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Title: Ramuntcho
Author: Loti, Pierre
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Ramuntcho" ***

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RAMUNTCHO

By Pierre Loti


Translated by Henri Pene du Bois



PART I.



CHAPTER I.

The sad curlews, annunciators of the autumn, had just appeared in a
mass in a gray squall, fleeing from the high sea under the threat of
approaching tempests. At the mouth of the southern rivers, of the Adour,
of the Nivelle, of the Bidassoa which runs by Spain, they wandered above
the waters already cold, flying low, skimming, with their wings over the
mirror-like surfaces. And their cries, at the fall of the October night,
seemed to ring the annual half-death of the exhausted plants.

On the Pyrenean lands, all bushes and vast woods, the melancholy of the
rainy nights of declining seasons fell slowly, enveloping like a shroud,
while Ramuntcho walked on the moss-covered path, without noise, shod
with rope soles, supple and silent in his mountaineer’s tread.

Ramuntcho was coming on foot from a very long distance, ascending the
regions neighboring the Bay of Biscay, toward his isolated house which
stood above, in a great deal of shade, near the Spanish frontier.

Around the solitary passer-by, who went up so quickly without trouble
and whose march in sandals was not heard, distances more and more
profound deepened on all sides, blended in twilight and mist.

The autumn, the autumn marked itself everywhere. The corn, herb of the
lowlands, so magnificently green in the Spring, displayed shades of dead
straw in the depths of the valleys, and, on all the summits, beeches
and oaks shed their leaves. The air was almost cold; an odorous humidity
came out of the mossy earth and, at times, there came from above a light
shower. One felt it near and anguishing, that season of clouds and of
long rains, which returns every time with the same air of bringing the
definitive exhaustion of saps and irremediable death,--but which passes
like all things and which one forgets at the following spring.

Everywhere, in the wet of the leaves strewing the earth, in the wet
of the herbs long and bent, there was a sadness of death, a dumb
resignation to fecund decomposition.

But the autumn, when it comes to put an end to the plants, brings only
a sort of far-off warning to man, a little more durable, who resists
several winters and lets himself be lured several times by the charm
of spring. Man, in the rainy nights of October and of November, feels
especially the instinctive desire to seek shelter at home, to warm
himself at the hearth, under the roof which so many thousand years
amassed have taught him progressively to build.--And Ramuntcho felt
awakening in the depths of his being the old ancestral aspirations for
the Basque home of the country, the isolated home, unattached to the
neighboring homes. He hastened his steps the more toward the primitive
dwelling where his mother was waiting for him.

Here and there, one perceived them in the distance, indistinct in the
twilight, the Basque houses, very distant from one another, dots white
or grayish, now in the depth of some gorge steeped in darkness, then on
some ledge of the mountains with summits lost in the obscure sky. Almost
inconsequential are these human habitations, in the immense and confused
entirety of things; inconsequential and even annihilated quite, at
this hour, before the majesty of the solitude and of the eternal forest
nature.

Ramuntcho ascended rapidly, lithe, bold and young, still a child, likely
to play on his road as little mountaineers play, with a rock, a reed, or
a twig that one whittles while walking. The air was growing sharper,
the environment harsher, and already he ceased to hear the cries of the
curlews, their rusty-pulley cries, on the rivers beneath. But Ramuntcho
was singing one of those plaintive songs of the olden time, which are
still transmitted in the depths of the distant lands, and his naive
voice went through the mist or the rain, among the wet branches of the
oaks, under the grand shroud, more and more sombre, of isolation, of
autumn and of night.

He stopped for an instant, pensive, to see a cart drawn by oxen pass
at a great distance above him. The cowboy who drove the slow team sang
also; through a bad and rocky path, they descended into a ravine bathed
in shadows already nocturnal.

And soon they disappeared in a turn of the path, masked suddenly by
trees, as if they had vanished in an abyss. Then Ramuntcho felt the
grasp of an unexpected melancholy, unexplained like most of his complex
impressions, and, with an habitual gesture, while he resumed his less
alert march, he brought down like a visor on his gray eyes, very sharp
and very soft, the crown of his woolen Basque cap.

Why?--What had to do with him this cart, this singing cowboy whom he
did not even know? Evidently nothing--and yet, for having seen them
disappear into a lodging, as they did doubtless every night, into some
farm isolated in a lowland, a more exact realization had come to him of
the humble life of the peasant, attached to the soil and to the native
field, of those human lives as destitute of joy as beasts of burden, but
with declines more prolonged and more lamentable. And, at the same time,
through his mind had passed the intuitive anxiety for other places, for
the thousand other things that one may see or do in this world and
which one may enjoy; a chaos of troubling half thoughts, of atavic
reminiscences and of phantoms had furtively marked themselves in the
depths of his savage child’s mind--

For Ramuntcho was a mixture of two races very different and of two
beings separated, if one may say it, by an abyss of several generations.
Created by the sad fantasy of one of the refined personages of our
dazzled epoch, he had been inscribed at his birth as the “son of an
unknown father” and he bore no other name than that of his mother. So,
he did not feel that he was quite similar to his companions in games and
healthy fatigues.

Silent for a moment, he walked less quickly toward his house, on the
deserted paths winding on the heights. In him, the chaos of other
things, of the luminous “other places”, of the splendors or of the
terrors foreign to his own life, agitated itself confusedly, trying
to disentangle itself--But no, all this, being indistinct and
incomprehensible, remained formless in the darkness.

At last, thinking no more of it, he began to sing his song again. The
song told, in monotonous couplets, the complaint of a linen weaver whose
lover in a distant war prolonged his absence. It was written in that
mysterious Euskarian language, the age of which seems incalculable and
the origin of which remains unknown. And little by little, under the
influence of the ancient melody, of the wind and of the solitude,
Ramuntcho found himself as he was at the beginning of his walk, a simple
Basque mountaineer, sixteen or seventeen years old, formed like a man,
but retaining the ignorance and the candor of a little boy.

Soon he perceived Etchezar, his parish, its belfry massive as the
dungeon of a fortress; near the church, some houses were grouped;
others, more numerous, had preferred to be disseminated in the
surroundings, among trees, in ravines or on bluffs. The night fell
entirely, hastily that evening, because of the sombre veils hooked to
the great summits.

Around this village, above or in the valleys, the Basque country
appeared, at that moment, like a confusion of gigantic, obscure masses.
Long mists disarranged the perspectives; all the distances, all the
depths had become inappreciable, the changing mountains seemed to have
grown taller in the nebulous phantasmagoria of night. The hour, one knew
not why, became strangely solemn, as if the shade of past centuries
was to come out of the soil. On the vast lifting-up which is called the
Pyrenees, one felt something soaring which was, perhaps, the finishing
mind of that race, the fragments of which have been preserved and to
which Ramuntcho belonged by his mother--

And the child, composed of two essences so diverse, who was walking
alone toward his dwelling, through the night and the rain, began again
in the depth of his double being to feel the anxiety of inexplicable
reminiscences.

At last he arrived in front of his house,--which was very elevated, in
the Basque fashion, with old wooden balconies under narrow windows, the
glass of which threw into the night the light of a lamp. As he came
near the entrance, the light noise of his walk became feebler in the
thickness of the dead leaves: the leaves of those plane-trees shaped
like vaults which, according to the usage of the land, form a sort of
atrium before each dwelling.

She recognized from afar the steps of her son, the serious Franchita,
pale and straight in her black clothes,--the one who formerly had loved
and followed the stranger; then, who, feeling her desertion approaching,
had returned courageously to the village in order to inhabit alone the
dilapidated house of her deceased parents. Rather than to live in the
vast city, and to be troublesome and a solicitor there, she had quickly
resolved to depart, to renounce everything, to make a simple Basque
peasant of that little Ramuntcho, who, at his entrance in life, had worn
gowns embroidered in white silk.

It was fifteen years ago, fifteen years, when she returned,
clandestinely, at a fall of night similar to this one. In the first days
of this return, dumb and haughty to her former companions from fear of
their disdain, she would go out only to go to church, her black cloth
mantilla lowered on her eyes. Then, at length, when curiosity
was appeased, she had returned to her habits, so valiantly and so
irreproachably that all had forgiven her.

To greet and embrace her son she smiled with joy and tenderness, but,
silent by nature and reserved as both were, they said to each other only
what it was useful to say.

He sat at his accustomed place to eat the soup and the smoking
dish which she served to him without speaking. The room, carefully
kalsomined, was made gay by the sudden light of a flame of branches in
the tall and wide chimney ornamented with a festoon of white calico.
In frames, hooked in good order, there were images of Ramuntcho’s first
communion and different figures of saints with Basque legends; then the
Virgin of Pilar, the Virgin of Anguish, and rosaries, and blessed palms.
The kitchen utensils shone, in a line on shelves sealed to the walls;
every shelf ornamented with one of those pink paper frills, cut in
designs, which are manufactured in Spain and on which are printed,
invariably, series of personages dancing with castanets, or scenes in
the lives of the toreadors. In this white interior, before this joyful
and clear chimney, one felt an impression of home, a tranquil welfare,
which was augmented by the notion of the vast, wet, surrounding night,
of the grand darkness of the valleys, of the mountains and of the woods.

Franchita, as every evening, looked long at her son, looked at him
embellishing and growing, taking more and more an air of decision and
of force, as his brown mustache was more and more marked above his fresh
lips.

When he had supped, eaten with his young mountaineer’s appetite several
slices of bread and drunk two glasses of cider, he rose, saying:

“I am going to sleep, for we have to work tonight.”

“Ah!” exclaimed the mother, “and when are you to get up?”

“At one o’clock, as soon as the moon sets. They will whistle under the
window.”

“What is it?”

“Bundles of silk and bundles of velvet.”

“With whom are you going?”

“The same as usual: Arrochkoa, Florentino and the Iragola brothers. It
is, as it was the other night, for Itchoua, with whom I have just made
an engagement. Good-night, mother--Oh, we shall not be out late and,
sure, I will be back before mass.”

Then, Franchita leaned her head on the solid shoulder of her son, in
a coaxing humor almost infantile, different suddenly from her habitual
manner, and, her cheek against his, she remained tenderly leaning, as
if to say in a confident abandonment of her will: “I am still troubled
a little by those night undertakings; but, when I reflect, what you wish
is always well; I am dependent on you, and you are everything--”

On the shoulder of the stranger, formerly, it was her custom to lean and
to abandon herself thus, in the time when she loved him.

When Ramuntcho had gone to his little room, she stayed thinking for a
longer time than usual before resuming her needlework. So, it became
decidedly his trade, this night work in which one risks receiving the
bullets of Spain’s carbineers!--He had begun for amusement, in bravado,
like most of them, and as his friend Arrochkoa was beginning, in the
same band as he; then, little by little, he had made a necessity of this
continual adventure in dark nights; he deserted more and more, for this
rude trade, the open air workshop of the carpenter where she had placed
him as an apprentice to carve beams out of oak trunks.

And that was what he would be in life, her little Ramuntcho, so coddled
formerly in his white gown and for whom she had formed naively so many
dreams: a smuggler! Smuggler and pelota player,--two things which go
well together and which are essentially Basque.

She hesitated still, however, to let him follow that unexpected
vocation. Not in disdain for smugglers, oh, no, for her father had been
a smuggler; her two brothers also; the elder killed by a Spanish bullet
in the forehead, one night that he was swimming across the Bidassoa, the
second a refugee in America to escape the Bayonne prison; both respected
for their audacity and their strength. No, but he, Ramuntcho, the son of
the stranger, he, doubtless, might have had pretensions to lead a less
harsh life than these men if, in a hasty and savage moment, she had
not separated him from his father and brought him back to the Basque
mountains. In truth, he was not heartless, Ramuntcho’s father; when,
fatally, he had wearied of her, he had made some efforts not to let her
see it and never would he have abandoned her with her child if, in her
pride, she had not quitted him. Perhaps it would be her duty to-day to
write to him, to ask him to think of his son--

And now the image of Gracieuse presented itself naturally to her mind,
as it did every time she thought of Ramuntcho’s future. She was the
little betrothed whom she had been wishing for him for ten years. (In
the sections of country unacquainted with modern fashions, it is usual
to marry when very young and often to know and select one another for
husband and wife in the first years of life.) A little girl with hair
fluffed in a gold mist, daughter of a friend of her childhood, of a
certain Dolores Detcharry, who had been always conceited--and who had
remained contemptuous since the epoch of the great fault.

Certainly, the father’s intervention in the future of Ramuntcho would
have a decisive influence in obtaining the hand of that girl--and would
permit even of asking it of Dolores with haughtiness, after the ancient
quarrel. But Franchita felt a great uneasiness in her, increasing as the
thought of addressing herself to that man became more precise. And then,
she recalled the look, so often sombre, of the stranger, she recalled
his vague words of infinite lassitude, of incomprehensible despair; he
had the air of seeing always, beyond her horizon, distant abysses and
darkness, and, although he was not an insulter of sacred things, never
would he pray, thus giving to her this excess of remorse, of having
allied herself to some pagan to whom heaven would be closed forever.
His friends were similar to him, refined also, faithless, prayerless,
exchanging among themselves in frivolous words abysmal thoughts.--Oh,
if Ramuntcho by contact with them were to become similar to them
all!--desert the churches, fly from the sacraments and the mass!--Then,
she remembered the letters of her old father,--now decomposed in the
profound earth, under a slab of granite, near the foundations of his
parish church--those letters in Euskarian tongue which he wrote to her,
after the first months of indignation and of silence, in the city where
she had dragged her fault. “At least, my poor Franchita, my daughter,
are you in a country where the men are pious and go to church
regularly?--” Oh! no, they were hardly pious, the men of the great city,
not more the fashionable ones who were in the society of Ramuntcho’s
father than the humblest laborers in the suburban district where
she lived hidden; all carried away by the same current far from the
hereditary dogmas, far from the antique symbols.--And Ramuntcho, in such
surroundings, how would he resist?--

Other reasons, less important perhaps, retained her also. Her haughty
dignity, which in that city had maintained her honest and solitary,
revolted truly at the idea that she would have to reappear as a
solicitor before her former lover. Then, her superior commonsense, which
nothing had ever been able to lead astray or to dazzle, told her that it
was too late now to change anything; that Ramuntcho, until now ignorant
and free, would not know how to attain the dangerous regions where
the intelligence of his father had elevated itself, but that he would
languish at the bottom, like one outclassed. And, in fine, a sentiment
which she hardly confessed to herself, lingered powerfully in the depths
of her heart: the fear of losing her son, of guiding him no longer, of
holding him no longer, of having him no longer.--And so, in that instant
of decisive reflection, after having hesitated for years, she inclined
more and more to remain stubborn in her silence with regard to the
stranger and to let pass humbly near her the life of her Ramuntcho,
under the protecting looks of the Virgin and the saints.--There remained
unsolved the question of Gracieuse Detcharry.--Well, she would marry, in
spite of everything, her son, smuggler and poor though he be! With her
instinct of a mother somewhat savagely loving, she divined that the
little girl was enamoured enough not to fall out of love ever; she had
seen this in her fifteen year old black eyes, obstinate and grave under
the golden nimbus of her hair. Gracieuse marrying Ramuntcho for his
charm alone, in spite of and against maternal will!--The rancor and
vindictiveness that lurked in the mind of Franchita rejoiced suddenly at
that great triumph over the pride of Dolores.

Around the isolated house where, under the grand silence of midnight,
she decided alone her son’s future, the spirit of the Basque ancestors
passed, sombre and jealous also, disdainful of the stranger, fearful of
impiety, of changes, of evolutions of races;--the spirit of the Basque
ancestors, the old immutable spirit which still maintains that people
with eyes turned toward the anterior ages; the mysterious antique spirit
by which the children are led to act as before them their fathers had
acted, at the side of the same mountains, in the same villages, around
the same belfries.--

The noise of steps now, in the dark, outside!--Someone walking softly
in sandals on the thickness of the plane-tree leaves strewing the
soil.--Then, a whistled appeal.--

What, already!--Already one o’clock in the morning--!

Quite resolved now, she opened the door to the chief smuggler with a
smile of greeting that the latter had never seen in her:

 “Come in, Itchoua,” she said, “warm yourself--while I go wake up my
son.”

A tall and large man, that Itchoua, thin, with a thick chest, clean
shaven like a priest, in accordance with the fashion of the old time
Basque; under the cap which he never took off, a colorless face,
inexpressive, cut as with a pruning hook, and recalling the beardless
personages archaically drawn on the missals of the fifteenth century.
Above his hollow cheeks, the breadth of the jaws, the jutting out of the
muscles of the neck gave the idea of his extreme force. He was of the
Basque type, excessively accentuated; eyes caved-in too much under the
frontal arcade; eyebrows of rare length, the points of which, lowered
as on the figures of tearful madonnas, almost touched the hair at the
temples. Between thirty and fifty years, it was impossible to assign an
age to him. His name was Jose-Maria Gorosteguy; but, according to the
custom he was known in the country by the surname of Itchoua (the Blind)
given to him in jest formerly, because of his piercing sight which
plunged in the night like that of cats. He was a practising Christian, a
church warden of his parish and a chorister with a thundering voice. He
was famous also for his power of resistance to fatigue, being capable of
climbing the Pyrenean slopes for hours at racing speed with heavy loads
on his back.

Ramuntcho came down soon, rubbing his eyelids, still heavy from a
youthful sleep, and, at his aspect, the gloomy visage of Itchoua was
illuminated by a smile. A continual seeker for energetic and strong boys
that he might enroll in his band, and knowing how to keep them in spite
of small wages, by a sort of special point of honor, he was an expert in
legs and in shoulders as well as in temperaments, and he thought a great
deal of his new recruit.

Franchita, before she would let them go, leaned her head again on her
son’s neck; then she escorted the two men to the threshold of her door,
opened on the immense darkness,--and recited piously the Pater for them,
while they went into the dark night, into the rain, into the chaos of
the mountains, toward the obscure frontier.



CHAPTER II.

Several hours later, at the first uncertain flush of dawn, at the
instant when shepherds and fisherman awake, they were returning
joyously, the smugglers, having finished their undertaking.

Having started on foot and gone, with infinite precautions to be silent,
through ravines, through woods, through fords of rivers, they were
returning, as if they were people who had never anything to conceal from
anybody, in a bark of Fontarabia, hired under the eyes of Spain’s custom
house officers, through the Bidassoa river.

All the mass of mountains and of clouds, all the sombre chaos of the
preceding night had disentangled itself almost suddenly, as under the
touch of a magic wand. The Pyrenees, returned to their real proportions,
were only average mountains, with slopes bathed in a shadow still
nocturnal, but with peaks neatly cut in a sky which was already
clearing. The air had become lukewarm, suave, exquisite, as if the
climate or the season had suddenly changed,--and it was the southern
wind which was beginning to blow, the delicious southern wind special to
the Basque country, which chases before it, the cold, the clouds and
the mists, which enlivens the shades of all things, makes the sky blue,
prolongs the horizons infinitely and gives, even in winter, summer
illusions.

The boatman who was bringing the smugglers back to France pushed the
bottom of the river with his long pole, and the bark dragged, half
stranded. At this moment, that Bidassoa by which the two countries are
separated, seemed drained, and its antique bed, excessively large, had
the flat extent of a small desert.

The day was decidedly breaking, tranquil and slightly pink. It was the
first of the month of November; on the Spanish shore, very distant, in
a monastery, an early morning bell rang clear, announcing the religious
solemnity of every autumn. And Ramuntcho, comfortably seated in the
bark, softly cradled and rested after the fatigues of the night,
breathed the new breeze with well-being in all his senses. With a
childish joy, he saw the assurance of a radiant weather for that
All-Saints’ Day which was to bring to him all that he knew of this
world’s festivals: the chanted high mass, the game of pelota before
the assembled village, then, at last, the dance of the evening with
Gracieuse, the fandango in the moon-light on the church square.

He lost, little by little, the consciousness of his physical life,
Ramuntcho, after his sleepless night; a sort of torpor, benevolent under
the breath of the virgin morning, benumbed his youthful body, leaving
his mind in a dream. He knew well such impressions and sensations, for
the return at the break of dawn, in the security of a bark where one
sleeps, is the habitual sequel of a smuggler’s expedition.

And all the details of the Bidassoa’s estuary were familiar to him,
all its aspects, which changed with the hour, with the monotonous and
regular tide.--Twice every day the sea wave comes to this flat bed;
then, between France and Spain there is a lake, a charming little sea
with diminutive blue waves--and the barks float, the barks go quickly;
the boatmen sing their old time songs, which the grinding and the shocks
of the cadenced oars accompany. But when the waters have withdrawn, as
at this moment, there remains between the two countries only a sort of
lowland, uncertain and of changing color, where walk men with bare legs,
where barks drag themselves, creeping.

They were now in the middle of this lowland, Ramuntcho and his band,
half dozing under the dawning light. The colors of things began to
appear, out of the gray of night. They glided, they advanced by slight
jerks, now through yellow velvet which was sand, then through a brown
thing, striped regularly and dangerous to walkers, which was slime.
And thousands of little puddles, left by the tide of the day before,
reflected the dawn, shone on the soft extent like mother-of-pearl
shells. On the little yellow and brown desert, their boatman followed
the course of a thin, silver stream, which represented the Bidassoa at
low tide. From time to time, some fisherman crossed their path, passed
near them in silence, without singing as the custom is in rowing, too
busy poling, standing in his bark and working his pole with beautiful
plastic gestures.

While they were day-dreaming, they approached the French shore, the
smugglers. On the other side of the strange zone which they were
traversing as in a sled, that silhouette of an old city, which fled from
them slowly, was Fontarabia; those highlands which rose to the sky
with figures so harsh, were the Spanish Pyrenees. All this was Spain,
mountainous Spain, eternally standing there in the face of them and
incessantly preoccupying their minds: a country which one must reach in
silence, in dark nights, in nights without moonlight, under the rain of
winter; a country which is the perpetual aim of dangerous expeditions; a
country which, for the men of Ramuntcho’s village, seems always to close
the southwestern horizon, while it changes in appearance according to
the clouds and the hours; a country which is the first to be lighted by
the pale sun of mornings and which masks afterward, like a sombre screen
the red sun of evenings.--

He adored his Basque land, Ramuntcho,--and this morning was one of the
times when this adoration penetrated him more profoundly. In his after
life, during his exile, the reminiscence of these delightful returns at
dawn, after the nights of smuggling, caused in him an indescribable and
very anguishing nostalgia. But his love for the hereditary soil was not
as simple as that of his companions. As in all his sentiments, as in all
his sensations, there were mingled in it diverse elements. At first the
instinctive and unanalyzed attachment of his maternal ancestors to the
native soil, then something more refined coming from his father, an
unconscious reflection of the artistic admiration which had retained the
stranger here for several seasons and had given to him the caprice of
allying himself with a girl of these mountains in order to obtain a
Basque descendance.--



CHAPTER III.

It is eleven o’clock now, and the bells of France and Spain mingle above
the frontier their religious festival vibrations.

Bathed, rested, and in Sunday dress, Ramuntcho was going with his mother
to the high mass of All-Saints’ Day. On the path, strewn with reddish
leaves, they descended toward their parish, under a warm sun which gave
to them the illusion of summer.

He, dressed in a manner almost elegant and like a city denizen, save for
the traditional Basque cap, which he wore on the side and pulled down
like a visor over his childish eyes. She, straight and proud, her head
high, her demeanor distinguished, in a gown of new form; having the air
of a society woman, except for the mantilla; made of black cloth, which
covered her hair and her shoulders. In the great city formerly she had
learned how to dress--and anyway, in the Basque country, where so many
ancient traditions have been preserved, the women and the girls of the
least important villages have all taken the habit of dressing in the
fashion of the day, with an elegance unknown to the peasants of the
other French provinces.

They separated, as etiquette ordains, in the yard of the church, where
the immense cypress trees smelled of the south and the Orient. It
resembled a mosque from the exterior, their parish, with its tall, old,
ferocious walls, pierced at the top only by diminutive windows, with its
warm color of antiquity, of dust and of sun.

While Franchita entered by one of the lower doors, Ramuntcho went up
a venerable stone stairway which led one from the exterior wall to the
high tribunes reserved for men.

The extremity of the sombre church was of dazzling old gold, with a
profusion of twisted columns, of complicated entablements, of statues
with excessive convolutions and with draperies in the style of the
Spanish Renaissance. And this magnificence of the tabernacle was in
contrast with the simplicity of the lateral walls, simply kalsomined.
But an air of extreme old age harmonized these things, which one felt
were accustomed for centuries to endure in the face of one another.

It was early still, and people were hardly arriving for this high mass.
Leaning on the railing of his tribune, Ramuntcho looked at the women
entering, all like black phantoms, their heads and dress concealed under
the mourning cashmere which it is usual to wear at church. Silent and
collected, they glided on the funereal pavement of mortuary slabs, where
one could read still, in spite of the effacing of ages, inscriptions
in Euskarian tongue, names of extinguished families and dates of past
centuries.

Gracieuse, whose coming preoccupied Ramuntcho, was late. But, to
distract his mind for a moment, a “convoy” advanced slowly; a convoy,
that is a parade of parents and nearest neighbors of one who had died
during the week, the men still draped in the long cape which is worn at
funerals, the women under the mantle and the traditional hood of full
mourning.

Above, in the two immense tribunes superposed along the sides of the
nave, the men came one by one to take their places, grave and with
rosaries in their hands: farmers, laborers, cowboys, poachers or
smugglers, all pious and ready to kneel when the sacred bell rang. Each
one of them, before taking his seat, hooked behind him, to a nail on the
wall, his woolen cap, and little by little, on the white background of
the kalsomine, came into line rows of innumerable Basque headgear.

Below, the little girls of the school entered at last, in good order,
escorted by the Sisters of Saint Mary of the Rosary. And, among these
nuns, wrapped in black, Ramuntcho recognized Gracieuse. She, too, had
her head enveloped with black; her blonde hair, which to-night would be
flurried in the breeze of the fandango, was hidden for the moment under
the austere mantilla of the ceremony. Gracieuse had not been a scholar
for two years, but was none the less the intimate friend of the sisters,
her teachers, ever in their company for songs, novenas, or decorations
of white flowers around the statues of the Holy Virgin.--Then, the
priests, in their most sumptuous costumes, appeared in front of
the magnificent gold of the tabernacle, on a platform elevated and
theatrical, and the mass began, celebrated, in this distant village,
with excessive pomp as in a great city. There were choirs of small
boys chanting in infantile voices with a savage ardor. Then choruses of
little girls, whom a sister accompanied at the harmonium and which the
clear and fresh voice of Gracieuse guided. From time to time a clamor
came, like a storm, from the tribunes above where the men were,
a formidable response animated the old vaults, the old sonorous
wainscoting, which for centuries have vibrated with the same song.--

To do the same things which for numberless ages the ancestors have done
and to tell blindly the same words of faith, are indications of supreme
wisdom, are a supreme force. For all the faithful who sang there came
from this immutable ceremony of the mass a sort of peace, a confused but
soft resignation to coming destruction. Living of the present hour, they
lost a little of their ephemeral personality to attach themselves better
to the dead lying under the slabs and to continue them more exactly, to
form with them and their future descendants only one of these resisting
entireties, of almost infinite duration, which is called a race.



CHAPTER IV.

“Ite missa est!” The high mass is finished and the antique church is
emptying. Outside, in the yard, among the tombs, the assistants scatter.
And all the joy of a sunny noon greets them, as they come out of the
sombre nave where each, according to his naive faculties, had caught
more or less a glimpse of the great mystery and of the inevitable death.

Wearing all the uniform national cap, the men come down the exterior
stairway; the women, slower to be captivated by the lure of the blue
sky, retaining still under the mourning veil a little of the dream of
the church, come out of the lower porticoes in black troops; around a
grave freshly closed, some stop and weep.

The southern wind, which is the great magician of the Basque country,
blows softly. The autumn of yesterday has gone and it is forgotten.
Lukewarm breaths pass through the air, vivifying, healthier than those
of May, having the odor of hay and the odor of flowers. Two singers of
the highway are there, leaning on the graveyard wall, and they intone,
with a tambourine and a guitar, an old seguidilla of Spain, bringing
here the warm and somewhat Arabic gaieties of the lands beyond the
frontiers.

And in the midst of all this intoxication of the southern November,
more delicious in this country than the intoxication of the spring,
Ramuntcho, having come down one of the first, watches the coming out of
the sisters in order to greet Gracieuse.

The sandal peddler has come also to this closing of the mass, and
displays among the roses of the tombs his linen foot coverings
ornamented with woolen flowers. Young men, attracted by the dazzling
embroideries, gather around him to select colors.

The bees and the flies buzz as in June; the country has become again,
for a few hours, for a few days, for as long as this wind will blow,
luminous and warm. In front of the mountains, which have assumed violent
brown or sombre green tints, and which seem to have advanced to-day
until they overhang the church, houses of the village appear in relief,
very neat, very white under their coat of kalsomine,--old Pyrenean
houses with their wooden balconies and on their walls intercrossings of
beams in the fashion of the olden time. In the southwest, the visible
portion of Spain, the denuded and red peak familiar to smugglers, stands
straight and near in the beautiful clear sky.

Gracieuse does not appear yet, retarded doubtless by the nuns in
some altar service. As for Franchita, who never mingles in the Sunday
festivals, she takes the path to her house, silent and haughty, after a
smile to her son, whom she will not see again until to-night after the
dances have come to an end.

A group of young men, among whom is the vicar who has just taken off his
golden ornaments, forms itself at the threshold of the church, in
the sun, and seems to be plotting grave projects.--They are the great
players of the country, the fine flower of the lithe and the strong; it
is for the pelota game of the afternoon that they are consulting, and
they make a sign to Ramuntcho who pensively comes to them. Several old
men come also and surround them, caps crushed on white hair and faces
clean shaven like those of monks: champions of the olden time, still
proud of their former successes, and sure that their counsel shall be
respected in the national game, which the men here attend with pride
as on a field of honor.--After a courteous discussion, the game is
arranged; it will be immediately after vespers; they will play the
“blaid” with the wicker glove, and the six selected champions, divided
into two camps, shall be the vicar, Ramuntcho and Arrochkoa, Gracieuse’s
brother, against three famous men of the neighboring villages: Joachim
of Mendiazpi; Florentino of Espelette, and Irrubeta of Hasparren--

Now comes the “convoy”, which comes out of the church and passes by
them, so black in this feast of light, and so archaic, with the envelope
of its capes, of its caps and of its veils. They are expressive of the
Middle Age, these people, while they pass in a file, the Middle Age
whose shadow the Basque country retains. And they express, above all,
death, as the large funereal slabs, with which the nave is paved,
express it, as the cypress trees and the tombs express it, and all the
things in this place, where the men come to pray, express it: death,
always death.--But a death very softly neighboring life, under the
shield of the old consoling symbols--for life is there marked also,
almost equally sovereign, in the warm rays which light up the cemetery,
in the eyes of the children who play among the roses of autumn, in
the smile of those beautiful brown girls who, the mass being finished,
return with steps indolently supple toward the village; in the muscles
of all this youthfulness of men, alert and vigorous, who shall soon
exercise at the ball-game their iron legs and arms.--And of this group
of old men and of boys at the threshold of a church, of this mingling,
so peacefully harmonious, of death and of life, comes the benevolent
lesson, the teaching that one must enjoy in time strength and love;
then, without obstinacy in enduring, submit to the universal law of
passing and dying, repeating with confidence, like these simple-minded
and wise men, the same prayers by which the agonies of the ancestors
were cradled.--

It is improbably radiant, the sun of noon in this yard of the dead.
The air is exquisite and one becomes intoxicated by breathing it. The
Pyrenean horizons have been swept of their clouds, their least
vapors, and it seems as if the wind of the south had brought here the
limpidities of Andalusia or of Africa.

