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   Chapter 20 THE CABBAGE

The Devil's Pool By George Sand Characters: 19179

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:04


They remounted their horses, and rode rapidly back to Belair. The banquet was a sumptuous affair, and lasted, intermingled with dancing and singing, until midnight. The old people did not leave the table for fourteen hours. The grave-digger did the cooking, and did it very well. He was renowned for that, and he left his ovens to come and dance and sing between every two courses. And yet he was epileptic, was poor Père Bontemps. Who would have suspected it? He was as fresh and vigorous and gay as a young man. One day we found him lying like a dead man in a ditch, all distorted by his malady, just at nightfall. We carried him to our house in a wheelbarrow, and passed the night taking care of him. Three days later, he was at a wedding, singing like a thrush, leaping like a kid, and frisking about in the old-fashioned way. On leaving a marriage-feast, he would go and dig a grave and nail up a coffin. He performed those duties devoutly, and although they seemed to have no effect on his merry humor, he retained a melancholy impression which hastened the return of his attacks. His wife, a paralytic, had not left her chair for twenty years. His mother is a hundred and forty years old and is still alive. But he, poor man, so jovial and kind-hearted and amusing, was killed last year by falling from his loft to the pavement. Doubtless he was suddenly attacked by his malady, and had hidden himself in the hay, as he was accustomed to do, in order not to frighten and distress his family. Thus ended, in a tragic way, a life as strange as himself, a mixture of gloom and folly, of horror and hilarity, amid which his heart remained always kind and his character lovable.

But we are coming to the third day of the wedding-feast, which is the most interesting of all, and has been retained in full vigor down to our own day. We will say nothing of the slice of toast that is carried to the nuptial bed; that is an absurd custom which offends the modesty of the bride, and tends to destroy that of the young girls who are present. Moreover, I think that it is a custom which obtains in all the provinces and has no peculiar features as practised among us.

Chapter IV (Appendix)

He fell on his knees in the furrow through which he was about to run his plough once more, and repeated the morning prayer with such emotion that the tears rolled down his cheeks, still moist with perspiration

Just as the ceremony of the livrées is the symbol of the taking possession of the bride's heart and home, that of the cabbage is the symbol of the fruitfulness of the union. After breakfast on the day following the marriage-ceremony, comes this strange performance, which is of Gallic origin, but, as it passed through the hands of the primitive Christians, gradually became a sort of mystery, or burlesque morality-play of the Middle Ages.

Two youths-the merriest and most energetic of the party-disappear during the breakfast, don their costumes, and return, escorted by the musicians, dogs, children, and pistol-shots. They represent a couple of beggars, husband and wife, covered with the vilest rags. The husband is the dirtier of the two: it is vice that has degraded him; the woman is unhappy simply and debased by her husband's evil ways.

They are called the gardener and the gardener's wife, and claim to be fitted to watch and cultivate the sacred cabbage. But the husband is known by several appellations, all of which have a meaning. He is called, indifferently, the pailloux,[7] because he wears a wig made of straw or hemp, and, to hide his nakedness, which is ill protected by his rags, he surrounds his legs and a part of his body with straw. He also provides himself with a huge belly or a hump by stuffing straw or hay under his blouse. The peilloux because he is covered with peille (rags). And, lastly, the pa?en (heathen), which is the most significant of all, because he is supposed, by his cynicism and his debauched life, to represent in himself the antipodes of all the Christian virtues.

He arrives with his face daubed with grease and wine lees, sometimes swallowed up in a grotesque mask. A wretched, cracked earthen cup, or an old wooden shoe, hanging by a string to his belt, he uses to ask alms in the shape of wine. No one refuses him, and he pretends to drink, then pours the wine on the ground by way of libation. At every step, he falls and rolls in the mud; he pretends to be most disgustingly drunk. His poor wife runs after him, picks him up, calls for help, tears out the hempen hair that protrudes in stringy locks from beneath her soiled cap, weeps over her husband's degradation, and reproaches him pathetically.

