The Weasel Bride
In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom's chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.
There are stories in the country told today as though they happened only a week ago. In many ways customs have not altered very much, and every village is its own empire. It is possible to imagine such things still occur, in lonely woods, under the stare of a silver moon.
A young trapper, walking home one evening across the water meadows, stopped in startlement, seeing a girl dancing on a hill in the moonlight. She was very beautiful, with long pale hair, but as she danced she wept and lamented. Pausing to watch, he also overheard her complaint. «Alas,» said she, «that I may only keep this human form in the full ray of the moon. No sooner does she set, than I must return to my loathsome other shape, from which only the true love of a man can rescue me, although that forever. But what hope is there of it, seeing he must court and wed me in my other form, before his kin, and in the church. I am lost.» Fascinated, the young man continued to spy on this strange maiden until at length the moon began to go down. The sky lightened, then grew black. The stars stung bright as the lunar orb sank under the hill. It was gone. At that moment, the maiden disappeared like the moon, as if into the ground. The young man ran up the hill and searched about, and as he did so he glimpsed something that flashed away into the bushes. It was a white weasel.
Now the trapper had made up his mind that he would be the one to have this girl, no matter what the cost. Therefore he laid his most cunning trap, and baited it, and went down to his village. Here he started hasty arrangements for a wedding, telling all sorts of lies, and bribing the priest and the mayor to obtain consent. The following night, which happened to be a night of no moon, he hurried to the spot where he had left his trap. And sure enough, what should he find in it but the white weasel, caught fast and crying piteously. «Fear nothing,» said the suitor, «I shall befriend you, poor creature. Come, be my sweetheart, love me a little, and I shall wed you, before my kin and in the church, tomorrow morning.»
Then he carried the weasel in a cage down to the village, ignoring her cheeps and struggles, which he guessed to be a part of the spell on her.
In his father's house, he had his mother and sisters put on the weasel a veil made from a lace handkerchief, and a garland made from a baby's pearl bracelet. He was the head of his own household, his father being dead, and the three women were obliged to obey him, but they did so in terror, thinking he had gone mad. The weasel, however, was most gentle now, and bore with everything that was done. Only at her lover did she hiss and bare her sharp teeth.
At sunrise, out they went, the trapper, his mother and sisters, and the bridal weasel in her cage. The whole village was about and crowding to the church, and the priest was there in his habit, with his prayerbook, waiting. But when they all saw what went on, there was a great to-do.
«Holy father,» said the trapper, «you must humor me in this. For I insist this creature shall be my wife, and nobody will gainsay me. Remember,» he added in a low voice to the priest, «my father's coins which I have given you.»
«God moves in His own way,» said the priest, and brought the young man and the weasel into the church and up to the altar. There, in the sight of the village and of the trapper's sobbing womenfolk, the priest wed the young man to the weasel.
Thereafter they repaired home for the wedding breakfast, and about noon, the young man took his bride away to the nuptial chamber, above.
The husband removed his wife from her cage and placed her on the pillows. «Dear wife,» said he, «I will be patient.» And there he sat quietly, as the daylight streamed in at the casement and the weasel ran about the bed and climbed the curtains, and below the wedding guests, in fear and amazement, grew drunk on his father's wine.
At length, the afternoon waned, the dusk came, and at long last, the moon rose in the east and pointed her white finger straight through the window.
«Now let us see,» said the young man, and he put his hand on the weasel and stroked her snowy back. But as soon as the moon's ray touched her, she turned and bit him, under the base of the thumb, so his blood poured.
No sooner was this done than her coat of fur peeled off her, she sprang upright on the bed, and there before him in the moonlight was the lovely girl from the hill, clad only in her long, pale hair.
«You have freed me,» she exclaimed.
«But at great cost,» he answered.
And this was so, for despite her tender care of him, and the equally tender care of his astounded mother and sisters, the young man sickened of the bite. Within seven days he was dead and put to rest in the churchyard. And as for the weasel widow, she slunk away in the sunrise, and none saw her again, in any shape, although in those parts it was the tradition ever after to kill any weasel that they came on, if it should be a female.
