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The Devil's Pool by George Sand

Part 3 out of 3

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"Thank you, Germain," said the young wife in a serious tone and with
deep feeling. "I shall die with it, and if I die before you, you must
keep it for your little Solange."



They remounted their horses, and rode rapidly back to Belair. The
banquet was a sumptuous affair, and lasted, intermingled with dancing
and singing, until midnight. The old people did not leave the table for
fourteen hours. The grave-digger did the cooking, and did it very well.
He was renowned for that, and he left his ovens to come and dance and
sing between every two courses. And yet he was epileptic, was poor Pere
Bontemps. Who would have suspected it? He was as fresh and vigorous and
gay as a young man. One day we found him lying like a dead man in a
ditch, all distorted by his malady, just at nightfall. We carried him to
our house in a wheelbarrow, and passed the night taking care of him.
Three days later, he was at a wedding, singing like a thrush, leaping
like a kid, and frisking about in the old-fashioned way. On leaving a
marriage-feast, he would go and dig a grave and nail up a coffin. He
performed those duties devoutly, and although they seemed to have no
effect on his merry humor, he retained a melancholy impression which
hastened the return of his attacks. His wife, a paralytic, had not left
her chair for twenty years. His mother is a hundred and forty years old
and is still alive. But he, poor man, so jovial and kind-hearted and
amusing, was killed last year by falling from his loft to the pavement.
Doubtless he was suddenly attacked by his malady, and had hidden himself
in the hay, as he was accustomed to do, in order not to frighten and
distress his family. Thus ended, in a tragic way, a life as strange as
himself, a mixture of gloom and folly, of horror and hilarity, amid
which his heart remained always kind and his character lovable.

But we are coming to the third day of the wedding-feast, which is the
most interesting of all, and has been retained in full vigor down to our
own day. We will say nothing of the slice of toast that is carried to
the nuptial bed; that is an absurd custom which offends the modesty of
the bride, and tends to destroy that of the young girls who are present.
Moreover, I think that it is a custom which obtains in all the provinces
and has no peculiar features as practised among us.

[Illustration: Chapter IV (Appendix)

_He fell on his knees in the furrow through which he was about to run
his plough once more, and repeated the morning prayer with such emotion
that the tears rolled down his cheeks, still moist with perspiration_]

Just as the ceremony of the _livrees_ is the symbol of the taking
possession of the bride's heart and home, that of the _cabbage_ is the
symbol of the fruitfulness of the union. After breakfast on the day
following the marriage-ceremony, comes this strange performance, which
is of Gallic origin, but, as it passed through the hands of the
primitive Christians, gradually became a sort of _mystery_, or burlesque
morality-play of the Middle Ages.

Two youths--the merriest and most energetic of the party--disappear
during the breakfast, don their costumes, and return, escorted by the
musicians, dogs, children, and pistol-shots. They represent a couple of
beggars, husband and wife, covered with the vilest rags. The husband is
the dirtier of the two: it is vice that has degraded him; the woman is
unhappy simply and debased by her husband's evil ways.

They are called the _gardener_ and the _gardener's wife_, and claim to
be fitted to watch and cultivate the sacred cabbage. But the husband is
known by several appellations, all of which have a meaning. He is
called, indifferently, the _pailloux_,[7] because he wears a wig made of
straw or hemp, and, to hide his nakedness, which is ill protected by his
rags, he surrounds his legs and a part of his body with straw. He also
provides himself with a huge belly or a hump by stuffing straw or hay
under his blouse. The _peilloux_ because he is covered with _peille_
(rags). And, lastly, the _paien_ (heathen), which is the most
significant of all, because he is supposed, by his cynicism and his
debauched life, to represent in himself the antipodes of all the
Christian virtues.

He arrives with his face daubed with grease and wine lees, sometimes
swallowed up in a grotesque mask. A wretched, cracked earthen cup, or an
old wooden shoe, hanging by a string to his belt, he uses to ask alms in
the shape of wine. No one refuses him, and he pretends to drink, then
pours the wine on the ground by way of libation. At every step, he falls
and rolls in the mud; he pretends to be most disgustingly drunk. His
poor wife runs after him, picks him up, calls for help, tears out the
hempen hair that protrudes in stringy locks from beneath her soiled cap,
weeps over her husband's degradation, and reproaches him pathetically.