The Basque guitar and tambourine accompany the sung seguilla, which the
beggars of Spain throw, like a slight irony into this lukewarm breeze,
above the dead. And boys and girls think of the fandango of to-night,
feel ascending in them the desire and the intoxication of dancing.--

At last here come the sisters, so long expected by Ramuntcho; with
them advance Gracieuse and her mother, Dolores, who is still in widow’s
weeds, her face invisible under a black cape closed by a crape veil.

What can this Dolores be plotting with the Mother Superior?--Ramuntcho,
knowing that these two women are enemies, is astonished and disquiet
to-day to see them walk side by side. Now they even stop to talk aside,
so important and secret doubtless is what they are saying; their similar
black caps, overhanging like wagon-hoods, touch each other and they talk
sheltered under them; a whispering of phantoms, one would say, under
a sort of little black vault.--And Ramuntcho has the sentiment of
something hostile plotted against him under these two wicked caps.

When the colloquy comes to an end, he advances, touches his cap for a
salute, awkward and timid suddenly in presence of this Dolores, whose
harsh look under the veil he divines. This woman is the only person in
the world who has the power to chill him, and, never elsewhere than in
her presence, he feels weighing upon him the blemish of being the child
of an unknown father, of wearing no other name than that of his mother.

To-day, however, to his great surprise, she is more cordial than usual,
and she says with a voice almost amiable: “Good-morning, my boy!” Then
he goes to Gracieuse, to ask her with a brusque anxiety: “To-night, at
eight o’clock, say if you will be on the square to dance with me?”

For some time, every Sunday had brought to him the same fear of being
deprived of dancing with her in the evening. In the week he hardly ever
saw her. Now that he was becoming a man, the only occasion for him to
have her company was this ball on the green of the square, in the light
of the stars or of the moon.

They had fallen in love with each other five years ago, Ramuntcho and
Gracieuse, when they were still children. And such loves, when by chance
the awakening of the senses confirms instead of destroying them, become
in young heads something sovereign and exclusive.

They had never thought of saying this to each other, they knew it so
well; never had they talked together of the future which did not appear
possible to one without the other. And the isolation of this mountain
village where they lived, perhaps also the hostility of Dolores to their
naive, unexpressed projects, brought them more closely together--

“To-night, at eight o’clock, say if you will be on the square to dance
with me?”

“Yes--” replies the little girl, fixing on her friend eyes of sadness, a
little frightened, as well as of ardent tenderness.

“Sure?” asked Ramuntcho again, whom these eyes make anxious.

“Yes, sure!”

So, he is quieted again this time, knowing that if Gracieuse has said
and decided something one may count on it. And at once the weather seems
to him more beautiful, the Sunday more amusing, life more charming--

The dinner hour calls the Basques now to the houses or to the inns, and,
under the light, somewhat gloomy, of the noon sun, the village seems
deserted.

Ramuntcho goes to the cider mill which the smugglers and pelota players
frequent. There, he sits at a table, his cap still drawn over his eyes,
with his friends: Arrochkoa, two or three others of the mountains and
the somber Itchoua, their chief.

A festive meal is prepared for them, with fish of the Nivelle, ham and
hares. In the foreground of the hall, vast and dilapidated, near the
windows, are the tables, the oak benches on which they are seated; in
the background, in a penumbra, are the enormous casks filled with new
cider.

In this band of Ramuntcho, which is there entire, under the piercing
eye of its chief, reigns an emulation of audacity and a reciprocal,
fraternal devotion; during their night expeditions especially, they are
all one to live or to die.

Leaning heavily, benumbed in the pleasure of resting after the fatigues
of the night and concentrated in the expectation of satiating their
robust hunger, they are silent at first, hardly raising their heads to
look through the window-panes at the passing girls. Two are very young,
almost children like Ramuntcho: Arrochkoa and Florentino. The others
have, like Itchoua, hardened faces, eyes in ambuscade under the frontal
arcade, expressing no certain age; their aspect reveals a past of
fatigues, in the unreasonable obstinacy to pursue this trade of
smuggling, which hardly gives bread to the less skilful.

Then, awakened little by little by the smoking dishes, by the sweet
cider, they talk; soon their words interlace, light, rapid and sonorous,
with an excessive rolling of the _r_. They talk in their mysterious
language, the origin of which is unknown and which seems to the men of
the other countries in Europe more distant than Mongolian or Sanskrit.
They tell stories of the night and of the frontier, stratagems newly
invented and astonishing deceptions of Spanish carbineers. Itchoua, the
chief, listens more than he talks; one hears only at long intervals his
profound voice of a church singer vibrate. Arrochkoa, the most elegant
of all, is in striking contrast with his comrades of the mountain. (His
name was Jean Detcharry, but he was known only by his surname, which the
elders of his family transmitted from father to son for centuries.) A
smuggler for his pleasure, he, without any necessity, and possessing
beautiful lands in the sunlight; the face fresh and pretty, the blonde
mustache turned up in the fashion of cats, the eye feline also, the
eye caressing and fleeting; attracted by all that succeeds, by all that
amuses, by all that shines; liking Ramuntcho for his triumphs in the
ball-game, and quite disposed to give to him the hand of his sister,
Gracieuse, even if it were only to oppose his mother, Dolores. And
Florentino, the other great friend of Ramuntcho is, on the contrary,
the humblest of the band; an athletic, reddish fellow, with wide and
low forehead, with good eyes of resignation, soft as those of beasts of
burden; without father or mother, possessing nothing in the world except
a threadbare costume and three pink cotton shirts; unique lover of a
little fifteen year old orphan, as poor as he and as primitive.

At last Itchoua deigns to talk in his turn. He relates, in a tone of
mystery and of confidence, a certain tale of the time of his youth, in
a black night, on the Spanish territory, in the gorges of Andarlaza.
Seized by two carbineers at the turn in a dark path, he had disengaged
himself by drawing his knife to stab a chest with it: half a second,
a resisting flesh, then, crack! the blade entering brusquely, a jet of
warm blood on his hand, the man fallen, and he, fleeing in the obscure
rocks--

And the voice which says these things with implacable tranquility, is
the same which for years sings piously every Sunday the liturgy in the
old sonorous church,--so much so that it seems to retain a religious and
almost sacred character--!

“When you are caught”--adds the speaker, scrutinizing them all with his
eyes, become piercing again--“When you are caught--What is the life of a
man worth in such a case? You would not hesitate, either, I suppose, if
you were caught--?”

“Sure not,” replied Arrochkoa, in a tone of infantile bravado, “Sure
not! In such a case to take the life of a carabinero no one would
hesitate!--”

The debonair Florentino, turned from Itchoua his disapproving eyes.
Florentino would hesitate; he would not kill. This is divined in the
expression of his face.

“You would not hesitate,” repeated Itchoua, scrutinizing Ramuntcho this
time in a special manner; “you would not hesitate, either, I suppose, if
you were caught, would you?”

“Surely,” replied Ramuntcho, submissively. “Oh, no, surely--”

But his look, like that of Florentino, has turned from Itchoua. A terror
comes to him of this man, of this imperious and cold influence, so
completely felt already; an entire soft and refined side of his nature
is awakened, made disquiet and in revolt.

Silence has followed the tale, and Itchoua, discontented with the effect
of it, proposes a song in order to change the course of ideas.

The purely material well-being which comes after dinner, the cider which
has been drunk, the cigarettes which are lighted and the songs that
begin, bring back quickly confident joy in these children’s heads.
And then, there are in the band the two brothers Iragola, Marcos and
Joachim, young men of the mountain above Mendiazpi, who are renowned
extemporary speakers in the surrounding country and it is a pleasure to
hear them, on any subject, compose and sing verses which are so pretty.

“Let us see,” says Itchoua, “you, Marcos, are a sailor who wishes to
pass his life on the ocean and seek fortune in America; you, Joachim,
are a farm hand who prefers not to quit his village and his soil here.
Each of you will discuss alternately, in couplets of equal length, the
pleasures of his trade to the tune--to the tune of the ‘Iru Damacho’. Go
on.”

They looked at each other, the two brothers, half turned toward each
other on the oak bench where they sit; an instant of reflection, during
which an imperceptible agitation of the eyelids alone betrays the
working of their minds; then, brusquely Marcos, the elder, begins, and
they will never stop. With their shaven cheeks, their handsome profiles,
their chins which advance somewhat imperiously above the powerful
muscles of the neck, they recall, in their grave immobility, the figures
engraved on the Roman medals. They sing with a certain effort of the
throat, like the muezzins in the mosques, in high tones. When one has
finished his couplet, without a second of hesitation or silence, the
other begins; more and more their minds are animated and inflamed.
Around the smugglers’ table many other caps have gathered and all listen
with admiration to the witty or sensible things which the two brothers
know how to say, ever with the needed cadence and rhyme.

At the twentieth stanza, at last, Itchoua interrupts them to make them
rest and he orders more cider.

“How have you learned?” asked Ramuntcho of the Iragola brothers. “How
did the knack come to you?”

“Oh!” replies Marcos, “it is a family trait, as you must know. Our
father, our grandfather were extemporary composers who were heard with
pleasure in all the festivals of the Basque country, and our mother also
was the daughter of a grand improvisator of the village of Lesaca. And
then, every evening in taking back the oxen or in milking the cows, we
practice, or at the fireside on winter nights. Yes, every evening, we
make compositions in this way on subjects which one of us imagines, and
it is our greatest pleasure--”

But when Florentino’s turn to sing comes he, knowing only the old
refrains of the mountain, intones in an Arabic falsetto voice the
complaint of the linen weaver; and then Ramuntcho, who had sung it
the day before in the autumn twilight, sees again the darkened sky of
yesterday, the clouds full of rain, the cart drawn by oxen going down
into a sad and closed valley, toward a solitary farm--and suddenly the
unexplained anguish returns to him, the one which he had before; the
fear of living and of passing thus always in these same villages, under
the oppression of these same mountains; the notion and the confused
desire for other places; the anxiety for unknown distances--His eyes,
become lifeless and fixed, look inwardly; for several strange minutes
he feels that he is an exile, from what country he does not know,
disinherited, of what he does not know, sad in the depths of his soul;
between him and the men who surround him have come suddenly irreducible,
hereditary barriers--

Three o’clock. It is the hour when vespers, the last office of the day,
comes to an end; the hour when leave the church, in a meditation grave
as that of the morning, all the mantillas of black cloth concealing the
beautiful hair of the girls and the form of their waists, all the
woolen caps similarly lowered on the shaven faces of men, on their eyes
piercing or somber, still plunged in the old time dreams.

It is the hour when the games are to begin, the dances, the pelota and
the fandango. All this is traditional and immutable.

The light of the day becomes more golden, one feels the approach of
night. The church, suddenly empty, forgotten, where persists the odor
of incense, becomes full of silence, and the old gold of the background
shines mysteriously in the midst of more shade; silence also is
scattered around on the tranquil enclosure of the dead, where the folks
this time passed without stopping, in their haste to go elsewhere.

On the square of the ball-game, people are beginning to arrive from
everywhere, from the village itself and from the neighboring hamlets,
from the huts of the shepherds or of the smugglers who perch above,
on the harsh mountains. Hundreds of Basque caps, all similar, are now
reunited, ready to judge the players, to applaud or to murmur; they
discuss the chances, comment upon the relative strength of the players
and make big bets of money. And young girls, young women gather also,
having nothing of the awkwardness of the peasants in other provinces of
France, elegant, refined, graceful in costumes of the new fashions;
some wearing on their hair the silk kerchief, rolled and arranged like
a small cap; others bareheaded, their hair dressed in the most
modern manner; most of them pretty, with admirable eyes and very long
eyebrows--This square, always solemn and ordinarily somewhat sad, is
filled to-day, Sunday, with a lively and gay crowd.

The most insignificant hamlet in the Basque country has a square for
the ball-game, large, carefully kept, in general near the church, under
oaks.

But here, this is a central point and something like the Conservatory of
French ball-players, of those who become celebrated, in South America
as well as in the Pyrenees, and who, in the great international games,
oppose the champions of Spain. So the place is particularly beautiful
and pompous, surprising in so distant a village. It is paved with large
stones, between which grass grows expressing its antiquity and giving
to it an air of being abandoned. On the two sides are extended, for the
spectators, long benches--made of the red granite of the neighboring
mountain and, at this moment, all overgrown with autumn scabwort.

And in the back, the old monumental wall rises, against which the balls
will strike. It has a rounded front which seems to be the silhouette
of a dome and bears this inscription, half effaced by time: “Blaidka
haritzea debakatua.” (The blaid game is forbidden.)

Still, the day’s game is to be the blaid; but the venerable inscription
dates from the time of the splendor of the national game, degenerated at
present, as all things degenerate. It had been placed there to preserve
the tradition of the “rebot”, a more difficult game, exacting more
agility and strength, and which has been perpetuated only in the Spanish
province of Guipuzcoa.

While the graded benches are filling up, the paved square, which the
grass makes green, and which has seen the lithe and the vigorous men
of the country run since the days of old, remains empty. The beautiful
autumn sun, at its decline, warms and lights it. Here and there some
tall oaks shed their leaves above the seated spectators. Beyond are the
high church and the cypress trees, the entire sacred corner, from which
the saints and the dead seem to be looking at a distance, protecting the
players, interested in this game which is the passion still of an entire
race and characterises it--

At last they enter the arena, the Pelotaris, the six champions among
whom is one in a cassock: the vicar of the parish. With him are some
other personages: the crier, who, in an instant, will sing the points;
the five judges, selected among the experts of different villages to
intervene in cases of litigation, and some others carrying extra balls
and sandals. At the right wrist the players attach with thongs a strange
wicker thing resembling a large, curved fingernail which lengthens the
forearm by half. It is with this glove (manufactured in France by a
unique basket-maker of the village of Ascain) that they will have
to catch, throw and hurl the pelota,--a small ball of tightened cord
covered with sheepskin, which is as hard as a wooden ball.

Now they try the balls, selecting the best, limbering, with a few
points that do not count, their athletic arms. Then, they take off their
waistcoats and carry them to preferred spectators; Ramuntcho gives
his to Gracieuse, seated in the first row on the lower bench. And all,
except the priest, who will play in his black gown, are in battle array,
their chests at liberty in pink cotton shirts or light thread fleshings.

The assistants know them well, these players; in a moment, they shall be
excited for or against them and will shout at them, frantically, as it
happens with the toreadors.

At this moment the village is entirely animated by the spirit of the
olden time; in its expectation of the pleasure, in its liveliness, in
its ardor, it is intensely Basque and very old,--under the great shade
of the Gizune, the overhanging mountain, which throws over it a twilight
charm.

And the game begins in the melancholy evening. The ball, thrown with
much strength, flies, strikes the wall in great, quick blows, then
rebounds, and traverses the air with the rapidity of a bullet.

This wall in the background, rounded like a dome’s festoon on the sky,
has become little by little crowned with heads of children,--little
Basques, little cats, ball-players of the future, who soon will
precipitate themselves like a flight of birds, to pick up the ball every
time when, thrown too high, it will go beyond the square and fall in the
fields.

The game becomes gradually warmer as arms and legs are limbered, in an
intoxication of movement and swiftness. Already Ramuntcho is acclaimed.
And the vicar also shall be one of the fine players of the day, strange
to look upon with his leaps similar to those of a cat, and his athletic
gestures, imprisoned in his priest’s gown.

This is the rule of the game: when one of the champions of the two
camps lets the ball fall, it is a point earned by the adverse camp,--and
ordinarily the limit is sixty points. After each point, the titled crier
chants with a full voice in his old time tongue: “The but has so much,
the refil has so much, gentlemen!” (The but is the camp which played
first, the refil is the camp opposed to the but.) And the crier’s long
clamor drags itself above the noise of the crowd, which approves or
murmurs.

On the square, the zone gilt and reddened by the sun diminishes, goes,
devoured by the shade; more and more the great screen of the Gizune
predominates over everything, seems to enclose in this little corner
of the world at its feet, the very special life and the ardor of these
mountaineers--who are the fragments of a people very mysteriously
unique, without analogy among nations--The shade of night marches
forward and invades in silence, soon it will be sovereign; in the
distance only a few summits still lighted above so many darkened
valleys, are of a violet luminous and pink.

Ramuntcho plays as, in his life, he had never played before; he is
in one of those instants when one feels tempered by strength, light,
weighing nothing, and when it is a pure joy to move, to extend one’s
arms, to leap. But Arrochkoa weakens, the vicar is fettered two or three
times by his black cassock, and the adverse camp, at first distanced,
little by little catches up, then, in presence of this game so
valiantly disputed, clamor redoubles and caps fly in the air, thrown by
enthusiastic hands.

Now the points are equal on both sides; the crier announces thirty for
each one of the rival camps and he sings the old refrain which is of
tradition immemorial in such cases: “Let bets come forward! Give drink
to the judges and to the players.” It is the signal for an instant of
rest, while wine shall be brought into the arena at the cost of the
village. The players sit down, and Ramuntcho takes a place beside
Gracieuse, who throws on his shoulders, wet with perspiration, the
waistcoat which she was keeping for him, Then he asks of his little
friend to undo the thongs which hold the glove of wood, wicker and
leather on his reddened arm. And he rests in the pride of his success,
seeing only smiles of greeting on the faces of the girls at whom he
looks. But he sees also, on the side opposed to the players’ wall, on
the side of the approaching darkness, the archaic assemblage of Basque
houses, the little square of the village with its kalsomined porches and
its old plane-trees, then the old, massive belfry of the church, and,
higher than everything, dominating everything, crushing everything, the
abrupt mass of the Gizune from which comes so much shade, from which
descends on this distant village so hasty an impression of night--Truly
it encloses too much, that mountain, it imprisons, it impresses--And
Ramuntcho, in his juvenile triumph, is troubled by the sentiment of
this, by this furtive and vague attraction of other places so often
mingled with his troubles and with his joys--

The game continues and his thoughts are lost in the physical
intoxication of beginning the struggle again. From instant to instant,
clack! the snap of the pelotas, their sharp noise against the glove
which throws them or the wall which receives them, their same noise
giving the notion of all the strength displayed--Clack! it will snap
till the hour of twilight, the pelota, animated furiously by arms
powerful and young. At times the players, with a terrible shock, stop it
in its flight, with a shock that would break other muscles than theirs.
Most often, sure of themselves, they let it quietly touch the soil,
almost die: it seems as if they would never catch it: and clack! it goes
off, however, caught just in time, thanks to a marvellous precision of
the eye, and strikes the wall, ever with the rapidity of a bullet--When
it wanders on the benches, on the mass of woolen caps and of pretty hair
ornamented with silk kerchiefs, all the heads then, all the bodies,
are lowered as if moved by the wind of its passage: for it must not be
touched, it must not be stopped, as long as it is living and may
still be caught; then, when it is really lost, dead, some one of the
assistants does himself the honor to pick it up and throw it back to the
players.

The night falls, falls, the last golden colors scatter with serene
melancholy over the highest summits of the Basque country. In the
deserted church, profound silence is established and antique images
regard one another alone through the invasion of night--Oh! the sadness
of ends of festivals, in very isolated villages, as soon as the sun
sets--!

Meanwhile Ramuntcho is more and more the great conqueror. And the
plaudits, the cries, redouble his happy boldness; each time he makes a
point the men, standing now on the old, graded, granite benches, acclaim
him with southern fury.

The last point, the sixtieth--It is Ramuntcho’s and he has won the game!

Then there is a sudden crumbling into the arena of all the Basque caps
which ornamented the stone amphitheatre; they press around the players
who have made themselves immovable, suddenly, in tired attitudes. And
Ramuntcho unfastens the thongs of his glove in the middle of a crowd of
expansive admirers; from all sides, brave and rude hands are stretched
to grasp his or to strike his shoulder amicably.

“Have you asked Gracieuse to dance with you this evening?” asks
Arrochkoa, who in this instant would do anything for him.

“Yes, when she came out of the high mass I spoke to her--She has
promised.”

“Good! I feared that mother--Oh! I would have arranged it, in any case;
you may believe me.”

A robust old man with square shoulders, with square jaws, with a
beardless, monkish face, before whom all bowed with respect, comes also:
it is Haramburu, a player of the olden time who was celebrated half a
century ago in America for the game of rebot, and who earned a small
fortune. Ramuntcho blushes with pleasure at the compliment of this old
man, who is hard to please. And beyond, standing on the reddish benches,
among the long grasses and the November scabwort, his little friend,
whom a group of young girls follows, turns back to smile at him, to
send to him with her hand a gentle adios in the Spanish fashion. He is a
young god in this moment, Ramuntcho; people are proud to know him, to
be among his friends, to get his waistcoat for him, to talk to him, to
touch him.

Now, with the other pelotaris, he goes to the neighboring inn, to a
room where are placed the clean clothes of all and where careful friends
accompany them to rub their bodies, wet with perspiration.

And, a moment afterward, elegant in a white shirt, his cap on the side,
he comes out of the door, under the plane-trees shaped like vaults,
to enjoy again his success, see the people pass, continue to gather
compliments and smiles.

The autumnal day has declined, it is evening at present. In the lukewarm
air, bats glide. The mountaineers of the surrounding villages depart
one by one; a dozen carriages are harnessed, their lanterns are lighted,
their bells ring and they disappear in the little shady paths of the
valleys. In the middle of the limpid penumbra may be distinguished the
women, the pretty girls seated on benches in front of the houses, under
the vaults of the plane-trees; they are only clear forms, their Sunday
costumes make white spots in the twilight, pink spots--and the pale blue
spot which Ramuntcho looks at is the new gown of Gracieuse.--Above all,
filling the sky, the gigantic Gizune, confused and sombre, is as if
it were the centre and the source of the darkness, little by little
scattered over all things. And at the church, suddenly the pious bells
ring, recalling to distracted minds the enclosure where the graves are,
the cypress trees around the belfry, and the entire grand mystery of the
sky, of prayer, of inevitable death.

Oh! the sadness of ends of festivals in very isolated villages, when the
sun ceases to illuminate, and when it is autumn--

They know very well, these men who were so ardent a moment ago in
the humble pleasures of the day, that in the cities there are other
festivals more brilliant, more beautiful and less quickly ended; but
this is something separate; it is the festival of the country, of their
own country, and nothing can replace for them these furtive instants
whereof they have thought for so many days in advance--Lovers who will
depart toward the scattered houses flanking the Pyrenees, couples who
to-morrow will begin over their monotonous and rude life, look at one
another before separating, look at one another under the falling night,
with regretful eyes that say: “Then, it is finished already? Then, that
is all?--”



CHAPTER V.

Eight o’clock in the evening. They have dined at the cider mill, all
the players except the vicar, under the patronage of Itchoua; they have
lounged for a long time afterward, languid in the smoke of smuggled
cigarettes and listening to the marvellous improvisations of the two
Iragola brothers, of the Mendiazpi mountain--while outside, on the
street, the girls in small groups holding one another’s arms, looked at
the windows, found pleasure in observing on the smoky panes the round
shadows of the heads of the men covered with similar caps--

Now, on the square, the brass band plays the first measures of the
fandango, and the young men, the young girls, all those of the village
and several also of the mountain who have remained to dance, arrive in
impatient groups. There are some dancing already on the road, not to
lose anything.

And soon the fandango turns, turns, in the light of the new moon the
horns of which seem to pose, lithe and light, on the enormous and heavy
mountain. In the couples that dance without ever touching each other,
there is never a separation; before one another always and at an equal
distance, the boy and the girl make evolutions with a rhythmic grace, as
if they were tied together by some invisible magnet.

It has gone into hiding, the crescent of the moon, fallen, one would
think, in the black mountain; then lanterns are brought and hooked to
the trunks of the plane-trees and the young men can see better their
partners who, opposite them swing with an air of fleeing continually,
but without increasing their distance ever: almost all pretty, their
hair elegantly dressed, a kerchief on the neck, and wearing with
ease gowns in the fashion of to-day. The men, somewhat grave always,
accompany the music with snaps of their fingers in the air: shaven and
sunburnt faces to which labor in the fields, in smuggling or at sea,
has given a special thinness, almost ascetic; still, by the ampleness
of their brown necks, by the width of their shoulders, one divines their
great strength, the strength of that old, sober and religious race.

The fandango turns and oscillates, to the tune of an ancient waltz. All
the arms, extended and raised, agitate themselves in the air, rise or
fall with pretty, cadenced motions following the oscillations of bodies.
The rope soled sandals make this dance silent and infinitely light;
one hears only the frou-frou of gowns, and ever the snap of fingers
imitating the noise of castanets. With a Spanish grace, the girls, whose
wide sleeves expand like wings, swing their tightened waists above their
vigorous and supple hips--

Facing one another, Ramuntcho and Gracieuse said nothing at first,
captivated by the childish joy of moving quickly in cadence, to the
sound of music. It is very chaste, that manner of dancing without the
slightest touch of bodies.

But there were also, in the course of the evening, waltzes and
quadrilles, and even walks arm-in-arm during which the lovers could
touch each other and talk.

“Then, my Ramuntcho,” said Gracieuse, “it is of that game that you
expect to make your future, is it not?”

They were walking now arm-in-arm, under the plane-trees shedding their
leaves in the night of November, lukewarm as a night of May, during an
interval of silence when the musicians were resting.

“Yes,” replied Ramuntcho, “in our country it is a trade, like any other,
where one may earn a living, as long as strength lasts--and one may go
from time to time to South America, you know, as Irun and Gorosteguy
have done, and bring back twenty, thirty thousand francs for a season,
earned honestly at Buenos Ayres.”

“Oh, the Americas--” exclaimed Gracieuse in a joyful enthusiasm--“the
Americas, what happiness! It was always my wish to go across the sea to
those countries!--And we would look for your uncle Ignacio, then go to
my cousin, Bidegaina, who has a farm on the Uruguay, in the prairies--”

She ceased talking, the little girl who had never gone out of that
village which the mountains enclose; she stopped to think of these
far-off lands which haunted her young head because she had, like most
Basques, nomadic ancestors--folks who are called here Americans or
Indians, who pass their adventurous lives on the other side of the ocean
and return to the cherished village only very late, to die. And, while
she dreamed, her nose in the air, her eyes in the black of the clouds
and of the summits, Ramuntcho felt his blood running faster, his
heart beating quicker in the intense joy of what she had just said so
spontaneously. And, inclining his head toward her, he asked, as if to
jest, in a voice infinitely soft and childish:

 “We would go? Is that what you said: we would go, you with me? This
signifies therefore that you would consent, a little later, when we
become of age, to marry me?”

He perceived through the darkness the gentle black light of Gracieuse’s
eyes, which rose toward him with an expression of astonishment and of
reproach.

“Then--you did not know?”

“I wanted to make you say it, you see--You had never said it to me, do
you know?--”

He held tighter the arm of his little betrothed and their walk became
slower. It is true that they had never said it, not only because it
seemed to them that it was not necessary to say, but especially because
they were stopped at the moment of speaking by a sort of terror--the
terror of being mistaken about each other’s sentiment--and now they
knew, they were sure. Then they had the consciousness of having passed
together the grave and solemn threshold of life. And, leaning on one
another, they faltered, almost, in their slackened promenade, like two
children intoxicated by youthfulness, joy and hope.

“But do you think your mother will consent?” said Ramuntcho timidly,
after the long, delightful silence--

“Ah, that is the trouble,” replied the little girl with a sigh of
anxiety--“Arrochkoa, my brother, will be for us, it is probable. But
mother?--Will mother consent?--But, it will not happen soon, in any
case--You have to serve in the army.”

“No, if you do not want me to! No, I need not serve! I am a Guipuzcoan,
like my mother; I shall be enrolled only if I wish to be--Whatever you
say, I’ll do--”

“My Ramuntcho, I would like better to wait for you longer and that you
become naturalized, and that you become a soldier like the others. I
tell you this, since you ask--”

“Truly, is it what you wish? Well, so much the better. Oh, to be a
Frenchman or a Spaniard is indifferent to me. I shall do as you wish. I
like as well one as the other: I am a Basque like you, like all of us;
I care not for the rest! But as for being a soldier somewhere, on this
side of the frontier or on the other, yes, I prefer it. In the first
place, one who goes away looks as if he were running away; and then, it
would please me to be a soldier, frankly.”

“Well, my Ramuntcho, since it is all the same to you, serve as a soldier
in France, to please me.”

“It is understood, Gatchutcha!--You will see me wearing red trousers.
I shall call on you in the dress of a soldier, like Bidegarray, like
Joachim. As soon as I have served my three years, we will marry, if your
mother consents!”

After a moment of silence Gracieuse said, in a low, solemn voice:

“Listen, my Ramuntcho--I am like you: I am afraid of her--of my
mother--But listen--if she refuses, we shall do together anything,
anything that you wish, for this is the only thing in the world in which
I shall not obey her--”

Then, silence returned between them, now that they were engaged, the
incomparable silence of young joys, of joys new and not yet tried, which
need to hush, which need to meditate in order to understand themselves
better in their profoundness. They walked in short steps and at random
toward the church, in the soft obscurity which the lanterns troubled no
longer, intoxicated by their innocent contact and by feeling that they
were walking together in the path where no one had followed them--

But the noise of the brass instruments suddenly arose anew, in a sort
of slow waltz, oddly rhythmic. And the two children, at the fandango’s
appeal, without having consulted each other, and as if it was a
compulsory thing which may not be disputed, ran, not to lose a moment,
toward the place where the couples were dancing. Quickly, quickly
placing themselves opposite each other, they began again to swing in
measure, without talking to each other, with the same pretty gestures
of their arms, the same supple motions of their hips. From time to
time, without loss of step or distance, both ran, in a direct line like
arrows. But this was only an habitual variation of the dance,--and, ever
in measure, quickly, as if they were gliding, they returned to their
starting point.

Gracieuse had in dancing the same passionate ardor as in praying at the
white chapels,--the same ardor which later doubtless, she would have in
embracing Ramuntcho when caresses between them would not be forbidden.
And at moments, at every fifth or sixth measure, at the same time as
her light and strong partner, she turned round completely, the bust bent
with Spanish grace, the head thrown backward, the lips half open on
the whiteness of the teeth, a distinguished and proud grace disengaging
itself from her little personality, still so mysterious, which to
Ramuntcho only revealed itself a little.

During all this beautiful evening of November, they danced before each
other, mute and charming, with intervals of promenade in which they
hardly talked--intoxicated in silence by the delicious thought with
which their minds were filled.

And, until the curfew rang in the church, this dance under the branches
of autumn, these little lanterns, this little festival in this corner
closed to the world, threw a little light and joyful noise into the vast
night which the mountains, standing everywhere like giants of shadow,
made more dumb and more black.



CHAPTER VI.

There is to be a grand ball-game next Sunday, for the feast of Saint
Damasus, in the borough of Hasparitz.

Arrochkoa and Ramuntcho, companions in continual expeditions through the
surrounding country, travelled for the entire day, in the little wagon
of the Detcharry family, in order to organize that ball-game, which to
them is a considerable event.

In the first place, they had to consult Marcos, one of the Iragola
brothers. Near a wood, in front of his house in the shade, they found
him seated on a stump of a chestnut tree, always grave and statuesque,
his eyes inspired and his gesture noble, in the act of making his little
brother, still in swaddling clothes, eat soup.

“Is he the eleventh?” they have asked, laughing.

“Oh! Go on!” the big eldest brother has replied, “the eleventh
is running already like a hare in the heather. This is number
twelve!--little John the Baptist, you know, the latest, who, I think,
will not be the last.”

And then, lowering their heads not to strike the branches, they had
traversed the woods, the forests of oaks under which extends infinitely
the reddish lace of ferns.

