The Fortune of the Rougons
On quitting Plassans by the Rome Gate, on the southern side of the town, you will find, on the right side of the road to Nice, and a little way past the first suburban houses, a plot of land locally known as the Aire Saint-Mittre.
This Aire Saint-Mittre is of oblong shape and on a level with the footpath of the adjacent road, from which it is separated by a strip of trodden grass. A narrow blind alley fringed with a row of hovels borders it on the right; while on the left, and at the further end, it is closed in by bits of wall overgrown with moss, above which can be seen the top branches of the mulberry-trees of the Jas-Meiffren-an extensive property with an entrance lower down the road. Enclosed upon three sides, the Aire Saint-Mittre leads nowhere, and is only crossed by people out for a stroll.
In former times it was a cemetery under the patronage of Saint-Mittre, a greatly honoured Provencal saint; and in 1851 the old people of Plassans could still remember having seen the wall of the cemetery standing, although the place itself had been closed for years. The soil had been so glutted with corpses that it had been found necessary to open a new burial-ground at the other end of town. Then the old abandoned cemetery had been gradually purified by the dark thick-set vegetation which had sprouted over it every spring. The rich soil, in which the gravediggers could no longer delve without turning up some human remains, was possessed of wondrous fertility. The tall weeds overtopped the walls after the May rains and the June sunshine so as to be visible from the high road; while inside, the place presented the appearance of a deep, dark green sea studded with large blossoms of singular brilliancy. Beneath one's feet amidst the close-set stalks one could feel that the damp soil reeked and bubbled with sap.
Among the curiosities of the place at that time were some large pear-trees, with twisted and knotty boughs; but none of the housewives of Plassans cared to pluck the large fruit which grew upon them. Indeed, the townspeople spoke of this fruit with grimaces of disgust. No such delicacy, however, restrained the suburban urchins, who assembled in bands at twilight and climbed the walls to steal the pears, even before they were ripe.
The trees and the weeds with their vigorous growth had rapidly assimilated all the decomposing matter in the old cemetery of Saint-Mittre; the malaria rising from the human remains interred there had been greedily absorbed by the flowers and the fruit; so that eventually the only odour one could detect in passing by was the strong perfume of wild gillyflowers. This had merely been a question of a few summers.
At last the townspeople determined to utilise this common property, which had long served no purpose. The walls bordering the roadway and the blind alley were pulled down; the weeds and the pear-trees uprooted; the sepulchral remains were removed; the ground was dug deep, and such bones as the earth was willing to surrender were heaped up in a corner. For nearly a month the youngsters, who lamented the loss of the pear-trees, played at bowls with the skulls; and one night some practical jokers even suspended femurs and tibias to all the bell-handles of the town. This scandal, which is still remembered at Plassans, did not cease until the authorities decided to have the bones shot into a hole which had been dug for the purpose in the new cemetery. All work, however, is usually carried out with discreet dilatoriness in country towns, and so during an entire week the inhabitants saw a solitary cart removing these human remains as if they had been mere rubbish. The vehicle had to cross Plassans from end to end, and owing to the bad condition of the roads fragments of bones and handfuls of rich mould were scattered at every jolt. There was not the briefest religious ceremony, nothing but slow and brutish cartage. Never before had a town felt so disgusted.
For several years the old cemetery remained an object of terror. Although it adjoined the main thoroughfare and was open to all comers, it was left quite deserted, a prey to fresh vegetable growth. The local authorities, who had doubtless counted on selling it and seeing houses built upon it, were evidently unable to find a purchaser. The recollection of the heaps of bones and the cart persistently jolting through the streets may have made people recoil from the spot; or perhaps the indifference that was shown was due to the indolence, the repugnance to pulling down and setting up again, which is characteristic of country people. At all events the authorities still retained possession of the ground, and at last forgot their desire to dispose of it. They did not even erect a fence round it, but left it open to all comers. Then, as time rolled on, people gradually grew accustomed to this barren spot; they would sit on the grass at the edges, walk about, or gather in groups. When the grass had been worn away and the trodden soil had become grey and hard, the old cemetery resembled a badly-levelled public square. As if the more effectually to efface the memory of all objectionable associations, the inhabitants slowly changed the very appellation of the place, retaining but the name of the saint, which was likewise applied to the blind alley dipping down at one corner of the field. Thus there was the Aire Saint-Mittre and the Impasse Saint-Mittre.
All this dates, however, from some considerable time back. For more than thirty years now the Aire Saint-Mittre has presented a different appearance. One day the townspeople, far too inert and indifferent to derive any advantage from it, let it, for a trifling consideration, to some suburban wheelwrights, who turned it into a wood-yard. At the present day it is still littered with huge pieces of timber thirty or forty feet long, lying here and there in piles, and looking like lofty overturned columns. These piles of timber, disposed at intervals from one end of the yard to the other, are a continual source of delight to the local urchins. In some places the ground is covered with fallen wood, forming a kind of uneven flooring over which it is impossible to walk, unless one balance one's self with marvellous dexterity. Troops of children amuse themselves with this exercise all day long. You will see them jumping over the big beams, walking in Indian file along the narrow ends, or else crawling astride them; various games which generally terminate in blows and bellowings. Sometimes, too, a dozen of them will sit, closely packed one against the other, on the thin end of a pole raised a few feet from the ground, and will see-saw there for hours together. The Aire Saint-Mittre thus serves as a recreation ground, where for more than a quarter of a century all the little suburban ragamuffins have been in the habit of wearing out the seats of their breeches.
The strangeness of the place is increased by the circumstance that wandering gipsies, by a sort of traditional custom always select the vacant portions of it for their encampments. Whenever any caravan arrives at Plassans it takes up its quarters on the Aire Saint-Mittre. The place is consequently never empty. There is always some strange band there, some troop of wild men and withered women, among whom groups of healthy-looking children roll about on the grass. These people live in the open air, regardless of everybody, setting their pots boiling, eating nameless things, freely displaying their tattered garments, and sleeping, fighting, kissing, and reeking with mingled filth and misery.
The field, formerly so still and deserted, save for the buzzing of hornets around the rich blossoms in the heavy sunshine, has thus become a very rowdy spot, resounding with the noisy quarrels of the gipsies and the shrill cries of the urchins of the suburb. In one corner there is a primitive saw-mill for cutting the timber, the noise from which serves as a dull, continuous bass accompaniment to the sharp voices. The wood is placed on two high tressels, and a couple of sawyers, one of whom stands aloft on the timber itself, while the other underneath is half blinded by the falling sawdust, work a large saw to and fro for hours together, with rigid machine-like regularity, as if they were wire-pulled puppets. The wood they saw is stacked, plank by plank, along the wall at the end, in carefully arranged piles six or eight feet high, which often remain there several seasons, and constitute one of the charms of the Aire Saint-Mittre. Between these stacks are mysterious, retired little alleys leading to a broader path between the timber and the wall, a deserted strip of verdure whence only small patches of sky can be seen. The vigorous vegetation and the quivering, deathlike stillness of the old cemetery still reign in this path. In all the country round Plassans there is no spot more instinct with languor, solitude, and love. It is a most delightful place for love-making. When the cemetery was being cleared the bones must have been heaped up in this corner; for even to-day it frequently happens that one's foot comes across some fragment of a skull lying concealed in the damp turf.