The two families, the Covilles and the Desbouchamps, had ruled together over their great sprawling village for a pair of hundred years. And as each century turned, the village grew larger, fair set on being a town. The Covilles' tailored house at least had business connections with the City. Theirs was the trade of wool. The Desbouchamps' low-beamed manor, its milk churns and dove-cotes, stables and wild orchards, drowsed comfortably in the meadows. The Days of Liberty had not yet swept through Paradys, changing all the world. There seemed no need to hurry, or to provision for any future that did not resemble the past.
It was to be a country wedding then, between Roland Coville and Marie-Mai Desbouchamps. It started at sunup, with the banging of lucky pots and pans down the village streets, and went on with the girls and their autumn roses taken to the manor, and the silver coin given to each as she bore her flowers into the cavern of the kitchen.
Then out came the lint-haired bride, crowned with the roses, in the embroidered bodice her grandmother had worn, and the little pearly shoes that just fitted her. She was piped and drummed to the church and met her bridegroom in the gate, a dark northern youth, and who did not know or could not see how eager he was? For it was not only a marriage arranged but a marriage arranged from desires. They had played together as children, Roland and Marie. He had pretended to wed her in the pear orchard when she was ten and he thirteen years of age. Seven years had passed. He had been sent to school in the City, and was no longer pure; he had known philosophy, mathematics, Latin, and three harlots. But unscathed he still was. And the girl, she was like a ripe, sweet fruit misleading in its paleness: She was quite ready.
And how he loved her. It was obvious to all. Not only lust, as was proper, but veneration. He will treat her too well , they said, she will get the upper hand . But she was docile, was she not, Marie-Mai? Never had anyone heard of anything but her tractability, her gentleness. She will make a good wife .
For Roland himself, it might be said that he had always known she must be his. At first she had reminded him of the Virgin, so fresh and white, so clean . But then the stirrings of adult want had found in her the other virgin, the goddess of the pastoral earth that was his in the holidays, the smooth curving forms of hills and breasts, shining of pools and eyes, after the chapped walls and hands, the hard brisk hearts of Paradys. She allowed him little lapses. To kiss her fingers, then her lips, to touch fleetingly the swansdown upper swell above her bodice. When he said to his father, «I will have Marie-Mai,» his father smiled and said, «Of course. We'll drink to it.» So easy. And why not, why must all love be fraught and tragic, gurning and yearning, unfulfilled or snatched on the wing of the storm?
And for Marie-Mai, what could be said for her? She had answered correctly all the searching lover's questions. Her responses were perfect, and if she offered nothing unasked, that was surely her modesty, her womanly decorum. Could anyone say they knew her? Of course. They all did. She was biddable, and loving in mild, undisturbing ways. She was not complex or rebellious. There was nothing to know. Who probes the flawless lily? It is the blighted bloom that gets attention.
A country wedding, then, and in the church Roland thought his bride like an angel, except he would not have planned for an angel what he planned to do to her. And the church over, outside in the viny afternoon, they had their feast on the square, under the sky. These were the days once sacred to the wine god. The girls had wreathed the clay jugs with myrtle; the great sunny roses crowded the tables like the guests. And when the humped western clouds banked up, and the faint daylight moon appeared in a dimming glow, they bore the bride and groom to the smart stone house behind the wall and the iron gate decorated with peacocks. They let them in with laughter and rough sorties. They let them go to the laundered bedroom whose windows were shuttered, whose candles were lit. They closed the doors and shouted a word or two, and left the lovers alone for their night. And in the square a band played and Madame Coville danced with Monsieur Desbouchamps, and Madame Desbouchamps was too shy to do more than flirt with Monsieur Coville. The moon rose high, and owls called from the woods. The roses bloomed in the dark over the old walls, as if winter would never come.
In the morning, an autumn country morning that began about half past six, Roland's manservant knocked on the bedroom door, and the maid waited behind him with the pot of chocolate. In the old days—not twenty years before—the elderly women of the house would have arrived, to strip the bed and view the blood of the maidenhead. This was no longer done in such sophisticated villages. When the first knock went unanswered, the manservant knocked again, and grinned at the maid, and called out, «Shall I return a little later, 'sieur Roland?»
