A young woman, carrying a bundle of clothing in her arms, walked through the village of la Tour-de-Faure, passed the footbridge over the river Lot, and began the steep ascent to the town of St. Cirq-la-Popie which tops a sheer crag above the green valley. That her destination is the ruined gate of Rocomadour, high above her in the sun, she never seems to forget, yet she makes many digressions: first into the dewy grass to run with the young lambs at pasture; then, as her ascent brings her to more rocky ground, to gather the snowdrops which grow thickly among the moss and brambles. These she tucks into the blouse of her faded and dilapidated green cotton dress, and now and then she eats one delicately, evidently finding the flavor good. Her hair is pale yellow, unusual in one native to the Lot, yet she walks somnambulently sure, never missing a step in the steep way, as though she had known the climb in a former life, and instinct and compulsion now guided her over it.
When the fair girl reaches the house of F6n61on the Turner, one of his children, with eyes wide as though they had been blown open by a witch, whispers to her brother: “Quick! Quick! It is one of the elves of Quercyl She dances in the roadl She eats snowdrops like a nanny! She looks out of her face sideways— Quick! Quick! We will follow her.”
When the girl in green reaches the porte de Rocomadour, Francine Reneerey, “the Virgin,” who stands in the wide arch of her door, clipping a figure out of a block of stone, drops her mallet and chisel on the step with a clatter and shrieks: “Diane! Diane Dieudonne! The Little Fool, the Little Fool, she has returned, mon Dieu 1”
“Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!” said Felicite Etienne, rushing out of the Red Head’s shop.
“Marie, Joseph!” cried Cosette Surtainville, running down from her house on the place du Carrol.
“Jesus! Jesus!” cried la Mere Laurent, panting out of her house on the rue Ancicnne.
“Sacre nom de Dieu!” said Eloise Garrigou, leaping up the sly street.
“How long has she been gone?” said la Mere Laurent.
“But certainly five years,” said Eloise.
“Her little Jeannot, he is five years old, that is true,” said Elodie Larroch,
“What will Cenobie—the Thief 1—say to this?” cried the Virgin.
“And Jeannot, mon bon, how will he like two women instead of one?” cried Cosette.
“She is soft to the touch,” said Elodie.
“Who will have the child now, that is the point!” said Eloise.
“That will be the good fight!” cried la Mere Laurent.
“Neither woman cares for the man,” said Eloise.
“That is true,” said Elodie.
“Let us follow and see,” said the Virgin.
Eloise, Elodie, Cosette, Francinc, and la Mere Laurent panted up the steep village steps, veered round the place du Carrol, skirted the pigeon tower of Blondel, ran around the graveyard wall, circled the houses on the Sombral: turning the corners of the steep streets of St. Cirq as though they turned the pages of a book.
Only the fair girl herself seemed unperturbed and intent upon her own business. She greeted no one and no one greeted her, though all gave; evidence of knowing her. At each house a new voice was added to her exclaiming followers, yet none waylaid her, and if she turned at all in their direction, her lovely eyes of pale blue looked not at, but through, the crowd that beset her, causing in each onlooker a sensation delicious, strange, and disquieting.
Arriving by the ramparts of the ruined castle of St. Cirq, she leaned familiarly against the crumbling wall, put her finger on her lip as though considering, and gazed at the House of the Tower, which, frowning a little apart from the village square, lifts its enormous mass at a giddy angle over the river Lot. The tower of huge stones, wound with ivy and wild grape, seems to be stayed by magic just as it is about to fall into the valley. It has a secret and taciturn manner and is blind. The living quarters beneath it seem all in a shiver and a shy stare, the arched door is wary, and the scant curtains in the two windows sniff the air, now in, now out. Into one of these the fair girl now raises herself on tiptoe to look: but evidently finding the house empty she drops her bundle on the stone step and runs lightly across the square to the schoolyard where children are at play, for it is recess.
