MoboReader > Romance > A Woodland Queen ('Reine des Bois') — Complete

   Chapter 4 THE DAWN OF LOVE

A Woodland Queen ('Reine des Bois') — Complete By André Theuriet Characters: 37758

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:03

Winter had come, and with it all the inclement accompaniments usual in this bleak and bitter mountainous country: icy rains, which, mingled with sleet, washed away whirlpools of withered leaves that the swollen streams tossed noisily into the ravines; sharp, cutting winds from the north, bleak frosts hardening the earth and vitrifying the cascades; abundant falls of snow, lasting sometimes an entire week. The roads had become impassable. A thick, white crust covered alike the pasture-lands, the stony levels, and the wooded slopes, where the branches creaked under the weight of their snowy burdens. A profound silence encircled the village, which seemed buried under the successive layers of snowdrifts. Only here and there, occasionally, did a thin line of blue smoke, rising from one of the white roofs, give evidence of any latent life among the inhabitants. The Chateau de Buxieres stood in the midst of a vast carpet of snow on which the sabots of the villagers had outlined a narrow path, leading from the outer steps to the iron gate. Inside, fires blazed on all the hearths, which, however, did not modify the frigid atmosphere of the rudely-built upper rooms.

Julien de Buxieres was freezing, both physically and morally, in his abode. His generous conduct toward Claudet had, in truth, gained him the affection of the 'grand chasserot', made Manette as gentle as a lamb, and caused a revulsion of feeling in his favor throughout the village; but, although his material surroundings had become more congenial, he still felt around him the chill of intellectual solitude. The days also seemed longer since Claudet had taken upon himself the management of all details. Julien found that re-reading his favorite books was not sufficient occupation for the weary hours that dragged slowly along between the rising and the setting of the sun. The gossipings of Manette, the hunting stories of Claudet had no interest for young de Buxieres, and the acquaintances he endeavored to make outside left only a depressing feeling of ennui and disenchantment.

His first visit had been made to the cure of Vivey, where he hoped to meet with some intellectual resources, and a tone of conversation more in harmony with his tastes. In this expectation, also, he had been disappointed. The Abbe Pernot was an amiable quinquagenarian, and a 'bon vivant', whose mind inclined more naturally toward the duties of daily life than toward meditation or contemplative studies. The ideal did not worry him in the least; and when he had said his mass, read his breviary, confessed the devout sinners and visited the sick, he gave the rest of his time to profane but respectable amusements. He was of robust temperament, with a tendency to corpulency, which he fought against by taking considerable exercise; his face was round and good-natured, his calm gray eyes reflected the tranquillity and uprightness of his soul, and his genial nature was shown in his full smiling mouth, his thick, wavy, gray hair, and his quick and cordial gestures.

When Julien was ushered into the presbytery, he found the cure installed in a small room, which he used for working in, and which was littered up with articles bearing a very distant connection to his pious calling: nets for catching larks, hoops and other nets for fishing, stuffed birds, and a collection of coleopterx. At the other end of the room stood a dusty bookcase, containing about a hundred volumes, which seemed to have been seldom consulted. The Abbe, sitting on a low chair in the chimney-corner, his cassock raised to his knees, was busy melting glue in an old earthen pot.

"Aha, good-day! Monsieur de Buxieres," said he in his rich, jovial voice, "you have caught me in an occupation not very canonical; but what of it? As Saint James says: 'The bow can not be always bent.' I am preparing some lime-twigs, which I shall place in the Bois des Ronces as soon as the snow is melted. I am not only a fisher of souls, but I endeavor also to catch birds in my net, not so much for the purpose of varying my diet, as of enriching my collection!"

"You have a great deal of spare time on your hands, then?" inquired Julien, with some surprise.

"Well, yes-yes-quite a good deal. The parish is not very extensive, as you have doubtless noticed; my parishioners are in the best possible health, thank God! and they live to be very old. I have barely two or three marriages in a year, and as many burials, so that, you see, one must fill up one's time somehow to escape the sin of idleness. Every man must have a hobby. Mine is ornithology; and yours, Monsieur de Buxieres?"

