THE GREY was young, good-looking, and strong. She carried her double burden with ease, laying back her ears and champing her bit like the high-spirited mare she was. Passing in front of the pasture, she caught sight of her mother, whose name was the Old Grey as hers was the Young Grey, and she whinnied in token of good-bye. The Old Grey came nearer the hedge, and striking her shoes together she tried to gallop along the edge of the field in order to follow her daughter; then seeing her fall into a sharp trot, the mare whinnied in her turn and stood in an uneasy attitude, her nose in the air and her mouth filled with grass that she had no thought of eating.
That poor beast always knows her offspring, said Germain, trying to keep Maries thoughts from her troubles. That reminds me, I never kissed Petit-Pierre before I started. The naughty boy was not there. Last night he wished to make me promise to take him along, and he wept for an hour in bed. This morning again, he tried everything to persuade me. Oh, how sly and coaxing he is! But when he saw that he could not gain his point, the young gentleman got into a temper. He went off to the fields, and I have not seen him all day.
I have seen him, said little Marie, striving to keep back her tears; he was running toward the clearing with Soulas children, and I felt sure that he had been away from home a long time, for he was hungry and was eating wild plums and blackberries. I gave him the bread I had for lunch, and he said, Thank you, dear Marie; when you come to our house, I will give you some cake. He is a dear little child, Germain.
Yes, he is, answered the labourer; and there is nothing I would not do for him. If his grandmother had not more sense than I, I could not have helped taking him with me, when I saw him crying as though his little heart would burst.
He would probably have been in the way in the place where I am going. At least Father Maurice thought so. On the other hand, I should have thought it well to see how they received him. For no one could help being kind to such a nice child. But at home they said that I must not begin by showing off all the cares of the household. I dont know why I speak of this to you, little Marie; you cant understand.
Oh, yes, I do; I know that you are going away to marry; my mother spoke to me about it, and told me not to mention it to a soul, either at home or at my destination, and you need not be afraid; I shall not breathe a word about it.
No more than you, and I fear that I shall not know her better after I have seen her. I am not suspicious. When people say nice things to me, I believe them, but more than once I have had good reason to repent, for words are not deeds.
I have it. Little Marie, I should be very much obliged if you would come into the house for a minute before you go straight on to Ormeaux. You are quick-witted; you have always shown that you are not stupid, and nothing escapes your notice. Should you see anything to rouse your suspicions, you must warn me of it very quietly.
Oh! no, Germain, I will not do that; I should be too much afraid of making a mistake; and, besides, if a word lightly spoken were to turn you against this marriage, your family would bear me a grudge, and I have plenty of troubles now without bringing any more on my poor dear mother.
As they were talking thus, the grey pricked up her ears and shied; then returning on her steps, she approached the bushes, where she began to recognise something which had frightened her at first. Germain cast his eye over the thicket, and in a ditch, beneath the branches of a scrub-oak, still thick and green, he saw something which he took for a lamb.
The child would not listen. He began to cry with all his might, saying that as long as his father was taking little Marie, he might just as well take him too. They replied that they must pass through great woods filled with wicked beasts who eat up little children. The grey would not carry three people; she had said so when they were starting, and in the country where they were going there was no bed and no supper for little boys. All these good reasons could not persuade Petit-Pierre; he threw himself on the ground, and rolled about, shrieking that his little father did not love him any more, and that if he did not take him he would never go back to the house at all, day or night.
Germain had a fathers heart, as soft and weak as a womans. His wifes death, and the care which he had been obliged to bestow all alone on his little ones, as well as the thought that these poor motherless children needed a great deal of love, combined to make him thus. So, such a sharp struggle went on within him, all the more because he was ashamed of his weakness and tried to hide his confusion from little Marie, that the sweat started out on his forehead, and his eyes grew red and almost ready to weep. At last he tried to get angry, but as he turned toward little Marie in order to let her witness his strength of mind, he saw that the good girls face was wet with tears; all his courage forsook him and he could not keep back his own, scold and threaten as he would.
Truly your heart is too hard, said little Marie at last, and for myself I know that I never could refuse a child who felt so badly. Come, Germain, lets take him. Your mare is well used to carrying two people and a child, for you know that your brother-in-law and his wife, who is much heavier than I, go to market every Saturday with their boy on this good beasts back. Take him on the horse in front of you. Besides, I should rather walk on foot all alone than give this little boy so much pain.
Never mind, answered Germain, who was dying to allow himself to give way. The grey is strong, and could carry two more if there were room on her back. But what can we do with this child on the way? He will be cold and hungry, and who will take care of him to-night and to-morrow, put him to bed, wash him, and dress him? I dont dare give this trouble to a woman I dont know, who will think, doubtless, that I am exceedingly free and easy with her to begin with.
Trust me, Germain, you will know her at once by the kindness or the impatience that she shows. If she does not care to receive your Pierre, I will take charge of him myself. I will go to her house and dress him, and I will take him to the fields with me to-morrow. I will amuse him all day long, and take good care that he does not want for anything.
Seeing that little Marie was pleading for him, the child seized upon her skirt and held it so tight that they must have hurt him in order to tear it away. When he perceived that his father was weakening, he took Maries hand in both his tiny sunburned fists and kissed her, leaping for joy, and pulling her toward the mare with the burning impatience children feel in their desires.
Come along, said the young girl, lifting him in her arms; let us try to quiet his poor little heart. It is fluttering like a little bird; and if you feel the cold when night comes on, tell me, my Pierre, and I will wrap you in my cape. Kiss your little father, and beg his pardon for being naughty. Tell him that you will never, never be so again. Do you hear?
Yes, yes, provided that I always do just as he wishes. Isnt it so? said Germain, drying the little boys eyes with his handkerchief. Marie, you are spoiling the little rascal. But really and truly, you are too good, little Marie. I dont know why you did not come to us as shepherdess last Saint Johns Day. You would have taken care of my children, and I should much rather pay a good price for their sake than try to find a woman who will think, perhaps, she is doing me a great kindness if she does not detest them.
You must not look on the dark side of things, answered little Marie, holding the horses bridle while Germain placed his son in front of the big pack-saddle covered with goatskin. If your wife does not care for children, take me into your service next year, and you may be sure I shall amuse them so well that they will not notice anything.