Posting herself under the budding almond tree in the Garrigou’s garden, she watches the polished black heads of the little ones darting about in the bright sun. She lifts her fair head, sniffing here, sniffing there: looking, smelling, feeling for something. Her eyes, then, suddenly focus, become intent and brilliant, and fasten themselves upon the fair head which bobs about among the dark-haired children. This fair hair, which exactly matches her own, blows in the light wind from the head of a small boy of about five years. His eyes are large and blue, and feeling those of the young woman by the wall fixed upon him, he returns her gaze with a tremulous smile, throwing up his head and sniffing the air in a manner similar to her own.
She leapt, then, like an animal, over the low wall, and picking him up in her arms, carried him across the square to the House of the Tower and disappeared within its wary door.
“What did I tell you!” shrieked Elodie.
“She had a child and she knows him. Tiens! She knows him after five years 1 Mon Dieul” cried Eloise.
“Fools—they have more sense than we have!” said la Mere Laurent.
“When Cenobie comes home—oh la! la!” said Cosette.
“Quick! Quick! Let us follow and see!” said the Virgin.
Eloise, Elodie, Cosette, Francine, and la Mere Laurent closed in about the wary door of the House of the Tower.
“The Little Fool! She is making the pot-au-feu for her husband, Jeannot pere, as though she had only been gone an hour!” said Elodie, standing on tiptoe in her turn and peering into the window.
“She is giving the little one a snowdrop to eat! Mon Dieu! Mon Dieu!”
“She has a clean dress in the bundle brought from the madhouse at Figeac!” said Eloise.
“She is sweet as new bread!” said Elodie.
“She always was!” said la Mere Laurent.
“Te! She is singing a song as though nothing were about to happen!” said the Virgin.
“Attention! Attention! Here comes Cenobie,” hushed la Mere Laurent.
“Now for the funl” whispered Cosette.
A young woman, thin, sallow, and quick as a snake, darted from behind the schoolhouse into the schoolyard. She looked about wildly: ”Jeannot! petit Jeannot! Where is he?” She rushed to the well and looked in; to the “Fall” into the valley and looked over: she shrieked, “Jeannot 1 petit Jeannot! He is lost already!”
“La truffayri!” said la Mere Laurent.
“The barren one!” whispered Elodie.
“When Claude her own husband was no good she tried every man in the village!”
“But that was no use either.” “Then she robbed the womb of Diane!” “The barren thief!” “To rob a fool!”
“Who never did anyone any harm.” “Who’s sweet as a lamb!” “Un angel”
“She took him dripping from the other’s womb. I saw her!” said Eloise. “She wouldn’t give him back. She put her viper’s tongue into the ear of the husband, Jeannot pere; she said, ‘Quick! Quick! send her to the nuns! The little one will catch the trouble in her head. How would you like to see your son eating grass, eating snowdrops? And you a butcher 1’ She robbed the womb! I saw her! But the womb is wise, even if the head is lost. Wait, wait, they will meet now!”
“Sh! Sh!” said Elodie.
“Pretend it is nothing,” said the Virgin.
“Jeannot! My little Jeannot!” shrieked Cenobie la Truffayri, dashing across the square, wringing her hands, running out her red tongue to wet her lips, dry with fright. “Is he in there? Where is he? Where is he? Eloise, Elodie, Francine! Animaux! Cochons! Salauds! You have stolen my little Jeannot 1”
“Stolen him! You are a pretty one to talk of stealing!” taunted her neighbors. “Thief! Truffle hunter! Thief of the womb!”
“Thieves yourself!” cried the dark girl, wild with fright, with rage. “My little Jeannot, where is he?”
All drew, then, round the wary door of the House of the Tower.
Inside, on the floor, the little Jeannot and the young fair-haired girl of whom he was a miniature were playing with a ball of string like a couple of kittens.
“Via! Via!” cried Eloise and Elodie with triumph.
“A wise mother knows her own blood,” said la Mere Laurent.