Julien was tempted to reply: "Mine, for the moment, is ennui." He was just in the mood to unburden himself to the cure as to the mental thirst that was drying up his faculties, but a certain instinct warned him that the Abbe was not a man to comprehend the subtle complexities of his psychological condition, so he contented himself with replying, briefly:

"I read a great deal. I have, over there in the chateau, a pretty fair collection of historical and religious works, and they are at your service, Monsieur le Cure!"

"A thousand thanks," replied the Abbe Pernot, making a slight grimace; "I am not much of a reader, and my little stock is sufficient for my needs. You remember what is said in the Imitation: 'Si scires totam Bibliam exterius et omnium philosophorum dicta, quid totum prodesset sine caritate Dei et gratia?' Besides, it gives me a headache to read too steadily. I require exercise in the open air. Do you hunt or fish, Monsieur de Buxieres?"

"Neither the one nor the other."

"So much the worse for you. You will find the time hang very heavily on your hands in this country, where there are so few sources of amusement. But never fear! You can not be always reading, and when the fine weather comes you will yield to the temptation; all the more likely because you have Claudet Sejournant with you. A jolly fellow he is; there is not one like him for killing a snipe or sticking a trout! Our trout here on the Aubette, Monsieur de Buxieres, are excellent-of the salmon kind, and very meaty."

Then came an interval of silence. The Abbe began to suspect that this conversation was not one of profound interest to his visitor, and he resumed:

"Speaking of Claudet, Monsieur, allow me to offer you my congratulations. You have acted in a most Christian-like and equitable manner, in making amends for the inconceivable negligence of the deceased Claude de Buxieres. Then, on the other hand, Claudet deserves what you have done for him. He is a good fellow, a little too quick-tempered and violent perhaps, but he has a heart of gold. Ah! it would have been no use for the deceased to deny it-the blood of de Buxieres runs in his veins!"

"If public rumor is to be believed," said Julien timidly, rising to go, "my deceased cousin Claude was very much addicted to profane pleasures."

"Yes, yes, indeed!" sighed the Abbe, "he was a devil incarnate-but what a magnificent man! What a wonderful huntsman! Notwithstanding his backslidings, there was a great deal of good in him, and I am fain to believe that God has taken him under His protecting mercy."

Julien took his leave, and returned to the chateau, very much discouraged. "This priest," thought he to himself, "is a man of expediency. He allows himself certain indulgences which are to be regretted, and his mind is becoming clogged by continual association with carnal-minded men. His thoughts are too much given to earthly things, and I have no more faith in him than in the rest of them."

So he shut himself up again in his solitude, with one more illusion destroyed. He asked himself, and his heart became heavy at the thought, whether, in course of time, he also would undergo this stultification, this moral depression, which ends by lowering us to the level of the low-minded people among whom we live.

Among all the persons he had met since his arrival at Vivey, only one had impressed him as being sympathetic and attractive: Reine Vincart-and even her energy was directed toward matters that Julien looked upon as secondary. And besides, Reine was a woman, and he was afraid of women. He believed with Ecclesiastes the preacher, that "they are more bitter than death... and whoso pleaseth God shall escape from them." He had therefore no other refuge but in his books or his own sullen reflections, and, consequently, his old enemy, hypochondria, again made him its prey.

Toward the beginning of January, the snow in the valley had somewhat melted, and a light frost made access to the woods possible. As the hunting season seldom extended beyond the first days of February, the huntsmen were all eager to take advantage of the few remaining weeks to enjoy their favorite pastime. Every day the forest resounded with the shouts of beaters-up and the barking of the hounds. From Auberive, Praslay and Grancey, rendezvous were made in the woods of Charbonniere or Maigrefontaine; nothing was thought of but the exploits of certain marksmen, the number of pieces bagged, and the joyous outdoor breakfasts which preceded each occasion. One evening, as Julien, more moody than usual, stood yawning wearily and leaning on the corner of the stove, Claudet noticed him, and was touched with pity for this young fellow, who had so little idea how to employ his time, his youth, or his money. He felt impelled, as a conscientious duty, to draw him out of his unwholesome state of mind, and initiate him into the pleasures of country life.

