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- The Fortune of the Rougons - 6/66 -
steps. So long as they walked onward, they felt as though they were advancing to the eternity of their mutual embrace; the return would mean separation and bitter leave-taking.
The declivity of the road was gradually becoming more gentle. In the valley below there are meadows extending as far as the Viorne, which runs at the other end, beneath a range of low hills. These meadows, separated from the high-road by thickset hedges, are the meadows of Sainte-Claire.
"Bah!" exclaimed Silvere this time, as he caught sight of the first patches of grass: "we may as well go as far as the bridge."
At this Miette burst out laughing, clasped the young man round the neck, and kissed him noisily.
At the spot where the hedges begin, there were in those days two elms forming the end of the long avenue, two colossal trees larger than any of the others. The treeless fields stretch out from the high road, like a broad band of green wool, as far as the willows and birches by the river. The distance from the last elms to the bridge is scarcely three hundred yards. The lovers took a good quarter of an hour to cover that space. At last, however slow their gait, they reached the bridge, and there they stopped.
The road to Nice ran up in front of them, along the opposite slope of the valley. But they could only see a small portion of it, as it takes a sudden turn about half a mile from the bridge, and is lost to view among the wooded hills. On looking round they caught sight of the other end of the road, that which they had just traversed, and which leads in a direct line from Plassans to the Viorne. In the beautiful winter moonlight it looked like a long silver ribbon, with dark edgings traced by the rows of elms. On the right and left the ploughed hill-land showed like vast, grey, vague seas intersected by this ribbon, this roadway white with frost, and brilliant as with metallic lustre. Up above, on a level with the horizon, lights shone from a few windows in the Faubourg, resembling glowing sparks. By degrees Miette and Silvere had walked fully a league. They gazed at the intervening road, full of silent admiration for the vast amphitheatre which rose to the verge of the heavens, and over which flowed bluish streams of light, as over the superposed rocks of a gigantic waterfall. The strange and colossal picture spread out amid deathlike stillness and silence. Nothing could have been of more sovereign grandeur.
Then the young people, having leant against the parapet of the bridge, gazed beneath them. The Viorne, swollen by the rains, flowed on with a dull, continuous sound. Up and down stream, despite the darkness which filled the hollows, they perceived the black lines of the trees growing on the banks; here and there glided the moonbeams, casting a trail of molten metal, as it were, over the water, which glittered and danced like rays of light on the scales of some live animal. The gleams darted with a mysterious charm along the gray torrent, betwixt the vague phantom-like foliage. You might have thought this an enchanted valley, some wondrous retreat where a community of shadows and gleams lived a fantastic life.
This part of the river was familiar to the lovers; they had often come here in search of coolness on warm July nights; they had spent hours hidden among the clusters of willows on the right bank, at the spot where the meadows of Sainte-Claire spread their verdant carpet to the waterside. They remembered every bend of the bank, the stones on which they had stepped in order to cross the Viorne, at that season as narrow as a brooklet, and certain little grassy hollows where they had indulged in their dreams of love. Miette, therefore, now gazed from the bridge at the right bank of the torrent with longing eyes.
"If it were warmer," she sighed, "we might go down and rest awhile before going back up the hill." Then, after a pause, during which she kept her eyes fixed on the banks, she resumed: "Look down there, Silvere, at that black mass yonder in front of the lock. Do you remember? That's the brushwood where we sat last Corpus Christi Day."
"Yes, so it is," replied Silvere, softly.
This was the spot where they had first ventured to kiss each other on the cheek. The remembrance just roused by the girl's words brought both of them a delightful feeling, an emotion in which the joys of the past mingled with the hopes of the morrow. Before their eyes, with the rapidity of lightening, there passed all the delightful evenings they had spent together, especially that evening of Corpus Christi Day, with the warm sky, the cool willows of the Viorne, and their own loving talk. And at the same time, whilst the past came back to their hearts full of a delightful savour, they fancied they could plunge into the unknown future, see their dreams realised, and march through life arm in arm--even as they had just been doing on the highway-- warmly wrapped in the same cloak. Then rapture came to them again, and they smiled in each other's eyes, alone amidst all the silent radiance.
Suddenly, however, Silvere raised his head and, throwing off the cloak, listened attentively. Miette, in her surprise, imitated him, at a loss to understand why he had started so abruptly from her side.