Every evening for a week Eloise, Elodie, Francine the Virgin, and whatever men of the village wanted a little diversion, gathered at the house of Jeannot the Butcher to see the sly warfare between his returned wife, Diane, the Little Fool, and that thief Cenobie (There is no thief like the truffle hunter!) who had sneaked the child from the other’s womb, seized the mother’s place in the House of the Tower, and looked on little Jeannot as her own.
“Two women! That must be goodl” said Fenelon the Turner.
“All comfortable under one roof,” said Calixte.
“Les Conseillers, they should put a stop to it!” said la Mere Laurent.
“Let us go and see!” said the Virgin.
Along with the House of the Tower and his daft wife, Diane, stupid Jeannot the Butcher had acquired three beds, part of Diane’s dower. One of these was a large canopied bed hung with a cotton cloth of blue and white, which stood in the alcove, a small bed for a child beside it. Another medium-sized bed stood in the far corner of the large kitchen. The first week after Diane’s return the question of how and when these beds were occupied became a matter of conjecture by the Garrigous, the Surtainvilles, and the Laurents.
Each day when the neighbors visited the house on some pretext, the child’s bed was found to be in a different position. Sometimes it rested by the big bed in the alcove, as had long been customary; sometimes it stood nervously in the middle of the vast kitchen, as though about to be jerked this way or that. Likewise, the child Jeannot ran hesitant, now here, now there.
“I’ve a honey drop for you,” Diane would say. “Viens! Viens! It flew into my pocket for my little Jeannot! It has gauze wings, this honey drop! Viens! Viens! It will fly from the pocket of Maman into your mouth.”
And Cenobie, brooding in the chimney, would wheedle: “Here is my wedding ring—you can learn to read from the letters on the inside of this ring. It is gold—see how bright it is! It is of the gold of Figeac, my little Jeannot! Come! Take the ring of M’man!”
“M’man!” he would cry and run to Cenobie and twirl the gold wedding ring on her finger; and “Maman!” he shrieked and put his head into Diane’s breast which, though she was daft, was as soft as milk.
“Two women may be very well,” said la Mere Laurent, “and save a man many steps, but two mothers! That is too much!”
When Diane had been home ten months, neighbors noticed that the bed of little Jeannot sat quietly at last by the single bed in the far corner of the kitchen. Diane wandered off now, often, up in the Causse, down in the valley, out to Pradines.
“You and little Jeannot, you play!” she said to Cenobie. “Some day I may never come back.”
“Her mother love was short-lived, the Little Fool!” said Elodie.
“But watch!” said Eloise.
Cenobie grew gentle with hope. She had the child now most of every day and all night. “Diane, she is a good girl,” she said. They walked with twined arms.
Jeannot the Butcher slept sometimes with his wife, Diane, in the big bed in the alcove, and sometimes with that brown thing, Cenobie, in the medium-sized bed in the corner.
“It is a scandal!” said la Mere Laurent.
“It is the child both women want,” said Eloise.
One day the blond girl, Diane, and the brown girl, Cenobie, were alone in the kitchen preparing soup. The kitchen was a large white-washed room, blackened with smoke and rather dark, so that even in winter it was wiser to leave the door open to give more light and to make the chimney draw. Now, in spring, both doors and windows were wide. There were two chimneys: one to the left, which was used for cooking; another, opposite the door, which was never lit. Its enormous mouth was hung with strings of garlic, red peppers, and shallots, and its rusted fire-back, tall as a man, was traced with some half obliterated design.
“This soup, it needs another shallot,” said Diane. “Watch, I will get it!”
Cenobie turned half around.
Diane put her hand on the fire-back in the chimney, laughed a little, looking cunning, looking out of her face sideways, with her sideways smile, and said: “Oh! Oh! Look out the window! Quick! Quick!” and when Cenobie obeyed her, looked out the window and saw nothing, then turned back to Diane, Diane was not there.
