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The Devil's Pool By George Sand Characters: 13899

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04

Here ends the story of Germain's courtship, as he told it to me himself, cunning ploughman that he is! I ask your pardon, dear reader, for having been unable to translate it better; for the old-fashioned, artless language of the peasants of the district that I sing-as they used to say-really has to be translated. Those people speak too much French for us, and the development of the language since Rabelais and Montaigne has deprived us of much of the old wealth. It is so with all progress, and we must make up our minds to it. But it is pleasant still to hear those picturesque idioms in general use on the old soil of the centre of France; especially as they are the genuine expressions of the mockingly tranquil and pleasantly loquacious character of the people who use them. Touraine has preserved a considerable number of precious patriarchal locutions. But Touraine has progressed rapidly in civilization during and since the Renaissance. It is covered with chateaux, roads, activity, and foreigners. Berry has remained stationary, and I think that, next to Bretagne and some provinces in the extreme south of France, it is the most conservative province to be found at the present moment. Certain customs are so strange, so curious, that I hope to be able to entertain you a moment longer, dear reader, if you will permit me to describe in detail a country wedding, Germain's for instance, which I had the pleasure of attending a few years ago.

For everything passes away, alas! In the short time that I have lived, there has been more change in the ideas and customs of my village than there was for centuries before the Revolution. Half of the Celtic, pagan, or Middle-Age ceremonials that I saw in full vigor in my childhood, have already been done away with. Another year or two, perhaps, and the railroads will run their levels through our deep valleys, carrying away, with the swiftness of lightning, our ancient traditions and our wonderful legends.

It was in winter, not far from the Carnival, the time of year when it is considered becoming and proper, among us, to be married. In the summer, we hardly have time, and the work on a farm cannot be postponed three days, to say nothing of the extra days required for the more or less laborious digestion attending the moral and physical intoxication that follows such a festivity.-I was sitting under the huge mantel-piece of an old-fashioned kitchen fire-place, when pistol-shots, the howling of dogs, and the shrill notes of the bagpipe announced the approach of the fiancés. Soon Père and Mère Maurice, Germain, and little Marie, followed by Jacques and his wife, the nearest relations of the bride and groom, and their godfathers and godmothers, entered the court-yard.

Little Marie, not having as yet received the wedding-gifts, called livrées, was dressed in the best that her modest wardrobe afforded: a dress of dark-gray cloth, a white fichu with large bright-colored flowers, an apron of the color called incarnat, an Indian red then much in vogue but despised to-day, a cap of snow-white muslin and of the shape, fortunately preserved, which recalls the head-dress of Anne Boleyn and Agnès Sorel. She was fresh and smiling, and not at all proud, although she had good reason to be. Germain was beside her, grave and deeply moved, like the youthful Jacob saluting Rachel at Laban's well. Any other girl would have assumed an air of importance and a triumphant bearing; for in all ranks of life it counts for something to be married for one's beaux yeux. But the girl's eyes were moist and beaming with love; you could see that she was deeply smitten, and that she had no time to think about the opinions of other people. She had not lost her little determined manner; but she was all sincerity and good nature; there was nothing impertinent in her success, nothing personal in her consciousness of her strength. I never saw such a sweet fiancée as she when she quickly answered some of her young friends who asked her if she was content: "Bless me! indeed I am! I don't complain of the good Lord."

Père Maurice was the spokesman; he had come to offer the customary compliments and invitations. He began by fastening a laurel branch adorned with ribbons to the mantel-piece; that is called the exploit, that is to say, the invitation; then he gave to each of the guests a little cross made of a bit of blue ribbon crossed by another bit of pink ribbon; the pink for the bride, the blue for the groom; and the guests were expected to keep that token to wear on the wedding-day, the women in their caps, the men in their button-holes. It was the ticket of admission.

Then Père Maurice delivered his speech. He invited the master of the house and all his company, that is to say, all his children, all his relations, all his friends, all his servants, to the marriage-ceremony, to the feast, to the sports, to the dancing, and to everything that comes after. He did not fail to say:-I come to do you the honor to invite you. A very proper locution, although it seems a misuse of words to us, as it expresses the idea of rendering honor to those who are deemed worthy thereof.

Despite the general invitation carried thus from house to house throughout the parish, good-breeding, which is extremely conservative among the peasantry, requires that only two persons in each family should take advantage of it,-one of the heads of the family to represent the household, one of their children to represent the other members.

The invitations being delivered, the fiancés and their relations went to the farm and dined together.

Little Marie tended her three sheep on the common land, and Germain turned up the ground as if there were nothing in the air.

On the day before that fixed for the marriage, about two o'clock in the afternoon, the musicians arrived, that is to say, the bagpipers and viol-players, with their instruments decorated with long floating ribbons, and playing a march written for the occasion, in a measure somewhat slow for the feet of any but natives, but perfectly adapted to the nature of the heavy ground and the hilly roads of that region. Pistol-shots, fired by youths and children, announced the beginning of the ceremony. The guests assembled one by one and danced on the greensward in front of the house, for practice. When night had come, they began to make strange preparations: they separated into two parties, and when it was quite dark, they proceeded to the ceremony of the livrées.

That ceremony was performed at the home of the fiancée, La Guillette's cabin. La Guillette took with her her daughter, a dozen or more young and pretty shepherdesses, her daughter's friends or relations, two or three respectable matrons, neighbors with well-oiled tongues, quick at retort, and unyielding observers of the ancient customs. Then she selected a dozen sturdy champions, her relations and friends; and, lastly, the old hem

p-beater of the parish, a fine and fluent talker, if ever there was one.

