The Flail of Time
THE June air was flooding through open window and door in a high tide of rapture ; birds rioted and frolicked in excess of joy ; butterflies hovered above their storehouses of nectar, and bees harvested royally. Work of any kind seemed sacrilegious on such a morning. Tacitly agreeing to take a holiday, we wandered into the garden, where lilies and roses and flowers-de-luce sang midsummer hymns of praise, — the roses above and beyond all : heavy-headed yellow ones, clinging to a mouldering wall; regal la Frances; and clustering white brides that clambered up a corner of the house, wreathing about a casement window. We passed out by the little wicket beneath the heaven-pointing poplar into the road which bounds the garden. On its other side a wheat field was waving, and we lingered to watch the bearded grain sway to the touch of the wind.
Then we crossed the highway and plunged into the river lane, the dogs capering ahead of us. In the shade of some spreading beeches we sat down on the short dry turf. Women were washing their clothes in the river at a little distance, and the sound of laughter came to us, pleasantly softened, mingling with the blows of their flat wooden pallets. As the Norman peasant inevitably brings up memories of Millet, so does the more prosperous, large-limbed Touraine peasant speak of Jules Breton. Some hint of the laughter - loving south has crept into this land of vineyards, and there is a gentle comradeship in its inhabitants unlike the austerity one finds further north. These people are children, for the most part; rather incredulous children, to be sure, but quite unsophisticated, so that there is a pathos in the situation when one considers the ever encroaching march of what we call civilization.
We sat there by the river, idly throwing pebbles into the stream and drinking in the fullness of beauty about us. The faint violet mist that crept over even the middle distance had a glamour in its vague suggestiveness, and lent color to every object. The trunks of the poplars were a dull amethyst crusted with golden moss, and the cluster of cottages on the opposite bank was softened into a work of art. There was no sharp outline ; one delicious tint melted into another in the lazy air. So our very talk came lazily, interspersed with contented silences.
“ Sometimes you get a Millet here,— look at that old woman,” said one among us, and turning we saw a peasant bending beneath a huge bag of herbs and weeds. She did not see us, and as she drew near groaned, shifted her burden from her back, let it fall to the ground, and then stiffly seated herself on a little mound.
“ Eh, bon jour, Mère Robin,” I said, recognizing her. I had not seen her for a long time, although she lives not far from us, and I was sorry to notice how changed she was. A year or two ago she was a handsome creature, in spite of the wrinkles carved on her statuesque features by age, sorrows, and hard work ; her head was held high, her cheeks had a warm glow, her eyes shone and sparkled, and her teeth gleamed white when her lips parted in a ready smile. On this morning she sat bent and weary, and at first no flash of welcome came into her gray face. Some curious association brought to my mind an evening when I stood without a cathedral. A service was going on, and the rich harmonies of the pealing organ blending with the priests’ singing came clearly to me, while the brilliant lights shone through the windows which gleamed like jewels. A louder burst that rose through the brown dusk of the winter twilight brought the music to an end. The handful of worshipers filed out, and the sacristan extinguished the lights. In a moment all the glowing jewels became dead glass: there was nothing behind them. Poor old Mère Robin ! Had her joylamps gone out ?
We drew near, and one of us said with kindly meaning: “ Your bundle is too heavy for you ; leave it here, and I will send some one to carry it for you.”
She brightened up somewhat, and there was a memory of her old spirit as she replied : “ M’sieu’ is too kind ! But I can’t be making all the gossips jealous of me, as they would be should m’sieu’ have my rabbits’ dinner taken home to them. It is not the bundle that is heavy, but the heart — and the back is old,” she ended piteously.
“ Your pretty granddaughter should carry it for you,” I insisted, “ or your jolly grandson. By the way, it’s many a day since I have heard him whistling in the lane,” I added.
“ He is serving his three years,” she replied tersely.
“ And Jeannette ? ”
She shook her head.
I sat by her side in silence. I saw the others rise, and heard the dogs’ eager reply to a whistle summoning them ; but I waved my hand in token that I would join them later, and waited. At last the old woman spoke : —
“ Yes, Marc is taken from me, as his father was twenty-five years ago. If I were the boy’s mother, they would leave him to provide for me ; but I am only his grandmother, so off he goes, — fine uniform, a gun to shoulder, and the town life to teach him how we poor folk live out of the world. Ah ! they talk to us about kings and emperors and republics ! But what do we care about all those things ? We want a kind curé, a good harvest, and our children to close our eyes at the last. Not much, is it, madame ? Yet they don’t give us even that.”
