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- The Fortune of the Rougons - 5/66 -
lovers. When the weather is very warm and the girls do not wear cloaks, they simply turn up their over-skirts. And in the winter the more passionate lovers make light of the frosts. Thus, Miette and Silvere, as they descended the Nice road, thought little of the chill December night.
They passed through the slumbering suburb without exchanging a word, but enjoying the mute delight of their warm embrace. Their hearts were heavy; the joy which they felt in being side by side was tinged with the painful emotion which comes from the thought of approaching severance, and it seemed to them that they could never exhaust the mingled sweetness and bitterness of the silence which slowly lulled their steps. But the houses soon grew fewer, and they reached the end of the Faubourg. There stands the entrance to the Jas-Meiffren, an iron gate fixed to two strong pillars; a low row of mulberry-trees being visible through the bars. Silvere and Miette instinctively cast a glance inside as they passed on.
Beyond the Jas-Meiffren the road descends with a gentle slope to a valley, which serves as the bed of a little rivulet, the Viorne, a brook in summer but a torrent in winter. The rows of elms still extended the whole way at that time, making the high road a magnificent avenue, which cast a broad band of gigantic trees across the hill, which was planted with corn and stunted vines. On that December night, under the clear cold moonlight, the newly-ploughed fields stretching away on either hand resembled vast beds of greyish wadding which deadened every sound in the atmosphere. The dull murmur of the Viorne in the distance alone sent a quivering thrill through the profound silence of the country-side.
When the young people had begun to descend the avenue, Miette's thoughts reverted to the Jas-Meiffren which they had just left behind them.
"I had great difficulty in getting away this evening," she said. "My uncle wouldn't let me go. He had shut himself up in a cellar, where he was hiding his money, I think, for he seemed greatly frightened this morning at the events that are taking place."
Silvere clasped her yet more lovingly. "Be brave!" said he. "The time will come when we shall be able to see each other freely the whole day long. You must not fret."
"Oh," replied the girl, shaking her head, "you are very hopeful. For my part I sometimes feel very sad. It isn't the hard work which grieves me; on the contrary, I am often very glad of my uncle's severity, and the tasks he sets me. He was quite right to make me a peasant girl; I should perhaps have turned out badly, for, do you know, Silvere, there are moments when I fancy myself under a curse. . . . I feel, then, that I should like to be dead. . . . I think of you know whom."
As she spoke these last words, her voice broke into a sob. Silvere interrupted her somewhat harshly. "Be quiet," he said. "You promised not to think about it. It's no crime of yours. . . . We love each other very much, don't we?" he added in a gentler tone. "When we're married you'll have no more unpleasant hours."
"I know," murmured Miette. "You are so kind, you sustain me. But what am I to do? I sometimes have fears and feelings of revolt. I think at times that I have been wronged, and then I should like to do something wicked. You see I pour forth my heart to you. Whenever my father's name is thrown in my face, I feel my whole body burning. When the urchins cry at me as I pass, 'Eh, La Chantegreil,' I lose all control of myself, and feel that I should like to lay hold of them and whip them."
After a savage pause she resumed: "As for you, you're a man; you're going to fight; you're very lucky."
Silvere had let her speak on. After a few steps he observed sorrowfully: "You are wrong, Miette; yours is bad anger. You shouldn't rebel against justice. As for me, I'm going to fight in defence of our common rights, not to gratify any personal animosity."
"All the same," the young girl continued, "I should like to be a man and handle a gun. I feel that it would do me good."
Then, as Silvere remained silent, she perceived that she had displeased him. Her feverishness subsided, and she whispered in a supplicating tone: "You are not angry with me, are you? It's your departure which grieves me and awakens such ideas. I know very well you are right--that I ought to be humble."
Then she began to cry, and Silvere, moved by her tears, grasped her hands and kissed them.
"See, now, how you pass from anger to tears, like a child," he said lovingly. "You must be reasonable. I'm not scolding you. I only want to see you happier, and that depends largely upon yourself."
The remembrance of the drama which Miette had so sadly evoked cast a temporary gloom over the lovers. They continued their walk with bowed heads and troubled thoughts.
