained the Impasse Saint–Mittre.
During two years they came to the path every day. At the time of their first meetings they enjoyed some beautiful warm nights. They might almost have fancied themselves in the month of May, the month of seething sap, when a pleasant odour of earth and fresh leaves pervades the warm air. This renouveau, this second spring, was like a gift from heaven which allowed them to run freely about the path and tighten their bonds of affection.
At last came rain, and snow, and frost. But the disagreeableness of winter did not keep them away. Miette put on her long brown pelisse, and they both made light of the bad weather. When the nights were dry and clear, and puffs of wind raised the hoar frost beneath their footsteps and fell on their faces like taps from a switch, they refrained from sitting down. They walked quickly to and fro, wrapped in the pelisse, their cheeks blue with cold, and their eyes watering; and they laughed heartily, quite quivering with mirth, at the rapidity of their march through the freezing atmosphere. One snowy evening they amused themselves with making an enormous snowball, which they rolled into a corner. It remained there fully a month, which caused them fresh astonishment each time they met in the path. Nor did the rain frighten them. They came to see each other through the heaviest downpours, though they got wet to the skin in doing so. Silvere would hasten to the spot, saying to himself that Miette would never be mad enough to come; and when Miette arrived, he could not find it in his heart to scold her. In reality he had been expecting her. At last he sought some shelter against the inclement weather, knowing quite well that they would certainly come out, however much they might promise one another not to do so when it rained. To find a shelter he only had to disturb one of the timber-stacks; pulling out several pieces of wood and arranging them so that they would move easily, in such wise that he could displace and replace them at pleasure.
From that time forward the lovers possessed a sort of low and narrow sentry-box, a square hole, which was only big enough to hold them closely squeezed together on a beam which they had left at the bottom of the little cell. Whenever it rained, the first to arrive would take shelter here; and on finding themselves together again they would listen with delight to the rain beating on the piles of planks. Before and around them, through the inky blackness of the night, came a rush of water which they could not see, but which resounded continuously like the roar of a mob. They were nevertheless quite alone, as though they had been at the end of the world or beneath the sea. They never felt so happy, so isolated, as when they found themselves in that timber-stack, in the midst of some such deluge which threatened to carry them away at every moment. Their bent knees almost reached the opening, and though they thrust themselves back as far as possible, the spray of the rain bathed their cheeks and hands. The big drops, falling from the planks, splashed at regular intervals at their feet. The brown pelisse kept them warm, and the nook was so small that Miette was compelled to sit almost on Silvere’s knees. And they would chatter and then lapse into silence, overcome with languor, lulled by the warmth of their embrace and the monotonous beating of the shower. For hours and hours they remained there, with that same enjoyment of the rain which prompts little children to stroll along solemnly in stormy weather with open umbrellas in their hands. After a while they came to prefer the rainy evenings, though their parting became more painful on those occasions. Miette was obliged to climb the wall in the driving rain, and cross the puddles of the Jas–Meiffren in perfect darkness. As soon as she had left his arms, she was lost to Silvere amidst the gloom and the noise of the falling water. In vain he listened, he was deafened, blinded. However, the anxiety caused by this brusque separation proved an additional charm, and, until the morrow, each would be uneasy lest anything should have befallen the other in such weather, when one would not even have turned a dog out of doors. Perchance one of them had slipped, or lost the way; such were the mutual fears which possessed them, and rendered their next interview yet more loving.
At last the fine days returned, April brought mild nights, and the grass in the green alley sprouted up wildly. Amidst the stream of life flowing from heaven and rising from the earth, amidst all the intoxication of the budding spring-time, the lovers sometimes regretted their winter solitude, the rainy evenings and the freezing nights, during which they had been so isolated so far from all human sounds. At present the days did not draw to a close soon enough, and they grew impatient with the lagging twilights. When the night had fallen sufficiently for Miette to climb upon the wall without danger of being seen, and they could at last glide along their dear path, they no longer found there the solitude congenial to their shy, childish love. People began to flock to the Aire Saint–Mittre, the urchins of the Faubourg remained there, romping about the beams, and shouting, till eleven o’clock at night. It even happened occasionally that one of them would go and hide behind the piles of timber, and assail Miette and Silvere with boyish jeers. The fear of being surprised amidst that general awakening of life as the season gradually grew warmer, tinged their meetings with anxiety.
Then, too, they began to stifle in the narrow lane. Never had it throbbed with so ardent a quiver; never had that soil, in which the last bones left of the former cemetery lay mouldering, sent forth such oppressive and disturbing odours. They were still too young to relish the voluptuous charm of that secluded nook which the springtide filled with fever. The grass grew to their knees, they moved to and fro with difficulty, and certain plants, when they crushed their young shoots, sent forth a pungent odour which made them dizzy. Then, seized with strange drowsiness and staggering with giddiness, their feet as though entangled in the grass, they would lean against the wall, with half-closed eyes, unable to move a step. All the soft languor from the skies seemed to penetrate them.
With the petulance of beginners, impatient and irritated at this sudden faintness, they began to think their retreat too confined, and decided to ramble through the open fields. Every evening came fresh frolics. Miette arrived with her pelisse; they wrapped themselves in it, and then, gliding past the walls, reached the high-road and the open country, the broad fields where the wind rolled with full strength, like the waves at high tide. And here they no longer felt stifled; they recovered all their youthfulness, free from the giddy intoxication born of the tall rank weeds of the Aire Saint–Mittre.
