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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
A Madwoman
By Jules Quesnay de Beaurepaire (1838–1923)
 
        
From ‘The Woodman’: Translation of Mrs. John Simpson
  
  [Jean Renaud, the central figure in the story, has been unjustly imprisoned for poaching; and an old woman, Mère Chauvin, of whom he had taken care, has also been incarcerated for supposed complicity in Renaud’s work. His sentence served, Renaud returns to her lonely cottage, only to find the old woman crazy, and their forest life together broken up by tragedy.]

HE was soon obliged to set to work again; for his money was exhausted. He presented himself at the saw-pit. His skill was well known to the heads of the trade, and they engaged him. It mattered little to them that he had been in prison. Marcel himself advised them to take him back, as it would be easier to keep an eye upon him when he was close at hand.  1
  At first he was the butt of his companions, who invariably called him Renaud the Poacher. They did not always treat him as a pariah, however, for he knew how to make himself feared; and besides he was an object of admiration to some,—for the woodmen have all more or less a drop of poacher’s blood in their veins. Others treated his crime as of little importance. “As long,” they said, “as one is neither a murderer nor a thief, there’s not much harm.”  2
  Determined to bear everything, he pretended not to hear, and by degrees he reconquered his position. The first to arrive, the last to leave, sad, taciturn, he lived apart. No fault could be found with him, and he was soon let alone.  3
  The regularity of his life enabled him partly to recover. He rambled over the forest, found once more his favorite paths, and felt again the friendly branches meet over his head. He still was sad, but his apathy was gone. On Sundays the men who came to pick up wood saw him at a distance, and said to one another:—  4
  “There’s Renaud the Poacher: he’s finished his term.”  5
  When he had shaken off his torpor he became sensitive; his blood boiled with anger.  6
  “Ah, they are all against me! They call me ‘Poacher.’ Well, I’ll make my name good, and nothing shall prevent me poaching.”  7
  This thought awakened another: he stood still, quivering. His gun! had it been found? His grandfather’s curse and his old friend’s madness had absorbed him. But this fear, once presented to his mind, took entire possession of it. Intense curiosity was mingled with acute, overpowering terror. He longed for night that he might begin his search, and counted the trees meanwhile to distract his thoughts. After each number a loud voice sounded in his ear, repeating, “Has some one carried off your gun?”  8
  At nightfall he stole out, took a circuitous route, and when nearer to the spot laid one ear to the ground to listen,—the frost had hardened the soil and made it sonorous: there was no one about. Then he crept into the bushes on his hands and knees.  9
  When he reached the break in the ground caused by the ditch he felt among the brushwood. No gun was there! He broke into a sweat; he went back into the wood to where the stag had stood. Here was the holly behind which Jean was posted. He felt the trees, one after the other, to the path. What a pity that the night was so dark! He had made a miscalculation of several feet.  10
  The next time he hit upon the place. The frosty leaves cracked; the earth crumbled; something harder opposed itself to his touch. It was the gun!  11
  “My blessed old gun! I’ve got you at last! How they must have hunted for you! But you were so little hidden that I don’t wonder they didn’t find you.”  12
  This speech exactly describes the simple cunning of the peasant mind.  13
  The gun, full of mold and more rusty than when it served as a pipe, could not have attracted the attention of the most suspicious keeper. Proud and joyful, he carried it away in his arms.  14
  He spent three nights in taking it to pieces, oiling and furbishing it. A fresh hole in the left barrel necessitated a new patch. When he had set it to rights, the climber became thoughtful. He was afraid of everything now. If they came to search his hut? Marcel was too cunning,—the gun must be hidden. He took up a plank in the cellar, slipped the gun into its place as if into a case, with all the powder and ball he had left, hid the opening with a bit of wood covered with dust, cast a threatening glance in the direction of Le Plantis, and returned to put away his oil in the kitchen. He had an inward struggle. Should he go out shooting this very morning? The temptation was strong. But he reflected that it was better to go to see his old friend Mother Chauvin.  15
  For some days the crazy woman had not spoken to him. A sort of shudder passed over her when she saw him, showing that she had a vague perception of his presence. But the recollection vanished before it became clear. She looked at him with astonished curiosity, touched his blouse, smiled as she followed him with her eyes round the room, because he brought food with him: this was the only reason. She often spoke of him just as she spoke of Marcel and the officials, believing him to be absent. Her incoherent, voluble utterances all related to the damaged fruit-trees, the prison, and her Chauvin’s broken skull. Now and then she broke out into a fury; Jean was not always able to master her. Every night and morning he came to look after her, and brought food. Mélanie came at noon to make the soup.  16
