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   Chapter 19 THE WEDDING

The Devil's Pool By George Sand Characters: 13460

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


The hemp-beater at once drew the wooden latch by which the door was fastened on the inside; at that time, it was still the only lock known in most of the houses in our village. The bridegroom's party invaded the bride's dwelling, but not without a combat; for the boys stationed inside the house, and even the old hemp-beater and the old women, made it their duty to defend the hearthstone. The bearer of the spit, supported by his adherents, was bound to succeed in bestowing his bird in the fire-place. It was a genuine battle, although they abstained from striking one another, and there was no anger in it. But they pushed and squeezed one another with such violence, and there was so much self-esteem at stake in that conflict of muscular strength, that the results might be more serious than they seemed to be amid the laughter and the singing. The poor old hemp-beater, who fought like a lion, was pressed against the wall and squeezed until he lost his breath. More than one champion was floored and unintentionally trodden under foot, more than one hand that grasped at the spit was covered with blood. Those sports are dangerous, and the accidents were so serious in later years that the peasants determined to allow the ceremony of the livrées to fall into desuetude. I believe that we saw the last of it at Fran?oise Meillant's wedding, and still it was only a mock-battle.

The contest was animated enough at Germain's wedding. It was a point of honor on one side and the other to attack and to defend La Guillette's fireside. The huge spit was twisted like a screw in the powerful hands that struggled for possession of it. A pistol-shot set fire to a small store of hemp in skeins that lay on a shelf suspended from the ceiling. That incident created a diversion, and while some hastened to smother the germ of a conflagration, the grave-digger, who had climbed to the attic unperceived, came down the chimney and seized the spit, just as the drover, who was defending it near the hearth, raised it above his head to prevent its being snatched from him. Some time before the assault, the matrons had taken care to put out the fire, fearing that some one might fall in and be burned while they were struggling close beside it. The facetious grave-digger, in concert with the drover, possessed himself of the trophy without difficulty, therefore, and threw it across the fire-dogs. It was done! No one was allowed to touch it after that. He leaped into the room, and lighted a bit of straw which surrounded the spit, to make a pretence of cooking the goose, which was torn to pieces and its limbs strewn over the floor.

Thereupon, there was much laughter and burlesque discussion. Every one showed the bruises he had received, and as it was often the hand of a friend that had dealt the blow, there was no complaining or quarrelling. The hemp-beater, who was half flattened out, rubbed his sides, saying that he cared very little for that, but that he did protest against the stratagem of his good friend the grave-digger, and that, if he had not been half-dead, the hearth would not have been conquered so easily. The matrons swept the floor, and order was restored. The table was covered with jugs of new wine. When they had drank together and recovered their breath, the bridegroom was led into the centre of the room, and, being armed with a staff, was obliged to submit to a new test.

During the contest, the bride had been concealed with three of her friends by her mother, her godmother, and aunts, who had seated the four girls on a bench in the farthest corner of the room, and covered them over with a great white sheet. They had selected three of Marie's friends who were of the same height as she, and wore caps of exactly the same height, so that, as the sheet covered their heads and descended to their feet, it was impossible to distinguish them from each other.

The bridegroom was not allowed to touch them, except with the end of his wand, and only to point out the one whom he judged to be his wife. They gave him time to examine them, but only with his eyes, and the matrons, who stood by his side, watched closely to see that there was no cheating. If he made a mistake, he could not dance with his betrothed during the evening, but only with her whom he had chosen by mistake.

Germain, finding himself in the presence of those phantoms enveloped in the same winding-sheet, was terribly afraid of making a mistake; and, as a matter of fact, that had happened to many others, for the precautions were always taken with scrupulous care. His heart beat fast. Little Marie tried to breathe hard and make the sheet move, but her mischievous rivals did the same, pushed out the cloth with their fingers, and there were as many mysterious signs as there were girls under the veil. The square caps kept the veil so perfectly level that it was impossible to distinguish the shape of a head beneath its folds.

Germain, after ten minutes of hesitation, closed his eyes, commended his soul to God, and stuck his staff out at random. He touched little Marie's forehead, and she threw the sheet aside with a cry of triumph. He obtained leave then to kiss her, and, taking her in his strong arms, he carried her to the middle of the room, and with her opened the ball, which lasted until two o'clock in the morning.

Then they separated to meet again at eight o'clock. As there was a considerable number of young people from the neighboring towns, and as there were not beds enough for everybody, each invited guest among the women of the village shared her bed with two or three friends, while the young men lay pell-mell on the hay in the loft at the farm. You can imagine that there was not much sleep there, for they thought of nothing but teasing, and playing tricks on one another and telling amusing stories. At all weddings, there are three sleepless nights, which no one regrets.

At the hour appointed for setting out, after they had eaten their soup au lait seasoned with a strong dose of pepper to give them an appetite, for the wedding-banquet bade fair to be abundant, they assembled in the farm-yard. Our parish church being suppressed, they were obliged to go half a league away to receive the nuptial benediction. It was a lovely, cool day; but, as the roads were very bad, every man had provided himself with a horse, and took en croupe a female companion, young or old. Germain was mounted upon Grise, who, being well groomed, newly shod, and decked out in ribbons, pranced and capered and breathed fire through her nostrils. He went to the cabin for his fiancée, accompanied by his brother-in-law Jacques, who was mounted on old Grise and took Mère Guillette en croupe, w

hile Germain returned triumphantly to the farm-yard with his dear little wife.