During two summers they rambled through the district. Every rock ledge, every bed of turf soon knew them; there was not a cluster of trees, a hedge, or a bush, which did not become their friend. They realized their dreams: they chased each other wildly over the meadows of Sainte–Claire, and Miette ran so well that Silvere had to put his best foot forward to catch her. Sometimes, too, they went in search of magpies’ nests. Headstrong Miette, wishing to show how she had climbed trees at Chavanoz, would tie up her skirts with a piece of string, and ascend the highest poplars; while Silvere stood trembling beneath, with his arms outstretched to catch her should she slip. These frolics so turned them from thoughts of love that one evening they almost fought like a couple of lads coming out of school. But there were nooks in the country side which were not healthful for them. So long as they rambled on they were continually shouting with laughter, pushing and teasing one another. They covered miles and miles of ground; sometimes they went as far as the chain of the Garrigues, following the narrowest paths and cutting across the fields. The region belonged to them; they lived there as in a conquered territory, enjoying all that the earth and the sky could give them. Miette, with a woman’s lack of scruple, did not hesitate to pluck a bunch of grapes, or a cluster of green almonds, from the vines and almond-trees whose boughs brushed her as she passed; and at this Silvere, with his absolute ideas of honesty, felt vexed, although he did not venture to find fault with the girl, whose occasional sulking distressed him. “Oh! the bad girl!” thought he, childishly exaggerating the matter, “she would make a thief of me.” But Miette would thereupon force his share of the stolen fruit into his mouth. The artifices he employed, such as holding her round the waist, avoiding the fruit trees, and making her run after him when they were near the vines, so as to keep her out of the way of temptation, quickly exhausted his imagination. At last there was nothing to do but to make her sit down. And then they again began to experience their former stifling sensations. The gloomy valley of the Viorne particularly disturbed them. When weariness brought them to the banks of the torrent, all their childish gaiety seemed to disappear. A grey shadow floated under the willows, like the scented crape of a woman’s dress. The children felt this crape descend warm and balmy from the voluptuous shoulders of the night, kiss their temples and envelop them with irresistible languor. In the distance the crickets chirped in the meadows of Sainte–Claire, and at their feet the ripples of the Viorne sounded like lovers’ whispers — like the soft cooing of humid lips. The stars cast a rain of sparkles from the slumbering heavens. And, amidst the throbbing of the sky, the waters and the darkness, the children reposing on the grass sought each other’s hands and pressed them.
Silvere, who vaguely understood the danger of these ecstasies, would sometimes jump up and propose to cross over to one of the islets left by the low water in the middle of the stream. Both ventured forth, with bare feet. Miette made light of the pebbles, refusing Silvere’s help, and it once happened that she sat down in the very middle of the stream; however, there were only a few inches of water, and she escaped with nothing worse than a wet petticoat. Then, having reached the island, they threw themselves on the long neck of sand, their eyes on a level with the surface of the river whose silvery scales they saw quivering far away in the clear night. Then Miette would declare that they were in a boat, that the island was certainly floating; she could feel it carrying her along. The dizziness caused by the rippling of the water amused them for a moment, and they lingered there, singing in an undertone, like boatmen as they strike the water with their oars. At other times, when the island had a low bank, they sat there as on a bed of verdure, and let their bare feet dangle in the stream. And then for hours they chatted together, swinging their legs, and splashing the water, delighted to set a tempest raging in the peaceful pool whose freshness cooled their fever.
These footbaths suggested a dangerous idea to Miette. Nothing would satisfy her but a complete bath. A little above the bridge over the Viorne there was a very convenient spot, she said, barely three or four feet deep and quite safe; the weather was so warm, it would be so nice to have the water up to their necks; besides which, she had been dying to learn to swim for such a long time, and Silvere would be able to teach her. Silvere raised objections; it was not prudent at night time; they might be seen; perhaps, too they might catch cold. However, nothing could turn Miette from her purpose. One evening she came with a bathing costume which she had made out of an old dress; and Silvere was then obliged to go back to aunt Dide’s for his bathing drawers. Their proceedings were characterised by great simplicity. Miette disrobed herself beneath the shade of a stout willow; and when both were ready, enveloped in the blackness which fell from the foliage around them, they gaily entered the cool water, oblivious of all previous scruples, and knowing in their innocence no sense of shame. They remained in the river quite an hour, splashing and throwing water into each other’s faces; Miette now getting cross, now breaking out into laughter, while Silvere gave her her first lesson, dipping her head under every now and again so as to accustom her to the water. As long as he held her up she threw her arms and legs about violently, thinking she was swimming; but directly he let her go, she cried and struggled, striking the water with her outstretched hands, clutching at anything she could get hold of, the young man’s waist or one of his wrists. She leant against him for an instant, resting, out of breath and dripping with water; and then she cried: “Once more; but you do it on purpose, you don’t hold me.”
At the end of a fortnight, the girl was able to swim. With her limbs moving freely, rocked by the stream, playing with it, she yielded form and spirit alike to its soft motion, to the silence of the heavens, and the dreaminess of the melancholy banks. As she and Silvere swam noiselessly along, she seemed to see the foliage of both banks thicken and hang over them, draping them round as with a huge curtain. When the moon shone, its rays glided between the trunks of the trees, and phantoms seemed to flit along the river-side in white robes. Miette felt no nervousness, however, only an indefinable emotion as she followed the play of the shadows. As she went onward with slower motion, the calm water, which the moon converted into a bright mirror, rippled at her approach like a silver-broidered cloth; eddies widened and lost themselves amid the shadows of the banks, under the hanging willow branches, whence issued weird, plashing sounds. At every stroke she perceived recesses full of sound; dark cavities which she hastened to pass by; clusters and rows of trees, whose sombre masses were continually changing form, stretching forward and apparently following her from the summit of the bank. And when she threw herself on her back, the depths of the heavens affected her still more. From the fields, from the distant horizon, which she could no longer see, a solemn lingering strain, composed of all the sighs of the night, was wafted to her.