Then, and what follows now comes directly from the evidence given later in the courtrooms of Paradys, the voice of Roland was raised clearly behind the door. It was not an embarrassed or pleasured voice. It cried in terrible despair: «Oh God, what shall I do ?» And then, very loudly and without any expression, «Come in and see. But leave the girl outside.»
The young manservant raised his brows. More sympathetic than he, the maid was already trembling and biting her lip. The man opened to door and went into his master's bedroom. There he beheld at once, as he said, some vestiges of a slight tussle, but perhaps these might not have been unnatural. Then he saw that the bride lay half out of the bed, in her ribboned nightgown. There were bruises on her throat, her face was engorged and nearly black, and her eyes had extruded from their sockets. She had been strangled, had been dead some while. The manservant exclaimed something like, «My God, who has done this?» To which the young husband replied quietly, «I did it. I killed her.» And at this point it was noticed how two of the fingers of his right hand were very savagely bitten, doubtless by the dying girl in her struggle for life.
The subsequent commotion that next boiled through the house is easily imagined. It passed into every chamber, every cranny, like a noxious odor. There was screaming, and every sort of human outcry, male and female. Roland was led down into the lower rooms, where an interrogation took place, his mother on her knees, his aunts fainting, his father bellowing in tears. And all this was soon augmented by the frenzied arrival of the family Desbouchamps.
To each kind and type of entreaty or demand, Roland Coville would say substantially the same thing, as various testimony later showed. What he said was this: «I killed Marie. I strangled her. She's dead.»
But to the eternally repeated question Why ? he would answer, white-faced and wooden, «I have nothing to say on that.»
In those parts, the unchastity of a bride might have furnished a reason. There were historic tales, to be sure, of girls slain on the wedding night, having been discovered unvirgin. The father challenged his son, but Roland shook his head. He even gave a grim and white-faced smile. No, he replied, she was intact. «What, then—what? Did she slight you?» No, he had not been slighted. Marie was a virgin and she had not insulted him. She had given no provocation. She had encouraged his advances.
«Why, then, in the name of God—«
«I won't say, Father. Nothing on this earth will induce me to do so.»
It was the father of Marie, of course, who impugned the manhood of Roland. The husband had been unable to fulfill his duties, and had strangled the innocent maiden for fear she would betray him. There were a couple of girls in the city who could give the lie to this. Nevertheless, the fathers ended fighting in the cobbled yard of the Coville house, under the peacocks.
In their turn, the police came. They had little to add but the uniform and threat of the law.
The village had fallen apart like a broken garden. Stones rattled by night on the shutters of the Coville house, on the embrasures of the village jail to which Roland had been removed. They wanted his death.
He was taken to the City in the dead of night, unpublicized, in a covered carriage, like an escape. The Coville house was locked up like a box. They had gone too into the darkness, to the City. Like all cities, it reeked of Hell. This had a rightness then, the flight toward Paradys, as, not too many years in the future, others would flee away from the drums and blades of Revolution, into the outer night of the world.
The trial of Roland Coville caused no stir in Paradys, City of Damnations. It was not unusual enough. A man had killed a girl, his lover and wife. So what? It happened twice a day. That the case had been explosive enough it was removed from village to City was nothing. A cough out of season was a wonder in the provinces.
The young man stood bravely, deadly, and composed before his judges. He was courteous and exact, and he refused them nothing except what he refused all others, the motive for the murder. He was defended with great difficulty.
«It is plain to me, and to those who sit in judgment on you, that you are no murderer. Let alone of a defenseless girl at your mercy in the dark, your young wife, looking to you for love and protection, receiving death at your hands. Clearly, monsieur, there is a momentous reason. Tell us. »
«No,» said Roland Coville. «I can tell you nothing at all.»
«But it may save your life, monsieur.»
Roland shook his head. He looked only sad and very young.
«But monsieur , for God's sake. This will end in your hanging. Don't you prefer to live?»
Roland looked surprised, as if he were unsure. «Perhaps not.»