"You do not enjoy yourself with us, Monsieur Julien," said he, kindly; "I can't bear to see you so downhearted. You are ruining yourself with poring all day long over your books, and the worst of it is, they do not take the frowns out of your face. Take my word for it, you must change your way of living, or you will be ill. Come, now, if you will trust in me, I will undertake to cure your ennui before a week is over."

"And what is your remedy, Claudet?" demanded Julien, with a forced smile.

"A very simple one: just let your books go, since they do not succeed in interesting you, and live the life that every one else leads. The de Buxieres, your ancestors, followed the same plan, and had no fault to find with it. You are in a wolf country-well, you must howl with the wolves!"

"My dear fellow," replied Julien, shaking his head, "one can not remake one's self. The wolves themselves would discover that I howled out of tune, and would send me back to my books."

"Nonsense! try, at any rate. You can not imagine what pleasure there is in coursing through the woods, and suddenly, at a sharp turn, catching sight of a deer in the distance, then galloping to the spot where he must pass, and holding him with the end of your gun! You have no idea what an appetite one gets with such exercise, nor how jolly it is to breakfast afterward, all together, seated round some favorite old beech-tree. Enjoy your youth while you have it. Time enough to stay in your chimney-corner and spit in the ashes when rheumatism has got hold of you. Perhaps you will say you never have followed the hounds, and do not know how to handle a gun?"

"That is the exact truth."

"Possibly, but appetite comes with eating, and when once you have tasted of the pleasures of the chase, you will want to imitate your companions. Now, see here: we have organized a party at Charbonniere to-morrow, for the gentlemen of Auberive; there will be some people you know-Destourbet, justice of the Peace, the clerk Seurrot, Maitre Arbillot and the tax-collector, Boucheseiche. Hutinet went over the ground yesterday, and has appointed the meeting for ten o'clock at the Belle-Etoile. Come with us; there will be good eating and merriment, and also some fine shooting, I pledge you my word!"

Julien refused at first, but Claudet insisted, and showed him the necessity of getting more intimately acquainted with the notables of Auberive-people with whom he would be continually coming in contact as representing the administration of justice and various affairs in the canton. He urged so well that young de Buxieres ended by giving his consent. Manette received immediate instructions to prepare eatables for Hutinet, the keeper, to take at early dawn to the Belle-Etoile, and it was decided that the company should start at precisely eight o'clock.

The next morning, at the hour indicated, the 'grand chasserot' was already in the courtyard with his two hounds, Charbonneau and Montagnard, who were leaping and barking sonorously around him. Julien, reminded of his promise by the unusual early uproar, dressed himself with a bad grace, and went down to join Claudet, who was bristling with impatience. They started. There had been a sharp frost during the night; some hail had fallen, and the roads were thinly coated with a white dust, called by the country people, in their picturesque language, "a sugarfrost" of snow. A thick fog hung over the forest, so that they had to guess their way; but Claudet knew every turn and every sidepath, and thus he and his companion arrived by the most direct line at the rendezvous. They soon began to hear the barking of the dogs, to which Montagnard and Charbonneau replied with emulative alacrity, and finally, through the mist, they distinguished the group of huntsmen from Auberive.

The Belle-Etoile was a circular spot, surrounded by ancient ash-trees, and formed the central point for six diverging alleys which stretched out indefinitely into the forest. The monks of Auberive, at the epoch when they were the lords and owners of the land, had made this place a rendezvous for huntsmen, and had provided a table and some stone benches, which, thirty years ago, were still in existence. The enclosure, which had been chosen for the breakfast on the present occasion, was irradiated by a huge log-fire; a very respectable display of bottles, bread, and various eatables covered the stone table, and the dogs, attached by couples to posts, pulled at their leashes and barked in chorus, while their masters, grouped around the fire, warmed their benumbed fingers over the flames, and tapped their heels while waiting for the last-comers.

