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- The Fortune of the Rougons - 4/66 -
of the wall. Then Silvere, taking her in his arms, carried her, though not without a struggle, to the seat.
"Let go," she laughingly cried; "let go, I can get down alone very well." And when she was seated on the stone slab she added:
"Have you been waiting for me long? I've been running, and am quite out of breath."
Silvere made no reply. He seemed in no laughing humour, but gazed sorrowfully into the girl's face. "I wanted to see you, Miette," he said, as he seated himself beside her. "I should have waited all night for you. I am going away at daybreak to-morrow morning."
Miette had just caught sight of the gun lying on the grass, and with a thoughtful air, she murmured: "Ah! so it's decided then? There's your gun!"
"Yes," replied Silvere, after a brief pause, his voice still faltering, "it's my gun. I thought it best to remove it from the house to-night; to-morrow morning aunt Dide might have seen me take it, and have felt uneasy about it. I am going to hide it, and shall fetch it just before starting."
Then, as Miette could not remove her eyes from the weapon which he had so foolishly left on the grass, he jumped up and again hid it among the woodstacks.
"We learnt this morning," he said, as he resumed his seat, "that the insurgents of La Palud and Saint Martin-de-Vaulx were on the march, and spent last night at Alboise. We have decided to join them. Some of the workmen of Plassans have already left the town this afternoon; those who still remain will join their brothers to-morrow."
He spoke the word brothers with youthful emphasis.
"A contest is becoming inevitable," he added; "but, at any rate, we have right on our side, and we shall triumph."
Miette listened to Silvere, her eyes meantime gazing in front of her, without observing anything.
"'Tis well," she said, when he had finished speaking. And after a fresh pause she continued: "You warned me, yet I still hoped. . . . However, it is decided."
Neither of them knew what else to say. The green path in the deserted corner of the wood-yard relapsed into melancholy stillness; only the moon chased the shadows of the piles of timber over the grass. The two young people on the tombstone remained silent and motionless in the pale light. Silvere had passed his arm round Miette's waist, and she was leaning against his shoulder. They exchanged no kisses, naught but an embrace in which love showed the innocent tenderness of fraternal affection.
Miette was enveloped in a long brown hooded cloak reaching to her feet, and leaving only her head and hands visible. The women of the lower classes in Provence--the peasantry and workpeople--still wear these ample cloaks, which are called pelisses; it is a fashion which must have lasted for ages. Miette had thrown back her hood on arriving. Living in the open air and born of a hotblooded race, she never wore a cap. Her bare head showed in bold relief against the wall, which the moonlight whitened. She was still a child, no doubt, but a child ripening into womanhood. She had reached that adorable, uncertain hour when the frolicsome girl changes to a young woman. At that stage of life a bud-like delicacy, a hesitancy of contour that is exquisitely charming, distinguishes young girls. The outlines of womanhood appear amidst girlhood's innocent slimness, and woman shoots forth at first all embarrassment, still retaining much of the child, and ever and unconsciously betraying her sex. This period is very unpropitious for some girls, who suddenly shoot up, become ugly, sallow and frail, like plants before their due season. For those, however, who, like Miette, are healthy and live in the open air, it is a time of delightful gracefulness which once passed can never be recalled.
Miette was thirteen years of age, and although strong and sturdy did not look any older, so bright and childish was the smile which lit up her countenance. However, she was nearly as tall as Silvere, plump and full of life. Like her lover, she had no common beauty. She would not have been considered ugly, but she might have appeared peculiar to many young exquisites. Her rich black hair rose roughly erect above her forehead, streamed back like a rushing wave, and flowed over her head and neck like an inky sea, tossing and bubbling capriciously. It was very thick and inconvenient to arrange. However, she twisted it as tightly as possible into coils as thick as a child's fist, which she wound together at the back of her head. She had little time to devote to her toilette, but this huge chignon, hastily contrived without the aid of any mirror, was often instinct with vigorous grace. On seeing her thus naturally helmeted with a mass of frizzy hair which hung about her neck and temples like a mane, one could readily understand why she always went bareheaded, heedless alike of rain and frost.
Under her dark locks appeared her low forehead, curved and golden like a crescent moon. Her large prominent eyes, her short tip-tilted nose with dilated nostrils, and her thick ruddy lips, when regarded apart from one another, would have looked ugly; viewed, however, all together, amidst the delightful roundness and vivacious mobility of her countenance, they formed an ensemble of strange, surprising beauty. When Miette laughed, throwing back her head and gently resting it on her right shoulder, she resembled an old-time Bacchante, her throat distending with sonorous gaiety, her cheeks round like those of a child, her teeth large and white, her twists of woolly hair tossed by every outburst of merriment, and waving like a crown of vine leaves. To realise that she was only a child of thirteen, one had to notice the innocence underlying her full womanly laughter, and especially the child-like delicacy of her chin and soft transparency of her temples. In certain lights Miette's sun-tanned face showed yellow like amber. A little soft black down already shaded her upper lip. Toil too was beginning to disfigure her small hands, which, if left idle, would have become charmingly plump and delicate.
