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As he only spoke
and understood the dialect of the region, he could not imagine what the
gendarme wanted. He raised his coarse, heavy face towards him with an
effort; then, fancying he was being asked the name of his village, he
said in his hoarse voice:

"I come from Poujols."

A burst of laughter ran through the crowd, and some voices cried:
"Release the peasant."

"Bah!" Rengade replied; "the more of this vermin that's crushed the
better. As they're together, they can both go."

There was a murmur.

But the gendarme turned his terrible blood-stained face upon the
onlookers, and they slunk off. One cleanly little citizen went away
declaring that if he remained any longer it would spoil his appetite for
dinner. However some boys who recognised Silvere, began to speak of "the
red girl." Thereupon the little citizen retraced his steps, in order to
see the lover of the female standard-bearer, that depraved creature who
had been mentioned in the "Gazette."

Silvere, for his part, neither saw nor heard anything; Rengade had to
seize him by the collar. Thereupon he got up, forcing Mourgue to rise
also.

"Come," said the gendarme. "It won't take long."

Silvere then recognised the one-eyed man. He smiled. He must have
understood. But he turned his head away. The sight of the one-eyed man,
of his moustaches which congealed blood stiffened as with sinister rime,
caused him profound grief. He would have liked to die in perfect peace.
So he avoided the gaze of Rengade's one eye, which glared from beneath
the white bandage. And of his own accord he proceeded to the end of
the Aire Saint-Mittre, to the narrow lane hidden by the timber stacks.
Mourgue followed him thither.

The Aire stretched out, with an aspect of desolation under the sallow
sky. A murky light fell here and there from the copper-coloured clouds.
Never had a sadder and more lingering twilight cast its melancholy over
this bare expanse--this wood-yard with its slumbering timber, so stiff
and rigid in the cold. The prisoners, the soldiers, and the mob along
the high road disappeared amid the darkness of the trees. The expanse,
the beams, the piles of planks alone grew pale under the fading light,
assuming a muddy tint that vaguely suggested the bed of a dried-up
torrent. The sawyers' trestles, rearing their meagre framework in a
corner, seemed to form gallows, or the uprights of a guillotine. And
there was no living soul there excepting three gipsies who showed their
frightened faces at the door of their van--an old man and woman, and a
big girl with woolly hair, whose eyes gleamed like those of a wolf.

Before reaching the secluded path, Silvere looked round him. He
bethought himself of a far away Sunday when he had crossed the wood-yard
in the bright moonlight. How calm and soft it had been!--how slowly had
the pale rays passed over the beams! Supreme silence had fallen from the
frozen sky. And amidst this silence, the woolly-haired gipsy girl had
sung in a low key and an unknown tongue. Then Silvere remembered that
the seemingly far-off Sunday was only a week old. But a week ago he had
come to bid Miette farewell! How long past it seemed! He felt as though
he had not set foot in the wood-yard for years. But when he reached the
narrow path his heart failed him. He recognised the odour of the grass,
the shadows of the planks, the holes in the wall. A woeful voice rose
from all those things. The path stretched out sad and lonely; it seemed
longer to him than usual, and he felt a cold wind blowing down it. The
spot had aged cruelly. He saw that the wall was moss-eaten, that the
verdant carpet was dried up by frost, that the piles of timber had been
rotted by rain. It was perfect devastation. The yellow twilight fell
like fine dust upon the ruins of all that had been most dear to him. He
was obliged to close his eyes that he might again behold the lane green,
and live his happy hours afresh. It was warm weather; and he was
racing with Miette in the balmy air. Then the cruel December rains fell
unceasingly, yet they still came there, sheltering themselves beneath
the planks and listening with rapture to the heavy plashing of the
shower. His whole life--all his happiness--passed before him like a
flash of lightning. Miette was climbing over the wall, running to
him, shaking with sonorous laughter. She was there; he could see her,
gleaming white through the darkness, with her living helm of ink-black
hair. She was talking about the magpies' nests, which are so difficult
to steal, and she dragged him along with her. Then he heard the gentle
murmur of the Viorne in the distance, the chirping of the belated
grasshoppers, and the blowing of the breeze among the poplars in
the meadows of Sainte-Claire. Ah, how they used to run! How well he
remembered it! She had learnt to swim in a fortnight. She was a plucky
girl. She had only had one great fault: she was inclined to pilfering.
But he would have cured her of that. Then the thought of their first
embraces brought him back to the narrow path. They had always ended by
returning to that nook. He fancied he could hear the gipsy girl's song
dying away, the creaking of the last shutters, the solemn striking of
the clocks. Then the hour of separation came, and Miette climbed the
wall again and threw him a kiss. And he saw her no more. Emotion choked
him at the thought: he would never see her again--never!

"When you're ready," jeered the one-eyed man; "come, choose your place."