Nobody, however, now thinks of the bodies that once slept under that turf. In the daytime only the children go behind the piles of wood when playing at hide and seek. The green path remains virginal, unknown to others who see nought but the wood-yard crowded with timber and grey with dust. In the morning and afternoon, when the sun is warm, the whole place swarms with life. Above all the turmoil, above the ragamuffins playing among the timber, and the gipsies kindling fires under their cauldrons, the sharp silhouette of the sawyer mounted on his beam stands out against the sky, moving to and fro with the precision of clockwork, as if to regulate the busy activity that has sprung up in this spot once set apart for eternal slumber. Only the old people who sit on the planks, basking in the setting sun, speak occasionally among themselves of the bones which they once saw carted through the streets of Plassans by the legendary tumbrel.
When night falls the Aire Saint-Mittre loses its animation, and looks like some great black hole. At the far end one may just espy the dying embers of the gipsies' fires, and at times shadows slink noiselessly into the dense darkness. The place becomes quite sinister, particularly in winter time.
One Sunday evening, at about seven o'clock, a young man stepped lightly from the Impasse Saint-Mittre, and, closely skirting the walls, took his way among the timber in the wood-yard. It was in the early part of December, 1851. The weather was dry and cold. The full moon shone with that sharp brilliancy peculiar to winter moons. The wood-yard did not have the forbidding appearance which it wears on rainy nights; illumined by stretches of white light, and wrapped in deep and chilly silence, it spread around with a soft, melancholy aspect.
For a few seconds the young man paused on the edge of the yard and gazed mistrustfully in front of him. He carried a long gun, the butt-end of which was hidden under his jacket, while the barrel, pointed towards the ground, glittered in the moonlight. Pressing the weapon to his side, he attentively examined the square shadows cast by the piles of timber. The ground looked like a chess-board, with black and white squares clearly defined by alternate patches of light and shade. The sawyers' tressels in the centre of the plot threw long, narrow fantastic shadows, suggesting some huge geometrical figure, upon a strip of bare grey ground. The rest of the yard, the flooring of beams, formed a great couch on which the light reposed, streaked here and there with the slender black shadows which edged the different pieces of timber. In the frigid silence under the wintry moon, the motionless, recumbent poles, stiffened, as it were, with sleep and cold, recalled the corpses of the old cemetery. The young man cast but a rapid glance round the empty space; there was not a creature, not a sound, no danger of being seen or heard. The black patches at the further end caused him more anxiety, but after a brief examination he plucked up courage and hurriedly crossed the wood-yard.
As soon as he felt himself under cover he slackened his pace. He was now in the green pathway skirting the wall behind the piles of planks. Here his very footsteps became inaudible; the frozen grass scarcely crackled under his tread. He must have loved the spot, have feared no danger, sought nothing but what was pleasant there. He no longer concealed his gun. The path stretched away like a dark trench, except that the moonrays, gliding ever and anon between the piles of timber, then streaked the grass with patches of light. All slept, both darkness and light, with the same deep, soft, sad slumber. No words can describe the calm peacefulness of the place. The young man went right down the path, and stopped at the end where the walls of the Jas-Meiffren form an angle. Here he listened as if to ascertain whether any sound might be coming from the adjoining estate. At last, hearing nothing, he stooped down, thrust a plank aside, and hid his gun in a timber-stack.
An old tombstone, which had been overlooked in the clearing of the burial-ground, lay in the corner, resting on its side and forming a high and slightly sloping seat. The rain had worn its edges, and moss was slowly eating into it. Nevertheless, the following fragment of an inscription, cut on the side which was sinking into the ground, might still have been distinguished in the moonlight: "Here lieth . . . Marie . . . died . . ." The finger of time had effaced the rest.
When the young man had concealed his gun he again listened attentively, and still hearing nothing, resolved to climb upon the stone. The wall being low, he was able to rest his elbows on the coping. He could, however, perceive nothing except a flood of light beyond the row of mulberry-trees skirting the wall. The flat ground of the Jas-Meiffren spread out under the moon like an immense sheet of unbleached linen; a hundred yards away the farmhouse and its outbuildings formed a still whiter patch. The young man was still gazing anxiously in that direction when, suddenly, one of the town clocks slowly and solemnly struck seven. He counted the strokes, and then jumped down, apparently surprised and relieved.
He seated himself on the tombstone, like one who is prepared to wait some considerable time. And for about half an hour he remained motionless and deep in thought, apparently quite unconscious of the cold, while his eyes gazed fixedly at a mass of shadow. He had placed himself in a dark corner, but the beams of the rising moon had gradually reached him, and at last his head was in the full light.
He was a strong, sturdy-looking lad, with a fine mouth, and soft delicate skin that bespoke youthfulness. He looked about seventeen years of age, and was handsome in a characteristic way.
His thin, long face looked like the work of some master sculptor; his high forehead, overhanging brows, aquiline nose, broad flat chin, and protruding cheek bones, gave singularly bold relief to his countenance. Such a face would, with advancing age, become too bony, as fleshless as that of a knight errant. But at this stage of youth, with chin and cheek lightly covered with soft down, its latent harshness was attenuated by the charming softness of certain contours which had remained vague and childlike. His soft black eyes, still full of youth, also lent delicacy to his otherwise vigorous countenance. The young fellow would probably not have fascinated all women, as he was not what one calls a handsome man; but his features, as a whole, expressed such ardent and sympathetic life, such enthusiasm and energy, that they doubtless engaged the thoughts of the girls of his own part-those sunburnt girls of the South-as he passed their doors on sultry July evenings.
He remained seated upon the tombstone, wrapped in thought, and apparently quite unconscious of the moonlight which now fell upon his chest and legs. He was of middle stature, rather thick-set, with over-developed arms and a labourer's hands, already hardened by toil; his feet, shod with heavy laced boots, looked large and square-toed. His general appearance, more particularly the heaviness of his limbs, bespoke lowly origin. There was, however, something in him, in the upright bearing of his neck and the thoughtful gleams of his eyes, which seemed to indicate an inner revolt against the brutifying manual labour which was beginning to bend him to the ground. He was, no doubt, an intelligent nature buried beneath the oppressive burden of race and class; one of those delicate refined minds embedded in a rough envelope, from which they in vain struggle to free themselves. Thus, in spite of his vigour, he seemed timid and restless, feeling a kind of unconscious shame at his imperfection. An honest lad he doubtless was, whose very ignorance had generated enthusiasm, whose manly heart was impelled by childish intellect, and who could show alike the submissiveness of a woman and the courage of a hero. On the evening in question he was dressed in a coat and trousers of greenish corduroy. A soft felt hat, placed lightly on the back of his head, cast a streak of shadow over his brow.
