HEALED BREAST, A BLEEDING HEART.
A cut heals quickly; but there was some one elsewhere more seriously wounded than Cimourdain. It was the woman who had been shot at Herbe-en-Pail and had been picked up by the beggar Tellmarch in the great pool of blood.
Michelle Fléchard was in even greater danger than Tellmarch had supposed; there was a wound in her shoulder blade corresponding to the one above her breast; at the same time that the bullet broke her collar bone, another went through her shoulder; but as her lung had not been touched she might recover. Tellmarch was a "philosopher," an expression among the peasants signifying something of a doctor, a little of a surgeon, a little of a sorcerer. He took care of the wounded woman in his den, on his pallet of seaweed, giving her those mysterious things called "simple remedies," and, thanks to him, she lived.
The collar bone knit together, the wounds in her breast and shoulder closed up; after a few weeks the wounded woman was convalescent.
One morning she was able to go out of the carnichot, leaning on Tellmarch; she sat down under the trees in the sun. Tellmarch knew little about her, breast wounds require perfect quiet, and during the agony preceding her recovery, she had hardly spoken a word. When she wished to talk, Tellmarch made her keep silent; but her delirium was persistent, and Tellmarch noticed in her eyes the gloomy coming and going of painful thoughts. This morning she was strong, she could almost walk by herself; a cure is a paternity, and Tellmarch looked at her with happiness. This good old man began to smile, He spoke to her.
"Well, we are on our feet, we have no more wounds."
"Except in the heart," she said.
And she added,—
"So you don't know at all where they are?"
"Who?" asked Tellmarch.
That "so" expressed a whole world of thoughts; it meant "since you never speak to me about them, since for so many days you have been by my side without opening your mouth about them, since you have made me keep silence every time I wished to break it, since you seem to fear that I should speak about them, it must be because you have nothing to tell me." Often in wandering and delirium of fever she had called her children, and had seen, for delirium takes note, that the old man did not answer her.
It was because Tellmarch really did not know what to say to her. It is not an easy matter to speak to a mother of her lost children. And, then, what did he know? Nothing. He knew that a mother had been shot, that this mother had been found on the ground by him, that when he had picked her up she was almost a corpse, that this corpse had three children, and that the Marquis de Lantenac, after having the mother shot, had carried away the three. All his information ended here. What had become of these children? Were they even still living? He knew, for he had made inquiries, that there were two boys, and a little girl hardly weaned. Nothing more. He asked himself a multitude of questions about this unfortunate group, but he could answer none of them. The country people whom he questioned could do no more than shake their heads. Monsieur de Lantenac was a man whom they did not willingly talk about.
People did not like to speak of Lantenac and they did not like to speak to Tellmarch. Peasants have a kind of suspicion peculiar to themselves. They did not love Tellmarch. Tellmarch the Caimand was a disquieting man. Why was he always looking at the sky? What was he doing and what was he thinking about in his long hours of inertness? He was really a strange man. In this country full of war, full of conflagration, full of combustion; where all the men had but one business, devastation; and but one work, carnage; where whoever wished burned a house, cut the throats of a family, massacred a port, plundered a village; where people thought of nothing but laying ambushes for each other, drawing each other into snares, and killing one another; this solitary man, absorbed in nature, as it were, submerged in the vast peace of things, gathering herbs and plants, occupied solely with flowers, birds, and stars, was evidently dangerous. Plainly, he had lost his reason; he did not lie in ambush, he shot nobody. Hence there was a certain dread regarding him.
"This man is mad," said the peasants.
Tellmarch was more than an isolated man, he was a man who was avoided.
No one asked him questions, and no one gave him satisfactory answers. He had consequently not been able to get as much information as he would have wished. The war had spread beyond, they had gone to fight farther away, the Marquis de Lantenac had disappeared from sight, and in Tellmarch's state of mind, war had to put its foot on him before he would notice it.
After these words, "my children," Tellmarch no longer smiled, and the mother was lost in thought. "What was passing in her soul? It was like the depths of an abyss. Suddenly she looked up at Tellmarch and cried out again in almost an angry voice,—
Tellmarch bowed his head as though he were guilty. He was thinking of the Marquis de Lantenac, who was certainly not thinking of him; and, who, probably, was no longer even aware of his existence. He was calling himself to account for it, saying to himself: "A seigneur, when he is in danger, recognizes you; when he is out of danger, he recognizes you no longer."
And he asked himself: "But, then, why did I save this seigneur?"
And he replied: "Because he is a man."
He thought it over for some time, and added to himself,—
"Am I sure of it?"
