Escal Vigor/Part III/Chapter III

III.

In the afternoon, on that day of the year, the women of Smaragdis wander about in bands from booth to booth, from tavern to tavern, noisy, turbulent, provocative; and then tramp the high roads from early evening right into the depths of the night.

On their side, the young men also roam about in groups, arm in arm. The males make advances to the females, but the latter show themselves even more aggressive.

At the beginning of the campaign it is merely a mater of skirmishes, simple assaults with indecent words, nothing more than show off and bravado. On both sides they treat one another with insolence, challenge and warm up one another; fling out a thousand allurements. They provoke one another by word and even by libidinous gesture. Furtive squeezings, secret taps and indecent touches, subterfuges and feints; they allure and provoke demands but avoid payment of accounts.

The two camps, the two different sexes, have the air of enemies seeking to draw one another, keeping on the qui-vive, defending their positions. They observe, hail one another, cheapen, bargain, job. It is forbidden to lovers to accouple before evening. In the dancing booths the men frisk and spin about among themselves, and the women do the same. Cynical, uncouth, leaping: massive and wanton leapers!

If, during the day, a band of women encounter a column of men, there is a crossfire, a canonnade of enormously obscene remarks. Closer fighting becomes longer and more general; time to steal a kiss or let one be stolen, with abundance of pushing to and fro, pinching, and other preliminary familiarities. Jackets and frocks, petticoats and breeches, get rumpled and tumbled amid the wriggling and contortions of the love-hot hurly-burly that takes place.

At nightfall, after sunset, a furious flourish of trumpets, sounded from the four quarters of the island, gives the signal for the hour of serious engagements. The lovers then join their favourite girls, and, as soon as formed, the couples, whether of engaged persons or of partners for the night only, become sacred and are left undisturbed by the pursuing hordes, that continue to roll up and down the countryside in waves, swelling like the foaming sea and as noisy, favoured by the darkness.

At each collision, defections occur on the one side and the other, pairing taking place amongst the deserters. As brazen as the men, the women do not rest until they have chosen unto themselves mates. The columns grow thinner in consequence of these repeated eliminations. This goes on until all, or nearly all, the women have secured their dancing and sleeping partners for the rest of the fête. Those left to the last are, of course, the most enraged. Sometimes the humour of the young sparks takes the form of avoiding their search and obliging the maddened females to track out the desired males and give them chase. They feign to abandon the game, play at hide-and-seek, and pretend to wish to escape the amorous duties awaiting them. Then, excited by drink, dancing, contacts, twirlings and twistings, hoarse, almost foaming at the mouth, the women wander like she-wolves in rut from one street-crossing to another, or hold themselves coiled up in copses, silent, on the watch for their prey.

In the distance, mocking songs give echo to their tragic chaunts. The quarry braves and provokes them, finding pleasure in throwing off the trail and frustrating the greedy huntresses. Woe betide the laggard, the isolated male: he will pay for the rest! Woe even to the profane, or the stranger, whom they accost; he is summoned forthwith to make his choice of a female, or else to follow and serve her to whom he is adjudged by lot. Sinister stories have long filled the repertory of the ballad singers, and Olfgar was not the only victim of the lust-scenes in the woods of Smaragdis.

Henry de Kehlmark was not unaware of the violence of these traditionary festivals; and consequently, however fond he might be of bizarre amusements, he had always avoided going out on this evening of the fair. It was indeed the only public fête, the only local tradition, of which he was most careful to fight shy. The people had, up to the present, tolerated his abstention, by reason of the very excesses and enormities of the Saturnalia. So highly placed a personage could not decently identify himself with such demoniacs.

On this day respectable girls also, barricaded themselves at home, as well as young married and engaged couples, who preferred less inflammatory modes of pleasure.

Claudie's visit had left Kehlmark in a state of depression, which he had not known during these latter days. He was grieved at the hatred with which the virago regarded him. He even reproached himself with not having confessed to her the truth. But that would have been to betray Guidon, perhaps to ruin him. No, what he had been able to avow to a saint like Blandine he could not reveal to a creature so gross as Claudie. And these thoughts made him repent the more deeply the amorous comedy he had so long kept up with regard to her.

Guidon, enervated by the indisposition of his friend, who had deemed it advisable to conceal from him the step Claudie had made, expressed the intention of going out and taking a turn through the Fair, hoping that the open air would put him to rights. Henry made every attempt to detain him, to dissuade him from going out at such a juncture. But it seemed to young Govaertz that something imperiously summoned him down there, something called him to the village. Some occult snare, some maleficent fluid hemmed them both around.

"No, let me go," said he at last to Kehlmark, "we shall only add to the fever and irritation, inherent no doubt to this anniversary, by remaining here together. We should end by quarrelling, or at least by not so well understanding each other. Never before have I felt so irritable and afflicted. One would think there was a sort of moral urtica in the air. These miasmas of bestial folly spread even to our retreat. It is better to face them under the wide-open sky. Besides, as we depart to-morrow, this will be my last walk in Smaragdis, a farewell to my native isle, where it is true, I have suffered much, but only to love and enjoy the more deeply and recognise myself in thee."

Kehlmark endeavoured in vain to turn him aside from this excursion. Guidon seemed drawn out of doors by a magnetic force which mysteriously summoned him.

Without any feeling of distrust, young Govaertz lingered over long on the scene of the Fair. Sauntering with old comrades, the thought that he was about to leave them for ever lent them a new attraction. He practised archery with them, played skittles and quoits, wrestled naked to the waist with the Klaarvatsch lads, finding amusement in these friendly and even cordial embraces, and close entwinings of warm bodies. Sometimes it was he who was thrown, at other times he threw his antagonists; smiling at his own strength and supple grace, and forgetting in the heat and enjoyment of the moment the profounder joys of mind and art.

Guidon did not even think of the fact, yet so important a circumstance on that day, that he had just attained his majority and was now of an age for an obligatory amour with a girl of the country. The law and custom of Smaragdis had ceased to be present to his mind. His reverie was already sailing lightly away into the mists of the blue beyond.