And they have traversed several villages also,--Basque villages, all
grouped around these two things which are the heart of them and which
symbolize their life: the church and the ball-game. Here and there, they
have knocked at the doors of isolated houses, tall and large houses,
carefully whitewashed, with green shades, and wooden balconies where are
drying in the sun strings of red peppers. At length they have talked,
in their language so closed to strangers of France, with the famous
players, the titled champions, the ones whose odd names have been seen
in all the journals of the southwest, on all the posters of Biarritz
or of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and who, in ordinary life, are honest country
inn-keepers, blacksmiths, smugglers, with waistcoat thrown over the
shoulder and shirt sleeves rolled on bronze arms.

Now that all is settled and that the last words have been exchanged,
it is too late to return that night to Etchezar; then, following their
errant habits, they select for the night a village which they like,
Zitzarry, for example, where they have gone often for their smuggling
business. At the fall of night, then, they turn toward this place, which
is near Spain. They go by the same little Pyrenean routes, shady and
solitary under the old oaks that are shedding their leaves, among slopes
richly carpeted with moss and rusty ferns. And now there are ravines
where torrents roar, and then heights from which appear on all sides the
tall, sombre peaks.

At first it was cold, a real cold, lashing the face and the chest. But
now gusts begin to pass astonishingly warm and perfumed with the scent
of plants: the southern wind, rising again, bringing back suddenly the
illusion of summer. And then, it becomes for them a delicious sensation
to go through the air, so brusquely changed, to go quickly under
the lukewarm breaths, in the noise of their horse’s bells galloping
playfully in the mountains.

Zitzarry, a smugglers’ village, a distant village skirting the frontier.
A dilapidated inn where, according to custom, the rooms for the men
are directly above the stables, the black stalls. They are well-known
travelers there, Arrochkoa and Ramuntcho, and while men are lighting
the fire for them they sit near an antique, mullioned window, which
overlooks the square of the ball-game and the church; they see the
tranquil, little life of the day ending in this place so separated from
the world.

On this solemn square, the children practice the national game; grave
and ardent, already strong, they throw their pelota against the wall,
while, in a singing voice and with the needful intonation, one of
them counts and announces the points, in the mysterious tongue of the
ancestors. Around them, the tall houses, old and white, with warped
walls, with projecting rafters, contemplate through their green or red
windows those little players, so lithe, who run in the twilight like
young cats. And the carts drawn by oxen return from the fields, with
the noise of bells, bringing loads of wood, loads of gorse or of dead
ferns--The night falls, falls with its peace and its sad cold. Then,
the angelus rings--and there is, in the entire village, a tranquil,
prayerful meditation--

Then Ramuntcho, silent, worries about his destiny, feels as if he were
a prisoner here, with his same aspirations always, toward something
unknown, he knows not what, which troubles him at the approach of night.
And his heart also fills up, because he is alone and without support in
the world, because Gracieuse is in a situation different from his and
may never be given to him.

But Arrochkoa, very brotherly this time, in one of his good moments,
slaps him on the shoulder as if he had understood his reverie, and says
to him in a tone of light gaiety:

“Well! it seems that you talked together, last night, sister and
you--she told me about it--and that you are both prettily agreed!--”

Ramuntcho lifts toward him a long look of anxious and grave
interrogation, which is in contrast with the beginning of their
conversation:

“And what do you think,” he asks, “of what we have said?”

“Oh, my friend,” replied Arrochkoa, become more serious also, “on my
word of honor, it suits me very well--And even, as I fear that there
shall be trouble with mother, I promise to help you if you need help--”

And Ramuntcho’s sadness is dispelled as a little dust on which one has
blown. He finds the supper delicious, the inn gay. He feels himself
much more engaged to Gracieuse, now, when somebody is in the secret, and
somebody in the family who does not repulse him. He had a presentiment
that Arrochkoa would not be hostile to him, but his co-operation, so
clearly offered, far surpasses Ramuntcho’s hope--Poor little abandoned
fellow, so conscious of the humbleness of his situation, that the
support of another child, a little better established in life, suffices
to return to him courage and confidence!



CHAPTER VII.

At the uncertain and somewhat icy dawn, he awoke in his little room
in the inn, with a persistent impression of his joy on the day before,
instead of the confused anguish which accompanied so often in him the
progressive return of his thoughts. Outside, were sounds of bells of
cattle starting for the pastures, of cows lowing to the rising sun, of
church bells,--and already, against the wall of the large square, the
sharp snap of the Basque pelota: all the noises of a Pyrenean village
beginning again its customary life for another day. And all this seemed
to Ramuntcho the early music of a day’s festival.

At an early hour, they returned, Arrochkoa and he, to their little
wagon, and, crushing their caps against the wind, started their horse at
a gallop on the roads, powdered with white frost.

At Etchezar, where they arrived at noon, one would have thought it was
summer,--so beautiful was the sun.

In the little garden in front of her house, Gracieuse sat on a stone
bench:

“I have spoken to Arrochkoa!” said Ramuntcho to her, with a happy smile,
as soon as they were alone--“And he is entirely with us, you know!”

“Oh! that,” replied the little girl, without losing the sadly pensive
air which she had that morning, “oh, that!--my brother Arrochkoa, I
suspected it, it was sure! A pelota player like you, you should know,
was made to please him, in his mind there is nothing superior to that--”

“But your mother, Gatchutcha, for several days has acted much better
to me, I think--For example, Sunday, you remember, when I asked you to
dance--”

“Oh! don’t trust to that, my Ramuntcho! you mean day before yesterday,
after the high mass?--It was because she had just talked with the Mother
Superior, have you not noticed?--And the Mother Superior had insisted
that I should not dance with you on the square; then, only to be
contrary, you understand--But, don’t rely on that, no--”

“Oh!” replied Ramuntcho, whose joy had already gone, “it is true that
they are not very friendly--”

“Friendly, mama and the Mother Superior?--Like a dog and a cat,
yes!--Since there was talk of my going into the convent, do you not
remember that story?”

He remembered very well, on the contrary, and it frightened him still.
The smiling and mysterious black nuns had tried once to attract to the
peace of their houses that little blonde head, exalted and willful,
possessed by an immense necessity to love and to be loved--

“Gatchutcha! you are always at the sisters’, or with them; why so often?
explain this to me: they are very agreeable to you?”

“The sisters? no, my Ramuntcho, especially those of the present time,
who are new in the country and whom I hardly know--for they change them
often, you know--The sisters, no--I will even tell you that I am like
mama about the Mother Superior. I cannot endure her--”

“Well, then, what?--”

“No, but what will you? I like their songs, their chapels, their houses,
everything--I cannot explain that to you--Anyway, boys do not understand
anything--”

The little smile with which she said this was at once extinguished,
changed into a contemplative expression or an absent expression, which
Ramuntcho had often seen in her. She looked attentively in front of her,
although there were on the road only the leafless trees, the brown mass
of the crushing mountain; but it seemed as if Gracieuse was enraptured
in melancholy ecstasy by things perceived beyond them, by things which
the eyes of Ramuntcho could not distinguish--And during their silence
the angelus of noon began to ring, throwing more peace on the tranquil
village which was warming itself in the winter sun; then, bending their
heads, they made naively together their sign of the cross--

Then, when ceased to vibrate the holy bell, which in the Basque villages
interrupts life as in the Orient the song of the muezzins, Ramuntcho
decided to say:

“It frightens me, Gatchutcha, to see you in their company always--I
cannot but ask myself what ideas are in your head--”

Fixing on him the profound blackness of her eyes, she replied, in a tone
of soft reproach:

“It is you talking to me in that way, after what we have said to each
other Sunday night!--If I were to lose you, yes then, perhaps--surely,
even!--But until then, oh! no--oh! you may rest in peace, my
Ramuntcho--”

He bore for a long time her look, which little by little brought back to
him entire delicious confidence, and at last he smiled with a childish
smile:

“Forgive me,” he asked--“I say silly things often, you know!--”

“That, at least, is the truth!”

Then, one heard the sound of their laughter, which in two different
intonations had the same freshness and the same youthfulness. Ramuntcho,
with an habitual brusque and graceful gesture, changed his waistcoat
from one shoulder to the other, pulled his cap on the side, and, with no
other farewell than a sign of the head, they separated, for Dolores was
coming from the end of the road.



CHAPTER VIII.

Midnight, a winter night, black as Hades, with great wind and whipping
rain. By the side of the Bidassoa, in the midst of a confused extent of
ground with treacherous soil that evokes ideas of chaos, in slime that
their feet penetrate, men are carrying boxes on their shoulders and,
walking in the water to their knees, come to throw them into a long
thing, blacker than night, which must be a bark--a suspicious bark
without a light, tied near the bank.

It is again Itchoua’s band, which this time will work by the river. They
have slept for a few moments, all dressed, in the house of a receiver
who lives near the water, and, at the needed hour, Itchoua, who never
closes but one eye, has shaken his men; then, they have gone out with
hushed tread, into the darkness, under the cold shower propitious to
smuggling.

On the road now, with the oars, to Spain whose fires may be seen at a
distance, confused by the rain. The weather is let loose; the shirts of
the men are already wet, and, under the caps pulled over their eyes, the
wind slashes the ears. Nevertheless, thanks to the vigor of their
arms, they were going quickly and well, when suddenly appeared in the
obscurity something like a monster gliding on the waters. Bad business!
It is the patrol boat which promenades every night. Spain’s customs
officers. In haste, they must change their direction, use artifice, lose
precious time, and they are so belated already.

At last they have arrived without obstacle near the Spanish shore, among
the large fishermen’s barks which, on stormy nights, sleep there on
their chains, in front of the “Marine” of Fontarabia. This is the
perilous instant. Happily, the rain is faithful to them and falls still
in torrents. Lowered in their skiff to be less visible, having ceased
to talk, pushing the bottom with their oars in order to make less noise,
they approach softly, softly, with pauses as soon as something has
seemed to budge, in the midst of so much diffuse black, of shadows
without outlines.

Now they are crouched against one of these large, empty barks and almost
touching the earth. And this is the place agreed upon, it is there that
the comrades of the other country should be to receive them and to
carry their boxes to the receiving house--There is nobody there,
however!--Where are they?--The first moments are passed in a sort of
paroxysm of expectation and of watching, which doubles the power of
hearing and of seeing. With eyes dilated, and ears extended, they watch,
under the monotonous dripping of the rain--But where are the Spanish
comrades? Doubtless the hour has passed, because of this accursed custom
house patrol which has disarranged the voyage, and, believing that the
undertaking has failed this time, they have gone back--

Several minutes flow, in the same immobility and the same silence. They
distinguish, around them, the large, inert barks, similar to floating
bodies of beasts, and then, above the waters, a mass of obscurities
denser than the obscurities of the sky and which are the houses, the
mountains of the shore--They wait, without a movement, without a word.
They seem to be ghosts of boatmen near a dead city.

Little by little the tension of their senses weakens, a lassitude comes
to them with the need of sleep--and they would sleep there, under this
winter rain, if the place were not so dangerous.

Itchoua then consults in a low voice, in Basque language, the two
eldest, and they decide to do a bold thing. Since the others are not
coming, well! so much the worse, they will go alone, carry to the house
over there, the smuggled boxes. It is risking terribly, but the idea is
in their heads and nothing can stop them.

“You,” says Itchoua to Ramuntcho, in his manner which admits of no
discussion, “you shall be the one to watch the bark, since you have
never been in the path that we are taking; you shall tie it to the
bottom, but not too solidly, do you hear? We must be ready to run if the
carbineers arrive.”

So they go, all the others, their shoulders bent under the heavy loads,
the rustling, hardly perceptible, of their march is lost at once on the
quay which is so deserted and so black, in the midst of the monotonous
dripping of the rain. And Ramuntcho, who has remained alone, crouches
at the bottom of the skiff to be less visible becomes immovable again,
under the incessant sprinkling of the rain, which falls now regular and
tranquil.

They are late, the comrades--and by degrees, in this inactivity and this
silence, an irresistible numbness comes to him, almost a sleep.

But now a long form, more sombre than all that is sombre, passes by him,
passes very quickly,--always in this same absolute silence which is the
characteristic of these nocturnal undertakings: one of the large Spanish
barks!--Yet, thinks he, since all are at anchor, since this one has no
sails nor oars--then, what?--It is I, myself, who am passing!--and he
has understood: his skiff was too lightly tied, and the current, which
is very rapid here, is dragging him:--and he is very far away, going
toward the mouth of the Bidassoa, toward the breakers, toward the sea--

An anxiety has taken hold of him, almost an anguish--What will he
do?--What complicates everything is that he must act without a cry of
appeal, without a word, for, all along this coast, which seems to be the
land of emptiness and of darkness, there are carbineers, placed in
an interminable cordon and watching Spain every night as if it were a
forbidden land--He tries with one of the long oars to push the bottom
in order to return backward;--but there is no more bottom; he feels only
the inconsistency of the fleeting and black water, he is already in the
profound pass--Then, let him row, in spite of everything, and so much
for the worse--!

With great trouble, his forehead perspiring, he brings back alone
against the current the heavy bark, worried, at every stroke of the oar,
by the small, disclosing grating that a fine ear over there might so
well perceive. And then, one can see nothing more, through the rain
grown thicker and which confuses the eyes; it is dark, dark as in the
bowels of the earth where the devil lives. He recognizes no longer the
point of departure where the others must be waiting for him, whose ruin
he has perhaps caused; he hesitates, he waits, the ear extended, the
arteries beating, and he hooks himself, for a moment’s reflection, to
one of the large barks of Spain--Something approaches then, gliding with
infinite precaution on the surface of the water, hardly stirred: a human
shadow, one would think, a silhouette standing:--a smuggler, surely,
since he makes so little noise! They divine each other, and, thank God!
it is Arrochkoa; Arrochkoa, who has untied a frail, Spanish skiff to
meet him--So, their junction is accomplished and they are probably saved
all, once more!

But Arrochkoa, in meeting him, utters in a wicked voice, in a voice
tightened by his young, feline teeth, one of those series of insults
which call for immediate answer and sound like an invitation to fight.
It is so unexpected that Ramuntcho’s stupor at first immobilizes him,
retards the rush of blood to his head. Is this really what his friend
has just said and in such a tone of undeniable insult?--

“You said?”

“Well!” replies Arrochkoa, somewhat softened and on his guard, observing
in the darkness Ramuntcho’s attitudes. “Well! you had us almost caught,
awkward fellow that you are!--”

The silhouettes of the others appear in another bark.

“They are there,” he continues. “Let us go near them!”

And Ramuntcho takes his oarsman’s seat with temples heated by anger,
with trembling hands--no--he is Gracieuse’s brother; all would be lost
if Ramuntcho fought with him; because of her he will bend the head and
say nothing.

Now their bark runs away by force of oars, carrying them all; the trick
has been played. It was time; two Spanish voices vibrate on the black
shore: two carbineers, who were sleeping in their cloaks and whom the
noise has awakened!--And they begin to hail this flying, beaconless
bark, not perceived so much as suspected, lost at once in the universal,
nocturnal confusion.

“Too late, friends,” laughs Itchoua, while rowing to the uttermost.
“Hail at your ease now and let the devil answer you!”

The current also helps them; they go into the thick obscurity with the
rapidity of fishes.

There! Now they are in French waters, in safety, not far, doubtless,
from the slime of the banks.

“Let us stop to breathe a little,” proposes Itchoua.

And they raise their oars, halting, wet with perspiration and with rain.
They are immovable again under the cold shower, which they do not
seem to feel. There is heard in the vast silence only the breathing of
chests, little by little quieted, the little music of drops of water
falling and their light rippling. But suddenly, from this bark which was
so quiet, and which had no other importance than that of a shadow hardly
real in the midst of so much night, a cry rises, superacute, terrifying:
it fills the emptiness and rents the far-off distances--It has come from
those elevated notes which belong ordinarily to women only, but with
something hoarse and powerful that indicates rather the savage male;
it has the bite of the voice of jackals and it preserves, nevertheless,
something human which makes one shiver the more; one waits with a sort
of anguish for its end, and it is long, long, it is oppressive by its
inexplicable length--It had begun like a stag’s bell of agony and now it
is achieved and it dies in a sort of laughter, sinister and burlesque,
like the laughter of lunatics--

However, around the man who has just cried thus in the front of the
bark, none of the others is astonished, none budges. And, after a few
seconds of silent peace, a new cry, similar to the first, starts from
the rear, replying to it and passing through the same phases,--which are
of a tradition infinitely ancient.

And it is simply the “irrintzina”, the great Basque cry which has been
transmitted with fidelity from the depth of the abyss of ages to the men
of our day, and which constitutes one of the strange characteristics of
that race whose origins are enveloped in mystery. It resembles the cry
of a being of certain tribes of redskins in the forests of America;
at night, it gives the notion and the unfathomable fright of primitive
ages, when, in the midst of the solitudes of the old world, men with
monkey throats howled.

This cry is given at festivals, or for calls of persons at night in the
mountains, and especially to celebrate some joy, some unexpected good
fortune, a miraculous hunt or a happy catch of fish in the rivers.

And they are amused, the smugglers, at this game of the ancestors; they
give their voices to glorify the success of their undertaking, they
yell, from the physical necessity to be compensated for their silence of
a moment ago.

But Ramuntcho remains mute and without a smile. This sudden savagery
chills him, although he has known it for a long time; it plunges him
into dreams that worry and do not explain themselves.

And then, he has felt to-night once more how uncertain and changing is
his only support in the world, the support of that Arrochkoa on whom
he should be able to count as on a brother; audacity and success at the
ball-game will return that support to him, doubtless, but a moment of
weakness, nothing, may at any moment make him lose it. Then it seems to
him that the hope of his life has no longer a basis, that all vanishes
like an unstable chimera.



CHAPTER IX.

It was New Year’s eve.

All the day had endured that sombre sky which is so often the sky of the
Basque country--and which harmonizes well with the harsh mountains, with
the roar of the sea, wicked, in the depths of the Bay of Biscay.

In the twilight of this last day of the year, at the hour when the fires
retain the men around the hearths scattered in the country, at the hour
when home is desirable and delicious, Ramuntcho and his mother were
preparing to sit at the supper table, when there was a discreet knock at
the door.

The man who was coming to them from the night of the exterior, at the
first aspect seemed unknown to them; only when he told his name (Jose
Bidegarray, of Hasparitz) they recalled the sailor who had gone several
years ago to America.

“Here,” he said, after accepting a chair, “here is the message which I
have been asked to bring to you. Once, at Rosario in Uruguay, as I was
talking on the docks with several other Basque immigrants there, a man,
who might have been fifty years old, having heard me speak of Etchezar,
came to me.

“‘Do you come from Etchezar?’ he asked.

“‘No,’ I replied, ‘but I come from Hasparitz, which is not far from
Etchezar.’

“Then he put questions to me about all your family. I said:

“‘The old people are dead, the elder brother was killed in smuggling,
the second has disappeared in America; there remain only Franchita and
her son, Ramuntcho, a handsome young fellow who must be about eighteen
years old today.’

“He was thinking deeply while he was listening to me.

“‘Well,’ he said at last, ‘since you are going back there, you will say
good-day to them for Ignacio.’

“And after offering a drink to me he went away--”

Franchita had risen, trembling and paler than ever. Ignacio, the most
adventurous in the family, her brother who had disappeared for ten years
without sending any news--!

How was he? What face? Dressed how?--Did he seem happy, at least, or was
he poorly dressed?

“Oh!” replied the sailor, “he looked well, in spite of his gray hair; as
for his costume, he appeared to be a man of means, with a beautiful gold
chain on his belt.”

And that was all he could say, with this naive and rude good-day of
which he was the bearer; on the subject of the exile he knew no more
and perhaps, until she died, Franchita would learn nothing more of that
brother, almost non-existing, like a phantom.

Then, when he had emptied a glass of cider, he went on his road, the
strange messenger, who was going to his village. Then, they sat at table
without speaking, the mother and the son: she, the silent Franchita,
absent minded, with tears shining in her eyes; he, worried also, but in
a different manner, by the thought of that uncle living in adventures
over there.

When he ceased to be a child, when Ramuntcho began to desert from
school, to wish to follow the smugglers in the mountain, Franchita would
say to him:

“Anyway, you take after your uncle Ignacio, we shall never make anything
of you!--”

And it was true that he took after his uncle Ignacio, that he was
fascinated by all the things that are dangerous, unknown and far-off--

To-night, therefore, if she did not talk to her son of the message
which had just been transmitted to them, the reason was she divined
his meditation on America and was afraid of his answers. Besides, among
country people, the little profound and intimate dramas are played
without words, with misunderstandings that are never cleared up, with
phrases only guessed at and with obstinate silence.

But, as they were finishing their meal, they heard a chorus of young and
gay voices, coming near, accompanied by a drum, the boys of Etchezar,
coming for Ramuntcho to bring him with them in their parade with music
around the village, following the custom of New Year’s eve, to go into
every house, drink in it a glass of cider and give a joyous serenade to
an old time tune.

And Ramuntcho, forgetting Uruguay and the mysterious uncle, became a
child again, in the pleasure of following them and of singing with them
along the obscure roads, enraptured especially by the thought that they
would go to the house of the Detcharry family and that he would see
again, for an instant, Gracieuse.



CHAPTER X.

The changeable month of March had arrived, and with it the intoxication
of spring, joyful for the young, sad for those who are declining.

And Gracieuse had commenced again to sit, in the twilight of the
lengthened days, on the stone bench in front of her door.

Oh! the old stone benches, around the houses, made, in the past ages,
for the reveries of the soft evenings and for the eternally similar
conversations of lovers--!

Gracieuse’s house was very ancient, like most houses in that Basque
country, where, less than elsewhere, the years change the things.--It
had two stories; a large projecting roof in a steep slope; walls like a
fortress which were whitewashed every summer; very small windows,
with settings of cut granite and green blinds. Above the front door, a
granite lintel bore an inscription in relief; words complicated and long
which, to French eyes resembled nothing known. It said: “May the Holy
Virgin bless this home, built in the year 1630 by Peter Detcharry,
beadle, and his wife Damasa Irribarne, of the village of Istaritz.” A
small garden two yards wide, surrounded by a low wall so that one could
see the passers-by, separated the house from the road; there was a
beautiful rose-laurel, extending its southern foliage above the evening
bench, and there were yuccas, a palm tree, and enormous bunches of
those hortensias which are giants here, in this land of shade, in this
lukewarm climate, so often enveloped by clouds. In the rear was a badly
closed orchard which rolled down to an abandoned path, favorable to
escalades of lovers.

What mornings radiant with light there were in that spring, and what
tranquil, pink evenings!

After a week of full moon which kept the fields till day-light blue with
rays, and when the band of Itchoua ceased to work,--so clear was their
habitual domain, so illuminated were the grand, vaporous backgrounds of
the Pyrenees and of Spain--the frontier fraud was resumed more ardently,
as soon as the thinned crescent had become discreet and early setting.
Then, in these beautiful times, smuggling by night was exquisite; a
trade of solitude and of meditation when the mind of the naive and very
pardonable defrauders was elevated unconsciously in the contemplation of
the sky and of the darkness animated by stars--as it happens to the mind
of the sea folk watching, on the nocturnal march of vessels, and as it
happened formerly to the mind of the shepherds in antique Chaldea.

It was favorable also and tempting for lovers, that tepid period which
followed the full moon of March, for it was dark everywhere around the
houses, dark in all the paths domed with trees,--and very dark, behind
the Detcharry orchard, on the abandoned path where nobody ever passed.

Gracieuse lived more and more on her bench in front of her door.

It was here that she was seated, as every year, to receive and look at
the carnival dancers: those groups of young boys and of young girls of
Spain or of France, who, every spring, organize themselves for several
days in a wandering band, and, all dressed in the same pink or white
colors, traverse the frontier village, dancing the fandango in front of
houses, with castanets--

She stayed later and later in this place which she liked, under the
shelter of the rose-laurel coming into bloom, and sometimes even, she
came out noiselessly through the window, like a little, sly fox, to
breathe there at length, after her mother had gone to bed. Ramuntcho
knew this and, every night, the thought of that bench troubled his
sleep.



CHAPTER XI.

One clear April morning, they were walking to the church, Gracieuse and
Ramuntcho. She, with an air half grave, half mocking, with a particular
and very odd air, leading him there to make him do a penance which she
had ordered.

In the holy enclosure, the flowerbeds of the tombs were coming into
bloom again, as also the rose bushes on the walls. Once more the new
saps were awakening above the long sleep of the dead. They went in
together, through the lower door, into the empty church, where the old
“benoite” in a black mantilla was alone, dusting the altars.

When Gracieuse had given to Ramuntcho the holy water and they had made
their signs of the cross, she led him through the sonorous nave, paved
with funereal stones, to a strange image on the wall, in a shady corner,
under the men’s tribunes.

It was a painting, impregnated with ancient mysticism, representing the
figure of Jesus with eyes closed, forehead bloody, expression lamentable
and dead; the head seemed to be cut off, separated from the body,
and placed there on a gray linen cloth. Above, were written the long
Litanies of the Holy Face, which have been composed, as everybody knows,
to be recited in penance by repentant blasphemers. The day before,
Ramuntcho, in anger, had sworn in an ugly manner: a quite unimaginable
string of words, wherein the sacraments and the most saintly things were
mingled with the horns of the devil and other villainous things still
more frightful. That is why the necessity for a penance had impressed
itself on the mind of Gracieuse.

“Come, my Ramuntcho,” she recommended, as she walked away, “omit nothing
of what you must say.”

She left him then in front of the Holy Face, beginning to murmur his
litanies in a low voice, and went to the good woman and helped her to
change the water of the white Easter daisies in front of the altar of
the Virgin.

But when the languorous evening returned, and Gracieuse was seated in
the darkness meditating on her stone bench, a young human form started
up suddenly near her; someone who had come in sandals, without making
more noise than the silk owls make in the air, from the rear of the
garden doubtless, after some scaling, and who stood there, straight, his
waistcoat thrown over one shoulder: the one to whom were addressed all
her tender emotions on earth, the one who incarnated the ardent dream of
her heart and of her senses--

“Ramuntcho!” she said. “Oh! how you frightened me. Where did you come
from at such an hour? What do you want? Why did you come?”

“Why did I come? In my turn, to order you to do penance,” he replied,
laughing.

“No, tell the truth, what is the matter, what are you coming to do?”

 “To see you, only! That is what I come to do--What will you have! We
never see each other!--Your mother keeps me at a distance more and more
every day. I cannot live in that way.--We are not doing any harm, after
all, since we are to be married! And you know, I could come every night,
if you like, without anybody suspecting it--”

“Oh! no!--Oh! do not do that ever, I beg of you--”

They talked for an instant, and so low, so low, with more silence than
words, as if they were afraid to wake up the birds in their nests.
They recognized no longer the sound of their voices, so changed and
so trembling they were, as if they had committed some delicious and
damnable crime, by doing nothing but staying near each other, in the
grand, caressing mystery of that night of April, which was hatching
around them so many ascents of saps, so many germinations and so many
loves--

He had not even dared to sit at her side; he remained standing, ready to
run under the branches at the least alarm, like a nocturnal prowler.

However, when he prepared to go, it was she who asked, hesitating, and
in a manner to be hardly heard:

“And--you will come back to-morrow?”

Then, under his growing mustache, he smiled at this sudden change of
mind and he replied:

“Yes, surely.--To-morrow and every night.--Every night when we shall not
have to work in Spain.--I will come--”



CHAPTER XII.

Ramuntcho’s lodging place was, in the house of his mother and above the
stable, a room neatly whitewashed; he had there his bed, always clean
and white, but where smuggling gave him few hours for sleep. Books of
travel or cosmography, which the cure of the parish lent to him, posed
on his table--unexpected in this house. The portraits, framed, of
different saints, ornamented the walls, and several pelota-players’
gloves were hanging from the beams of the ceiling, long gloves of wicker
and of leather which seemed rather implements of hunting or fishing.

Franchita, at her return to her country, had bought back this house,
which was that of her deceased parents, with a part of the sum given to
her by the stranger at the birth of her son. She had invested the rest;
then she worked at making gowns or at ironing linen for the people of
Etchezar, and rented, to farmers of land near by, two lower rooms, with
the stable where they placed their cows and their sheep.

Different familiar, musical sounds rocked Ramuntcho in his bed. First,
the constant roar of a near-by torrent; then, at times, songs of
nightingales, salutes to the dawn of divers birds. And, in this spring
especially, the cows, his neighbors, excited doubtless by the smell of
new-mown hay, moved all night, were agitated in dreams, making their
bells tintillate continually.

Often, after the long expeditions at night, he regained his sleep in the
afternoon, extended in the shade in some corner of moss and grass. Like
the other smugglers, he was not an early riser for a village boy, and
he woke up sometimes long after daybreak, when already, between the
disjointed planks of his flooring, rays of a vivid and gay light came
from the stable below, the door of which remained open always to the
rising sun after the departure of the cattle to their pastures. Then, he
went to his window, pushed open the little, old blinds made of massive
chestnut wood painted in olive, and leaned on his elbows, placed on the
sill of the thick wall, to look at the clouds or at the sun of the new
morning.

What he saw, around his house, was green, green, magnificently green, as
are in the spring all the corners of that land of shade and of rain.
The ferns which, in the autumn, have so warm a rusty color, were now,
in this April, in the glory of their greenest freshness and covered the
slopes of the mountains as with an immense carpet of curly wool, where
foxglove flowers made pink spots. In a ravine, the torrent roared under
branches. Above, groups of oaks and of beeches clung to the slopes,
alternating with prairies; then, above this tranquil Eden, toward the
sky, ascended the grand, denuded peak of the Gizune, sovereign hill of
the region of the clouds. And one perceived also, in the background, the
church and the houses--that village of Etchezar, solitary and perched
high on one of the Pyrenean cliffs, far from everything, far from
the lines of communication which have revolutionized and spoiled the
lowlands of the shores; sheltered from curiosity, from the profanation
of strangers, and living still its Basque life of other days.

Ramuntcho’s awakenings were impregnated, at this window, with peace and
humble serenity. They were full of joy, his awakenings of a man engaged,
since he had the assurance of meeting Gracieuse at night at the promised
place. The vague anxieties, the undefined sadness, which accompanied
in him formerly the daily return of his thoughts, had fled for a time,
dispelled by the reminiscence and the expectation of these meetings;
his life was all changed; as soon as his eyes were opened he had the
impression of a mystery and of an immense enchantment, enveloping him in
the midst of this verdure and of these April flowers. And this peace of
spring, thus seen every morning, seemed to him every time a new thing,
very different from what it had been in the previous years, infinitely
sweet to his heart and voluptuous to his flesh, having unfathomable and
ravishing depths.



CHAPTER XIII.

It is Easter night, after the village bells have ceased to mingle in the
air so many holy vibrations that came from Spain and from France.

Seated on the bank of the Bidassoa, Ramuntcho and Florentino watch the
arrival of a bark. A great silence now, and the bells sleep. The tepid
twilight has been prolonged and, in breathing, one feels the approach of
summer.

As soon as the night falls, it must appear from the coast of Spain, the
smuggling bark, bringing the very prohibited phosphorus. And, without
its touching the shore, they must go to get that merchandise, by
advancing on foot in the bed of the river, with long, pointed sticks in
their hands, in order to assume, if perchance they were caught, airs of
people fishing innocently for “platuches.”

The water of the Bidassoa is to-night an immovable and clear mirror, a
little more luminous than the sky, and in this mirror, are reproduced,
upside down, all the constellations, the entire Spanish mountain, carved
in so sombre a silhouette in the tranquil atmosphere. Summer, summer,
one has more and more the consciousness of its approach, so limpid and
soft are the first signs of night, so much lukewarm langour is scattered
over this corner of the world, where the smugglers silently manoeuvre.

But this estuary, which separates the two countries, seems in this
moment to Ramuntcho more melancholy than usual, more closed and more
walled-in in front of him by these black mountains, at the feet of which
hardly shine, here and there, two or three uncertain lights. Then, he
is seized again by his desire to know what there is beyond, and further
still.--Oh! to go elsewhere!--To escape, at least for a time, from the
oppressiveness of that land--so loved, however!--Before death, to escape
the oppressiveness of this existence, ever similar and without egress.
To try something else, to get out of here, to travel, to know things--!

