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what an unfortunate creature I am! When I was ten years old
people used to throw stones at me. To-day I am treated as the vilest of
creatures. Justin did right to despise me before everybody. We have been
doing wrong, Silvere."

The young man, quite dismayed, clasped her in his arms again, trying
to console her. "I love you," he whispered, "I am your brother. Why
say that we have been doing wrong? We kissed each other because we were
cold. You know very well that we used to kiss each other every evening
before separating."

"Oh! not as we did just now," she whispered. "It must be wrong, for a
strange feeling came over me. The men will laugh at me now as I pass,
and they will be right in doing so. I shall not be able to defend
myself."

The young fellow remained silent, unable to find a word to calm the
agitation of this big child, trembling at her first kiss of love. He
clasped her gently, imagining that he might calm her by his embrace.
She struggled, however, and continued: "If you like, we will go away; we
will leave the province. I can never return to Plassans; my uncle would
beat me; all the townspeople would point their fingers at me--" And
then, as if seized with sudden irritation, she added: "But no! I am
cursed! I forbid you to leave aunt Dide to follow me. You must leave me
on the highway."

"Miette, Miette!" Silvere implored; "don't talk like that."

"Yes. I want to please you. Be reasonable. They have turned me out like
a vagabond. If I went back with you, you would always be fighting for my
sake, and I don't want that."

At this the young man again pressed a kiss upon her lips, murmuring:
"You shall be my wife, and nobody will then dare to hurt you."

"Oh! please, I entreat you!" she said, with a stifled cry; "don't kiss
me so. You hurt me."

Then, after a short silence: "You know quite well that I cannot be your
wife now. We are too young. You would have to wait for me, and meanwhile
I should die of shame. You are wrong in protesting; you will be forced
to leave me in some corner."

At this Silvere, his fortitude exhausted, began to cry. A man's sobs
are fraught with distressing hoarseness. Miette, quite frightened as
she felt the poor fellow shaking in her arms, kissed him on the face,
forgetting she was burning her lips. But it was all her fault. She was
a little simpleton to have let a kiss upset her so completely. She
now clasped her lover to her bosom as if to beg forgiveness for having
pained him. These weeping children, so anxiously clasping one another,
made the dark night yet more woeful than before. In the distance, the
bells continued to complain unceasingly in panting accents.

"It is better to die," repeated Silvere, amidst his sobs; "it is better
to die."

"Don't cry; forgive me," stammered Miette. "I will be brave; I will do
all you wish."

When the young man had dried his tears: "You are right," he said; "we
cannot return to Plassans. But the time for cowardice has not yet come.
If we come out of the struggle triumphant, I will go for aunt Dide, and
we will take her ever so far away with us. If we are beaten----"

He stopped.

"If we are beaten?" repeated Miette, softly.

"Then be it as God wills!" continued Silvere, in a softer voice. "I most
likely shall not be there. You will comfort the poor woman. That would
be better."

"Ah! as you said just now," the young girl murmured, "it would be better
to die."

At this longing for death they tightened their embrace. Miette relied
upon dying with Silvere; he had only spoken of himself, but she felt
that he would gladly take her with him into the earth. They would there
be able to love each other more freely than under the sun. Aunt
Dide would die likewise and join them. It was, so to say, a rapid
presentiment, a desire for some strange voluptuousness, to which
Heaven, by the mournful accents of the tocsin, was promising early
gratification. To die! To die! The bells repeated these words with
increasing passion, and the lovers yielded to the calls of the darkness;
they fancied they experienced a foretaste of the last sleep, in the
drowsiness into which they again sank, whilst their lips met once more.

Miette no longer turned away. It was she, now, who pressed her lips to
Silvere's, who sought with mute ardour for the delight whose stinging
smart she had not at first been able to endure. The thought of
approaching death had excited her; she no longer felt herself blushing,
but hung upon her love, while he in faltering voice repeated: "I love
you! I love you!"