She was not of a dreamy nature; it was physically, through the medium of each of her senses, that she derived enjoyment from the sky, the river, and the play of light and shadow. The river, in particular, bore her along with endless caresses. When she swam against the current she was delighted to feel the stream flow rapidly against her bosom and limbs. She dipped herself in it yet more deeply, with the water reaching to her lips, so that it might pass over her shoulders, and envelop her, from chin to feet, with flying kisses. Then she would float, languid and quiescent, on the surface, whilst the ripples glided softly between her costume and her skin. And she would also roll over in the still pools like a cat on a carpet; and swim from the luminous patches where the moonbeams were bathing, to the dark water shaded by the foliage, shivering the while, as though she had quitted a sunny plain and then felt the cold from the boughs falling on her neck.
She now remained quite silent in the water, and would not allow Silvere to touch her. Gliding softly by his side, she swam on with the light rustling of a bird flying across the copse, or else she would circle round him, a prey to vague disquietude which she did not comprehend. He himself darted quickly away if he happened to brush against her. The river was now but a source of enervating intoxication, voluptuous languor, which disturbed them strangely. When they emerged from their bath they felt dizzy, weary, and drowsy. Fortunately, the girl declared one evening that she would bathe no more, as the cold water made the blood run to her head. And it was in all truth and innocence that she said this.
Then their long conversations began anew. The dangers to which the innocence of their love had lately been exposed had left no other trace in Silvere’s mind than great admiration for Miette’s physical strength. She had learned to swim in a fortnight, and often, when they raced together, he had seen her stem the current with a stroke as rapid as his own. He, who delighted in strength and bodily exercises, felt a thrill of pleasure at seeing her so strong, so active and adroit. He entertained at heart a singular admiration for her stout arms. One evening, after one of the first baths that had left them so playful, they caught each other round the waist on a strip of sand, and wrestled for several minutes without Silvere being able to throw Miette. At last, indeed, it was the young man who lost his balance, while the girl remained standing. Her sweetheart treated her like a boy, and it was those long rambles of theirs, those wild races across the meadows, those birds’ nests filched from the tree crests, those struggles and violent games of one and another kind that so long shielded them and their love from all impurity.
Then, too, apart from his youthful admiration for his sweetheart’s dashing pluck, Silvere felt for her all the compassionate tenderness of a heart that ever softened towards the unfortunate. He, who could never see any forsaken creature, a poor man, or a child, walking barefooted along the dusty roads, without a throb of pity, loved Miette because nobody else loved her, because she virtually led an outcast’s hard life. When he saw her smile he was deeply moved by the joy he brought her. Moreover, the child was a wildling, like himself, and they were of the same mind in hating all the gossips of the Faubourg. The dreams in which Silvere indulged in the daytime, while he plied his heavy hammer round the cartwheels in his master’s shop, were full of generous enthusiasm. He fancied himself Miette’s redeemer. All his reading rushed to his head; he meant to marry his sweetheart some day, in order to raise her in the eyes of the world. It was like a holy mission that he imposed upon himself, that of redeeming and saving the convict’s daughter. And his head was so full of certain theories and arguments, that he did not tell himself these things in simple fashion, but became lost in perfect social mysticism; imagining rehabilitation in the form of an apotheosis in which he pictured Miette seated on a throne, at the end of the Cours Sauvaire, while the whole town prostrated itself before her, entreating her pardon and singing her praises. Happily he forgot all these fine things as soon as Miette jumped over the wall, and said to him on the high road: “Let us have a race! I’m sure you won’t catch me.”
However, if the young man dreamt like this of the glorification of his sweetheart, he also showed such passion for justice that he often made her weep on speaking to her about her father. In spite of the softening effect which Silvere’s friendship had had upon her, she still at times gave way to angry outbreaks of temper, when all the stubbornness and rebellion latent in her nature stiffened her with scowling eyes and tightly-drawn lips. She would then contend that her father had done quite right to kill the gendarme, that the earth belongs to everybody, and that one has the right to fire a gun when and where one likes. Thereupon Silvere, in a grave voice, explained the law to her as he understood it, with strange commentaries which would have startled the whole magistracy of Plassans. These discussions took place most often in some remote corner of the Sainte–Claire meadows. The grassy carpet of a dusky green hue stretched further than they could see, undotted even by a single tree, and the sky seemed colossal, spangling the bare horizon with the stars. It seemed to the young couple as if they were being rocked on a sea of verdure. Miette argued the point obstinately; she asked Silvere if her father should have let the gendarme kill him, and Silvere, after a momentary silence, replied that, in such a case, it was better to be the victim than the murderer, and that it was a great misfortune for anyone to kill a fellow man, even in legitimate defence. The law was something holy to him, and the judges had done right in sending Chantegreil to the galleys. At this the girl grew angry, and almost struck her sweetheart, crying out that he was as heartless as the rest. And as he still firmly defended his ideas of justice, she finished by bursting into sobs, and stammering that he was doubtless ashamed of her, since he was always reminding her of her father’s crime. These discussions ended in tears, in mutual emotion. But although the child cried, and acknowledged that she was perhaps wrong, she still retained deep within her a wild resentful temper. She once related, with hearty laughter, that she had seen a gendarme fall off his horse and break his leg. Apart from this, Miette only lived for Silvere. When he asked her about her uncle and cousin, she replied that “She did not know;” and if he pressed her, fearing that they were making her too unhappy at the Jas–Meiffren, she simply answered that she worked hard, and that nothing had changed. She believed, however, that Justin had at last found out what made her sing in the morning, and filled her eyes with delight. But she added: “What does it matter? If ever he comes to disturb us we’ll receive him in such a way that he won’t be in a hurry to meddle with our affairs any more.”
