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The protagonist of the novella is Bébée, a young girl of sixteen. The girl is an orphan of both parents and was found barely alive among the water lilies of a river from the old Antoine Maes. Antoine took care of her as she was his daughter, but the death of the old, old women of the village begin to haunt Bébée. Each of them offers Bébée a deal apparently tempting…
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Or, Two Little Wooden Shoes
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Bébée sprang out of bed at daybreak. She was sixteen.
It seemed a very wonderful thing to be as much as that—sixteen—a woman quite.
A cock was crowing under her lattice. He said how old you are!—how old you are! every time that he sounded his clarion.
She opened the lattice and wished him good day, with a laugh. It was so pleasant to be woke by him, and to think that no one in all the world could ever call one a child any more.
There was a kid bleating in the shed. There was a thrush singing in the dusk of the sycamore leaves. There was a calf lowing to its mother away there beyond the fence. There were dreamy muffled bells ringing in the distance from many steeples and belfries where the city was; they all said one thing, "How good it is to be so old as that—how good, how very good!"
Bébée was very pretty.
No one in all Brabant ever denied that. To look at her it seemed as if she had so lived among the flowers that she had grown like them, and only looked a bigger blossom—that was all.
She wore two little wooden shoes and a little cotton cap, and a gray kirtle—linen in summer, serge in winter; but the little feet in the shoes were like rose leaves, and the cap was as white as a lily, and the gray kirtle was like the bark of the bough that the apple-blossom parts, and peeps out of, to blush in the sun.
The flowers had been the only godmothers that she had ever had, and fairy godmothers too.
The marigolds and the sunflowers had given her their ripe, rich gold to tint her hair; the lupins and irises had lent their azure to her eyes; the moss-rosebuds had made her pretty mouth; the arum lilies had uncurled their softness for her skin; and the lime-blossoms had given her their frank, fresh, innocent fragrance.
The winds had blown, and the rains had rained, and the sun had shone on her, indeed, and had warmed the whiteness of her limbs, but they had only given to her body and her soul a hardy, breeze-blown freshness like that of a field cowslip.
She had never been called anything but Bébée.
One summer day Antoine Mäes—a French subject, but a Belgian by adoption and habit, an old man who got his meagre living by tilling the garden plot about his hut and selling flowers in the city squares—Antoine, going into Brussels for his day's trade, had seen a gray bundle floating among the water-lilies in the bit of water near his hut and had hooked it out to land, and found a year-old child in it, left to drown, no doubt, but saved by the lilies, and laughing gleefully at fate.
Some lace-worker, blind with the pain of toil, or some peasant woman harder of heart than the oxen in her yoke, had left it there to drift away to death, not reckoning for the inward ripple of the current or the toughness of the lily leaves and stems.
Old Antoine took it to his wife, and the wife, a childless and aged soul, begged leave to keep it; and the two poor lonely, simple folks grew to care for the homeless, motherless thing, and they and the people about all called it Bébée—only Bébée.
The church got at it and added to it a saint's name; but for all its little world it remained Bébée—Bébée when it trotted no higher than the red carnation heads;—Bébée when its yellow curls touched as high as the lavender-bush;—Bébée on this proud day when the thrush's song and the cock's crow found her sixteen years old.
Old Antoine's hut stood in a little patch of garden ground with a brier hedge all round it, in that byway which lies between Laeken and Brussels, in the heart of flat, green Brabant, where there are beautiful meadows and tall, flowering hedges, and forest trees, and fern-filled ditches, and a little piece of water, deep and cool, where the swans sail all day long, and the silvery willows dip and sway with the wind.
Turn aside from the highway, and there it lies to-day, and all the place brims over with grass, and boughs, and blossoms, and flowering beans, and wild dog-roses; and there are a few cottages and cabins there near the pretty water, and farther there is an old church, sacred to St. Guido; and beyond go the green level country and the endless wheat-fields, and the old mills with their red sails against the sun; and beyond all these the pale blue, sea-like horizon of the plains of Flanders.