"Do you think I'm much happier than you?" Silvere at last inquired, resuming the conversation in spite of himself. "If my grandmother had not taken care of me and educated me, what would have become of me? With the exception of my Uncle Antoine, who is an artisan like myself, and who taught me to love the Republic, all my other relations seem to fear that I might besmirch them by coming near them."
He was now speaking with animation, and suddenly stopped, detaining Miette in the middle of the road.
"God is my witness," he continued, "that I do not envy or hate anybody. But if we triumph, I shall have to tell the truth to those fine gentlemen. Uncle Antoine knows all about this matter. You'll see when we return. We shall all live free and happy."
Then Miette gently led him on, and they resumed their walk.
"You dearly love your Republic?" the girl asked, essaying a joke. "Do you love me as much?"
Her smile was not altogether free from a tinge of bitterness. She was thinking, perhaps, how easily Silvere abandoned her to go and scour the country-side. But the lad gravely replied: "You are my wife, to whom I have given my whole heart. I love the Republic because I love you. When we are married we shall want plenty of happiness, and it is to procure a share of that happiness that I'm going way to-morrow morning. You surely don't want to persuade me to remain at home?"
"Oh, no!" cried the girl eagerly. "A man should be brave! Courage is beautiful! You must forgive my jealousy. I should like to be as strong-minded as you are. You would love me all the more, wouldn't you?"
After a moment's silence she added, with charming vivacity and ingenuousness: "Ah, how willingly I shall kiss you when you come back!"
This outburst of a loving and courageous heart deeply affected Silvere. He clasped Miette in his arms and printed several kisses on her cheek. As she laughingly struggled to escape him, her eyes filled with tears of emotion.
All around the lovers the country still slumbered amid the deep stillness of the cold. They were now half-way down the hill. On the top of a rather lofty hillock to the left stood the ruins of a windmill, blanched by the moon; the tower, which had fallen in on one side, alone remained. This was the limit which the young people had assigned to their walk. They had come straight from the Faubourg without casting a single glance at the fields between which they passed. When Silvere had kissed Miette's cheek, he raised his head and observed the mill.
"What a long walk we've had!" he exclaimed. "See--here is the mill. It must be nearly half-past nine. We must go home."
But Miette pouted. "Let us walk a little further," she implored; "only a few steps, just as far as the little cross-road, no farther, really."
Silvere smiled as he again took her round the waist. Then they continued to descend the hill, no longer fearing inquisitive glances, for they had not met a living soul since passing the last houses. They nevertheless remained enveloped in the long pelisse, which seemed, as it were, a natural nest for their love. It had shrouded them on so many happy evenings! Had they simply walked side by side, they would have felt small and isolated in that vast stretch of country, whereas, blended together as they were, they became bolder and seemed less puny. Between the folds of the pelisse they gazed upon the fields stretching on both sides of the road, without experiencing that crushing feeling with which far-stretching callous vistas oppress the human affections. It seemed to them as though they had brought their house with them; they felt a pleasure in viewing the country-side as from a window, delighting in the calm solitude, the sheets of slumbering light, the glimpses of nature vaguely distinguishable beneath the shroud of night and winter, the whole of that valley indeed, which while charming them could not thrust itself between their close-pressed hearts.
All continuity of conversation had ceased; they spoke no more of others, nor even of themselves. They were absorbed by the present, pressing each other's hands, uttering exclamations at the sight of some particular spot, exchanging words at rare intervals, and then understanding each other but little, for drowsiness came from the warmth of their embrace. Silvere forgot his Republican enthusiasm; Miette no longer reflected that her lover would be leaving her in an hour, for a long time, perhaps for ever. The transports of their affection lulled them into a feeling of security, as on other days, when no prospect of parting had marred the tranquility of their meetings.
They still walked on, and soon reached the little crossroad mentioned by Miette--a bit of a lane which led through the fields to a village on the banks of the Viorne. But they passed on, pretending not to notice this path, where they had agreed to stop. And it was only some minutes afterwards that Silvere whispered, "It must be very late; you will get tired."
"No; I assure you I'm not at all tired," the girl replied. "I could walk several leagues like this easily." Then, in a coaxing tone, she added: "Let us go down as far as the meadows of Sainte-Claire. There we will really stop and turn back."
Silvere, whom the girl's rhythmic gait lulled to semi-somnolence, made no objection, and their rapture began afresh. They now went on more slowly, fearing the moment when they would have to retrace their
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