Now and again the open country, their long rambles in the fresh air, wearied them somewhat. They then invariably returned to the Aire Saint–Mittre, to the narrow lane, whence they had been driven by the noisy summer evenings, the pungent scent of the trodden grass, all the warm oppressive emanations. On certain nights, however, the path proved cooler, and the winds freshened it so that they could remain there without feeling faint. They then enjoyed a feeling of delightful repose. Seated on the tombstone, deaf to the noise of the children and gipsies, they felt at home again. Silvere had on various occasions picked up fragments of bones, even pieces of skulls, and they were fond of speaking of the ancient burial-ground. It seemed to them, in their lively fancies, that their love had shot up like some vigorous plant in this nook of soil which dead men’s bones had fertilised. It had grown, indeed, like those wild weeds, it had blossomed as blossom the poppies which sway like bare bleeding hearts at the slightest breeze. And they ended by fancying that the warm breaths passing over them, the whisperings heard in the gloom, the long quivering which thrilled the path, came from the dead folk sighing their departed passions in their faces, telling them the stories of their bridals, as they turned restlessly in their graves, full of a fierce longing to live and love again. Those fragments of bone, they felt convinced of it, were full of affection for them; the shattered skulls grew warm again by contact with their own youthful fire, the smallest particles surrounded them with passionate whispering, anxious solicitude, throbbing jealousy. And when they departed, the old burial-ground seemed to groan. Those weeds, in which their entangled feet often stumbled on sultry nights, were fingers, tapered by tomb life, that sprang up from the earth to detain them and cast them into each other’s arms. That pungent and penetrating odour exhaled by the broken stems was the fertilising perfume, the mighty quintessence of life which is slowly elaborated in the grave, and intoxicates the lovers who wander in the solitude of the paths. The dead, the old departed dead, longed for the bridal of Miette and Silvere.
They were never afraid. The sympathy which seemed to hover around them thrilled them and made them love the invisible beings whose soft touch they often imagined they could feel, like a gentle flapping of wings. Sometimes they were saddened by sweet melancholy, and could not understand what the dead desired of them. They went on basking in their innocent love, amidst this flood of sap, this abandoned cemetery, whose rich soil teemed with life, and imperiously demanded their union. They still remained ignorant of the meaning of the buzzing voices which they heard ringing in their ears, the sudden glow which sent the blood flying to their faces.
They often questioned each other about the remains which they discovered. Miette, after a woman’s fashion, was partial to lugubrious subjects. At each new discovery she launched into endless suppositions. If the bone were small, she spoke of some beautiful girl a prey to consumption, or carried off by fever on the eve of her marriage; if the bone were large, she pictured some big old man, a soldier or a judge, some one who had inspired others with terror. For a long time the tombstone particularly engaged their attention. One fine moonlight night Miette distinguished some half-obliterated letters on one side of it, and thereupon she made Silvere scrape the moss away with his knife. Then they read the mutilated inscription: “Here lieth . . . Marie . . . died . . . ” And Miette, finding her own name on the stone, was quite terror-stricken. Silvere called her a “big baby,” but she could not restrain her tears. She had received a stab in the heart, she said; she would soon die, and that stone was meant for her. The young man himself felt alarmed. However, he succeeded in shaming the child out of these thoughts. What! she so courageous, to dream about such trifles! They ended by laughing. Then they avoided speaking of it again. But in melancholy moments, when the cloudy sky saddened the pathway, Miette could not help thinking of that dead one, that unknown Marie, whose tomb had so long facilitated their meetings. The poor girl’s bones were perhaps still lying there. And at this thought Miette one evening had a strange whim, and asked Silvere to turn the stone over to see what might be under it. He refused, as though it were sacrilege, and his refusal strengthened Miette’s fancies with regard to the dear phantom which bore her name. She positively insisted that the girl had died young, as she was, and in the very midst of her love. She even began to pity the stone, that stone which she climbed so nimbly, and on which they had sat so often, a stone which death had chilled, and which their love had warmed again.
“You’ll see, this tombstone will bring us misfortune,” she added. “If you were to die, I should come and lie here, and then I should like to have this stone set over my body.”
At this, Silvere, choking with emotion, scolded her for thinking of such mournful things.
And so, for nearly two years, their love grew alike in the narrow pathway and the open country. Their idyll passed through the chilling rains of December and the burning solicitations of July, free from all touch of impurity, ever retaining the sweet charm of some old Greek love-tale, all the naive hesitancy of youth which desires but knows not. In vain did the long-departed dead whisper in their ears. They carried nothing away from the old cemetery but emotional melancholy and a vague presentiment of a short life. A voice seemed to whisper to them that they would depart amidst their virginal love, long ere the bridal day would give them wholly to each other. It was there, on the tombstone and among the bones that lay hidden beneath the rank grass, that they had first come to indulge in that longing for death, that eager desire to sleep together in the earth, that now set them stammering and sighing beside the Orcheres road, on that December night, while the two bells repeated their mournful warnings to one another.
Miette was sleeping calmly, with her head resting on Silvere’s chest while he mused upon their past meeting, their lovely years of unbroken happiness. At daybreak the girl awoke. The valley now spread out clearly under the bright sky. The sun was still behind the hills, but a stream of crystal light, limpid and cold as spring-water, flowed from the pale horizon. In the distance, the Viorne, like a white satin ribbon, disappeared among an expanse of red and yellow land. It was a boundless vista, with grey seas of olive-trees, and vineyards that looked like huge pieces of striped cloth. The whole country was magnified by the clearness of the atmosphere and the peaceful cold. However, sharp gusts of wind chilled the young people’s faces. And thereupon they sprang to their feet, cheered by the sight of the clear morning. Their melancholy forebodings had vanished with the darkness, and they gazed with delight at the immense expanse of the plain, and listened to the tolling of the two bells that now seemed to be joyfully ringing in a holiday.