It was a pretty little hut, pink all over like a sea-shell, in the fashion that the Netherlanders love; and its two little square lattices were dark with creeping plants and big rose-bushes, and its roof, so low that you could touch it, was golden and green with all the lichens and stoneworts that are known on earth.
Here Bébée grew from year to year; and soon learned to be big enough and hardy enough to tie up bunches of stocks and pinks for the market, and then to carry a basket for herself, trotting by Antoine's side along the green roadway and into the white, wide streets; and in the market the buyers—most often of all when they were young mothers—would seek out the little golden head and the beautiful frank blue eyes, and buy Bébée's lilies and carnations whether they wanted them or not. So that old Mäes used to cross himself and say that, thanks to Our Lady, trade was thrice as stirring since the little one had stretched out her rosy fingers with the flowers.
All the same, however stirring trade might be in summer, when the long winters came and the Montagne de la Cour was a sharp slope of ice, and the pinnacles of St. Gudule were all frosted white with snow, and the hot-house flowers alone could fill the market, and the country gardens were bitter black wind-swept desolations where the chilly roots huddled themselves together underground like homeless children in a cellar,—then the money gained in the time of leaf and blossom was all needed to buy a black loaf and fagot of wood; and many a day in the little pink hut Bébée rolled herself up in her bed like a dormouse, to forget in sleep that she was supperless and as cold as a frozen robin.
So that when Antoine Mäes grew sick and died, more from age and weakness than any real disease, there were only a few silver crowns in the brown jug hidden in the thatch; and the hut itself, with its patch of ground, was all that he could leave to Bébée.
"Live in it, little one, and take nobody in it to worry you, and be good to the bird and the goat, and be sure to keep the flowers blowing," said the old man with his last breath; and sobbing her heart out by his bedside, Bébée vowed to do his bidding.
She was not quite fourteen then, and when she had laid her old friend to rest in the rough green graveyard about St. Guido, she was very sorrowful and lonely, poor little, bright Bébée, who had never hardly known a worse woe than to run the thorns of the roses into her fingers, or to cry because a thrush was found starved to death in the snow.
Bébée went home, and sat down in a corner and thought.
The hut was her own, and her own the little green triangle just then crowded with its Mayday blossom in all the colors of the rainbow. She was to live in it, and never let the flowers die, so he had said; good, rough old ugly Antoine Mäes, who had been to her as father, mother, country, king, and law.
The sun was shining.
Through the little square of the lattice she could see the great tulips opening in the grass and a bough of the apple-tree swaying in the wind. A chaffinch clung to the bough, and swung to and fro singing. The door stood open, with the broad, bright day beaming through; and Bébée's little world came streaming in with it,—the world which dwelt in the half-dozen cottages that fringed this green lane of hers like beavers' nests pushed out under the leaves on to the water's edge.
They came in, six or eight of them, all women; trim, clean, plain Brabant peasants, hard-working, kindly of nature, and shrewd in their own simple matters; people who labored in the fields all the day long, or worked themselves blind over the lace pillows in the city.
"You are too young to live alone, Bébée," said the first of them. "My old mother shall come and keep house for you."
"Nay, better come and live with me, Bébée," said the second. "I will give you bit and drop, and clothing, too, for the right to your plot of ground."
"That is to cheat her," said the third. "Hark, here, Bébée: my sister, who is a lone woman, as you know well, shall come and bide with you, and ask you nothing—nothing at all—only you shall just give her a crust, perhaps, and a few flowers to sell sometimes."
"No, no," said the fourth; "that will not do. You let me have the garden and the hut, Bébée, and my sons shall till the place for you; and I will live with you myself, and leave the boys the cabin, so you will have all the gain, do you not see, dear little one?"
"Pooh!" said the fifth, stouter and better clothed than the rest. "You are all eager for your own good, not for hers. Now I—Father Francis says we should all do as we would be done by—I will take Bébée to live with me, all for nothing; and we will root the flowers up and plant it with good cabbages and potatoes and salad plants. And I will stable my cows in the hut to sweeten it after a dead man, and I will take my chance of making money out of it, and no one can speak more fair than that when one sees what weather is, and thinks what insects do; and all the year round, winter and summer, Bébée here will want for nothing, and have to take no care for herself whatever."
