THE TOP OF THE DUNE.
The old man waited till Halmalo had disappeared from sight, then he wrapped his cloak about him and set forth. He walked slowly, thoughtfully. He went toward Huisnes, while Halmalo had gone toward Beauvoir.
Behind him, an enormous black triangle, with a cathedral for tiara, and a fortress for breastplate, with its two great towers to the east, one round, the other square, which help the mountain to bear the weight of church and village, rose Mount Saint-Michael, which is to the ocean what Cheops is to the desert.
The quicksands in the bay of Saint-Michael's change their sand-dunes imperceptibly. At that time between Huisnes and Ardevon there was a very high dune, which has now entirely disappeared. This dune, levelled by an equinoctial storm, was exceptional in being ancient, and bearing on its summit a memorial stone erected in the twelfth century in commemoration of a council held at Avranches against the assassins of Saint Thomas of Canterbury. From the top of this dune, the whole country could be seen, and one could get his bearings.
The old man went toward this dune and ascended it. When he had reached the top, he stopped by the monument, sat down on one of the four posts which marked the corners, and began to examine the sort of map lying at his feet. He seemed to be trying to find a route in a country once familiar to him. In this vast landscape, indistinct in the twilight, there was nothing clear but the horizon, a black line on the white sky.
He could see the roofs of eleven towns and villages; he could make, out several leagues away, the steeples along the coast, which are very high, in order to serve as landmarks to people at sea.
After a few moments, the old man seemed to have found in the dim twilight what he was looking for; his eyes fastened on an enclosure of trees, walls, and roofs, which could just be seen half-way between the plain and the wood; this was a farm; he nodded his head with satisfaction as though saying to himself: "There it is," and he began to trace with his finger in the air a way through the hedges and fields. Now and then he examined a rather indistinct and shapeless object, moving above the principal roof of the farm, and he seemed to ask: "What is it?" It was colorless and confused because of the gloom; it was not a weathercock, because it fluttered, and there was no reason why it should be a flag.
He was weary: he was willing to rest on this spot where he was sitting, and he gave himself up to that sort of vague forgetfulness, which the first moment of repose brings to a tired man. There is an hour of the day which might be called noiseless, it is the quiet twilight hour. It was that hour now. He was enjoying it; he was looking about; he was listening; to what? tranquillity. Even the cruel have their sad moments. Suddenly this tranquillity was not disturbed, but made more intense, by passing voices; they were the voices of women and children. There are sometimes such unexpected chimes of joy in the darkness. The group from which the voices came could not be seen on account of the thickets, but it was walking along at the foot of the dune, going toward the plain and the forest. These voices came up clear and fresh to the old man lost in thought; they were so near that he caught all they said.
A woman's voice said,—
"We must hurry along, Flécharde. Is this the way?"
"No, it is this way."
And the dialogue continued between the two voices, one loud, the other timid.
"What do you call this farm where we are living now?"
"Are we far from it?"
"About a quarter of an hour."
"Let us hurry, so as to get our soup."
"We really are late."
"We must run. But your babies are tired. We are only two women, we can't carry three brats. And then, Flécharde, you are already carrying one. A regular lump of lead. You have weaned the greedy little thing, but you are always carrying her. A bad habit; oblige me by making her walk. Well! so much the worse, our soup will be cold!"
"Oh, what good shoes you have given me! I should think they were made for me."
"They are better than going barefooted."
"Hurry up now, René-Jean."
"He is the one who has kept us back. He has to speak to every little peasant girl he meets. That is because he is a man."
"To be sure, he is going on five years."
"Tell me, René-Jean, why did you speak to that little girl in the village?"
A child's voice,—that of a boy, replied,—
"Because I know her."
The woman added,—
"What, you know her?"
"Yes," replied the boy, "ever since she played with me this morning."
"Oh, how big he is!" exclaimed the woman, "we have only been in the country three days, he is no larger than my thumb, and he has a sweetheart already."
The voices grew fainter. All sound died away.