At sight of Julien and Claudet, there was a joyous hurrah of welcome. Justice Destourbet exchanged a ceremonious hand-shake with the new proprietor of the chateau. The scant costume and tight gaiters of the huntsman's attire, displayed more than ever the height and slimness of the country magistrate. By his side, the registrar Seurrot, his legs encased in blue linen spatterdashes, his back bent, his hands crossed comfortably over his "corporation," sat roasting himself at the flame, while grumbling when the wind blew the smoke in his eyes. Arbillot, the notary, as agile and restless as a lizard, kept going from one to the other with an air of mysterious importance. He came up to Claudet, drew him aside, and showed him a little figure in a case.

"Look here!" whispered he, "we shall have some fun; as I passed by the Abbe Pernot's this morning, I stole one of his stuffed squirrels."

He stooped down, and with an air of great mystery poured into his ear the rest of the communication, at the close of which his small black eyes twinkled maliciously, and he passed the end of his tongue over his frozen moustache.

"Come with me," continued he; "it will be a good joke on the collector."

He drew Claudet and Hutinet toward one of the trenches, where the fog hid them from sight.

During this colloquy, Boucheseiche the collector, against whom they were thus plotting, had seized upon Julien de Buxieres, and was putting him through a course of hunting lore. Justin Boucheseiche was a man of remarkable ugliness; big, bony, freckled, with red hair, hairy hands, and a loud, rough voice.

He wore a perfectly new hunting costume, cap and gaiters of leather, a havana-colored waistcoat, and had a complete assortment of pockets of all sizes for the cartridges. He pretended to be a great authority on all matters relating to the chase, although he was, in fact, the worst shot in the whole canton; and when he had the good luck to meet with a newcomer, he launched forth on the recital of his imaginary prowess, without any pity for the hearer. So that, having once got hold of Julien, he kept by his side when they sat down to breakfast.

All these country huntsmen were blessed with healthy appetites. They ate heartily, and drank in the same fashion, especially the collector Boucheseiche, who justified his name by pouring out numerous bumpers of white wine. During the first quarter of an hour nothing could be heard but the noise of jaws masticating, glasses and forks clinking; but when the savory pastries, the cold game and the hams had disappeared, and had been replaced by goblets of hot Burgundy and boiling coffee, then tongues became loosened. Julien, to his infinite disgust, was forced again to be present at a conversation similar to the one at the time of the raising of the seals, the coarseness of which had so astonished and shocked him. After the anecdotes of the chase were exhausted, the guests began to relate their experiences among the fair sex, losing nothing of the point from the effect of the numerous empty bottles around. All the scandalous cases in the courts of justice, all the coarse jokes and adventures of the district, were related over again. Each tried to surpass his neighbor. To hear these men of position boast of their gallantries with all classes, one would have thought that the entire canton underwent periodical changes and became one vast Saturnalia, where rustic satyrs courted their favorite nymphs. But nothing came of it, after all; once the feast was digested, and they had returned to the conjugal abode, all these terrible gay Lotharios became once more chaste and worthy fathers of families. Nevertheless, Julien, who was unaccustomed to such bibulous festivals and such unbridled license of language, took it all literally, and reproached himself more than ever with having yielded to Claudet's entreaties.

At last the table was deserted, and the marking of the limits of the hunt began.

As they were following the course of the trenches, the notary stopped suddenly at the foot of an ash-tree, and took the arm of the collector, who was gently humming out of tune.

"Hush! Collector," he whispered, "do you see that fellow up there, on the fork of the tree? He seems to be jeering at us."

At the same time he pointed out a squirrel, sitting perched upon a branch, about halfway up the tree. The animal's tail stood up behind like a plume, his ears were upright, and he had his front paws in his mouth, as if cracking a nut.