As the neighbouring clock struck the half hour, he suddenly started from his reverie. Perceiving that the white moonlight was shining full upon him, he gazed anxiously ahead. Then he abruptly dived back into the shade, but was unable to recover the thread of his thoughts. He now realised that his hands and feet were becoming very cold, and impatience seized hold of him. So he jumped upon the stone again, and once more glanced over the Jas-Meiffren, which was still empty and silent. Finally, at a loss how to employ his time, he jumped down, fetched his gun from the pile of planks where he had concealed it, and amused himself by working the trigger. The weapon was a long, heavy carbine, which had doubtless belonged to some smuggler. The thickness of the butt and the breech of the barrel showed it to be an old flintlock which had been altered into a percussion gun by some local gunsmith. Such firearms are to be found in farmhouses, hanging against the wall over the chimney-piece. The young man caressed his weapon with affection; twenty times or more he pulled the trigger, thrust his little finger into the barrel, and examined the butt attentively. By degrees he grew full of youth enthusiasm, combined with childish frolicsomeness, and ended by levelling his weapon and aiming at space, like a recruit going through his drill.
It was now very nearly eight o'clock, and he had been holding his gun levelled for over a minute, when all at once a low, panting call, light as a breath, came from the direction of the Jas-Meiffren.
"Are you there, Silvere?" the voice asked.
Silvere dropped his gun and bounded on to the tombstone.
"Yes, yes," he replied, also in a hushed voice. "Wait, I'll help you."
Before he could stretch out his arms, however, a girl's head appeared above the wall. With singular agility the damsel had availed herself of the trunk of a mulberry-tree, and climbed aloft like a kitten. The ease and certainty with which she moved showed that she was familiar with this strange spot. In another moment she was seated on the coping of the wall. Then Silvere, taking her in his arms, carried her, though not without a struggle, to the seat.
"Let go," she laughingly cried; "let go, I can get down alone very well." And when she was seated on the stone slab she added:
"Have you been waiting for me long? I've been running, and am quite out of breath."
Silvere made no reply. He seemed in no laughing humour, but gazed sorrowfully into the girl's face. "I wanted to see you, Miette," he said, as he seated himself beside her. "I should have waited all night for you. I am going away at daybreak to-morrow morning."
Miette had just caught sight of the gun lying on the grass, and with a thoughtful air, she murmured: "Ah! so it's decided then? There's your gun!"
"Yes," replied Silvere, after a brief pause, his voice still faltering, "it's my gun. I thought it best to remove it from the house to-night; to-morrow morning aunt Dide might have seen me take it, and have felt uneasy about it. I am going to hide it, and shall fetch it just before starting."
Then, as Miette could not remove her eyes from the weapon which he had so foolishly left on the grass, he jumped up and again hid it among the woodstacks.
"We learnt this morning," he said, as he resumed his seat, "that the insurgents of La Palud and Saint Martin-de-Vaulx were on the march, and spent last night at Alboise. We have decided to join them. Some of the workmen of Plassans have already left the town this afternoon; those who still remain will join their brothers to-morrow."
He spoke the word brothers with youthful emphasis.
"A contest is becoming inevitable," he added; "but, at any rate, we have right on our side, and we shall triumph."
Miette listened to Silvere, her eyes meantime gazing in front of her, without observing anything.
"'Tis well," she said, when he had finished speaking. And after a fresh pause she continued: "You warned me, yet I still hoped. . . . However, it is decided."
Neither of them knew what else to say. The green path in the deserted corner of the wood-yard relapsed into melancholy stillness; only the moon chased the shadows of the piles of timber over the grass. The two young people on the tombstone remained silent and motionless in the pale light. Silvere had passed his arm round Miette's waist, and she was leaning against his shoulder. They exchanged no kisses, naught but an embrace in which love showed the innocent tenderness of fraternal affection.
Miette was enveloped in a long brown hooded cloak reaching to her feet, and leaving only her head and hands visible. The women of the lower classes in Provence-the peasantry and workpeople-still wear these ample cloaks, which are called pelisses; it is a fashion which must have lasted for ages. Miette had thrown back her hood on arriving. Living in the open air and born of a hotblooded race, she never wore a cap. Her bare head showed in bold relief against the wall, which the moonlight whitened. She was still a child, no doubt, but a child ripening into womanhood. She had reached that adorable, uncertain hour when the frolicsome girl changes to a young woman. At that stage of life a bud-like delicacy, a hesitancy of contour that is exquisitely charming, distinguishes young girls. The outlines of womanhood appear amidst girlhood's innocent slimness, and woman shoots forth at first all embarrassment, still retaining much of the child, and ever and unconsciously betraying her sex. This period is very unpropitious for some girls, who suddenly shoot up, become ugly, sallow and frail, like plants before their due season. For those, however, who, like Miette, are healthy and live in the open air, it is a time of delightful gracefulness which once passed can never be recalled.
Miette was thirteen years of age, and although strong and sturdy did not look any older, so bright and childish was the smile which lit up her countenance. However, she was nearly as tall as Silvere, plump and full of life. Like her lover, she had no common beauty. She would not have been considered ugly, but she might have appeared peculiar to many young exquisites. Her rich black hair rose roughly erect above her forehead, streamed back like a rushing wave, and flowed over her head and neck like an inky sea, tossing and bubbling capriciously. It was very thick and inconvenient to arrange. However, she twisted it as tightly as possible into coils as thick as a child's fist, which she wound together at the back of her head. She had little time to devote to her toilette, but this huge chignon, hastily contrived without the aid of any mirror, was often instinct with vigorous grace. On seeing her thus naturally helmeted with a mass of frizzy hair which hung about her neck and temples like a mane, one could readily understand why she always went bareheaded, heedless alike of rain and frost.
Under her dark locks appeared her low forehead, curved and golden like a crescent moon. Her large prominent eyes, her short tip-tilted nose with dilated nostrils, and her thick ruddy lips, when regarded apart from one another, would have looked ugly; viewed, however, all together, amidst the delightful roundness and vivacious mobility of her countenance, they formed an ensemble of strange, surprising beauty. When Miette laughed, throwing back her head and gently resting it on her right shoulder, she resembled an old-time Bacchante, her throat distending with sonorous gaiety, her cheeks round like those of a child, her teeth large and white, her twists of woolly hair tossed by every outburst of merriment, and waving like a crown of vine leaves. To realise that she was only a child of thirteen, one had to notice the innocence underlying her full womanly laughter, and especially the child-like delicacy of her chin and soft transparency of her temples. In certain lights Miette's sun-tanned face showed yellow like amber. A little soft black down already shaded her upper lip. Toil too was beginning to disfigure her small hands, which, if left idle, would have become charmingly plump and delicate.
