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In some places the ground is covered with fallen
wood, forming a kind of uneven flooring over which it is impossible to
walk, unless one balance one's self with marvellous dexterity. Troops of
children amuse themselves with this exercise all day long. You will see
them jumping over the big beams, walking in Indian file along the narrow
ends, or else crawling astride them; various games which generally
terminate in blows and bellowings. Sometimes, too, a dozen of them will
sit, closely packed one against the other, on the thin end of a pole
raised a few feet from the ground, and will see-saw there for hours
together. The Aire Saint-Mittre thus serves as a recreation ground,
where for more than a quarter of a century all the little suburban
ragamuffins have been in the habit of wearing out the seats of their
breeches.

The strangeness of the place is increased by the circumstance that
wandering gipsies, by a sort of traditional custom always select the
vacant portions of it for their encampments. Whenever any caravan
arrives at Plassans it takes up its quarters on the Aire Saint-Mittre.
The place is consequently never empty. There is always some strange band
there, some troop of wild men and withered women, among whom groups of
healthy-looking children roll about on the grass. These people live
in the open air, regardless of everybody, setting their pots boiling,
eating nameless things, freely displaying their tattered garments, and
sleeping, fighting, kissing, and reeking with mingled filth and misery.

The field, formerly so still and deserted, save for the buzzing of
hornets around the rich blossoms in the heavy sunshine, has thus become
a very rowdy spot, resounding with the noisy quarrels of the gipsies and
the shrill cries of the urchins of the suburb. In one corner there is a
primitive saw-mill for cutting the timber, the noise from which serves
as a dull, continuous bass accompaniment to the sharp voices. The wood
is placed on two high tressels, and a couple of sawyers, one of whom
stands aloft on the timber itself, while the other underneath is half
blinded by the falling sawdust, work a large saw to and fro for
hours together, with rigid machine-like regularity, as if they were
wire-pulled puppets. The wood they saw is stacked, plank by plank, along
the wall at the end, in carefully arranged piles six or eight feet high,
which often remain there several seasons, and constitute one of the
charms of the Aire Saint-Mittre. Between these stacks are mysterious,
retired little alleys leading to a broader path between the timber and
the wall, a deserted strip of verdure whence only small patches of
sky can be seen. The vigorous vegetation and the quivering, deathlike
stillness of the old cemetery still reign in this path. In all the
country round Plassans there is no spot more instinct with languor,
solitude, and love. It is a most delightful place for love-making. When
the cemetery was being cleared the bones must have been heaped up in
this corner; for even to-day it frequently happens that one's foot comes
across some fragment of a skull lying concealed in the damp turf.

Nobody, however, now thinks of the bodies that once slept under that
turf. In the daytime only the children go behind the piles of wood when
playing at hide and seek. The green path remains virginal, unknown to
others who see nought but the wood-yard crowded with timber and grey
with dust. In the morning and afternoon, when the sun is warm, the whole
place swarms with life. Above all the turmoil, above the ragamuffins
playing among the timber, and the gipsies kindling fires under their
cauldrons, the sharp silhouette of the sawyer mounted on his beam stands
out against the sky, moving to and fro with the precision of clockwork,
as if to regulate the busy activity that has sprung up in this spot
once set apart for eternal slumber. Only the old people who sit on the
planks, basking in the setting sun, speak occasionally among themselves
of the bones which they once saw carted through the streets of Plassans
by the legendary tumbrel.

When night falls the Aire Saint-Mittre loses its animation, and looks
like some great black hole. At the far end one may just espy the dying
embers of the gipsies' fires, and at times shadows slink noiselessly
into the dense darkness. The place becomes quite sinister, particularly
in winter time.

One Sunday evening, at about seven o'clock, a young man stepped lightly
from the Impasse Saint-Mittre, and, closely skirting the walls, took
his way among the timber in the wood-yard. It was in the early part of
December, 1851. The weather was dry and cold. The full moon shone with
that sharp brilliancy peculiar to winter moons. The wood-yard did not
have the forbidding appearance which it wears on rainy nights; illumined
by stretches of white light, and wrapped in deep and chilly silence, it
spread around with a soft, melancholy aspect.

