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With a Chronology of Her Life and Work
By George Sand, George Burnham Ives
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1977 Academy Chicago Publishers
All rights reserved.
In the southeastern part of Berri there is a peculiarly picturesque bit of country some three or four leagues in extent. As the highroad from Paris to Clermont, which passes through it, is thickly settled on both sides, it is difficult for the traveller to suspect the beauty of the country near at hand. But he who, seeking shade and silence, should turn aside into one of the winding roads, enclosed between high banks, which branch off from the main highway at every moment, would soon see before him a cool and tranquil landscape, fields of a delicate green, melancholy streamlets, clumps of alders and ash trees — a delicious pastoral scene. In vain would he seek within a radius of several leagues a house built of stone or with a slated roof. At rare intervals a tiny thread of blue smoke, rising slowly above the foliage, would announce that a thatched roof was near at hand; and if he should spy above the walnut trees on the hill the weather vane of a little church, a few steps farther on he would come upon a bell-tower sheathed in moss-covered tiles, a dozen scattered cottages surrounded by their orchards and their hemp-fields, a brook with its bridge formed of three pieces of timber, a cemetery a few rods square, enclosed by a quick-set hedge, five elms arranged in a quincunx and a ruined tower. This is what is called in the province a bourg.
There is nothing like the absolute repose of those unknown regions. Luxury has not found its way thither, nor the arts, nor the mania for scientific investigation, nor the hundred-armed monster called industry. Revolutions are hardly perceptible there, and the last war of which the soil retains a barely perceptible trace is that between Huguenots and Catholics; and, even of that, the tradition is so uncertain and so faint that if you should question the natives, they would reply that those things took place at least two thousand years ago; for the principal virtue of that race of tillers of the soil is heedlessness in the matter of antiquities. You can travel all over their domains, pray before their saints, drink from their wells, without ever running the risk of having to listen to the usual feudal chronicles or the indispensable miraculous legend. The grave and silent disposition of the peasant is not one of the least potent attractions of that region. Nothing surprises him, nothing attracts him. Your chance presence in his pathway will not even make him turn his head, and, if you ask him to direct you to a town or a farm, his sole response will be a condescending smile, as if to prove to you that he is not deceived by your pleasantry. The peasant of Berri cannot understand how a man can walk without knowing where he is going. His dog will hardly deign to bark after you; his children will hide behind the hedge to evade your eyes or your questions, and the smallest of them, if he has not been able to follow his brothers in their flight, will throw himself into the ditch from fright, shrieking with all his strength. But the most impassive countenance will be that of a great white ox, the inevitable dean of every pasture, who, staring fixedly at you from among the bushes, will seem to hold in check the less solemn and less kindly disposed family of frightened bulls.
Aside from this initial coldness to the overtures of the stranger, the husbandman of that region is pleasant and hospitable, like his peaceful glades, like his aromatic meadows.
A particular tract of land between two small streams is especially remarkable for the healthy dark hues of its vegetation, which have caused it to be called the Black Valley. It is peopled only by scattered cottages and a few farms which yield a good revenue. The farm called Grangeneuve is of considerable size, but in the simplicity of its aspect there is nothing at variance with that of its surroundings. An avenue of maples leads to the house, and at the foot of the rustic buildings the Indre, in that place nothing more than a babbling brook, flows peacefully among the rushes and yellow irises of the meadow.
The first of May is a day of excitement and merrymaking for the people of the Black Valley. At its farther end, about two leagues from its centre, where Grangeneuve is situated, there is held one of those rustic fêtes which in every province bring together all the people of the neighborhood, from the sub-prefect of the department to the pretty grisette who has plaited that functionary's shirt-frill on the preceding day; from the noble châtelaine to the little shepherd — pâtour is the local word — who pastures his goat and his sheep at the expense of the seignioral hedges. They all come to eat and dance on the grass, with more or less appetite, more or less enjoyment; they all exhibit themselves in calèches or on donkey-back, in caps or Italian straw hats, in clogs of poplar-wood or slippers of Turkish satin, in silk dresses or drugget skirts. It is a red-letter day for the pretty girls, a day of retribution for beauty, when the somewhat problematical charms of the salons are summoned forth into the bright sunlight, to compete with the vigorous health and blooming youth of the village maidens; when the masculine areopagus is made up of judges of all ranks, and the contending parties are brought face to face, amid the dust and under the blaze of keen glances, while the violins are playing. Many righteous triumphs, many well-merited reparations, many long contested judgments, make the day of the fête champêtre memorable in the annals of coquetry; and the first of May was, in the Black Valley as elsewhere, a great subject of secret rivalry between the peasant women in their Sunday clothes and the ladies of the neighboring town.
