ALL through the week Lalie had begged Madeleine to take her nut-gathering, and this very Sunday Madeleine had at last given in.
As the weather was fine, she had dressed the children in their prettiest. That very morning, she had purchased, with her own money, a small bottle of scent for them. She had sprinkled it lavishly over their hair, and the baby in her arms was fragrant as a nosegay.
In the hedge by the meadow—how beautiful the meadow was!—she had picked hazel nuts. And then she had strolled down to the pond, behind Jo who had trotted ahead, darting to right and left. How shiny the pond was!
In the shade of an oak she sat down and cracked the nuts. Using her best pocket knife, that she kept for wedding feasts and such great occasions, she opened the brown shells, while two little greedy mouths watched for the kernels.
Down where my garden flowers twine.
On air I go, heart of mine,
To pluck the rose and columbine;—
The air is light as wine!
There she was, actually singing! What made her heart so light? Perhaps the pretty pearl-handled knife, so dainty that she hardly felt it in her hand, was a lover's gift? Not so. All it recalled to her mind was feasting—no memory of courtship, nothing that touched her heart. Was it then because the meadow was so lovely"? Because the pond shimmered so? Because the children were laughing and smelled sweet as aromatic herbs?
No, no—none of these was a reason—
A thrush comes winging from a vine;
On air I go, heart of mine!
Jo wanted to sing, too; Lalie shouted:
And greets me with his merry line:
"The air is light as wine!"
A softness had come over Madeleine, like the touch of a hand. She felt her bosom throbbing with a great, groundless joy that was all pervading and yet fragile. When she was eighteen, of a festive morning when the young people were preparing for a party, she had felt like this—as light as a sparrow.
"What a foolish thing I am! Poor bee in the rain! November swallow!"
The air is light as wine!"
The little ones hung about her neck with shouts and pummelings and peals of laughter and strenuous, awkward wrestlings. She let herself tumble over, surrendered her head to them, played with them foe a while, forgetful of all else and overwhelmed with tenderness.
"Madeleine! Come here! Madeleine!"
Lalie, who quickly tired of any game, had gone close to the railing at the edge of the pond. At first she had thrown pebbles into the water. Now that she had exhausted the supply, she was throwing in some belladonna berries.
"Madeleine, see the fish!"
Madeleine came close with the baby. The water, looking black from a distance, was on the contrary wonderfully limpid. When a berry touched the surface, the fish rose to it from below. They were small but very lively roach; their yellow eyes, their round mouths and pink, lacy fins were clearly visible. They snapped up the berries so quickly, you hardly saw them swallow.
"Snap! Snap! There's another— The greedy things!"
"Lalie, you mustn't lean over so far. Come, Lalie!"
Madeleine took the children back under the oak. She had been afraid of the water ever since childhood. A half-witted old aunt had told her so many stories about bad fairies and black water witches that she always felt a kind of mysterious, fearsome fascination in the sleepy waters of a pond.
"You mustn't go too near, do you hear me, dear? The water is full of wicked creatures, that pull little children in by the feet!"
"Let's play, Madeleine!" said Lalie without listening. "I'll be a peddlar woman, I'll be selling pins; Jo'll be a little boy and you'll be his mamma. You're inside your house. You see? These little sticks are my pins. I'll knock at your door—'Anybody at home?' You'll say, 'How do you do, Ma'am, I want some pins to pin my little boy's didies'—do you hear, Madeleine? Jo is a little boy, you are his mamma! If you'd rather, I could be selling sugar almonds. Jo'll say, 'Mama, I want some candy'—"
"Silly! Don't you know he can't talk yet? Just listen to him!"
"Ma—ma—ma!" babbled Jo.
"We must teach him, Madeleine! Jojo, say 'Mam-ma, I want——'"
"You don't know how to play, Jo," said his sister; "Lalie is going to play all by herself."
Madeleine, with a sudden flush, had picked up the baby; she held him up before her, her face close to his.
"Jo, my little Jojo, say 'mam-ma, mam-ma'——"
She raised pleading eyes. Her tender emotion of the afternoon was sweeping her on to this strange, unknown passion of feeling— Falling in love must be like that! She was carried away—unashamed.
"Jo! Listen! Mam-ma! Mam-ma!"
Her shoulders sank together, the blood rushed to her heart. Corbier was standing behind the hedge, a few steps away.
For one instant Madeleine's eyes were wide and radiant; for one instant a great brightness flooded her soul— Then everything went dark. Corbier, white-faced, raised his hand as if to hurl the words at her:
"Madeleine! This is mortal sin! I forbid you this abomination!"