"You wretch!" she says, "see what your bad conduct has reduced us to!
It's no use for me to spin, to work for you, to mend your clothes! you
never stop tearing and soiling them. You have run through my little
property, our six children are in the gutter, we live in a stable with
the beasts; here we are reduced to asking alms, and you're so ugly, so
revolting, so despised, that soon they will toss bread to us as they do
to the dogs. Alas! my poor _mondes_ [people], take pity on us! take pity
on me! I don't deserve my fate, and no woman ever had a filthier, more
detestable husband. Help me to pick him up, or else the wagons will
crush him like an old broken bottle, and I shall be a widow, which would
kill me with grief, although everybody says it would be great good
fortune for me."

Such is the role of the gardener's wife and her constant lamentation
throughout the play. For it is a genuine, spontaneous, improvised
comedy, played in the open air, on the highways, among the fields,
seasoned by all the incidents that happen to occur; and in it everybody
takes a part, wedding-guests and outsiders, occupants of the houses and
passers-by, for three or four hours in the day, as we shall see. The
theme is always the same, but it is treated in an infinite variety of
ways, and therein we see the instinct of mimicry, the abundance of
grotesque ideas, the fluency, the quickness at repartee, and even the
natural eloquence of our peasants.

The part of the gardener's wife is ordinarily entrusted to a slender,
beardless man with a fresh complexion, who is able to give great
verisimilitude to the character he assumes and to represent burlesque
despair so naturally that the spectators may be amused and saddened at
the same time as by the genuine article. Such thin, beardless men are
not rare in our country districts, and, strangely enough, they are
sometimes the most remarkable for muscular strength.

After the wife's wretched plight is made evident, the younger
wedding-guests urge her to leave her sot of a husband and divert herself
with them. They offer her their arms and lead her away. Gradually she
yields, becomes animated, and runs about, now with one, now with
another, behaving in a scandalous way: a new moral lesson--the husband's
misconduct incites and causes misconduct on the part of his wife.

The _paien_ thereupon awakes from his drunken stupor; he looks about for
his companion, provides himself with a rope and a stick, and runs after
her. They lead him a long chase, they hide from him, they pass the woman
from one to another, they try to keep her amused, and to deceive her
jealous mate. His _friends_ try hard to intoxicate him. At last, he
overtakes his faithless spouse and attempts to beat her. The most
realistic, shrewdest touch in this parody of the miseries of conjugal
life, is that the jealous husband never attacks those who take his wife
away from him. He is very polite and prudent with them, he does not
choose to vent his wrath on any one but the guilty wife, because she is
supposed to be unable to resist him.

But just as he raises his stick and prepares his rope to bind the
culprit, all the men in the wedding-party interpose and throw themselves
between the two. _Don't strike her! never strike your wife_! is the
formula that is repeated to satiety in these scenes. They disarm the
husband, they force him to pardon his wife and embrace her, and soon he
pretends to love her more dearly than ever. He walks about arm-in-arm
with her, singing and dancing, until a fresh attack of intoxication
sends him headlong to the ground once more: and with that his wife's
lamentations recommence, her discouragement, her pretended misconduct,
the husband's jealousy, the intervention of the bystanders, and the
reconciliation. There is in all this an ingenuous, even commonplace,
lesson, which savors strongly of its origin in the Middle Ages, but
which always makes an impression, if not upon the bride and groom,--who
are too much in love and too sensible to-day to need it,--at all
events, upon the children and young girls and boys. The _paien_ so
terrifies and disgusts the girls, by running after them and pretending
to want to kiss them, that they fly from him with an emotion in which
there is nothing artificial. His besmeared face and his great
stick--perfectly harmless, by the way--makes the youngsters shriek with
fear. It is the comedy of manners in its most elementary but most
impressive state.