Then, while watching the far-off, terrestrial distances where the bark
will appear, he raises his eyes from time to time toward what happens
above, in the infinite, looks at the new moon, the crescent of which, as
thin as a line, lowers and will disappear soon; looks at the stars,
the slow and regulated march of which he has observed, as have all the
people of his trade, during so many nocturnal hours; is troubled in the
depth of his mind by the proportions and the inconceivable distances of
these things.--

In his village of Etchezar, the old priest who had taught him the
catechism, interested by his young, lively intelligence, has lent books
to him, has continued with him conversations on a thousand subjects,
and, on the subject of the planets, has given to him the notion of
movements and of immensities, has half opened before his eyes the grand
abyss of space and duration. Then, in his mind, innate doubts, frights
and despairs that slumbered, all that his father had bequeathed to him
as a sombre inheritance, all these things have taken a black form which
stands before him. Under the great sky of night, his Basque faith has
commenced to weaken. His mind is no longer simple enough to accept
blindly dogmas and observances, and, as all becomes incoherence and
disorder in his young head, so strangely prepared, the course of which
nobody is leading, he does not know that it is wise to submit, with
confidence in spite of everything, to the venerable and consecrated
formulas, behind which is hidden perhaps all that we may ever see of the
unknowable truths.

Therefore, these bells of Easter which the year before had filled him
with a religious and soft sentiment, this time had seemed to him to be
a music sad and almost vain. And now that they have just hushed, he
listens with undefined sadness to the powerful noise, almost incessant
since the creation, that the breakers of the Bay of Biscay make and
which, in the peaceful nights, may be heard in the distance behind the
mountains.

But his floating dream changes again.--Now the estuary, which has
become quite dark and where one may no longer see the mass of human
habitations, seems to him, little by little, to become different; then,
strange suddenly, as if some mystery were to be accomplished in it; he
perceives only the great, abrupt lines of it, which are almost eternal,
and he is surprised to think confusedly of times more ancient, of an
unprecise and obscure antiquity.--The Spirit of the old ages, which
comes out of the soil at times in the calm nights, in the hours when
sleep the beings that trouble us in the day-time, the Spirit of the old
ages is beginning, doubtless, to soar in the air around him; Ramuntcho
does not define this well, for his sense of an artist and of a seer,
that no education has refined, has remained rudimentary; but he has the
notion and the worry of it.--In his head, there is still and always
a chaos, which seeks perpetually to disentangle itself and never
succeeds.--However, when the two enlarged and reddened horns of the
moon fall slowly behind the mountain, always black, the aspect of things
takes, for an inappreciable instant, one knows not what ferocious and
primitive airs; then, a dying impression of original epochs which had
remained, one knows not where in space, takes for Ramuntcho a precise
form in a sudden manner, and troubles him until he shivers. He dreams,
even without wishing it, of those men of the forests who lived here in
the ages, in the uncalculated and dark ages, because, suddenly, from a
point distant from the shore, a long Basque cry rises from the darkness
in a lugubrious falsetto, an “irrintzina,” the only thing in this
country with which he never could become entirely familiar. But a great
mocking noise occurs in the distance, the crash of iron, whistles: a
train from Paris to Madrid, which is passing over there, behind them, in
the black of the French shore. And the Spirit of the old ages folds its
wings made of shade and vanishes. Silence returns: but after the passage
of this stupid and rapid thing, the Spirit which has fled reappears no
more--

At last, the bark which Ramuntcho awaited with Florentino appears,
hardly perceptible for other eyes than theirs, a little, gray form which
leaves behind it slight ripples on this mirror which is of the color of
the sky at night and wherein stars are reflected upside down. It is the
well-selected hour, the hour when the customs officers watch badly; the
hour also when the view is dimmer, when the last reflections of the sun
and those of the crescent of the moon have gone out, and the eyes of men
are not yet accustomed to darkness.

Then to get the prohibited phosphorus, they take their long fishing
sticks, and go into the water silently.



CHAPTER XIV.

There was a grand ball-game arranged for the following Sunday at
Erribiague, a far-distant village, near the tall mountains. Ramuntcho,
Arrochkoa and Florentino were to play against three celebrated ones
of Spain; they were to practice that evening, limber their arms on the
square of Etchezar, and Gracieuse, with other little girls of her age,
had taken seats on the granite benches to look at them. The girls, all
pretty; with elegant airs in their pale colored waists cut in accordance
with the most recent vagary of the season. And they were laughing, these
little girls, they were laughing! They were laughing because they had
begun laughing, without knowing why. Nothing, a word of their old Basque
tongue, without any appropriateness, by one of them, and there they were
all in spasms of laughter.--This country is truly one of the corners of
the world where the laughter of girls breaks out most easily, ringing
like clear crystal, ringing youthfulness and fresh throats.

Arrochkoa had been there for a long time, with the wicker glove at his
arm, throwing alone the pelota which, from time to time, children picked
up for him. But Ramuntcho, Florentino, what were they thinking of?
How late they were! They came at last, their foreheads wet with
perspiration, their walk heavy and embarrassed. And, while the little,
laughing girls questioned them, in that mocking tone which girls, when
they are in a troupe, assume ordinarily to interpellate boys,
these smiled, and each one struck his chest which gave a metallic
sound.--Through paths of the Gizune, they had returned on foot from
Spain, heavy with copper coin bearing the effigy of the gentle, little
King Alfonso XIII. A new trick of the smugglers: for Itchoua’s account,
they had exchanged over there with profit, a big sum of money for this
debased coin, destined to be circulated at par at the coming fairs, in
different villages of the Landes where Spanish cents are current. They
were bringing, in their pockets, in their shirts, some forty kilos of
copper. They made all this fall like rain on the antique granite of the
benches, at the feet of the amused girls, asking them to keep and count
it for them; then, after wiping their foreheads and puffing a little,
they began to play and to jump, being light now and lighter than
ordinarily, their overload being disposed of.

Except three or four children of the school who ran like young cats
after the lost pelotas, there were only the girls, seated in a group on
the lowest one of these deserted steps, the old, reddish stones of
which bore at this moment their herbs and their flowers of April. Calico
gowns, clear white or pink waists, they were all the gaiety of this
solemnly sad place. Beside Gracieuse was Pantchika Dargaignaratz,
another fifteen year old blonde, who was engaged to Arrochkoa and would
soon marry him, for he, being the son of a widow, had not to serve in
the army. And, criticizing the players, placing in lines on the granite
rows of piled-up copper cents, they laughed, they whispered, in their
chanted accent, with ends of syllables in “rra” or in “rrik,” making the
“r’s” roll so sharply that one would have thought every instant sparrows
were beating their wings in their mouths.

They also, the boys, were laughing, and they came frequently, under
the pretext of resting, to sit among the girls. These troubled and
intimidated them three times more than the public, because they mocked
so!

Ramuntcho learned from his little betrothed something which he would not
have dared to hope for: she had obtained her mother’s permission to
go to that festival of Erribiague, see the ball-game and visit that
country, which she did not know. It was agreed that she should go in a
carriage, with Pantchika and Madame Dargaignaratz; and they would meet
over there; perhaps it would be possible to return all together.

During the two weeks since their evening meetings had begun, this was
the first time when he had had the opportunity to talk to her thus in
the day-time and before the others--and their manner was different, more
ceremonious apparently, with, beneath it, a very suave mystery. It was
a long time, also, since he had seen her so well and so near in the
daylight: she was growing more beautiful that spring; she was pretty,
pretty!--Her bust had become rounder and her waist thinner; her manner
gained, day by day, an elegant suppleness. She resembled her brother
still, she had the same regular features, the same perfect oval of the
face; but the difference in their eyes went on increasing: while those
of Arrochkoa, of a blue green shade which seemed fleeting, avoided
the glances of others, hers, on the contrary, black pupils and lashes,
dilated themselves to look at you fixedly. Ramuntcho had seen eyes like
these in no other person; he adored the frank tenderness of them and
also their anxious and profound questioning. Long before he had become a
man and accessible to the trickery of the senses, those eyes had caught,
of his little, childish mind, all that was best and purest in it.--And
now around such eyes, the grand Transformer, enigmatic and sovereign,
had placed a beauty of flesh which irresistibly called his flesh to a
supreme communion.--

They were made very inattentive to their game, the players, by the group
of little girls, of white and pink waists, and they laughed themselves
at not playing so well as usual. Above them, occupying only a small
corner of the old, granite amphitheatre, ascended rows of empty benches
in ruins; then, the houses of Etchezar, so peacefully isolated from the
rest of the world; then, in fine, the obscure, encumbering mass of the
Gizune, filling up the sky and mingling with thick clouds asleep on
its sides. Clouds immovable, inoffensive and without a threat of rain;
clouds of spring, which were of a turtle-dove color and which seemed
tepid, like the air of that evening. And, in a rent, much less elevated
than the summit predominating over this entire site, a round moon began
to silver as the day declined.

They played, in the beautiful twilight, until the hour when the first
bats appeared, until the hour when the flying pelota could hardly be
seen in the air. Perhaps they felt, unconsciously, that the moment was
rare and might not be regained: then, as much as possible, they should
prolong it--

And at last, they went together to take to Itchoua his Spanish coins. In
two lots, they had been placed in two thick, reddish towels which a boy
and a girl held at each end, and they walked in cadence, singing the
tune of “The Linen Weaver.”

How long, clear and soft was that twilight of April!--There were roses
and all sorts of flowers in front of the walls of the venerable, white
houses with brown or green blinds. Jessamine, honeysuckle and linden
filled the air with fragrance. For Gracieuse and Ramuntcho, it was
one of those exquisite hours which later, in the anguishing sadness
of awakenings, one recalls with a regret at once heart-breaking and
charming.

Oh! who shall say why there are on earth evenings of spring, and eyes
so pretty to look at, and smiles of young girls, and breaths of perfumes
which gardens exhale when the nights of April fall, and all this
delicious cajoling of life, since it is all to end ironically in
separation, in decrepitude and in death--



CHAPTER XV.

The next day, Friday, was organized the departure for this village where
the festival was to take place on the following Sunday. It is situated
very far, in a shady region, at the turn of a deep gorge, at the foot of
very high summits. Arrochkoa was born there and he had spent there the
first months of his life, in the time when his father lived there as
a brigadier of the French customs; but he had left too early to have
retained the least memory of it.

In the little Detcharry carriage, Gracieuse, Pantchita and, with a long
whip in her hand, Madame Dargaignaratz, her mother, who is to drive,
leave together at the noon angelus to go over there directly by the
mountain route.

Ramuntcho, Arrochkoa and Florentino, who have to settle smuggling
affairs at Saint-Jean-de-Luz, go by a roundabout way which will bring
them to Erribiague at night, on the train which goes from Bayonne to
Burguetta. To-day, all three are heedless and happy; Basque caps never
appeared above more joyful faces.

The night is falling when they penetrate, by this little train of
Burguetta, into the quiet, interior country. The carriages are full of
a gay crowd, a spring evening crowd, returning from some festival, young
girls with silk kerchiefs around their necks, young men wearing woolen
caps; all are singing, laughing and kissing. In spite of the invading
obscurity one may still distinguish the hedges, white with hawthorn, the
woods white with acacia flowers; into the open carriages penetrates a
fragrance at once violent and suave, which the country exhales. And on
all this white bloom of April, which the night little by little effaces,
the train throws in passing a furrow of joy, the refrain of some old
song of Navarre, sung and resung infinitely by these girls and these
boys, in the noise of the wheels and of the steam--

Erribiague! At the doors, this name, which makes all three start, is
cried. The singing band had already stepped out, leaving them almost
alone in the train, which had become silent. High mountains had made the
night very thick--and the three were almost sleeping.

Astounded, they jump down, in the midst of an obscurity which even their
smugglers’ eyes cannot pierce. Stars above hardly shine, so encumbered
is the sky by the overhanging summits.

“Where is the village?” they ask of a man who is there alone to receive
them.

“Three miles from here on the right.”

They begin to distinguish the gray trail of a road, suddenly lost in the
heart of the shade. And in the grand silence, in the humid coolness of
these valleys full of darkness, they walk without talking, their gaiety
somewhat darkened by the black majesty of the peaks that guard the
frontier here.

They come, at last, to an old, curved bridge over a torrent; then, to
the sleeping village which no light indicates. And the inn, where shines
a lamp, is near by, leaning on the mountain, its base in the roaring
water.

The young men are led into their little rooms which have an air of
cleanliness in spite of their extreme oldness: very low, crushed by
their enormous beams, and bearing on their whitewashed walls images of
the Christ, the Virgin and the saints.

Then, they go down to the supper tables, where are seated two or three
old men in old time costume: white belt, black blouse, very short, with
a thousand pleats. And Arrochkoa, vain of his parentage, hastens to ask
them if they have not known Detcharry, who was here a brigadier of the
customs eighteen years ago.

One of the old men scans his face:

“Ah! you are his son, I would bet! You look like him! Detcharry, do
I remember Detcharry!--He took from me two hundred lots of
merchandise!--That does not matter, here is my hand, even if you are his
son!”

And the old defrauder, who was the chief of a great band, without
rancor, with effusion, presses Arrochkoa’s two hands.

Detcharry has remained famous at Erribiague for his stratagems, his
ambuscades, his captures of contraband goods, out of which came, later,
his income that Dolores and her children enjoy.

And Arrochkoa assumes a proud air, while Ramuntcho lowers his head,
feeling that he is of a lower condition, having no father.

“Are you not in the customhouse, as your deceased father was?” continued
the old man in a bantering tone.

“Oh, no, not exactly.--Quite the reverse, even--”

“Oh, well! I understand!--Then, shake once more--and it’s a sort
of revenge on Detcharry for me, to know that his son has gone into
smuggling like us!--”

They send for cider and they drink together, while the old men tell
again the exploits and the tricks of former times, all the ancient tales
of nights in the mountains; they speak a variety of Basque different
from that of Etchezar, the village where the language is preserved more
clearly articulated, more incisive, more pure, perhaps. Ramuntcho and
Arrochkoa are surprised by this accent of the high land, which softens
the words and which chants them; those white-haired story tellers seem
to them almost strangers, whose talk is a series of monotonous stanzas,
repeated infinitely as in the antique songs expressive of sorrow. And,
as soon as they cease talking, the slight sounds in the sleep of the
country come from peaceful and fresh darkness. The crickets chirp;
one hears the torrent bubbling at the base of the inn; one hears the
dripping of springs from the terrible, overhanging summits, carpeted
with thick foliage.--It sleeps, the very small village, crouched and
hidden in the hollow of a ravine, and one has the impression that the
night here is a night blacker than elsewhere and more mysterious.

“In truth,” concludes the old chief, “the customhouse and smuggling, at
bottom, resemble each other; it is a game where the smartest wins, is
it not? I will even say that, in my own opinion, an officer of customs,
clever and bold, a customs officer like your father, for example, is as
worthy as any of us!”

After this, the hostess having come to say that it was time to put out
the lamp--the last lamp still lit in the village--they go away, the old
defrauders. Ramuntcho and Arrochkoa go up to their rooms, lie down and
sleep, always in the chirp of the crickets, always in the sound of
fresh waters that run or that fall. And Ramuntcho, as in his house at
Etchezar, hears vaguely during his sleep the tinkling of bells, attached
to the necks of cows moving in a dream, under him, in the stable.



CHAPTER XVI.

Now they open, to the beautiful April morning, the shutters of their
narrow windows, pierced like portholes in the thickness of the very old
wall.

And suddenly, it is a flood of light that dazzles their eyes. Outside,
the spring is resplendent. Never had they seen, before this, summits
so high and so near. But along the slopes full of leaves, along the
mountains decked with trees, the sun descends to radiate in this valley
on the whiteness of the village, on the kalsomine of the ancient houses
with green shutters.

Both awakened with veins full of youth and hearts full of joy. They have
formed the project this morning to go into the country, to the house of
Madame Dargaignaratz’s cousins, and see the two little girls, who
must have arrived the night before in the carriage, Gracieuse and
Pantchika.--After a glance at the ball-game square, where they shall
return to practice in the afternoon, they go on their way through
small paths, magnificently green, hidden in the depths of the valleys,
skirting the cool torrents. The foxglove flowers start everywhere like
long, pink rockets above the light and infinite mass of ferns.

It is at a long distance, it seems, that house of the Olhagarray
cousins, and they stop from time to time to ask the way from shepherds,
or they knock at the doors of solitary houses, here and there, under
the cover of branches. They had never seen Basque houses so old nor so
primitive, under the shade of chestnut trees so tall.

The ravines through which they advance are strangely enclosed. Higher
than all these woods of oaks and of beeches, which seem as if suspended
above, appear ferocious, denuded summits, a zone abrupt and bald,
sombre brown, making points in the violent blue of the sky. But here,
underneath, is the sheltered and mossy region, green and deep, which the
sun never burns and where April has hidden its luxury, freshly superb.

And they also, the two who are passing through these paths of foxglove
and of fern, participate in this splendor of spring.

Little by little, in their enjoyment at being there, and under the
influence of this ageless place, the old instincts to hunt and to
destroy are lighted in the depths of their minds. Arrochkoa, excited,
leaps from right to left, from left to right, breaks, uproots grasses
and flowers; troubles about everything that moves in the green foliage,
about the lizards that might be caught, about the birds that might be
taken out of their nests, and about the beautiful trout swimming in the
water; he jumps, he leaps; he wishes he had fishing lines, sticks,
guns; truly he reveals his savagery in the bloom of his robust eighteen
years.--Ramuntcho calms himself quickly; after breaking a few branches,
plucking a few flowers, he begins to meditate; and he thinks--

Here they are stopped now at a cross-road where no human habitation is
visible. Around them are gorges full of shade wherein grand oaks grow
thickly, and above, everywhere, a piling up of mountains, of a reddish
color burned by the sun. There is nowhere an indication of the new
times; there is an absolute silence, something like the peace of the
primitive epochs. Lifting their heads toward the brown peaks, they
perceive at a long distance persons walking on invisible paths,
pushing before them donkeys of smugglers: as small as insects at such
a distance, are these silent passers-by on the flank of the gigantic
mountain; Basques of other times, almost confused, as one looks at them
from this place, with this reddish earth from which they came--and where
they are to return, after having lived like their ancestors without a
suspicion of the things of our times, of the events of other places--

They take off their caps, Arrochkoa and Ramuntcho, to wipe their
foreheads; it is so warm in these gorges and they have run so much,
jumped so much, that their entire bodies are in a perspiration. They are
enjoying themselves, but they would like to come, nevertheless, near
the two little, blonde girls who are waiting for them. But of whom shall
they ask their way now, since there is no one?

“Ave Maria,” cries at them from the thickness of the branches an old,
rough voice.

And the salutation is prolonged by a string of words spoken in a rapid
decrescendo, quick; quick; a Basque prayer rattled breathlessly, begun
very loudly, then dying at the finish. And an old beggar comes out of
the fern, all earthy, all hairy, all gray, bent on his stick like a man
of the woods.

“Yes,” says Arrochkoa, putting his hand in his pocket, “but you must
take us to the Olhagarray house.”

“The Olhagarray house,” replies the old man. “I have come from it, my
children, and you are near it.”

In truth, how had they failed to see, at a hundred steps further, that
black gable among branches of chestnut trees?

At a point where sluices rustle, it is bathed by a torrent, that
Olhagarray house, antique and large, among antique chestnut trees.
Around, the red soil is denuded and furrowed by the waters of the
mountain; enormous roots are interlaced in it like monstrous gray
serpents; and the entire place, overhung on all sides by the Pyrenean
masses, is rude and tragic.

But two young girls are there, seated in the shade; with blonde hair and
elegant little pink waists; astonishing little fairies, very modern in
the midst of the ferocious and old scenes.--They rise, with cries of
joy, to meet the visitors.

It would have been better, evidently, to enter the house and salute the
old people. But the boys say to themselves that they have not been seen
coming, and they prefer to sit near their sweethearts, by the side of
the brook, on the gigantic roots. And, as if by chance, the two couples
manage not to bother one another, to remain hidden from one another by
rocks, by branches.

There then, they talk at length in a low voice, Arrochkoa with
Pantchika, Ramuntcho with Gracieuse. What can they be saying, talking so
much and so quickly?

Although their accent is less chanted than that of the highland, which
astonished them yesterday, one would think they were speaking scanned
stanzas, in a sort of music, infinitely soft, where the voices of the
boys seem voices of children.

What are they saying to one another, talking so much and so quickly,
beside this torrent, in this harsh ravine, under the heavy sun of noon?
What they are saying has not much sense; it is a sort of murmur special
to lovers, something like the special song of the swallows at nesting
time. It is childish, a tissue of incoherences and repetitions. No, what
they are saying has not much sense--unless it be what is most sublime in
the world, the most profound and truest things which may be expressed
by terrestrial words.--It means nothing, unless it be the eternal and
marvellous hymn for which alone has been created the language of men and
beasts, and in comparison with which all is empty, miserable and vain.

The heat is stifling in the depth of that gorge, so shut in from all
sides; in spite of the shade of the chestnut trees, the rays, that the
leaves sift, burn still. And this bare earth, of a reddish color, the
extreme oldness of this nearby house, the antiquity of these trees, give
to the surroundings, while the lovers talk, aspects somewhat harsh and
hostile.

Ramuntcho has never seen his little friend made so pink by the sun: on
her cheeks, there is the beautiful, red blood which flushes the skin,
the fine and transparent skin; she is pink as the foxglove flowers.

Flies, mosquitoes buzz in their ears. Now Gracieuse has been bitten on
the chin, almost on the mouth, and she tries to touch it with the end of
her tongue, to bite the place with the upper teeth. And Ramuntcho, who
looks at this too closely, feels suddenly a langour, to divert himself
from which he stretches himself like one trying to awake.

She begins again, the little girl, her lip still itching--and he again
stretches his arms, throwing his chest backward.

“What is the matter, Ramuntcho, and why do you stretch yourself like a
cat?--”

But when, for the third time, Gracieuse bites the same place, and shows
again the little tip of her tongue, he bends over, vanquished by the
irresistible giddiness, and bites also, takes in his mouth, like a
beautiful red fruit which one fears to crush, the fresh lip which the
mosquito has bitten--

A silence of fright and of delight, during which both shiver, she as
much as he; she trembling also, in all her limbs, for having felt the
contact of the growing black mustache.

“You are not angry, tell me?”

 “No, my Ramuntcho.--Oh, I am not angry, no--”

Then he begins again, quite frantic, and in this languid and warm air,
they exchange for the first time in their lives, the long kisses of
lovers--



CHAPTER XVII.

The next day, Sunday, they went together religiously to hear one of the
masses of the clear morning, in order to return to Etchezar the same
day, immediately after the grand ball-game. It was this return, much
more than the game, that interested Gracieuse and Ramuntcho, for it
was their hope that Pantchika and her mother would remain at Erribiague
while they would go, pressed against each other, in the very small
carriage of the Detcharry family, under the indulgent and slight
watchfulness of Arrochkoa, five or six hours of travel, all three
alone, on the spring roads, under the new foliage, with amusing halts in
unknown villages--

At eleven o’clock in the morning, on that beautiful Sunday, the square
was encumbered by mountaineers come from all the summits, from all
the savage, surrounding hamlets. It was an international match,
three players of France against three of Spain, and, in the crowd of
lookers-on, the Spanish Basques were more numerous; there were large
sombreros, waistcoats and gaiters of the olden time.

The judges of the two nations, designated by chance, saluted each
other with a superannuated politeness, and the match began, in profound
silence, under an oppressive sun which annoyed the players, in spite of
their caps, pulled down over their eyes.

Ramuntcho soon, and after him Arrochkoa, were acclaimed as victors. And
people looked at the two little strangers, so attentive, in the first
row, so pretty also with their elegant pink waists, and people said:
“They are the sweethearts of the two good players.” Then Gracieuse, who
heard everything, felt proud of Ramuntcho.

Noon. They had been playing for almost an hour. The old wall, with its
summit curved like a cupola, was cracking from dryness and from heat,
under its paint of yellow ochre. The grand Pyrenean masses, nearer here
than at Etchezar, more crushing and more high, dominated from everywhere
these little, human groups, moving in a deep fold of their sides. And
the sun fell straight on the heavy caps of the men, on the bare heads
of the women, heating the brains, increasing enthusiasm. The passionate
crowd yelled, and the pelotas were flying, when, softly, the angelus
began to ring. Then an old man, all wrinkled, all burned, who was
waiting for this signal, put his mouth to the clarion--his old clarion
of a Zouave in Africa--and rang the call to rest. And all, the women who
were seated rose; all the caps fell, uncovering hair black, blonde
or white, and the entire people made the sign of the cross, while the
players, with chests and foreheads streaming with perspiration, stopped
in the heat of the game and stood in meditation with heads bent--

At two o’clock, the game having come to an end gloriously for the
French, Arrochkoa and Ramuntcho went in their little wagon, accompanied
and acclaimed by all the young men of Erribiague; then Gracieuse sat
between the two, and they started for their long, charming trip, their
pockets full of the gold which they had earned, intoxicated by their
joy, by the noise and by the sunlight.

And Ramuntcho, who retained the taste of yesterday’s kiss, felt like
shouting to them: “This little girl who is so pretty, as you see, is
mine! Her lips are mine, I had them yesterday and will take them again
to-night!”

They started and at once found silence again, in the shaded valleys
bordered by foxglove and ferns--

To roll for hours on the small Pyrenean roads, to change places almost
every day, to traverse the Basque country, to go from one village
to another, called here by a festival, there by an adventure on the
frontier--this was now Ramuntcho’s life, the errant life which the
ball-game made for him in the day-time and smuggling in the night-time.

Ascents, descents, in the midst of a monotonous display of verdure.
Woods of oaks and of beeches, almost inviolate, and remaining as they
were in the quiet centuries.--When he passed by some antique house,
hidden in these solitudes of trees, he stopped to enjoy reading, above
the door, the traditional legend inscribed in the granite: “Ave Maria!
in the year 1600, or in the year 1500, such a one, from such a village,
has built this house, to live in it with such a one, his wife.”

Very far from all human habitation, in a corner of a ravine, where
it was warmer than elsewhere, sheltered from all breezes, they met a
peddler of holy images, who was wiping his forehead. He had set down
his basket, full of those colored prints with gilt frames that represent
saints with Euskarian legends, and with which the Basques like to adorn
their old rooms with white walls. And he was there, exhausted from
fatigue and heat, as if wrecked in the ferns, at a turn of those little,
mountain routes which run solitary under oaks.

Gracieuse came down and bought a Holy Virgin.

“Later,” she said to Ramuntcho, “we shall put it in our house as a
souvenir--”

And the image, dazzling in its gold frame, went with them under the
long, green vaults--

They went out of their path, for they wished to pass by a certain valley
of the Cherry-trees, not in the hope of finding cherries in it, in
April, but to show to Gracieuse the place, which is renowned in the
entire Basque country.

It was almost five o’clock, the sun was already low, when they reached
there. It was a shaded and calm region, where the spring twilight
descended like a caress on the magnificence of the April foliage. The
air was cool and suave, fragrant with hay, with acacia. Mountains--very
high, especially toward the north, to make the climate there softer,
surrounded it on all sides, investing it with a melancholy mystery of
closed Edens.

And, when the cherry-trees appeared, they were a gay surprise, they were
already red.

There was nobody on these paths, above which the grand cherry-trees
extended like a roof, their branches dripping with coral.

Here and there were some summer houses, still uninhabited, some deserted
gardens, invaded by the tall grass and the rose bushes.

Then, they made their horse walk; then, each one in his turn,
transferring the reins and standing in the wagon, amused himself by
eating these cherries from the trees while passing by them and without
stopping. Afterward, they placed bouquets of them in their buttonholes,
they culled branches of them to deck the horse’s head, the harness and
the lantern. The equipage seemed ornamented for some festival of youth
and of joy--

“Now let us hurry,” said Gracieuse. “If only it be light enough, at
least, when we reach Etchezar, for people to see us pass, ornamented as
we are!”

As for Ramuntcho, he thought of the meeting place in the evening, of the
kiss which he would dare to repeat, similar to that of yesterday, taking
Gracieuse’s lip between his lips like a cherry--



CHAPTER XVIII.

May! The grass ascends, ascends from everywhere like a sumptuous carpet,
like silky velvet, emanating spontaneously from the earth.

In order to sprinkle this region of the Basques, which remains humid and
green all summer like a sort of warmer Brittany, the errant vapors
on the Bay of Biscay assemble all in this depth of gulf, stop at the
Pyrenean summits and melt into rain. Long showers fall, which are
somewhat deceptive, but after which the soil smells of new flowers and
hay.

In the fields, along the roads, the grasses quickly thicken; all the
ledges of the paths are as if padded by the magnificent thickness of
the bent grass; everywhere is a profusion of gigantic Easter daisies, of
buttercups with tall stems, and of very large, pink mallows like those
of Algeria.

And, in the long, tepid twilights, pale iris or blue ashes in color,
every night the bells of the month of Mary resound for a long time
in the air, under the mass of the clouds hooked to the flanks of the
mountains.

During the month of May, with the little group of black nuns, with
discreet babble, with puerile and lifeless laughter, Gracieuse, at all
hours, went to church. Hastening their steps under the frequent showers,
they went together through the graveyard, full of roses; together,
always together, the little clandestine betrothed, in light colored
gowns, and the nuns, with long, mourning veils; during the day they
brought bouquets of white flowers, daisies and sheafs of tall lilies;
at night they came to sing, in the nave still more sonorous than in the
day-time, the softly joyful canticles of the Virgin Mary:

“Ave, Queen of the Angels! Star of the Sea, ave!--”

Oh, the whiteness of the lilies lighted by the tapers, their white
petals and their yellow pollen in gold dust! Oh, their fragrance in the
gardens or in the church, during the twilights of spring!

And as soon as Gracieuse entered there, at night, in the dying ring of
the bells--leaving the pale half-light of the graveyard full of roses
for the starry night of the wax tapers which reigned already in the
church, quitting the odor of hay and of roses for that of incense and of
the tall, cut lilies, passing from the lukewarm and living air
outside to that heavy and sepulchral cold that centuries amass in old
sanctuaries--a particular calm came at once to her mind, a pacifying of
all her desires, a renunciation of all her terrestrial joys. Then, when
she had knelt, when the first canticles had taken their flight under the
vault, infinitely sonorous, little by little she fell into an ecstasy,
a state of dreaming, a visionary state which confused, white apparitions
traversed: whiteness, whiteness everywhere; lilies, thousands of sheafs
of lilies, and white wings, shivers of white wings of angels--

Oh! to remain for a long time in that state, to forget all things, and
to feel herself pure, sanctified and immaculate, under that glance,
ineffably fascinating and soft, under that glance, irresistibly
appealing, which the Holy Virgin, in long white vestments, let fall from
the height of the tabernacle--!

But, when she went outside, when the night of spring re-enveloped her
with tepid breezes of life, the memory of the meeting which she had
promised the day before, the day before as well as every day, chased
like the wind of a storm the visions of the church. In the expectation
of Ramuntcho, in the expectation of the odor of his hair, of the touch
of his mustache, of the taste of his lips, she felt near faltering, like
one wounded, among the strange companions who accompanied her, among the
peaceful and spectral black nuns.

And when the hour had come, in spite of all her resolutions she was
there, anxious and ardent, listening to the least noise, her heart
beating if a branch of the garden moved in the night--tortured by the
least tardiness of the beloved one.

He came always with his same silent step of a rover at night, his
waistcoat on his shoulder, with as much precaution and artifice as for
the most dangerous act of smuggling.