"A squirrel!" cried the impetuous Boucheseiche, immediately falling into the snare; "let no one

touch him, gentlemen-I will settle his account for him."

The rest of the hunters had drawn back in a circle, and were exchanging sly glances. The collector loaded his gun, shouldered it, covered the squirrel, and then let go.

"Hit!" exclaimed he, triumphantly, as soon as the smoke had dispersed.

In fact, the animal had slid down the branch, head first, but, somehow, he did not fall to the ground.

"He has caught hold of something," said the notary, facetiously.

"Ah! you will hold on, you rascal, will you?" shouted Boucheseiche, beside himself with excitement, and the next moment he sent a second shot, which sent the hair flying in all directions.

The creature remained in the same position. Then there was a general roar.

"He is quite obstinate!" remarked the clerk, slyly.

Boucheseiche, astonished, looked attentively at the tree, then at the laughing crowd, and could not understand the situation.

"If I were in your place, Collector," said Claudet, in an insinuating manner, "I should climb up there, to see-"

But Justin Boucheseiche was not a climber. He called a youngster, who followed the hunt as beater-up.

"I will give you ten sous," said he; "to mount that tree and bring me my squirrel!"

The young imp did not need to be told twice. In the twinkling of an eye he threw his arms around the tree, and reached the fork. When there, he uttered an exclamation.

"Well?" cried the collector; impatiently, "throw him down!"

"I can't, Monsieur," replied the boy, "the squirrel is fastened by a wire." Then the laughter burst forth more boisterously than before.

"A wire, you young rascal! Are you making fun of me?" shouted Boucheseiche, "come down this moment!"

"Here he is, Monsieur," replied the lad, throwing himself down with the squirrel which he tossed at the collector's feet.

When Boucheseiche verified the fact that the squirrel was a stuffed specimen, he gave a resounding oath.

"In the name of--! who is the miscreant that has perpetrated this joke?"

No one could reply for laughing. Then ironical cheers burst forth from all sides.

"Brave Boucheseiche! That's a kind of game one doesn't often get hold of!"

"We never shall see any more of that kind!"

"Let us carry Boucheseiche in triumph!"

And so they went on, marching around the tree. Arbillot seized a slip of ivy and crowned Boucheseiche, while all the others clapped their hands and capered in front of the collector, who, at last, being a good fellow at heart, joined in the laugh at his own expense.

Julien de Buxieres alone could not share the general hilarity. The uproar caused by this simple joke did not even chase the frown from his brow. He was provoked at not being able to bring himself within the diapason of this somewhat vulgar gayety: he was aware that his melancholy countenance, his black clothes, his want of sympathy jarred unpleasantly on the other jovial guests. He did not intend any longer to play the part of a killjoy. Without saying anything to Claudet, therefore, he waited until the huntsmen had scattered in the brushwood, and then, diving into a trench, in an opposite direction, he gave them all the slip, and turned in the direction of Planche-au-Vacher.

As he walked slowly, treading under foot the dry frosty leaves, he reflected how the monotonous crackling of this foliage, once so full of life, now withered and rendered brittle by the frost, seemed to represent his own deterioration of feeling. It was a sad and suitable accompaniment of his own gloomy thoughts.

He was deeply mortified at the sorry figure he had presented at the breakfast-table. He acknowledged sorrowfully to himself that, at twenty-eight years of age, he was less young and less really alive than all these country squires, although all, except Claudet, had passed their fortieth year. Having missed his season of childhood, was he also doomed to have no youth? Others found delight in the most ordinary amusements, why, to him, did life seem so insipid and colorless?

Why was he so unfortunately constituted that all human joys lost their sweetness as soon as he opened his heart to them? Nothing made any powerful impression on him; everything that happened seemed to be a perpetual reiteration, a song sung for the hundredth time, a story a hundred times related.

