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King of CamargueByJean Aicard
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King of Camargue
Illustrator: Louis V. Ruet
Translator: George B. Ives
TO ÉMILE TRÉLAT
I. LIVETTE AND ZINZARA
II. IN CAMARGUE
III. THE DROVERS
IV. THE SÉDEN
V. THE LOVERS
VII. THE MEETING
VIII. ON THE BENCH
IX. THE PRAYER
X. THE TERRACE
XI. THE HIDING-PLACE
XII. A SORCERESS
XIII. THE SNAKE-CHARMER
XV. MONSIEUR LE CURÉ’S ARCHÆOLOGY
XVI. ON THE ROOF OF THE CHURCH
XVII. THE OLD WOMAN
XVIII. THE BLESSED RELICS
XIX. THE BRANDING
XX. THE SNARE
XXII. IN THE NEST
XXIII. THE PURSUIT
XXIV. IN THE GARGATE
XXV. THE PHANTOM
This woman had a way of looking at people that disconcerted them. You would say that a sharp, threatening flame shot from her eyes. It penetrated your being, searched your heart, and you were powerless against it.
My Very Dear Friend:
Permit me to dedicate this book to you, whose incomparable friendship has been to the poet, obstinate in his idealism, of hourly assistance, a constant proof of the reality of true generosity and kindness of heart.
La Garde, near Toulon, April 11, 1890.
A shadow suddenly darkened the narrow window. Livette, who was running hither and thither, setting the table for supper, in the lower room of the farm-house of the Château d’Avignon, gave a little shriek of terror, and looked up.
The girl had an instinctive feeling that it was neither father nor grandmother, nor any of her dear ones, but some stranger, who sought amusement by thus taking her by surprise.
Nor a stranger, either, for that matter,—it was hardly possible!—But how was it that the dogs did not yelp? Ah! This Camargue is frequented by bad people, especially at this season, toward the end of May, on account of the festival of Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, which attracts, like a fair, such a crowd of people, thieves and gulls, and so many mischievous gipsies!
The figure that was leaning on the outside of the window-sill, shutting out the light, looked to Livette like a black mass, sharply outlined against the blue sky; but by the thick, curly hair, surmounted by a tinsel crown, by the general contour of the bust, by the huge ear-rings with an amulet hanging at the ends, Livette recognized a certain gipsy woman who was universally known as the Queen, and who, for nearly two weeks, had been suddenly appearing to people at widely distant points on the island, always unexpectedly, as if she rose out of the ditches or clumps of thorn-broom or the water of the swamps, to say to the laborers, preferably the women: “Give me this or that;” for the Queen, as a general rule, would not accept what people chose to offer her, but only what she chose that they should offer her.
“Give me a little oil in a bottle, Livette,” said the young gipsy, darting a dark, flashing glance at the pretty girl with the fair, sun-flecked hair.
Livette, charitable as she was at every opportunity, at once felt that she must be on her guard against this vagabond, who knew her name. Her father and grandmother had gone to Arles, to see the notary, who would soon have to be drawing up the papers for her marriage to Renaud, the handsomest drover in all Camargue. She was alone in the house. Distrust gave her strength to refuse.
“Our Camargue isn’t an olive country,” said she curtly, “oil is scarce here. I haven’t any.”
“But I see some in the jar at the bottom of the cupboard, beside the water-pitcher.”
Livette turned hastily toward the cupboard. It was closed; but, in truth, the stock of olive oil was there in a jar beside the one in which they kept Rhône water for their daily needs.
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Livette.
“The lie came from your mouth like a vile black wasp from a garden-flower, little one!” said the motionless figure, still leaning heavily on the window-sill, evidently determined to remain. “The oil is where I say it is, and more than twenty-five litres too; I can see it from here. Come, come, take a clean bottle and the tin funnel and give me quickly what I want. I’ll tell you, in exchange, what I see in your future.”
“It’s a deadly sin to seek to know what God doesn’t wish us to know,” said Livette, “and you can guess that oil is kept in cupboards and still be no more of a sorceress than I am. Go about your business, good-wife. I can give you some of this bread, fresh baked last night, if you wish, but I tell you I haven’t any oil.”
