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   Chapter 2 THE PLOUGHING

The Devil's Pool By George Sand Characters: 15694

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

I had been gazing for a long time and with profound sadness at Holbein's ploughman, and I was walking in the fields, musing upon country-life and the destiny of the husbandman. Doubtless it is a depressing thing to consume one's strength and one's life driving the plough through the bosom of the jealous earth, which yields the treasures of its fecundity only under duress, when a bit of the blackest and coarsest bread at the end of the day is the only reward and the only profit of such laborious toil. The wealth that covers the ground, the crops, the fruit, the proud cattle fattening on the long grass, are the property of a few, and the instruments of fatigue and slavery of the majority. As a general rule, the man of leisure does not love, for themselves, the fields, or the meadows, or the spectacle of nature, or the superb beasts that are to be converted into gold pieces for his use. The man of leisure comes to the country in search of a little air and health, then returns to the city to spend the fruit of his vassal's toil.

The man of toil, for his part, is too crushed, too wretched, and too frightened concerning the future, to enjoy the beauties of the landscape and the charms of rustic life. To him also the golden fields, the lovely meadows, the noble animals, represent bags of crowns, of which he will have only a paltry share, insufficient for his needs, and yet those cursed bags must be filled every year to satisfy the master and pay for the privilege of living sparingly and wretchedly on his domain.

And still nature is always young and beautiful and generous. She sheds poetry and beauty upon all living things, upon all the plants that are left to develop in their own way. Nature possesses the secret of happiness, and no one has ever succeeded in wresting it from her. He would be the most fortunate of men who, possessing the science of his craft and working with his hands, deriving happiness and liberty from the exercise of his intelligent strength, should have time to live in the heart and the brain, to understand his work, and to love the work of God. The artist has enjoyment of that sort in contemplating and reproducing the beauties of Nature; but, when he sees the suffering of the men who people this paradise called the earth, the just, kind-hearted artist is grieved in the midst of his enjoyment. Where the mind, heart, and arms work in concert under the eye of Providence, true happiness would be found, and a holy harmony would exist between the munificence of God and the delights of the human soul. Then, instead of piteous, ghastly Death walking in his furrow, whip in hand, the painter of allegories could place beside the ploughman a radiant angel, sowing the blessed grain in the smoking furrows with generous hand.

And the dream of a peaceful, free, poetical, laborious, simple existence for the husbandman is not so difficult of conception that it need be relegated to a place among chimeras. The gentle, melancholy words of Virgil: "O how happy the life of the husbandman, if he but knew his happiness!" is an expression of regret; but, like all regrets, it is also a prediction. A day will come when the ploughman may be an artist, if not to express,-which will then matter but little, perhaps,-at all events, to feel, the beautiful. Do you believe that this mysterious intuition of poesy does not already exist within him in the state of instinct and vague revery? In those who have a little hoard for their protection to-day, and in whom excess of misery does not stifle all moral and intellectual development, pure happiness, felt and appreciated, is at the elementary stage; and, furthermore, if poets' voices have already arisen from the bosom of sorrow and fatigue, why should it be said that the work of the hands excludes the exercise of the functions of the mind? That exclusion is probably the general result of excessive toil and profound misery; but let it not be said that when man shall work only moderately and profitably, then there will be none but bad workmen and bad poets. He who derives noble enjoyment from the inward sentiment of poesy is a true poet, though he has never written a line in his life.

My thoughts had taken this course, and I did not notice that this confidence in man's capacity for education was strengthened in my mind by external influences. I was walking along the edge of a field which the peasants were preparing for the approaching sowing. The field was an extensive one, like that in Holbein's picture. The landscape, too, was of great extent and framed in broad lines of verdure, slightly reddened by the approach of autumn, the lusty brown earth, where recent rains had left in some of the furrows lines of water which sparkled in the sun like slender silver threads. It was a blight, warm day, and the ground, freshly opened by the sharp ploughshares, exhaled a slight vapor. At the upper end of the field, an old man, whose broad back and stern face recalled the man in Holbein's picture, but whose clothing did not indicate poverty, gravely drove his old-fashioned areau, drawn by two placid oxen, with pale yellow hides, veritable patriarchs of the fields, tall, rather thin, with long, blunt horns, hard-working old beasts whom long companionship has made brothers, as they are called in our country districts, and who, when they are separated, refuse to work with new mates and die of grief. People who know nothing of the country call this alleged friendship of the ox for his yoke-fellow fabulous. Let them go to the stable and look at a poor, thin, emaciated animal, lashing his sunken sides with his restless tail, sniffing with terror and contempt at the fodder that is put before him, his eyes always turned toward the door, pawing the empty place beside him, smelling the yoke and chains his companion wore, and calling him incessantly with a pitiful bellow. The driver will say: "There's a yoke of oxen lost; his brother's dead, and he won't work. We ought to fatten him for killing; but he won't eat, and he'll soon starve to death."