For a few seconds the young man paused on the edge of the yard and gazed
mistrustfully in front of him. He carried a long gun, the butt-end of
which was hidden under his jacket, while the barrel, pointed towards the
ground, glittered in the moonlight. Pressing the weapon to his side, he
attentively examined the square shadows cast by the piles of timber. The
ground looked like a chess-board, with black and white squares clearly
defined by alternate patches of light and shade. The sawyers' tressels
in the centre of the plot threw long, narrow fantastic shadows,
suggesting some huge geometrical figure, upon a strip of bare grey
ground. The rest of the yard, the flooring of beams, formed a great
couch on which the light reposed, streaked here and there with the
slender black shadows which edged the different pieces of timber. In the
frigid silence under the wintry moon, the motionless, recumbent poles,
stiffened, as it were, with sleep and cold, recalled the corpses of
the old cemetery. The young man cast but a rapid glance round the empty
space; there was not a creature, not a sound, no danger of being seen or
heard. The black patches at the further end caused him more anxiety, but
after a brief examination he plucked up courage and hurriedly crossed
the wood-yard.

As soon as he felt himself under cover he slackened his pace. He was now
in the green pathway skirting the wall behind the piles of planks. Here
his very footsteps became inaudible; the frozen grass scarcely crackled
under his tread. He must have loved the spot, have feared no danger,
sought nothing but what was pleasant there. He no longer concealed
his gun. The path stretched away like a dark trench, except that the
moonrays, gliding ever and anon between the piles of timber, then
streaked the grass with patches of light. All slept, both darkness and
light, with the same deep, soft, sad slumber. No words can describe the
calm peacefulness of the place. The young man went right down the path,
and stopped at the end where the walls of the Jas-Meiffren form an
angle. Here he listened as if to ascertain whether any sound might be
coming from the adjoining estate. At last, hearing nothing, he stooped
down, thrust a plank aside, and hid his gun in a timber-stack.

An old tombstone, which had been overlooked in the clearing of the
burial-ground, lay in the corner, resting on its side and forming a high
and slightly sloping seat. The rain had worn its edges, and moss was
slowly eating into it. Nevertheless, the following fragment of an
inscription, cut on the side which was sinking into the ground, might
still have been distinguished in the moonlight: "_Here lieth . . . Marie
. . . died . . ._" The finger of time had effaced the rest.

When the young man had concealed his gun he again listened attentively,
and still hearing nothing, resolved to climb upon the stone. The wall
being low, he was able to rest his elbows on the coping. He could,
however, perceive nothing except a flood of light beyond the row of
mulberry-trees skirting the wall. The flat ground of the Jas-Meiffren
spread out under the moon like an immense sheet of unbleached linen;
a hundred yards away the farmhouse and its outbuildings formed a still
whiter patch. The young man was still gazing anxiously in that direction
when, suddenly, one of the town clocks slowly and solemnly struck seven.
He counted the strokes, and then jumped down, apparently surprised and
relieved.

He seated himself on the tombstone, like one who is prepared to
wait some considerable time. And for about half an hour he remained
motionless and deep in thought, apparently quite unconscious of the
cold, while his eyes gazed fixedly at a mass of shadow. He had placed
himself in a dark corner, but the beams of the rising moon had gradually
reached him, and at last his head was in the full light.

He was a strong, sturdy-looking lad, with a fine mouth, and soft
delicate skin that bespoke youthfulness. He looked about seventeen years
of age, and was handsome in a characteristic way.

His thin, long face looked like the work of some master sculptor; his
high forehead, overhanging brows, aquiline nose, broad flat chin, and
protruding cheek bones, gave singularly bold relief to his countenance.
Such a face would, with advancing age, become too bony, as fleshless as
that of a knight errant. But at this stage of youth, with chin and cheek
lightly covered with soft down, its latent harshness was attenuated by
the charming softness of certain contours which had remained vague and
childlike. His soft black eyes, still full of youth, also lent delicacy
to his otherwise vigorous countenance. The young fellow would probably
not have fascinated all women, as he was not what one calls a handsome
man; but his features, as a whole, expressed such ardent and sympathetic
life, such enthusiasm and energy, that they doubtless engaged the
thoughts of the girls of his own part--those sunburnt girls of the
South--as he passed their doors on sultry July evenings.

He remained seated upon the tombstone, wrapped in thought, and
apparently quite unconscious of the moonlight which now fell upon
his chest and legs.



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Keywords: tombstone, moonlight, himself, remained, plassans, apparently, cemetery, between, gipsies, skirting
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