« PreviousContinue »
Not the warrior-maid of France,
Such a dame.
There crossed her path that hour
Had been he:
For his see.
Swift did start ;-
Reached her heart.
Her monarch saw her fall,
In his reach;
F. E. A.
THE STILT WALKERS.
(BY F. M. P., AUTHOR OF ONE YEAR.')
ON THE LANDES.
In the lower provinces of sunny France there lies a strange region, unlike any other part of the country. The Landes are well known by name and by description, but no description will give an adequate idea of the weird desolation that envelopes them. A vast plain of heath and dwarf furze, like a great motionless sea-almost, indeed, transformed into a sea during the long rainy season-unbroken as far as eye can reach, except by groups of maimed pine trees, by a few rude huts, or a shepherd stalking along upon his high stilts; a wilderness of black sand, of treacherous swamps, of yellow water, rushy, leech-inhabited ponds, where heron, crane, and bittern move solemnly about between the reeds, and out of whose depths fever-laden mists disperse themselves abroad across the Landes.
Geologists will tell you that it has been the work of ages to accumulate the washings down of the great Pyrenean barrier, and by help of sea and storm to fill up an enormous estuary, and smoothe it into this strange level. Certain it is that the soil is terrible. It consists of a layer of sand two feet deep, and below this a crust of solid sandstone, which effectually prevents the water from draining off, and converts the surface into a swamp. Not so very many years ago might be found in these desolate regions, and about the dunes or great sand-hills which protect it from the ocean, herds of wild cattle and wild horses, fleet and untamed as the creatures of the prairie, but these have now been killed or captured ; by slow degrees civilization is vanquishing the Landes ; and though the battle is stubborn, and prolonged over every inch of ground, it is likely that before very long the whole character of the province will be changed.
The people who dwell in the Landes—and the population is scantyhave little choice of pursuits. They are shepherds, wood-cutters, turpentine gatherers, sometimes all three at once. In the neighbourhood of the larger ponds they add fishing to the list, and feast upon the eels they catch by hundreds. In favoured spots they contrive to grow a meagre supply of maize, millet, or rye: their drink is poisonous stagnant water mixed with nothing better than vinegar. One resource they have in the abundance of game which flock to these desolate regions: the wild fowl love to shelter themselves in their reedy morasses ; grand white swans drown the softer call of the plover with shrill screams; the great bustard sails away heavily over-head; pheasants and red partridges rustle among the heather. Birds, at all events, thrive upon the Landes, and so do foxes and squirrels; but the poor sheep and cows have a hard time of it, owing to the want of wholesome water, and the scanty herbage-the prickly spinous blades can scarcely be called grassupon which they exist. Their masters meanwhile are an ignorant, isolated, and fever-stricken race.
In the heart of the Landes, by the side of a shallow brownish grey pool, in the midst of lissome heath, and with a pine plantation at no great distance, stood three rudely-built huts. In one lived an old couple-Jean and Susanne Gaucheran ; in that adjoining, their son Pierre with his newly-married wife and her old father. The third abode was occupied by another shepherd, his wife, four or five children, and a youth named Paul Pitté, who was said by the Birans to be a cousin.
Late in the afternoon of a very beautiful October day, in which the softness of the air had quite equalled that of an English June, the spot was steeped in such absolute silence, as to go far towards proving that no human being shared the solitude with the natural inhabitants of the place. These were a family of rabbits, whose frolics during the last hour had been sufficiently undisturbed to corroborate the idea, and who now perched themselves like senators upon a little mound of sand, which would have scarcely earned the name in any place not so emphatically a dead level. Nevertheless, the huts were not altogether uninhabited. With a soft scampering rush the rabbits betook themselves to shelter, almost at the same moment that a woman with a red handkerchief knotted round her head appeared at a door-way, and shading her face with her hands to shut out the long rays of the setting sun, looked steadily towards the west.
The woman-she was but a girl—was Madelon, Pierre Gaucheran's young wife; and though at first sight she might have been called pretty, it would not have taken long to discover that the charm of her face consisted rather in a sweet frankness of expression than in any regular beauty of feature. She stood with the full sunset light upon her, gazing out from under her clasped hands upon the broad expanse. All around the heavens were blazing with ruddy tints of scarlet and tawny gold. The clouds were high and few, their dappled soft grey layers edged with keen lines of living light; while from behind one, which, more opaque than the rest, floated just over the sinking ball, a shaft of spearlike rays shot out dark and distinct against the sky. Madelon, however, strained her eyes not to look at the sun, but at some black objects just visible between herself and the horizon; and having apparently made them out to her satisfaction, to judge by the smile which deepened in her eyes, went again into the house.
A querulous voice greeted her. I want some water-give me some water! How wicked it is of you, Mad’lon, to go away and leave nothing within
reach. You will be a bad wife for Pierre ! Oh, no, I hope not,' said the girl earnestly; do not say that, Mother, whatever you do. Why, you have only just awakened! I have been sitting by you for nearly an hour, until I ran out to see whether Pierre was coming with the medicine.'
