VOX IN DESSERTO.
After leaving the three children to whom she gave her bread, Michelle Fléchard began to rove at random through the wood.
Since no one would show her the way, she must find it for herself. Every few moments she would sit down, then she would get up, and then sit down again. She felt that dismal weariness, which first affects the muscles and then passes to the bones, a slavish weariness. She was a slave in reality,—a slave to her lost children. She must find them; every lost instant might be their distraction; whoever has such a duty has no rights; she was forbidden to pause, even for breath. But she was very weary. In such a state of exhaustion, the possibility of one step more is a question. Could it be done? She had been walking since morning. She had seen no village, not even a house. At first she took the right path, then the wrong one, and finally she lost her way entirely among the branches, one just like another. Was she approaching the end? Was she touching the limit of her Passion? She was in the Via Dolorosa, and felt the agony of the "last station." Was she going to fall down on the road and die there? At one particular moment, it seemed impossible for her to go any farther; the sun was sinking, the forest was dark, paths were covered up in the grass, and she did not know what to do. She had nothing left but God. She began to call, no one replied.
She looked about her, she saw an opening among the branches, she went toward it, and suddenly found herself out of the woods.
Before her was a narrow vale like a trench, at the bottom of which, over the stones, ran a clear streamlet of water. Then, for the first time she became aware how very thirsty she was. She went to the brook, knelt down, and drank.
She took advantage of being on her knees to repeat her prayers.
When she arose, she tried to get her bearings.
She crossed the brook.
Beyond the little vale there stretched away as far as the eye could reach, a wide plateau covered with low underbrush, which sloped up from the brook and filled the whole horizon. The forest was a solitude, the plateau was a desert. In the forest behind each bush, there was a chance of meeting some one; on the plateau, as far as one could see, there was nothing. A few birds, which seemed to be escaping from something, flew into the heather.
Then, before this immense deserted plain, feeling her knees give way, as though she had become insane, the desperate mother flung this strange cry into the solitude; "Is there any one here?"
And she waited for the reply.
There was an answer.
A heavy, deep voice burst forth; this voice came from the edge of the horizon; it was reverberated from echo to echo; it resembled a peal of thunder or a cannon; and it seemed as if this voice replied to the mother's question and said: "Yes."
Then all was silent.
The mother rose, with new life; there was some one there. It seemed to her that now she had some one to speak to; she had just relieved her thirst and prayed; her strength returned, she began to ascend the slope in the direction from which she had heard that enormous distant voice.
Suddenly, she saw rising from the extreme edge of the horizon, a tall tower. The tower stood alone in this wild landscape; a ray from the setting sun lighted it up. She was more than a league away from it. Behind this tower, a wide expanse of verdure lost itself in the haze; this was the forest of Fougères.
This tower appeared to her to he on the very point of the horizon from which had come that roaring voice that seemed to her like a call. Had this tower made the noise?
Michelle Fléchard reached the top of the pleateau; she had nothing more before her except the plain.
She walked toward the tower.