“Ah! I’ve had a good sleep!” Miette cried. “I dreamt you were kissing me. Tell me now, did you kiss me?”
“It’s very possible,” Silvere replied laughing. “I was not very warm. It is bitterly cold.”
“I only feel cold in the feet,” Miette rejoined.
“Well! let us have a run,” said Silvere. “We have still two good leagues to go. You will get warm.”
Thereupon they descended the hill and ran until they reached the high road. When they were below they raised their heads as if to say farewell to that rock on which they had wept while their kisses burned their lips. But they did not again speak of that ardent embrace which had thrilled them so strongly with vague, unknown desire. Under the pretext of walking more quickly they did not even take each other’s arm. They experienced some slight confusion when they looked at one another, though why they could not tell. Meantime the dawn was rising around them. The young man, who had sometimes been sent to Orcheres by his master, knew all the shortest cuts. Thus they walked on for more than two leagues, along dingle paths by the side of interminable ledges and walls. Now and again Miette accused Silvere of having taken her the wrong way; for, at times — for a quarter of an hour at a stretch — they lost all sight of the surrounding country, seeing above the walls and hedges nothing but long rows of almond-trees whose slender branches showed sharply against the pale sky.
All at once, however, they came out just in front of Orcheres. Loud cries of joy, the shouting of a crowd, sounded clearly in the limpid air. The insurrectionary forces were only now entering the town. Miette and Silvere went in with the stragglers. Never had they seen such enthusiasm. To judge from the streets, one would have thought it was a procession day, when the windows are decked with the finest drapery to honour the passage of the Canopy. The townsfolk welcomed the insurgents as though they were deliverers. The men embraced them, while the women brought them food. Old men were to be seen weeping at the doors. And the joyousness was of an essentially Southern character, pouring forth in clamorous fashion, in singing, dancing, and gesticulation. As Miette passed along she was carried away by a farandole[*] which spread whirling all round the Grand’ Place. Silvere followed her. His thoughts of death and his discouragement were now far away. He wanted to fight, to sell his life dearly at least. The idea of a struggle intoxicated him afresh. He dreamed of victory to be followed by a happy life with Miette, amidst the peacefulness of the universal Republic.
[*] The farandole is the popular dance of Provence.
The fraternal reception accorded them by the inhabitants of Orcheres proved to be the insurgents’ last delight. They spent the day amidst radiant confidence and boundless hope. The prisoners, Commander Sicardot, Messieurs Garconnet, Peirotte and the others, who had been shut up in one of the rooms at the mayor’s, the windows of which overlooked the Grand’ Place, watched the farandoles and wild outbursts of enthusiasm with surprise and dismay.
“The villains!” muttered the Commander, leaning upon a window-bar, as though bending over the velvet-covered hand-rest of a box at a theatre: “To think that there isn’t a battery or two to make a clean sweep of all that rabble!”
Then he perceived Miette, and addressing himself to Monsieur Garconnet, he added: “Do you see, sir, that big girl in red over yonder? How disgraceful! They’ve even brought their mistresses with them. If this continues much longer we shall see some fine goings-on.”
Monsieur Garconnet shook his head, saying something about “unbridled passions,” and “the most evil days of history.” Monsieur Peirotte, as white as a sheet, remained silent; he only opened his lips once, to say to Sicardot, who was still bitterly railing: “Not so loud, sir; not so loud! You will get us all massacred.”
As a matter of fact, the insurgents treated the gentlemen with the greatest kindness. They even provided them with an excellent dinner in the evening. Such attentions, however, were terrifying to such a quaker as the receiver of taxes; the insurgents he thought would not treat them so well unless they wished to make them fat and tender for the day when they might wish to devour them.
At dusk that day Silvere came face to face with his cousin, Doctor Pascal. The latter had followed the band on foot, chatting with the workmen who held him in the greatest respect. At first he had striven to dissuade them from the struggle; and then, as if convinced by their arguments, he had said to them with his kindly smile: “Well, perhaps you are right, my friends; fight if you like, I shall be here to patch up your arms and legs.”
Then, in the morning he began to gather pebbles and plants along the high road. He regretted that he had not brought his geologist’s hammer and botanical wallet with him. His pockets were now so full of stones that they were almost bursting, while bundles of long herbs peered forth from the surgeon’s case which he carried under his arm.
“Hallo! You here, my lad?” he cried, as he perceived Silvere. “I thought I was the only member of the family here.”
He spoke these last words with a touch of irony, as if deriding the intrigues of his father and his uncle Antoine. Silvere was very glad to meet his cousin; the doctor was the only one of the Rougons who ever shook hands with him in the street, and showed him any sincere friendship. Seeing him, therefore, still covered with dust from the march, the young man thought him gained over to the Republican cause, and was much delighted thereat. He talked to the doctor, with youthful magniloquence, of the people’s rights, their holy cause, and their certain triumph. Pascal smiled as he listened, and watched the youth’s gestures and the ardent play of his features with curiosity, as though he were studying a patient, or analysing an enthusiasm, to ascertain what might be at the bottom of it.
“How you run on! How you run on!” he finally exclaimed. “Ah! you are your grandmother’s true grandson.” And, in a whisper, he added, like some chemist taking notes: “Hysteria or enthusiasm, shameful madness or sublime madness. It’s always those terrible nerves!” Then, again speaking aloud, as if summing up the matter, he said: “The family is complete now. It will count a hero among its members.”
