THE parish priest of the village of St. Cirq-la-Popie was himself a St. Cirquois, the last member, on the mother’s side, of the family Dieudonné who had lived in the ‘House of the Tower,’ on the square called the Sombral, for six centuries. Soon after Monsieur le Curé took up his duties in his home village the enormous tower over his head, which hung at a giddy angle over the river Lot, swayed a moment in the hot sunshine one morning, while he was saying his prayers, split from the house with a shriek of stone, and fell with a murderous roar five hundred feet down into the valley below.
The tower was indeed a useless monument, having neither entrance nor exit known to its owner, so the young priest continued saying his beads, rose and had his gaping roof tiled over, mended the leering cracks in his whitewashed walls, satisfied that his humble house, shorn by God of its one distinction, was now better than ever suited to the reception of his poor, his penitents, and his lovers.
Monsieur le Curé was held in affection by all St. Cirquois, but especially by lovers. If a young fellow inherited his father’s mistresses and they began quarreling because he was young and handsome whereas the old fellow had been stupid and bald, Monsieur le Curé managed, if it was told him in time, to prevent Marie from being put to sleep in the manner of the Borgias; or if a boy and girl fell into honest love outside the arrangements of their parents, Monsieur le Curé, with his gentle tongue and beseeching eyes, — themselves made so obviously for love, — would induce the indignant elders to believe that this marriage was of all arrangements the most felicitous, the most advantageous, the most profitable. So that, from St. Cirq to Salvignac, distracted women with flying hair, incoherent strangers with savage eyes, and young girls with tremulous red lips were always toiling up the perilous ascent, prowling down from the wild Causse, negotiating the steep dark to the Curé’s study.
‘Why did he go into the Church? Tiens! Why did n’t he marry himself, Monsieur le Curé?’ cried Séraphine Soulinac. ‘If he knows so well how it should be done, té, why did n’t he marry?‘
Séraphine was furious with Monsieur le Curé because he had overpersuaded her to consent to a marriage between her natural daughter, Niquette, who was an unwanted child without a sou, and Régis Cabbissut, the son of that slut la Lorilleux, who did not have enough for a wedding ring.
‘You do not remember — you are too young,’ said Éloïse Garrigou, an old woman sitting in the sun, under a budding almond tree, in her dooryard; ‘but Jeannot Surtainville — Monsieur le Curé — was an only child, with two mothers, so what chance had he to marry like other men?’
‘Two mothers? How is that? Impossible!’ said la Séraphine.
‘Yes, it was so. He came out of the body of the Little Fool Diane, who was daft, that is true; but this Cénobie, the truffle hunter, who was barren herself, seized him while the birth down was still on him; and from then on until he was seven it was a fight to the death between the two of them. Cénobie, la Truffayri, she was demented for a child. She got him! She got him! She sweetened her tongue, she ran her viper’s tongue into the ear of the husband, Jeannot père, — who was stupid as a buzzard, — and little daft Diane was sent off, first to relatives and then to the nuns, and Cénobie la Truffayri crawled into the mother’s place in the House of the Tower and coiled herself around little Jeannot, running out her red tongue, stinging with her viper’s tongue anyone who put a hand on him.’
‘She was well named “the truffle hunter,”this Cénobie!‘ said la Seraphine.
‘She was that!’ said Éloïse. ‘And little Jeannot — Monsieur le Curé — he was the truffle! Little daft Diane was the little pig who dug him up, but the truffle hunter snatched him before the little pig could give him as much as a lick!’
‘There is no thief like the truffle hunter — everyone knows that,’ said la Séraphine.
‘But pécaire! That is not all!’ said Éloïse. ‘Diane was not such a fool as la Truffayri thought — no, no, no! Diane ate grass, it is true, like a hare, like a frightened hare; but she had had a child and she wanted him — té, she wanted him! And té, one day five years later she came wandering home, singing a little dallying song, picked out the little Jeannot from a crowd of children in the square, — her fair hair and his were a perfect match, — and took him by the hand to her own House of the Tower and began preparing the pot-au-feu for her husband, Jeannot père, the butcher, as though she had only been gone an hour. Cénobie came howling for the child, then, in the schoolyard, thinking him lost, and when she found him at home with his own mother returned, then, mon Dieu! it was a fight to the death between the two of them.
