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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
The Bretonne
By André Theuriet (1833–1907)
 
From ‘Stories of Every-day Life’

ONE November night, the eve of St. Catherine, the iron grating of the Auberive Central Prison turned on its hinges to release a woman about thirty years old. She was dressed in a faded woolen gown, and wore a white cap which made an odd frame for a face puffed and bleached by the prison régime. She was a prisoner whose sentence had just expired. Her fellow convicts called her “The Bretonne.” Just six years before, the prison wagon had brought her there condemned for infanticide. After having dressed herself again in her own clothes, and being paid her small savings at the office, she was once more free, with a passport marked for Langres.  1
  The mail had already started; so, frightened and awkward, she went stumblingly to the chief inn of the place, and in a hesitating voice requested a night’s lodging. The inn was full; and the landlady, who was not at all anxious to harbor a bird of this feather, advised her to try the little public-house at the other end of the village.  2
  The Bretonne, more and more dazed and awkward, went on her way, and knocked at the door of this inn, which was in truth hardly more than a tavern for laborers. This landlady too glanced her over distrustfully; and then, doubtless divining an ex-convict, sent her away on the pretext that she did not keep people over night. The Bretonne dared not insist, but went meekly with drooping head; while a sullen hate rose in her heart against the world which thus repulsed her. There was nothing to do but walk on to Langres. By the end of November, night falls early; and as she followed the gray road stretching between two rows of trees, with a rude north wind whistling in the branches, and scattering the dead leaves, she was soon enveloped in darkness.  3
  After six years of a confined and sedentary life she had almost forgotten how to walk. Her knee-joints felt as though they were bound; her feet, used to sabots, were uncomfortable in her new shoes. Before she had walked a league they were weary and blistered. She sat down on a stone and shivered, wondering if she must die of cold and hunger in the black night under the chilling wind. Suddenly along the quiet road, through the gusts of wind, she thought she heard the lingering sound of a voice singing. As she listened, she distinguished the cadences of one of the monotonous caressing little songs with which mothers rock their children. Rising, she walked in the direction from which it came; and reaching the turn of a cross-road, saw a light glowing through the branches.  4
  Five minutes later she reached a clay hut, with a roof covered with clods of earth, and with a single window from which beamed luminous rays. With a beating heart she made up her mind to knock. The song stopped at once, and a peasant woman came to the door. She was about the same age as the Bretonne, but worn and faded with hard work. Her torn jacket showed something of her rough tanned skin; her red hair escaped in disorder from her cloth cap. Her gray eyes gazed in surprise at this rather odd-looking stranger.  5
  “Well, good evening,” she said, holding up her lamp. “What is it?”  6
  “I can go no farther,” murmured the Bretonne with a stifled sob. “The town is so far away; and if you will only take me in for the night, I shall be very grateful. I shall be glad to pay for your trouble.”  7
  “Come in!” answered the other after a moment’s hesitation. Then she went on, in a voice that sounded inquisitive rather than suspicious, “Why didn’t you stay at Auberive?”  8
  “They wouldn’t keep me;” and drooping her blue eyes, the Bretonne, seized with a scruple, added: “You see I am just out of prison, and people are afraid.”  9
  “Ah! Come in just the same. I’m not at all afraid, as I’ve never had anything but my poverty. It would be a sin to shut the door on any Christian such a cold night. I’ll get some heather for your bed.”  10
  She brought some armfuls of heather from a shed, and spread them in a corner near the fire.  11
  “Do you live here all alone?” asked the Bretonne timidly.  12
  “Yes, with my youngster who is nearly seven. I get our living by working in the wood.”  13
  “So your husband is dead?”  14
  “I never had one,” said the woman brusquely. “My poor baby has no father. Never mind. Every one has his own troubles. Now there is your bed all ready for you, and here are two or three potatoes left from our supper. It’s all I can offer you.”  15