Miette and Silvere long remained silent. They were reading their own anxious thoughts, and, as they pondered upon the unknown terrors of the morrow, they tightened their mutual embrace. Their hearts communed with each other, they understood how useless and cruel would be any verbal plaint. The girl, however, could at last no longer contain herself, and, choking with emotion, she gave expression, in one phrase, to their mutual misgivings.
"You will come back again, won't you?" she whispered, as she hung on Silvere's neck.
Silvere made no reply, but, half-stifling, and fearing lest he should give way to tears like herself, he kissed her in brotherly fashion on the cheek, at a loss for any other consolation. Then disengaging themselves they again lapsed into silence.
After a moment Miette shuddered. Now that she no longer leant against Silvere's shoulder she was becoming icy cold. Yet she would not have shuddered thus had she been in this deserted path the previous evening, seated on this tombstone, where for several seasons they had tasted so much happiness.
"I'm very cold," she said, as she pulled her hood over her head.
"Shall we walk about a little?" the young man asked her. "It's not yet nine o'clock; we can take a stroll along the road."
Miette reflected that for a long time she would probably not have the pleasure of another meeting-another of those evening chats, the joy of which served to sustain her all day long.
"Yes, let us walk a little," she eagerly replied. "Let us go as far as the mill. I could pass the whole night like this if you wanted to."
They rose from the tombstone, and were soon hidden in the shadow of a pile of planks. Here Miette opened her cloak, which had a quilted lining of red twill, and threw half of it over Silvere's shoulders, thus enveloping him as he stood there close beside her. The same garment cloaked them both, and they passed their arms round each other's waist, and became as it were but one being. When they were thus shrouded in the pelisse they walked slowly towards the high road, fearlessly crossing the vacant parts of the wood-yard, which looked white in the moonlight. Miette had thrown the cloak over Silvere, and he had submitted to it quite naturally, as though indeed the garment rendered them a similar service every evening.
The road to Nice, on either side of which the suburban houses are built, was, in the year 1851, lined with ancient elm-trees, grand and gigantic ruins, still full of vigour, which the fastidious town council has replaced, some years since, by some little plane-trees. When Silvere and Miette found themselves under the elms, the huge boughs of which cast shadows on the moonlit footpath, they met now and again black forms which silently skirted the house fronts. These, too, were amorous couples, closely wrapped in one and the same cloak, and strolling in the darkness.
This style of promenading has been instituted by the young lovers of Southern towns. Those boys and girls among the people who mean to marry sooner or later, but who do not dislike a kiss or two in advance, know no spot where they can kiss at their ease without exposing themselves to recognition and gossip. Accordingly, while strolling about the suburbs, the plots of waste land, the footpaths of the high road-in fact, all these places where there are few passers-by and numerous shady nooks-they conceal their identity by wrapping themselves in these long cloaks, which are capacious enough to cover a whole family. The parents tolerate these proceedings; however stiff may be provincial propriety, no apprehensions, seemingly, are entertained. And, on the other hand, nothing could be more charming than these lovers' rambles, which appeal so keenly to the Southerner's fanciful imagination. There is a veritable masquerade, fertile in innocent enjoyments, within the reach of the most humble. The girl clasps her sweetheart to her bosom, enveloping him in her own warm cloak; and no doubt it is delightful to be able to kiss one's sweetheart within those shrouding folds without danger of being recognised. One couple is exactly like another. And to the belated pedestrian, who sees the vague groups gliding hither and thither, 'tis merely love passing, love guessed and scarce espied. The lovers know they are safely concealed within their cloaks, they converse in undertones and make themselves quite at home; most frequently they do not converse at all, but walk along at random and in silence, content in their embrace. The climate alone is to blame for having in the first instance prompted these young lovers to retire to secluded spots in the suburbs. On fine summer nights one cannot walk round Plassans without coming across a hooded couple in every patch of shadow falling from the house walls. Certain places, the Aire Saint-Mittre, for instance, are full of these dark "dominoes" brushing past one another, gliding softly in the warm nocturnal air. One might imagine they were guests invited to some mysterious ball given by the stars to lowly lovers. When the weather is very warm and the girls do not wear cloaks, they simply turn up their over-skirts. And in the winter the more passionate lovers make light of the frosts. Thus, Miette and Silvere, as they descended the Nice road, thought little of the chill December night.
They passed through the slumbering suburb without exchanging a word, but enjoying the mute delight of their warm embrace. Their hearts were heavy; the joy which they felt in being side by side was tinged with the painful emotion which comes from the thought of approaching severance, and it seemed to them that they could never exhaust the mingled sweetness and bitterness of the silence which slowly lulled their steps. But the houses soon grew fewer, and they reached the end of the Faubourg. There stands the entrance to the Jas-Meiffren, an iron gate fixed to two strong pillars; a low row of mulberry-trees being visible through the bars. Silvere and Miette instinctively cast a glance inside as they passed on.
Beyond the Jas-Meiffren the road descends with a gentle slope to a valley, which serves as the bed of a little rivulet, the Viorne, a brook in summer but a torrent in winter. The rows of elms still extended the whole way at that time, making the high road a magnificent avenue, which cast a broad band of gigantic trees across the hill, which was planted with corn and stunted vines. On that December night, under the clear cold moonlight, the newly-ploughed fields stretching away on either hand resembled vast beds of greyish wadding which deadened every sound in the atmosphere. The dull murmur of the Viorne in the distance alone sent a quivering thrill through the profound silence of the country-side.
When the young people had begun to descend the avenue, Miette's thoughts reverted to the Jas-Meiffren which they had just left behind them.
"I had great difficulty in getting away this evening," she said. "My uncle wouldn't let me go. He had shut himself up in a cellar, where he was hiding his money, I think, for he seemed greatly frightened this morning at the events that are taking place."
Silvere clasped her yet more lovingly. "Be brave!" said he. "The time will come when we shall be able to see each other freely the whole day long. You must not fret."
"Oh," replied the girl, shaking her head, "you are very hopeful. For my part I sometimes feel very sad. It isn't the hard work which grieves me; on the contrary, I am often very glad of my uncle's severity, and the tasks he sets me. He was quite right to make me a peasant girl; I should perhaps have turned out badly, for, do you know, Silvere, there are moments when I fancy myself under a curse. . . . I feel, then, that I should like to be dead. . . . I think of you know whom."
As she spoke these last words, her voice broke into a sob. Silvere interrupted her somewhat harshly. "Be quiet," he said. "You promised not to think about it. It's no crime of yours. . . . We love each other very much, don't we?" he added in a gentler tone. "When we're married you'll have no more unpleasant hours."
"I know," murmured Miette. "You are so kind, you sustain me. But what am I to do? I sometimes have fears and feelings of revolt. I think at times that I have been wronged, and then I should like to do something wicked. You see I pour forth my heart to you. Whenever my father's name is thrown in my face, I feel my whole body burning. When the urchins cry at me as I pass, 'Eh, La Chantegreil,' I lose all control of myself, and feel that I should like to lay hold of them and whip them."