When this farce is well under way, they prepare to go in search of the
cabbage. They bring a hand-barrow, on which the _paien_ is placed, armed
with a spade, a rope, and a great basket. Four strong men carry him on
their shoulders. His wife follows him on foot, the _ancients_ come in a
group behind, with grave and pensive mien; then the wedding-party falls
in two by two, keeping time to the music. The pistol-shots begin again,
the dogs howl louder than ever at sight of the unclean _paien_, thus
borne in triumph. The children salute him derisively with wooden clogs
tied at the ends of strings.

But why this ovation to such a revolting personage? They are marching to
the conquest of the sacred cabbage, the emblem of matrimonial fecundity,
and this besotted drunkard is the only man who can put his hand upon
the symbolical plant. Therein, doubtless, is a mystery anterior to
Christianity, a mystery that reminds one of the festival of the
Saturnalia or some ancient Bacchanalian revel. Perhaps this _paien_, who
is at the same time the gardener _par excellence_, is nothing less than
Priapus in person, the god of gardens and debauchery,--a divinity
probably chaste and serious in his origin, however, like the mystery of
reproduction, but insensibly degraded by licentiousness of manners and
disordered ideas.

However that may be, the triumphal procession arrives at the bride's
house and marches into her garden. There they select the finest cabbage,
which is not quickly done, for the ancients hold a council and discuss
the matter at interminable length, each pleading for the cabbage which
seems to him the best adapted for the occasion. The question is put to a
vote, and when the choice is made, the _gardener_ fastens his rope
around the stalk and goes as far away as the size of the garden permits.
The gardener's wife looks out to see that the sacred vegetable is not
injured in its fall. The _Jesters_ of the wedding-party, the
hemp-beater, the grave-digger, the carpenter, or the cobbler,--in a
word, all those who do not work on the land, and who, as they pass
their lives in other people's houses, are reputed to have and do really
have more wit and a readier tongue than the simple agricultural
laborers,--take their places around the cabbage. One digs a trench with
the spade, so deep that you would say he was preparing to dig up an
oak-tree. Another puts on his nose a _drogue_, made of wood or
pasteboard, in imitation of a pair of spectacles: he performs the duties
of _engineer_, comes forward, walks away, prepares a plan, overlooks the
workmen, draws lines, plays the pedant, cries out that they are spoiling
the whole thing, orders the work to be abandoned and resumed according
to his fancy, and makes the performance as long and as absurd as he can.
Is this an addition to the former programme of the ceremony, in mockery
of theorists in general, for whom the ordinary peasant has the most
sovereign contempt, or in detestation of land-surveyors, who control the
register of lands and assess the taxes, or of the employees of the
Department of Roads and Bridges, who convert common lands into highways
and cause the suppression of time-worn abuses dear to the peasant heart?
Certain it is that this character in the comedy is called the
_geometrician_, and that he does his utmost to make himself unbearable
to those who handle the pick and shovel.

At last, after quarter of an hour of mummery and remonstrances, so that
the roots of the cabbage may not be cut and it can be transplanted
without injury, while spadefuls of earth are thrown into the faces of
the bystanders,--woe to him who does not step aside quickly enough;
though he were a bishop or a prince, he must receive the baptism of
earth,--the _paien_ pulls the rope, the _paienne_ holds her apron, and
the cabbage falls majestically amid the cheers of the spectators. Then
the basket is brought, and the pagan couple proceed to plant the cabbage
therein with all imaginable care and precautions. They pack it in fresh
soil, they prop it up with sticks and strings as city florists do their
superb potted camellias; they plant red apples stuck on twigs, branches
of thyme, sage, and laurel all about it; they deck the whole with
ribbons and streamers; they place the trophy on the hand-barrow with the
_paten_, who is expected to maintain its equilibrium and keep it from
accident, and at last they leave the garden in good order to the music
of a march.

But when they come to pass through the gate, and again when they try to
enter the bridegroom's yard, an imaginary obstacle bars the passage.
The bearers of the barrow stumble, utter loud exclamations, step back,
go forward again, and, as if they were driven back by an invisible
force, seem to succumb under the burden. Meanwhile, the rest of the
party laugh heartily and urge on and soothe the human team. "Softly!
softly, boy! Come, courage! Look out! Patience! Stoop! The gate is too
low! Close up, it's too narrow! a little to the left; now to the right!
Come, take heart, there you are!"