He was like a new vase, cracked before it had served its use, and he felt thoroughly ashamed of the weakness and infirmity of his inner self. Thus pondering, he traversed much ground, hardly knowing where he was going. The fog, which now filled the air and which almost hid the trenches with its thin bluish veil, made it impossible to discover his bearings. At last he reached the border of some pastureland, which he crossed, and then he perceived, not many steps away, some buildings with tiled roofs, which had something familiar to him in their aspect. After he had gone a few feet farther he recognized the court and facade of La Thuiliere; and, as he looked over the outer wall, a sight altogether novel and unexpected presented itself.

Standing in the centre of the courtyard, her outline showing in dark relief against the light "sugar-frosting," stood Reine Vincart, her back turned to Julien. She held up a corner of her apron with one hand, and with the other took out handfuls of grain, which she scattered among the birds fluttering around her. At each moment the little band was augmented by a new arrival. All these little creatures were of species which do not emigrate, but pass the winter in the shelter of the wooded dells. There were blackbirds with yellow bills, who advanced boldly over the snow up to the very feet of the distributing fairy; robin redbreasts, nearly as tame, hopping gayly over the stones, bobbing their heads and puffing out their red breasts; and tomtits, prudently watching awhile from the tops of neighboring trees, then suddenly taking flight, and with quick, sharp cries, seizing the grain on the wing. It was charming to see all these little hungry creatures career around Reine's head, with a joyous fluttering of wings. When the supply was exhausted, the young girl shook her apron, turned around, and recognized Julien.

"Were you there, Monsieur de Buxieres?" she exclaimed; "come inside the courtyard! Don't be afraid; they have finished their meal. Those are my boarders," she added, pointing to the birds, which, one by one, were taking their flight across the fields. "Ever since the first fall of snow, I have been distributing grain to them once a day. I think they must tell one another under the trees there, for every day their number increases. But I don't complain of that. Just think, these are not birds of passage; they do not leave us at the first cold blast, to find a warmer climate; the least we can do is to recompense them by feeding them when the weather is too severe! Several know me already, and are very tame. There is a blackbird in particular, and a blue tomtit, that are both extremely saucy!"

These remarks were of a nature to please Julien. They went straight to the heart of the young mystic; they recalled to his mind St. Francis of Assisi, preaching to the fish and conversing with the birds, and he felt an increase of sympathy for this singular young girl. He would have liked to find a pretext for remaining longer with her, but his natural timidity in the presence of women paralyzed his tongue, and, already, fearing he should be thought intruding, he had raised his hat to take leave, when Reine addressed him:

"I do not ask you to come into the house, because I am obliged to go to the sale of the Ronces woods, in order to speak to the men who are cultivating the little lot that we have bought. I wager, Monsieur de Buxieres, that you are not yet acquainted with our woods?"

"That is true," he replied, smiling.

"Very well, if you will accompany me, I will show you the canton they are about to develop. It will not be time lost, for it will be a good thing for the people who are working for you to know that you are interested in their labors."

Julien replied that he should be happy to be under her guidance.

"In that case," said Reine, "wait for me here. I shall be back in a moment."

She reappeared a few minutes later, wearing a white hood with a cape, and a knitted woolen shawl over her shoulders.

"This way!" said she, showing a path that led across the pasture-lands.

They walked along silently at first. The sky was clear, the wind had freshened. Suddenly, as if by enchantment, the fog, which had hung over the forest, became converted into needles of ice. Each tree was powdered over with frozen snow, and on the hillsides overshadowing the valley the massive tufts of forest were veiled in a bluish-white vapor.

Never had Julien de Buxieres been so long in tete-a-tete with a young woman. The extreme solitude, the surrounding silence, rendered this dual promenade more intimate and also more embarrassing to a young man who was alarmed at the very thought of a female countenance. His ecclesiastical education had imbued Julien with very rigorous ideas as to the careful and reserved behavior which should be maintained between the sexes, and his intercourse with the world had been too infrequent for the idea to have been modified in any appreciable degree. It was natural, therefore, that this walk across the fields in the company of Reine should assume an exaggerated importance in his eyes. He felt himself troubled and yet happy in the chance afforded him to become more closely acquainted with this young girl, toward whom a secret sympathy drew him more and more. But he did not know how to begin conversation, and the more he cudgelled his brains to find a way of opening the attack, the more he found himself at sea. Once more Reine came to his assistance.