“And why do they call you Livette,” said the Queen calmly, “if it isn’t on account of the field of old olive-trees—the oldest and finest in the country—owned by your father, near Avignon? There you were born. There you remained until you were ten years old, and at that age—seven years ago, a mystic number—you came here, where your father was made farmer, overseer of drovers, manager of everything, by the Avignonese master of this ‘Château d’Avignon,’ the finest in all Camargue.—‘Livettes! livettes!’ that’s the way you used to ask for olivettes, olives, when you were a baby. You were very fond of them, and the nickname clung to you. A pretty nickname, on my word, and one that suits you well, for if you’re not dark like the ripe olive, you’re fair as the virgin oil, a pearl of amber in the sunlight, and then you are not yet ripe. Your face is oval, and not stupidly round like a Norman apple. You have the pallor of the olive-leaves seen from below.—And that you may soon see them so, little one, is the blessing I ask for you, as the curés of your chapels say, where they take us in for pity. Be compassionate as they are, in the name of your Lord Jesus Christ, and give me some oil quickly, I say—in the name of extreme unction and the garden of agony!”
The gipsy had said all this without stopping to breathe, in a dull, monotonous, muffled voice, but she added abruptly in loud, piercing, incisive tones: “Do you understand what I say?” imparting to those simple words an extraordinarily imperious and violent expression. Livette hastily crossed herself.
“Come, enough of this!” said she, “I have nothing here for you, and we keep the oil of extreme unction for better Christians! Begone, pagan, begone!” she added, trying to counterfeit courage.
“Of the three holy women,” continued the gipsy, “who took ship, after the death of Jesus Christ, to escape the crucifying Jews, one was like myself, an Egyptian and a fortune-teller. She knew the science of the Magi, of those with whom great Moses contended for mastery in witchcraft. She could, at will, order the frogs to be more numerous than the drops of water in the swamps, and she held in her hand a rod which, at her word, would change to a viper. Before Jesus she bowed, as did Magdalen, and Jesus loved her too. In the tempest, as they were crossing the sea, her wand pointed out the course to follow, and, to do that with safety, had no need to be very long. Must you have more pledges of my power and my knowledge? What more must I tell you to induce you to give me the oil I need so much? If you were a man, I would say: ‘Look! I am dark, but I am beautiful! I am a descendant of that Sara the Egyptian who, when the boat of the three holy women drew near the sands of Camargue, paid the boatman by showing him her undefiled body, stripped naked, with no thought of evil and without sin, but knowing well that true beauty is rare and that the mere sight of it is better than all the treasures of Solomon. So be it!’”
Livette was thoroughly alarmed. The gipsy’s assurance, her hollow, penetrating voice, imperious by fits and starts, these strange tales filled with evil words on sacred subjects, this devilish mixture of things pagan and things mystic, the consciousness of her own loneliness, all combined to terrify her. She lost her head.
“Away with you, away with you,” she cried, “queen of robbers! queen of brigands! away with you, or I will call for help!”
“Your drover won’t hear you; he’s tending his drove to-day beside the Vaccarès. Come, give me the oil, I say, or I’ll throw this black wand on the ground, and you will see how snakes bite!”
But Livette, brave and determined, said: “No!” shuddering as she said it, and, to glean a little comfort, cast a glance at the low beam along which her father’s gun was hanging. The gipsy saw the glance.
“Oh! I am not afraid of your gun,” said she, “and to prove it—wait a moment!”
She left the window. The light streamed into the room, bringing a little courage to Livette’s terrified heart, as she followed the gipsy with her eyes. In the bright light of that beautiful May evening, the gipsy woman stood out, a tall figure, against the distant, unbroken horizon line of the Camargue desert, which could be seen through a vista between the lofty trees of the park.
Livette felt a thrill of joy as she saw a troop of mares trotting along the horizon, followed by their driver, spear in air—Jacques Renaud, her fiancé, without doubt.—But how far away he was! the horses, from where she stood, looked smaller than a flock of little goats. And her eyes came back to the gipsy queen. A few steps from the farm-house, in front of the seigniorial château, a huge square structure, with numerous windows, long closed,—a structure of the sort that arouses thoughts of neglect and death and the grave,—the gipsy stood on tiptoe, drawing down the lowest branch of a thorn-tree. The thorns were long, as long as one’s finger. With a twig of a tree of that species the crown of the Crucified One was made.
She broke off a twig thickset with thorns, bent it into a circle, twisting the two ends together like serpents, and returned to the window.
Livette noticed at that moment that the two watch-dogs were following the gipsy, with their tails between their legs, their noses close to her heels, with little affectionate whines. And she, the gipsy Queen, as slender as haughty, erect upon her legs, in a ragged skirt with ample folds through the holes in which could be seen a bright red petticoat, her bust enveloped in orange-colored rags crossed below her well-rounded breasts, her amulets tinkling at her ears, medallions jangling on her forehead, which was encircled by a gaudy fillet of copper,—she, the Queen, came forward, holding in her hand the crown of long stiff thorns, to which a few tiny green leaves clung in quivering festoons;—and in a low, very low tone, she murmured the same caressing plaint that the two great cowed dogs were murmuring, saying to them, in their own language, mysterious things they understood.
