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- The Fortune of the Rougons - 40/66 -
Then she turned to the wall, to avoid seeing the people of whom she was talking. And after an interval of silence, she continued: "You are near me, my child, aren't you? You must not leave me. I thought I was going to die just now. We did wrong to make an opening in the wall. I have suffered ever since. I was certain that door would bring us further misfortune-- Oh! the innocent darlings, what sorrow! They will kill them as well, they will be shot down like dogs."
Then she relapsed into catalepsy; she was no longer even aware of Silvere's presence. Suddenly, however, she sat up, and gazed at the foot of her bed, with a fearful expression of terror.
"Why didn't you send them away?" she cried, hiding her white head against the young man's breast. "They are still there. The one with the gun is making signs that he is going to fire."
Shortly afterwards she fell into the heavy slumber that usually terminated these attacks. On the next day, she seemed to have forgotten everything. She never again spoke to Silvere of the morning on which she had found him with a sweetheart behind the wall.
The young people did not see each other for a couple of days. When Miette ventured to return to the well, they resolved not to recommence the pranks which had upset aunt Dide. However, the meeting which had been so strangely interrupted had filled them with a keen desire to meet again in some happy solitude. Weary of the delights afforded by the well, and unwilling to vex aunt Dide by seeing Miette again on the other side of the wall, Silvere begged the girl to meet him somewhere else. She required but little pressing; she received the proposal with the willing smile of a frolicsome lass who has no thought of evil. What made her smile was the idea of outwitting that spy of a Justin. When the lovers had come to agreement, they discussed at length the choice of a favourable spot. Silvere proposed the most impossible trysting-places. He planned regular journeys, and even suggested meeting the young girl at midnight in the barns of the Jas-Meiffren. Miette, who was much more practical, shrugged her shoulders, declaring she would try to think of some spot. On the morrow, she tarried but a minute at the well, just time enough to smile at Silvere and tell him to be at the far end of the Aire Saint-Mittre at about ten o'clock in the evening. One may be sure that the young man was punctual. All day long Miette's choice had puzzled him, and his curiosity increased when he found himself in the narrow lane formed by the piles of planks at the end of the plot of ground. "She will come this way," he said to himself, looking along the road to Nice. But he suddenly heard a loud shaking of boughs behind the wall, and saw a laughing head, with tumbled hair, appear above the coping, whilst a joyous voice called out: "It's me!"
And it was, in fact, Miette, who had climbed like an urchin up one of the mulberry-trees, which even nowadays still border the boundary of the Jas-Meiffren. In a couple of leaps she reached the tombstone, half buried in the corner at the end of the lane. Silvere watched her descend with delight and surprise, without even thinking of helping her. As soon as she had alighted, however, he took both her hands in his, and said: "How nimble you are!--you climb better than I do."
It was thus that they met for the first time in that hidden corner where they were destined to pass such happy hours. From that evening forward they saw each other there nearly every night. They now only used the well to warn each other of unforeseen obstacles to their meetings, of a change of time, and of all the trifling little news that seemed important in their eyes, and allowed of no delay. It sufficed for the one who had a communication to make to set the pulley in motion, for its creaking noise could be heard a long way off. But although, on certain days, they summoned one another two or three times in succession to speak of trifles of immense importance, it was only in the evening in that lonely little passage that they tasted real happiness. Miette was exceptionally punctual. She fortunately slept over the kitchen, in a room where the winter provisions had been kept before her arrival, and which was reached by a little private staircase. She was thus able to go out at all hours, without being seen by Rebufat or Justin. Moreover, if the latter should ever see her returning she intended to tell him some tale or other, staring at him the while with that stern look which always reduced him to silence.
Ah! how happy those warm evenings were! The lovers had now reached the first days of September, a month of bright sunshine in Provence. It was hardly possible for them to join each other before nine o'clock. Miette arrived from over the wall, in surmounting which she soon acquired such dexterity that she was almost always on the old tombstone before Silvere had time to stretch out his arms. She would laugh at her own strength and agility as, for a moment, with her hair in disorder, she remained almost breathless, tapping her skirt to make it fall. Her sweetheart laughingly called her an impudent urchin. In reality he much admired her pluck. He watched her jump over the wall with the complacency of an older brother supervising the exercises of a younger one. Indeed, there was yet much that was childlike in their growing love. On several occasions they spoke of going on some bird's- nesting expedition on the banks of the Viorne.
"You'll see how I can climb," said Miette proudly. "When I lived at Chavanoz, I used to go right up to the top of old Andre's walnut- trees. Have you ever taken a magpie's nest? It's very difficult!"
Then a discussion arose as to how one ought to climb a poplar. Miette stated her opinions, with all a boy's confidence.