"Well, Monsieur de Buxieres," said she, "do matters go more to your liking now? You have acted most generously toward Claudet, and he ought to be pleased."

"Has he spoken to you, then?"

"No; not himself, but good news, like bad, flies fast, and all the villagers are singing your praises."

"I only did a very simple and just thing," replied Julien.

"Precisely, but those are the very things that are the hardest to do. And according as they are done well or ill, so is the person that does them judged by others."

"You have thought favorably of me then, Mademoiselle Vincart," he ventured, with a timid smile.

"Yes; but my opinion is of little importance. You must be pleased with yourself-that is more essential. I am sure that it must be pleasanter now for you to live at Vivey?"

"Hm!-more bearable, certainly."

The conversation languished again. As they approached the confines of the farm they heard distant barking, and then the voices of human beings. Finally two gunshots broke on the air.

"Ha, ha!" exclaimed Reine, listening, "the Auberive Society is following the hounds, and Claudet must be one of the party. How is it you were not with them?"

"Claudet took me there, and I was at the breakfast-but, Mademoiselle, I confess that that kind of amusement is not very tempting to me. At the first opportunity I made my escape, and left the party to themselves."

"Well, now, to be frank with you, you were wrong. Those gentlemen will feel aggrieved, for they are very sensitive. You see, when one has to live with people, one must yield to their customs, and not pooh-pooh their amusements."

"You are saying exactly what Claudet said last night."

"Claudet was right."

"What am I to do? The chase has no meaning for me. I can not feel any interest in the butchery of miserable animals that are afterward sent back to their quarters."

"I can understand that you do not care for the chase for its own sake; but the ride in the open air, in the open forest? Our forests are so beautiful-look there, now! does not that sight appeal to you?"

From the height they had now gained, they could see all over the valley, illuminated at intervals by the pale rays of the winter sun. Wherever its light touched the brushwood, the frosty leaves quivered like diamonds, while a milky cloud enveloped the parts left in shadow. Now and then, a slight breeze stirred the branches, causing a shower of sparkling atoms to rise in the air, like miniature rainbows. The entire forest seemed clothed in the pure, fairy-like robes of a virgin bride.

"Yes, that is beautiful," admitted Julien, hesitatingly; "I do not think I ever saw anything similar: at any rate, it is you who have caused me to notice it for the first time. But," continued he, "as the sun rises higher, all this phantasmagoria will melt and vanish. The beauty of created things lasts only a moment, and serves as a warning for us not to set our hearts on things that perish."

Reine gazed at him with astonishment.

"Do you really think so?" exclaimed she: "that is very sad, and I do not know enough to give an opinion. All I know is, that if God has created such beautiful things it is in order that we may enjoy them. And that is the reason why I worship these woods with all my heart. Ah! if you could only see them in the month of June, when the foliage is at its fulness. Flowers everywhere-yellow, blue, crimson! Music also everywhere-the song of birds, the murmuring of waters, and the balmy scents in the air. Then there are the lime-trees, the wild cherry, and the hedges red with strawberries-it is intoxicating. And, whatever you may say, Monsieur de Buxieres, I assure you that the beauty of the forest is not a thing to be despised. Every season it is renewed: in autumn, when the wild fruits and tinted leaves contribute their wealth of color; in winter, with its vast carpets of snow, from which the tall ash springs to such a stately height-look, now! up there!"

They were in the depths of the forest. Before them were colonnades of slim, graceful trees, rising in one unbroken line toward the skies, their slender branches forming a dark network overhead, and their lofty proportions lessening in the distance, until lost in the solemn gloom beyond. A religious silence prevailed, broken only by the occasional chirp of the wren, or the soft pattering of some smaller fourfooted race.

