MURMURINGS OF THE PEASANTS.
Michelle Flechard was in the midst of the crowd.
She had not listened, but one can hear what one does not listen to. She had heard this word, la Tourgue. She raised her head.
"Hey!" she repeated, "la Tourgue?"
The people stared at her. She looked as though she were demented. She was in rags. Voices murmured,—
"She looks like a brigand."
A peasant woman carrying some buckwheat cakes in a basket approached her, and said in an undertone,—
"Hold your tongue."
Michelle Fléchard looked at the woman in amazement.
Again she failed to understand. This name la Tourgue had passed by like a flash of lightning, and then it grew dark again. Had she no right to ask questions? What was the matter with them, that they looked at her so?
In the meantime, the drum had beaten a last ban, the bill-poster had pasted up the placard, the mayor had gone into the town hall, the crier had departed for some other village, and the crowd had scattered.
A group remained in front of the placard. Michelle Fléchard joined this group.
They were commenting on the names of those men who were outlawed.
There were peasants and citizens in the group; that is to say, Whites and Blues.
A peasant said,—
"No matter, they do not count everybody. Nineteen is only nineteen. They do not count Riou, they do not count Benjamin Moulins, they do not count Goupil, of the parish of Andouillé."
"Nor Lorieul, of Montjean," said another.
"Nor François Dudonet."
"Yes, the one from Laval."
"Nor Huet, from Launey-Villiers."
"Nor the three brothers Logerais."
"Nor Monsieur Lechandelier de Pierreville."
"Fools!" said a stern old man with white hair. "They have them all, if they take Lantenac."
"They haven't taken him yet," muttered one of the young fellows.
The old man replied,—
"If Lantenac is taken, the soul is taken. If Lantenac is dead, la Vendée is killed."
"Who is this Lantenac, then?" asked a citizen.
A citizen replied: "He is a ci-devant."
And another added: "He is one of those who shoot women."
Michelle Fléchard heard that, and said: "That is true."
The people turned round.
And she added: "Because they shot me."
These words had a strange effect; it was as though one thought dead was found alive. They began to examine her, somewhat askance.
She was really distressing to look at; trembling at everything, scared, shivering, having a wildly anxious look, and so frightened that she was frightful. In a woman's despair there is a strange helplessness which is terrible. It is like seeing a being suspended at the extremity of fate. But the peasants looked at it more roughly. One of them growled: "She may be a spy."
"Hold your tongue, and go away," said the good woman who had already spoken to her, in a low voice.
Michelle Fléchard replied,—
"I am not doing any harm. I am looking for my children."
The good woman looked at those who were looking at Michelle Fléchard, tapped her forehead, winked, and said,—
"She is half-witted."
Then she took her aside, and gave her a buckwheat biscuit.
Michelle Fléchard, without thanking her, bit eagerly into the biscuit.
"Yes," said the peasants, "she eats like a pig, she is half-witted."
And the rest of the group scattered. They all went away one after another.
When Michelle Fléchard had finished eating, she said to the peasant woman: "It is good; I have had something to eat. Now, for la Tourgue!"
"See how she clings to that!" exclaimed the peasant woman.
"I must go to la Tourgue. Tell me the way to la Tourgue."
"Never," said the peasant woman. "You want to be killed, do you? Besides, I don't know. Ah, so you are really mad? Listen, my poor woman, you look tired. Will you rest in my house?"
"I cannot rest," said the mother.
"Her feet are all raw," muttered the peasant woman.
Michelle Fléchard added,—
"As I tell you, they have taken my children from me. A little girl and two little boys. I come from the carnichot in the forest. You can ask Tellmarch the Caimand about me. And then the man I met in the field down there. It was the Caimand who made me well. It seems that I had something broken. All these are things that have happened. Besides, there was the sergeant Radoub. You can ask him. He will tell you. For he it was who found us in a wood. Three. I tell you three children. And the oldest is called René-Jean. I can prove all this. The other is called Gros-Alain, and the other is called Georgette. My husband is dead. They killed him. He was a farmer in Siscoignard. You look like a good woman. Show me my way. I am not mad; I am a mother. I have lost my children. I am looking for them. I do not know exactly where I have come from. Last night I slept on some straw in a barn. La Tourgue is where I am going. I am not a thief. You see that I am telling the truth. You ought to help me find my children. I do not belong to this country. I have been shot, but I do not know where."
The peasant woman shook her head, and said,—
"Listen, traveller. In times of revolution one must not say things that will not be understood. You may be arrested for it."
"But la Tourgue!" cried the mother. "Madame, for the love of the child Jesus, and the holy, good Virgin in Paradise, I beseech you, madame, I beg you, I implore you, tell me how to go to reach la Tourgue!"
The peasant woman grew angry.
"I do not know! and, if I knew, I would not tell you! It is a bad place there. It is not best to go there."
"Nevertheless, I am going there," said the mother.
And she started on.
The peasant woman saw her going away, and grumbled,—
"She ought to have something to eat."
She ran after Michelle Fléchard, and put a buckwheat biscuit in her hand.
"There's something for your supper."
Michelle Fléchard took the buckwheat bread, did not reply, did not turn her head, and went on her way.
She went out of the village. As she came to the last houses she met three little ragged and barefooted children passing by. She went to them, and said,—
"These are two girls and a boy."
And when she saw how they eyed her bread, she gave it to them.
The children seized it, but were afraid of her.
She plunged into the forest.