DEATH PASSES BY.
This same evening, the mother, whom we have seen making her way almost by chance, had been walking all day long. Moreover, it was the story of all her days, to go straight on and never stop. For her sleep of exhaustion in the first corner that she came to was no more rest than what she ate here and there, as birds go picking about, was food. She ate and slept just enough to keep her from falling down dead.
She had spent the night before in a deserted house; civil war causes such ruins. She had found, in a neglected field, four walls, an open door, a little straw under a portion of the roof, and she slept on this straw and under this roof, feeling the rats run over the straw, and seeing the stars shine through the roof. She had slept some hours, then she awoke in the middle of the night and started on her journey again, in order to travel as far as possible before the full heat of the day. For those travelling on foot in summer, midnight is more agreeable than midday.
She followed to the best of her ability the general route indicated to her by the peasant at Vautortes; she went as nearly as possible toward the west. Any one near her would have heard her say repeatedly, in a low voice, "La Tourgue." Besides the names of her three children, she knew nothing but this word.
As she walked along, she was deep in meditation. She thought of all the adventures which she had been through; she thought of all she had suffered, of all she had received; of the encounters, the indignities, the conditions made, the bargains proposed and undergone, sometimes for a shelter, sometimes for a piece of bread, sometimes merely to get some one to show her the way. A wretched woman is more unfortunate than a wretched man, because she is an instrument of pleasure. Frightful wandering on foot. But nothing made any difference to her so long as she found her children.
Her first encounter to-day had been a village on the way; it was scarcely daybreak, everything was still bathed in the gloom of night, still some doors were already ajar in the principal street of the village, and some curious heads were looking out of the windows. The inhabitants seemed as agitated as a hive which has been disturbed. This was on account of a sound of wheels and chains which had been heard.
In the square in front of the church, an astounded group, with upturned faces, was looking at something coming down the road toward the village from the top of a hill.
It was a wagon with four wheels, drawn by five horses harnessed with chains. On the wagon could be made out a heap which looked like a pile of long joists, in the middle of which was something strange and shapeless; it was covered over with an awning, which had the appearance of a shroud.
Ten men on horseback rode in front of the wagon, and ten others, behind. These men wore three-cornered hats, and rising above their shoulders could be seen points, which were apparently bare swords. All this procession, advancing slowly, stood out in clearly defined black against the horizon. The wagon looked black, the horses looked black, the cavaliers looked black. The pale morning light gleamed behind them.
It entered the village and went towards the square.
It began to grow light as the wagon came down the hill, and the procession could be seen distinctly; it seemed like a march of ghosts, for not a word escaped the men.
The riders were military men. They had, indeed, drawn swords. The awning was black.
The wretched, wandering mother entered the village and drew near the gathering of peasants just as the team and the mounted men were coming into the square. In the group of spectators, voices whispered questions and answers,—
"What is that?"
"It is the guillotine passing by."
"Where does it come from?"
"Where is it going?"
"I do not know. They say that it is going to a castle toward Parigné."
"Let it go wherever it will, provided it doesn't stop here."
This great wagon, with its burden covered with a sort of shroud; these horses; these military men; the noise of these chains; the silence of these riders; the dim light,—all this was ghastly.
The procession crossed the square and left the village; the village was in a hollow between two hills. After a quarter of an hour, the peasants, who had remained as though petrified, saw the gloomy procession come into sight again on the top of the hill toward the west. The large wheels jolted over the road, the horses' chains clanked in the morning wind, the sabres glistened; the sun was rising, there was a turn in the road, they all disappeared.
This was at just the moment when Georgette, in the hall of the library, awoke beside her brothers, who were still asleep, and said good morning to her rosy feet.