  When he entered her room this Wednesday morning she was madder than ever. She was pacing the room on tiptoe, uttering threatening sounds. In her hand was a burning log, which she threw upon the bed; it exhaled a sour smell of scorching rags, and a volume of black smoke rose up.  17
  “Wretched woman!” exclaimed Renaud, rushing to the pallet, “do you want to set the place on fire?”  18
  “Let be, Cinet,” she cried, clapping her hands: “the house of the accursed must burn!”  19
  Filled with horror, the youth threw the log into the fireplace, and pulled out the blankets already streaked with red. She rushed at him and bit his arm.  20
  Jean put out the fire, hid the matches, did his best to make her sit down, set a basin of milk on her lap, and shut her in.  21
  When he was out of the house he listened. “She will get hungry,” he thought: “that will quiet her fancies.”  22
  He heard the basin crash upon the ground, and the sounds of her crutch showed that the widow was again wandering about the room. Jean was at his wits’ end. It was impossible to leave this poor creature to herself. On the other hand, the sun was already high in the heavens, and Besnardeau was expecting him to fell a beech. It was not safe to be unpunctual with Marcel or Besnardeau.  23
  “I have it,—I’ll go and fetch Mélanie, and come back as soon as my work is done.”  24
  He ran to call her.  25
  “Mother Chauvin’s head is quite turned this morning: most likely it’s the new moon, but perhaps she is gone quite mad for good. Could you look after her till midday?”  26
  “Why not? Give me time to feed my chickens, and I’ll climb the hill.”  27
  The girl made haste, put her knitting in her pocket and set out, the Little Parisian following her. The child got upon a stone, opened the latch, and passed first through the door. The widow had heard them, for they were talking as they approached. She was standing just behind the door, resting on her crutch. The white hairs on her chin stood on end; her eyes were staring wildly. She was drawing deep breaths at regular intervals, like a mother hushing an infant.  28
  The moment the Little Parisian entered she seized him by the arm. The child, pale with fear and pain, gave a piercing cry.  29
  “Here you are then, my little Marcel,” she said in a coaxing voice. “Your apple-trees must be in blossom by this time?”  30
  She struck the cupboard with her crutch, and continued: “Well, then, you won’t show my mitten to the law officers—you’ll give it back to me.”  31
  The Little Parisian, frightened almost out of his wits, struggled to get away from her horrible grasp. The madwoman screamed with anger.  32
  “Won’t you give it back to me?”  33
  Mélanie got hold of the child’s clothes at the back, and tried to draw him towards her. But the madwoman’s claw-like fingers held him as tightly as if she had been a bird of prey.  34
  The boy uttered despairing cries: “My ’Lanie! my ’Lanie!”  35
  The strong girl darted forward, and stood suddenly in front of her adopted child. She threw her arms round the old woman, and cried, “Let him alone, or it’ll be the worse for you!”  36
  On seeing Mélanie’s face so close to her own, the lunatic forgot the child. She was so surprised that no recollection was awakened. “I don’t know you at all! Why won’t you let Marcel give me back my mitten?”  37
  “Mother Chauvin, listen to me. I am Mélanie. You ought to go to bed.”  38
  But the old woman shook with rage.  39
  “Ah, I know: it’s you as had me locked up. You’re a witch, and you’ve bewitched me! Chauvin, my love, make haste, the nightingale is singing at our wedding. We will dance with the keeper.”  40
  She paced the room, her arms stretched over her head. Mélanie was frightened now, and tried to walk backward to the door, hiding the Little Parisian with her skirts.  41
  As soon as they got out they set off running. Mother Chauvin caught sight of them and pursued them, shouting:—  42
  “The witch is carrying off Marcel: Beware of the summons!”  43
  “Come, come, Jacques!” Mélanie repeated, dragging along her little companion.  44
  But he is overwhelmed by terror; his legs give way. He tries his utmost, but cannot stir, as if in a bad dream.  45
  Mother Chauvin catches up to them at the end of the yard, with a triumphant yell. Mélanie again places herself before the child.  46
  “Don’t touch my boy, Mother Chauvin!”  47
  “Wicked girl! it’s you that drew away the rope from the falling tree, long ago, to make my husband fall! I have found you at last. I insist on your giving me back my mitten.”  48
  “O God!” cried Mélanie: “what will become of us?”  49
  The old woman had lost all trace of humanity. She held her crutch with her two hands,—the crutch was pointed, made out of a thorn hardened in the fire,—and waved it to and fro.  50
  “Will you give it me back?”  51
  She burst into hysterical laughter; and while Mélanie, moving backward, was looking on all sides for help, Mother Chauvin struck her a violent blow on the chest. She gave a deep sigh and fell like a shot.  52
  The madwoman, forgetting the Little Parisian, sat down on the heath, singing:—
  “My sweetest friend has begged of me
My breast-knot ribbon white and fair.”