She who spoke, Mère Krebs, was the best-to-do woman in the little lane, having two cows of her own and ear-rings of solid silver, and a green cart, and a big dog that took the milk into Brussels. She was heard, therefore, with respect, and a short silence followed her words.
But it was very short; and a hubbub of voices crossed each other after it as the speakers grew hotter against one another and more eager to convince each other of the disinterestedness and delicacy of their offers of aid.
Through it all Bébée sat quite quiet on the edge of the little truckle-bed, with her eyes fixed on the apple bough and the singing chaffinch.
She heard them all patiently.
They were all her good friends, friends old and true. This one had given her cherries for many a summer. That other had bought her a little waxen Jesus at the Kermesse. The old woman in the blue linen skirt had taken her to her first communion. She who wanted her sister to have the crust and the flowers, had brought her a beautiful painted book of hours that had cost a whole franc. Another had given her the solitary wonder, travel, and foreign feast of her whole life,—a day fifteen miles away at the fair at Mechlin. The last speaker of all had danced her on her knee a hundred times in babyhood, and told her legends, and let her ride in the green cart behind big curly-coated Tambour.
Bébée did not doubt that these trusty old friends meant well by her, and yet a certain heavy sense fell on her that in all these counsels there was not the same whole-hearted and frank goodness that had prompted the gifts to her of the waxen Jesus, and the Kermesse of Mechlin.
Bébée did not reason, because she was too little a thing and too trustful; but she felt, in a vague, sorrowful fashion, that they were all of them trying to make some benefit out of her poor little heritage, with small regard for herself at the root of their speculations.
Bébée was a child, wholly a child; body and soul were both as fresh in her as a golden crocus just born out of the snows. But she was not a little fool, though people sometimes called her so because she would sit in the moments of her leisure with her blue eyes on the far-away clouds like a thing in a dream.
She heard them patiently till the cackle of shrill voices had exhausted itself, and the six women stood on the sunny mud floor of the hut eyeing each other with venomous glances; for though they were good neighbors at all times, each, in this matter, was hungry for the advantages to be got out of old Antoine's plot of ground. They were very poor; they toiled in the scorched or frozen fields all weathers, or spent from dawn to nightfall poring over their cobweb lace; and to save a son or gain a cabbage was of moment to them only second to the keeping of their souls secure of heaven by Lenten mass and Easter psalm.
Bébée listened to them all, and the tears dried on her cheeks, and her pretty rosebud lips curled close in one another.
"You are very good, no doubt, all of you," she said at last. "But I cannot tell you that I am thankful, for my heart is like a stone, and I think it is not so very much for me as it is for the hut that you are speaking. Perhaps it is wrong in me to say so; yes, I am wrong, I am sure,—you are all kind, and I am only Bébée. But you see he told me to live here and take care of the flowers, and I must do it, that is certain. I will ask Father Francis, if you wish: but if he tells me I am wrong, as you do. I shall stay here all the same."
And in answer to their expostulations and condemnation, she only said the same thing over again always, in different words, but to the same steadfast purpose. The women clamored about her for an hour in reproach and rebuke; she was a baby indeed, she was a little fool, she was a naughty, obstinate child, she was an ungrateful, wilful little creature, who ought to be beaten till she was blue, if only there was anybody that had the right to do it!
"But there is nobody that has the right," said Bébée, getting angry and standing upright on the floor, with Antoine's old gray cat in her round arms. "He told me to stay here, and he would not have said so if it had been wrong; and I am old enough to do for myself, and I am not afraid, and who is there that would hurt me? Oh, yes; go and tell Father Francis, if you like! I do not believe he will blame me, but if he do, I must bear it. Even if he shut the church door on me, I will obey Antoine, and the flowers will know I am right, and they will let no evil spirits touch me, for the flowers are strong for that; they talk to the angels in the night."
What use was it to argue with a little idiot like this? Indeed, peasants never do argue; they use abuse.
It is their only form of logic.