Confused sounds had for a moment been coming from behind the hills in the midst of which the Nice road wends its way. They suggested the distant jolting of a procession of carts; but not distinctly, so loud was the roaring of the Viorne. Gradually, however, they became more pronounced, and rose at last like the tramping of an army on the march. Then amidst the continuous growing rumble one detected the shouts of a crowd, strange rhythmical blasts as of a hurricane. One could even have fancied they were the thunderclaps of a rapidly approaching storm which was already disturbing the slumbering atmosphere. Silvere listened attentively, unable to tell, however, what were those tempest-like shouts, for the hills prevented them from reaching him distinctly. Suddenly a dark mass appeared at the turn of the road, and then the "Marseillaise" burst forth, formidable, sung as with avenging fury.
"Ah, here they are!" cried Silvere, with a burst of joyous enthusiasm.
Forthwith he began to run up the hill, dragging Miette with him. On the left of the road was an embankment planted with evergreen oaks, up which he clambered with the young girl, to avoid being carried away by the surging, howling multitude.
When he had reached the top of the bank and the shadow of the brushwood, Miette, rather pale, gazed sorrowfully at those men whose distant song had sufficed to draw Silvere from her embrace. It seemed as if the whole band had thrust itself between them. They had been so happy a few minutes before, locked in each other's arms, alone and lost amidst the overwhelming silence and discreet glimmer of the moon! And now Silvere, whose head was turned away from her, who no longer seemed even conscious of her presence, had eyes only for those strangers whom he called his brothers.
The band descended the slope with a superb, irresistible stride. There could have been nothing grander than the irruption of those few thousand men into that cold, still, deathly scene. The highway became a torrent, rolling with living waves which seemed inexhaustible. At the bend in the road fresh masses ever appeared, whose songs ever helped to swell the roar of this human tempest. When the last battalions came in sight the uproar was deafening. The "Marseillaise" filled the atmosphere as if blown through enormous trumpets by giant mouths, which cast it, vibrating with a brazen clang, into every corner of the valley. The slumbering country-side awoke with a start-- quivering like a beaten drum resonant to its very entrails, and repeating with each and every echo the passionate notes of the national song. And then the singing was no longer confined to the men. From the very horizon, from the distant rocks, the ploughed land, the meadows, the copses, the smallest bits of brushwood, human voices seemed to come. The great amphitheatre, extending from the river to Plassans, the gigantic cascade over which the bluish moonlight flowed, was as if filled with innumerable invisible people cheering the insurgents; and in the depths of the Viorne, along the waters streaked with mysterious metallic reflections, there was not a dark nook but seemed to conceal human beings, who took up each refrain with yet greater passion. With air and earth alike quivering, the whole country-side cried for vengeance and liberty. So long as the little army was descending the slope, the roar of the populace thus rolled on in sonorous waves broken by abrupt outbursts which shook the very stones in the roadway.
Silvere, pale with emotion, still listened and looked on. The insurgents who led the van of that swarming, roaring stream, so vague and monstrous in the darkness, were rapidly approaching the bridge.
"I thought," murmured Miette, "that you would not pass through Plassans?"
"They must have altered the plan of operations," Silvere replied; "we were, in fact, to have marched to the chief town by the Toulon road, passing to the left of Plassans and Orcheres. They must have left Alboise this afternoon and passed Les Tulettes this evening."
The head of the column had already arrived in front of the young people. The little army was more orderly than one would have expected from a band of undisciplined men. The contingents from the various towns and villages formed separate battalions, each separated by a distance of a few paces. These battalions were apparently under the orders of certain chiefs. For the nonce the pace at which they were descending the hillside made them a compact mass of invincible strength. There were probably about three thousand men, all united and carried away by the same storm of indignation. The strange details of the scene were not discernible amidst the shadows cast over the highway by the lofty slopes. At five or six feet from the brushwood, however, where Miette and Silvere were sheltered, the left-hand embankment gave place to a little pathway which ran alongside the Viorne; and the moonlight, flowing through this gap, cast a broad band of radiance across the road. When the first insurgents reached this patch of light they were suddenly illumined by a sharp white glow which revealed, with singular distinctness, every outline of visage or costume. And as the various contingents swept on, the young people thus saw them emerge, fiercely and without cessation, from the surrounding darkness.
As the first men passed through the light Miette instinctively clung to Silvere, although she knew she was safe, even from observation. She passed her arm round the young fellow's neck, resting her head against his shoulder. And with the hood of her pelisse encircling her pale face she gazed fixedly at that square patch of light as it was rapidly traversed by those strange faces, transfigured by enthusiasm, with dark open mouths full of the furious cry of the "Marseillaise." Silvere, whom she felt quivering at her side, then bent towards her and named the various contingents as they passed.
The column marched along eight abreast. In the van were a number of big, square-headed fellows, who seemed to possess the herculean strength and na´ve confidence of giants. They would doubtless prove blind, intrepid defenders of the Republic. On their shoulders they carried large axes, whose edges, freshly sharpened, glittered in the
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