In the rainy nights, so frequent in the Basque spring-time, she remained
in her room on the first floor, and he sat on the sill of the open
window, not trying to go in, not having the permission to do so. And
they stayed there, she inside, he outside, their arms laced, their heads
touching each other, the cheek of one resting on the cheek of the other.

When the weather was beautiful, she jumped over this low window-sill
to wait for him outside, and their long meetings, almost without words,
occurred on the garden bench. Between them there were not even those
continual whisperings familiar to lovers; no, there were rather
silences. At first they did not dare to talk, for fear of being
discovered, for the least murmurs of voices at night are heard. And
then, as nothing new threatened their lives, what need had they to talk?
What could they have said which would have been better than the long
contact of their joined hands and of their heads resting against each
other?

The possibility of being surprised kept them often on the alert, in an
anxiety which made more delicious afterward the moments when they forgot
themselves more, their confidence having returned.--Nobody frightened
them as much as Arrochkoa, a smart, nocturnal prowler himself, and
always so well-informed about the goings and comings of Ramuntcho--In
spite of his indulgence, what would he do, if he discovered them?--

Oh, the old stone benches, under branches, in front of the doors of
isolated houses, when fall the lukewarm nights of spring!--Theirs was a
real lovers’ hiding place, and there was for them, every night, a
music, for, in all the stones of the neighbors’ wall lived those singing
tree-toads, beasts of the south, which, as soon as night fell, gave from
moment to moment a little, brief note, discreet, odd, having the tone
of a crystal bell and of a child’s throat. Something similar might be
produced by touching here and there, without ever resting on them,
the scales of an organ with a celestial voice. There were tree-toads
everywhere, responding to one another in different tones; even those
which were under their bench, close by them, reassured by their
immobility, sang also from time to time; then that little sound,
brusque and soft, so near, made them start and smile. All the exquisite,
surrounding obscurity was animated by that music, which continued in the
distance, in the mystery of the leaves and of the stones, in the depths
of all the small, black holes of rocks or walls; it seemed like chivies
in miniature, or rather, a sort of frail concert somewhat mocking--oh!
not very mocking, and without any maliciousness--led timidly by
inoffensive gnomes. And this made the night more living and more
loving--

After the intoxicated audacities of the first nights, fright took a
stronger hold of them, and, when one of them had something special to
say, one led the other by the hand without talking; this meant that they
had to walk softly, softly, like marauding cats, to an alley behind the
house where they could talk without fear.

“Where shall we live, Gracieuse?” asked Ramuntcho one night.

“At your house, I had thought.”

“Ah! yes, so thought I--only I thought it would make you sad to be so
far from the parish, from the church and the square--”

“Oh--with you, I could find anything sad?--”

“Then, we would send away those who live on the first floor and take the
large room which opens on the road to Hasparitz--”

It was an increased joy for him to know that Gracieuse would accept his
house, to be sure that she would bring the radiance of her presence into
that old, beloved home, and that they would make their nest there for
life--



CHAPTER XIX.

Here come the long, pale twilights of June, somewhat veiled like those
of May, less uncertain, however, and more tepid still. In the gardens,
the rose-laurel which is beginning to bloom in profusion is becoming
already magnificently pink. At the end of each work day, the good folks
sit outside, in front of their doors, to look at the night falling--the
night which soon confuses, under the vaults of the plane-trees, their
groups assembled for benevolent rest. And a tranquil melancholy descends
over villages, in those interminable evenings--

For Ramuntcho, this is the epoch when smuggling becomes a trade almost
without trouble, with charming hours, marching toward summits through
spring clouds; crossing ravines, wandering in lands of springs and of
wild fig-trees; sleeping, waiting for the agreed hour, with carbineers
who are accomplices, on carpets of mint and pinks.--The good odor of
plants impregnated his clothes, his waistcoat which he never wore, but
used as a pillow or a blanket--and Gracieuse would say to him at night:
“I know where you went last night, for you smell of mint of the mountain
above Mendizpi”--or: “You smell of absinthe of the Subernoa morass.”

Gracieuse regretted the month of Mary, the offices of the Virgin in the
nave, decked with white flowers. In the twilights without rain, with the
sisters and some older pupils of their class, she sat under the porch
of the church, against the low wall of the graveyard from which the
view plunges into the valleys beneath. There they talked, or played the
childish games in which nuns indulge.

There were also long and strange meditations, meditations to which the
fall of day, the proximity of the church, of the tombs and of their
flowers, gave soon a serenity detached from material things and as if
free from all alliance with the senses. In her first mystic dreams as a
little girl,--inspired especially by the pompous rites of the cult, by
the voice of the organ, the white bouquets, the thousand flames of the
wax tapers--only images appeared to her--very radiant images, it is
true: altars resting on mists, golden tabernacles where music vibrated
and where fell grand flights of angels. But those visions gave place
now to ideas: she caught a glimpse of that peace and that supreme
renunciation which the certainty of an endless celestial life gives; she
conceived, in a manner more elevated than formerly, the melancholy joy
of abandoning everything in order to become an impersonal part of that
entirety of nuns, white, or blue, or black, who, from the innumerable
convents of earth, make ascend toward heaven an immense and perpetual
intercession for the sins of the world--

However, as soon as night had fallen quite, the course of her thoughts
came down every evening fatally toward intoxicating and mortal things.
Her wait, her feverish wait, began, more impatient from moment to
moment. She felt anxious that her cold companions with black veils
should return into the sepulchre of their convent and that she should
be alone in her room, free at last, in the house fallen asleep, ready to
open her window and listen to the slight noise of Ramuntcho’s footsteps.

The kiss of lovers, the kiss on the lips, was now a thing possessed
and of which they had not the strength to deprive themselves. And they
prolonged it a great deal, not wishing, through charming scruples, to
accord more to each other.

Anyway, if the intoxication which they gave to each other thus was a
little too carnal, there was between them that absolute tenderness,
infinite, unique, by which all things are elevated and purified.



CHAPTER XX.

Ramuntcho, that evening, had come to the meeting place earlier than
usual--with more hesitation also in his walk, for one risks, on these
June evenings, to find girls belated along the paths, or boys behind the
hedges on love expeditions.

And by chance she was already alone, looking outside, without waiting
for him, however.

At once she noticed his agitated demeanor and guessed that something new
had happened. Not daring to come too near, he made a sign to her to come
quickly, jump over the window-sill, and meet him in the obscure alley
where they talked without fear. Then, as soon as she was near him, in
the nocturnal shade of the trees, he put his arm around her waist and
announced to her, brusquely, the great piece of news which, since the
morning, troubled his young head and that of Franchita, his mother.

“Uncle Ignacio has written.”

“True? Uncle Ignacio!”

She knew that that adventurous uncle, that American uncle, who had
disappeared for so many years, had never thought until now of sending
more than a strange good-day by a passing sailor.

“Yes! And he says that he has property there, which requires attention,
large prairies, herds of horses; that he has no children, that if I wish
to go and live near him with a gentle Basque girl married to me here,
he would be glad to adopt both of us.--Oh! I think mother will come
also.--So, if you wish.--We could marry now.--You know they marry people
as young as we, it is allowed.--Now that I am to be adopted by my uncle
and I shall have a real situation in life, your mother will consent, I
think.--And as for military service, we shall not care for that, shall
we?--”

They sat on the mossy rocks, their heads somewhat dizzy, troubled by the
approach and the unforeseen temptation of happiness. So, it would not be
in an uncertain future, after his term as a soldier, it would be almost
at once; in two months, in one month, perhaps, that communion of their
minds and of their flesh, so ardently desired and now so forbidden,
might be accomplished without sin, honestly in the eyes of all,
permitted and blessed.--Oh! they had never looked at this so
closely.--And they pressed against each other their foreheads, made
heavy by too many thoughts, fatigued suddenly by a sort of too delicious
delirium.--Around them, the odor of the flowers of June ascended from
the earth, filling the night with an immense suavity. And, as if there
were not enough scattered fragrance, the jessamine, the honeysuckle
on the walls exhaled from moment to moment, in intermittent puffs, the
excess of their perfume; one would have thought that hands swung in
silence censers in the darkness, for some hidden festival, for some
enchantment magnificent and secret.

There are often and everywhere very mysterious enchantments like this,
emanating from nature itself, commanded by one knows not what sovereign
will with unfathomable designs, to deceive us all, on the road to
death--

“You do not reply, Gracieuse, you say nothing to me--”

He could see that she was intoxicated also, like him, and yet he divined
by her manner of remaining mute so long, that shadows were amassing over
his charming and beautiful dream.

“But,” she asked at last, “your naturalization papers. You have received
them, have you not?”

“Yes, they arrived last week, you know very well, and it was you who
said that I should apply for them--”

“Then you are a Frenchman to-day.--Then, if you do not do your military
service you are a deserter.”

“Yes.--A deserter, no; but refractory, I think it is called.--It isn’t
better, since one cannot come back.--I was not thinking of that--”

How she was tortured now to have caused this thought, to have impelled
him herself to this act which made soar over his hardly seen joy a
threat so black! Oh, a deserter, he, her Ramuntcho! That is, banished
forever from the dear, Basque country!--And this departure for America
becomes suddenly frightfully grave, solemn, similar to a death, since he
could not possibly return!--Then, what was there to be done?--

Now they were anxious and mute, each one preferring to submit to the
will of the other, and waiting, with equal fright, for the decision
which should be taken, to go or to remain. From the depths of their two
young hearts ascended, little by little, a similar distress, poisoning
the happiness offered over there, in that America from which they
would never return.--And the little, nocturnal censers of jessamine, of
honeysuckle, of linden, continued to throw into the air exquisite puffs
to intoxicate them; the darkness that enveloped them seemed more and
more caressing and soft; in the silence of the village and of the
country, the tree-toads gave, from moment to moment, their little
flute-note, which seemed a very discreet love call, under the velvet of
the moss; and, through the black lace of the foliage, in the serenity of
a June sky which one thought forever unalterable, they saw scintillate,
like a simple and gentle dust of phosphorus, the terrifying multitude of
the worlds.

The curfew began to ring, however, at the church. The sound of that
bell, at night especially, was for them something unique on earth.
At this moment, it was something like a voice bringing, in their
indecision, its advice, its counsel, decisive and tender. Mute still,
they listened to it with an increasing emotion, of an intensity till
then unknown, the brown head of the one leaning on the brown head of the
other. It said, the advising voice, the dear, protecting voice: “No, do
not go forever; the far-off lands are made for the time of youth; but
you must be able to return to Etchezar: it is here that you must grow
old and die; nowhere in the world could you sleep as in this graveyard
around the church, where one may, even when lying under the earth, hear
me ring again--” They yielded more and more to the voice of the bell,
the two children whose minds were religious and primitive. And Ramuntcho
felt on his cheek a tear of Gracieuse:

“No,” he said at last, “I will not desert; I think that I would not have
the courage to do it--”

“I thought the same thing as you, my Ramuntcho,” she said. “No, let us
not do that. I was waiting for you to say it--”

Then he realized that he also was crying, like her--

The die was cast, they would permit to pass by happiness which was
within their reach, almost under their hands; they would postpone
everything to a future uncertain and so far off--!

And now, in the sadness, in the meditation of the great decision which
they had taken, they communicated to each other what seemed best for
them to do:

“We might,” she said, “write a pretty letter to your uncle Ignacio;
write to him that you accept, that you will come with a great deal of
pleasure immediately after your military service; you might even add,
if you wish, that the one who is engaged to you thanks him and will be
ready to follow you; but that decidedly you cannot desert.”

“And why should you not talk to your mother now, Gatchutcha, only to
know what she would think?--Because now, you understand, I am not as I
was, an abandoned child--” Slight steps behind them, in the path--and
above the wall, the silhouette of a young man who had come on the tips
of his sandals, as if to spy upon them!

“Go, escape, my Ramuntcho, we will meet to-morrow evening!--”

In half a second, there was nobody: he was hidden in a bush, she had
fled into her room.

Ended was their grave interview! Ended until when? Until to-morrow or
until always?--On their farewells, abrupt or prolonged, frightened or
peaceful, every time, every night, weighed the same uncertainty of their
meeting again--



CHAPTER XXI.

The bell of Etchezar, the same dear, old bell, that of the tranquil
curfew, that of the festivals and that of the agonies, rang joyously in
the beautiful sun of June. The village was decorated with white cloths,
white embroideries, and the procession of the Fete-Dieu passed slowly,
on a green strewing of fennel seed and of reeds cut from the marshes.

The mountains seemed near and sombre, somewhat ferocious in their brown
tones, above this white parade of little girls marching on a carpet of
cut leaves and grass.

All the old banners of the church were there, illuminated by that sun
which they had known for centuries but which they see only once or twice
a year, on the consecrated days.

The large one, that of the Virgin, in white silk embroidered with pale
gold, was borne by Gracieuse, who walked in white dress, her eyes lost
in a mystic dream. Behind the young girls, came the women, all the women
of the village, wearing black veils, including Dolores and Franchita,
the two enemies. Men, numerous enough, closed this cortege, tapers in
their hands, heads uncovered--but there were especially gray hairs,
faces with expressions vanquished and resigned, heads of old men.

Gracieuse, holding high the banner of the Virgin, became at this hour
one of the Illuminati; she felt as if she were marching, as after
death, toward the celestial tabernacles. And when, at instants, the
reminiscence of Ramuntcho’s lips traversed her dream, she had the
impression, in the midst of all this white, of a sharp stain, delicious
still. Truly, as her thoughts became more elevated from day to day, what
brought her back to him was less her senses, capable in her of being
tamed, than true, profound tenderness, the one which resists time and
deceptions of the flesh. And this tenderness was augmented by the fact
that Ramuntcho was less fortunate than she and more abandoned in life,
having had no father--



CHAPTER XXII.

“Well, Gatchutcha, you have at last spoken to your mother of Uncle
Ignacio?” asked Ramuntcho, very late, the same night, in the alley of
the garden, under rays of the moon.

“Not yet, I have not dared.--How could I explain that I know all these
things, since I am supposed not to talk with you ever, and she has
forbidden me to do so?--Think, if I were to make her suspicious!--There
would be an end to everything, we could not see each other again! I
would like better to wait until you left the country, then all would be
indifferent to me--”

“It is true!--let us wait, since I am to go.”

He was going away, and already they could count the evenings which would
be left to them.

Now that they had permitted their immediate happiness to escape,
the happiness offered to them in the prairies of America, it seemed
preferable to them to hasten the departure of Ramuntcho for the army,
in order that he might return sooner. So they had decided that he would
enlist in the naval infantry, the only part of the service where one may
elect to serve for a period as short as three years. And as they needed,
in order to be certain not to be lacking in courage, a precise epoch,
considered for a long time in advance, they had fixed the end of
September, after the grand series of ball-games.

They contemplated this separation of three years duration with an
absolute confidence in the future, so sure they thought they were of
each other, and of themselves, and of their imperishable love. But
it was, however, an expectation which already filled their hearts
strangely; it threw an unforeseen melancholy over things which were
ordinarily the most indifferent, on the flight of days, on the least
indications of the next season, on the coming into life of certain
plants, on the coming into bloom of certain species of flowers, on all
that presaged the arrival and the rapid march of their last summer.



CHAPTER XXIII.

Already the fires of St. John have flamed, joyful and red in a clear,
blue night, and the Spanish mountain seemed to burn, that night, like a
sheaf of straw, so many were the bonfires lighted on its sides. It has
begun, the season of light, of heat and of storms, at the end of which
Ramuntcho must depart.

And the saps, which in the spring went up so quickly, become languid
already in the complete development of the verdure, in the wide bloom of
the flowers. And the sun, more and more burning, overheats all the heads
covered with Basque caps, excites ardor and passion, causes to rise
everywhere, in those Basque villages, ferments of noisy agitation and of
pleasure. While, in Spain, begin the grand bull-fights, this is here
the epoch of so many ball-games, of so many fandangoes danced in the
evening, of so much pining of lovers in the tepid voluptuousness of
nights--!

Soon will come the warm splendor of the southern July. The Bay of Biscay
has become very blue and the Cantabric coast has for a time put on its
fallow colors of Morocco or of Algeria.

With the heavy rains alternates the marvellously beautiful weather which
gives to the air absolute limpidities. And there are days also when
somewhat distant things are as if eaten by light, powdered with sun
dust; then, above the woods and the village of Etchezar, the Gizune,
very pointed, becomes more vaporous and more high, and, on the sky,
float, to make it appear bluer, very small clouds of a gilded white with
a little mother-of-pearl gray in their shades.

And the springs run thinner and rarer under the thickness of the ferns,
and, along the routes, go more slowly, driven by half nude men, the
ox-carts which a swarm of flies surrounds.

At this season, Ramuntcho, in the day-time, lived his agitated life of
a pelotari, running with Arrochkoa from village to village, to organize
ball-games and play them.

But, in his eyes, evenings alone existed.

Evenings!--In the odorous and warm darkness of the garden, to be seated
very near Gracieuse; to put his arm around her, little by little to draw
her to him and hold her against his breast, and remain thus for a long
time without saying anything, his chin resting on her hair, breathing
the young and healthy scent of her body.

He enervated himself dangerously, Ramuntcho, in these prolonged contacts
which she did not prohibit. Anyway, he divined her surrendered enough to
him now, and confident enough, to permit everything; but he did not wish
to attempt supreme communion, through childish reserve, through respect
for his betrothed, through excess and profoundness of love. And it
happened to him at times to rise abruptly, to stretch himself--in the
manner of a cat, she said, as formerly at Erribiague--when he felt a
dangerous thrill and a more imperious temptation to leave life with her
in a moment of ineffable death--



CHAPTER XXIV.

Franchita, however, was astonished by the unexplained attitude of her
son, who, apparently, never saw Gracieuse and yet never talked of her.
Then, while was amassing in her the sadness of his coming departure
for military service, she observed him, with her peasant’s patience and
muteness.

One evening, one of the last evenings, as he was going away, mysterious
and in haste, long before the hour of the nocturnal contraband, she
straightened before him, her eyes fixed on his:

“Where are you going, my son?”

And seeing him turn his head, blushing and embarrassed, she acquired a
sudden certainty:

“It is well, now I know.--Oh! I know!--”

She was moved even more than he, at her discovery of this great
secret.--The idea had not even come to her that it was not Gracieuse,
that it might be another girl. She was too far-seeing. And her scruples
as a Christian were awakened, her conscience was frightened at the
evil that they might have done, as rose from the depth of her heart
a sentiment of which she was ashamed as if it were a crime, a sort of
savage joy.--For, in fine--if their carnal union was accomplished, the
future of her son was assured.--She knew her Ramuntcho well enough to
know that he would not change his mind and that Gracieuse would never be
abandoned by him.

The silence between them was prolonged, she standing before him, barring
the way:

“And what have you done together?” she decided to ask. “Tell me the
truth, Ramuntcho, what wrong have you done?--”

“What wrong?--Oh! nothing, mother, nothing wrong, I swear to you--”

He replied this without irritation at being questioned, and bearing the
look of his mother with eyes of frankness. It was true, and she believed
him.

But, as she stayed in front of him, her hand on the door-latch, he said,
with dumb violence:

“You are not going to prevent me from going to her, since I shall leave
in three days!”

Then, in presence of this young will in revolt, the mother, enclosing in
herself the tumult of her contradictory thoughts, lowered her head and,
without a word, stood aside to let him pass.



CHAPTER XXV.

It was their last evening, for, the day before yesterday, at the Mayor’s
office of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, he had, with a hand trembling a little,
signed his engagement for three years in the Second naval infantry,
whose garrison was a military port of the North.

It was their last evening,--and they had said that they would make it
longer than usual,--it would last till midnight, Gracieuse had decided:
midnight, which in the villages is an unseasonable and black hour,
an hour after which, she did not know why, all seemed to the little
betrothed graver and guiltier.

In spite of the ardent desire of their senses, the idea had not come
to one nor to the other that, during this last meeting, under the
oppression of parting, something more might be attempted.

On the contrary, at the instant so full of concentration of their
farewell, they felt more chaste still, so eternal was their love.

Less prudent, however, since they had not to care for the morrow, they
dared to talk there, on their lovers’ bench, as they had never done
before. They talked of the future, of a future which was for them very
distant, because, at their age, three years seem infinite.

In three years, at his return, she would be twenty; then, if her mother
persisted to refuse in an absolute manner, at the end of a year she
would use her right of majority, it was between them an agreed and a
sworn thing.

The means of correspondence, during the long absence of Ramuntcho,
preoccupied them a great deal: between them, everything was so
complicated by obstacles and secrets!--Arrochkoa, their only possible
intermediary, had promised his help; but he was so changeable, so
uncertain!--Oh, if he were to fail!--And then, would he consent to send
sealed letters?--If he did not consent there would be no pleasure in
writing.--In our time, when communications are easy and constant, there
are no more of these complete separations similar to the one which
theirs would be; they were to say to each other a very solemn farewell,
like the one which the lovers of other days said, the lovers of the
days when there were lands without post-offices, and distances that
frightened one. The fortunate time when they should see each other again
appeared to them situated far off, far off, in the depths of duration;
yet, because of the faith which they had in each other, they expected
this with a tranquil assurance, as the faithful expect celestial life.

But the least things of their last evening acquired in their minds
a singular importance; as this farewell came near, all grew and was
exaggerated for them, as happens in the expectation of death. The slight
sounds and the aspects of the night seemed to them particular and, in
spite of them, were engraving themselves forever in their memory. The
song of the crickets had a characteristic which it seemed to them they
had never heard before. In the nocturnal sonority, the barking of
a watch-dog, coming from some distant farm, made them shiver with a
melancholy fright. And Ramuntcho was to carry with him in his exile,
to preserve later with a desolate attachment, a certain stem of grass
plucked from the garden negligently and with which he had played
unconsciously the whole evening.

A phase of their life finished with that day: a lapse of time had
occurred, their childhood had passed--

Of recommendations, they had none very long to exchange, so intensely
was each one sure of what the other might do during the separation. They
had less to say to each other than other engaged people have, because
they knew mutually their most intimate thoughts. After the first hour
of conversation, they remained hand in hand in grave silence, while were
consumed the inexorable minutes of the end.

At midnight, she wished him to go, as she had decided in advance, in her
little thoughtful and obstinate head. Therefore, after having embraced
each other for a long time, they quitted each other, as if the
separation were, at this precise minute, an ineluctable thing which it
was impossible to retard. And while she returned to her room with
sobs that he heard, he scaled over the wall and, in coming out of the
darkness of the foliage, found himself on the deserted road, white with
lunar rays. At this first separation, he suffered less than she, because
he was going, because it was he that the morrow, full of uncertainty,
awaited. While he walked on the road, powdered and clear, the powerful
charm of change, of travel, dulled his sensitiveness; almost without any
precise thought, he looked at his shadow, which the moon made clear
and harsh, marching in front of him. And the great Gizune dominated
impassibly everything, with its cold and spectral air, in all this white
radiance of midnight.



CHAPTER XXVI.

The parting day, good-byes to friends here and there; joyful wishes of
former soldiers returned from the regiment. Since the morning, a sort of
intoxication or of fever, and, in front of him, everything unthought-of
in life.

Arrochkoa, very amiable on that last day, had offered to drive him in a
wagon to Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and had arranged to go at sunset, in order
to arrive there just in time for the night train.

The night having come, inexorably, Franchita wished to accompany her son
to the square, where the Detcharry wagon was waiting for him, and here
her face, despite her will, was drawn by sorrow, while he straightened
himself, in order to preserve the swagger which becomes recruits going
to their regiment:

“Make a little place for me, Arrochkoa,” she said abruptly. “I will sit
between you to the chapel of Saint-Bitchentcho; I will return on foot--”

And they started at the setting sun, which, on them as on all things,
scattered the magnificence of its gold and of its red copper.

After a wood of oaks, the chapel of Saint-Bitchentcho passed, and the
mother wished to remain. From one turn to another, postponing every time
the great separation, she asked to be driven still farther.

“Mother, when we reach the top of the Issaritz slope you must go down!”
 he said tenderly. “You hear, Arrochkoa, you will stop where I say; I do
not want mother to go further--”

At this Issaritz slope the horse had himself slackened his pace. The
mother and the son, their eyes burned with suppressed tears, held each
other’s hands, and they were going slowly, slowly, in absolute silence,
as if it were a solemn ascent toward some Calvary.

At last, at the top of the slope, Arrochkoa, who seemed mute also,
pulled the reins slightly, with a simple little: “Ho!--” discreet as
a lugubrious signal which one hesitates to give--and the carriage was
stopped.

Then, without a word, Ramuntcho jumped to the road, helped his mother to
descend, gave a long kiss to her, then remounted briskly to his seat:

“Go, Arrochkoa, quickly, race, let us go!”

And in two seconds, in the rapid descent, he lost sight of the one whose
face at last was covered with tears.

Now they were going away from one another, Franchita and her son. In
different directions, they were walking on that Etchezar road,--in the
splendor of the setting sun, in a region of pink heather and of yellow
fern. She was going up slowly toward her home, meeting isolated groups
of farmers, flocks led through the golden evening by little shepherds
in Basque caps. And he was going down quickly, through valleys soon
darkened, toward the lowland where the railway train passes--



CHAPTER XXVII.

At twilight, Franchita was returning from escorting her son and was
trying to regain her habitual face, her air of haughty indifference, to
pass through the village.

But, when she arrived in front of the Detcharry house, she saw Dolores
who, instead of going in, as she intended, turned round and stood at the
door to see her pass. Something new, some sudden revelation must
have impelled her to take this attitude of aggressive defiance, this
expression of provoking irony,--and Franchita then stopped, she also,
while this phrase, almost involuntary, came through her set teeth:

“What is the matter with that woman? Why does she look at me so--”

“He will not come to-night, the lover, will he?” responded the enemy.

“Then you knew that he came here to see your daughter?”

In truth, Dolores knew this since the morning: Gracieuse had told her,
since no care needed to be taken of the morrow; Gracieuse had told
it wearily, after talking uselessly of Uncle Ignacio, of Ramuntcho’s
future, of all that would serve their cause--

“Then you knew that he came here to see your daughter?”

By a reminiscence of other times, they regained instinctively their
theeing and thouing of the sisters’ school, those two women who for
nearly twenty years had not addressed a word to each other. Why they
detested each other, they hardly knew; so many times, it begins thus,
with nothings, with jealousies, with childish rivalries, and then, at
length, by dint of seeing each other every day without talking to each
other, by dint of casting at each other evil looks, it ferments till it
becomes implacable hatred.--Here they were, facing each other, and their
two voices trembled with rancor, with evil emotion:

“Well,” replied the other, “you knew it before I did, I suppose, you who
are without shame and sent him to our house!--Anyway, one can understand
your easiness about means, after what you have done in the past--”

And, while Franchita, naturally much more dignified, remained mute,
terrified now by this unexpected dispute on the street, Dolores
continued:

“No. My daughter marrying that penniless bastard, think of it!--”

“Well, I have the idea that she will marry him, in spite of
everything!--Try to propose to her a man of your choice and see--”

Then, as if she disdained to continue, she went on her way, hearing
behind her the voice and the insults of the other pursuing her. All her
limbs trembled and she faltered at every step on her weakened legs.

At the house, now empty, what sadness she found!

The reality of this separation, which would last for three years,
appeared to her under an aspect frightfully new, as if she had hardly
been prepared for it--even as, on one’s return from a graveyard, one
feels for the first time, in its frightful integrity, the absence of the
cherished dead--

And then, those words of insult in the street, those words the more
crushing because she was cruelly conscious of her sin with the stranger!
Instead of passing by, as she should have done, how had she found the
courage to stop before her enemy and, by a phrase murmured between her
teeth, provoke this odious dispute? How could she have descended to such
a thing, forgotten herself thus, she who, for fifteen years, had imposed
herself, little by little, on the respect of all by her demeanor, so
perfectly dignified. Oh, to have attracted and to have suffered the
insult of that Dolores,--whose past was irreproachable and who had, in
effect, the right to treat her with contempt! When she reflected, she
became frightened more and more by that sort of defiance of the future
which she had had the imprudence to hurl; it seemed to her that she
had compromised the cherished hope of her son in exasperating thus the
hatred of that woman.

Her son!--her Ramuntcho, whom a wagon was carrying away from her at this
hour in the summer night, was carrying away from her to a long distance,
to danger, to war!--She had assumed very heavy responsibilities in
directing his life with ideas of her own, with stubbornness, with pride,
with selfishness.--And now, this evening, she had, perhaps, attracted
misfortune to him, while he was going away so confident in the joy of
his return!--This would be doubtless for her the supreme chastisement;
she seemed to hear, in the air of the empty house, something like a
threat of this expiation, she felt its slow and sure approach.

Then, she said for him her prayers, from a heart harshly revolted,
because religion, as she understood it, remained without sweetness,
without consolation, without anything confidential and tender. Her
distress and her remorse were, at this moment, of so sombre a nature
that tears, benevolent tears, came no longer to her--

And he, at this same instant of the night, continued to descend, through
darker valleys, toward the lowland where the trains pass--carrying away
men to a long distance, changing and upsetting all things. For about an
hour he would continue to be on Basque soil; then, it would end. Along
his route, he met some oxcarts, of indolent demeanor, recalling the
tranquillities of the olden time; or vague human silhouettes, hailing
him with the traditional goodnight, the antique “Gaou-one,” which
to-morrow he would cease to hear. And beyond, at his left, in the depth
of a sort of black abyss, was the profile of Spain, Spain which, for a
very long time doubtless, would trouble his nights no longer--



PART II.



CHAPTER I.

Three years have passed, rapidly.

Franchita is alone at home, ill and in bed, at the end of a November
day.--And it is the third autumn since her son’s departure.

In her hands, burning with fever, she holds a letter from him, a letter
which should have brought only joy without a cloud, since it announces
his return, but which causes in her, on the contrary, tormented
sentiments, for the happiness of seeing him again is poisoned now by
sadness, by worry especially, by frightful worry--

Oh, she had an exact presentiment of the sombre future, that night when,
returning from escorting him on the road to departure, she returned to
her house with so much anguish, after that sort of defiance hurled at
Dolores on the street: it was cruelly true that she had broken then
forever her son’s life--!

Months of waiting and of apparent calm had followed that scene, while
Ramuntcho, far from his native land, was beginning his military service.
Then, one day, a wealthy suitor had presented himself for Gracieuse and
she, to the entire village’s knowledge, had rejected him obstinately in
spite of Dolores’s will. Then, they had suddenly gone away, the mother
and the daughter, pretexting a visit to relatives in the highland; but
the voyage had been prolonged; a mystery more and more singular had
enveloped this absence,--and suddenly the rumor had come that Gracieuse
was a novice among the sisters of Saint Mary of the Rosary, in a
convent of Gascony where the former Mother Superior of Etchezar was the
abbess--!

Dolores had reappeared alone in her home, mute, with a desolate and evil
air. None knew what influence had been exercised over the little girl
with the golden hair, nor how the luminous doors of life had been closed
before her, how she had permitted herself to be walled in that tomb;
but, as soon as the period of novitiate had been accomplished, without
seeing even her brother, she had taken her vows there, while Ramuntcho,
in a far-off colonial war, ever distant from the post-offices of France,
among the forests of a Southern island, won the stripes of a sergeant
and a military medal.

Franchita had been almost afraid that he would never return, her
son.--But at last, he was coming back. Between her fingers, thin and
warm, she held the letter which said: “I start day after to-morrow and
I will be with you Saturday night.” But what would he do, at his return,
what would he make of his life, so sadly changed? In his letters, he had
obstinately refrained from writing of this.