And he repeated his bitter remark: "If I had known!"
He was overwhelmed by this adventure, for what he had done puzzled him. It was painful for him to think of it. A good action may, then, be a bad action. He who saves the wolf kills the sheep. He who repairs the vulture's wing is responsible for his claw.
He really felt that he was guilty. This mother's unreasoning anger was justifiable.
However, having saved the mother consoled him for having saved this marquis.
But the children!
The mother was thinking about them, too. Their thoughts were in the same direction, and without speaking to each other, they may have met in the shadows of reverie.
However, her eyes, in whose depths was the darkness of night, fastened on Tellmarch again.
"But it cannot go on like this," she said.
"Hush!" said Tellmarch, putting his finger on his lips.
"You did wrong to save me, and I am angry with you for it. I would rather be dead, because I am sure I should see them. I should know where they are. They would not see me, but I should be near them. One when dead may be able to protect."
He took her arm and felt her pulse.
"Calm yourself, you will bring on the fever again."
She asked him almost harshly,—
"When can I go away?"
"Never, if you are not reasonable; to-morrow, if you are good."
"What do you call being good?"
"Having confidence in God."
"God! Where has he put my children?"
She was like one deranged. Her voice grew very gentle.
"You understand," she said to him, "I cannot stay like this. You have never had children, I have had them. That makes a difference. One cannot judge of a thing when he does not know what it is. You have never had any children, have you?"
"No," replied Tellmarch.
"As for me, I had nothing else. Without my children, what am I? I wish some one would tell me why I am without my children. I feel sure something has happened, but I do not understand. They have killed my husband, they shot me, but, all the same, I do not understand it."
"Come," said Tellmarch, "the fever is coming on again. Don't talk any more."
She looked at him and was silent.
After this day, she talked no more.
Tellmarch was obeyed more than he wished. She spent long hours crouching at the foot of the old tree, in a dull stupor. She pondered and was silent. Silence offers a strange protection to simple souls suddenly plunged into the gloomy depths of grief. She seemed to have given up understanding it. To a certain degree, despair is unintelligible to the despairing.
Tellmarch looked at her with emotion. In the presence of this suffering, this old man had a woman's thoughts. "Oh, yes," he said to himself, "her lips do not speak, but her eyes speak; I see what is the matter with her, one all-absorbing thought. To have been a mother and to be a mother no longer! To have been a nurse, and to be so no more! She cannot be resigned to it. She thinks of the little one she nursed not long since. She thinks about it, and thinks about it, and thinks about it. It surely must be delightful to feel a little rosy mouth drawing your soul out of your body, and from your life making a life for itself!"
For his part he was silent too, feeling before such affliction, the powerlessness of words. The silence of an all-absorbing idea is terrible. And how to make this mother's all-absorbing idea listen to reason? Maternity is illogical; one cannot reason with it. What makes a mother sublime is that she is a sort of animal. The maternal instinct is divinely animal. The mother is no longer a woman, she is a female.
Children are her young.
Hence, there is something in the mother inferior and superior to reason. A mother has a guiding scent. The vast mysterious will of creation is in her and guides her. Blindness full of clear-sightedness.
Tellmarch now wanted to make this wretched woman talk; he did not succeed. Once, he said to her,—
"Unfortunately, I am old and unable to walk any longer. I come to the end of my strength before I come to the end of my journey. After a quarter of an hour, my legs refuse to go, and I am obliged to stop; otherwise, I should be able to accompany you. Perhaps in reality it is a good thing that I am not able. I should be more dangerous than useful to you; they tolerate me here; but I am suspected by the Blues as a peasant, and by the peasants as a sorcerer."
He waited for her to reply. She did not even raise her eyes. An all-absorbing idea ends in madness or heroism. But of what heroism was a poor peasant woman capable? Of none. She could be a mother, and that was all. Each day she buried herself more deeply in her thoughts. Tellmarch watched her.
He tried to give her occupation; he brought her thread, needles, and a thimble; and she really began to sew, which pleased the poor caimand; she pondered, but she worked, a sign of health; strength was returning gradually; she mended her linen, her garments, her shoes; but her eye still looked glassy. While she sewed, she hummed unintelligible songs in a low voice. She murmured names, probably those of her children, but not distinctly enough for Tellmarch to understand. She stopped to listen to the birds, as if they had news to give her. She watched the signs of the weather. Her lips moved. She talked to herself in a low voice. She made a bag and filled it with chestnuts. One morning, Tellmarch saw her starting away, looking at random into the depths of the forest.
"Where are you going?" he asked.
"I am going to look for them."
He did not try to detain her.