The curtains in the room sniffed out, sniffed in; the strings of garlic, peppers, and shallots just slightly stirred; otherwise there was no motion in the room, no sound. Cenobie knocked on the wall of the chimney with her hand, kicked the salt box, looked in the cupboard, threw back the red quilt from the bed, ran out the side door into the barnyard, stared at the Tower, ran out into the square. When she rushed back into the kitchen, breathing hard, feeling funny in her belly, her eyes fastened on the chimney where the strings of peppers, garlics, and shallots were now blowing outward slowly as though disturbed by a current of air.
“She is a witch!” said Cenobie, and she approached the great mouth of the chimney cautiously, certain suddenly that Diane must have passed beyond its natural confines; and she followed, pushing at the bruised strings of onions and shallots, which made her eyes water in the dark.
She felt, then, for the fire-back, but where it had been there was now nothing but a cold draught. This draught caught her skirt, twisted it, then filled it like a bell, till she was almost levitated in air. Her hair was lifted and a smell of fetid stone blew in her upturned face. Diane spoke, then, over Cenobie’s head, in a matter-of-fact voice: “We need another leek for the pot-au-feu. They are on the first floor of the Tower. In the Tower they keep forever, the leeks, angelique also, and pate-de-foie. My mother showed me. Come too.”
“Imagine! Quelle folle!” At the top of a small stair roughly cut in the solid stone behind the fire-back Diane was sitting at ease, eating a shallot. A dim light from slits of windows, high above her, slanted across her fair head; the draught caught her hair and blew it like a candle flame, this way and that. Into this thin shaft of light Cenobie now also moved, taking each step with a delicious shiver. The square tower room, to which the steep stair led, was almost spacious. The high slits of windows on the river side winked; the vaulted ceiling made a dizzy curve, and on the floor in the grey light vast piles of vegetables were arranged symmetrically in pyramids and domes. Some of these were fresh, as though recently placed; some rotted, the pyramids fallen in decay, as though they had lain forever.
“Vial” Diane said. “These my mother put here. They are a little spoiled. But these are mine: I placed them when you and Jeannot were not looking. And see! See here!” Diane opened a little door and pushed Cenobie to it. “See! the cistern! and full of water! The Dieudonnes, they never have thirst when others needl And cornel Come up higher! There is wine for you! Four barrels! You thought the wine in the cellar was all there was, and Jeannot, he thought so! But it is well, now, that you know better. When I have gone back to Figeac for a drink of water you will know and give the wine to little Jeannot. And foie gras—see! It is fresh, though it has lain here years. But the top floor of the tower is the best. The Dieu-donne grapes—no one knew why they lasted, till spring even—till now! It is cold in the tower. It is better than underground for keeping grapes. But they are sweet! They are not wrinkled, even in summer. Seel” said Diane, opening another small door and running up the stone stair in the solid wall, “The pigeon baskets of my grandmother!
They are made of willow. She used to gather babies in them when the pigeons were not using them.”
“Tiens!” said Cenobie. “They are all around the walls; they are good baskets still; te, they would be good for truffles!”
“Remind me, when we come down, and I will give you one,” said Diane.
On the fourth floor of the tower there was a fireplace and a shaft in the thick stone which Diane said was used in warfare for pouring oil on the enemy in the valley below. There was a smell of musk in the place; the enormous stones which composed the tower sweated, and the sweat evaporated into the chill air.
“It keeps the grapes perfect,” said Diane.
The fifth floor of the tower was indeed hung almost solid with grapes. Their wild, sweet, almost sickish odor blew into the faces of the girls when they climbed the last stone step.
“I put them here when everyone was at the fete of Ste. Catherine. See, see how fresh they are! They are bigger over here!” said Diane, moving to the farthest side of the chamber: “You choose some for little Jeannot.”
Diane moved back slowly, choosing for herself, with deliberation, a bunch here, a bunch there. When she came near the door, she suddenly slid through it, closed it noiselessly behind her and shot the iron bolt.