The old ploughman was working slowly, in silence, without useless expenditure of strength. His docile team seemed in no greater hurry than he; but as he kept constantly at work, never turning aside, and exerting always just the requisite amount of sustained power, his furrow was as quickly cut as his son's, who was driving four less powerful oxen on some harder and more stony land a short distance away.

But the spectacle that next attracted my attention was a fine one indeed, a noble subject for a painter. At the other end of the arable tract, a young man of attractive appearance was driving a superb team: four yoke of young beasts, black-coated with tawny spots that gleamed like fire, with the short, curly heads that suggest the wild bull, the great, wild eyes, the abrupt movements, the nervous, jerky way of doing their work, which shows that the yoke and goad still irritate them and that they shiver with wrath as they yield to the domination newly imposed upon them. They were what are called oxen freshly yoked. The man who was guiding them had to clear a field until recently used for pasturage, and filled with venerable stumps-an athlete's task which his energy, his youth, and his eight almost untamed beasts were hardly sufficient to accomplish.

A child of six or seven years, as beautiful as an angel, with a lamb's fleece covering his shoulders, over his blouse, so that he resembled the little Saint John the Baptist of the painters of the Renaissance, was trudging along in the furrow beside the plough and pricking the sides of the oxen with a long, light stick, the end of which was armed with a dull goad. The proud beasts quivered under the child's small hand, and made the yokes and the straps about their foreheads groan, jerking the

plough violently forward. When the ploughshare struck a root, the driver shouted in a resonant voice, calling each beast by his name, but rather to soothe than to excite them; for the oxen, annoyed by the sudden resistance, started forward, digging their broad forked feet into the ground, and would have turned aside and dragged the plough across the field, had not the young man held the four leaders in check with voice and goad, while the child handled the other four. He, too, shouted, poor little fellow, in a voice which he tried to render terrible, but which remained as sweet as his angelic face. The whole picture was beautiful in strength and in grace: the landscape, the man, the child, the oxen under the yoke; and, despite the mighty struggle in which the earth was conquered, there was a feeling of peace and profound tranquillity hovering over everything. When the obstacle was surmounted and the team resumed its even, solemn progress, the ploughman, whose pretended violence was only to give his muscles a little practice and his vitality an outlet, suddenly resumed the serenity of simple souls and cast a contented glance upon his child, who turned to smile at him. Then the manly voice of the young paterfamilias would strike up the solemn, melancholy tune which the ancient tradition of the province transmits, not to all ploughmen without distinction, but to those most expert in the art of arousing and sustaining the spirit of working-cattle. That song, whose origin was perhaps held sacred, and to which mysterious influences seem to have been attributed formerly, is reputed even to the present day to possess the virtue of keeping up the courage of those animals, of soothing their discontent, and of whiling away the tedium of their long task. It is not enough to have the art of driving them so as to cut the furrow in an absolutely straight line, to lighten their labor by raising the share or burying it deeper in the ground: a man is not a perfect ploughman if he cannot sing to his cattle, and that is a special science which requires special taste and powers.