'Sitting here! grumbled the old woman; "and what have you been doing? Idling, I'll lay a wager.'
Madelon must have been accustomed to her mother-in-law's testiness, for she only smiled and held up her work.
'Idling! Look at the great piece of plaiting I have done-enough for a basket. Pierre gathered me those red grasses that look so pretty in the middle.'
Pierre-Pierre is a fool,' said the sick woman, crossly. 'How you do talk, talk! Give me the water, and go out and see if they are coming; you might see how I want my medicine if you weren't so taken up with your own concerns.'
There was no pleasing la Mère Gaucheran: Madelon did what she was told obediently. When she stationed herself again at the open door, however, it must be acknowledged that she left herself open to the charge of idleness. The plaiting slipped from her fingers, she leant her head against the door-post, and fastened her eyes upon two long-legged figures which came striding towards her over the plain.
A voice at her elbow made her start.
“Eh, Paul,' said she a little angrily, 'you shouldn't come upon one like that.'
What, our Madelon frightened ?' said the new comer in a mocking tone. “Keep your eyes at home, ma belle, and they'll warn you in time.'
An indignant look flashed out of the girl's soft eyes at his manner, but she was too well accustomed to the rough ways of her neighbours to answer him. She turned her shoulder a little away, and they stood side by side, he watching her, she the approaching figures.
Paul Pitté was a young man, with an old look upon his sallow beardless face; his figure was slight and supple, his movements restless. Every nerve quivered with impatience as he stood there reading Madelon's absorbed gaze. She, meanwhile, had forgotten him, and presently without a word darted off to meet the two men; and Pierre Gaucheran, resting his hand on her head, unbuckled his stilts, and springing to the ground, returned his young wife's pretty welcome with a rough tenderness which made Paul's eyes glitter dangerously.
'He's a fool!' he muttered to himself, unconsciously repeating the old woman's words, "a big, brainless fool!' He said it over and over again under his breath as if it comforted him, when suddenly, seeing Madelon nestle closer to her husband, and lay her head upon his shoulder, a violent trembling seized him. It seemed as though something had stopped his breath, and sent the blood out of his face. She would have been startled then had she looked up and caught the fierce expression of revenge, but she did not glance that way; and presently Paul moved off, following into a hut the old shepherd, Madelon's father, an uncouth strange-looking little old man, with a rough sheep skin flung across
his shoulders, and a scarred wiry face growing out of a bush of grey hair.
*You come back ?' said he, unstrapping a great blue umbrella from his side; 'Antoine stays with the sheep, I suppose ?'
“Yes, out there with Péče Gaucheran.' Paul pointed over his shoulder.
And the wife?
'I saw her and the children near. No chance of keeping her clattering tongue long out of the way.'
Old Baudoin laughed hoarsely. "There, you are at it again, Paul! How you do run down the women, to be sure
re! At one time I thought you had taken a fancy for my girl, but you would have been a fool for your pains, so it's best as it is. Why, man, she cares more for his little finger than for all the world put together ; your brown face would never have had a chance. Ha, ha, ul!
The young man moved restlessly on his seat, while the old shepherd, whose raillery was not softened by any refinement of feeling, went on pitilessly, 'I told Pierre to-day what I used to fancy.'
*And he— ? Paul asked quickly, with a rapid impatient movement.
‘He? Bah! he laughed. What should he care? Do you think he would be frightened at you, Master Paul ? Pierre can look out for himself.
'Let him!' broke in the young man passionately. “I am no baby, to be crying after your Madelon. Let her marry the fool, and welcome!
The welcome sounded more like a curse, as he dashed out of the hut with fierce vehemence. Such quarrels were not infrequent among the dwellers in that wild spot, and old Baudoin was in no wise discomposed. He laughed again—his loud hoarse chuckle; the old man was a bit of a cynic in his way. “A girl's face, and a smile round a corner; Holy Virgin! that it should take no more than that to put a man off his senses! And yet they call us reasonable beings. Well, I've heard my
teeth go, your wits grow," and she was a wise woman-for a woman, that is; it takes a deal of seasoning to get a little sense into the brains. Ha, ha, Master Paul, you think yourself a deep one, but something has put you off your guard for once, and you aired your thoughts out of doors a little too clearly! The girl pleased herself, else I should not have minded Paul; he has more wits than good thick-headed Pierre, but fewer sheep-there was the rub—there was the rub. I wish Madelon would come and get me some soup.'
Hardly were the words out of his mouth when Madelon ran in, her face bright with happiness.
Pierre is coming in a minute,' said she.
Well, I've had so much of his company, that I sha'n't toss my hat to the moon for joy at the news.'
'For shame, Father, you want your dinner.'