Silvere did not hear him. He was still talking of his dear Republic. Miette had dropped a few paces off; she was still wrapped in her large red pelisse. She and Silvere had traversed the town arm-inarm. The sight of this tall red girl at last puzzled Pascal, and again interrupting his cousin, he asked him: “Who is this child with you?”
“She is my wife,” Silvere gravely answered.
The doctor opened his eyes wide, for he did not understand. He was very shy with women; however, he raised his hat to Miette as he went away.
The night proved an anxious one. Forebodings of misfortune swept over the insurgents. The enthusiasm and confidence of the previous evening seemed to die away in the darkness. In the morning there were gloomy faces; sad looks were exchanged, followed by discouraging silence. Terrifying rumours were now circulating. Bad news, which the leaders had managed to conceal the previous evening, had spread abroad, though nobody in particular was known to have spoken. It was the work of that invisible voice, which, with a word, throws a mob into a panic. According to some reports Paris was subdued, and the provinces had offered their hands and feet, eager to be bound. And it was added that a large party of troops, which had left Marseilles under the command of Colonel Masson and Monsieur de Bleriot, the prefect of the department, was advancing by forced marches to disperse the insurrectionary bands. This news came like a thunderbolt, at once awakening rage and despair. These men, who on the previous evening had been all aglow with patriotic fever, now shivered with cold, chilled to their hearts by the shameful submissiveness of prostrate France. They alone, then, had had the courage to do their duty! And now they were to be left to perish amidst the general panic, the death-like silence of the country; they had become mere rebels, who would be hunted down like wild beasts; they, who had dreamed of a great war, of a whole nation in revolt, and of the glorious conquest of the people’s rights! Miserably baffled and betrayed, this handful of men could but weep for their dead faith and their vanished dreams of justice. There were some who, while taunting France with her cowardice, flung away their arms, and sat down by the roadside, declaring that they would there await the bullets of the troops, and show how Republicans could die.
Although these men had nothing now but death or exile before them, there were very few desertions from their ranks. A splendid feeling of solidarity kept them together. Their indignation turned chiefly against their leaders, who had really proved incapable. Irreparable mistakes had been committed; and now the insurgents, without order or discipline, barely protected by a few sentries, and under the command of irresolute men, found themselves at the mercy of the first soldiers that might arrive.
They spent two more days at Orcheres, Tuesday and Wednesday, thus losing time and aggravating the situation. The general, the man with the sabre, whom Silvere had pointed out to Miette on the Plassans road, vacillated and hesitated under the terrible responsibility that weighed upon him. On Thursday he came to the conclusion that the position of Orcheres was a decidedly dangerous one; so towards one o’clock he gave orders to march, and led his little army to the heights of Sainte–Roure. That was, indeed, an impregnable position for any one who knew how to defend it. The houses of Sainte–Roure rise in tiers along a hill-side; behind the town all approach is shut off by enormous rocks, so that this kind of citadel can only be reached by the Nores plain, which spreads out at the foot of the plateau. An esplanade, converted into a public walk planted with magnificent elms, overlooks the plain. It was on this esplanade that the insurgents encamped. The hostages were imprisoned in the Hotel de la Mule–Blanche, standing half-way along the promenade. The night passed away heavy and black. The insurgents spoke of treachery. As soon as it was morning, however, the man with the sabre, who had neglected to take the simplest precautions, reviewed the troops. The contingents were drawn up in line with their backs turned to the plain. They presented a wonderful medley of costume, some wearing brown jackets, others dark greatcoats, and others again blue blouses girded with red sashes. Moreover, their arms were an equally odd collection: there were newly sharpened scythes, large navvies’ spades, and fowling-pieces with burnished barrels glittering in the sunshine. And at the very moment when the improvised general was riding past the little army, a sentry, who had been forgotten in an olive-plantation, ran up gesticulating and shouting:
“The soldiers! The soldiers!”
There was indescribable emotion. At first, they thought it a false alarm. Forgetting all discipline, they rushed forward to the end of the esplanade in order to see the soldiers. The ranks were broken, and as the dark line of troops appeared, marching in perfect order with a long glitter of bayonets, on the other side of the greyish curtain of olive trees, there came a hasty and disorderly retreat, which sent a quiver of panic to the other end of the plateau. Nevertheless, the contingents of La Palud and Saint–Martin-deVaulx had again formed in line in the middle of the promenade, and stood there erect and fierce. A wood-cutter, who was a head taller than any of his companions, shouted, as he waved his red neckerchief: “To arms, Chavanoz, Graille, Poujols, Saint–Eutrope! To arms, Les Tulettes! To arms, Plassans!”
Crowds streamed across the esplanade. The man with the sabre, surrounded by the folks from Faverolles, marched off with several of the country contingents — Vernoux, Corbiere, Marsanne, and Pruinas — to outflank the enemy and then attack him. Other contingents, from Valqueyras, Nazere, Castel-le-Vieux, Les Roches–Noires, and Murdaran, dashed to the left, scattering themselves in skirmishing parties over the Nores plain.
And meantime the men of the towns and villages that the wood-cutter had called to his aid mustered together under the elms, there forming a dark irregular mass, grouped without regard to any of the rules of strategy, simply placed there like a rock, as it were, to bar the way or die. The men of Plassans stood in the middle of this heroic battalion. Amid the grey hues of the blouses and jackets, and the bluish glitter of the weapons, the pelisse worn by Miette, who was holding the banner with both hands, looked like a large red splotch — a fresh and bleeding wound.
All at once perfect silence fell. Monsieur Peirotte’s pale face appeared at a window of the Hotel de la Mule–Blanche. And he began to speak, gesticulating with his hands.
“Go in, close the shutters,” the insurgents furiously shouted; “you’ll get yourself killed.”