After a savage pause she resumed: "As for you, you're a man; you're going to fight; you're very lucky."
Silvere had let her speak on. After a few steps he observed sorrowfully: "You are wrong, Miette; yours is bad anger. You shouldn't rebel against justice. As for me, I'm going to fight in defence of our common rights, not to gratify any personal animosity."
"All the same," the young girl continued, "I should like to be a man and handle a gun. I feel that it would do me good."
Then, as Silvere remained silent, she perceived that she had displeased him. Her feverishness subsided, and she whispered in a supplicating tone: "You are not angry with me, are you? It's your departure which grieves me and awakens such ideas. I know very well you are right-that I ought to be humble."
Then she began to cry, and Silvere, moved by her tears, grasped her hands and kissed them.
"See, now, how you pass from anger to tears, like a child," he said lovingly. "You must be reasonable. I'm not scolding you. I only want to see you happier, and that depends largely upon yourself."
The remembrance of the drama which Miette had so sadly evoked cast a temporary gloom over the lovers. They continued their walk with bowed heads and troubled thoughts.
"Do you think I'm much happier than you?" Silvere at last inquired, resuming the conversation in spite of himself. "If my grandmother had not taken care of me and educated me, what would have become of me? With the exception of my Uncle Antoine, who is an artisan like myself, and who taught me to love the Republic, all my other relations seem to fear that I might besmirch them by coming near them."
He was now speaking with animation, and suddenly stopped, detaining Miette in the middle of the road.
"God is my witness," he continued, "that I do not envy or hate anybody. But if we triumph, I shall have to tell the truth to those fine gentlemen. Uncle Antoine knows all about this matter. You'll see when we return. We shall all live free and happy."
Then Miette gently led him on, and they resumed their walk.
"You dearly love your Republic?" the girl asked, essaying a joke. "Do you love me as much?"
Her smile was not altogether free from a tinge of bitterness. She was thinking, perhaps, how easily Silvere abandoned her to go and scour the country-side. But the lad gravely replied: "You are my wife, to whom I have given my whole heart. I love the Republic because I love you. When we are married we shall want plenty of happiness, and it is to procure a share of that happiness that I'm going way to-morrow morning. You surely don't want to persuade me to remain at home?"
"Oh, no!" cried the girl eagerly. "A man should be brave! Courage is beautiful! You must forgive my jealousy. I should like to be as strong-minded as you are. You would love me all the more, wouldn't you?"
After a moment's silence she added, with charming vivacity and ingenuousness: "Ah, how willingly I shall kiss you when you come back!"
This outburst of a loving and courageous heart deeply affected Silvere. He clasped Miette in his arms and printed several kisses on her cheek. As she laughingly struggled to escape him, her eyes filled with tears of emotion.
All around the lovers the country still slumbered amid the deep stillness of the cold. They were now half-way down the hill. On the top of a rather lofty hillock to the left stood the ruins of a windmill, blanched by the moon; the tower, which had fallen in on one side, alone remained. This was the limit which the young people had assigned to their walk. They had come straight from the Faubourg without casting a single glance at the fields between which they passed. When Silvere had kissed Miette's cheek, he raised his head and observed the mill.
"What a long walk we've had!" he exclaimed. "See-here is the mill. It must be nearly half-past nine. We must go home."
But Miette pouted. "Let us walk a little further," she implored; "only a few steps, just as far as the little cross-road, no farther, really."
Silvere smiled as he again took her round the waist. Then they continued to descend the hill, no longer fearing inquisitive glances, for they had not met a living soul since passing the last houses. They nevertheless remained enveloped in the long pelisse, which seemed, as it were, a natural nest for their love. It had shrouded them on so many happy evenings! Had they simply walked side by side, they would have felt small and isolated in that vast stretch of country, whereas, blended together as they were, they became bolder and seemed less puny. Between the folds of the pelisse they gazed upon the fields stretching on both sides of the road, without experiencing that crushing feeling with which far-stretching callous vistas oppress the human affections. It seemed to them as though they had brought their house with them; they felt a pleasure in viewing the country-side as from a window, delighting in the calm solitude, the sheets of slumbering light, the glimpses of nature vaguely distinguishable beneath the shroud of night and winter, the whole of that valley indeed, which while charming them could not thrust itself between their close-pressed hearts.
All continuity of conversation had ceased; they spoke no more of others, nor even of themselves. They were absorbed by the present, pressing each other's hands, uttering exclamations at the sight of some particular spot, exchanging words at rare intervals, and then understanding each other but little, for drowsiness came from the warmth of their embrace. Silvere forgot his Republican enthusiasm; Miette no longer reflected that her lover would be leaving her in an hour, for a long time, perhaps for ever. The transports of their affection lulled them into a feeling of security, as on other days, when no prospect of parting had marred the tranquility of their meetings.
They still walked on, and soon reached the little crossroad mentioned by Miette-a bit of a lane which led through the fields to a village on the banks of the Viorne. But they passed on, pretending not to notice this path, where they had agreed to stop. And it was only some minutes afterwards that Silvere whispered, "It must be very late; you will get tired."
"No; I assure you I'm not at all tired," the girl replied. "I could walk several leagues like this easily." Then, in a coaxing tone, she added: "Let us go down as far as the meadows of Sainte-Claire. There we will really stop and turn back."
Silvere, whom the girl's rhythmic gait lulled to semi-somnolence, made no objection, and their rapture began afresh. They now went on more slowly, fearing the moment when they would have to retrace their steps. So long as they walked onward, they felt as though they were advancing to the eternity of their mutual embrace; the return would mean separation and bitter leave-taking.
The declivity of the road was gradually becoming more gentle. In the valley below there are meadows extending as far as the Viorne, which runs at the other end, beneath a range of low hills. These meadows, separated from the high-road by thickset hedges, are the meadows of Sainte-Claire.
"Bah!" exclaimed Silvere this time, as he caught sight of the first patches of grass: "we may as well go as far as the bridge."
At this Miette burst out laughing, clasped the young man round the neck, and kissed him noisily.
At the spot where the hedges begin, there were in those days two elms forming the end of the long avenue, two colossal trees larger than any of the others. The treeless fields stretch out from the high road, like a broad band of green wool, as far as the willows and birches by the river. The distance from the last elms to the bridge is scarcely three hundred yards. The lovers took a good quarter of an hour to cover that space. At last, however slow their gait, they reached the bridge, and there they stopped.