They used it to Bébée, rating her soundly, as became people who were old enough to be her grandmothers, and who knew that she had been raked out of their own pond, and had no more real place in creation than a water rat, as one might say.
The women were kindly, and had never thrown this truth against her before, and in fact, to be a foundling was no sort of disgrace to their sight; but anger is like wine, and makes the depths of the mind shine clear, and all the mud that is in the depths stink in the light; and in their wrath at not sharing Antoine's legacy, the good souls said bitter things that in calm moments they would no more have uttered than they would have taken up a knife to slit her throat.
They talked themselves hoarse with impatience and chagrin, and went backwards over the threshold, their wooden shoes and their shrill voices keeping a clattering chorus. By this time it was evening; the sun had gone off the floor, and the bird had done singing.
Bébée stood in the same place, hardening her little heart, whilst big and bitter tears swelled into her eyes, and fell on the soft fur of the sleeping cat.
She only very vaguely understood why it was in any sense shameful to have been raked out of the water-lilies like a drowning field mouse, as they had said it was.
She and Antoine had often talked of that summer morning when he had found her there among the leaves, and Bébée and he had laughed over it gayly, and she had been quite proud in her innocent fashion that she had had a fairy and the flowers for her mother and godmothers, which Antoine always told her was the case beyond any manner of doubt. Even Father Francis, hearing the pretty harmless fiction, had never deemed it his duty to disturb her pleasure in it, being a good, cheerful old man, who thought that woe and wisdom both come soon enough to bow young shoulders and to silver young curls without his interference.
Bébée had always thought it quite a fine thing to have been born of water-lilies, with the sun for her father, and when people in Brussels had asked her of her parentage, seeing her stand in the market with a certain look on her that was not like other children, had always gravely answered in the purest good faith,—
"My mother was a flower."
"You are a flower, at any rate," they would say in return; and Bébée had been always quite content.
But now she was doubtful; she was rather perplexed than sorrowful.
These good friends of hers seemed to see some new sin about her. Perhaps, after all, thought Bébée, it might have been better to have had a human mother who would have taken care of her now that old Antoine was dead, instead of those beautiful, gleaming, cold water-lilies which went to sleep on their green velvet beds, and did not certainly care when the thorns ran into her fingers, or the pebbles got in her wooden shoes.
In some vague way, disgrace and envy—the twin Discords of the world—touched her innocent cheek with their hot breath, and as the evening fell, Bébée felt very lonely and a little wistful.
She had been always used to run out in the pleasant twilight-time among the flowers and water them, Antoine filling the can from the well; and the neighbors would come and lean against the little low wall, knitting and gossiping; and the big dogs, released from harness, would poke their heads through the wicket for a crust; and the children would dance and play Colin Maillard on the green by the water; and she, when the flowers were no longer thirsted, would join them, and romp and dance and sing the gayest of them all.
But now the buckets hung at the bottom of the well, and the flowers hungered in vain, and the neighbors held aloof, and she shut to the hut door and listened to the rain which began to fall, and cried herself to sleep all alone in her tiny kingdom.
When the dawn came the sun rose red and warm; the grass and boughs sparkled; a lark sang; Bébée awoke sad in heart, indeed, for her lost old friend, but brighter and braver.
"Each of them wants to get something out of me," thought the child. "Well, I will live alone, then, and do my duty, just as he said. The flowers will never let any real harm come, though they do look so indifferent and smiling sometimes, and though not one of them hung their heads when his coffin was carried through them yesterday."
That want of sympathy in the flower troubled her.
The old man had loved them so well; and they had all looked as glad as ever, and had laughed saucily in the sun, and not even a rosebud turned the paler as the poor still stiffened limbs went by in the wooden shell.
"I suppose God cares; but I wish they did." said Bébée, to whom the garden was more intelligible than Providence.
"Why do you not care?" she asked the pinks, shaking the raindrops off their curled rosy petals.
The pinks leaned lazily against their sticks, and seemed to say, "Why should we care for anything, unless a slug be eating us?—that is real woe, if you like."