Thereupon the shutters were quickly closed, and nothing was heard save the regular, rhythmical tramp of the soldiers who were drawing near.
A minute, that seemed an age, went by. The troops had disappeared, hidden by an undulation of the ground; but over yonder, on the side of the Nores plain, the insurgents soon perceived the bayonets shooting up, one after another, like a field of steel-eared corn under the rising sun. At that moment Silvere, who was glowing with feverish agitation, fancied he could see the gendarme whose blood had stained his hands. He knew, from the accounts of his companions, that Rengade was not dead, that he had only lost an eye; and he clearly distinguished the unlucky man with his empty socket bleeding horribly. The keen recollection of this gendarme, to whom he had not given a thought since his departure from Plassans, proved unbearable. He was afraid that fear might get the better of him, and he tightened his hold on his carbine, while a mist gathered before his eyes. He felt a longing to discharge his gun and fire at the phantom of that one-eyed man so as to drive it away. Meantime the bayonets were still and ever slowly ascending.
When the heads of the soldiers appeared on a level with the esplanade, Silvere instinctively turned to Miette. She stood there with flushed face, looking taller than ever amidst the folds of the red banner; she was indeed standing on tiptoes in order to see the troops, and nervous expectation made her nostrils quiver and her red lips part so as to show her white, eager, gleaming teeth. Silvere smiled at her. But he had scarcely turned his head when a fusillade burst out. The soldiers, who could only be seen from their shoulders upwards, had just fired their first volley. It seemed to Silvere as though a great gust of wind was passing over his head, while a shower of leaves, lopped off by the bullets, fell from the elms. A sharp sound, like the snapping of a dead branch, made him look to his right. Then, prone on the ground, he saw the big wood-cutter, he who was a head taller than the others. There was a little black hole in the middle of his forehead. And thereupon Silvere fired straight before him, without taking aim, reloaded and fired again like a madman or an unthinking wild beast, in haste only to kill. He could not even distinguish the soldiers now; smoke, resembling strips of grey muslin, was floating under the elms. The leaves still rained upon the insurgents, for the troops were firing too high. Every now and then, athwart the fierce crackling of the fusillade, the young man heard a sigh or a low rattle, and a rush was made among the band as if to make room for some poor wretch clutching hold of his neighbours as he fell. The firing lasted ten minutes.
Then, between two volleys some one exclaimed in a voice of terror: “Every man for himself! Sauve qui peut!” This roused shouts and murmurs of rage, as if to say, “The cowards! Oh! the cowards!” sinister rumours were spreading — the general had fled; cavalry were sabring the skirmishers in the Nores plain. However, the irregular firing did not cease, every now and again sudden bursts of flame sped through the clouds of smoke. A gruff voice, the voice of terror, shouted yet louder: “Every man for himself! Sauve qui peut!” Some men took to flight, throwing down their weapons and leaping over the dead. The others closed their ranks. At last there were only some ten insurgents left. Two more took to flight, and of the remaining eight three were killed at one discharge.
The two children had remained there mechanically without understanding anything. As the battalion diminished in numbers, Miette raised the banner still higher in the air; she held it in front of her with clenched fists as if it were a huge taper. It was completely riddled by bullets. When Silvere had no more cartridges left in his pocket, he ceased firing, and gazed at the carbine with an air of stupor. It was then that a shadow passed over his face, as though the flapping wings of some colossal bird had brushed against his forehead. And raising his eyes he saw the banner fall from Miette’s grasp. The child, her hands clasped to her breast, her head thrown back with an expression of excruciating suffering, was staggering to the ground. She did not utter a single cry, but sank at last upon the red banner.
“Get up; come quickly,” Silvere said, in despair, as he held out his hand to her.
But she lay upon the ground without uttering a word, her eyes wide open. Then he understood, and fell on his knees beside her.
“You are wounded, eh? tell me? Where are you wounded?”
She still spoke no word; she was stifling, and gazing at him out of her large eyes, while short quivers shook her frame. Then he pulled away her hands.
“It’s there, isn’t it? it’s there.”
And he tore open her bodice, and laid her bosom bare. He searched, but saw nothing. His eyes were brimming with tears. At last under the left breast he perceived a small pink hole; a single drop of blood stained the wound.
“It’s nothing,” he whispered; “I’ll go and find Pascal, he’ll put you all right again. If you could only get up. Can’t you move?”
The soldiers were not firing now; they had dashed to the left in pursuit of the contingents led away by the man with the sabre. And in the centre of the esplanade there only remained Silvere kneeling beside Miette’s body. With the stubbornness of despair, he had taken her in his arms. He wanted to set her on her feet, but such a quiver of pain came upon the girl that he laid her down again, and said to her entreatingly: “Speak to me, pray. Why don’t you say something to me?”
She could not; she slowly, gently shook her hand, as if to say that it was not her fault. Her close-pressed lips were already contracting beneath the touch of death. With her unbound hair streaming around her, and her head resting amid the folds of the blood-red banner, all her life now centred in her eyes, those black eyes glittering in her white face. Silvere sobbed. The glance of those big sorrowful eyes filled him with distress. He read in them bitter, immense regret for life. Miette was telling him that she was going away all alone, and before their bridal day; that she was leaving him ere she had become his wife. She was telling him, too, that it was he who had willed that it should be so, that he should have loved her as other lovers love their sweethearts. In the hour of her agony, amidst that stern conflict between death and her vigorous nature, she bewailed her fate in going like that to the grave. Silvere, as he bent over her, understood how bitter was the pang. He recalled their caresses, how she had hung round his neck, and had yearned for his love, but he had not understood, and now she was departing from him for evermore. Bitterly grieved at the thought that throughout her eternal rest she would remember him solely as a companion and playfellow, he kissed her on the bosom while his hot tears fell upon her lips. Those passionate kisses brought a last gleam of joy to Miette’s eyes. They loved one another, and their idyll ended in death.