Anyway, everything had turned against her. The farmers, her tenants,
had left Etchezar, leaving the barn empty, the house more lonely,
and naturally her modest income was much diminished. Moreover, in
an imprudent investment, she had lost a part of the money which the
stranger had given for her son. Truly, she was too unskilful a mother,
compromising in every way the happiness of her beloved Ramuntcho,--or
rather, she was a mother upon whom justice from above fell heavily
to-day, because of her past error.--And all this had vanquished her, all
this had hastened and aggravated the malady which the physician, called
too late, did not succeed in checking.

Now, therefore, waiting for the return of her son, she was stretched on
her bed, burning with fever.



CHAPTER II.

He was returning, Ramuntcho, after his three years of absence,
discharged from the army in that city of the North where his regiment
was in garrison. He was returning with his heart in disarray, with his
heart in a tumult and in distress.

His twenty-two year old face had darkened under the ardent sun; his
mustache, now very long, gave him an air of proud nobility. And, on
the lapel of the civilian coat which he had just bought, appeared the
glorious ribbon of his medal.

At Bordeaux, where he had arrived after a night of travel, he had taken
a place, with some emotion, in that train of Irun which descends in a
direct line toward the South, through the monotony of the interminable
moors. Near the right door he had installed himself in order to
see sooner the Bay of Biscay open and the highlands of Spain sketch
themselves.

Then, near Bayonne, he had been startled at the sight of the first
Basque caps, at the tall gates, the first Basque houses among the pines
and the oaks.

And at Saint-Jean-de-Luz at last, when he set foot on the soil, he
had felt like one drunk--After the mist and the cold already begun
in Northern France, he felt the sudden and voluptuous impression of
a warmer climate, the sensation of going into a hothouse. There was a
festival of sunlight that day; the southern wind, the exquisite southern
wind, blew, and the Pyrenees had magnificent tints on the grand, free
sky. Moreover, girls passed, whose laughter rang of the South and of
Spain, who had the elegance and the grace of the Basques--and who,
after the heavy blondes of the North, troubled him more than all these
illusions of summer.--But promptly he returned to himself: what was he
thinking of, since that regained land was to him an empty land forever?
How could his infinite despair be changed by that tempting gracefulness
of the girls, by that ironical gaiety of the sky, the human beings and
the things?--No! He would go home, embrace his mother--!

As he had expected, the stage-coach to Etchezar had left two hours
ago. But, without trouble, he would traverse on foot this long road so
familiar to him and arrive in the evening, before night.

So he went to buy sandals, the foot-gear of his former runs. And, with
the mountaineer’s quick step, in long, nervous strides, he plunged at
once into the heart of the silent country, through paths which were for
him full of memories.

November was coming to an end in the tepid radiance of that sun which
lingers always here for a long time, on the Pyrenean slopes. For days,
in the Basque land, had lasted this same luminous and pure sky, above
woods half despoiled of their leaves, above mountains reddened by the
ardent tint of the ferns. From the borders of the paths ascended tall
grasses, as in the month of May, and large, umbellated flowers, mistaken
about the season; in the hedges, privets and briars had come into bloom
again, in the buzz of the last bees; and one could see flying persistent
butterflies, to whom death had given several weeks of grace.

The Basque houses appeared here and there among the trees,--very
elevated, the roof protruding, white in their extreme oldness, with
their shutters brown or green, of a green ancient and faded. And
everywhere, on their wooden balconies were drying the yellow gold
pumpkins, the sheafs of pink peas; everywhere, on their walls, like
beautiful beads of coral, were garlands of red peppers: all the things
of the soil still fecund, all the things of the old, nursing soil,
amassed thus in accordance with old time usage, in provision for the
darkened months when the heat departs.

And, after the mists of the Northern autumn, that limpidity of the
air, that southern sunlight, every detail of the land, awakened in the
complex mind of Ramuntcho infinite vibrations, painfully sweet.

It was the tardy season when are cut the ferns that form the fleece
of the reddish hills. And, large ox-carts filled with them rolled
tranquilly, in the beautiful, melancholy sun, toward the isolated farms,
leaving on their passage the trail of their fragrance. Very slowly,
through the mountain paths, went these enormous loads of ferns; very
slowly, with sounds of cow-bells. The harnessed oxen, indolent and
strong,--all wearing the traditional head-gear of sheepskin, fallow
colored, which gives to them the air of bisons or of aurochs, pulled
those heavy carts, the wheels of which are solid disks, like those of
antique chariots. The cowboys, holding the long stick in their hands,
marched in front, always noiselessly, in sandals, the pink cotton shirt
revealing the chest, the waistcoat thrown over the left shoulder--and
the woolen cap drawn over a face shaven, thin, grave, to which the
width of the jaws and of the muscles of the neck gives an expression of
massive solidity.

Then, there were intervals of solitude when one heard, in these paths,
only the buzz of flies, in the yellowed and finishing shade of the
trees.

Ramuntcho looked at them, at these rare passers-by who crossed his road,
surprised at not meeting somebody he knew who would stop before him.
But there were no familiar faces. And the friends whom he met were
not effusive, there were only vague good-days exchanged with folks who
turned round a little, with an impression of having seen him sometime,
but not recalling when, and fell back into the humble dream of the
fields.--And he felt more emphasized than ever the primary differences
between him and those farm laborers.

Over there, however, comes one of those carts whose sheaf is so big that
branches of oaks in its passage catch it. In front, walks the driver,
with a look of soft resignation, a big, peaceful boy, red as the ferns,
red as the autumn, with a reddish fur in a bush on his bare chest; he
walks with a supple and nonchalant manner, his arms extended like those
of a cross on his goad, placed across his shoulders. Thus, doubtless, on
these same mountains, marched his ancestors, farm laborers and cowboys
like him since numberless centuries.

And this one, at Ramuntcho’s aspect, touches the forehead of his oxen,
stops them with a gesture and a cry of command, then comes to the
traveller, extending to him his brave hands.--Florentino! A Florentino
much changed, having squarer shoulders, quite a man now, with an assured
and fixed demeanor.

The two friends embrace each other. Then, they scan each other’s faces
in silence, troubled suddenly by the wave of reminiscences which come
from the depth of their minds and which neither the one nor the other
knows how to express; Ramuntcho, not better than Florentino, for, if his
language be infinitely better formed, the profoundness and the mystery
of his thoughts are also much more unfathomable.

And it oppresses them to conceive things which they are powerless to
tell; then their embarrassed looks return absent-mindedly to the two
beautiful, big oxen:

“They are mine, you know,” says Florentino. “I was married two
years ago.--My wife works. And, by working--we are beginning to get
along.--Oh!” he adds, with naive pride, “I have another pair of oxen
like these at the house.”

Then he ceases to talk, flushing suddenly under his sunburn, for he has
the tact which comes from the heart, which the humblest possess often by
nature, but which education never gives, even to the most refined people
in the world: considering the desolate return of Ramuntcho, his broken
destiny, his betrothed buried over there among the black nuns, his
mother dying, Florentino is afraid to have been already too cruel in
displaying too much his own happiness.

Then the silence returned; they looked at each other for an instant
with kind smiles, finding no words. Besides, between them, the abyss
of different conceptions has grown deeper in these three years. And
Florentino, touching anew the foreheads of his oxen, makes them march
again with a call of his tongue, and presses tighter the hand of his
friend:

“We shall see each other again, shall we not?”

And the noise of the cow-bells is soon lost in the calm of the road more
shady, where begins to diminish the heat of the day--

“Well, he has succeeded in life, that one!” thinks Ramuntcho
lugubriously, continuing his walk under the autumn branches--

The road which he follows ascends, hollowed here and there by springs
and sometimes crossed by big roots of oaks.

Soon Etchezar will appear to him and, before seeing it, the image of
it becomes more and more precise in him, recalled and enlivened in his
memory by the aspect of the surroundings.

Empty now, all this land, where Gracieuse is no more, empty and sad as
a beloved home where the great Reaper has passed!--And yet Ramuntcho, in
the depths of his being, dares to think that, in some small convent over
there, under the veil of a nun, the cherished black eyes still exist and
that he will be able at least to see them; that taking the veil is not
quite like dying, and that perhaps the last word of his destiny has not
been said irrevocably.--For, when he reflects, what can have changed
thus the soul of Gracieuse, formerly so uniquely devoted to him?--Oh,
terrible, foreign pressure, surely--And then, when they come face to
face again, who knows?--When they talk, with his eyes in her eyes?--But
what can he expect that is reasonable and possible?--In his native land
has a nun ever broken her eternal vows to follow one to whom she was
engaged? And besides, where would they go to live together afterward,
when folks would get out of their way, would fly from them as
renegades?--To America perhaps, and even there!--And how could he
take her from these white houses of the dead where the sisters live,
eternally watched?--Oh, no, all this is a chimera which may not be
realized--All is at an end, all is finished hopelessly--!

Then, the sadness which comes to him from Gracieuse is forgotten for a
moment, and he feels nothing except an outburst of his heart toward his
mother, toward his mother who remains to him, who is there, very near, a
little upset, doubtless, by the joyful trouble of waiting for him.

And now, on the left of his route, is a humble hamlet, half hidden in
the beeches and the oaks, with its ancient chapel,--and with its wall
for the pelota game, under very old trees, at the crossing of two paths.
At once, in Ramuntcho’s youthful head, the course of thoughts changes
again: that little wall with rounded top, covered with wash of kalsomine
and ochre, awakens tumultuously in him thoughts of life, of force and of
joy; with a childish ardor he says to himself that to-morrow he will be
able to return to that game of the Basques, which is an intoxication of
movement and of rapid skill; he thinks of the grand matches on Sundays
after vespers, of the glory of the fine struggles with the champions of
Spain, of all this deprivation of his years of exile. But it is a very
short instant, and mortal despair comes back to him: his triumphs on the
squares, Gracieuse shall not see them; then, what is the use!--Without
her, all things, even these, fall back discolored, useless and vain, do
not even exist--

Etchezar!--Etchezar, is revealed suddenly at a turn of the road!--It
is in a red light, something like a fantasmagoria image, illuminated
purposely in a special manner in the midst of grand backgrounds of shade
and of night. It is the hour of the setting sun. Around the isolated
village, which the old, heavy belfry, surmounts, a last sheaf of rays
traces a halo of the color of copper and gold, while clouds--and a
gigantic obscurity emanating from the Gizune--darken the lands piled up
above and under, the mass of brown hills, colored by the death of the
ferns--

Oh! the melancholy apparition of the native land, to the soldier who
returns and will not find his sweetheart--!

Three years have passed since he left here.--Well, three years, at his
age, are an abyss of time, a period which changes all things. And,
after that lone exile, how this village, which he adores, appears to
him diminished, small, walled in the mountains, sad and hidden!--In the
depth of his mind of a tall, uncultured boy, commences again, to make
him suffer more, the struggle of those two sentiments of a too refined
man, which are an inheritance of his unknown father: an attachment
almost maladive to the home, to the land of childhood, and a fear of
returning to be enclosed in it, when there exist in the world other
places so vast and so free. --After the warm afternoon, the autumn is
indicated now by the hasty fall of the day, with a coolness ascending
suddenly from the valleys underneath, a scent of dying leaves and of
moss. And then the thousand details of preceding autumns in the Basque
country, of the former Novembers, come to him very precisely; the cold
fall of night succeeding the beautiful, sunlit day; the sad clouds
appearing with the night; the Pyrenees confounded in vapors inky gray,
or, in places, cut in black silhouettes on a pale, golden sky; around
the houses, the belated flowers of the gardens, which the frost spares
for a long time here, and, in front of all the doors, the strewn leaves
of the plane-trees, the yellow strewn leaves cracking under the steps of
the man returning in sandals to his home for supper.--Oh, the heedless
joy of these returns to the home, in the nights of other times, after
days of marching on the rude mountain! Oh, the gaiety, in that time,
of the first winter fires--in the tall, smoky hearth ornamented with a
drapery of white calico and with a strip of pink paper. No, in the
city, with its rows of houses one does not have the real impression of
returning home, of earthing up like plants at night in the primitive
manner, as one has it here, under those Basque roofs, solitary in the
midst of the country, with the grand, surrounding black, the grand,
shivering black of the foliage, the grand, changing black of the clouds
and the summits.--But to-day, his travels, his new conceptions, have
diminished and spoiled his mountaineer’s home; he will doubtless find it
almost desolate, especially in the thought that his mother shall not be
there always--and that Gracieuse shall never be there again.

His pace quickens in his haste to embrace his mother; he turns around
his village instead of going into it, in order to reach his house
through a path which overlooks the square and church; passing quickly,
he looks at everything with inexpressible pain. Peace, silence soar
over this little parish of Etchezar, heart of the French Basque land and
country of all the famous pelotaris of the past who have become heavy
grandfathers, or are dead now. The immutable church, where have remained
buried his dreams of faith, is surrounded by the same dark cypresses,
like a mosque. The ball-game square, while he walks quickly above it,
is still lighted by the sun with a finishing ray, oblique, toward the
background, toward the wall which the ancient inscription surmounts,--as
on the evening of his first great success, four years ago, when, in the
joyous crowd, Gracieuse stood in a blue gown, she who has become a black
nun to-day.--On the deserted benches, on the granite steps where the
grass grows, three or four old men are seated, who were formerly
the heroes of the place and whom their reminiscences bring back here
incessantly, to talk at the end of the days, when the twilight descends
from the summits, invades the earth, seems to emanate and to fall from
the brown Pyrenees.--Oh, the folks who live here, whose lives run here;
oh, the little cider inns, the little, simple shops and the old, little
things--brought from the cities, from the other places--sold to the
mountaineers of the surrounding country!--How all this seems to him
now strange, separated from him, or set far in the background of the
primitive past!--Is he truly not a man of Etchezar to-day, is he no
longer the Ramuntcho of former times?--What particular thing resides
in his mind to prevent him from feeling comfortable here, as the others
feel? Why is it prohibited to him, to him alone, to accomplish here the
tranquil destiny of his dreams, since all his friends have accomplished
theirs?--

At last here is his house, there, before his eyes. It is as he expected
to find it. As he expected, he recognizes along the wall all the
persistent flowers cultivated by his mother, the same flowers which
the frost has destroyed weeks ago in the North from which he comes:
heliotropes, geraniums, tall dahlias and roses with climbing branches.
And the cherished, strewn leaves, which fall every autumn from the
vault-shaped plane-trees, are there also, and are crushed with a noise
so familiar under his steps--!

In the lower hall, when he enters, there is already grayish indecision,
already night. The high chimney, where his glance rests at first by an
instinctive reminiscence of the fires of ancient evenings, stands the
same with its white drapery; but cold, filled with shade, smelling of
absence or death.

He runs up to his mother’s room. She, from her bed having recognized her
son’s step, has straightened up, all stiff, all white in the twilight:

“Ramuntcho,” she says, in a veiled and aged voice.

She extends her arms to him and as soon as she holds him, enlaces and
embraces him:

“Ramuntcho!--”

Then, having uttered this name without adding anything, she leans her
head against his cheek, in the habitual movement of surrender, in
the movement of the grand, tender feelings of other times.--He, then,
perceives that his mother’s face is burning against his. Through her
shirt he feels the arms that surround him thin, feverish and hot. And
for the first time, he is frightened; the notion that she is doubtless
very ill comes to his mind, the possibility and the sudden terror that
she might die--

“Oh, you are alone, mother! But who takes care of you? Who watches over
you?”

“Who watches over me?--” she replies with her abrupt brusqueness, her
ideas of a peasant suddenly returned. “Spending money to nurse me, why
should I do it?--The church woman or the old Doyamburu comes in
the day-time to give me the things that I need, the things that the
physician orders.--But--medicine!--Well! Light a lamp, my Ramuntcho!--I
want to see you--and I cannot see you--”

And, when the clearness has come from a Spanish, smuggled match, she
says in a tone of caress infinitely sweet, as one talks to a very little
child whom one adores:

“Oh, your mustache! The long mustache which has come to you, my son!--I
do not recognize my Ramuntcho!--Bring your lamp here, bring it here so
that I can look at you!--”

He also sees her better now, under the new light of that lamp, while
she admires him lovingly. And he is more frightened still, because the
cheeks of his mother are so hollow, her hair is so whitened; even the
expression of her eyes is changed and almost extinguished; on her face
appears the sinister and irremediable labor of time, of suffering and of
death--

And, now, two tears, rapid and heavy, fall from the eyes of Franchita,
which widen, become living again, made young by desperate revolt and
hatred.

“Oh, that woman,” she says suddenly. “Oh, that Dolores!”

And her cry expresses and summarizes all her jealousy of thirty years’
standing, all her merciless rancor against that enemy of her childhood
who has succeeded at last in breaking the life of her son.

A silence between them. He is seated, with head bent, near the bed,
holding the poor, feverish hand which his mother has extended to him.
She, breathing more quickly, seems for a long while under the oppression
of something which she hesitates to express:

“Tell me, my Ramuntcho!--I would like to ask you.--What do you intend to
do, my son? What are your projects for the future?--”

“I do not know, mother.--I will think, I will see.--You ask--all
at once.--We have time to talk of this, have we not?--To America,
perhaps--”

“Oh, yes,” she says slowly, with the fear that was in her for days, “to
America--I suspected it. Oh, that is what you will do.--I knew it, I
knew it--”

Her phrase ends in a groan and she joins her hands to try to pray--



CHAPTER III.

Ramuntcho, the next morning, was wandering in the village, under a sun
which had pierced the clouds of the night, a sun as radiant as that of
yesterday. Careful in his dress, the ends of his mustache turned up,
proud in his demeanor, elegant, grave and handsome, he went at
random, to see and to be seen, a little childishness mingling with his
seriousness, a little pleasure with his distress. His mother had said to
him:

“I am better, I assure you. To-day is Sunday; go, walk about I pray
you--”

And passers-by turned their heads to look at him, whispered the news:
“Franchita’s son has returned home; he looks very well!”

A summer illusion persisted everywhere, with, however, the unfathomable
melancholy of things tranquilly finishing. Under that impassible
radiance of sunlight, the Pyrenean fields seemed dull, all their plants,
all their grasses were as if collected in one knows not what resignation
weary of living, what expectation of death.

The turns of the path, the houses, the least trees, all recalled hours
of other times to Ramuntcho, hours wherein Gracieuse was mingled. And
then, at each reminiscence, at each step, engraved itself and hammered
itself in his mind, under a new form, this verdict without recourse: “It
is finished, you are alone forever, Gracieuse has been taken away from
you and is in prison--” The rents in his heart, every accident in the
path renewed and changed them. And, in the depth of his being, as a
constant basis for his reflections, this other anxiety endured: his
mother, his mother very ill, in mortal danger, perhaps--!

He met people who stopped him, with a kind and welcoming air, who talked
to him in the dear Basque tongue--ever alert and sonorous despite its
incalculable antiquity; old Basque caps, old white heads, liked to talk
of the ball-game to this fine player returned to his cradle. And then,
at once, after the first words of greeting, smiles went out, in spite of
this clear sun in this blue sky, and all were disturbed by the thought
of Gracieuse in a veil and of Franchita dying.

A violent flush of blood went up to his face when he caught sight of
Dolores, at a distance, going into her home. Very decrepit, that one,
and wearing a prostrate air! She had recognized him, for she turned
quickly her obstinate and hard head, covered by a mourning mantilla.
With a sentiment of pity at seeing her so undone, he reflected that she
had struck herself with the same blow, and that she would be alone now
in her old age and at her death--

On the square, he met Marcos Iragola who informed him that he was
married, like Florentino--and with the little friend of his childhood,
he also.

“I did not have to serve in the army,” Iragola explained, “because we
are Guipuzcoans, immigrants in France; so I could marry her earlier!”

He, twenty-one years old; she eighteen; without lands and without a
penny, Marcos and Pilar, but joyfully associated all the same, like
two sparrows building their nest. And the very young husband added
laughingly:

“What would you? Father said: ‘As long as you do not marry I warn you
that I shall give you a little brother every year.’ And he would have
done it! There are already fourteen of us, all living--”

Oh, how simple and natural they are! How wise and humbly
happy!--Ramuntcho quitted him with some haste, with a heart more bruised
for having spoken to him, but wishing very sincerely that he should be
happy in his improvident, birdlike, little home.

Here and there, folks were seated in front of their doors, in that sort
of atrium of branches which precedes all the houses of this country.
And their vaults of plane-trees, cut in the Basque fashion, which in the
summer are so impenetrable all open worked in this season, let fall
on them sheafs of light. The sun flamed, somewhat destructive and sad,
above those yellow leaves which were drying up--

And Ramuntcho, in his slow promenade, felt more and more what intimate
ties, singularly persistent, would attach him always to this region of
the earth, harsh and enclosed, even if he were there alone, abandoned,
without friends, without a wife and without a mother--

Now, the high mass rings! And the vibrations of that bell impress him
with a strange emotion that he did not expect. Formerly, its familiar
appeal was an appeal to joy and to pleasure--

He stops, he hesitates, in spite of his actual religious unbelief and
in spite of his grudge against that church which has taken his betrothed
away from him. The bell seems to invite him to-day in so special
a manner, with so peaceful and caressing a voice: “Come, come; let
yourself be rocked as your ancestors were; come, poor, desolate being,
let yourself be caught by the lure which will make your tears fall
without bitterness, and will help you to die--”

Undecided, resisting still, he walks, however, toward the church--when
Arrochkoa appears!

Arrochkoa, whose catlike mustache has lengthened a great deal and whose
feline expression is accentuated, runs to him with extended hands, with
an effusion that he did not expect, in an enthusiasm, perhaps sincere,
for that ex-sergeant who has such a grand air, who wears the ribbon of a
medal and whose adventures have made a stir in the land:

“Ah, my Ramuntcho, when did you arrive?--Oh, if I could have
prevented--What do you think of my old, hardened mother and of all those
church bigots?--Oh, I did not tell you: I have a son, since two months;
a fine little fellow! We have so many things to say, my poor friend, so
many things!--”

The bell rings, rings, fills the air more and more with its soft appeal,
very grave and somewhat imposing also.

“You are not going there, I suppose?” asks Arrochkoa, pointing to the
church.

“No, oh, no,” replies Ramuntcho, sombrely decided.

“Well come then, let us go in here and taste the new cider of your
country!--”

To the smugglers’ cider mill, he brings him; both, near the open window,
sit as formerly, looking outside;--and this place also, these old
benches, these casks in a line in the back, these same images on the
wall, are there to recall to Ramuntcho the delicious times of the past,
the times that are finished.

The weather is adorably beautiful; the sky retains a rare limpidity;
through the air passes that special scent of falling seasons, scent of
woods despoiled, of dead leaves that the sun overheats on the soil. Now,
after the absolute calm of the morning, rises a wind of autumn, a chill
of November, announcing clearly, but with a melancholy almost charming,
that the winter is near--a southern winter, it is true, a softened
winter, hardly interrupting the life of the country. The gardens and all
the old walls are still ornamented with roses--!

At first they talk of indifferent things while drinking their cider, of
Ramuntcho’s travels, of what happened in the country during his absence,
of the marriages which occurred or were broken. And, to those two rebels
who have fled from the church, all the sounds of the mass come during
their talk, the sounds of the small bells and the sounds of the organ,
the ancient songs that fill the high, sonorous nave--

At last, Arrochkoa returns to the burning subject:

“Oh, if you had been here it would not have occurred!--And even now, if
she saw you--”

Ramuntcho looks at him then, trembling at what he imagines he
understands:

“Even now?--What do you mean?”

“Oh, women--with them, does one ever know?--She cared a great deal for
you and it was hard for her.--In these days there is no law to keep her
there!--How little would I care if she broke her vows--”

Ramuntcho turns his head, lowers his eyes, says nothing, strikes the
soil with his foot. And, in the silence, the impious thing which he had
hardly dared to formulate to himself, seems to him little by little less
chimerical, attainable, almost easy.--No, it is not impossible to regain
her. And, if need be, doubtless, Arrochkoa, her own brother, would lend
a hand. Oh, what a temptation and what a new disturbance in his mind--!

Drily he asks, “Where is she?--Far from here?”

“Far enough, yes. Over there, toward Navarre, five or six hours of
a carriage drive. They have changed her convent twice. She lives at
Amezqueta now, beyond the oak forests of Oyanzabal; the road is through
Mendichoco; you know, we must have gone through it together one night
with Itchoua.”

The high mass is ended.--Groups pass: women, pretty girls, elegant in
demeanor, among whom Gracieuse is no more: many Basque caps lowered on
sunburnt foreheads. And all these faces turn to look at the two cider
drinkers at their window. The wind, that blows stronger, makes dance
around their glasses large, dead, plane-tree leaves.

A woman, already old, casts at them, from under her black cloth
mantilla, a sad and evil glance:

“Ah,” says Arrochkoa, “here is mother! And she looks at us
crosswise.--She may flatter herself for her work!--She punished herself
for she will end in solitude now.--Catherine--who is at Elsagarray’s,
you know--works by the day for her; otherwise, she would have nobody to
talk to in the evening--”

A bass voice, behind them, interrupts them, with a Basque greeting,
hollow like a sound in a cavern, while a large and heavy hand rests on
Ramuntcho’s shoulder as if to take possession of him: Itchoua, Itchoua
who has just finished chanting his liturgy!--Not changed at all, this
one; he has always his same ageless face, always his colorless mask
which is at once that of a monk and that of a highwayman, and his same
eyes, set in, hidden, absent. His mind also must have remained similar,
his mind capable of impassible murder at the same time as devout
fetichism.

“Ah,” he says, in a tone which wishes to be that of a good fellow, “you
have returned to us, my Ramuntcho! Then we are going to work together,
eh? Business is brisk with Spain now, you know, and arms are needed at
the frontier. You are one of us, are you not?”

“Perhaps,” replies Ramuntcho. “We may talk of it--”

For several moments his departure for America has become a faint idea in
his mind.--No!--He would rather stay in his native land, begin again
his former life, reflect and wait obstinately. Anyway, now that he knows
where she is, that village of Amezqueta, at a distance of five or six
hours from here, haunts him in a dangerous way, and he hugs all sorts
of sacrilegious projects which, until to-day, he would never have dared
hardly to conceive.



CHAPTER IV.

At noon, he returned to his isolated house to see his mother.

The febrile and somewhat artificial improvement of the morning had
continued. Nursed by the old Doyanburu, Franchita said that she felt
better, and, in the fear that Ramuntcho might become dreamy, she made
him return to the square to attend the Sunday ball-game.

The breath of the wind became warm again, blew from the south; none of
the shivers of a moment ago remained; on the contrary, a summer sun
and atmosphere, on the reddened woods, on the rusty ferns, on the roads
where continued to fall the sad leaves. But the sky was gathering thick
clouds, which suddenly came out from the rear of the mountains as if
they had stayed there in ambush to appear all at the same signal.

The ball-game had not yet been arranged and groups were disputing
violently when he reached the square. Quickly, he was surrounded, he was
welcomed, designated by acclamation to go into the game and sustain the
honor of his county. He did not dare, not having played for three years
and distrusting his unaccustomed arm. At last, he yielded and began
to undress--but to whom would he trust his waistcoat now?--The image
reappeared to him, suddenly, of Gracieuse, seated on the nearest steps
and extending her hands to receive it. To whom would he throw his
waistcoat to-day? It is intrusted ordinarily to some friend, as the
toreadors do with their gilt silk mantles.--He threw it at random, this
time, anywhere, on the granite of the old benches flowered with belated
scabwort--

The match began. Out of practice at first, uncertain, he missed several
times the little bounding thing which is to be caught in the air.

Then, he went to his work with a rage, regained his former ease and
became himself again superbly. His muscles had gained in strength what
they had perhaps lost in skill; again he was applauded, he knew the
physical intoxication of moving, of leaping, of feeling his muscles play
like supple and violent springs, of hearing around him the ardent murmur
of the crowd.

But then came the instant of rest which interrupts ordinarily the
long disputed games; the moment when one sits halting, the blood in
ebulition, the hands reddened, trembling,--and when one regains the
course of ideas which the game suppresses.

Then, he realized the distress of being alone.

Above the assembled heads, above the woolen caps and the hair ornamented
with kerchiefs, was accentuated that stormy sky which the southern
winds, when they are about to finish, bring always. The air had assumed
an absolute limpidity, as if it had become rarified, rarified unto
emptiness. The mountains seemed to have advanced extraordinarily; the
Pyrenees were crushing the village; the Spanish summits or the French
summits were there, all equally near, as if pasted on one another,
exaggerating their burned, brown colors, their intense and sombre,
violet tints. Large clouds, which seemed as solid as terrestrial
things, were displayed in the form of bows, veiling the sun, casting an
obscurity which was like an eclipse. And here and there, through some
rent, bordered with dazzling silver, one could see the profound blue
green of a sky almost African. All this country, the unstable climate of
which changes between a morning and an evening, became for several hours
strangely southern in aspect, in temperature and in light.

Ramuntcho breathed that dry and suave air, come from the South in order
to vivify the lungs. It was the true weather of his native land. It was
even the characteristic weather of that land of the Bay of Biscay, the
weather which he liked best formerly, and which to-day filled him with
physical comfort--as much as with disturbance of mind, for all that was
preparing, all that was amassing above, with airs of ferocious menace,
impressed him with the sentiment of a heaven deaf to prayers, without
thoughts as without master, a simple focus of storms, of blind forces
creating, recreating and destroying. And, during these minutes of
halting meditation, where men in Basque caps of a temperament other than
his, surrounded him to congratulate him, he made no reply, he did not
listen, he felt only the ephemeral plenitude of his own vigor, of his
youth, of his will, and he said to himself that he wished to use harshly
and desperately all things, to try anything, without the obstacle of
vain fears, of vain church scruples, in order to take back the young
girl whom his soul and his flesh desired, who was the unique one and the
betrothed--

When the game had ended gloriously for him, he returned alone, sad and
resolute,--proud of having won, of having known how to preserve his
agile skilfulness, and realizing that it was a means in life, a source
of money and of strength, to have remained one of the chief ball-players
of the Basque country.

Under the black sky, there were still the same tints exaggerated by
everything, the same sombre horizon. And still the same breaths from the
south, dry and warm, agitors of muscles and of thought.

However, the clouds had descended, descended, and soon this weather,
these appearances would change and finish. He knew it, as do all the
countrymen accustomed to look at the sky: it was only the announcement
of an autumn squall to close the series of lukewarm winds,--of a
decisive shake-up to finish despoiling the woods of their leaves.
Immediately after would come the long showers, chilling everything, the
mists making the mountains confused and distant. And it would be the
dull rain of winter, stopping the saps, making temporary projects
languid, extinguishing ardor and revolt--

Now the first drops of water were beginning to fall on the road,
separate and heavy on the strewn leaves.

As the day before, when he returned home, at twilight, his mother was
alone.

He found her asleep, in a bad sleep, agitated, burning.

Rambling in his house he tried, in order to make it less sinister, to
light in the large, lower chimney a fire of branches, but it went out
smoking. Outside, torrents of rain fell. Through the windows, as through
gray shrouds, the village hardly appeared, effaced under a winter
squall. The wind and the rain whipped the walls of the isolated house,
around which, once more, would thicken the grand blackness of the
country in rainy nights--that grand blackness, that grand silence, to
which he had long been unaccustomed. And in his childish heart, came
little by little, a cold of solitude and of abandonment; he lost even
his energy, the consciousness of his love, of his strength and of his
youth; he felt vanishing, before the misty evening, all his projects of
struggle and of resistance. The future which he had formed a moment
ago became miserable or chimerical in his eyes, that future of a pelota
player, of a poor amuser of the crowds, at the mercy of a malady or of
a moment of weakness--His hopes of the day-time were going out, based,
doubtless, on unstable things, fleeing now in the night--

Then he felt transported, as in his childhood, toward that soft refuge
which was his mother; he went up, on tiptoe, to see her, even asleep,
and to remain there, near her bed, while she slept.