Bébée, without her sabots on, wandered thoughtfully among the sweet wet sunlightened labyrinths of blossom, her pretty bare feet treading the narrow grassy paths with pleasure in their coolness.
"He was so good to you!" she said reproachfully to the great gaudy gillyflowers and the painted sweet-peas. "He never let you know heat or cold, he never let the worm gnaw or the snail harm you; he would get up in the dark to see after your wants; and when the ice froze over you, he was there to loosen your chains. Why do you not care, anyone of you?"
"How silly you are!" said the flowers. "You must be a butterfly or a poet, Bébée, to be as foolish as that. Someone will do all he did. We are of market value, you know. Care, indeed! when the sun is so warm, and there is not an earwig in the place to trouble us."
The flowers were not always so selfish as this; and perhaps the sorrow in Bébée's heart made their callousness seem harder than it really was.
When we suffer very much ourselves, anything that smiles in the sun seems cruel—a child, a bird, a dragon-fly—nay, even a fluttering ribbon, or a spear-grass that waves in the wind.
There was a little shrine at the corner of the garden, set into the wall; a niche with a bit of glass and a picture of the Virgin, so battered that no one could trace any feature of it.
It had been there for centuries, and was held in great veneration; and old Antoine had always cut the choicest buds of his roses and set them in a delf pot in front of it, every other morning all the summer long. Bébée, whose religion was the sweetest, vaguest mingling of Pagan and Christian myths, and whose faith in fairies and in saints was exactly equal in strength and in ignorance,—Bébée filled the delf pot anew carefully, then knelt down on the turf in that little green corner, and prayed in devout hopeful childish good faith to the awful unknown Powers who were to her only as gentle guides and kindly playmates.
Was she too familiar with the Holy Mother?
She was almost fearful that she was; but then the Holy Mother loved flowers so well, Bébée would not feel aloof from her, nor be afraid.
"When one cuts the best blossoms for her, and tries to be good, and never tells a lie," thought Bébée, "I am quite sure, as she loves the lilies, that she will never altogether forget me."
So she said to the Mother of Christ fearlessly, and nothing doubting; and then rose for her daily work of cutting the flowers for the market in Brussels.
By the time her baskets were full, her fowls fed, her goat foddered, her starling's cage cleaned, her hut door locked, and her wooden shoes clattering on the sunny road into the city, Bébée was almost content again, though ever and again, as she trod the familiar ways, the tears dimmed her eyes as she remembered that old Antoine would never again hobble over the stones beside her.
"You are a little wilful one, and too young to live alone," said Father Francis, meeting her in the lane.
But he did not scold her seriously, and she kept to her resolve; and the women, who were good at heart, took her back into favor again; and so Bébée had her own way, and the fairies, or the saints, or both together, took care of her; and so it came to pass that all alone she heard the cock crow whilst it was dark, and woke to the grand and amazing truth that this warm, fragrant, dusky June morning found her full sixteen years old.
The two years had not been all playtime any more than they had been all summer.
When one has not father, or mother, or brother, and all one's friends have barely bread enough for themselves, life cannot be very easy, nor its crusts very many at any time.
Bébée had a cherub's mouth, and a dreamer's eyes, and a poet's thoughts sometimes in her own untaught and unconscious fashion.
But all the same she was a little hard-working Brabant peasant girl; up whilst the birds twittered in the dark; to bed when the red sun sank beyond the far blue line of the plains; she hoed, and dug, and watered, and planted her little plot; she kept her cabin as clean as a fresh-blossomed primrose; she milked her goat and swept her floor; she sat, all the warm days, in the town, selling her flowers, and in the winter time, when her garden yielded her nothing, she strained her sight over lace-making in the city to get the small bit of food that stood between her and that hunger which to the poor means death.
A hard life; very hard when hail and snow made the streets of Brussels like slopes of ice; a little hard even in the gay summer time when she sat under the awning fronting the Maison du Roi; but all the time the child throve on it, and was happy, and dreamed of many graceful and gracious things whilst she was weeding among her lilies, or tracing the threads to and fro on her lace pillow.