"How beautiful!" exclaimed Reine, with animation; "one might imagine one's self in a cathedral! Oh! how I love the forest; a feeling of awe and devotion comes over me, and makes me want to kneel down and pray!"

Julien looked at her with an uneasy kind of admiration. She was walking slowly now, grave and thoughtful, as if in church. Her white hood had fallen on her shoulders, and her hair, slightly stirred by the wind, floated like a dark aureole around her pale face. Her luminous eyes gleamed between the double fringes of her eyelids, and her mobile nostrils quivered with suppressed emotion. As she passed along, the brambles from the wayside, intermixed with ivy, and other hardy plants, caught on the hem of her dress and formed a verdant train, giving her the appearance of the high-priestess of some mysterious temple of Nature. At this moment, she identified herself so perfectly with her nickname, "queen of the woods," that Julien, already powerfully affected by her peculiar and striking style of beauty, began to experience a superstitious dread of her influence. His Catholic scruples, or the remembrance of certain pious lectures administered in his childhood, rendered him distrustful, and he reproached himself for the interest he took in the conversation of this seductive creature. He recalled the legends of temptations to which the Evil One used to subject the anchorites of old, by causing to appear before them the attractive but illusive forms of the heathen deities. He wondered whether he were not becoming the sport of the same baleful influence; if, like the Lamias and Dryads of antiquity, this queen of the woods were not some spirit of the elements, incarnated in human form and sent to him for the purpose of dragging his soul down to perdition.

In this frame of mind he followed in her footsteps, cautiously, and at a distance, when she suddenly turned, as if waiting for him to rejoin her. He then perceived that they had reached the end of the copse, and before them lay an open space, on which the cut lumber lay in cords, forming dark heaps on the frosty ground. Here and there were allotments of chosen trees and poles, among which a thin spiral of smoke indicated the encampment of the cutters. Reine made straight for them, and immediately presented the new owner of the chateau to the workmen. They made their awkward obeisances, scrutinizing him in the mistrustful manner customary with the peasants of mountainous regions when they meet strangers. The master workman then turned to Reine, replying to her remarks in a respectful but familiar tone:

"Make yourself easy, mamselle, we shall do our best and rush things in order to get through with the work. Besides, if you will come this way with me, you will see that there is no idling; we are just now going to fell an oak, and before a quarter of an hour is over it will be lying on the ground, cut off as neatly as if with a razor."

They drew near the spot where the first strokes of the axe were already resounding. The giant tree did not seem affected by them, but remained haughty and immovable. Then the blows redoubled until the trunk began to tremble from the base to the summit, like a living thing. The steel had made the bark, the sapwood, and even the core of the tree, fly in shivers; but the oak had resumed its impassive attitude, and bore stoically the assaults of the workmen. Looking upward, as it reared its proud and stately head, one would have affirmed that it never could fall. Suddenly the woodsmen fell back; there was a moment of solemn and terrible suspense; then the enormous trunk heaved and plunged down among the brushwood with an alarming crash of breaking branches. A sound as of lamentation rumbled through the icy forest, and then all was still.

The men, with unconscious emotion, stood contemplating the monarch oak lying prostrate on the ground. Reine had turned pale; her dark eyes glistened with tears.

"Let us go," murmured she to Julien; "this death of a tree affects me as if it were that of a Christian."

They took leave of the woodsmen, and reentered the forest. Reine kept silence and her companion was at a loss to resume the conversation; so they journeyed along together quietly until they reached a border line, whence they could perceive the smoke from the roofs of Vivey.

"You have only to go straight down the hill to reach your home," said she, briefly; "au revoir, Monsieur de Buxieres."

Thus they quitted each other, and, looking back, he saw that she slackened her speed and went dreamily on in the direction of Planche-au-Vacher.

Free to Download MoboReader
(← Keyboard shortcut) Previous Contents (Keyboard shortcut →)
 Novels To Read Online Free

Scan the QR code to download MoboReader app.

Back to Top