But it was at Grangeneuve that the most formidable arsenal of these artless fascinations was prepared for use early in the morning. It was in a large, low room, lighted by small-paned windows; the walls were covered with a gaudy-hued paper, which clashed with the blackened beams of the ceiling, the solid oak doors, and the common clothes-press. In that imperfectly decorated apartment, where the classic rusticity of its primitive condition was emphasized by some handsome modern furniture, a lovely girl of sixteen stood before the scalloped gilt frame of an old mirror which seemed to lean forward to admire her, giving the last touches to a costume more gorgeous than refined. But Athénaïs, the honest farmer's only heir, was so youthful, so rosy, so delicious to look upon, that she seemed graceful and natural even in her borrowed finery. While she arranged the folds of her tulle dress, madame her mother was stooping in front of the door, with her sleeves rolled up to the elbow, preparing in a huge kettle some sort of a compound of bran and water, about which a demi-brigade of ducks stood in good order, in an ecstasy of anticipation. A bright and joyous sunbeam entered through the open door, and fell upon the gayly bedecked maiden, rosy-cheeked and dainty, so different from her buxom, sunburned, homespun-clad mother.
At the other end of the room, a young man dressed in black sat carelessly on a couch and gazed at Athénaïs without speaking. But his features did not express that effusive, childish delight which every one of the girl's movements betrayed. At times indeed a faint expression of irony and compassion seemed to raise the corners of his large, thin-lipped, mobile mouth.
Monsieur Lhéry, or Père Lhéry, as he was still called from habit by the peasants whose companion and equal he had been for many years, was placidly warming his white-stockinged shins at the fire of fagots which burned on the hearth at all seasons, as the custom is in the country. He was a most worthy man, still hale and hearty, and he wore striped short-clothes, a flowered waistcoat, a long coat and a queue. The queue is a priceless vestige of the past, which is rapidly vanishing on French soil. Berri having suffered less than any other province from the inroads of civilization, that style of head-dress still prevails there among a few loyal adherents in the class of half-bourgeois, half-rustic farmers. In their youth it was the first step toward aristocratic habits, and they would consider that they were going backward to-day, if they should deprive their heads of that social distinction. Monsieur Lhéry had protected his against the satirical assaults of his daughter, and it was perhaps the only subject upon which Athénaïs's doting father had refused to accede to her wishes during her whole life.
"Come, come, mamma!" said Athénaïs, fastening the golden clasp of her black belt, "haven't you finished feeding your ducks? Aren't you dressed yet? Why, we shall never get started!"
"Patience, patience, my girl!" said Mère Lhéry, distributing the food among her fowls with noble impartiality; "I shall have all the time I need to fix myself while they're hitching Mignon to the wagon. Ah! bless my soul, my child, I don't need all the time you do! I am no longer young; and when I was, I didn't have the time nor the means to make myself pretty as you do. I didn't spend two hours over my dressing, I tell you!" "Are you reproaching me now?" said Athénaïs with a pout.
"No, my girl, no," replied the old woman. "Enjoy yourself, make yourself fine, my child; you are rich, make the most of your father and mother's hard work. We are too old to enjoy it now. And then, when you've got into the habit of being poor, you can't get out of it. I might have servants to wait on me for my money, but it's impossible; the old habit is too strong for me, and I must do everything in the house with my own hands. But you play the great lady, my girl; you were brought up for that; it's what your father intended; you're not made for any ploughboy, and the husband you get will be glad enough to find you with white hands, eh?"
As Madame Lhéry finished wiping her kettle and delivering this affectionate rather than sensible harangue, she made a grimace at the young man by way of a smile. He pretended not to notice it, and Père Lhéry, who was gazing at his shoe buckles in the state of vacuous stupidity so sweet to the peasant in his hours of repose, lifted his half-closed eyes to his future son-in-law, as if to share his satisfaction. But the future son-in-law in order to escape those mute attentions, rose, changed his seat, and finally said to Madame Lhéry:
"Shall I go to get the carriage ready, aunt?"
"Go, my boy, go if you will. I shan't keep you waiting."