Now—when she woke to the full sense of her wonderful sixteen years—Bébée, standing barefoot on the mud floor, was as pretty a sight as was to be seen betwixt Scheldt and Rhine.
The sun had only left a soft warmth like an apricot's on her white skin. Her limbs, though strong as a mountain pony's, were slender and well shaped. Her hair curled in shiny crumpled masses, and tumbled about her shoulders. Her pretty round plump little breast was white as the lilies in the grass without, and in this blooming time of her little life, Bébée, in her way, was beautiful as a peach-bloom is beautiful, and her innocent, courageous, happy eyes had dreams in them underneath their laughter, dreams that went farther than the green woods of Laeken, farther even than the white clouds of summer.
She could not move among them idly as poets and girls love to do; she had to be active amidst them, else drought and rain, and worm and snail, and blight and frost, would have made havoc of their fairest hopes.
The loveliest love is that which dreams high above all storms, unsoiled by all burdens; but perhaps the strongest love is that which, whilst it adores, drags its feet through mire, and burns its brow in heat, for the thing beloved.
So Bébée dreamed in her garden; but all the time for sake of it hoed and dug, and hurt her hands, and tired her limbs, and bowed her shoulders under the great metal pails from the well.
This wondrous morning, with the bright burden of her sixteen years upon her, she dressed herself quickly and fed her fowls, and, happy as a bird, went to sit on her little wooden stool in the doorway.
There had been fresh rain in the night: the garden was radiant; the smell of the wet earth was sweeter than all perfumes that are burned in palaces.
The dripping rosebuds nodded against her hair as she went out; the starling called to her, "Bébée, Bébée—bonjour, bonjour." These were all the words it knew. It said the same words a thousand times a week. But to Bébée it seemed that the starling most certainly knew that she was sixteen years old that day.
Breaking her bread into the milk, she sat in the dawn and thought, without knowing that she thought it, "How good it is to live when one is young!"
Old people say the same thing often, but they sigh when they say it. Bébée smiled.
Mère Krebs opened her door in the next cottage, and nodded over the wall.
"What a fine thing to be sixteen!—a merry year, Bébée."
Marthe, the carpenter's wife, came out from her gate, broom in hand.
"The Holy Saints keep you, Bébée; why, you are quite a woman now!"
The little children of Varnhart, the charcoal-burner, who were as poor as any mouse in the old churches, rushed out of their little home up the lane, bringing with them a cake stuck full of sugar and seeds, and tied round with a blue ribbon, that their mother had made that very week, all in her honor.
"Only see, Bébée! Such a grand cake!" they shouted, dancing down the lane. "Jules picked the plums, and Jeanne washed the almonds, and Christine took the ribbon off her own communion cap, all for you—all for you; but you will let us come and eat it too?"
Old Gran'mère Bishot, who was the oldest woman about Laeken, hobbled through the grass on her crutches and nodded her white shaking head, and smiled at Bébée.
"I have nothing to give you, little one, except my blessing, if you care for that."
Bébée ran out, breaking from the children, and knelt down in the wet grass, and bent her pretty sunny head to the benediction.
Trine, the miller's wife, the richest woman of them all, called to the child from the steps of the mill,—'
"A merry year, and the blessing of Heaven, Bébée! Come up, and here is my first dish of cherries for you; not tasted one myself; they will make you a feast with Varnhart's cake, though she should have known better, so poor as she is. Charity begins at home, and these children's stomachs are empty."
Bébée ran up and then down again gleefully, with her lapful of big black cherries; Tambour, the old white dog, who had used to drag her about in his milk cart, leaping on her in sympathy and congratulation.
"What a supper we will have!" she cried to the charcoal-burner's children, who were turning somersaults in the dock leaves, while the swans stared and hissed.
When one is sixteen, cherries and a cake have a flavor of Paradise still, especially when they are tasted twice, or thrice at most, in all the year.
An old man called to her as she went by his door. All these little cabins lie close together, with only their apple-trees, or their tall beans, or their hedges of thorn between them; you may ride by and never notice them if you do not look for them under the leaves closely, as you would for thrushes' nests.
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