«His face,» said the lawyer after, considerably shaken, «was like, I think, that of a woman I once heard of. She had been shown the mechanism of the human body, its heart, viscera, intestines, all the tubes and organs that support life. And having seen, she was so disgusted at the method whereby she lived that, when she got home, she cut her wrists and died. To be rid of it all. Just so, he looked, my Roland Coville. He isn't reluctant to die.»
Once, during the examination at Paradys, Roland was asked about the lacerations on the fingers of his right hand. He answered that his wife, Marie, had indeed bitten him.
«And this was during her final moments, as she fought for her life?»
«No. It happened earlier.»
«Then your wife behaved violently toward you?»
«No,» said Roland.
«But you say that she bit you without any act on your part that would have invited her so to do.»
«No, I did not say this.»
«Monsieur Coville, we must be precise. When was it that these bites occurred?»
Roland hesitated. «When I touched the lips of Marie.»
«But this, then, was an extreme and unloving response.»
«Did you kill her because of this? Because of her attack on you?»
Roland Coville thought for a moment, and then said, «Would it be deemed a suitable defense, to kill a woman because she had bitten me?»
«No, monsieur, of course it would not.»
«I did not,» said Roland, «kill Marie because of the bite.»
»Why , then? You are bound to speak. The weight of this assembly, and of the law itself, insist.»
«I can and will say nothing,» said Roland Coville. «It is beyond me to say it.» And then in a sudden and conclusive passion he screamed, so the room echoed and dinned, the spectators and the judges recoiled, «It would be as if you tore out my heart, to say it. It would be as if you cut out my tongue. Nothing. Nothing! I will say nothing.»
And so he was judged a murderer. He was condemned. In a small gray yard at sunrise he would be hanged.
But in the cell, before that, he must confront the confessor, the priest who was to hear his final statements, and who must, of them all, get the truth from him.
«I can't tell you,» said Roland Coville to the priest who angrily confronted him.
«You have forfeited your life,» said the priest. «Is this not enough? You have spat upon the robe of God, and upon the gift he gave you.»
«No, father,» said Roland. «God knows, and understands, what I have done. And why.»
And his face was then so pitifully pared, trusting, and desperate, so positive of the pity of God after all, that the angry priest was softened.
«Come, then,» he said, «make what confession you can. I will absolve you, and God must do the rest.»
Roland then knelt down, and unburdened himself of all his crimes, which were none of them terrible, but for that one. And then he spoke of that too, quietly and stilly. «I strangled my young wife, she was only seventeen, and I loved her. It was on her wedding night, in our bed. She was a virgin and died so. I killed her with no compunction, and would do it again.» And then, head bowed under the hands of the priest, he added softly, «For my reasons, I believe such things can't be spoken of. This would be like showing the face of the Devil. How can I be responsible for that?»
The priest was in the end very sorry for him. He was a handsome and a good young man, guilty of nothing but the one appalling and senseless act. The priest absolved Roland Coville, and went away to watch all through the night before the execution, in the little church on a slanting street of the City. And when through the narrow window a nail of light pierced in and fell on the crucifix and the white flowers, the priest knew the rope in the gray yard had performed its office, and one more benighted soul had struggled forth into the Infinite, toward long anguish or the life eternal, or toward oblivion, for he was a wise priest, faithful and doubting, a man like men.
Two days after the execution of Roland Coville, the priest was brought a letter. It was on the paper obtained in the prison, and came from the dead man, written in the last hour of his life. As such it had extraordinary weight. But on opening it anxiously, the priest read these words: «I cannot after all go into the night without passing on this burden that has consumed me. Forgive me, father, that I turn to you. Who else can I rely on? Who else can bear it?»
And after that the priest read on, and the scales fell from his eyes, the dark glass was clear before him. He did not believe, then he believed. And he locked the letter from Roland Coville away in a place where none could come at it, not even he himself. And there it stayed for seven years, burning slowly through the wall of the safe and of his mind.
One spring, when the roads were muddy, a priest came to the village by means of the coach that stopped there once a month, and he inquired for the domicile of the family Desbouchamps. On being directed, he took himself off toward the manor house in the meadows. The lanes were spare and washed with rain, the tall poplars swept the sky. The manor had lost its roselike abundance and seemed now decaying, the shutters half off, the lofts rotting. No doves flew from the cotes. A dog barked only sullenly in the courtyard.