"You wretch!" she says, "see what your bad conduct has reduced us to! It's no use for me to spin, to work for you, to mend your clothes! you never stop tearing and soiling them. You have run through my little property, our six children are in the gutter, we live in a stable with the beasts; here we are reduced to asking alms, and you're so ugly, so revolting, so despised, that soon they will toss bread to us as they do to the dogs. Alas! my poor mondes [people], take pity on us! take pity on me! I don't deserve my fate, and no woman ever had a filthier, more detestable husband. Help me to pick him up, or else the wagons will crush him like an old broken bottle, and I shall be a widow, which would kill me with grief, although everybody says it would be great good fortune for me."

Such is the r?le of the gardener's wife and her constant lamentation throughout the play. For it is a genuine, spontaneous, improvised comedy, played in the open air, on the highways, among the fields, seasoned by all the incidents that happen to occur; and in it everybody takes a part, wedding-guests and outsiders, occupants of the houses and passers-by, for three or four hours in the day, as we shall see. The theme is always the same, but it is treated in an infinite variety of ways, and therein we see the instinct of mimicry, the abundance of grotesque ideas, the fluency, the quickness at repartee, and even the natural eloquence of our peasants.

The part of the gardener's wife is ordinarily entrusted to a slender, beardless man with a fresh complexion, who is able to give great verisimilitude to the character he assumes and to represent burlesque despair so naturally that the spectators may be amused and saddened at the same time as by the genuine article. Such thin, beardless men are not rare in our country districts, and, strangely enough, they are sometimes the most remarkable for muscular strength.

After the wife's wretched plight is made evident, the younger wedding-guests urge her to leave her sot of a husband and divert herself with them. They offer her their arms and lead her away. Gradually she yields, becomes animated, and runs about, now with one, now with another, behaving in a scandalous way: a new moral lesson-the husband's misconduct incites and causes misconduct on the part of his wife.

The pa?en thereupon awakes from his drunken stupor; he looks about for his companion, provides himself with a rope and a stick, and runs after her. They lead him a long chase, they hide from him, they pass the woman from one to another, they try to keep her amused, and to deceive her jealous mate. His friends try hard to intoxicate him. At last, he overtakes his faithless spouse and attempts to beat her. The most realistic, shrewdest touch in this parody of the miseries of conjugal life, is that the jealous husband never attacks those who take his wife away from him. He is very polite and prudent with them, he does not choose to vent his wrath on any one but the guilty wife, because she is supposed to be unable to resist him.

But just as he raises his stick and prepares his rope to bind the culprit, all the men in the wedding-party interpose and throw themselves between the two. Don't strike her! never strike your wife! is the formula that is repeated to satiety in these scenes. They disarm the husband, they force him to pardon his wife and embrace her, and soon he pretends to love her more dearly than ever. He walks about arm-in-arm with her, singing and dancing, until a fresh attack of intoxication sends him headlong to the ground once more: and with that his wife's lamentations recommence, her discouragement, her pretended misconduct, the husband's jealousy, the intervention of the bystanders, and the reconciliation. There is in all this an ingenuous, even commonplace, lesson, which savors strongly of its origin in the Middle Ages, but which always makes an impression, if not upon the bride and groom,-who are too much in love and too sensible to-day to need it,-at all events, upon the children and young girls and boys. The pa?en so terrifies and disgusts the girls, by running after them and pretending to want to kiss them, that they fly from him with an emotion in which there is nothing artificial. His besmeared face and his great stick-perfectly harmless, by the way-makes the youngsters shriek with fear. It is the comedy of manners in its most elementary but most impressive state.

When this farce is well under way, they prepare to go in search of the cabbage. They bring a hand-barrow, on which the pa?en is placed, armed with a spade, a rope, and a great basket. Four strong men carry him on their shoulders. His wife follows him on foot, the ancients come in a group behind, with grave and pensive mien; then the wedding-party falls in two by two, keeping time to the music. The pistol-shots begin again, the dogs howl louder than ev

er at sight of the unclean pa?en, thus borne in triumph. The children salute him derisively with wooden clogs tied at the ends of strings.