’Cénobie used to sit on the salt box in the chimney — the chimney Monsieur le Curé now uses as a prie-dieu — and Diane on the chaise longue in the corner.
‘“Here are honey drops,” Diane would say to little Jeannot. “This red one he flew into my pocket for my little Jeannot. He had gauze wings, this honey drop. Viens! viens! He will fly from the pocket of Maman into your mouth!”
‘Then, “Here is my wedding ring!” Cénobie would tempt. “You can learn to read from the letters on the inside of this ring. It is gold! See how bright it is — it is of the gold of Figeac, my little Jeannot. Come! Take the ring of M’man!”
‘“M’man!” he would cry, and run to Cénobie and twirl the gold wedding ring on her finger; and “Maman!” he would shriek, and put his head into Diane’s breast, which, though she was daft, was as soft as milk. When his own mother had him close, she would say, “The big tower over your head — Maman will give it to you when you are a man. It is strong, this tower; Maman knows the way into the tower, Jeannot, Jeannot, and the way out. No one else knows what Maman knows. Maman will give you this tower. Come! Come to Maman!”
‘"Maman!" he would shriek, and put his head into Diane’s breast, which, though she was daft, was as soft as milk; and “M’man!” he would cry, and run to Cenobie and twirl the gold wedding ring on her finger in the warmth of the fagots.
‘In the end Cénobie disappeared; they looked for her in the river, they looked for her under the Fall: one day she was hunting truffles, the next the truffles were rotting in the ground — no one ever saw as much as her shadow! And Jeannot grew up; and Diane died in the canopied bed eating a lettuce leaf like a wild hare; and the tower fell into the valley. But Jeannot no longer owned his own heart, which had been tossed back and forth for years between the two of them, like a truffle — so how could he give to any woman that which had never been his? Ça y est! C’est fait!’
Éloïse’s sense of things came from her stomach, huge as a hill, from her enormous breasts fallen with years. The stream of race knowledge, running secret, running hell-swift through her body, was currented into her enormous belly, made a pool in her spacious lungs, was breathed into the upper air through her tender, cunning, and faded mouth. ‘ Tiens! When a man has two mothers he becomes a priest. Monsieur le Curé marries Cyprien and Margoton, Calixte and Madelon, Émile and Huguette, Eugène and Pierrotte; and our little Niquette, he will marry her too, pecaire, to Regis without a Sou, without enough for the wedding ring. Ça y est! C’est fait! Then she will have the good pain!’
’Niquette! Where are you going?’ la Séraphine called out to her daughter, who, with her affianced lover Regis, crossed, just then, the pink light of the village square.
‘To gather snowdrops at Castan,’ the girl replied.
‘Folle! Do not go where the tower fell — it is unlucky!’ screamed her mother.
‘The ghost of the Little Fool Diane likes snowdrops too — you may meet her there!’ cried her great-aunt.
‘The wraith of Cénobie Dépradeux, la Truffayri, was seen among the blackberry and the ferns digging for truffles without any pig, looking under the stones for the little Jeannot!’ cried her mother.
‘Shut up, Old Ones!’ Régis flung over his shoulder in anger. ‘ We carry with us our own luck and our own pain.’ He put the girl in the crook of his arm and they began to laugh.
The path was steep and took them where they were alone. Niquette was a slender girl with a transparent skin, like the freshly opened petals of a flower. She wore a faded blue shift, made out of an old dress worn forty years before by a woman called ‘the Virgin’ whose finery had clothed the needy of the village for a quarter of a century. Niquette did not have a sou, but though she had no dot, not even a dress of her own, she was herself a natural snare. Her arms, sweet and firm, were a normal device for securing a man to her; her lips, soft and full and with a little pensive droop, were the medium of the most natural and delicious laughter; her cool and vibrant hands were an ingenious contrivance for stroking away pain or seducing to rapture.
And if Niquette was a natural snare, Régis was no less adroitly designed for love. His wide shoulder in its torn black smock was exactly the right height to support the head of Niquette, and his powerful arms were so fashioned that they made a natural fortification around her; his lashes tickled her ready cheek and his red lips seemed to have been made expressly to fit to a nicety over hers.