However, Silvere, clasping her round the knees, had by this time lifted her to the ground, and then they would walk on, side by side, their arms encircling each other's waist. Though they were but children, fond of frolicsome play and chatter, and knew not even how to speak of love, yet they already partook of love's delight. It sufficed them to press each other's hands. Ignorant whither their feelings and their hearts were drifting, they did not seek to hide the blissful thrills which the slightest touch awoke. Smiling, often wondering at the delight they experienced, they yielded unconsciously to the sweetness of new feelings even while talking, like a couple of schoolboys, of the magpies' nests which are so difficult to reach.
And as they talked they went down the silent path, between the piles of planks and the wall of the Jas-Meiffren. They never went beyond the end of that narrow blind alley, but invariably retraced their steps. They were quite at home there. Miette, happy in the knowledge of their safe concealment, would often pause and congratulate herself on her discovery.
"Wasn't I lucky!" she would gleefully exclaim. "We might walk a long way without finding such a good hiding-place."
The thick grass muffled the noise of their footsteps. They were steeped in gloom, shut in between two black walls, and only a strip of dark sky, spangled with stars, was visible above their heads. And as they stepped along, pacing this path which resembled a dark stream flowing beneath the black star-sprent sky, they were often thrilled with undefinable emotion, and lowered their voices, although there was nobody to hear them. Surrendering themselves as it were to the silent waves of night, over which they seemed to drift, they recounted to one another, with lovers' rapture, the thousand trifles of the day.
At other times, on bright nights, when the moonlight clearly outlined the wall and the timber-stacks, Miette and Silvere would romp about with all the carelessness of children. The path stretched out, alight with white rays, and retaining no suggestion of secrecy, and the young people laughed and chased each other like boys at play, at times venturing even to climb upon the piles of timber. Silvere was occasionally obliged to frighten Miette by telling her that Justin might be watching her from over the wall. Then, quite out of breath, they would stroll side by side, and plan how they might some day go for a scamper in the Sainte-Claire meadows, to see which of the two would catch the other.
Their growing love thus accommodated itself to dark and clear nights. Their hearts were ever on the alert, and a little shade sufficed to sweeten the pleasure of their embrace, and soften their laughter. This dearly-loved retreat--so gay in the moonshine, so strangely thrilling in the gloom--seemed an inexhaustible source of both gaiety and silent emotion. They would remain there until midnight, while the town dropped off to sleep and the lights in the windows of the Faubourg went out one by one.
They were never disturbed in their solitude. At that late hour children were no longer playing at hide-and-seek behind the piles of planks. Occasionally, when the young couple heard sounds in the distance--the singing of some workmen as they passed along the road, or conversation coming from the neighbouring sidewalks--they would cast stealthy glances over the Aire Saint-Mittre. The timber-yard stretched out, empty of all, save here and there some falling shadows. On warm evenings they sometimes caught glimpses of loving couples there, and of old men sitting on the big beams by the roadside. When the evenings grew colder, all that they ever saw on the melancholy, deserted spot was some gipsy fire, before which, perhaps, a few black shadows passed to and fro. Through the still night air words and sundry faint sounds were wafted to them, the "good-night" of a townsman shutting his door, the closing of a window-shutter, the deep striking of a clock, all the parting sounds of a provincial town retiring to rest. And when Plassans was slumbering, they might still hear the quarrelling of the gipsies and the crackling of their fires, amidst which suddenly rose the guttural voices of girls singing in a strange tongue, full of rugged accents.
But the lovers did not concern themselves much with what went on in the Aire Saint-Mittre; they hastened back into their own little privacy, and again walked along their favourite retired path. Little did they care for others, or for the town itself! The few planks which separated them from the wicked world seemed to them, after a while, an insurmountable rampart. They were so secluded, so free in this nook, situated though it was in the very midst of the Faubourg, at only fifty paces from the Rome Gate, that they sometimes fancied themselves far away in some hollow of the Viorne, with the open country around them. Of all the sounds which reached them, only one made them feel uneasy, that of the clocks striking slowly in the darkness. At times, when the hour sounded, they pretended not to hear, at other moments they stopped short as if to protest. However, they could not go on for ever taking just another ten minutes, and so the time came when they were at last obliged to say good-night. Then Miette reluctantly climbed upon the wall again. But all was not ended yet, they would linger over their leave-taking for a good quarter of an hour. When the girl had climbed upon the wall, she remained there with her elbows on the coping, and her feet supported by the branches of the mulberry- tree, which served her as a ladder. Silvere, perched on the tombstone, was able to take her hands again, and renew their whispered conversation. They repeated "till to-morrow!" a dozen times, and still and ever found something more to say. At last Silvere began to scold.
"Come, you must get down, it is past midnight."
But Miette, with a girl's waywardness, wished him to descend first; she wanted to see him go away. And as he persisted in remaining, she ended by saying abruptly, by way of punishment, perhaps: "Look! I am
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