Then she ran lightly down two flights of stairs, closing and fastening two doors behind her. On the third floor she paused a moment, looking at the pigeon baskets hanging on the wall.
“My grandmother gathered babies in them when the pigeons were not using them,” she said, and picking out the soundest of them with care, she hung it over her arm, descended the remaining stair, slid the fire-back across the chimney behind her, crossed the kitchen with a shallot in her hand, and continued making the pot-au-feu for her husband, Jeannot pere.
When the soup was done, stupid Jeannot came through the arched door from the butcher shop in the rear.
“Where is Cenobie?” he said, crossing the bread, breaking it in his soup, and eating the soaked hunks with his fingers.
“She has gone to Figeac for a drink of water,” said Diane, picking up the bed of little Jeannot in her slim arms and placing it beside the parent bed in the alcove off the kitchen.
Francine the Virgin dropped in after supper. She regarded the bed of little Jeannot, once more peaceful by his mother’s and father’s.
“Where is Cenobie la Truffayri?” she said, running her avid fingers over the table, over the chimney, over the small bed, picking up crumbs of drama with her artist’s fingers, putting them in her hungry mouth and swallowing them, so she would have them for another day.
“She has gone to Figeac for a drink of water,” said Diane, rocking little Jeannot in her arms, picking the lice out of his golden hair: “Un! Deux! Trois!”
When he fell asleep against her, she rose, put him in the bed beside her own: “La! Lai” and returned to the fire looking at one, at another. “See my pigeon basket,” she said. “I gather babies in it when the pigeons are not using it.”
“Tais-toi!” said Jeannot.
Cosette, la Mere Laurent, Eloise, and Elodie joined the group around the faggots.
The Virgin began telling a story. As she talked, she made all manner of gestures with her lively hands; her enormous eyes, which were the color of red wine in an amber bottle, sparkled and shone; her tongue showed bright scarlet against her teeth, and her red hair licked against the whitewashed walls like the flames of a mounting fire. Fe-licite stopped knitting, Jeannot’s lip fell ajar, Diane retreated into dream. The faggots on the hearth presently went out, but the listeners relaxed themselves, tickled and warmed themselves at Francine, as though she were a fire.
When the story rose to its most exciting point, a sound, a slight scuffle, a little, far scratch, a faint froufrou, troubled the air of the room.
“What is that?” cried the Virgin, her gesturing hand arrested in air.
“Mon Dieu!” said Eloise.
“Jesus!” breathed Elodie.
Diane put down the basket with which she had been playing.
“We have rats,” she said quietly.
“But surely, it is rats!” said Eloise, looking sheepish.
“The rats, they are a pest!” said Elodie.
“Go on! Go on with the story,” said la Mere Laurent.
Two weeks later the village became alarmed at the nonappearance of Cenobie la Truffayri. It was reported she had never been to Figeac at all. The men hunted for her under the “Fall,” down in the well; they dragged the river, even.
“Oh well,” said Jeannot the Butcher, “one woman is enough.” He went to the cupboard and took out a glass: “I will have some bon Pernot!”
Diane held petit Jeannot in her arms. She picked the lice from his head: “Un! Deux! Trois!” She kissed his mouth and sang:
Mon petit Jeannot, Fais dodo, Jeannot, T’auras du lolo. Maman est en haut, Qui fait du gateau, Papa est en bas, Qui fait du chocolat.
Then she undressed and followed her impatient husband to the big bed, hung with blue and white curtains, in the alcove of the kitchen. She leaned away from him to tuck in the child: Mon petit Jeannot, Fais dodo, Jeannot—
She kept one hand upon the little body throughout all her husband’s caresses.
It was summer now, and the room was lovely, solemn, and still.
Presently, Jeannot pere turned over, sighed with satisfaction, and said drowsily: “I haven’t heard the rat lately.” “No,” said the Little Fool, “I caught it in a trap.”