  She was interrupted by a childish voice from a dark little hole separated from the main room by a wooden partition.  16
  “Good-night,” she added. “I hope you’ll sleep well. I must go to my baby: she’s scared.”  17
  She took the lamp and went into the next room, leaving her guest in darkness. The Bretonne stretched herself out on the heather. She ate her potatoes and then tried to close her eyes, but sleep would not come to her. Through the thin partition she could hear the mother talking softly to the child, who had been waked by the stranger’s arrival and would not go to sleep again. The mother petted and kissed her, with simple caressing words which touched the Bretonne’s heart.  18
  This outbreak of tenderness stirred a confused maternal instinct in the heart of the girl, who had been sentenced for stifling her new-born baby. She remembered that her own child might have been just the age of this little girl. This thought, and the sound of the childish voice, made her shudder profoundly. A gentle sentiment melted her bitter heart, and she felt moved to weep.  19
  “Come, my pet,” said the mother. “If you are good, I will take you to the fair of St. Catherine to-morrow.”  20
  “St. Catherine is the little girls’ saint, isn’t she, mamma?”  21
  “Yes, little one.”  22
  “Does St. Catherine really bring playthings to children?”  23
  “Yes, sometimes.”  24
  “Why doesn’t she bring me some?”  25
  “We live too far off, and then we are too poor.”  26
  “Does she give them only to rich people? Why, mamma? I would like some playthings too.”  27
  “Well some day, if you are good—if you go to sleep like a good girl—perhaps she will bring you some.”  28
  “Then I’ll go to sleep right away, so that she’ll bring me some to-morrow.”  29
  Silence. Then light and even breathing. Both mother and child were slumbering. The Bretonne alone could not sleep. Her heart was wrung by a poignant yet tender emotion. She thought more and more of her dead little one. At dawn the mother and child were still fast asleep. The Bretonne slipped quietly out of the house, and walking quickly towards Auberive, did not pause until she reached the first houses. Then she went more slowly up the one street, reading the signs over the shops. At last one seemed to satisfy her, and she knocked on the blinds until she was admitted. It was a little haberdashery, where they had also some playthings,—poor shopworn paper dolls, Noah’s arks, and sheepfolds. To the merchant’s amazement, the Bretonne bought them all, and then went away. She was going back to the hut when she felt a hand on her shoulder; and turning in fear, saw a police officer. The poor thing had forgotten that convicts, after their release, were not allowed to remain in the neighborhood of the prison.  30
  “You ought to be at Langres by this time instead of vagabonding here,” said the officer severely. “Come, off with you.”  31
  She tried to explain, but he would not listen. In a twinkling a cart was obtained, she was forced to get in with a policeman as escort, and off they went.  32
  The cart jolted along the frozen road, and the poor Bretonne pressed her package of toys between her chilled fingers. They reached a turn in the road, and she recognized the footpath through the woods. Her heart leaped, and she implored the policeman to stop and let her deliver a message to a woman who lived, only two steps away. She pleaded so earnestly that the good-hearted fellow allowed himself to be persuaded. The horse was tied to a tree, and they went along the path to the hut. The woman was chopping kindling-wood in front of the door. At sight of her guest returning with a policeman, she stood stupefied, her arms hanging.  33
  “Hush!” said the Bretonne. “Is the little one still sleeping?”  34
  “Yes—but—”  35
  “Take these toys and put them softly on her bed. Tell her St. Catherine sent them. I went back to Auberive for them, but it seems I had no right, so they are taking me to Langres.”  36
  “Blessed Virgin!” cried the mother.  37
  “Hush!”  38
  They went in the house to the bed. The Bretonne’s escort kept close behind her while she set out on the coverlid the dolls, the ark, and the sheepfold. She kissed the bare little arm of the sleeping child. Then she turned to the policeman, who was rubbing his eyes:—  39
  “Now,” she said, “we can start.”  40
 
 
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