But at this Miette shook her head, as if to say it was not true. With
her free and ardent nature she had a secret instinct of the meaning and
purposes of life, and though she was right willing to die she would fain
have known life first. At last, growing calmer, she gently rested her
head on the young man's shoulder, without uttering a word. Silvere
kissed her again. She tasted those kisses slowly, seeking their meaning,
their hidden sweetness. As she felt them course through her veins,
she interrogated them, asking if they were all love, all passion. But
languor at last overcame her, and she fell into gentle slumber. Silvere
had enveloped her in her pelisse, drawing the skirt around himself at
the same time. They no longer felt cold. The young man rejoiced to find,
from the regularity of her breathing, that the girl was now asleep;
this repose would enable them to proceed on their way with spirit. He
resolved to let her slumber for an hour. The sky was still black, and
the approach of day was but faintly indicated by a whitish line in the
east. Behind the lovers there must have been a pine wood whose musical
awakening it was that the young man heard amidst the morning breezes.
And meantime the wailing of the bells grew more sonorous in the
quivering atmosphere, lulling Miette's slumber even as it had
accompanied her passionate fever.

Until that troublous night, these young people had lived through one
of those innocent idylls that blossom among the toiling masses, those
outcasts and folks of simple mind amidst whom one may yet occasionally
find amours as primitive as those of the ancient Greek romances.

Miette had been scarcely nine years old at the time when her father was
sent to the galleys for shooting a gendarme. The trial of Chantegreil
had remained a memorable case in the province. The poacher boldly
confessed that he had killed the gendarme, but he swore that the latter
had been taking aim at him. "I only anticipated him," he said, "I
defended myself; it was a duel, not a murder." He never desisted from
this line of argument. The presiding Judge of the Assizes could not make
him understand that, although a gendarme has the right to fire upon a
poacher, a poacher has no right to fire upon a gendarme. Chantegreil
escaped the guillotine, owing to his obviously sincere belief in his own
innocence, and his previous good character. The man wept like a child
when his daughter was brought to him prior to his departure for Toulon.
The little thing, who had lost her mother in her infancy, dwelt at this
time with her grandfather at Chavanoz, a village in the passes of the
Seille. When the poacher was no longer there, the old man and the
girl lived upon alms. The inhabitants of Chavanoz, all sportsmen and
poachers, came to the assistance of the poor creatures whom the convict
had left behind him. After a while, however, the old man died of grief,
and Miette, left alone by herself, would have had to beg on the high
roads, if the neighbours had not remembered that she had an aunt at
Plassans. A charitable soul was kind enough to take her to this aunt,
who did not, however, receive her very kindly.

Eulalie Chantegreil, the spouse of _meger_ Rebufat, was a big, dark,
stubborn creature, who ruled the home. She led her husband by the noise,
said the people of the Faubourg of Plassans. The truth was, Rebufat,
avaricious and eager for work and gain, felt a sort of respect for this
big creature, who combined uncommon vigour with strict sobriety and
economy.

Thanks to her, the household thrived. The _meger_ grumbled one evening
when, on returning home from work, he found Miette installed there. But
his wife closed his mouth by saying in her gruff voice: "Bah, the little
thing's strongly built, she'll do for a servant; we'll keep her and save
wages."

This calculation pleased Rebufat. He went so far as to feel the little
thing's arms, and declared with satisfaction that she was sturdy for her
age. Miette was then nine years old. From the very next day he made use
of her. The work of the peasant-woman in the South of France is much
lighter than in the North. One seldom sees them employed in digging the
ground, carrying loads, or doing other kinds of men's work. They bind
sheaves, gather olives and mulberry leaves; perhaps their most laborious
work is that of weeding. Miette worked away willingly. Open-air life
was her delight, her health. So long as her aunt lived she was always
smiling. The good woman, in spite of her roughness, at last loved her
as her own child; she forbade her doing the hard work which her husband
sometimes tried to force upon her, saying to the latter:

"Ah! you're a clever fellow! You don't understand, you fool, that if you
tire her too much to-day, she won't be able to do anything to-morrow!"

This argument was decisive. Rebufat bowed his head, and carried the load
which he had desired to set on the young girl's shoulders.

The latter would have lived in perfect happiness under the secret
protection of her aunt Eulalie, but for the teasing of her cousin, who
was then a lad of sixteen, and employed his idle hours in hating and
persecuting her. Justin's happiest moments were those when by means of
some gross falsehood he succeeded in getting her scolded. Whenever he
could tread on her feet, or push her roughly, pretending not to have
seen her, he laughed and felt the delight of those crafty folks who
rejoice at other people's misfortunes. Miette, however, would stare at
him with her large black childish eyes gleaming with anger and silent
scorn, which checked the cowardly youngster's sneers.



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Keywords: latter, amidst, delight, slumber, continued, chantegreil, people, creature, kissed, clasped
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