The r?le played in Bretagne by the bazvalan, or village tailor, is assumed in our country districts by the hemp-beater or the wool-carder, the two professions being often united in a single person. He attends all solemnities, sad or gay, because he is essentially erudite and a fine speaker, and on such occasions it is always his part to act as spokesman in order that certain formalities that have been observed from time immemorial may be worthily performed. The wandering trades which take men into the bosoms of other families and do not permit them to concentrate their attention upon their own, are well calculated to make them loquacious, entertaining, good talkers, and good singers.

The hemp-beater is peculiarly sceptical. He and another rustic functionary, of whom we shall speak anon, the grave-digger, are always the strong-minded men of the neighborhood. They have talked so much about ghosts, and are so familiar with all the tricks of which those mischievous spirits are capable, that they fear them hardly at all. Night is the time when all three, hemp-beaters, grave-diggers, and ghosts, principally exercise their callings. At night, too, the hemp-beater tells his harrowing tales. May I be pardoned for a slight digression.

When the hemp has reached the proper point, that is to say, when it has been sufficiently soaked in running water and half dried on the bank, it is carried to the yards of the different houses; there they stand it up in little sheaves, which, with their stalks spread apart at the bottom and their heads tied together in balls, greatly resemble, in the dark, a long procession of little white phantoms, planted on their slim legs and walking noiselessly along the walls.

At the end of September, when the nights are still warm, they begin the process of beating, by the pale moonlight. During the day, the hemp has been heated in the oven; it is taken out at night to be beaten hot. For that purpose, they use a sort of wooden horse, surmounted by a wooden lever, which, falling upon the grooves, breaks the plant without cutting it. Then it is that you hear at night, in the country, the sharp, clean-cut sound of three blows struck in rapid succession. Then there is silence for a moment; that means that the arm is moving the handful of hemp, in order to break it in another place. And the three blows are repeated; it is the other arm acting on the lever, and so it goes on until the moon is dimmed by the first rays of dawn. As this work is done only a few days in the year, the dogs do not become accustomed to it, and howl plaintively at every point of the compass.

It is the time for unusual and mysterious noises in the country. The migrating cranes fly southward at such a height that the eye can hardly distinguish them in broad daylight. At night, you can only hear them; and their hoarse, complaining voices, lost among the clouds, seem like the salutation and the farewell of souls in torment, striving to find the road to heaven and compelled by an irresistible fatality to hover about the abodes of men, not far from earth; for these migratory birds exhibit strange uncertainty and mysterious anxiety in their aerial wanderings. It sometimes happens that they lose the wind, when fitful breezes struggle for the mastery or succeed one another in the upper regions. Thereupon, when one of those reverses happens during the day, we see the leader of the line soar at random through the air, then turn sharply about, fly back, and take his place at the rear of the triangular phalanx, while a skilful manoeuvre on the part of his companions soon brings them into line behind him. Often, after vain efforts, the exhausted leader abandons the command of the caravan; another comes forward, takes his turn at the task, and gives place to a third, who finds the current and leads the host forward in triumph. But what shrieks, what reproaches, what remonstrances, what fierce maledictions or anxious questions are exchanged by those winged pilgrims in an unfamiliar tongue!

In the resonant darkness you hear the dismal uproar circling above the houses sometimes for a long while; and as you can see nothing, you feel, in spite of yourself, a sort of dread and a sympathetic uneasiness until the sobbing flock has passed out of hearing in space.

There are other sounds that are peculiar to that time of year, and are heard principally in the orchards. The fruit is not yet gathered, and a thousand unaccustomed snappings and crackings make the trees resemble animate beings. A branch creaks as it bends under a weight that has suddenly reached the last stage of development; or an apple detaches itself and falls at your feet with a dull thud on the damp ground. Then you hear a creature whom you cannot see, brushing against the branches and bushes as he runs away; it is the peasant's dog, the restless, inquisitive prowler, impudent and cowardly as well, who insinuates himself everywhere, never sleeps, is always hunting for nobody knows what, watches you from his hiding-place in the bushes and runs away at the noise made by a falling apple, thinking that you are throwing a stone at him.

On such nights as those-gray, cloudy nights-the hemp-beater narrates his strange adventures with will-o'-the-wisps and white hares, souls in torment and witches transformed into wolves, the witches' dance at the cross-roads and prophetic night-owls in the grave-yard. I remember passing the early hours of the night thus around the moving flails, whose pitiless blow, interrupting the beater's tale at the most exciting point, caused a cold shiver to run through our veins. Often, too, the goodman went on talking as he worked; and four or five words would be lost: awful words, of course, which we dared not ask him to repeat, and the omission of which imparted a more awe-inspiring mystery to the mysteries, sufficiently harrowing before, of his narrative. In vain did the servants warn us that it was very late to remain out-of-doors, and that the hour for slumber had long since struck for us; they themselves were dying with longing to hear more. And with what terror did we afterward walk through the hamlet on our homeward way! how deep the church porch seemed, and how dense and black the shadow of the old trees! As for the grave-yard, that we did not see; we closed our eyes as we passed it.

But the hemp-beater does not devote himself exclusively to frightening his hearers any more than the sacristan does; he likes to make them laugh, he is jocose and sentimental at need, when love and marriage are to be sung; he it is who collects and retains in his memory the most ancient ballads and transmits them to posterity. He it is, therefore, who, at wedding-festivals, is entrusted with the character which we are to see him enact at the presentation of the livrées to little Marie.

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