“Take this,” said the gipsy, “let your kind heart be rewarded as it deserves! Misfortune, which is at work for you, will soon make itself known to you. How, may God tell you! In love, the wind that blows for you is poisoned by the swamps. The charity your God enjoins is, so they say, another form of love that brings true love good fortune. And here is my queenly gift!”
She threw the crown of thorns through the window at Livette’s feet.
“Madame!” exclaimed Livette in dismay.
But the gipsy had disappeared.
Infinite distress filled the poor child’s heart. With her eyes fixed on the crown, Livette recalled the legends in which the good Lord Jesus appears disguised as a beggar—and in which He rewards those who have received Him with sweet compassion.
In one of those legends, the Poor Man, welcomed with harsh words, subjected to mockery and cowardly insults, struck with staves and goblets and bottles thrown by drunken revellers—at last, standing against the wall, begins to be transformed into a Christ upon the Cross, bleeding at the holes in his hands and feet!—And, sick with terror, she asked herself if she had not received with unkindness one of the three holy women who, after the death of Jesus, crossed the sea in a boat to the shores of Camargue, using their skirts for sails, and assisted by the oars of a boatman, whom one of their number, Sara the Egyptian, paid in heathen coin, by allowing him to see, as the price of a Christian action, her undefiled body, entirely naked, upon the self-same spot on which the church stands to-day.
Slowly she picked up the crown and threw it into the fire over which the soup was stewing. Before it melted into ashes, the crown of thorns seemed for a moment to be pure gold.
Every year, at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, the village that stands at the southern end of Camargue, above the marshes, on a sand beach, the line of which is constantly changed by the action of the waves and high winds, every year, the feast of Saintes-Maries is celebrated on May 24th; and at the time of that festival the gipsies flock to Camargue in large numbers, impelled by a curious sort of piety, mingled with a desire to pilfer the pilgrims.
Legends, like trees, spring from the soil,—are its expression, so to speak. They are also its essence. At every step in Camargue, you find the everlasting legend of the holy women, just as you everlastingly see there the same tamarisk-trees, confused, against the horizon, with the same mirages.
The two Marys, so runs the legend, Jacobé, Salomé, and—according to some authorities—Magdalen, and with them their bondwomen, Marcella and Sara, adrift on the sea in a boat without masts or sails, pursued by the accursed Jews, after the Saviour’s death, spread to the breeze strips of their skirts and their long, thin veils, and the wind carried them to this beach at Camargue.
There a church was built. The sacred bones, found by King René, were enclosed in a reliquary, which has never ceased to perform miracles. And every year, from every corner of Provence, from the Comtat and from Languedoc, the last of the believers throng to the spot, bringing their aspirations and their prayers, dragging with them their sick friends and kindred, or their own wretchedness, their wounds and their lamentations.
Nothing more strange can be imagined than this land of desolation, traversed every year by a multitude of cripples on their way to hope!
From afar, at the end of the desert tract, can be seen the battlemented church that tells of the wars of long ago, of Saracen invasions, of the precarious life led by the poor in the Middle Ages. It stands there with its turrets and its bell-tower, which, like the stumps of gigantic masts, tower above the cluster of houses grouped about it; and the village, cut at about mid-height of the lower houses by the horizon line of the sea, seems drifting like a phantom ship among the billows of sand, like the boat of the holy women of the olden time, doomed to founder at last in the desolation of the desert.
In this Camargue everything is strange. There are ponds like the huge central pond, the Vaccarès, in the centre of which one can wade with ease; there are tracts of land where the pedestrian sinks out of sight and is drowned. Here deception is easy. Yonder green slime that you take for a level plain—beware!—men are drowned therein; those vast stretches of water which seem to you small seas—return that way to-morrow; they will have evaporated, leaving only a mirror of white salt that crackles beneath your feet. Yonder, do you see the calm, deep water? And trees on the shore? Ah! No, you can run along the surface of that water; it is dry land; the mirage alone formed those trees, just as it showed you the little child walking a league away, apparently near at hand and very tall. A land of visions, dreams, and hard work. A land of sedentary folk, who inhabit a vast space on the shore of endless waters, with an infinity of variations of mirages, sunbeams, reflections, and bright colors. A land of fever, where strong men daily bring wild bulls to earth. A land of leave-takings, for it is on the confines of an almost uninhabited land, on the shore of that great blue and white thoroughfare, the sea; just at the point where the Rhône, coming from the mountains, sets out upon its long journey to the bottomless waters, where the sun will take it up again to restore it to its source. An impressive land, which one feels to be the end of so many things; of the great city-making river, of the great expiring Faith, which flies to the sands to breathe its last, with its dying waves beating at the foundations of a poor battlemented church, amid the psalms, mingled with lamentations of a dying race.