The road to Nice ran up in front of them, along the opposite slope of the valley. But they could only see a small portion of it, as it takes a sudden turn about half a mile from the bridge, and is lost to view among the wooded hills. On looking round they caught sight of the other end of the road, that which they had just traversed, and which leads in a direct line from Plassans to the Viorne. In the beautiful winter moonlight it looked like a long silver ribbon, with dark edgings traced by the rows of elms. On the right and left the ploughed hill-land showed like vast, grey, vague seas intersected by this ribbon, this roadway white with frost, and brilliant as with metallic lustre. Up above, on a level with the horizon, lights shone from a few windows in the Faubourg, resembling glowing sparks. By degrees Miette and Silvere had walked fully a league. They gazed at the intervening road, full of silent admiration for the vast amphitheatre which rose to the verge of the heavens, and over which flowed bluish streams of light, as over the superposed rocks of a gigantic waterfall. The strange and colossal picture spread out amid deathlike stillness and silence. Nothing could have been of more sovereign grandeur.
Then the young people, having leant against the parapet of the bridge, gazed beneath them. The Viorne, swollen by the rains, flowed on with a dull, continuous sound. Up and down stream, despite the darkness which filled the hollows, they perceived the black lines of the trees growing on the banks; here and there glided the moonbeams, casting a trail of molten metal, as it were, over the water, which glittered and danced like rays of light on the scales of some live animal. The gleams darted with a mysterious charm along the gray torrent, betwixt the vague phantom-like foliage. You might have thought this an enchanted valley, some wondrous retreat where a community of shadows and gleams lived a fantastic life.
This part of the river was familiar to the lovers; they had often come here in search of coolness on warm July nights; they had spent hours hidden among the clusters of willows on the right bank, at the spot where the meadows of Sainte-Claire spread their verdant carpet to the waterside. They remembered every bend of the bank, the stones on which they had stepped in order to cross the Viorne, at that season as narrow as a brooklet, and certain little grassy hollows where they had indulged in their dreams of love. Miette, therefore, now gazed from the bridge at the right bank of the torrent with longing eyes.
"If it were warmer," she sighed, "we might go down and rest awhile before going back up the hill." Then, after a pause, during which she kept her eyes fixed on the banks, she resumed: "Look down there, Silvere, at that black mass yonder in front of the lock. Do you remember? That's the brushwood where we sat last Corpus Christi Day."
"Yes, so it is," replied Silvere, softly.
This was the spot where they had first ventured to kiss each other on the cheek. The remembrance just roused by the girl's words brought both of them a delightful feeling, an emotion in which the joys of the past mingled with the hopes of the morrow. Before their eyes, with the rapidity of lightening, there passed all the delightful evenings they had spent together, especially that evening of Corpus Christi Day, with the warm sky, the cool willows of the Viorne, and their own loving talk. And at the same time, whilst the past came back to their hearts full of a delightful savour, they fancied they could plunge into the unknown future, see their dreams realised, and march through life arm in arm-even as they had just been doing on the highway-warmly wrapped in the same cloak. Then rapture came to them again, and they smiled in each other's eyes, alone amidst all the silent radiance.
Suddenly, however, Silvere raised his head and, throwing off the cloak, listened attentively. Miette, in her surprise, imitated him, at a loss to understand why he had started so abruptly from her side.
Confused sounds had for a moment been coming from behind the hills in the midst of which the Nice road wends its way. They suggested the distant jolting of a procession of carts; but not distinctly, so loud was the roaring of the Viorne. Gradually, however, they became more pronounced, and rose at last like the tramping of an army on the march. Then amidst the continuous growing rumble one detected the shouts of a crowd, strange rhythmical blasts as of a hurricane. One could even have fancied they were the thunderclaps of a rapidly approaching storm which was already disturbing the slumbering atmosphere. Silvere listened attentively, unable to tell, however, what were those tempest-like shouts, for the hills prevented them from reaching him distinctly. Suddenly a dark mass appeared at the turn of the road, and then the "Marseillaise" burst forth, formidable, sung as with avenging fury.
"Ah, here they are!" cried Silvere, with a burst of joyous enthusiasm.
Forthwith he began to run up the hill, dragging Miette with him. On the left of the road was an embankment planted with evergreen oaks, up which he clambered with the young girl, to avoid being carried away by the surging, howling multitude.
When he had reached the top of the bank and the shadow of the brushwood, Miette, rather pale, gazed sorrowfully at those men whose distant song had sufficed to draw Silvere from her embrace. It seemed as if the whole band had thrust itself between them. They had been so happy a few minutes before, locked in each other's arms, alone and lost amidst the overwhelming silence and discreet glimmer of the moon! And now Silvere, whose head was turned away from her, who no longer seemed even conscious of her presence, had eyes only for those strangers whom he called his brothers.
The band descended the slope with a superb, irresistible stride. There could have been nothing grander than the irruption of those few thousand men into that cold, still, deathly scene. The highway became a torrent, rolling with living waves which seemed inexhaustible. At the bend in the road fresh masses ever appeared, whose songs ever helped to swell the roar of this human tempest. When the last battalions came in sight the uproar was deafening. The "Marseillaise" filled the atmosphere as if blown through enormous trumpets by giant mouths, which cast it, vibrating with a brazen clang, into every corner of the valley. The slumbering country-side awoke with a start-quivering like a beaten drum resonant to its very entrails, and repeating with each and every echo the passionate notes of the national song. And then the singing was no longer confined to the men. From the very horizon, from the distant rocks, the ploughed land, the meadows, the copses, the smallest bits of brushwood, human voices seemed to come. The great amphitheatre, extending from the river to Plassans, the gigantic cascade over which the bluish moonlight flowed, was as if filled with innumerable invisible people cheering the insurgents; and in the depths of the Viorne, along the waters streaked with mysterious metallic reflections, there was not a dark nook but seemed to conceal human beings, who took up each refrain with yet greater passion. With air and earth alike quivering, the whole country-side cried for vengeance and liberty. So long as the little army was descending the slope, the roar of the populace thus rolled on in sonorous waves broken by abrupt outbursts which shook the very stones in the roadway.
Silvere, pale with emotion, still listened and looked on. The insurgents who led the van of that swarming, roaring stream, so vague and monstrous in the darkness, were rapidly approaching the bridge.
"I thought," murmured Miette, "that you would not pass through Plassans?"
"They must have altered the plan of operations," Silvere replied; "we were, in fact, to have marched to the chief town by the Toulon road, passing to the left of Plassans and Orcheres. They must have left Alboise this afternoon and passed Les Tulettes this evening."
The head of the column had already arrived in front of the young people. The little army was more orderly than one would have expected from a band of undisciplined men. The contingents from the various towns and villages formed separate battalions, each separated by a distance of a few paces. These battalions were apparently under the orders of certain chiefs. For the nonce the pace at which they were descending the hillside made them a compact mass of invincible strength. There were probably about three thousand men, all united and carried away by the same storm of indignation. The strange details of the scene were not discernible amidst the shadows cast over the highway by the lofty slopes. At five or six feet from the brushwood, however, where Miette and Silvere were sheltered, the left-hand embankment gave place to a little pathway which ran alongside the Viorne; and the moonlight, flowing through this gap, cast a broad band of radiance across the road. When the first insurgents reached this patch of light they were suddenly illumined by a sharp white glow which revealed, with singular distinctness, every outline of visage or costume. And as the various contingents swept on, the young people thus saw them emerge, fiercely and without cessation, from the surrounding darkness.