Régis did not have a sou, even as Niquette had no dot, and he was so young that he had found no one to employ him. His clothes were frayed, his black smock rusty; but out of the open collar his neck rose haughtily, carrying a head of astounding beauty. They walked light, lifting their lovely bodies and their hearts swelling with gentleness, goodness, and ardor.
The little path to Castan is a steep declivity and dropped them immediately beneath the derisive and scornful cries of their elders. The narrow and precipitous way runs down the sheer cliff on the crest of which the village is built, to the valley of the river Lot below; and from the high shelf where the young lovers paused before starting the descent they could survey the great bowl of the fertile valley beneath, rising to the wide arc of palest blue above, and they seemed at this moment to slit open with their slender bodies this astounding circle, slip within its mysterious and lovely light and move down the side of the mountain as though they slid along the curve of the sphere, as though they helped to turn this marvelous and vast circumference of sky and earth with their running feet; and they ran faster and faster, with ardent cries, disturbing the honeyed scent of the slumbering grape, brushing the dew from the high wild box, scattering its spice into the flowing air. The ferns moved under them as they ran, fast, fast; the primaveras twinkled in the pale grass, till, suddenly breathless, suddenly languid with love, they flung themselves down on a shelf of huge stones and moss and gazed around the great circle of twilight, which they no longer appeared to turn with their running feet, but which now seemed to turn them through the gathering dusk in a slow, lovely, and inevitable revolution.
The spot where they had chosen to rest was directly under the high brow of the village and was, indeed, the very place where the tower had fallen into the valley and from which their elders had warned them to keep distant. Enormous stones which had once composed the tower lay all about them, covered with moss and brambles; chains of ivy which had once adorned the tower walls still adhered to these stones and wandered from them into the short grass among the snowdrops, white anemones, and roses de Noël. Niquette threw herself on a narrow mound of moss, resting her head against what appeared to be an oval stone, singularly white and delicate, but overgrown with grass and concealed and embellished with little lichens, cup mosses, and creeping sedums.
The young girl looked up at her lover and laughed, and he, transported by her sweetness, began gathering the white flowers and tossing them over her blue shift till she was partly buried. He flung himself down then, opposite, so he could look into her darling face; clasping her knees with both arms, he rested his head upon them and began arranging the flowers in little circles around each breast. She gazed at him tremulously, her lips parted, her lovely eyes dilated a little with delight, her heart swelling with innocent joy and rapture. He had almost finished the second circle when, needing another flower, he leaned across her and pulled one from the moss at her side. As he did so her eyes, fixed in adoration on his countenance, noted a change in his expression. A startled, amazed, and astounded look transfigured his face; he leaned farther over her body, nearer to the earth on her other side, put out his hand as though to take something, and drew it back, uncertain.
‘Marie, Joseph!’ he breathed.
Niquette came then to a sitting posture, spilling the anemones into her lap. Half frightened, breathing quick, flushing all over her lovely neck, she followed his fascinated gaze to a spot just an arm’s length from her own side.
A small white stick, perhaps two inches long, stood perpendicular among the snowdrops in the moss, holding upon it a wedding ring of pure gold.
‘Dieu Sacré,’ breathed Niquette.
‘Jesus and all the Holy Family!’ said Régis.
‘The ring, it is from Heaven!‘ said Niquette.
‘It is for us!’ said Régis.
‘The Holy Virgin dropped it!’ said Niquette.
‘We can be married to-morrow,’ said Regis. ‘Niquette! Niquette!’
They flung their arms around each other, kneeling opposite in the grass. When they rose to their feet, holding the wedding ring on the little white stick, ‘Monsieur le Curé! Let us tell him!’ cried Régis.
‘Monsieur le Curé! But he will be joyous!’ cried Niquette.
They began to laugh, taking the mountain in great leaps; the ferns flowed under their feet like a waterfall, the boxwood trees spilled on them spice, the high wild grape breathed its honeyed breaths.
‘It is of the gold of Figeac, that ring!’ cried Niquette.
‘The gold of Figeac, it is the best gold in the world!’ cried Régis.
‘I shall be married like a lady!’ said Niquette.
‘You will be married to-morrow!’ said Régis.