Miette and Silvere long remained silent. They were reading their own anxious thoughts, and, as they pondered upon the unknown terrors of the morrow, they tightened their mutual embrace. Their hearts communed with each other, they understood how useless and cruel would be any verbal plaint. The girl, however, could at last no longer contain herself, and, choking with emotion, she gave expression, in one phrase, to their mutual misgivings.
"You will come back again, won't you?" she whispered, as she hung on Silvere's neck.
Silvere made no reply, but, half-stifling, and fearing lest he should give way to tears like herself, he kissed her in brotherly fashion on the cheek, at a loss for any other consolation. Then disengaging themselves they again lapsed into silence.
After a moment Miette shuddered. Now that she no longer leant against Silvere's shoulder she was becoming icy cold. Yet she would not have shuddered thus had she been in this deserted path the previous evening, seated on this tombstone, where for several seasons they had tasted so much happiness.
"I'm very cold," she said, as she pulled her hood over her head.
"Shall we walk about a little?" the young man asked her. "It's not yet nine o'clock; we can take a stroll along the road."
Miette reflected that for a long time she would probably not have the pleasure of another meeting--another of those evening chats, the joy of which served to sustain her all day long.
"Yes, let us walk a little," she eagerly replied. "Let us go as far as the mill. I could pass the whole night like this if you wanted to."
They rose from the tombstone, and were soon hidden in the shadow of a pile of planks. Here Miette opened her cloak, which had a quilted lining of red twill, and threw half of it over Silvere's shoulders, thus enveloping him as he stood there close beside her. The same garment cloaked them both, and they passed their arms round each other's waist, and became as it were but one being. When they were thus shrouded in the pelisse they walked slowly towards the high road, fearlessly crossing the vacant parts of the wood-yard, which looked white in the moonlight. Miette had thrown the cloak over Silvere, and he had submitted to it quite naturally, as though indeed the garment rendered them a similar service every evening.
The road to Nice, on either side of which the suburban houses are built, was, in the year 1851, lined with ancient elm-trees, grand and gigantic ruins, still full of vigour, which the fastidious town council has replaced, some years since, by some little plane-trees. When Silvere and Miette found themselves under the elms, the huge boughs of which cast shadows on the moonlit footpath, they met now and again black forms which silently skirted the house fronts. These, too, were amorous couples, closely wrapped in one and the same cloak, and strolling in the darkness.
This style of promenading has been instituted by the young lovers of Southern towns. Those boys and girls among the people who mean to marry sooner or later, but who do not dislike a kiss or two in advance, know no spot where they can kiss at their ease without exposing themselves to recognition and gossip. Accordingly, while strolling about the suburbs, the plots of waste land, the footpaths of the high road--in fact, all these places where there are few passers- by and numerous shady nooks--they conceal their identity by wrapping themselves in these long cloaks, which are capacious enough to cover a whole family. The parents tolerate these proceedings; however stiff may be provincial propriety, no apprehensions, seemingly, are entertained. And, on the other hand, nothing could be more charming than these lovers' rambles, which appeal so keenly to the Southerner's fanciful imagination. There is a veritable masquerade, fertile in innocent enjoyments, within the reach of the most humble. The girl clasps her sweetheart to her bosom, enveloping him in her own warm cloak; and no doubt it is delightful to be able to kiss one's sweetheart within those shrouding folds without danger of being recognised. One couple is exactly like another. And to the belated pedestrian, who sees the vague groups gliding hither and thither, 'tis merely love passing, love guessed and scarce espied. The lovers know they are safely concealed within their cloaks, they converse in undertones and make themselves quite at home; most frequently they do not converse at all, but walk along at random and in silence, content in their embrace. The climate alone is to blame for having in the first instance prompted these young lovers to retire to secluded spots in the suburbs. On fine summer nights one cannot walk round Plassans without coming across a hooded couple in every patch of shadow falling from the house walls. Certain places, the Aire Saint-Mittre, for instance, are full of these dark "dominoes" brushing past one another, gliding softly in the warm nocturnal air. One might imagine they were guests invited to some mysterious ball given by the stars to lowly
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