As the first men passed through the light Miette instinctively clung to Silvere, although she knew she was safe, even from observation. She passed her arm round the young fellow's neck, resting her head against his shoulder. And with the hood of her pelisse encircling her pale face she gazed fixedly at that square patch of light as it was rapidly traversed by those strange faces, transfigured by enthusiasm, with dark open mouths full of the furious cry of the "Marseillaise." Silvere, whom she felt quivering at her side, then bent towards her and named the various contingents as they passed.
The column marched along eight abreast. In the van were a number of big, square-headed fellows, who seemed to possess the herculean strength and na´ve confidence of giants. They would doubtless prove blind, intrepid defenders of the Republic. On their shoulders they carried large axes, whose edges, freshly sharpened, glittered in the moonlight.
"Those are the woodcutters of the forests of the Seille," said Silvere. "They have been formed into a corps of sappers. At a signal from their leaders they would march as far as Paris, battering down the gates of the towns with their axes, just as they cut down the old cork-trees on the mountain."
The young man spoke with pride of the heavy fists of his brethren. And on seeing a band of labourers and rough-bearded men, tanned by the sun, coming along behind the woodcutters, he continued: "That is the contingent from La Palud. That was the first place to rise. The men in blouses are labourers who cut up the cork-trees; the others in velveteen jackets must be sportsmen, poachers, and charcoal-burners living in the passes of the Seille. The poachers knew your father, Miette. They have good firearms, which they handle skilfully. Ah! if all were armed in the same manner! We are short of muskets. See, the labourers have only got cudgels!"
Miette, still speechless, looked on and listened. As Silvere spoke to her of her father, the blood surged to her cheeks. Her face burnt as she scrutinised the sportsmen with a strange air of mingled indignation and sympathy. From this moment she grew animated, yielding to the feverish quiver which the insurgents' songs awakened.
The column, which had just begun the "Marseillaise" afresh, was still marching down as though lashed on by the sharp blasts of the "Mistral." The men of La Palud were followed by another troop of workmen, among whom a goodly number of middle class folks in great-coats were to be seen.
"Those are the men of Saint-Martin-de-Vaulx," Silvere resumed. "That bourg rose almost at the same time as La Palud. The masters joined the workmen. There are some rich men there, Miette; men whose wealth would enable them to live peacefully at home, but who prefer to risk their lives in defence of liberty. One can but admire them. Weapons are very scarce, however; they've scarcely got a few fowling-pieces. But do you see those men yonder, Miette, with red bands round their left elbows? They are the leaders."
The contingents descended the hill more rapidly than Silvere could speak. While he was naming the men from Saint-Martin-de-Vaulx, two battalions had already crossed the ray of light which blanched the roadway.
"Did you see the insurgents from Alboise and Les Tulettes pass by just now?" he asked. "I recognised Burgat the blacksmith. They must have joined the band to-day. How they do run!"
Miette was now leaning forward, in order to see more of the little bands described to her by the young man. The quiver she felt rose from her bosom to her throat. Then a battalion larger and better disciplined than the others appeared. The insurgents composing it were nearly all dressed in blue blouses, with red sashes round their waists. One would have thought they were arrayed in uniform. A man on horseback, with a sabre at his side, was in the midst of them. And most of these improvised soldiers carried guns, probably carbines and old muskets of the National Guard.
"I don't know those," said Silvere. "The man on horseback must be the chief I've heard spoken of. He brought with him the contingents from Faverolles and the neighbouring villages. The whole column ought to be equipped in the same manner."
He had no time to take breath. "Ah! see, here are the country people!" he suddenly cried.
Small groups of ten or twenty men at the most were now advancing behind the men of Faverolles. They all wore the short jacket of the Southern peasantry, and as they sang they brandished pitchforks and scythes. Some of them even only carried large navvies' shovels. Every hamlet, however, had sent its able-bodied men.
Silvere, who recognised the parties by their leaders, enumerated them in feverish tones. "The contingent from Chavanoz!" said he. "There are only eight men, but they are strong; Uncle Antoine knows them. Here's Nazeres! Here's Poujols! They're all here; not one has failed to answer the summons. Valqueyras! Hold, there's the parson amongst them; I've heard about him, he's a staunch Republican."
He was becoming intoxicated with the spectacle. Now that each battalion consisted of only a few insurgents he had to name them yet more hastily, and his precipitancy gave him the appearance of one in a frenzy.
"Ah! Miette," he continued, "what a fine march past! Rozan! Vernoux! Corbiere! And there are more still, you'll see. These have only got scythes, but they'll mow down the troops as close as the grass in their meadows-Saint-Eutrope! Mazet! Les Gardes, Marsanne! The whole north side of the Seille! Ah, we shall be victorious! The whole country is with us. Look at those men's arms, they are hard and black as iron. There's no end to them. There's Pruinas! Roches Noires! Those last are smugglers: they are carrying carbines. Still more scythes and pitchforks, the contingents of country folk are still passing. Castel-le-Vieux! Sainte-Anne! Graille! Estourmel! Murdaran!"
His voice was husky with emotion as he finished naming these men, who seemed to be borne away by a whirlwind as fast as he enumerated them. Erect, with glowing countenance, he pointed out the several contingents with a nervous gesture. Miette followed his movements. The road below attracted her like the depths of a precipice. To avoid slipping down the incline she clung to the young man's neck. A strange intoxication emanated from those men, who themselves were inebriated with clamour, courage, and confidence. Those beings, seen athwart a moonbeam, those youths and those men in their prime, those old people brandishing strange weapons and dressed in the most diverse costumes, from working smock to middle class overcoat, those endless rows of heads, which the hour and the circumstances endowed with an expression of fanatical energy and enthusiasm, gradually appeared to the girl like a whirling, impetuous torrent. At certain moments she fancied they were not of themselves moving, that they were really being carried away by the force of the "Marseillaise," by that hoarse, sonorous chant. She could not distinguish any conversation, she heard but a continuous volume of sound, alternating from bass to shrill notes, as piercing as nails driven into one's flesh. This roar of revolt, this call to combat, to death, with its outbursts of indignation, its burning thirst for liberty, its remarkable blending of bloodthirsty and sublime impulses, unceasingly smote her heart, penetrating more deeply at each fierce outburst, and filling her with the voluptuous pangs of a virgin martyr who stands erect and smiles under the lash. And the crowd flowed on ever amidst the same sonorous wave of sound. The march past, which did not really last more than a few minutes, seemed to the young people to be interminable.
