By Pierre Loti
Translated by Henri Pene du Bois
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.
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.—
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.
"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.
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?—"
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.
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!
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.
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.