  53
  Jean Renaud was kept by Besnardeau at the top of his tree till after three o’clock. He had left his old friend in a state which caused him great anxiety. He hastily unbuckled his cramp-hooks and carried his things into a shelter, as snow was beginning to fall. Some workmen from another felling-place were warming themselves on their way.  54
  “Yonder’s a dreadful business,” said one. “She almost crushed her with the blow.”  55
  “Though she’s old, her arms are strong; and then your mad folks are stronger than such as we,” added another.  56
  The climber, although he did not know what they were talking about, shuddered. He was not in the habit of gossiping, but he could not refrain from questioning them.  57
  “Who are you talking about, pray?”  58
  “Don’t you know? Mother Chauvin’s gone crazy.”  59
  “She has as good as killed Mélanie. The gendarmes have come,—the chief one, along with the new one who is pitted with small-pox: she’s going to be shut up in the asylum, they say.”  60
  “It’s a great pity. The girl was a brave one, and not vicious at all. Nassiquet the widower was thinking of marrying her.”  61
  Renaud had already set out, hoping that there might be some mistake. He kept on saying to himself, “No, no: it’s impossible.” His head was on fire; he could hear his heart beating. The snow was falling in heaps and blinding him. Against his habit he turned into the path. He beheld a sad sight in the road below. Mother Chauvin was seated in an open cart between two gendarmes, one of whom held her wrists on either side. Wrapped in the black cloak, with a hood which is called a capot and worn by all old peasant women, she was rocking backward and forward with the movement of the vehicle, her mouth contracted by a hideous grimace. A villager in heavy nailed boots led the pony by the bridle.  62
  Renaud gave a piercing cry on seeing the old friend who had loved him when first he became an orphan. Oh, the way in which she looked back at the trees was not like a madwoman, for she seemed to be bidding adieu to the forest; and the cabin up there would soon be smothered in briers, never again to be the home of the poor, good old woman.  63
  “Stop, stop!” he exclaimed: “I want to speak to her. I am sure she’ll know my voice. I want to ask her to forgive me, for her misfortunes are partly my fault. Mother Chauvin, my Mother Chauvin!”  64
  She looked at him with a glassy eye, and without moving a muscle, she said in a solemn voice:—  65
  “It seems that the people are bewitched here!”  66
  Her head fell heavily on her breast; prostration was setting in.  67
  “Go on,” cried the gendarme.  68
  The driver pushed Renaud aside with his whip, and the cart went on softly through the snow.  69
  The climber let himself fall on the bank. Within him all was dark—all was over. No one in his own home—no grandfather—no Mother Chauvin. He was alone in the world; no one would smile on him or call him by his name again. Work as hard as he would, there was no one to give his earnings to. In the long evenings he would have no one moving on the other side of the fire. The owls are happier than he would be, for they have their nests; and when one hoots in the dark there is another to answer him. No doubt he still had his dear forest and its soft breezes, the sweet honeysuckles and green pine-trees; but a forester who goes home and finds no human creature is forlorn and pitiable.  70
  Renaud, in despair, thought of his lost friends, and longed to die. It was getting late.  71
  “To-morrow,” he said, “I will let go the rope, like Father Chauvin.”  72
  At this moment he heard the faint sound of a bell at regular intervals. A boy in a surplice was ringing it, preceding an old priest who was hurrying along the path, dressed in full canonicals, and carrying, with both hands pressed against his chest, the holy sacrament, the cup covered by a square fringed cloth. They wended silently along the lonely path, their forms looking shadowy as seen through the soft-falling snow, on which no footstep was heard. Now and then they stumbled over a hidden stone; but the priest continued on his way, squaring his elbows to protect his charge.  73