The ceremony of May 24th, at Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, is unquestionably one of the most barbarous spectacles which men of modern times are permitted to witness.
Since science made the conquest of men’s minds, the faith of the last believers has changed. The most bigoted know, of course, that God can manifest Himself when and how He pleases, but they also know that He never pleases, in our positive days, to modify the movements of the vast mechanism of His creation, not even for the lowly pleasure of proving His existence to His creatures. The faith of civilized men no longer expects anything from Heaven in this world.
Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, on the 24th of May, is the rendezvous of the last savages of the Faith.
They who come to pray to the holy women for health of body and of heart are unpolished creatures of a primitive belief. They believe, and that is the whole of it. A cry, a prayer, and, in reply, the saints can give them what they have not: eyes, legs, arms, life! And they ask them to perform a miracle as artlessly as a condemned man implores his pardon from the head of the State. That their prayers should be granted is quite as possible, almost more probable, for the saints have more pity. The few thousands of believers—it is long since their numbers have been added to—who pay a visit to the saints every year, see one or two miracles on each occasion. When the priest, coming from the church, followed by a procession, stretches out toward the sea the Silver Arm which contains the relics, they see the sea recede! That happens every year. Imagine, then, how strenuously they importune the saints who can do so much with so little exertion! with what energy they hurry to the spot! with what sighs they pour out their hearts! with what a howling they utter their prayers! with what fervor they raise their eyes, stretch out their necks and their arms! All, all in vain. The last posturings of the great, fruitlessly imploring sorrow are to be seen there, in that desert corner of France, between the arms of that dying stream, on the shore of the sea that is eating away the island; beneath the arches of yonder church, so white without, so black within, wherein every hand holds a taper, flickering like a star of human misery, which burns for God and greases the fingers, and for which the beggar, whose heart would be made glad by a single sou, must pay five sous.
The whole region seems to be at once the highway to exile, and a wild place of refuge. Therefore, the gipsies love it. It is one of the main cross-roads of their interlacing highways which envelop the whole world; it is one of the favorite countries of the race that has no country.
And every year, the gipsies come to Camargue to enjoy their very ancient privilege of occupying a black crypt or underground chapel, under the choir of the church, consecrated to Saint Sara the Egyptian.
In that cavern they can be seen crouching at the foot of an altar whereon is a little shrine—Saint Sara’s—all filthy from much kissing, while above, in the church, the great shrines of the two Marys are lowered from the vaulted roof amid vociferous prayers.
There, in the crypt, the gipsies sit upon their haunches, curly-headed, hot-lipped, sweating profusely, amid hundreds of candles, which exude tallow and overheat the stifling oven, telling their greasy beads, exhaling an odor similar to that of wild beasts in their den, emitting from time to time a hoarse appeal to Saint Sara, wearing the smile of premeditated crime upon their faces mingled with the grimace due to remorse that may be sincere; looking with envious eye at every sou, pilfering handkerchiefs, scratching their wounds, swarming in a mysterious dunghill, where one feels, in spite of everything, that some mystic flower is springing into life, the involuntary aspiration of depravity toward purity.
Early in May of this year, the band of gipsies had brought with them to the saints a young woman whom they called their “Queen.”
This “Queen,” pending the arrival of the approaching fête-day, passed part of her time seated on the wooden bench under the canopy of thorn-broom erected by the customs’ officers between two tamarisks, on the sand-dune just in front of the village; and there she sat and gazed at the sea.
Her name was Zinzara.
Her thick, black, wavy hair was twisted carelessly into a mass on top of her head. Two locks came forward to her temples, which were sunken and filled with shadows. Her piercing black eyes gleamed from beneath her thick arching eyebrows. A copper circlet with sequins hanging from it was placed upon her forehead, slightly at one side, after the manner of a crown.
The glaringly bright materials in which she enveloped her figure revealed the outline of her powerful chest, and her hips that swayed at every step she took. And the fragment that formed her skirt fell in graceful folds, beneath which her naked foot peeped out, glistening with sand.
Evening surprised her upon her bench beneath the broom, looking out upon the sea. The sun tinged the waves and the sand with golden yellow, then with red. The night wind made the reeds and rushes quiver. Slowly the gipsy drew a bright-colored handkerchief from her girdle and arranged it on her head. She put it over her face to tie the ends together behind the mass of hair, then raised it and threw it over her head, so that it fell upon her back. Thus arranged as a head-dress, it framed the face in stiff, broad folds, falling on both sides,—and the Egyptian, her hands spread out upon her knees, her eyes fixed on the horizon, resembled some figure of Isis, while about her a flock of red flamingoes or a solitary ibis, in hieroglyphic cries, told the sands of Camargue and the rushes of the Rhône tales of the sands of Libya and the lotus-trees of the Nile.