Silvere took a few more steps. He was approaching the end of the path,
and could see nothing but a strip of sky in which the rust-coloured
light was fading away. Here had he spent his life for two years past.
The slow approach of death added an ineffable charm to this pathway
which had so long served as a lovers' walk. He loitered, bidding a long
and lingering farewell to all he loved; the grass, the timber, the stone
of the old wall, all those things into which Miette had breathed life.
And again his thoughts wandered. They were waiting till they should be
old enough to marry: Aunt Dide would remain with them. Ah! if they had
fled far away, very far away, to some unknown village, where the
scamps of the Faubourg would no longer have been able to come and cast
Chantegreil's crime in his daughter's face. What peaceful bliss! They
would have opened a wheelwright's workshop beside some high road. No
doubt, he cared little for his ambitions now; he no longer thought
of coachmaking, of carriages with broad varnished panels as shiny as
mirrors. In the stupor of his despair he could not remember why his
dream of bliss would never come to pass. Why did he not go away with
Miette and aunt Dide? Then as he racked his memory, he heard the sharp
crackling of a fusillade; he saw a standard fall before him, its staff
broken and its folds drooping like the wings of a bird brought down by a
shot. It was the Republic falling asleep with Miette under the red flag.
Ah, what wretchedness! They were both dead, both had bleeding wounds in
their breasts. And it was they--the corpses of his two loves--that now
barred his path of life. He had nothing left him and might well die
himself. These were the thoughts that had made him so gentle, so
listless, so childlike all the way from Sainte-Roure. The soldiers
might have struck him, he would not have felt it. His spirit no longer
inhabited his body. It was far away, prostrate beside the loved ones who
were dead under the trees amidst the pungent smoke of the gunpowder.

But the one-eyed man was growing impatient; giving a push to Mourgue,
who was lagging behind, he growled: "Get along, do; I don't want to be
here all night."

Silvere stumbled. He looked at his feet. A fragment of a skull lay
whitening in the grass. He thought he heard a murmur of voices filling
the pathway. The dead were calling him, those long departed ones, whose
warm breath had so strangely perturbed him and his sweetheart during
the sultry July evenings. He recognised their low whispers. They were
rejoicing, they were telling him to come, and promising to restore
Miette to him beneath the earth, in some retreat which would prove
still more sequestered than this old trysting-place. The cemetery, whose
oppressive odours and dark vegetation had breathed eager desire into the
children's hearts, while alluringly spreading out its couches of rank
grass, without succeeding however in throwing them into one another's
arms, now longed to imbibe Silvere's warm blood. For two summers past it
had been expecting the young lovers.

"Is it here?" asked the one-eyed man.

Silvere looked in front of him. He had reached the end of the path. His
eyes fell on the tombstone, and he started. Miette was right, that stone
was for her. _"Here lieth . . . Marie . . . died . . . "_ She was
dead, that slab had fallen over her. His strength failing him, he leant
against the frozen stone. How warm it had been when they sat in that
nook, chatting for many a long evening! She had always come that way,
and the pressure of her foot, as she alighted from the wall, had worn
away the stone's surface in one corner. The mark seemed instinct with
something of her lissom figure. And to Silvere it appeared as if some
fatalism attached to all these objects--as if the stone were there
precisely in order that he might come to die beside it, there where he
had loved.

The one-eyed man cocked his pistols.

Death! death! the thought fascinated Silvere. It was to this spot,
then, that they had led him, by the long white road which descends from
Sainte-Roure to Plassans. If he had known it, he would have hastened on
yet more quickly in order to die on that stone, at the end of the
narrow path, in the atmosphere where he could still detect the scent of
Miette's breath! Never had he hoped for such consolation in his grief.
Heaven was merciful. He waited, a vague smile playing on is face.

Mourgue, meantime, had caught sight of the pistols. Hitherto he had
allowed himself to be dragged along stupidly. But fear now overcame him,
and he repeated, in a tone of despair: "I come from Poujols--I come from
Poujols!"

Then he threw himself on the ground, rolling at the gendarme's feet,
breaking out into prayers for mercy, and imagining that he was being
mistaken for some one else.

"What does it matter to me that you come from Poujols?" Rengade
muttered.

And as the wretched man, shivering and crying with terror, and quite
unable to understand why he was going to die, held out his trembling
hands--his deformed, hard, labourer's hands--exclaiming in his patois
that he had done nothing and ought to be pardoned, the one-eyed man grew
quite exasperated at being unable to put the pistol to his temple, owing
to his constant movements.

"Will you hold your tongue?" he shouted.

Thereupon Mourgue, mad with fright and unwilling to die, began to howl
like a beast--like a pig that is being slaughtered.

"Hold your tongue, you scoundrel!" the gendarme repeated.

And he blew his brains out.



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Keywords: looked, before, wood-yard, tongue, thereupon, poujols, planks, murmur, beside, rengade
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