To his inquiry at the kitchen door, the housekeeper shook her head. «Mistress sees no one.» The priest indicated his habit. «What does she want with another priest? She's had enough of you, burying the master.»
But he won through, because he had set his mind to it. He stood with his habit and his bag and would not go. Finally a thin old woman of no more than forty years came down to the cold parlor, where drapes were on the furnishings, and she made no pretense at removing them or lighting the fire. The hearth gaped black, and cold whistled down the chimney. She leaned to it and rubbed her hands.
«We are unfortunate,» said Madame Desbouchamps. «In a year, everything must be sold. Those men, those men in their holy day coats!» (She presumably meant the lawyers.)
«I'm very sorry to hear it.»
«It's been a great loss. Ever since monsieur died. It was the tragedy killed him. He always loved her so.» And over her worn and discarded face there crossed a slinking jealousy, out in the open now, having no need any more to hide. Marie-Mai was dead, and her loving father was as dead as she, why dissemble?
«Your daughter, do you mean?» asked the priest with some care. «But she was very young to die.»
«Murdered,» said madame, «in her bridal bed.»
The priest said what was inevitable.
«You will have heard,» said Madame Desbouchamps. «It was the talk of the City. They made up songs about it, the filthy wretches.»
The priest had never heard one, and was glad. He said, «I believe I caught a rumor of the case. The bridegroom had no motive for his action. The girl was innocent and chaste.»
Madame Desbouchamps compressed her lips like withered leaves. She sat a long while in utter silence, and he intuitively allowed this. At length, the blossom came.
«She was a sly girl,» said the mother. «She hid things, was secretive. She was no daughter to me. I knew no better then. But it was never affection she gave me. She saved that for her father, a clever pass. I remember, her courses came early. She wasn't nine years, she was crying and there was blood, and I said, Let me see, Marie, what's the matter with you? But she ran away. And the blood stopped, and then there was no more till the proper time. She was eleven years then. She wasn't fearful when it happened, only asked me for a napkin.»
The priest might have been astonished and shocked at being awarded such information. Even in country people madame's reminiscence was forthright. But in fact he was not thinking of this. He had gone very pale. And she, she had a crafty look, as if she had meant to tell him something, and saw that she had.
«Poor young girl,» said the priest after a few moments. «What a loss to you, the daughter, then the husband. Where are they buried?»
«And the house,» interjected the woman brutishly. Then she said, «On the land. The Desbouchamps bury their dead close. Now what shall I do? The land's no longer mine.»
«Their graves must be moved, madame,» said the priest.
«I'll show you,» she said. And again there was the flash of malign conspiracy. As if she knew what he was at, liked it, although that could hardly be.
It was a little mausoleum, like a Roman tomb, not unusual among wealthy country families. Through the grille he glimpsed the shape of coffins. He would need a pick to smash the lock, but the place was up the hill, hidden by trees and deserted. They chained the three last dogs by night, and there were only a pair of old men now on the estate.
So, at two in the morning, he duly returned, with his pickax and his lantern.
The incongruity of what he did had ceased to irk him. He was beyond that. The letter burning through the safe had gradually seared out his ethics. He struck the lock and broke it with four blows, each of which echoed away along the valley, but no light fluttered up in the manor house, no one rushed from the buildings, not even the owls hooted.
The stench and awfulness of the mausoleum did not check him either, for he had been expecting them, and once or twice he had stood over an opened grave, the stink of it worse than excrement or sewers in its omen of mortality.
Her box, the coffin of Marie-Mai, he located without difficulty, knowing what to look for. He dredged up the cobwebs and saw the tracks of a squirrel over the lid—it must have come in at the broken grille. What had attracted it to this one case alone? For it had ignored the others. Shuddering, the priest levered up the planks. He saw what he had reckoned to see, the bones of a young girl whose young girl's skin had gone to mummy and fallen away, some strands and traces of hair, the crumbled wedding garments in which she had been buried, the marriage ring rattling on the thinnest of thin fingers.