When they reached the Sombral above, the whole square was quiet, for all, save the lovers, were concerned with the pot-au-feu.
‘But we also have been fed,’ said Régis.
One of the houses in the square winked at the lovers — the sly window on the left is lower than that on the right, producing a grimace; another cocked its proud roof at them in derision. They ran by the morose red gable of the Moulierats’, ducked past the house next, all six windows of which were open in astonishment, and approached the more reticent house of Monsier le Curé.
This house is still called the House of the Tower: it has a surprised and startled manner. Its gaping heart, where the tower tore away, has been neatly tiled over, but the lacerated living quarters seem all in a shiver and a shy stare, the arched door is wary, and the scant curtains in the two windows sniff the air, now in, now out. A lamp of welcome beams from some shelf within the house, and its yellow rays stream through the arched door, illuminating the fair hair of Monsieur Ie Curé, who himself stands on the threshold. Now that his mother is gone, his is the only fair head in the village, for he is the last of the Norman Dieudonnés, Monsieur le Curé resembles his mother Diane: he has her hair, like corn silk, her beseeching eyes, looking, looking for something, her raised nostrils, sniffing here, sniffing there; yet he is an intelligence, while she was called the Little Fool all of her days.
Monsieur le Curé looks tenderly and with compassion, expectancy, and love at Niquette and Régis. All three pass through the ancient arch to the freshly whitewashed interior of the room. It is a large, low room: there are two chimneys, one to the left with the crémaillère for the pot-au-feu, and one opposite the door which has been converted into a priedieu. A holy picture of Christ and His Mother hangs over the prie-dieu, and a small bunch of wild alder stands in a glass between the candles. To the right of the door, in an alcove, stands a canopied bed, hung with a faded cotton cloth of blue and white. A red quilt is neatly folded at the foot. When Monsieur le Cure enters the room he goes to the alcove and pulls across it a sombre gray curtain. The room is full of a grave light, amber and kind and loving. This light encircles the radiant boy and girl and Monsieur le Curé, and from the lovers fresh light and sparkle flows into the grave air of the room, revitalizing it.
‘Monsieur le Curé!’ bursts Régis.
‘Listen, Monsieur le Curé! It is a miracle!’ says Niquette.
‘We found it off the path to Castan, among the snowdrops, lying on the moss, on a little white stick!’ says Niquette.
‘It is of the gold of Figeac,’ says Régis.
‘It was dropped to us from Heaven!’ says Niquette.
Monsieur le Curé took the ring on the little white stick. His face, trained in austerity, did not change its expression, but a deep flush, starting at his neck, spread over his sensitive features to his brow and receded, leaving his cheeks pale.
‘But, mes enfants . . .’ he began; then, seeing their dark eyes fixed on him in rapture, hearing their happy breath coming quick, coming swift into the silence with joy, he paused, looked at the ring again and said gravely, ‘But it is a perfect ring, this ring.’
He took the ring in his hands and, as though automatically, as though obeying an inner impulse and compulsion, he twirled the little gold band for a moment on the small white stick. As he did so, as he performed this act unconsciously and without intention, he saw with his inner eye his foster mother, Cénobie Dépradeux, sitting on the salt box in the chimney; saw her wedding ring glitter, glitter in the bright, the soft, the comforting light of infancy; felt the ring, the ring, twirling, twirling in the heat of the fagots under his infant fingers.
Then he heard his own mother’s voice: ‘The big tower over your head, Maman will give it to you when you are a man. It is high, this tower; Maman knows the way into this tower, Jeannot, Jeannot, and the way out. No one else knows what Maman knows. Come! Come to Maman! ’
Then his heart grew faint in his body. His child’s eye saw his foster mother, Cénobie Dépradeux, sitting on the salt box; then he did not see her. He hid with fear. He heard the men of the village hunting for her; with sharp cries, with quick feet; under the Fall, up in the Causse, down in the river. Presently they did not hunt any more. No one ever saw again as much as her shadow.
Monsieur le Curé put his hand on the crucifix in the chimney for support; then, with an involuntary motion, he withdrew his hand, slowly, slowly, and recoiled from the chimney as though chilled with a sudden icy breath.