But Silvere could not believe she was dying. “No, you will see, it will prove only a trifle,” he declared. “Don’t speak if it hurts you. Wait, I will raise your head and then warm you; your hands are quite frozen.”
But the fusillade had begun afresh, this time on the left, in the olive plantations. A dull sound of galloping cavalry rose from the plain. At times there were loud cries, as of men being slaughtered. And thick clouds of smoke were wafted along and hung about the elms on the esplanade. Silvere for his part no longer heard or saw anything. Pascal, who came running down in the direction of the plain, saw him stretched upon the ground, and hastened towards him, thinking he was wounded. As soon as the young man saw him, he clutched hold of him and pointed to Miette.
“Look,” he said, “she’s wounded, there, under the breast. Ah! how good of you to come! You will save her.”
At that moment, however, a slight convulsion shook the dying girl. A pain-fraught shadow passed over her face, and as her contracted lips suddenly parted, a faint sigh escaped from them. Her eyes, still wide open, gazed fixedly at the young man.
Then Pascal, who had stooped down, rose again, saying in a low voice: “She is dead.”
Dead! Silvere reeled at the sound of the word. He had been kneeling forward, but now he sank back, as though thrown down by Miette’s last faint sigh.
“Dead! Dead!” he repeated; “it is not true, she is looking at me. See how she is looking at me!”
Then he caught the doctor by the coat, entreating him to remain there, assuring him that he was mistaken, that she was not dead, and that he could save her if he only would. Pascal resisted gently, saying, in his kindly voice: “I can do nothing for her, others are waiting for me. Let go, my poor child; she is quite dead.”
At last Silvere released his hold and again fell back. Dead! Dead! Still that word, which rang like a knell in his dazed brain! When he was alone he crept up close to the corpse. Miette still seemed to be looking at him. He threw himself upon her, laid his head upon her bosom, and watered it with his tears. He was beside himself with grief. He pressed his lips wildly to her, and breathed out all his passion, all his soul, in one long kiss, as though in the hope that it might bring her to life again. But the girl was turning cold in spite of his caresses. He felt her lifeless and nerveless beneath his touch. Then he was seized with terror, and with haggard face and listless hanging arms he remained crouching in a state of stupor, and repeating: “She is dead, yet she is looking at me; she does not close her eyes, she sees me still.”
This fancy was very sweet to him. He remained there perfectly still, exchanging a long look with Miette, in whose glance, deepened by death, he still seemed to read the girl’s lament for her sad fate.
In the meantime, the cavalry were still sabring the fugitives over the Nores plain; the cries of the wounded and the galloping of the horses became more distant, softening like music wafted from afar through the clear air. Silvere was no longer conscious of the fighting. He did not even see his cousin, who mounted the slope again and crossed the promenade. Pascal, as he passed along, picked up Macquart’s carbine which Silvere had thrown down; he knew it, as he had seen it hanging over aunt Dide’s chimney-piece, and he thought he might as well save it from the hands of the victors. He had scarcely entered the Hotel de la Mule–Blanche, whither a large number of the wounded had been taken, when a band of insurgents, chased by the soldiers like a herd of cattle, once more rushed into the esplanade. The man with the sabre had fled; it was the last contingents from the country who were being exterminated. There was a terrible massacre. In vain did Colonel Masson and the prefect, Monsieur de Bleriot, overcome by pity, order a retreat. The infuriated soldiers continued firing upon the mass, and pinning isolated fugitives to the walls with their bayonets. When they had no more enemies before them, they riddled the facade of the Mule–Blanche with bullets. The shutters flew into splinters; one window which had been left half-open was torn out, and there was a loud rattle of broken glass. Pitiful voices were crying out from within; “The prisoners! The prisoners!” But the troops did not hear; they continued firing. All at once Commander Sicardot, growing exasperated, appeared at the door, waved his arms, and endeavoured to speak. Monsieur Peirotte, the receiver of taxes, with his slim figure and scared face, stood by his side. However, another volley was fired, and Monsieur Peirotte fell face foremost, with a heavy thud, to the ground.
Silvere and Miette were still looking at each other. Silvere had remained by the corpse, through all the fusillade and the howls of agony, without even turning his head. He was only conscious of the presence of some men around him, and, from a feeling of modesty, he drew the red banner over Miette’s breast. Then their eyes still continued to gaze at one another.
The conflict, however, was at an end. The death of the receiver of taxes had satiated the soldiers. Some of these ran about, scouring every corner of the esplanade, to prevent the escape of a single insurgent. A gendarme who perceived Silvere under the trees, ran up to him, and seeing that it was a lad he had to deal with, called: “What are you doing there, youngster?”
Silvere, whose eyes were still fixed on those of Miette, made no reply.
“Ah! the bandit, his hands are black with powder,” the gendarme exclaimed, as he stooped down. “Come, get up, you scoundrel! You know what you’ve got to expect.”
Then, as Silvere only smiled vaguely and did not move, the other looked more attentively, and saw that the corpse swathed in the banner was that of a girl.
“A fine girl; what a pity!” he muttered. “Your mistress, eh? you rascal!”
Then he made a violent grab at Silvere, and setting him on his feet led him away like a dog that is dragged by one leg. Silvere submitted in silence, as quietly as a child. He just turned round to give another glance at Miette. He felt distressed at thus leaving her alone under the trees. For the last time he looked at her from afar. She was still lying there in all her purity, wrapped in the red banner, her head slightly raised, and her big eyes turned upward towards heaven.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02