Then the merry cavalcade set forth, escorted by children on foot, who fired pistols as they ran and made the horses jump. Mère Maurice was riding in a small cart with Germain's three children and the fiddlers. They opened the march to the sound of the instruments. Petit-Pierre was so handsome that the old grandmother was immensely proud. But the impulsive child did not stay long beside her. He took advantage of a halt they were obliged to make, when they had gone half the distance, in order to pass a difficult ford, to slip down and ask his father to take him up on Grise in front of him.

"No, no!" said Germain, "that will make people say unkind things about us! you mustn't do it."

"I care very little what the people of Saint-Chartier say," said little Marie. "Take him, Germain, I beg you; I shall be prouder of him than of my wedding-dress."

Germain yielded the point, and the handsome trio dashed forward at Grise's proudest gallop.

And, in fact, the people of Saint-Chartier, although very satirical and a little inclined to be disagreeable in their intercourse with the neighboring parishes which had been combined with theirs, did not think of laughing when they saw such a handsome bridegroom and lovely bride, and a child that a king's wife would have envied. Petit-Pierre had a full coat of blue-bottle colored cloth, and a cunning little red waistcoat so short that it hardly came below his chin. The village tailor had made the sleeves so tight that he could not put his little arms together. And how proud he was! He had a round hat with a black and gold buckle and a peacock's feather protruding jauntily from a tuft of Guinea-hen's feathers. A bunch of flowers larger than his head covered his shoulder, and ribbons floated down to his feet. The hemp-beater, who was also the village barber and wig-maker, had cut his hair in a circle, covering his head with a bowl and cutting off all that protruded, an infallible method of guiding the scissors accurately. Thus accoutred, he was less picturesque, surely, than with his long hair flying in the wind and his lamb's fleece à la Saint John the Baptist; but he had no such idea, and everybody admired him, saying that he looked like a little man. His beauty triumphed over everything, and, in sooth, over what would not the incomparable beauty of childhood triumph?

His little sister Solange had, for the first time in her life, a real cap instead of the little child's cap of Indian muslin that little girls wear up to the age of two or three years. And such a cap! higher and broader than the poor little creature's whole body. And how lovely she considered herself! She dared not turn her head, and sat perfectly straight and stiff, thinking that people would take her for the bride.

As for little Sylvain, he was still in long dresses and lay asleep on his grandmother's knees, with no very clear idea of what a wedding might be.

Germain gazed affectionately at his children, and said to his fiancée, as they arrived at the mayor's office:

"Do you know, Marie, I ride up to this door a little happier than I was the day I brought you home from the woods of Chanteloube, thinking that you would never love me; I took you in my arms to put you on the ground just as I do now, but I didn't think we should ever be together again on good Grise with this child on our knees. I love you so much, you see, I love those dear little ones so much, I am so happy because you love me and love them and because my people love you, and I love my mother and my friends and everybody so much to-day, that I wish I had three or four hearts to hold it all. Really, one is too small to hold so much love and so much happiness! I have something like a pain in my stomach."

There was a crowd at the mayor's door and at the church to see the pretty bride. Why should we not describe her costume? it became her so well. Her cap of white embroidered muslin had flaps trimmed with lace. In those days, peasant-women did not allow themselves to show a single hair; and although their caps conceal magnificent masses of hair rolled in bands of white thread to keep the head-dress in place, even in these days it would be considered an immodest and shameful action to appear before men bareheaded. They do allow themselves now, however, to wear a narrow band across the forehead, which improves their appearance very much. But I regret the classic head-dress of my time: the white lace against the skin had a suggestion of old fashioned chastity which seemed to me more solemn, and when a face was beautiful under those circumstances, it was a beauty whose artless charm and majesty no words can describe.

Little Marie still wore that head dress, and her forehead was so white and so pure that it defied the white of the linen to cast a shadow upon it. Although she had not closed her eyes during the night, the morning air, and above all things the inward joy of a soul as spotless as the sky, and a little hidden fire, held in check by the modesty of youth, sent to her cheeks a flush as delicate as the peach-blossom in the early days of April.

Her white fichu, chastely crossed over her bosom, showed only the graceful contour of a neck as full and round as a turtle-dove's; her morning dress of fine myrtle-green cloth marked the shape of her slender waist, which seemed perfect, but was likely to grow and develop, for she was only seventeen. She wore an apron of violet silk, with the pinafore which our village women have made a great mistake in abolishing, and which imparted so much modesty and refinement to the chest. To-day, they spread out their fichus more proudly, but there is no longer that sweet flower of old-fashioned pudicity in their costume that made them resemble Holbein's virgins. They are more coquettish, more graceful. The correct style in the old days was a sort of unbending stiffness which made their infrequent smiles more profound and more ideal.

At the offertory, Germain, according to the usual custom, placed the treizain-that is to say, thirteen pieces of silver-in his fiancée's hand. He placed on her finger a silver ring of a shape that remained invariable for centuries, but has since been replaced by the band of gold. As they left the church, Marie whispered: "Is it the ring I wanted? the one I asked you for, Germain?"

"Yes," he replied, "the one my Catherine had on her finger when she died. The same ring for both my marriages."

"Thank you, Germain," said the young wife in a serious tone and with deep feeling. "I shall die with it, and if I die before you, you must keep it for your little Solange."

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