In later childhood Monsieur le Curé had had an unreasonable fancy about this unused chimney. The stone wall in which it was built was rough-hewn; in the centre, over its leering mouth, several stones projected like a nose, and two depressions, one on either side of the façade of the wall, gave his childish mind the impression of closed and alwayssleeping eyes. It was a hideous notion to him that, though the eyes in this strange, enormous face always slept, the cunning mouth was wide-open night and day like a vast trap; and he would run past that mouth always, with leaps of the heart, with suppressed cries.
If he had been alone Monsieur le Curé would have run now, would have fled shrieking from the open maw in which his mature body now actually stood; but he was not alone. He moved back calmly to his former position within the chimney. As he moved, the fears of childhood blew about his ankles; his cassock billowed with their odious breath; but he put his hand upon the crucifix for support and said, looking fixedly and gently at the two loving faces: —
’Mes enfants, where, exactly, did you find this ring?’
’But we said! Among the snowdrops and brambles and ivy, off the path to Castan, in a little secret place, quiet and still, where we go to be alone.’
‘Standing in the moss, Monsieur le Cure, under our very eyes!’
‘Near where the tower fell?’ said Monsieur le Curé, the flush coming, the flush going over his face.
‘Yes — where the tower fell, among the tower stones,’ said Régis. ’Off the path a bit, behind a boulder.’
‘My Aunt Garrigou, she called to me as we left. “Do not go where the tower fell!” she called. “It is unlucky!" Oh! Oh!’ Niquette cried. ‘The old ones, they know nothing!’ Her lovely laugh leapt out of her sweet mouth, pealing past the head of Monsieur le Curé, bent a little lower now over the gold ring.
He saw among the tower stones, hidden in the green valley, all that the lovers, because of love, had failed to see: under the moss and last year’s grass, the lichened skull and the slender bones; and he sensed that his mother Diane’s secret and daft and cunning means of preserving to herself her child was his, now, for the knowing. He knew, too, that his mother Diane, and his father Jeannot, and he himself in the early years, had lived with death sealed up over their heads till time sheared off the tower.
First Monsieur le Curé was weak with the knowledge; it was too great a weight, he could not support it. Then, being a devout man, being a priest of God and accustomed to looking for the ways of God in all things, he saw the miracle, the wonder of these two children, innocent as the morning and more mysterious than night, seeking out for the site of their contest in love, their artless, noble, and essential play, this spot where horror lurked in the ferns and mosses, where strange and demented crime secreted itself behind snowdrops, where despair and torture sank beneath the grass. Then he knew definitely that all things lovely persist in spite of death and corruption: out of the dung grows the flower, out of the muck the wheat, the grape, the wine and the good bread.
‘But the ring,’ said Monsieur le Curé, in a matter-of-fact voice, ‘ the ring is just a little too small for our little Niquette. See! I will file it, I will make it a perfect fit.’ And taking a little file, smiling now with hope, with ecstatic joy, Monsieur le Curé filed the name of Cénobie Dépradeux — he knew it was there, he had learned to read by these letters — from the inside of the little gold circle.
Niquette and Régis leaned close as he worked; with quick breaths, with bright eyes, they watched the delectable ring turn in Monsieur le Cureé’s clever fingers.
As he filed the ring all the village passed before Monsieur le Curé’s eyes: Madame the Eagle and her young Delphine; Francine the Virgin and la Laurent; Madeleine, Jacqueline, Germaine and Jacques, Émile, FÉlicité and Éliette, Cyprien, Élodie and Éloïse; Cénobie, Diane, and now he himself; Niquette and Régis and their wedding ring — all woven into an intricate, inevitable, repetitious refrain, a strange, lively, murderous, despairing, and yet rejuvenating pattern: a dirty dissolving, a dying away and a despair; and a lovely reviving, a cleansing awakening, rebirth and renewal, an innocent and naive and radiant regeneration.
These lovers, these artless children, became to Monsieur le Cure the symbol of the inexorable, secret, slow, and inevitable renewal of loveliness on earth.
Over the defiled soil and the secret stones, over the moss and the grass, the lichened skull and the slender bones, they kissed and laughed; they called: —
‘Niquette! Niquette!’ ‘Regis! Regis!’ ‘Niquette!’ ‘Regis! Regis!’