Truly, Miette was but a child. She had turned pale at the approach of the band, she had wept for the loss of love, but she was a brave child, whose ardent nature was easily fired by enthusiasm. Thus ardent emotions had gradually got possession of her, and she became as courageous as a youth. She would willingly have seized a weapon and followed the insurgents. As the muskets and scythes filed past, her white teeth glistened longer and sharper between her red lips, like the fangs of a young wolf eager to bite and tear. And as she listened to Silvere enumerating the contingents from the country-side with ever-increasing haste, the pace of the column seemed to her to accelerate still more. She soon fancied it all a cloud of human dust swept along by a tempest. Everything began to whirl before her. Then she closed her eyes; big hot tears were rolling down her cheeks.
Silvere's eyelashes were also moist. "I don't see the men who left Plassans this afternoon," he murmured.
He tried to distinguish the end of the column, which was still hidden by the darkness. Suddenly he cried with joyous exultation: "Ah, here they are! They've got the banner-the banner has been entrusted to them!"
Then he wanted to leap from the slope in order to join his companions. At this moment, however, the insurgents halted. Words of command ran along the column, the "Marseillaise" died out in a final rumble, and one could only hear the confused murmuring of the still surging crowd. Silvere, as he listened, caught the orders which were passed on from one contingent to another; they called the men of Plassans to the van. Then, as each battalion ranged itself alongside the road to make way for the banner, the young man reascended the embankment, dragging Miette with him.
"Come," he said; "we can get across the river before they do."
When they were on the top, among the ploughed land, they ran along to a mill whose lock bars the river. Then they crossed the Viorne on a plank placed there by the millers, and cut across the meadows of Sainte-Claire, running hand-in-hand, without exchanging a word. The column threw a dark line over the highway, which they followed alongside the hedges. There were some gaps in the hawthorns, and at last Silvere and Miette sprang on to the road through one of them.
In spite of the circuitous way they had come, they arrived at the same time as the men of Plassans. Silvere shook hands with some of them. They must have thought he had heard of the new route they had chosen, and had come to meet them. Miette, whose face was half-concealed by her hood, was scrutinised rather inquisitively.
"Why, it's Chantegreil," at last said one of the men from the Faubourg of Plassans, "the niece of Rebufat, the meger* of the Jas-Meiffren."
*(A meger is a farmer in Provence who shares the expenses and profits of his farm with the owner of the land.)
"Where have you sprung from, gadabout?" cried another voice.
Silvere, intoxicated with enthusiasm, had not thought of the distress which his sweetheart would feel at the jeers of the workmen. Miette, all confusion, looked at him as if to implore his aid. But before he could even open his lips another voice rose from the crowd, brutally exclaiming:
"Her father's at the galleys; we don't want the daughter of a thief and murderer amongst us."
At this Miette turned dreadfully pale.
"You lie!" she muttered. "If my father did kill anybody, he never thieved!"
And as Silvere, pale and trembling more than she, began to clench his fists: "Stop!" she continued; "this is my affair."
Then, turning to the men, she repeated with a shout: "You lie! You lie! He never stole a copper from anybody. You know it well enough. Why do you insult him when he can't be here?"
She drew herself up, superb with indignation. With her ardent, half-wild nature she seemed to accept the charge of murder composedly enough, but that of theft exasperated her. They knew it, and that was why folks, from stupid malice, often cast the accusation in her face.
The man who had just called her father a thief was merely repeating what he had heard said for many years. The girl's defiant attitude only incited the workmen to jeer the more. Silvere still had his fists clenched, and matters might have become serious if a poacher from the Seille, who had been sitting on a heap of stones at the roadside awaiting the order to march, had not come to the girl's assistance.
"The little one's right," he said. "Chantegreil was one of us. I knew him. Nobody knows the real facts of his little matter. I always believed in the truth of his deposition before the judge. The gendarme whom he brought down with a bullet, while he was out shooting, was no doubt taking aim at him at the time. A man must defend himself! At all events Chantegreil was a decent fellow; he committed no robbery."
As often happens in such cases, the testimony of this poacher sufficed to bring other defenders to Miette's aid. Several workmen also professed to have known Chantegreil.
"Yes, yes, it's true!" they all said. "He wasn't a thief. There are some scoundrels at Plassans who ought to be sent to prison in his place. Chantegreil was our brother. Come, now, be calm, little one."
Miette had never before heard anyone speak well of her father. He was generally referred to as a beggar, a villain, and now she found good fellows who had forgiving words for him, and declared him to be an honest man. She burst into tears, again full of the emotion awakened in her by the "Marseillaise;" and she bethought herself how she might thank these men for their kindness to her in misfortune. For a moment she conceived the idea of shaking them all by the hand like a man. But her heart suggested something better. By her side stood the insurgent who carried the banner. She touched the staff, and, to express her gratitude, said in an entreating tone, "Give it to me; I will carry it."
The simple-minded workmen understood the ingenuous sublimity of this form of gratitude.
"Yes," they all cried, "Chantegreil shall carry the banner."
However, a woodcutter remarked that she would soon get tired, and would not be able to go far.
"Oh! I'm quite strong," she retorted proudly, tucking up her sleeves and showing a pair of arms as big as those of a grown woman. Then as they handed her the flag she resumed, "Wait just a moment."
Forthwith she pulled off her cloak, and put it on again after turning the red lining outside. In the clear moonlight she appeared to be arrayed in a purple mantle reaching to her feet. The hood resting on the edge of her chignon formed a kind of Phrygian cap. She took the flag, pressed the staff to her bosom, and held herself upright amid the folds of that blood-coloured banner which waved behind her. Enthusiastic child that she was, her countenance, with its curly hair, large eyes moist with tears, and lips parted in a smile, seemed to rise with energetic pride as she turned it towards the sky. At that moment she was the virgin Liberty.
The insurgents burst into applause. The vivid imagination of those Southerners was fired with enthusiasm at the sudden apparition of this girl so nervously clasping their banner to her bosom. Shouts rose from the nearest group:
"Bravo, Chantegreil! Chantegreil for ever! She shall remain with us; she'll bring us luck!"
They would have cheered her for a long time yet had not the order to resume the march arrived. Whilst the column moved on, Miette pressed Silvere's hand and whispered in his ear: "You hear! I shall remain with you. Are you glad?"
Silvere, without replying, returned the pressure. He consented. In fact, he was deeply affected, unable to resist the enthusiasm which fired his companions. Miette seemed to him so lovely, so grand, so saintly! During the whole climb up the hill he still saw her before him, radiant, amidst a purple glory. She was now blended with his other adored mistress-the Republic. He would have liked to be in action already, with his gun on his shoulder. But the insurgents moved slowly. They had orders to make as little noise as possible. Thus the column advanced between the rows of elms like some gigantic serpent whose every ring had a strange quivering. The frosty December night had again sunk into silence, and the Viorne alone seemed to roar more loudly.
On reaching the first houses of the Faubourg, Silvere ran on in front to fetch his gun from the Aire Saint-Mittre, which he found slumbering in the moonlight. When he again joined the insurgents they had reached the Porte de Rome. Miette bent towards him, and with her childish smile observed: "I feel as if I were at the procession on Corpus Christi Day carrying the banner of the Virgin."