Jacques Renaud, Livette’s lover, was employed as drover of bulls and horses in this strange Camargue country, on the estate of the Château d’Avignon.
The manades, or droves, of Camargue bulls and mares live at liberty in the vast moor, leaping the ditches, splashing through the swamps, browsing on the bitter grass, drinking from the Rhône, running, jumping, wallowing, neighing and lowing at the sun or the mirage, lashing vigorously with their tails the swarms of gadflies clinging to their sides, then lying down in groups on the edge of the swamp, knees doubled under their bulky bodies, tired and sleepy, their dreamy eyes fixed vaguely on the horizon.
The mounted drovers leave them at liberty, but keep a watchful eye on their freedom; and according to the time of year and the condition of the pasturage, “round up” their herds, keep them together, and direct their movements.
In the distance, as they sit motionless, and straight as arrows, on their saddles à la gardiane, astride their white horses, with the spear-head resting on the closed stirrup, they resemble knights of the Middle Ages, awaiting the flourish of the herald’s trumpet to enter the lists.
The Camargue horse, with his powerful hind-quarters, stout shoulders, head a little heavy,—an excellent beast withal,—is descended from Saracen mares and the palfrey of the Crusades. He still wears antique trappings. Huge closed stirrups strike against his sides; the broad strap of the martingale passes through a heart-shaped piece of leather on his chest, and the saddle is an easy-chair, wherein the rider sits between two solid walls, the one in front as high as that at his back.
At certain times, when the best pasturage is on the other bank of the Rhône, the drovers drive their manades toward the river. When they reach the shore, they press close upon them to force them in. The earth-colored water of the river flows bubbling by. The beasts hesitate. Some slowly put their heads down to the stream and drink, not knowing what is required of them. Others suddenly show signs of life at the “singing” of the water, stretch their necks, breathe noisily, and low and neigh. A horse, urged forward by a drover, rebels and rushes back, then rears and falls backward into the water, which splashes mightily under the weight of his great body; but he has made a start; he swims, and all the others follow. Muzzles and nostrils, manes and horns, wave wildly about above the river, which is now a swarm of heads. They blow foam and air and water all around. More than one, in jovial mood, bites at a neighboring rump. Feet rise upon backs, to be shaken off again with a quick movement of the spinal column, and thrown back into the waves. Sometimes a frightened beast, confused by the plunging and kicking, tries to return to the bank, and, being driven in once more by the drovers, loses his head, follows the current, sails swiftly seaward, feels his strength failing, drinks, struggles, turns over and over, plunges, drinks again, founders at last like a vessel and disappears.
Finally the bulk of the drove has reached the opposite bank, and there they shake themselves in the sunlight, snort with delight, and caper over the fields. Tails lash sides and buttocks. Some young horses, excited by their bath, scamper away, side by side, toward the horizon, biting at the long hairs of each other’s flying manes.
Then it is the turn of the drovers. Some ride their horses into the river. Others, in the midst of the rearguard of the manade, guide, with the paddle, a flat-bottomed boat that a blow of the foot would shatter, and their horses, held by their bridles, swim behind.
At other times, the drovers are employed driving from the plains of Meyran or Arles, Avignon, Nîmes, Aigues-Mortes to the branding-places at Camargue the bulls that are to take part in the sports at the latter place.
These bulls sometimes travel in captivity, in a sort of high enclosure, without a floor, mounted on wheels and drawn by horses; the bulls walk along the ground, beating their horns against the resonant wooden walls.
Generally the bulls go to the games unconfined, but under the eye of mounted drovers, spear in hand.
These journeys are made at night. As they pass through the villages, the people rush to their windows. The young men are on the watch for the “cattle” and try to drive them out of the circle of drovers, who lose their temper, and swear and strike: that sport is called the abrivade. In Arles, if the bulls happen to arrive by daylight, the drovers have a hard task, for all the young men in the city do their utmost to break the line of horsemen, in order to cut out one bull, or several, if possible, and then drive them through the city. The city assumes a posture of defence. Overturned carts barricade the ends of the streets. Shops are closed. The bull, in a frenzy, rushes here and there, stands musing for a moment at the corners, decides to take a certain direction, rushes at a passer-by, knocks him down, and generally selects the shop of a dealer in crockery and glassware in which to make merry, amid the shouts of an excited populace.
The drovers are a free, fearless, savage race, a little contemptuous of cities, devoted to their desert.