»God strengthen me. God forgive me,» said the priest. And then he tore down the powdery bridal clothes. And so he saw, without any shadow of doubt, for indeed he held the lamp over the coffin, he spared himself nothing. Roland Coville had not lied.
Then, going outside, the priest threw up, tried to throw up it seemed his heart and soul. And when he was done, trembling, he went back in and shut up the coffin fast with a hammer and nails, closed it more tightly than before. This work finished, he left the place and went down the hill, and back to the village inn, where they were too respectful of a City priest to ask any questions.
The priest paced the length of three weeks, in his church on the slanting street, in his rooms, under the architraves of Paradys. There was no help for Roland, who by now was as near to dust as the thing he had killed and died for. What, then, to do with the truth, that terrible naked sword? At length, the priest made his decision, and it resembled Roland's own, for neither would he, the priest of God, tamper with the revealed face of the Devil.
He sat with papers and ink and candles, and through the night he wrote, and rewrote, what he had been privy to. And in the end, near dawn, he burned his experiments, and had it down alone on paper in a manner that at least was not hysterical, nor crude, nor yet of course entirely believable, but how could he help that? He added to it a line of Latin, by way of protection, and folded up the paper, and sealed it, and stored it, together with the letter of Roland Coville, in a new deposit that should not be opened until his death.
That, then, was how the priest dealt with what he had learned and seen. And so truth lay in the dark for another sixty years.
During that time, everything changed. The great Revolution came and went, the Days of Liberty, the Years of Blood. The paper lay in its vault, and Marie-Mai in her coffin, undisturbed, like shells of a lost sea deep in the soil, that all the turning wheels and veering scythes of the world cannot dislodge. Only the hand that knows their places, only that can find them out. Or some wild accident.
«There is a rat,» said the landowner. «I tell you, I hear it, you fool.»
«No rats, sir. I keep them away.»
«Damn you, I tell you I hear them. I walk by this horrible spot, and I hear them, gnawing and gnashing in the vault. Look at this thing! A gargoyle of a tomb. Pull it down, I say. Scatter the bones. What were they, that family of no-goods? Rich men feeding off the poor of this region. I fought on the barricades against their sort.»
He had not actually fought, he had been a clerk, but scum generally rises to the top. Now he had his farm here, and did well from it. His memories altered to fit present circumstances, and he despised the dead Desbouchamps whose land he had acquired, bloodsuckers, with their silly, half-aristocratic name—
«I watched all night. Saw not one rat.»
«But did you hear the sound of their rat jaws biting together?»
«Don't call me sir. You're not a serf any more. Address me as brother . And stop arguing with me. I gave you an order.»
«We'll have this rotting tomb pulled down. We'll turn them out. »
The mausoleum of the Desbouchamps was duly ripped apart, its Roman columns flung over, its piteous insides rolled forth into the blistering sunlight of that summer when the rain would fail and the crops die, and new plagues of want stalk the land, as if mere blood had not been enough. But he did not know that yet, the clerk from Paradys. Nor did he know anything of the priest's paper, which, that very year, too, had been read by a few august eyes, which had escaped the battery. A few clever eyes, that would take the paper and the letter for a symbol of the monstrous times, like the bleeding of a loaf or a frog with a tail, a portent, immaterial as to truth or lie.
The risen clerk from Paradys kicked the Desbouchamps coffins. A couple burst open and the inhabitants sprawled on the grass. He laughed at those.
«Here's one nicely nailed. More solid. Something to hide. Perhaps there are jewels in here.» And thrusting off his brother workmen, to whom, to his wife, he referred as walking rubbish, the clerk prized up the lid and threw it off. «Pough! What an effluvia!» (He liked occasional long words.) He held his nose and attempted not to retch. Then he called one of the fellows to rummage in the bones.
There were no gems, no earrings, necklaces, only an old tarnished ring, perhaps silver, which he had away from the workman at once.
It must have been a woman. Her long hair had fallen off, her dress had been torn.
He peered at her to be sure he had missed nothing.
Then the workman gave a hoarse cry.
«What is it, you damned fool?»
The man drew away, potently terrified. He ran to one of his mates, clasped him, gabbled, and rushed off between the trees.