But why this ovation to such a revolting personage? They are marching to the conquest of the sacred cabbage, the emblem of matrimonial fecundity, and this besotted drunkard is the only man who can put his hand upon the symbolical plant. Therein, doubtless, is a mystery anterior to Christianity, a mystery that reminds one of the festival of the Saturnalia or some ancient Bacchanalian revel. Perhaps this pa?en, who is at the same time the gardener par excellence, is nothing less than Priapus in person, the god of gardens and debauchery,-a divinity probably chaste and serious in his origin, however, like the mystery of reproduction, but insensibly degraded by licentiousness of manners and disordered ideas.

However that may be, the triumphal procession arrives at the bride's house and marches into her garden. There they select the finest cabbage, which is not quickly done, for the ancients hold a council and discuss the matter at interminable length, each pleading for the cabbage which seems to him the best adapted for the occasion. The question is put to a vote, and when the choice is made, the gardener fastens his rope around the stalk and goes as far away as the size of the garden permits. The gardener's wife looks out to see that the sacred vegetable is not injured in its fall. The Jesters of the wedding-party, the hemp-beater, the grave-digger, the carpenter, or the cobbler,-in a word, all those who do not work on the land, and who, as they pass their lives in other people's houses, are reputed to have and do really have more wit and a readier tongue than the simple agricultural laborers,-take their places around the cabbage. One digs a trench with the spade, so deep that you would say he was preparing to dig up an oak-tree. Another puts on his nose a drogue, made of wood or pasteboard, in imitation of a pair of spectacles: he performs the duties of engineer, comes forward, walks away, prepares a plan, overlooks the workmen, draws lines, plays the pedant, cries out that they are spoiling the whole thing, orders the work to be abandoned and resumed according to his fancy, and makes the performance as long and as absurd as he can. Is this an addition to the former programme of the ceremony, in mockery of theorists in general, for whom the ordinary peasant has the most sovereign contempt, or in detestation of land-surveyors, who control the register of lands and assess the taxes, or of the employees of the Department of Roads and Bridges, who convert common lands into highways and cause the suppression of time-worn abuses dear to the peasant heart? Certain it is that this character in the comedy is called the geometrician, and that he does his utmost to make himself unbearable to those who handle the pick and shovel.

At last, after quarter of an hour of mummery and remonstrances, so that the roots of the cabbage may not be cut and it can be transplanted without injury, while spadefuls of earth are thrown into the faces of the bystanders,-woe to him who does not step aside quickly enough; though he were a bishop or a prince, he must receive the baptism of earth,-the pa?en pulls the rope, the pa?enne holds her apron, and the cabbage falls majestically amid the cheers of the spectators. Then the basket is brought, and the pagan couple proceed to plant the cabbage therein with all imaginable care and precautions. They pack it in fresh soil, they prop it up with sticks and strings as city florists do their superb potted camellias; they plant red apples stuck on twigs, branches of thyme, sage, and laurel all about it; they deck the whole with ribbons and streamers; they place the trophy on the hand-barrow with the paten, who is expected to maintain its equilibrium and keep it from accident, and at last they leave the garden in good order to the music of a march.

But when they come to pass through the gate, and again when they try to enter the bridegroom's yard, an imaginary obstacle bars the passage. The bearers of the barrow stumble, utter loud exclamations, step back, go forward again, and, as if they were driven back by an invisible force, seem to succumb under the burden. Meanwhile, the rest of the party laugh heartily and urge on and soothe the human team. "Softly! softly, boy! Come, courage! Look out! Patience! Stoop! The gate is too low! Close up, it's too narrow! a little to the left; now to the right! Come, take heart, there you are!"