A drover is at home alike in sun and rain, in the wind from the land, and the wind from the sea.
A drover knows how to deal blows and to receive them; he pursues a bull at the gallop, and with a blow of the spear upon his flank, judiciously selecting his time, “fells” him unerringly.
He knows the trick of pursuing a wild bull making for the open country. His well-trained horse bites the furious beast on the hind-quarters, and he turns. The drover, spear in rest, pricks the bull in the nose as he rushes upon him, and checks him.
Sometimes a drover, on foot and alone, pursued by a cow with calf, and apparently in imminent danger from the furious beast, will suddenly turn about, and—with arm outstretched, as if he held his spear—point his three fingers at the animal, separated so as to represent the three points of the trident. In face of the motionless man, the cow, seized with terror, recoils, pawing up the earth, with lowered head and threatening horns; and, as soon as she thinks she is well out of the man’s reach, she turns and flies.
A common performance of the drover, when he is in good spirits, is this: pursuing the bull, he passes beyond him some twenty or thirty yards, then stops short and leaps down from his horse; the bull, taken by surprise, rushes at the man, who has one knee on the ground. The bull comes rushing on with lowered horns. Three sharp hand-claps: the bull has stopped! His hot breath strikes the face of his subduer, who has already seized him with both hands by the horns. The man, springing instantly to his feet, struggles to throw the beast over to the right. The bull, resisting, throws himself in the opposite direction. The two forces neutralize each other for an instant, almost equal, the result uncertain; then the man suddenly yields, and the beast, unexpectedly impelled in the direction of his own efforts, falls upon his side. Skill is seconded by the creature’s whole strength in its struggle for victory.
This is the method adopted at the ferrades, or brandings, where the sport consists in branding the young animals with a red-hot iron.
For a drover, to seize a colt by the nose, and mount him bareback; to roll with his steed at the bottom of a ditch and emerge firmly seated in the saddle; to subdue stallions by fatigue, and, if dismounted and wounded by a kick, to dress the wound as tranquilly as the cork-cutter dresses the scratch made by his knife,—all this is mere child’s-play.
A drover, caught between two horns—luckily well separated—and tossed into the air, has but one thought when he picks himself up after falling to the ground—a thought so surprising as not to be ridiculous: to rearrange his breeches and readjust his belt.
A unique race it is, rough and brutal, which would be esteemed heroic, like the Corsican race, if it had great affairs in which to display its great qualities.
Jacques Renaud, Livette’s betrothed, was, as we have said, one of the most fearless drovers in Camargue.
He could pursue and catch and subdue a wild horse, attack a rebellious bull and master it, as no other could; he was the king of the moor.
For occasions of public rejoicing, at Nîmes or Arles, he was always sent for when they desired a really fine performance in the arena. And he had so often called forth the exclamation, in all the arenas throughout Provence: “Oh! That fellow is the king of them all!” that the name had clung to him. And he himself had given to his finest stallion the name of “Prince.”
Whatever feats of address and strength were performed by others, he performed better than they.
And with it all he was a handsome fellow, not too tall or too short, with a well-shaped head, clear, dark complexion, short, thick, matted black hair, a well-defined moustache of the same devil’s black as the hair, and cheeks and chin always closely shaven, for this savage always carried in the leather saddle-bags hanging at the bow of his saddle a razor-edged knife, a stone to sharpen it upon, and a little round mirror in a sheep-skin case.
And when, with his stout and shapely legs encased in heavy boots, his feet in the closed stirrups, his long spear resting on his boot, he sat erect and motionless in his high-backed saddle, his size heightened by the refraction of the desert, amid his little tribe of mares and wild bulls, wearing upon his head the round narrow-brimmed hat that made for him a crown of gleaming golden straw, indeed the drover did resemble the king of some outlandish race!
And yet it was not on the day of a ferrade, nor because of his great deeds as tamer of wild beasts, that the gentle, fair-haired girl had come to love him.
In the first place, she was accustomed to seeing many of these drovers; and then, being the daughter of a rich intendant, she might have been inclined rather to look down upon them a little, as mere herdsmen. Indeed her father and grandmother did not readily agree to give her hand to Renaud, who was poor and had no kindred; but Livette was an only child, and had wept and prayed so hard, the darling, that at last they had said yes.
And this is how it came to pass that the drover Renaud, who was used to being run after by pretty girls, had taken Livette’s trembling little heart in his great hand.
It was one morning when he was making a new séden for his horse, who had lost his the night before, while bathing in the Rhône.
The séden, as it is called in Camargue, is a halter, but a halter made of mares’ hair braided, it being customary always to allow the manes and tails of stallions to grow as long as they will, as a mark of strength and pride. The séden is generally black and white. It is, in a word, a long rope, which hangs in a coil about the horse’s neck, and may serve, as occasion arises, many purposes, being generally used as a halter, sometimes as a lasso.