  The acolyte entered the forest. Renaud removed his cap.  74
  “Where are you taking the sacrament?”  75
  The boy rang his bell, and whispered:—  76
  “To Mélanie.”  77
  “Ah,” sighed the poacher, “I sent her to her death. Poor girl! I must at least bid her good-by.”  78
  He followed the priest who was bearing the last consolation to the dying woman through the dark night….  79
  Numbers of people had found their way into the yard. This always happens in the forest. At the slightest disturbance, and on the most deserted spot, a crowd collects. Whence they come and how the rumor reaches them, it is impossible to say. No doubt the sonorous echoes in the forest and the sagacity of its inhabitants are the real causes.—They were watching the priest vanishing through the snow, and talking together.  80
  “Here’s a funeral won’t be worth much to the parson.”  81
  “She had a brother who’s at work somewhere. Will he be her heir?”  82
  “Ah, she was like me: she had only her bits of furniture, not worth paying duty on.”  83
  In the cottage the mother, with the ghastly eagerness of her class, had taken possession of the body to lay it out.  84
  “It’s a great loss,” said the father with a sigh. “Poor girl!”  85
  The Little Parisian was sobbing.  86
  “Will that boy ever let us have any peace?” said the father.  87
  After a pause he continued:—  88
  “We must decide at once what to do with the bastard.”  89
  “I shall soon have done here. Do you mean to feed him?”  90
  The forester gave them a look of extreme astonishment.  91
  “Feed him? one must be able to. One poor girl brought him up with her own money: that was her affair. But I am growing old; my work is too much for me already. It’s too much to be expected to bring up other folks’ brats.”  92
  The mother replied in a low but bitter tone:—  93
  “Well, then, it’s best to decide at once. When you go to register the death, take this brat to the maire. He’ll make his usher write to Paris.”  94
  “Is it possible that you mean to forsake your girl’s adopted child?” protested Renaud.  95
  “What right have you to meddle?” said the man; and the old woman grumbled between her teeth, “Prison leavings!”  96
  The climber drew the Little Parisian out of the cabin. For a minute Jean walked on without speaking. The Little Parisian sank down, stupefied, on a stone. Night had come; there was nothing to be seen but the snow, covering the ground like a shroud; a leaden sky overhead. Renaud meditated. This poor little shivering creature was alone in the world like himself,—a bastard without shelter, together with a despised poacher! Mélanie had loved him; now he was to be turned out of the forest—to be taken before a lot of clerks with their pens behind their ears. He was so pretty—a darling—like Jean’s little brother! Would he even have anything to eat next day? Poor, sad, deserted child! you have the same fate as Renaud; the deserted Renaud is your only friend.  97
  “Isn’t your name Jacques?” he asked at length.  98
  “Yes, Jean, but they always call me the Little Parisian.”  99
  “Well then, Jacques, as they have sent you away from here, will you come to me in my home?”  100
  The child opened great, wondering eyes.  101
  “What for?”  102
  “To be my brother. I will do my best for you. We’ll talk about your ’Lanie. I’ll make you a good fire. And in summer we’ll go ever so far into the woods to gather raspberries.”  103
  “That I will,” the boy replied; “but if my ’Lanie wakes up again I’ll come back.”  104
  Jean made only one bound to the door. “Good people, don’t bother about the Little Parisian,—I’m taking him off with me.” He carried him away in his arms; the falling snow lulled the child to sleep.  105
 
 
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