The nephew was about to leave the room when a fifth person entered, who, in manner and in costume, presented a striking contrast to the occupants of the farmhouse.CHAPTER 2
She was a small, slender woman, who seemed, at first glance, to be about twenty-five years of age; but, upon a closer view, one might credit her with thirty years and not be too liberal to her. Her slight and well proportioned figure still had the grace of youth; but her face, which was both distinguished and pretty, bore the marks of grief, which is even more blasting in its effects than the lapse of years. Her careless attire, her undressed hair, her tranquil manner, were sufficiently indicative of her purpose not to attend the fête. But, in the diminutive size of her slipper, in the modest and graceful arrangement of her gray dress, in the whiteness of her neck, in her firm and elastic step, there was more genuine aristocracy than in all Athénaïs's finery. And yet this imposing personage, at whose entrance all the others rose respectfully, bore no other name among her hosts at the farm than that of Mademoiselle Louise.
She offered her hand affectionately to Madame Lhéry, kissed her daughter on the forehead, and bestowed a friendly smile on the young man.
"Well," said Père Lhéry, "have you had a nice long walk this morning, my dear young lady?"
"Guess where I really dared to go?" replied Mademoiselle Louise, seating herself familiarly beside him.
"Not to the château, I hope?" said the nephew, hastily.
"To the château, just so, Bénédict," she replied.
"How imprudent!" exclaimed Athénaïs, suspending for a moment the operation of crimping her curly locks, and curiously drawing near.
"Why so?" rejoined Louise; "didn't you tell me that all the servants had been changed except poor nurse? And she certainly would not have betrayed me if I had happened to meet her."
"But you might have met madame."
"At six o'clock In the morning? Madame stays in bed until noon."
"So you rose before dawn, did you?" said Bénédict. "Indeed, I thought that I heard you open the garden door."
"But there's mademoiselle!" exclaimed Madame Lhéry; "they say she's a very early riser, and very active. Suppose you had met her?"
"Ah! if I only could!" said Louise, excitedly; "I shall have no rest till I have seen her face, and heard the sound of her voice. You know her, Athénaïs; do tell me again that she is pretty and sweet and resembles her father!"
"There is someone here whom she resembles much more," replied Athénaïs, looking at Louise; "which is as much as to say that she is sweet and pretty."
Bénédict's face brightened and his eyes rested kindly on his fiancée.
"But listen," said Athénaïs to Louise, "if you're so anxious to see Mademoiselle Valentine, you should come to the fête with us; you can keep out of sight in Cousin Simonne's house on the square, and from there you will certainly see the ladies, for Mademoiselle Valentine assured me they would come."
"That is impossible, my dear love," Louise replied; "I could not alight from the carriage without being recognized or suspected. Besides, there is only one person in that family whom I want to see; the presence of the, others would spoil the pleasure I anticipate in seeing her. But we have talked enough about my plans; let us talk of yours, Athénaïs. I should judge that you propose to crush the whole province by such a display of bloom and beauty!"
The young farmer-maid blushed with delight and kissed Louise with a warmth which demonstrated clearly enough the artless satisfaction she felt in being admired.
"I am going to get my hat," she said; "you'll help me to put it on, won't you?"
And she hurriedly ascended the wooden staircase leading to her chamber.
Meanwhile Mère Lhéry left the room by another door to go to change her dress; her husband took a pitchfork and went to give his instructions for the day to the herdsman.
Thereupon Bénédict, being left alone with Louise, drew closer to her and said in a low tone :
"You spoil Athénaïs like all the rest. You are the only one who has any right to talk to her, and you do not condescend to do it."
"Why, what cause of reproach have you against the poor child?" said Louise, in amazement. "O Bénédict, you are very hard to suit!"
"That is what everybody tells me, even you, mademoiselle, who are so well able to understand what I suffer from this young woman's character and absurdities!"
"Absurdities?" repeated Louise. "Can it be that you are not in love with her?"
Bénédict did not answer, but after a moment of silent embarrassment, he said:
"You must agree that her costume is extravagant today. The idea of dancing in the sun and dust in a ball dress, satin slippers, a cashmere shawl and feathers! Not only is such finery out of place, but I consider it in execrable taste. At her age, a young woman ought to think first of simplicity and to know how to embellish herself at small expense."
"Is it Athénaïs's fault if she has been brought up so? How much you make of trifles! Give your attention rather to pleasing her and obtaining supreme influence over her mind and heart; then you may be sure that your wishes will be laws to her. But you think only of thwarting her and contradicting her, and she so petted, so like a queen in her family! Remember how kind and how sensitive her heart is."
Excerpted from Valentine by George Sand, George Burnham Ives. Copyright © 1977 Academy Chicago Publishers. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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