“ The enforced service comes hard on every one,” I answered.
“ Yes,” she rejoined, “ but hardest on the poor. Marc is a good boy, — a good boy. So was his father. Oh, they are so alike that sometimes when the lad is whistling among the vines and the sun shines straight, dazzling me, I forget the years between, and I put up my hand to shade my old eyes, thinking my husband must be somewhere near by. Then it all comes back to me. Marc’s father and my husband are in their graves — and now I have lost them all.”
“ But surely Jeannette ” —
The old face grew stern. “ I can say no harm of the girl when I recollect her mother. I understand that she is not only my granddaughter, but has other blood in her. I want to be just, but pardie ! Justice is easy when we love ; when we don’t — ah ! ”
She seemed to be wondering whether to open her heart or not, and I remained very still, my sympathies flowing silently toward her. In a moment she took up the thread of her memories: —
“ It is like this, madame. My own son did not fight against the Prussians, being only nineteen, but he was conscripted soon after, and went away just as Marc has gone. A handsome boy, madame, like me ; his father was stout and light, but our Jean had my dark eyes and straight legs. While he was away those weary three years, we old ones used to talk only about him. We saved a little every month, and we planned how he should come back and take care of us when we were too feeble to work, and we chose a nice wife for him, — a good girl, not too ugly. Ah, la la! She married the rich farmer on the upland afterward. Well, the last part of the time came; Jean was to get home in August, and we thought how he would help with the vintage. It was a fine hot summer; the grapes were splendid. Every time my old man and I looked at them we would laugh and say, Jean will press out the wine, and we will put by a pièce (madame understands? A barrel, then), — half for his wedding, half for his first baby’s christening. We had a good grain crop that year, too, and there was a quantity to thresh. There were no new-fangled machines to drum the ears out of you, in those days, but all was done by hand. My husband hired two lads to help him in our barn, and he would tire out first one and then the other before he gave way. I was getting dinner for the three ; it was a terrible hot day, and the sound of the flails somehow got into my head. I was n’t well that year ; it seemed too good to be true that my boy was coming home to me. I could n’t sleep nights, and, God forgive me, I spoke sharp and ugly-like to my old man at times. He never answered me as I deserved. He would only look at me as my poor Coco does sometimes when I jerk his bridle, his eyes pained-like, and go quiet out of the house. Well, this day, flip-flop, flip-flop, went the flails, hour after hour ; the court was full of dust, and it sifted in and made me impatient. The fire burned into my brain, I thought. I flung out to get a breath of air, with an impatient word on my lips. ‘ I would like never to hear that flail fall again,’ I said, and like a miracle the sound stopped ; then came a sort of thud and a rush inside the barn. I went to see what it was, and there— Oh, my God ! I see him now ! My old man, my Jean’s father, fallen in the chaff. The lads were trying to pick him up, but he was too heavy for them. I ran to him, undid his collar, and sent them for the doctor. It was no use. ' An apoplexy,’ they said, and he died twenty hours later.”
“ Poor Mère Robin ! ” I murmured.
She smiled a little, and resumed more briskly : “ At any rate, it was not a costly sickness ; the doctor only came twice, and there was no apothecary’s bill. My sister-in-law had to pay nearly three hundred francs for her husband’s last illness ; but he was a lingering, putting-off sort of creature. My man was prompt and ready ; living and dying he never kept me waiting, and not many wives can say that.”
“No, indeed,” I assented cordially ; adding, “ Did your son come home then ? ”
“ Yes, but he did n’t seem the same. He was handsomer than ever, but masterful, almost like a gentleman in his ways. He frightened me. He did n’t take on about his father, as I had expected. I suppose the three years away had helped him to forget a good deal. But I 'd have minded nothing if he had n’t got him a wife. Of course I could have refused my consent and made him put off his marriage; but he could get his way in the end, especially as I had nothing against her but that she was town-bred. So I said yes, contrary to my heart. There were only hired hands at our vintage, for Jean went off and stayed a fortnight. Her people had no land nor nothing, and they had their wedding in an inn. I would not go. I worked that day like any other, and when the night came I got the graveyard key from the sacristan, and went and sat by my man’s grave. I thought of the pièce of wine we had made plans over, and I cried, — ah, madame, I cried my heart out.”