But the séden, being a thing essentially Camarguese, should never go from the province. Many a one does so, no doubt, but it is on account of the contemptible greed of this or that drover, who snaps his fingers at the old customs that were good enough for his ancestors.
Renaud, then, was making a séden. It was in front of one of the farm-houses appertaining to the Château d’Avignon, a long, low structure, rather a drover’s cottage than a farm-house, lost in the moor, and so squat that it had the appearance of not wanting to be seen, like an animal burrowing in the ground.
It was October. The larks were singing merrily. Mounted upon Blanquet (or Blanchet), her favorite horse, the little one, in obedience to her father’s orders, was out in search of Renaud, and she spied him at a distance, walking backward, playing the rope-maker. From a piece of canvas tied around his waist and swelling out in front of him, like an apron turned up to make a great pocket, he was taking little bunches of white and black hair alternately, braiding them together and twisting them into a rope, which grew visibly longer. A child was turning the thick wooden wheel upon which the séden, already of considerable length, was wound; and Renaud—keeping time to the wheel, which struck a dull blow against something or other at every revolution—was singing a ballad which floated to Livette’s ears on the gentle breeze that was blowing, like a sweet, strong call from the love of which she as yet knew nothing.
“N’use pas sur les routes
Descends plutôt le Rhône
“Laisse Lyon, Valence,
Salue-les de la tête
Sous les ponts.”
He had a fine voice, smooth and clear, powerful without effort, and of wide range.
“Avignon est la reine——
Tu ne verras qu’en Arles
“La plaine est belle et grande,
Prends tes amours en croupe,
Livette had stopped her horse, to hear better. It was in the morning. In the light there was the reflection that tells that the day is young, that makes hope dance in hearts of sixteen, and sows hope anew even in the hearts of the old.
A vague hope that is naught but the desire to love; but its loss, bitterer than death, makes the thought of death a consolation!
“Prends tes amours en croupe——
the singer repeated, and the little one involuntarily urged her horse toward the song that called to her to come.
“Aha!” said Renaud, pausing in his work, “aha! Young lady! You are astir early!—with a white horse that will soon be all red!”
“Yes,” she said, laughing, “with gnats and gadflies; there are swarms of them! Too many, by my faith in God!”
“You are covered with them, young lady, as a bit of honey is covered with bees, or a tuft of flowering genesta! But what brings you here?”
“I come from my father. You must come with me at once.”
“But comrade Rampal borrowed my horse just now to go to Saintes. They went off one upon the other.”
“Take mine, then,” said Livette.
“And what will you do, young lady?”
She was ashamed of her thoughtlessness, and blushed scarlet.
“I?” said she, and the words of the ballad rang in her heart:
“Prends tes amours en croupe,
“Unless,” said he, laughing in his turn, “you care to take me en croupe?”
“People would never stop talking about it all over our Camargue,” said she, with laughter in her voice. “A drover like you, the terror of riders, en croupe like a girl? No, no; no false shame, that is my place. We will take off my saddle, and you can bring it to me to-morrow.”
“Very luckily,” said Renaud, “Rampal didn’t take mine, which I never lend.”
Livette jumped down from her horse; and at the breeze made by her skirt a cloud of great flies and enormous mosquitoes rose and flew buzzing about her. Blanchet’s snow-white rump looked as if it were covered with a net of purple silk, there was such a labyrinth of little streams of blood crossing and recrossing one another. Another instant, and gadflies and mosquitoes settled down again upon the bleeding surface and dotted it with a myriad of black spots; but Blanchet, albeit somewhat cross, was used to that annoyance.
Livette fastened him to one of the rings in the wall, and sat down upon the stone bench, waiting until Renaud had finished his séden.
The wheel turned and turned, striking its dull blow with perfect regularity at every turn.
“That was a pretty song, Renaud,” said Livette suddenly, answering her thoughts without intention; “that was a pretty song you were singing just now.”
“I learned it,” said Renaud, “from a boatman, a friend of my father, with whom I went up the Rhône as far as Lyon—and then came down again——”
“And is all that country very beautiful up there?” said she.
“Yes,” he answered, “it is beautiful.”
And he said nothing more.
“You don’t look as if you meant what you say, Renaud. Pray, didn’t you like the city of Lyon we hear so much about?”
There was a long silence, broken only by the monotonous rhythm of the wheel.
“No sun!” said Renaud abruptly. “It’s a city in a cold cloud!—The Rhône isn’t fine till you come down again,” he added.