So it sometimes happens that, in years of abundant crops, the ox-cart,
laden beyond measure with fodder or grain, is too broad or too high to
enter the barndoor. And such exclamations are shouted at the powerful
cattle to restrain or excite them; and with skilful handling and
vigorous efforts the mountain of wealth is made to pass, without mishap,
beneath the rustic triumphal arch. Especially with the last load, called
the _gerbaude_, are these precautions required; for that is made the
occasion of a rustic festival, and the last sheaf gathered from the last
furrow is placed on top of the load, decorated with ribbons and flowers,
as are the heads of the oxen and the driver's goad. Thus the triumphal,
laborious entry of the cabbage into the house is an emblem of the
prosperity and fruitfulness it represents.

Arrived in the bridegroom's yard, the cabbage is taken to the highest
point of the house or the barn. If there is a chimney, a gable end, a
dove-cote higher than the other elevated portions, the burden must, at
any risk, be taken to that culminating point. The _paien_ accompanies it
thither, fixes it in place, and waters it from a huge jug of wine, while
a salvo of pistol-shots and the joyful contortions of the _paienne_
announce its inauguration.

The same ceremony is immediately repeated. Another cabbage is dug up in
the bridegroom's garden and borne with the same formalities to the roof
that his wife has abandoned to go with him. The trophies remain in place
until the rain and wind destroy the baskets and carry off the cabbages.
But they live long enough to offer some chance of fulfilment of the
prophecy that the old men and matrons utter as they salute them.
"Beautiful cabbage," they say, "live and flourish, so that our young
bride may have a fine little baby before the end of the year; for if you
die too quickly, it will be a sign of sterility, and you will be stuck
up there on top of the house like an evil omen."

The day is far advanced before all these performances are at an end. It
only remains to escort the husband and wife to the godfathers and
godmothers. When these putative parents live at a distance, they are
escorted by the musicians and all the wedding-party to the limits of the
parish. There, there is more dancing by the roadside, and they kiss the
bride and groom when they take leave of them. The _paien_ and his wife
are then washed and dressed in clean clothes, when they are not so
fatigued by their roles that they have had to take a nap.

They were still dancing and singing and eating at the farm-house at
Belair at midnight on the third day of the festivities attending
Germain's wedding. The old men were seated at the table, unable to leave
it, and for good reason. They did not recover their legs and their wits
until the next day at dawn. At that time, while they sought their homes,
in silence and with uncertain steps, Germain, proud and well-content,
went out to yoke his cattle, leaving his young wife to sleep until
sunrise. The lark, singing as he flew upward to the sky, seemed to him
to be the voice of his heart, giving thanks to Providence. The
hoar-frost, glistening on the bare bushes, seemed to him the white April
blossoms that precede the appearance of the leaves. All nature was
serene and smiling in his eyes. Little Pierre had laughed and jumped
about so much the day before, that he did not come to help him to drive
his oxen; but Germain was content to be alone. He fell on his knees in
the furrow through which he was about to run his plough once more, and
repeated the morning prayer with such emotion that the tears rolled down
his cheeks, still moist with perspiration.

In the distance could be heard the songs of the youths from the
adjoining parishes, just starting for home, and repeating, in voices
somewhat the worse for wear, the merry refrains of the preceding night.


[Footnote 1:

By the sweat of thy brow
Thou wilt earn thy poor livelihood;
After long travail and service,
Lo! _Death_ comes and calls thee.

[Footnote 2: The name applied to the road which turns aside from the
main street at the entrance to a village and runs along its outskirts.
It is supposed that people who fear that they may receive some merited
_affront_ will take that road to avoid being seen.--_Author's Note_.]

[Footnote 3:

Open the door, yes, open,
Marie, my darling,
I have beautiful gifts to offer you.
Alas! my dear, pray let us in.

[Footnote 4:

My father grieves, my mother's deathly sad,
And I am too pitiful a daughter
To open my door at such an hour.

[Footnote 5:

I have a fine handkerchief to offer you.

[Footnote 6:

Open the door, yes, open,
Marie, my darling,
'Tis a handsome husband who comes to seek you.
Come, my dear, and let us let them in.

[Footnote 7: Man of straw--from _paille_ (straw).]

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