«Well, he'll be whipped.»
The clerk laughed again, then he looked. And at long last he saw.
The woman was all bones, discolored as if charred, and in her skull the teeth, once young and white, had loosened and dropped out. But lower, where the dress was torn wide, he could see in at the tilted bones of her pelvis, and there, between her legs, she had another set, and these were perfect, still white and very sharp. They lay in the nest of her skeleton like a little wreath of snowy flowers. In life they would not have been visible, for plainly they had been tucked neatly away behind the smooth lips and taut maidenhead, secure in the second mouth of her vagina. There they had waited, as if any man had dared. What a bite they could have given him!
The clerk leaned back and laughed heartily. Then he got up, gray and shaking, and told his men to close the coffin. He did not want a sideshow on his property. It must go to the City. Perhaps a grave could be found for it there, in some corner of the overflowing cemeteries of Paradys.
It was about this time, that day or another, that the august and clever eyes of the priesthood also turned from the paper they had been reading. And it was then, while the one decided on a sideshow, a joke, that the others decided on a portent, the apocalypse.
Dominus illuminatio mea, et salus mea, quem timebo ? said the Latin, put there on his paper by the priest.
While the clerk was telling his drunken cronies, and his drunken wife, at dinner, what he had seen, and the rafters of the old Desbouchamps manor rocked with the laughter of the jest, the wise men who had also looked on the face of the Devil crept to their hiding places, courageously repeating their affirmation, The Lord is my light and my safety, whom shall I fear ?
* * *
So the years of Revolution swept over Paradys and her landscape, in a primordial sea.
The mysterious poet Andr'e St. Jean, who saw their beginning, apparently barely mentions anything of them, being taken up with his own affairs of the heart.
Enough is known of the bloodshed. The graveyard here bears its witness.
One anecdote is perhaps worth repeating, the curious tale of Monsieur Raccoon.
He escaped from the zoological gardens before the hungry and threatening mob could make a meal of him, and thereafter devoted himself to the rescue of forlorn innocents from the gallows. The flaunting banner of his striped tail was a fearful sight to the executioner and his assistants. From the rope he whisked away countless numbers, swooning pale maidens and paler gentlemen, in his capable paws. At length, Monsieur Raccoon was captured, and imprisoned in one of the most notorious of the prisons. But here he charmed them all so well that eventually he made his own escape, leaping high above the heads of the jailers and vanishing, swinging through the beams, with a whisk of his cream-and-charcoal tail.
He was whispered of among the forests of the gallows, among the stone cages of the prisons, for months after. The aristocrat upon the scaffold had only to mention, «Ah, for the Raccoon,'' to cause his assailant to blanch. In the zoo you will see a commemorative plaque concerning him. But here in the long grass where an angel's broken hand has fallen, here there is another marker.
This too owes its dead-life to the Revolution, although in a roundabout way. The name reveals perhaps a sidelong descendant of Andr'e St. Jean, or perhaps not, for the name is not uncommon in Paradys. The fate, more so…
The story was told me one evening in a caf'e by the river, near to the ruined bridge. The dusk was blurred by fog, and somewhere below, where the bank ended and the water began, the vague torched eyes of barges were creeping up and down, slow and fearful, with now and then the mournful warning of a gong. In the caf'e, the fog had entered too, and, with the primal oil lamps and the smoke of cigarettes, gave us the atmosphere of Venus. An old man was brought over suddenly under the ominous announcement «Here is a fellow can tell you a few histories.»
They sat him before me and there he was, creaking in his overcoat. I filled him a glass, and idly invited him to begin. He started to talk of the Revolution. He looked ancient enough to have known the participants, when a boy. Not until he was well into his third glass, did he squint at me slyly and say, «But the strangest stories come after the Revolution ended. When they washed the City clean of blood, and put the axes away. It was then.»
After which he launched into a narrative that had something in it of a Shakespearian drama, and something of the nature of a myth. I did not know if I, or he, believed it. Punctuated by the eerie flickers from the river, dispersed through the lamplit fog, it clung inside my head. False or real, it had its own truth. I set it down; now you must judge for yourself.