Livette looked at him, and her wide-open eyes seemed to say:
“Why is that?”
He answered her look.
“When one of us goes up yonder, young lady, you understand, he leaves everything to go nowhere, and when he gets there, all he asks is to start back again!—When he comes from there here, on the contrary, he leaves nothing at all, and knows that, at the end of the journey, he will have arrived somewhere! You see, young lady, the best horse must, of necessity, stop at the sea—and that is the only place where I am willing to consent to go no farther. Where the sea is not, you have all the rest of the journey still to do.—Enough, my boy!” he added, raising his voice.
The wheel stopped. He examined the séden. The rope, of black and white strands in regular alternation, was finished.
“That’s a good piece of work,” said he; “look, young lady.”
He leaned over, almost against her, to look at a point in the rope which seemed to him defective; he leaned over, and a short black curl touched lightly the disordered, almost invisible, locks that formed a sort of fleecy golden cloud over Livette’s forehead. And thereupon it seemed to both of them—young as they were!—that their hair blazed up and shrivelled softly, like the fine grass that takes fire in summer, under the hot sun. Ah! Holy youth!
Then, for the first time, Renaud thought of the girl. Hitherto he had seen in Livette only the “young lady.” They remained bending forward, she over the rope which she seemed to be examining attentively, he over Livette’s hair. Livette wore her “morning head-dress,” consisting of a little white handkerchief which covered the chignon, and was tied in such fashion that the two ends stood up like little hollow, pointed ears on top of her head. When they are in full-dress, the women of Camargue surround the high chignon, covered by a fine white linen cap, with a broad velvet ribbon, almost always black, whose long, unequal ends fall behind the head, a little at one side.
Renaud, then, was looking at Livette’s clear flaxen hair,—in which there was, here and there, a lock of a darker golden hue,—symmetrically massed on top of her head, advancing in little waves toward her temples, coquettishly arranged, but so short and fluffy that some few locks escaped, here, there, and everywhere, enough to form the faint golden mist above her head.
He looked at the pretty, round neck, whence the fair hair seemed to spring, like a vigorous plant, so slender and so fine! so long, and full of life! And the temptation to press his lips upon it drew him on, as, after a long day’s journey among dry, stony hills, the sight of the water draws on the horses of Camargue, accustomed to moist pasturage.
She felt that she was being stared at too long.
“Let us go!” she said, suddenly. “My father’s orders were that you should come as soon as possible.”
Renaud felt as if he were waking from a long sleep and from a dream. He jumped to his feet. Without a word, he went to Blanchet, took off the woman’s saddle and carried it into the house, placed his own upon the beast, which the mosquitoes had at last made restive, and leaped upon his back.
Livette, assisted by the drover’s strong hand, leaped to the croup behind him with one spring; highly amused she was as she threw one arm around Renaud’s waist. It is the fashion among the Camarguese young women, all of whom, on fête-days, ride to the plains of Meyran, or to Saintes-Maries, “fitted” to the horses of their promised husbands.
The drover started Blanchet off at a gallop, gave him his head, and let him take his own course. Blanchet left the travelled road, headed straight for the château across the moor, through the sand thickly sown with stiff, rounded clumps of saltwort at irregular intervals. The good horse flew over these clumps, scarcely touching the tops, landing always between them in the damp sand, from which, however, by force of long habit, he withdrew his feet without effort, calculating in advance the distance between the obstacles, galloping freely and evenly, changing feet as he chose, making sport of his heavy burden, happy at being left to himself.
And Livette must needs hold tight to the drover’s waist; he was a lithe, supple fellow, and swayed with the horse. And the swift motion, the free air, youth and love, all combined to intoxicate the two young people; and without meaning it, without thinking of it, the horseman repeated his song of a few moments before, between his teeth, but loud enough to be overheard by the girl:
“Prends tes amours en croupe!
And it seemed to them as if the whole horizon were theirs.
When they dismounted, in front of the farm-house of the château, they had not spoken a word, but they had exchanged in silence the subtlest and strongest part of themselves.
From that day, Renaud, being sincerely in love, exerted himself to please. He was careful about his dress, paid more attention to the adjustment of his neckerchief, shaved more closely, and had not a single glance to spare for the other girls, even the prettiest of them.
At last, he said to Livette one day:
“Your father will never be willing!”
Those were his first words of love.
“If I am willing, my father will be. And when my father is willing, grandmother always is!”
“The good God grant it!” replied Jacques.
And it had happened as she said. For almost five months now they had been betrothed.
The fascinating thing about Livette was that she was just the opposite of Renaud, so slender and delicate, so fair and such a child,—and, furthermore, that she loved him with all her might, the sweetheart,—there was no mistake about that.
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