To speak accurately, this song is only a sort of recitative, broken off and taken up again at pleasure. Its irregular form and its intonations, false according to the rules of musical art, make it impossible to reproduce. But it is a fine song none the less, and so entirely appropriate to the nature of the work it accompanies, to the gait of the ox, to the tranquillity of rural scenes, to the simple manners of the men who sing it, that no genius unfamiliar with work in the fields could have invented it, and no singer other than a cunning ploughman of that region would know how to render it. At the time of year when there is no other work and no other sign of activity in the country than the ploughing, that sweet and powerful chant rises like the voice of the breeze, which it resembles somewhat in its peculiar pitch. The final word of each phrase, sustained at incredible length, and with marvellous power of breath, ascends a fourth of a tone, purposely making a discord. That is barbarous, perhaps, but the charm of it is indescribable, and when one is accustomed to hear it, one cannot conceive of any other song at that time and in those localities that would not disturb the harmony.

It happened, therefore, that I had before my eyes a picture in striking contrast with Holbein's, although it might be a similar scene. Instead of a sad old man, a cheerful young man; instead of a team of thin, sorry horses, two yoke of four sturdy, spirited cattle; instead of Death, a lovely child; instead of an image of despair and a suggestion of destruction, a spectacle of energetic action and a thought of happiness.

Then it was that the French quatrain:

"A la sueur de ton visaige," etc.,

and the O fortunatos--agricolas of Virgil, came to my mind simultaneously, and when I saw that handsome pair, the man and the child, performing a grand and solemn task under such poetic conditions, and with so much grace combined with so much strength, I had a feeling of profound compassion mingled with involuntary respect. Happy the husbandman. Yes, so I should be in his place, if my arm should suddenly become strong and my chest powerful, so that they could thus fertilize nature and sing to her, without my eyes losing the power to see and my brain to understand the harmony of colors and sounds, the delicacy of tones, and the gracefulness of contours,-in a word, the mysterious beauty of things, and, above all, without my heart ceasing to be in relation with the divine sentiment that presided at the immortal and sublime creation.

But, alas! that man has never understood the mystery of the beautiful, that child will never understand it! God preserve me from the thought that they are not superior to the animals they guide, and that they have not at times a sort of ecstatic revelation that charms away their weariness and puts their cares to sleep! I see upon their noble brows the seal of the Lord God, for they are born kings of the earth much more truly than they who possess it, because they have paid for it. And the proof that they feel that it is so is found in the fact that you cannot expatriate them with impunity, and that they love the ground watered by the sweat of their brow, that the true peasant dies of homesickness in the uniform of the soldier, far from the fields where he was born. But that man lacks a part of the enjoyments I possess, immaterial enjoyments to which he is abundantly entitled, he the workman in the vast temple which the heavens are vast enough to embrace. He lacks knowledge of his own sentiments. They who condemned him to servitude from his mother's womb, being unable to take from him the power of reverie, have taken the power of reflection.

Ah! well, such as he is, incomplete and doomed to never-ending childhood, he is nobler even so than he in whom knowledge has stifled sentiment. Do not place yourselves above him, you who consider yourselves endowed with the lawful and inalienable right to command him, for that terrible error proves that in you the mind has killed the heart and that you are the most incomplete and the blindest of men!-I prefer the simplicity of his mind to the false enlightenment of yours; and if I had to tell his life, it would be more pleasant for me to bring out its attractive and affecting aspects than it is creditable to you to depict the abject condition to which the scornful rigor of your social precepts may debase him.

I knew that young man and that beautiful child; I knew their story, for they had a story, everybody has his story, and everybody might arouse interest in the romance of his own life if he but understood it. Although a peasant and a simple ploughman, Germain had taken account of his duties and his affections. He had detailed them to me ingenuously one day, and I had listened to him with interest. When I had watched him at work for a considerable time, I asked myself why his story should not be written, although it was as simple, as straightforward, and as devoid of ornament as the furrow he made with his plough.

Next year that furrow will be filled up and covered by a new furrow. Thus the majority of men make their mark and disappear in the field of humanity. A little earth effaces it, and the furrows we have made succeed one another like graves in the cemetery. Is not the furrow of the ploughman as valuable as that of the idler, who has a name, however, a name that will live, if, by reason of some peculiarity or some absurd exploit, he makes a little noise in the world?

So let us, if we can, rescue from oblivion the furrow of Germain, the cunning ploughman. He will know nothing about it, and will not be disturbed; but I shall have had a little pleasure in making the attempt.

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