So it sometimes happens that, in years of abundant crops, the ox-cart, laden beyond measure with fodder or grain, is too broad or too high to enter the barndoor. And such exclamations are shouted at the powerful cattle to restrain or excite them; and with skilful handling and vigorous efforts the mountain of wealth is made to pass, without mishap, beneath the rustic triumphal arch. Especially with the last load, called the gerbaude, are these precautions required; for that is made the occasion of a rustic festival, and the last sheaf gathered from the last furrow is placed on top of the load, decorated with ribbons and flowers, as are the heads of the oxen and the driver's goad. Thus the triumphal, laborious entry of the cabbage into the house is an emblem of the prosperity and fruitfulness it represents.

Arrived in the bridegroom's yard, the cabbage is taken to the highest point of the house or the barn. If there is a chimney, a gable end, a dove-cote higher than the other elevated portions, the burden must, at any risk, be taken to that culminating point. The pa?en accompanies it thither, fixes it in place, and waters it from a huge jug of wine, while a salvo of pistol-shots and the joyful contortions of the pa?enne announce its inauguration.

The same ceremony is immediately repeated. Another cabbage is dug up in the bridegroom's garden and borne with the same formalities to the roof that his wife has abandoned to go with him. The trophies remain in place until the rain and wind destroy the baskets and carry off the cabbages. But they live long enough to offer some chance of fulfilment of the prophecy that the old men and matrons utter as they salute them. "Beautiful cabbage," they say, "live and flourish, so that our young bride may have a fine little baby before the end of the year; for if you die too quickly, it will be a sign of sterility, and you will be stuck up there on top of the house like an evil omen."

The day is far advanced before all these performances are at an end. It only remains to escort the husband and wife to the godfathers and godmothers. When these putative parents live at a distance, they are escorted by the musicians and all the wedding-party to the limits of the parish. There, there is more dancing by the roadside, and they kiss the bride and groom when they take leave of them. The pa?en and his wife are then washed and dressed in clean clothes, when they are not so fatigued by their r?les that they have had to take a nap.

They were still dancing and singing and eating at the farm-house at Belair at midnight on the third day of the festivities attending Germain's wedding. The old men were seated at the table, unable to leave it, and for good reason. They did not recover their legs and their wits until the next day at dawn. At that time, while they sought their homes, in silence and with uncertain steps, Germain, proud and well-content, went out to yoke his cattle, leaving his young wife to sleep until sunrise. The lark, singing as he flew upward to the sky, seemed to him to be the voice of his heart, giving thanks to Providence. The hoar-frost, glistening on the bare bushes, seemed to him the white April blossoms that precede the appearance of the leaves. All nature was serene and smiling in his eyes. Little Pierre had laughed and jumped about so much the day before, that he did not come to help him to drive his oxen; but Germain was content to be alone. He fell on his knees in the furrow through which he was about to run his plough once more, and repeated the morning prayer with such emotion that the tears rolled down his cheeks, still moist with perspiration.

In the distance could be heard the songs of the youths from the adjoining parishes, just starting for home, and repeating, in voices somewhat the worse for wear, the merry refrains of the preceding night.

* * *

NOTES

[1]

By the sweat of thy brow

Thou wilt earn thy poor livelihood;

After long travail and service,

Lo! Death comes and calls thee.

[2]

The name applied to the road which turns aside from the main street at the entrance to a village and runs along its outskirts. It is supposed that people who fear that they may receive some merited affront will take that road to avoid being seen.-Author's Note.

[3]

Open the door, yes, open,

Marie, my darling,

I have beautiful gifts to offer you.

Alas! my dear, pray let us in.

[4]

My father grieves, my mother's deathly sad,

And I am too pitiful a daughter

To open my door at such an hour.

[5]

I have a fine handkerchief to offer you.

[6]

Open the door, yes, open,

Marie, my darling,

'Tis a handsome husband who comes to seek you.

Come, my dear, and let us let them in.

[7]

Man of straw-from paille (straw).

* * *

List of Illustrations

THE DEVIL'S POOL

LITTLE MARIE TENDING HER SHEEP

PIERRE'S STRATAGEM

PIERRE'S EVENING PRAYER

THE FARMER BROUGHT TO ACCOUNT

GERMAIN REPEATS HIS MATIN PRAYER

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