And, when he had lighted in the room, far from her, a discreet lamp,
she appeared to him more changed than she had been by the fever of
yesterday; the possibility presented itself, more frightful to his mind,
of losing her, of being alone, of never feeling again on his cheek the
caress of her head.--Moreover, for the first time, she seemed old to
him, and, in the memory of all the deceptions which she had suffered
because of him, he felt a pity for her, a tender and infinite pity,
at sight of her wrinkles which he had not before observed, of her hair
recently whitened at the temples. Oh, a desolate pity and hopeless, with
the conviction that it was too late now to arrange life better.--And
something painful, against which there was no possible resistance, shook
his chest, contracted his young face; objects became confused to his
view, and, in the need of imploring, of asking for mercy, he let himself
fall on his knees, his forehead on his mother’s bed, weeping at last,
weeping hot tears--



CHAPTER V.

“And whom did you see in the village, my son?” she asked, the next
morning during the improvement which returned every time, in the first
hours of the day, after the fever had subsided.

“And whom did you see in the village, my son?--” In talking, she tried
to retain an air of gaiety, of saying indifferent things, in the fear of
attacking grave subjects and of provoking disquieting replies.

“I saw Arrochkoa, mother,” he replied, in a tone which brought back
suddenly the burning questions.

“Arrochkoa!--And how did he behave with you?”

“Oh, he talked to me as if I had been his brother.”

“Yes, I know, I know.--Oh, it was not he who made her do it--”

“He said even--”

He did not dare to continue now, and he lowered his head.

“He said what, my son?”

“Well, that--that it was hard to put her in prison there--that
perhaps--that, even now, if she saw me, he was not far from thinking--”

She straightened under the shock of what she had just suspected; with
her thin hands she parted her hair, newly whitened, and her eyes became
again young and sharp, in an expression almost wicked from joy, from
avenged pride:

“He said that, he!--”

“Would you forgive me, mother--if I tried?”

She took his two hands and they remained silent, not daring, with
their scruples as Catholics, to utter the sacrilegious thing which was
fomenting in their heads. In the depth of her eyes, the evil spark went
out.

“Forgive you?” she said in a low voice, “Oh, I--you know very well that
I would.--But do not do this, my son, I pray you, do not do it; it would
bring misfortune to both of you!--Do not think of it, my Ramuntcho,
never think of it--”

Then, they hushed, hearing the steps of the physician who was coming
up for his daily visit. And it was the only time, the supreme time when
they were to talk of it in life.

But Ramuntcho knew now that, even after death, she would not condemn him
for having attempted, or for having committed it: and this pardon was
sufficient for him, and, now that he felt sure of obtaining it, the
greatest barrier, between his sweetheart and him, had now suddenly
fallen.



CHAPTER VI.

In the evening, when the fever returned, she seemed already much more
dangerously affected.

On her robust body, the malady had violently taken hold,--the
malady recognized too late, and insufficiently nursed because of her
stubbornness as a peasant, because of her incredulous disdain for
physicians and medicine.

And little by little, in Ramuntcho, the frightful thought of losing her
installed itself in a dominant place; during the hours of watchfulness
spent near her bed, silent and alone, he was beginning to face the
reality of that separation, the horror of that death and of that
burial,--even all the lugubrious morrows, all the aspects of his future
life: the house which he would have to sell before quitting the country;
then, perhaps, the desperate attempt at the convent of Amezqueta; then
the departure, probably solitary and without desire to return, for
unknown America--

The idea also of the great secret which she would carry with her
forever,--of the secret of his birth,--tormented him more from hour to
hour.

Then, bending over her, and, trembling, as if he were about to commit an
impious thing in a church, he dared to say:

“Mother!--Mother, tell me now who my father is!”

She shuddered at first under the supreme question, realizing well, that
if he dared to question her thus, it was because she was lost. Then,
she hesitated for a moment: in her head, boiling from fever, there was a
battle; her duty, she discerned well no longer; her obstinacy which had
lasted for so many years faltered almost at this hour, in presence of
the sudden apparition of death--

But, resolved at last forever, she replied at once, in the brusque tone
of her bad days:

“Your father!--And what is the use, my son?--What do you want of your
father who for twenty years has never thought of you?--”

No, it was decided, ended, she would not tell. Anyway, it was too
late now; at the moment when she would disappear, enter into the inert
powerlessness of the dead, how could she risk changing so completely
the life of that son over whom she would no longer watch, how could she
surrender him to his father, who perhaps would make of him a disbeliever
and a disenchanted man like himself! What a responsibility and what an
immense terror--!

Her decision having been taken irrevocably, she thought of herself,
feeling for the first time that life was closing behind her, and joined
her hands for a sombre prayer.

As for Ramuntcho, after this attempt to learn, after this great effort
which had almost seemed a profanation to him, he bent his head before
his mother’s will and questioned no longer.



CHAPTER VII.

It went very quickly now, with the drying fevers that made her
cheeks red, her nostrils pinched, or with the exhaustion of baths of
perspiration, her pulse hardly beating.

And Ramuntcho had no other thought than his mother; the image of
Gracieuse ceased to visit him during these funereal days.

She was going, Franchita; she was going, mute and as if indifferent,
asking for nothing, never complaining--

Once, however, as he was watching, she called him suddenly with a poor
voice of anguish, to throw her arms around him, to draw him to her, lean
her head on his cheek. And, in that minute, Ramuntcho saw pass in
her eyes the great Terror--that of the flesh which feels that it is
finishing, that of the men and that of the beasts, the horrible and the
same for all.--A believer, she was that a little; practising rather,
like so many other women around her; timid in the face of dogmas, of
observances, of services, but without a clear conception of the world
beyond, without a luminous hope.--Heaven, all the beautiful things
promised after life.--Yes, perhaps.--But still, the black hole was
there, near and certain, where she would have to turn into dust.--What
was sure, what was inexorable, was the fact that never, never more would
her destroyed visage lean in a real manner on that of Ramuntcho; then,
in the doubt of having a mind which would fly, in the horror and the
misery of annihilation, of becoming powder and nothing, she wanted again
kisses from that son, and she clutched at him as clutch the wrecked who
fall into the black and deep waters--

He understood all this, which the poor, fading eyes said so well. And
the pity so tender, which he had already felt at seeing the wrinkles
and the white hairs of his mother, overflowed like a flood from his very
young heart; he responded to this appeal with all that one may give of
desolate clasps and embraces.

But it did not last long. She had never been one of those who are
enervated for long, or at least, let it appear. Her arms unclasped,
her head fallen back, she closed her eyes again, unconscious now,--or
stoical--

And Ramuntcho, standing, not daring to touch her, wept heavy tears,
without noise, turning his head,--while, in the distance, the parish
bell began to ring the curfew, sang the tranquil peace of the village,
filled the air with vibrations soft, protective, advising sound sleep to
those who have morrows--

The following morning, after having confessed, she passed out of
life, silent and haughty, having felt a sort of shame for her
suffering,--while the same bell rang slowly her agony.

And at night, Ramuntcho found himself alone, beside that thing in bed
and cold, which is preserved and looked at for several hours, but which
one must make haste to bury in the earth--



CHAPTER VIII.

Eight days after.

At the fall of night, while a bad mountain squall twisted the branches
of the trees, Ramuntcho entered his deserted house where the gray of
death seemed scattered everywhere. A little of winter had passed over
the Basque land, a little frost, burning the annual flowers, ending
the illusory summer of December. In front of Franchita’s door, the
geraniums, the dahlias had just died, and the path which led to the
house, which no one cared for, disappeared under the mass of yellow
leaves.

For Ramuntcho, this first week of mourning had been occupied by the
thousand details that rock sorrow. Proud also, he had desired that all
should be done in a luxurious manner, according to the old usages of
the parish. His mother had been buried in a coffin of black velvet
ornamented with silver nails. Then, there had been mortuary masses,
attended by the neighbors in long capes, the women enveloped and hooded
with black. And all this represented a great deal of expense for him,
who was poor.

Of the sum given formerly, at the time of his birth, by his unknown
father, little remained, the greater part having been lost through
unfaithful bankers. And now, he would have to quit the house, sell the
dear familiar furniture, realize the most money possible for the flight
to America--

This time, he returned home peculiarly disturbed, because he was to do a
thing, postponed from day to day, about which his conscience was not
at rest. He had already examined, picked out, all that belonged to his
mother; but the box containing her papers and her letters was still
intact--and to-night he would open it, perhaps.

He was not sure that death, as many persons think, gives the right to
those who remain to read letters, to penetrate the secrets of those who
have just gone. To burn without looking seemed to him more respectful,
more honest. But it was also to destroy forever the means of discovering
the one whose abandoned son he was.--Then what should he do?--And from
whom could he take advice, since he had no one in the world?

In the large chimney he lit the evening fire: then he got from an upper
room the disquieting box, placed it on a table near the fire, beside his
lamp, and sat down to reflect again. In the face of these papers, almost
sacred, almost prohibited, which he would touch and which death alone
could have placed in his hands, he had in this moment the consciousness,
in a more heartbreaking manner, of the irrevocable departure of his
mother; tears returned to him and he wept there, alone, in the silence--

At last he opened the box--

His arteries beat heavily. Under the surrounding trees, in the obscure
solitude, he felt that forms were moving, to look at him through the
window-panes. He felt breaths strange to his own chest, as if some one
was breathing behind him. Shades assembled, interested in what he was
about to do.--The house was crowded with phantoms--

They were letters, preserved there for more than twenty years, all in
the same handwriting,--one of those handwritings, at once negligent and
easy, which men of the world have and which, in the eyes of the simple
minded, are an indication of great social difference. And at first,
a vague dream of protection, of elevation and of wealth diverted the
course of his thoughts.--He had no doubt about the hand which had
written them, those letters, and he held them tremblingly, not daring to
read them, nor even to look at the name with which they were signed.

One only had retained its envelope; then he read the address: “To Madame
Franchita Duval.”--Oh! yes, he remembered having heard that his mother,
at the time of her disappearance from the Basque country, had taken
that name for a while.--Following this, was an indication of street and
number, which it pained him to read without his being able to understand
why, which made the blood come to his cheeks; then the name of that
large city, wherein he was born.--With fixed eyes, he stayed there,
looking no longer.--And suddenly, he had the horrible vision of that
clandestine establishment: in a suburban apartment, his mother, young,
elegant, mistress of some rich idler, or of some officer perhaps!--In
the regiment he had known some of these establishments, which doubtless
are all alike, and he had found in them for himself unexpected
adventures.--A dizziness seized him, to catch a glimpse thus under a new
aspect of the one whom he had venerated so much; the dear past faltered
behind him, as if to fall into a desolating abyss. And his despair
turned into a sudden execration for the one who had given life to him
through a caprice--

Oh! to burn them, to burn them as quickly as possible, these letters of
misfortune!--And he began to throw them one by one into the fire, where
they were consumed by sudden flames.

A photograph, however, came out of them, fell on the floor; then he
could not refrain from taking it to the lamp to see it.

And his impression was heart-rending, during the few seconds when his
eyes met the half effaced ones of the yellowed image!--It resembled
him!--He found, with profound fear, something of himself in the unknown.
And instinctively he turned round, asking himself if the spectres in the
obscure corners had not come near behind him to look also.

It had hardly an appreciable duration, that silent interview, unique and
supreme, with his father. To the fire also, the image! He threw it, with
a gesture of anger and of terror, among the ashes of the last letters,
and all left soon only a little mass of black dust, extinguishing the
clear flames of the branches.

Finished! The box was empty. He threw on the floor his cap which gave
him a headache, and straightened himself, with perspiration on his
forehead and a buzzing at the temples.

Finished! Annihilated, all these memories of sin and of shame. And now
the things of life appeared to him to regain their former balance; he
regained his soft veneration for his mother, whose memory it seemed
to him he had purified, avenged also a little, by this disdainful
execution.

Therefore, his destiny had been fixed to-night forever. He would remain
the Ramuntcho of other times, the “son of Franchita,” player of pelota
and smuggler, free, freed from everything, owing nothing to and asking
nothing from anybody. And he felt serene, without remorse, without
fright, either, in this mortuary house, from which the shades had just
disappeared, peaceful now and friendly--



CHAPTER IX.

At the frontier, in a mountain hamlet. A black night, about one o’clock
in the morning; a winter night inundated by cold and heavy rain. At the
front of a sinister house which casts no light outside, Ramuntcho loads
his shoulders with a heavy smuggled box, under the rippling rain, in the
midst of a tomb-like obscurity. Itchoua’s voice commands secretly,--as
if one hardly touched with a bow the last strings of a bass viol,--and
around him, in the absolute darkness, one divines the presence of other
smugglers similarly loaded, ready to start on an adventure.

It is now more than ever Ramuntcho’s life, to run almost every night,
especially on the cloudless and moonless nights when one sees nothing,
when the Pyrenees are an immense chaos of shade. Amassing as much money
as he can for his flight, he is in all the smuggling expeditions, as
well in those that bring a suitable remuneration as in those where one
risks death for a hundred cents. And ordinarily, Arrochkoa accompanies
him, without necessity, in sport and for a whim.

They have become inseparable, Arrochkoa, Ramuntcho,--and they talk
freely of their projects about Gracieuse, Arrochkoa seduced especially
by the attraction of some fine prowess, by the joy of taking a nun away
from the church, of undoing the plans of his old, hardened mother,--and
Ramuntcho, in spite of his Christian scruples which affect him still,
making of this dangerous project his only hope, his only reason for
being and for acting. For a month, almost, the attempt has been decided
upon in theory and, in their long talks in the December nights, on the
roads where they walk, or in the corners of the village cider mills
where they sit apart, the means of execution are discussed by them, as
if the question was a simple frontier undertaking. They must act very
quickly, concludes Arrochkoa always, they must act in the surprise of
a first interview which shall be for Gracieuse a very disturbing thing;
they must act without giving her time to think or to recant, they must
try something like kidnapping--

“If you knew,” he says, “what is that little convent of Amezqueta where
they have placed her: four old, good sisters with her, in an isolated
house!--I have my horse, you know, who gallops so quickly; once the nun
is in a carriage with you, who can catch her?--”

And to-night they have resolved to take into their confidence Itchoua
himself, a man accustomed to suspicious adventures, valuable in assaults
at night, and who, for money, is capable of everything.

The place from which they start this time for the habitual smuggling
expedition is named Landachkoa, and it is situated in France at ten
minutes’ distance from Spain. The inn, solitary and old, assumes as soon
as the night falls, the air of a den of thieves; at this moment while
the smugglers come out of one door, it is full of Spanish carbineers who
have familiarly crossed the frontier to divert themselves here and who
drink while singing. And the hostess, accustomed to these nocturnal
affairs, has said joyfully, a moment ago, in Basque tongue to Itchoua’s
folks:

“It is all right! They are all drunk, you can go out!”

Go out! It is easier to advise than to do! You are drenched at the first
steps and your feet slip on the mud, despite the aid of your sticks,
on the stiff slopes of the paths. They do not see one another; they see
nothing, neither the walls of the hamlet along which they pass nor the
trees afterward, nor the rocks; they are like blind men, groping and
slipping under a deluge, with the music of rain in their ears which
makes them deaf.

And Ramuntcho, who makes this trip for the first time, has no idea of
the passages which they are to go through, strikes here and there his
load against black things which are branches of beeches, or slips with
his two feet, falters, straightens up, catches himself by planting at
random his iron-pointed stick in the soil. They are the last on the
march, Arrochkoa and Ramuntcho, following the band by ear;--and those
who precede them make no more noise with their sandals than wolves in a
forest.

In all, fifteen smugglers on a distance of fifty metres, in the thick
black of the mountain, under the incessant sprinkling of the shower;
they carry boxes full of jewels, of watches, of chains, of rosaries,
or bundles of Lyons silk, wrapped in oilcloth; in front, loaded with
merchandise less valuable, walk two men who are the skirmishers, those
who will attract, if necessary, the guns of the Spaniards and will then
take flight, throwing away everything. All talk in a low voice, despite
the drumming of the rain which already stifles sounds--

The one who precedes Ramuntcho turns round to warn him:

“Here is a torrent in front of us--” (Its presence would have been
guessed by its noise louder than that of the rain--) “We must cross it!”

“Ah!--Cross it how? Wade in the water?--”

“No, the water is too deep. Follow us. There is a tree trunk over it.”

Groping, Ramuntcho finds that tree trunk, wet, slippery and round. He
stands, advancing on this monkey’s bridge in a forest, carrying his
heavy load, while under him the invisible torrent roars. And he crosses,
none knows how, in the midst of this intensity of black and of this
noise of water.

On the other shore they have to increase precaution and silence. There
are no more mountain paths, frightful descents, under the night, more
oppressing, of the woods. They have reached a sort of plain wherein the
feet penetrate; the sandals attached to nervous legs cause a noise of
beaten water. The eyes of the smugglers, their cat-like eyes, more and
more dilated by the obscurity, perceive confusedly that there is free
space around, that there is no longer the closing in of branches. They
breathe better also and walk with a more regular pace that rests them--

But the bark of dogs immobilizes them all in a sudden manner, as if
petrified under the shower. For a quarter of an hour they wait, without
talking or moving; on their chests, the perspiration runs, mingled with
the rain that enters by their shirt collars and falls to their belts.

By dint of listening, they hear the buzz of their ears, the beat of
their own arteries.

And this tension of their senses is, in their trade, what they all like;
it gives to them a sort of joy almost animal, it doubles the life of the
muscles in them, who are beings of the past; it is a recall of the most
primitive human impressions in the forests or the jungles of original
epochs.--Centuries of civilization will be necessary to abolish this
taste for dangerous surprises which impels certain children to play
hide and seek, certain men to lie in ambush, to skirmish in wars, or to
smuggle--

They have hushed, the watch-dogs, quieted or distracted, their attentive
scent preoccupied by something else. The vast silence has returned, less
reassuring, ready to break, perhaps, because beasts are watching. And,
at a low command from Itchoua, the men begin again their march, slower
and more hesitating, in the night of the plain, a little bent, a little
lowered on their legs, like wild animals on the alert.

Before them is the Nivelle; they do not see it, since they see nothing,
but they hear it run, and now long, flexible things are in the way of
their steps, are crushed by their bodies: the reeds on the shores.
The Nivelle is the frontier; they will have to cross it on a series of
slippery rocks, leaping from stone to stone, despite the loads that make
the legs heavy.

But before doing this they halt on the shore to collect themselves and
rest a little. And first, they call the roll in a low voice: all are
there. The boxes have been placed in the grass; they seem clearer
spots, almost perceptible to trained eyes, while, on the darkness in the
background, the men, standing, make long, straight marks, blacker than
the emptiness of the plain. Passing by Ramuntcho, Itchoua has whispered
in his ear:

“When will you tell me about your plan?”

“In a moment, at our return!--Oh, do not fear, Itchoua, I will tell
you!”

At this moment when his chest is heaving and his muscles are in action,
all his faculties doubled and exasperated by his trade, he does not
hesitate, Ramuntcho; in the present exaltation of his strength and of
his combativeness he knows no moral obstacles nor scruples. The idea
which came to his accomplice to associate himself with Itchoua frightens
him no longer. So much the worse! He will surrender to the advice of
that man of stratagem and of violence, even if he must go to the extreme
of kidnapping and housebreaking. He is, to-night, the rebel from whom
has been taken the companion of his life, the adored one, the one who
may not be replaced; he wants her, at the risk of everything.--And while
he thinks of her, in the progressive languor of that halt, he desires
her suddenly with his senses, in a young, savage outbreak, in a manner
unexpected and sovereign--

The immobility is prolonged, the respirations are calmer. And, while the
men shake their dripping caps, pass their hands on their foreheads to
wipe out drops of rain and perspiration that veil the eyes, the first
sensation of cold comes to them, of a damp and profound cold; their wet
clothes chill them, their thoughts weaken; little by little a sort of
torpor benumbs them in the thick darkness, under the incessant winter
rain.

They are accustomed to this, trained to cold and to dampness, they are
hardened prowlers who go to places where, and at hours when, other men
never appear, they are inaccessible to vague frights of the darkness,
they are capable of sleeping without shelter anywhere in the blackest of
rainy nights, in dangerous marshes or hidden ravines--

Now the rest has lasted long enough. This is the decisive instant when
the frontier is to be crossed. All muscles stiffen, ears stretch, eyes
dilate.

First, the skirmishers; then, one after another, the bundle carriers,
the box carriers, each one loaded with a weight of forty kilos, on the
shoulders or on the head. Slipping here and there among the round rocks,
stumbling in the water, everybody crosses, lands on the other shore.
Here they are on the soil of Spain! They have to cross, without gunshots
or bad meetings, a distance of two hundred metres to reach an isolated
farm which is the receiving shop of the chief of the Spanish smugglers,
and once more the game will have been played!

Naturally, it is without light, obscure and sinister, that farm.
Noiselessly and groping they enter in a file; then, on the last who
enter, enormous locks of the door are drawn. At last! Barricaded and
rescued, all! And the treasury of the Queen Regent has been frustrated,
again tonight, of a thousand francs--!

Then, fagots are lighted in the chimney, a candle on the table; they
see one another, they recognize one another, smiling at the success. The
security, the truce of rain over their heads, the flame that dances and
warms, the cider and the whiskey that fill the glasses, bring back to
these men noisy joy after compelled silence. They talk gaily, and the
tall, white-haired, old chief who receives them all at this undue hour,
announces that he will give to his village a beautiful square for the
pelota game, the plans of which have been drawn and the cost of which
will be ten thousand francs.

“Now, tell me your affair,” insists Itchoua, in Ramuntcho’s ear. “Oh, I
suspect what it is! Gracieuse, eh?--That is it, is it not?--It is
hard you know.--I do not like to do things against my religion, you
know.--Then, I have my place as a chorister, which I might lose in such
a game.--Let us see, how much money will you give me if I succeed?--”

He had foreseen, Ramuntcho, that this sombre aid would cost him a great
deal, Itchoua being, in truth, a churchman, whose conscience would have
to be bought; and, much disturbed, with a flush on his cheeks, Ramuntcho
grants, after a discussion, a thousand francs. Anyway, if he is piling
up money, it is only to get Gracieuse, and if enough remains for him to
go to America with her, what matters it?--

And now that his secret is known to Itchoua, now that his cherished
project is being elaborated in that obstinate and sharp brain, it seems
to Ramuntcho that he has made a decisive step toward the execution of
his plan, that all has suddenly become real and approaching. Then, in
the midst of the lugubrious decay of the place, among these men who are
less than ever similar to him, he isolates himself in an immense hope of
love.

They drink for a last time together, all around, clinking their
glasses loudly; then they start again, in the thick night and under the
incessant rain, but this time on the highway, in a band and singing.
Nothing in the hands, nothing in the pockets: they are now ordinary
people, returning from a natural promenade.

In the rear guard, at a distance from the singers, Itchoua on his long
legs walks with his hands resting on Ramuntcho’s shoulder. Interested
and ardent for success, since the sum has been agreed upon, Itchoua
whispers in Ramuntcho’s ear imperious advices. Like Arrochkoa, he wishes
to act with stunning abruptness, in the surprise of a first interview
which will occur in the evening, as late as the rule of a convent will
permit, at an uncertain and twilight hour, when the village shall have
begun to sleep.

“Above all,” he says, “do not show yourself beforehand. She must not
have seen you, she must not even know that you have returned home! You
must not lose the advantage of surprise--”

While Ramuntcho listens and meditates in silence, the others, who lead
the march, sing always the same old song that times their steps. And
thus they re-enter Landachkoa, village of France, crossing the bridge of
the Nivelle, under the beards of the Spanish carbineers.

They have no sort of illusion, the watching carbineers, about what these
men, so wet, have been doing at an hour so black.



CHAPTER X.

The winter, the real winter, extended itself by degrees over the Basque
land, after the few days of frost that had come to annihilate the annual
plants, to change the deceptive aspect of the fields, to prepare the
following spring.

And Ramuntcho acquired slowly his habits of one left alone; in his
house, wherein he lived still, without anybody to serve him, he took
care of himself, as in the colonies or in the barracks, knowing the
thousand little details of housekeeping which careful soldiers practice.
He preserved the pride of dress, dressed himself well, wore the ribbon
of the brave at his buttonhole and a wide crape around his sleeve.

At first he was not assiduous at the village cider mill, where the
men assembled in the cold evenings. In his three years of travel,
of reading, of talking with different people, too many new ideas had
penetrated his already open mind; among his former companions he felt
more outcast than before, more detached from the thousand little things
which composed their life.

Little by little, however, by dint of being alone, by dint of passing
by the halls where the men drank,--on the window-panes of which a lamp
always sketches the shadows of Basque caps,--he had made it a custom to
go in and to sit at a table.

It was the season when the Pyrenean villages, freed from the visitors
which the summers bring, imprisoned by the clouds, the mist, or the
snow, are more intensely as they were in ancient times. In these cider
mills--sole, little, illuminated points, living, in the midst of the
immense, empty darkness of the fields--something of the spirit of former
times is reanimated in winter evenings. In front of the large casks of
cider arranged in lines in the background where it is dark, the lamp,
hanging from the beams, throws its light on the images of saints that
decorate the walls, on the groups of mountaineers who talk and who
smoke. At times someone sings a plaintive song which came from the night
of centuries; the beating of a tambourine recalls to life old, forgotten
rhythms; a guitar reawakens a sadness of the epoch of the Moors.--Or, in
the face of each other, two men, with castanets in their hands, suddenly
dance the fandango, swinging themselves with an antique grace.

And, from these innocent, little inns, they retire early--especially
in these bad, rainy nights--the darkness of which is so peculiarly
propitious to smuggling, every one here having to do some clandestine
thing on the Spanish side.

In such places, in the company of Arrochkoa, Ramuntcho talked over and
commented upon his cherished, sacrilegious project; or,--during the
beautiful moon-light nights which do not permit of undertakings on the
frontier--they talked on the roads for a long time.

Persistent religions scruples made him hesitate a great deal, although
he hardly realized it. They were inexplicable scruples, since he had
ceased to be a believer. But all his will, all his audacity, all his
life, were concentrated and directed, more and more, toward this unique
end.

And the prohibition, ordered by Itchoua, from seeing Gracieuse before
the great attempt, exasperated his impatient dream.

The winter, capricious as it is always in this country, pursued its
unequal march, with, from time to time, surprises of sunlight and of
heat. There were rains of a deluge, grand, healthy squalls which went
up from the Bay of Biscay, plunged into the valleys, bending the trees
furiously. And then, repetitions of the wind of the south, breaths as
warm as in summer, breezes smelling of Africa, under a sky at once high
and sombre, among mountains of an intense brown color. And also, glacial
mornings, wherein one saw, at awakening, summits become snowy and white.

The desire often seized him to finish everything.--But he had the
frightful idea that he might not succeed and might fall again, alone
forever, without a hope in life.

Anyway, reasonable pretexts to wait were not lacking. He had to settle
with men of affairs, he had to sell the house and realize, for his
flight, all the money that he could obtain. He had also to wait for the
answer of Uncle Ignacio, to whom he had announced his emigration and at
whose house he expected to find an asylum.

Thus the days went by, and soon the hasty spring was to ferment. Already
the yellow primrose and the blue gentian, in advance here by several
weeks, were in bloom in the woods and along the paths, in the last suns
of January--



CHAPTER XI.

They are this time in the cider mill of the hamlet of Gastelugain, near
the frontier, waiting for the moment to go out with boxes of jewelry and
weapons.

And it is Itchoua who is talking:

“If she hesitates--and she will not hesitate, be sure of it--but if she
hesitates, well! we will kidnap her.--Let me arrange this, my plan is
all made. It will be in the evening, you understand?--We will bring her
anywhere and imprison her in a room with you.--If it turns out badly--if
I am forced to quit the country after having done this thing to please
you; then, you will have to give me more money than the amount agreed
upon, you understand?--Enough, at least, to let me seek for my bread in
Spain--”

“In Spain!--What? What are you going to do, Itchoua? I hope you have not
in your head the idea to do things that are too grave.”

“Oh, do not be afraid, my friend. I have no desire to assassinate
anybody.”

“Well! You talk of running away--”

“I said this as I would have said anything else, you know. For some
time, business has been bad. And then, suppose the thing turns out badly
and the police make an inquiry. Well, I would prefer to go, that is
sure.--For whenever these men of justice put their noses into anything,
they seek for things that happened long ago, and the inquiry never
ends--”

In his eyes, suddenly expressive, appeared crime and fear. And Ramuntcho
looked with an increase of anxiety at this man, who was believed to be
solidly established in the country with lands in the sunlight, and who
accepted so easily the idea of running away. What sort of a bandit is he
then, to be so much afraid of justice?--And what could be these things
that happened long ago?--After a silence between them, Ramuntcho said in
a lower voice, with extreme distrust:

“Imprison her--you say this seriously, Itchoua?--And where imprison her,
if you please? I have no castle to hide her in--”

Then Itchoua, with the smile of a faun which no one had seen before,
tapped his shoulder:

“Oh, imprison her--for one night only, my son!--It will be enough, you
may believe me.--They are all alike, you see: the first step costs; but
the second one, they make it all alone, and quicker than you may think.
Do you imagine that she would wish to return to the good sisters,
afterward?--”

The desire to slap that dull face passed like an electric shock through
the arm and the hand of Ramuntcho. He constrained himself, however,
through a long habit of respectfulness for the old singer of the
liturgies, and remained silent, with a flush on his cheeks, and his
look turned aside. It revolted him to hear one talk thus of her--and
surprised him that the one who spoke thus was that Itchoua whom he had
always known as the quiet husband of an ugly and old woman. But the
blow struck by the impertinent phrase followed nevertheless, in his
imagination, a dangerous and unforeseen path.--Gracieuse, “imprisoned
a room with him!” The immediate possibility of such a thing, so clearly
presented with a rough and coarse word, made his head swim like a very
violent liquor.

He loved her with too elevated a tenderness, his betrothed, to find
pleasure in brutal hopes. Ordinarily, he expelled from his mind those
images; but now that man had just placed them under his eye, with a
diabolical crudity, and he felt shivers in his flesh, he trembled as if
the weather were cold--

Oh, whether the adventure fell or not under the blow of justice,
well, so much the worse, after all! He had nothing to lose, all was
indifferent to him! And from that evening, in the fever of a new desire,
he felt more boldly decided to brave the rules, the laws, the obstacles
of this world. Saps ascended everywhere around him, on the sides of the
brown Pyrenees; there were longer and more tepid nights; the paths were
bordered with violets and periwinkles.--But religious scruples held him
still. They remained, inexplicably in the depth of his disordered mind:
instinctive horror of profanation; belief, in spite of everything,
in something supernatural enveloping, to defend them, churches and
cloisters--



CHAPTER XII.

The winter had just come to an end.

Ramuntcho,--who had slept for a few hours, in a bad, tired sleep, in
a small room of the new house of his friend Florentino, at
Ururbil,--awakened as the day dawned.

The night,--a night of tempest everywhere, a black and troubled
night,--had been disastrous for the smugglers. Near Cape Figuier, in the
rocks where they had just landed from the sea with silk bundles, they
had been pursued with gunshots, compelled to throw away their loads,
losing everything, some fleeing to the mountain, others escaping by
swimming among the breakers, in order to reach the French shore, in
terror of the prisons of San Sebastian.

At two o’clock in the morning, exhausted, drenched and half drowned,
he had knocked at the door of that isolated house, to ask from the good
Florentino his aid and an asylum.

And on awakening, after all the nocturnal noise of the equinoctial
storm, of the rain, of the groaning branches, twisted and broken, he
perceived that a grand silence had come. Straining his ear, he could
hear no longer the immense breath of the western wind, no longer the
motion of all those things tormented in the darkness. No, nothing except
a far-off noise, regular, powerful, continued and formidable; the roll
of the waters in the depth of that Bay of Biscay--which, since the
beginning, is without truce and troubled; a rhythmic groan, as might be
the monstrous respiration of the sea in its sleep; a series of profound
blows which seemed the blows of a battering ram on a wall, continued
every time by a music of surf on the beaches.--But the air, the trees
and the surrounding things were immovable; the tempest had finished,
without reasonable cause, as it had begun, and the sea alone prolonged
the complaint of it.