“ Did you never grow to like your daughter-in-law ? ”
“ Ah pardie ! What would you have ? Jean was mad about her, and there was no harm in the girl. She brought no money, and all her idea was to dress herself, and later the children. She never wore a cap, but a hat like a lady’s, and she had a sewing machine. I am not patient with noises, madame ; every new thing sent by the devil to disturb the world is noisy, — except the worst of all, the bicycle. Bad for men are they, but for women destruction! Well, my daughter-in-law would have gone whirling over the country on one of these cursed wheels, if there had been any ; as it was, she only sat whir-whir-whirring away at her frills and furbelows. Jean said at first that the house was too small for us ; that he meant to build an addition for his wife and give me a servant. But it was all her fault, and the army’s too. He ’d lost the taste for the land ; he sold fields his father and I had bought bit by bit, he took to going to the café every night to play billiards, and then the poor boy — Oh well, well, it’s a sad tale altogether. Enough that when Marc was twelve and Jeannette eight they were orphans, with only me to look to. That is nine years ago, and I did my very best. Marc was a good boy to his grandam, and Jeannette as neat and handy about the house as you would ask.”
“ Besides being the prettiest girl in the commune,” I put in, thinking to please the old woman ; but she thrust out her lower lip.
“ Every one according to his taste,” she said. “ For me she is too pale and slim. Give me a good buxom lass with red cheeks.”
“ But you had an easy time during those years, did n’t you, ma mère ? ” I asked.
“ Yes, madame, as far as affection and home comfort go, easy enough. I made my little economies ; the children helped, and it did not take much to dress and feed them. I never had enough to buy back any of the land that was sold, but I kept out of debt. Coco has been a heap of use to me ; I got him six years ago, and paid on the spot. At first I was shaken, now with one thing, now with another. Everything new scared me. The drum of the threshing machine used to get into my ears like a big bee ; the scream of the locomotives from across the river ; the weary click of Jeannette’s sewing machine; even — madame will laugh—but even the wind singing in the telegraph wires used to torment me. I dreamt that all these steel things were the devil’s work, and were sent to crush out us poor peasants. I imagined the earth cried and bled when a steam plough was sent to dig it up, and even now I cannot drink wine pressed out in the new ways. No, I keep to the honest sabots of the village lads. Let them tread out the good wine; it is honest then. Well, well, madame may think me a little crazed about all these things; perhaps I am, but they have brought all my woes. First the conscription stole my son and grandson ; then the little needle that the devil makes work so fast that any girl, almost, may have her fineries stole my granddaughter. ”
“But Jeannette is doing well, is n’t she ? ”
“ Who can tell, who can tell ? ” she said sadly, shaking her head. “ The girl is in a shop in Tours. She is pretty. Tours is full of officers. She will be filled with nonsense and vanity. Her mother left her nothing but her own share of folly and some of her ruffled petticoats. Marc is not there to see after her; he is at Orleans. Ah me, ah me! ” She struggled to her feet, and, lifting up one thin arm, broke forth into a sort of prophetic chant. “ I see it coming ! It is the future, and it frightens me. We are simple folk, and the new things are too strong for us. The young are willing to hurry, hurry! They must write fast, travel fast, sew fast, plough, plant, and harvest fast. We have been content to go softly, but they must gallop. They are blind and can’t see the dangers; but I see them crushing down on us. It is only the rich and great who can escape ; we must go under, we weak ones.”
Solitude and grief had troubled the poor brain. I rose also.
“ Yes, my rabbits and Coco will be wondering where I am. It used to be the children who looked out for me, but now it’s only dumb beasts,” she said bitterly.
We walked silently to the highroad where our ways parted. She paused at the opening in the dike, and said : “ Hark! The wind is whispering an evil message over the wires. They only telegraph bad things.”
I listened, and heard the sad strains as of an Æolian harp above my head. The air was as full of fragrance and melody as an hour before, but it seemed to me that all the radiance had faded. I watched the poor bent figure as it moved slowly away, and I pondered on this result of the iron march of progress. Ah well ! some must submit, while others profit by it. A sudden whir of wheels, and a boy flashed by me on a bicycle. I recognized him as one of the telegraph office messengers, and felt an instinctive relief that he had passed me by. I sat in the garden until the rusty bell swinging against the north tower warned me that it was time to go in.
On my way through the shrubbery I met the farmer’s wife.
“ I am running to find Denis,” she panted. “The doctor is needed. Mère Robin got a message with bad news about her granddaughter, and has fallen like one dead.”
The wind had told the truth when it moaned along the wires.
Helen Choate Prince.