To look at that land, that Spanish coast which he would perhaps never
see again, since his departure was so near, he opened his window on the
emptiness, still pale, on the virginity of the desolate dawn.

A gray light emanating from a gray sky; everywhere the same immobility,
tired and frozen, with uncertainties of aspect derived from the night
and from dreams. An opaque sky, which had a solid air and was made
of accumulated, small, horizontal layers, as if one had painted it by
superposing pastes of dead colors.

And underneath, mountains black brown; then Fontarabia in a morose
silhouette, its old belfry appearing blacker and more worn by the years.
At that hour, so early and so freshly mysterious, when the ears of most
men are not yet open, it seemed as if one surprised things in their
heartbreaking colloquy of lassitude and of death, relating to one
another, at the first flush of dawn, all that they do not say when the
day has risen.--What was the use of resisting the storm of last night?
said the old belfry, sad and weary, standing in the background in the
distance; what was the use, since other storms will come, eternally
others, other storms and other tempests, and since I will pass away,
I whom men have elevated as a signal of prayer to remain here for
incalculable years?--I am already only a spectre, come from some other
time; I continue to ring ceremonies and illusory festivals; but men will
soon cease to be lured by them; I ring also knells, I have rung so many
knells for thousands of dead persons whom nobody remembers! And I remain
here, useless, under the effort, almost eternal, of all those western
winds which blow from the sea--

At the foot of the belfry, the church, drawn in gray tints, with an air
of age and abandonment, confessed also that it was empty, that it was
vain, peopled only by poor images made of wood or of stone, by myths
without comprehension, without power and without pity. And all the
houses, piously grouped for centuries around it, avowed that its
protection was not efficacious against death, that it was deceptive and
untruthful--

And especially the clouds, the clouds and the mountains, covered with
their immense, mute attestation what the old city murmured beneath
them; they confirmed in silence the sombre truths: heaven empty as the
churches are, serving for accidental phantasmagoria, and uninterrupted
times rolling their flood, wherein thousands of lives, like
insignificant nothings, are, one after another, dragged and drowned.--A
knell began to ring in that distance which Ramuntcho saw whitening; very
slowly, the old belfry gave its voice, once more, for the end of a life;
someone was in the throes of death on the other side of the frontier,
some Spanish soul over there was going out, in the pale morning, under
the thickness of those imprisoning clouds--and he had almost the precise
notion that this soul would very simply follow its body in the earth
which decomposes--

And Ramuntcho contemplated and listened. At the little window of
that Basque house, which before him had sheltered only generations of
simple-minded and confident people, leaning on the wide sill which the
rubbing of elbows had worn, pushing the old shutter painted green, he
rested his eyes on the dull display of that corner of the world which
had been his and which he was to quit forever. Those revelations which
things made, his uncultured mind heard them for the first time and he
lent to them a frightened attention. An entire new labor of unbelief
was going on suddenly in his mind, prepared by heredity to doubts and to
worry. An entire vision came to him, sudden and seemingly definitive, of
the nothingness of religions, of the nonexistence of the divinities whom
men supplicate.

And then--since there was nothing, how simple it was to tremble still
before the white Virgin, chimerical protector of those convents where
girls are imprisoned--!

The poor agony bell, which exhausted itself in ringing over there so
puerilely to call for useless prayers, stopped at last, and, under the
closed sky, the respiration of the grand waters alone was heard in the
distance, in the universal silence. But the things continued, in the
uncertain dawn, their dialogue without words: nothing anywhere; nothing
in the old churches venerated for so long a time; nothing in the sky
where clouds and mists amass; but always, in the flight of times, the
eternal and exhausting renewal of beings; and always and at once, old
age, death, ashes--

That is what they were saying, in the pale half light, the things so
dull and so tired. And Ramuntcho, who had heard, pitied himself for
having hesitated so long for imaginary reasons. To himself he swore,
with a harsher despair, that this morning he was decided; that he would
do it, at the risk of everything; that nothing would make him hesitate
longer.



CHAPTER XIII.

Weeks have elapsed, in preparations, in anxious uncertainties on the
manner of acting, in abrupt changes of plans and ideas.

Between times, the reply of Uncle Ignacio has reached Etchezar. If his
nephew had spoken sooner, Ignacio has written, he would have been glad
to receive him at his house; but, seeing how he hesitated, Ignacio had
decided to take a wife, although he is already an old man, and now he
has a child two months old. Therefore, there is no protection to be
expected from that side; the exile, when he arrives there, may not find
even a home--

The family house has been sold, at the notary’s money questions have
been settled; all the goods of Ramuntcho have been transformed into gold
pieces which are in his hand--

And now is the day of the supreme attempt, the great day,--and already
the thick foliage has returned to the trees, the clothing of the tall
grass covers anew the prairies; it is May.

In the little wagon, which the famous fast horse drags, they roll on the
shady mountain paths, Arrochkoa and Ramuntcho, toward that village of
Amezqueta. They roll quickly; they plunge into the heart of an infinite
region of trees. And, as the hour goes by, all becomes more peaceful
around them, and more savage; more primitive, the hamlets; more
solitary, the Basque land.

In the shade of the branches, on the borders of the paths, there are
pink foxgloves, silences, ferns, almost the same flora as in Brittany;
these two countries, the Basque and the Breton, resemble each other
by the granite which is everywhere and by the habitual rain; by the
immobility also, and by the continuity of the same religious dream.

Above the two young men who have started for the adventure, thicken
the big, customary clouds, the sombre and low sky. The route which they
follow, in these mountains ever and ever higher, is deliciously green,
dug in the shade, between walls of ferns.

Immobility of several centuries, immobility in beings and in
things,--one has more and more the consciousness of it as one penetrates
farther into this country of forests and of silence. Under this obscure
veil of the sky, where are lost the summits of the grand Pyrenees,
appear and run by, isolated houses, centenary farms, hamlets more and
more rare,--and they go always under the same vault of oaks, of ageless
chestnut trees, which twist even at the side of the path their roots
like mossy serpents. They resemble one another, those hamlets separated
from one another by so much forest, by so many branches, and inhabited
by an antique race, disdainful of all that disturbs, of all that
changes: the humble church, most often without a belfry, with a simple
campanila on its gray facade, and the square, with its wall painted for
that traditional ball-game wherein, from father to son, the men exercise
their hard muscles. Everywhere reigned the healthy peace of rustic
life, the traditions of which in the Basque land are more immutable than
elsewhere.

The few woolen caps which the two bold young men meet on their rapid
passage, incline all in a bow, from general politeness first, and from
acquaintance above all, for they are, Arrochkoa and Ramuntcho, the two
celebrated pelota players of the country;--Ramuntcho, it is true, had
been forgotten by many people, but Arrochkoa, everybody, from Bayonne to
San Sebastian, knows his face with healthy colors and the turned up ends
of his catlike mustache.

Dividing the journey into two stages, they have slept last night at
Mendichoco. And at present they are rolling quickly, the two young men,
so preoccupied doubtless that they hardly care to regulate the pace of
their vigorous beast.

Itchoua, however, is not with them. At the last moment, a fear has
come to Ramuntcho of this accomplice, whom he felt to be capable of
everything, even of murder; in a sudden terror, he has refused the aid
of that man, who clutched the bridle of the horse to prevent it from
starting; and feverishly, Ramuntcho has thrown gold into his hands, to
pay for his advice, to buy the liberty to act alone, the assurance,
at least, of not committing a crime: piece by piece, to break his
engagement, he has given to Itchoua a half of the agreed price. Then,
when the horse is driven at a gallop, when the implacable figure has
vanished behind a group of trees, Ramuntcho has felt his conscience
lighter--

 “You will leave my carriage at Aranotz, at Burugoity, the inn-keeper’s,
who understands,” said Arrochkoa, “for, you understand, as soon as you
have accomplished your end I will leave you.--We have business with the
people of Buruzabal, horses to lead into Spain to-night, not far from
Amezqueta, and I promised to be there before ten o’clock--”

What will they do? They do not know, the two allied friends; this will
depend on the turn that things take; they have different projects, all
bold and skilful, according to the cases which might present themselves.
Two places have been reserved, one for Ramuntcho and the other for her,
on board a big emigrant vessel on which the baggage is embarked and
which will start tomorrow night from Bordeaux carrying hundreds of
Basques to America. At this small station of Aranotz, where the carriage
will leave both of them, Ramuntcho and Gracieuse, they will take the
train for Bayonne, at three o’clock in the morning, and, at Bayonne
afterward, the Irun express to Bordeaux. It will be a hasty flight,
which will not give to the little fugitive the time to think, to
regain her senses in her terror,--doubtless also in her intoxication
deliciously mortal--

A gown, a mantilla of Gracieuse are all ready, at the bottom of the
carriage, to replace the veil and the black uniform: things which
she wore formerly, before her vows, and which Arrochkoa found in his
mother’s closets. And Ramuntcho thinks that it will be perhaps real,
in a moment, that she will be perhaps there, at his side, very near,
on that narrow seat, enveloped with him in the same travelling
blanket, flying in the midst of night, to belong to him, at once and
forever;--and in thinking of this too much, he feels again a shudder and
a dizziness--

“I tell you that she will follow you,” repeats his friend, striking
him rudely on the leg in protective encouragement, as soon as he sees
Ramuntcho sombre and lost in a dream. “I tell you that she will follow
you, I am sure! If she hesitates, well, leave the rest to me!”

If she hesitates, then they will be violent, they are resolved, oh, not
very violent, only enough to unlace the hands of the old nuns retaining
her.--And then, they will carry her into the small wagon, where
infallibly the enlacing contact and the tenderness of her former friend
will soon turn her young head.

How will it all happen? They do not yet know, relying a great deal on
their spirit of decision which has already dragged them out of dangerous
passes. But what they know is that they will not weaken. And they go
ahead, exciting each other; one would say that they are united now unto
death, firm and decided like two bandits at the hour when the capital
game is to be played.

The land of thick branches which they traverse, under the oppression of
very high mountains which they do not see, is all in ravines, profound
and torn up, in precipices, where torrents roar under the green night of
the foliage. The oaks, the beeches, the chestnut trees become more
and more enormous, living through centuries off a sap ever fresh and
magnificent. A powerful verdure is strewn over that disturbed geology;
for ages it covers and classifies it under the freshness of its
immovable mantle. And this nebulous sky, almost obscure, which is
familiar to the Basque country, adds to the impression which they have
of a sort of universal meditation wherein the things are plunged; a
strange penumbra descends from everywhere, descends from the trees at
first, descends from the thick, gray veils above the branches, descends
from the great Pyrenees hidden behind the clouds.

And, in the midst of this immense peace and of this green night, they
pass, Ramuntcho and Arrochkoa, like two young disturbers going to break
charms in the depths of forests. At all cross roads old, granite
crosses rise, like alarm signals to warn them; old crosses with this
inscription, sublimely simple, which is here something like the device
of an entire race: “O crux, ave, spes unica!”

Soon the night will come. Now they are silent, because the hour is
going, because the moment approaches, because all these crosses on the
road are beginning to intimidate them--

And the day falls, under that sad veil which covers the sky. The valleys
become more savage, the country more deserted. And, at the corners of
roads, the old crosses appear, ever with their similar inscriptions: “O
crux, ave, spes unica!”

Amezqueta, at the last twilight. They stop their carriage at an outskirt
of the village, before the cider mill. Arrochkoa is impatient to go into
the house of the sisters, vexed at arriving so late; he fears that the
door may not be opened to them. Ramuntcho, silent, lets him act.

It is above, on the hill; it is that isolated house which a cross
surmounts and which one sees in relief in white on the darker mass of
the mountain. They recommend that as soon as the horse is rested the
wagon be brought to them, at a turn, to wait for them. Then, both go
into the avenue of trees which leads to that convent and where the
thickness of the May foliage makes the obscurity almost nocturnal.
Without saying anything to each other, without making a noise with
their sandals, they ascend in a supple and easy manner; around them the
profound fields are impregnated by the immense melancholy of the night.

Arrochkoa knocks with his finger on the door of the peaceful house:

“I would like to see my sister, if you please,” he says to an old nun
who opens the door, astonished--

Before he has finished talking, a cry of joy comes from the dark
corridor, and a nun, whom one divines is young in spite of the
envelopment of her dissembling costume, comes and takes his hand. She
has recognized him by his voice,--but has she divined the other who
stays behind and does not talk?--

The Mother Superior has come also, and, in the darkness of the stairway,
she makes them go up to the parlor of the little country convent; then
she brings the cane-seat chairs and everyone sits down, Arrochkoa near
his sister, Ramuntcho opposite,--and they face each other at last, the
two lovers, and a silence, full of the beating of arteries, full of
leaps of hearts, full of fever, descends upon them--

Truly, in this place, one knows not what peace almost sweet, and a
little sepulchral also, envelopes the terrible interview; in the depth
of the chests, the hearts beat with great blows, but the words of love
or of violence, the words die before passing the lips.--And this peace,
more and more establishes itself; it seems as if a white shroud little
by little is covering everything, in order to calm and to extinguish.

There is nothing very peculiar, however, in this humble parlor: four
walls absolutely bare under a coat of whitewash; a wooden ceiling; a
floor where one slips, so carefully waxed it is; on a table, a plaster
Virgin, already indistinct, among all the similar white things of the
background where the twilight of May is dying. And a window without
curtains, open on the grand Pyrenean horizons invaded by night.--But,
from this voluntary poverty, from this white simplicity, is exhaled a
notion of definitive impersonality, of renunciation forever; and the
irremediability of accomplished things begins to manifest itself to the
mind of Ramuntcho, while bringing to him a sort of peace, of sudden and
involuntary resignation.

The two smugglers, immovable on their chairs, appear as silhouettes,
of wide shoulders on all this white of the walls, and of their lost
features one hardly sees the black more intense of the mustache and the
eyes. The two nuns, whose outlines are unified by the veil, seem already
to be two spectres all black--

“Wait, Sister Mary Angelique,” says the Mother Superior to the
transformed young girl who was formerly named Gracieuse, “wait sister
till I light the lamp in order that you may at least see your brother’s
face!”

She goes out, leaving them together, and, again, silence falls on
this rare instant, perhaps unique, impossible to regain, when they are
alone--

She comes back with a little lamp which makes the eyes of the smugglers
shine,--and with a gay voice, a kind air, asks, looking at Ramuntcho:

“And this one? A second brother, I suppose?--”

“Oh, no,” says Arrochkoa in a singular tone. “He is only my friend.”

In truth, he is not their brother, that Ramuntcho who stays there,
ferocious and mute.--And how he would frighten the quiet nuns if they
knew what storm brings him here--!

The same silence returns, heavy and disquieting, on these beings who, it
seems, should talk simply of simple things; and the old Mother Superior
remarks it, is astonished by it.--But the quick eyes of Ramuntcho become
immovable, veil themselves as if they are fascinated by some invisible
tamer. Under the harsh envelope, still beating, of his chest, the
calmness, the imposed calmness continues to penetrate and to extend. On
him, doubtless, are acting the mysterious, white powers which are here
in the air; religious heredities which were asleep in the depths of
his being fill him now with unexpected respect and submissiveness; the
antique symbols dominate him: the crosses met in the evening along the
road and that plaster Virgin of the color of snow, immaculate on the
spotless white of the wall--

“Well, my children, talk of the things of Etchezar,” says the Mother
Superior to Gracieuse and to her brother. “We shall leave you alone, if
you wish,” she adds with a sign to Ramuntcho to follow her.

“Oh, no,” protests Arrochkoa, “Let him stay.--No, he is not the one--who
prevents us--”

And the little nun, veiled in the fashion of the Middle Age, lowers her
head, to maintain her eyes hidden in the shade of her austere headdress.

The door remains open, the window remains open; the house, the things
retain their air of absolute confidence, of absolute security, against
violations and sacrilege. Now two other sisters, who are very old, set
a small table, put two covers, bring to Arrochkoa and to his friend a
little supper, a loaf of bread, cheese, cake, grapes from the arbor.
In arranging these things they have a youthful gaiety, a babble almost
childish--and all this is strangely opposed to the ardent violence which
is here, hushed, thrown back into the depth of minds, as under the blows
of some mace covered with white--

And, in spite of themselves, they are seated at the table, the two
smugglers, opposite each other, yielding to insistence and eating
absent-mindedly the frugal things, on a cloth as white as the walls.
Their broad shoulders, accustomed to loads, lean on the backs of the
little chairs and make their frail wood crack. Around them come and
go the Sisters, ever with their discreet talk and their puerile laugh,
which escape, somewhat softened, from under their veils. Alone, she
remains mute and motionless, Sister Mary Angelique: standing near her
brother who is seated, she places her hand on his powerful shoulder;
so lithe beside him that she looks like a saint of a primitive church
picture. Ramuntcho, sombre, observes them both; he had not been able to
see yet the face of Gracieuse, so severely her headdress framed it. They
resemble each other still, the brother and the sister; in their very
long eyes, which have acquired expressions more than ever different
remains something inexplicably similar, persists the same flame, that
flame which impelled one toward adventures and the life of the muscles,
the other toward mystic dreams, toward mortification and annihilation of
flesh. But she has become as frail as he is robust; her breast doubtless
is no more, nor her hips; the black vestment wherein her body remains
hidden falls straight like a furrow enclosing nothing carnal.

And now, for the first time, they are face to face, Gracieuse and
Ramuntcho; their eyes have met and gazed on one another. She does not
lower her head before him; but it is as from an infinite distance that
she looks at him, it is as from behind white mists that none may scale,
as from the other side of an abyss, as from the other side of death;
very soft, nevertheless, her glance indicates that she is as if she
were absent, gone to tranquil and inaccessible other places.--And it is
Ramuntcho at last who, still more tamed, lowers his ardent eyes before
her virgin eyes.

They continue to babble, the Sisters; they would like to retain them
both at Amezqueta for the night: the weather, they say, is so black,
and a storm threatens.--M. the Cure, who went out to take communion to
a patient in the mountain, will come back; he has known Arrochkoa at
Etchezar when a vicar there; he would be glad to give him a room in the
parish house--and one to his friend also, of course--

But no, Arrochkoa refuses, after a questioning glance at Ramuntcho.
It is impossible to stay in the village; they will even go at once,
or after a few moments of conversation, for they are expected on the
Spanish frontier.--Gracieuse who, at first, in her mortal disturbance
of mind, had not dared to talk, begins to question her brother. Now in
Basque, then in French, she asks for news of those whom she has forever
abandoned:

“And mother? All alone now in the house, even at night?”

“Oh, no,” says Arrochkoa, “Catherine watches over her and sleeps at the
house.”

“And how is your child, Arrochkoa, has he been christened? What is his
name? Lawrence, doubtless, like his grandfather.”

Etchezar, their village, is separated from Amezqueta by some sixty
kilometres, in a land without more means of communication than in the
past centuries:

“Oh, in spite of the distance,” says the little nun, “I get news of
you sometimes. Last month, people here had met on the market place of
Hasparren, women of our village; that is how I learned--many things.--At
Easter I had hoped to see you; I was told that there would be a
ball-game at Erricalde and that you would come to play there; then I
said to myself that perhaps you would come here--and, while the festival
lasted, I looked often at the road through this window, to see if you
were coming--”

And she shows the window, open on the blackness of the savage
country--from which ascends an immense silence, with, from time to
time, the noise of spring, intermittent musical notes of crickets and
tree-toads.

Hearing her talk so quietly, Ramuntcho feels confounded by this
renunciation of all things; she appears to him still more irrevocably
changed, far-off--poor little nun!--Her name was Gracieuse; now her name
is Sister Mary Angelique, and she has no relatives; impersonal here, in
this little house with white walls, without terrestrial hope and without
desire, perhaps--one might as well say that she has departed for the
regions of the grand oblivion of death. And yet, she smiles, quite
serene now and apparently not even suffering.

Arrochkoa looks at Ramuntcho, questions him with a piercing eye
accustomed to fathom the black depths--and, tamed himself by all this
unexpected peace, he understands very well that his bold comrade dares
no longer, that all the projects have fallen, that all is useless
and inert in presence of the invisible wall with which his sister is
surrounded. At moments, pressed to end all in one way or in another, in
a haste to break this charm or to submit to it and to fly before it, he
pulls his watch, says that it is time to go, because of the friends who
are waiting for them.--The Sisters know well who these friends are
and why they are waiting but they are not affected by this: Basques
themselves, daughters and granddaughters of Basques, they have the blood
of smugglers in their veins and consider such things indulgently--

At last, for the first time, Gracieuse titters the name of Ramuntcho;
not daring, however, to address him directly, she asks her brother, with
a calm smile:

“Then he is with you, Ramuntcho, now? You work together?”

A silence follows, and Arrochkoa looks at Ramuntcho.

“No,” says the latter, in a slow and sombre voice, “no--I, I go
to-morrow to America--”

Every word of this reply, harshly scanned, is like a sound of trouble
and of defiance in the midst of that strange serenity. She leans more
heavily on her brother’s shoulder, the little nun, and Ramuntcho,
conscious of the profound blow which he has struck, looks at her and
envelopes her with his tempting eyes, having regained his audacity,
attractive and dangerous in the last effort of his heart full of love,
of his entire being of youth and of flame made for tenderness.--Then,
for an uncertain minute, it seems as if the little convent had trembled;
it seems as if the white powers of the air recoiled, went out like
sad, unreal mists before this young dominator, come here to hurl the
triumphant appeal of life. And the silence which follows is the heaviest
of all the silent moments which have interrupted already that species of
drama played almost without words--

At last, Sister Mary Angelique talks, and talks to Ramuntcho himself.
Really it does not seem as if her heart had just been torn supremely
by the announcement of that departure, nor as if she had just shuddered
under that lover’s look.--With a voice which little by little becomes
firmer in softness, she says very simple things, as to any friend.

“Oh, yes--Uncle Ignacio?--I had always thought that you would go to
rejoin him there.--We shall all pray the Holy Virgin to accompany you in
your voyage--”

And it is the smuggler who lowers the head, realizing that all is ended,
that she is lost forever, the little companion of his childhood; that
she has been buried in an inviolable shroud.--The words of love and of
temptation which he had thought of saying, the projects which he
had revolved in his mind for months, all these seemed insensate,
sacrilegious, impossible things, childish bravadoes.--Arrochkoa, who
looks at him attentively, is under the same irresistible and light
charm; they understand each other and, to one another, without words,
they confess that there is nothing to do, that they will never dare--

Nevertheless an anguish still human appears in the eyes of Sister Mary
Angelique when Arrochkoa rises for the definite departure: she prays,
in a changed voice, for them to stay a moment longer. And Ramuntcho
suddenly feels like throwing himself on his knees in front of her; his
head on the hem of her veil, sobbing all the tears that stifle him; like
begging for mercy, like begging for mercy also of that Mother Superior
who has so soft an air; like telling both of them that this sweetheart
of his childhood was his hope, his courage, his life, and that people
must have a little pity, people must give her back to him, because,
without her, there is no longer anything.--All that his heart contains
that is infinitely good is exalted at present into an immense necessity
to implore, into an outbreak of supplicating prayer and also into a
confidence in the kindness, in the pity of others--

And who knows, if he had dared formulate that great prayer of pure
tenderness, who knows what he might have awakened of kindness also, and
of tenderness and of humanity in the poor, black-veiled girl?--Perhaps
this old Mother Superior herself, this old, dried-up girl with childish
smile and grave, pure eyes, would have opened her arms to him, as to a
son, understanding everything, forgiving everything, despite the rules
and despite the vows? And perhaps Gracieuse might have been returned
to him, without kidnapping, without deception, almost excused by her
companions of the cloister. Or at last, if that was impossible, she
would have bade him a long farewell, consoling, softened by a kiss of
immaterial love--

But no, he stays there mute on his chair. Even that prayer he cannot
make. And it is the hour to go, decidedly. Arrochkoa is up, agitated,
calling him with an imperious sign of the head. Then he straightens up
also his proud bust and takes his cap to follow Arrochkoa. They express
their thanks for the little supper which was given to them and they
say good-night, timidly. During their entire visit they were very
respectful, almost timid, the two superb smugglers. And, as if hope had
not just been undone, as if one of them was not leaving behind him his
life, they descend quietly the neat stairway, between the white walls,
while the good Sisters light the way with their little lamp.

“Come, Sister Mary Angelique,” gaily proposes the Mother Superior, in
her frail, infantile voice, “we shall escort them to the end of our
avenue, you know, near the village.”

Is she an old fairy, sure of her power, or a simple and unconscious
woman, playing without knowing it, with a great, devouring fire?--It was
all finished; the parting had been accomplished; the farewell accepted;
the struggle stifled under white wadding,--and now the two who adored
each other are walking side by side, outside, in the tepid night of
spring!--in the amorous, enveloping night, under the cover of the new
leaves and on the tall grass, among all the saps that ascend in the
midst of the sovereign growth of universal life.

They walk with short steps, through this exquisite obscurity, as in
silent accord, to make the shaded path last longer, both mute, in the
ardent desire and the intense fear of contact of their clothes, of a
touch of their hands. Arrochkoa and the Mother Superior follow them
closely, on their heels; without talking, nuns with their sandals,
smugglers with their rope soles, they go through these soft, dark spots
without making more noise than phantoms, and their little cortege, slow
and strange, descends toward the wagon in a funereal silence. Silence
also around them, everywhere in the grand, ambient black, in the depth
of the mountains and the woods. And, in the sky without stars, sleep the
big clouds, heavy with all the water that the soil awaits and which
will fall to-morrow to make the woods still more leafy, the grass still
higher; the big clouds above their heads cover all the splendor of
the southern summer which so often, in their childhood, charmed them
together, disturbed them together, but which Ramuntcho will doubtless
never see again and which in the future Gracieuse will have to look at
with eyes of one dead, without understanding nor recognizing it--

There is no one around them, in the little obscure alley, and the
village seems asleep already. The night has fallen quite; its grand
mystery is scattered everywhere, on the mountains and the savage
valleys.--And, how easy it would be to execute what these two young men
have resolved, in that solitude, with that wagon which is ready and that
fast horse--!

However, without having talked, without having touched each other, they
come, the lovers, to that turn of the path where they must bid each
other an eternal farewell. The wagon is there, held by a boy; the
lantern is lighted and the horse impatient. The Mother Superior stops:
it is, apparently, the last point of the last walk which they will
take together in this world,--and she feels the power, that old nun, to
decide that it will be thus, without appeal. With the same little, thin
voice, almost gay, she says:

“Come, Sister, say good-bye.”

And she says that with the assurance of a Fate whose decrees of death
are not disputable.

In truth, nobody attempts to resist her order, impassibly given. He
is vanquished, the rebellious Ramuntcho, oh, quite vanquished by the
tranquil, white powers; trembling still from the battle which has just
come to an end in him, he lowers his head, without will now, and almost
without thought, as under the influence of some sleeping potion--

“Come, Sister, say good-bye,” the old, tranquil Fate has said. Then,
seeing that Gracieuse has only taken Arrochkoa’s hand, she adds:

“Well, you do not kiss your brother?--”

Doubtless, the little Sister Mary Angelique asks for nothing better,
to kiss him with all her heart, with all her soul; to clasp him, her
brother, to lean on his shoulder and to seek his protection, at that
hour of superhuman sacrifice when she must let the cherished one
leave her without even a word of love.--And still, her kiss has in it
something frightened, at once drawn back; the kiss of a nun, somewhat
similar to the kiss of one dead.--When will she ever see him again, that
brother, who is not to leave the Basque country, however? When will
she have news of her mother, of the house, of the village, from some
passer-by who will stop here, coming from Etchezar?--

“We will pray,” she says again, “to the Holy Virgin to protect you
in your long voyage--” And how they go; slowly they turn back, like
silent shades, toward the humble convent which the cross protects, and
the two tamed smugglers, immovable on the road, look at their veils,
darker than the night of the trees, disappearing in the obscure avenue.

Oh! she is wrecked also, the one who will disappear in the darkness
of the little, shady hill.--But she is nevertheless soothed by white,
peaceful vapors, and all that she suffers will soon be quieted under a
sort of sleep. To-morrow she will take again, until death, the course of
her strangely simple existence; impersonal, devoted to a series of daily
duties which never change, absorbed in a reunion of creatures almost
neutral, who have abdicated everything, she will be able to walk with
eyes lifted ever toward the soft, celestial mirage--

O crux, ave, spes unica--!

To live, without variety or truce to the end, between the white walls of
a cell always the same, now here, then elsewhere, at the pleasure of a
strange will, in one of those humble village convents to which one
has not even the leisure to become attached. On this earth, to possess
nothing and to desire nothing, to wait for nothing, to hope for nothing.
To accept as empty and transitory the fugitive hours of this world, and
to feel freed from everything, even from love, as much as by death.--The
mystery of such lives remains forever unintelligible to those young men
who are there, made for the daily battle, beautiful beings of instinct
and of strength, a prey to all the desires; created to enjoy life and to
suffer from it, to love it and to continue it--

O crux, ave, spes unica!--One sees them no longer, they have re-entered
their little, solitary convent.

The two men have not exchanged even a word on their abandoned
undertaking, on the ill-defined cause which for the first time has
undone their courage; they feel, toward one another, almost a sense of
shame of their sudden and insurmountable timidity.

For an instant their proud heads were turned toward the nuns slowly
fleeing; now they look at each other through the night.

They are going to part, and probably forever: Arrochkoa puts into his
friends hands the reins of the little wagon which, according to his
promise, he lends to him:

“Well, my poor Ramuntcho!” he says, in a tone of commiseration hardly
affectionate.

And the unexpressed end of the phrase signifies clearly:

“Go, since you have failed; and I have to go and meet my friends--”

Ramuntcho would have kissed him with all his heart for the last
farewell,--and in this embrace of the brother of the beloved one, he
would have shed doubtless good, hot tears which, for a moment at least,
would have cured him a little.

But no, Arrochkoa has become again the Arrochkoa of the bad days, the
gambler without soul, that only bold things interest. Absentmindedly, he
touches Ramuntcho’s hand:

“Well, good-bye!--Good luck--”

And, with silent steps, he goes toward the smugglers, toward the
frontier, toward the propitious darkness.

Then Ramuntcho, alone in the world now, whips the little, mountain horse
who gallops with his light tinkling of bells.--That train which will
pass by Aranotz, that vessel which will start from Bordeaux--an instinct
impels Ramuntcho not to miss them. Mechanically he hastens, no longer
knowing why, like a body without a mind which continues to obey an
ancient impulsion, and, very quickly, he who has no aim and no hope in
the world, plunges into the savage country, into the thickness of the
woods, in all that profound blackness of the night of May, which the
nuns, from their elevated window, see around them--

For him the native land is closed, closed forever; finished are the
delicious dreams of his first years. He is a plant uprooted from the
dear, Basque soil and which a breath of adventure blows elsewhere.

At the horse’s neck, gaily the bells tinkle, in the silence of the
sleeping woods; the light of the lantern, which runs hastily, shows to
the sad fugitive the under side of branches, fresh verdure of oaks; by
the wayside, flowers of France; from distance to distance, the walls of
a familiar hamlet, of an old church,--all the things which he will never
see again, unless it be, perhaps, in a doubtful and very distant old
age--

In front of his route, there is America, exile without probable return,
an immense new world, full of surprises and approached now without
courage: an entire life, very long, doubtless, during which his mind
plucked from here will have to suffer and to harden over there; his
vigor spend and exhaust itself none knows where, in unknown labors and
struggles--

Above, in their little convent, in their sepulchre with walls so white,
the tranquil nuns recite their evening prayers--

O crux, ave, spes unica--!


THE END.





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