The Gate of the Giant Scissors by Annie Fellows Johnston
Chapter III. Behind the Great Gate.
That was the tale of the giant scissors as it was told to Joyce in the pleasant fire-lighted room; but behind the great gates the true story went on in a far different way.
Back of the Ciseaux house was a dreary field, growing drearier and browner every moment as the twilight deepened; and across its rough furrows a tired boy was stumbling wearily homeward. He was not more than nine years old, but the careworn expression of his thin white face might have belonged to a little old man of ninety. He was driving two unruly goats towards the house. The chase they led him would have been a laughable sight, had he not looked so small and forlorn plodding along in his clumsy wooden shoes, and a peasant's blouse of blue cotton, several sizes too large for his thin little body.
The anxious look in his eyes changed to one of fear as he drew nearer the house. At the sound of a gruff voice bellowing at him from the end of the lane, he winced as if he had been struck.
"Ha, there, Jules! Thou lazy vagabond! Late again! Canst thou never learn that I am not to be kept waiting?"
"But, Brossard," quavered the boy in his shrill, anxious voice, "it was not my fault, indeed it was not. The goats were so stubborn to-night. They broke through the hedge, and I had to chase them over three fields."
"Have done with thy lying excuses," was the rough answer. "Thou shalt have no supper to-night. Maybe an empty stomach will teach thee when my commands fail. Hasten and drive the goats into the pen."
There was a scowl on Brossard's burly red face that made Jules's heart bump up in his throat. Brossard was only the caretaker of the Ciseaux place, but he had been there for twenty years,--so long that he felt himself the master. The real master was in Algiers nearly all the time. During his absence the great house was closed, excepting the kitchen and two rooms above it. Of these Brossard had one and Henri the other. Henri was the cook; a slow, stupid old man, not to be jogged out of either his good-nature or his slow gait by anything that Brossard might say.
Henri cooked and washed and mended, and hoed in the garden. Brossard worked in the fields and shaved down the expenses of their living closer and closer. All that was thus saved fell to his share, or he might not have watched the expenses so carefully.
Much saving had made him miserly. Old Therese, the woman with the fish-cart, used to say that he was the stingiest man in all Tourraine. She ought to know, for she had sold him a fish every Friday during all those twenty years, and he had never once failed to quarrel about the price. Five years had gone by since the master's last visit. Brossard and Henri were not likely to forget that time, for they had been awakened in the dead of night by a loud knocking at the side gate. When they opened it the sight that greeted them made them rub their sleepy eyes to be sure that they saw aright.
There stood the master, old Martin Ciseaux. His hair and fiercely bristling mustache had turned entirely white since they had last seen him. In his arms he carried a child.
Brossard almost dropped his candle in his first surprise, and his wonder grew until he could hardly contain it, when the curly head raised itself from monsieur's shoulder, and the sleepy baby voice lisped something in a foreign tongue.
"By all the saints!" muttered Brossard, as he stood aside for his master to pass.
"It's my brother Jules's grandson," was the curt explanation that monsieur offered. "Jules is dead, and so is his son and all the family,--died in America. This is his son's son, Jules, the last of the name. If I choose to take him from a foreign poorhouse and give him shelter, it's nobody's business, Louis Brossard, but my own."
With that he strode on up the stairs to his room, the boy still in his arms. This sudden coming of a four-year-old child into their daily life made as little difference to Brossard and Henri as the presence of the four-months-old puppy. They spread a cot for him in Henri's room when the master went back to Algiers. They gave him something to eat three times a day when they stopped for their own meals, and then went on with their work as usual.
It made no difference to them that he sobbed in the dark for his mother to come and sing him to sleep,--the happy young mother who had petted and humored him in her own fond American fashion. They could not understand his speech; more than that, they could not understand him. Why should he mope alone in the garden with that beseeching look of a lost dog in his big, mournful eyes? Why should he not play and be happy, like the neighbor's children or the kittens or any other young thing that had life and sunshine?
Brossard snapped his fingers at him sometimes at first, as he would have done to a playful animal; but when Jules drew back, frightened by his foreign speech and rough voice, he began to dislike the timid child. After awhile he never noticed him except to push him aside or to find fault.
It was from Henri that Jules picked up whatever French he learned, and it was from Henri also that he had received the one awkward caress, and the only one, that his desolate little heart had known in all the five loveless years that he had been with them.
A few months ago Brossard had put him out in the field to keep the goats from straying away from their pasture, two stubborn creatures, whose self-willed wanderings had brought many a scolding down on poor Jules's head. To-night he was unusually unfortunate, for added to the weary chase they had led him was this stern command that he should go to bed without his supper.
He was about to pass into the house, shivering and hungry, when Henri put his head out at the window. "Brossard," he called, "there isn't enough bread for supper; there's just this dry end of a loaf. You should have bought as I told you, when the baker's cart stopped here this morning."
Brossard slowly measured the bit of hard, black bread with his eye, and, seeing that there was not half enough to satisfy the appetites of two hungry men, he grudgingly drew a franc from his pocket.
"Here, Jules," he called. "Go down to the bakery, and see to it that thou art back by the time that I have milked the goats, or thou shalt go to bed with a beating, as well as supperless. Stay!" he added, as Jules turned to go. "I have a mind to eat white bread to-night instead of black. It will cost an extra son, so be careful to count the change. It is only once or so in a twelvemonth," he muttered to himself as an excuse for his extravagance.
It was half a mile to the village, but down hill all the way, so that Jules reached the bakery in a very short time.
Several customers were ahead of him, however, and he awaited his turn nervously. When he left the shop an old lamplighter was going down the street with torch and ladder, leaving a double line of twinkling lights in his wake, as he disappeared down the wide "Paris road." Jules watched him a moment, and then ran rapidly on. For many centuries the old village of St. Symphorien had echoed with the clatter of wooden shoes on its ancient cobblestones; but never had foot-falls in its narrow, crooked streets kept time to the beating of a lonelier little heart.
The officer of Customs, at his window beside the gate that shuts in the old town at night, nodded in a surly way as the boy hurried past. Once outside the gate, Jules walked more slowly, for the road began to wind up-hill. Now he was out again in the open country, where a faint light lying over the frosty fields showed that the moon was rising.
Here and there lamps shone from the windows of houses along the road; across the field came the bark of a dog, welcoming his master; two old peasant women passed him in a creaking cart on their glad way home.
At the top of the hill Jules stopped to take breath, leaning for a moment against the stone wall. He was faint from hunger, for he had been in the fields since early morning, with nothing for his midday lunch but a handful of boiled chestnuts. The smell of the fresh bread tantalized him beyond endurance. Oh, to be able to take a mouthful,--just one little mouthful of that brown, sweet crust!
He put his face down close, and shut his eyes, drawing in the delicious odor with long, deep breaths. What bliss it would be to have that whole loaf for his own,--he, little Jules, who was to have no supper that night! He held it up in the moonlight, hungrily looking at it on every side. There was not a broken place to be found anywhere on its surface; not one crack in all that hard, brown glaze of crust, from which he might pinch the tiniest crumb.
For a moment a mad impulse seized him to tear it in pieces, and eat every scrap, regardless of the reckoning with Brossard afterwards. But it was only for a moment. The memory of his last beating stayed his hand. Then, fearing to dally with temptation, lest it should master him, he thrust the bread under his arm, and ran every remaining step of the way home.
Brossard took the loaf from him, and pointed with it to the stairway,--a mute command for Jules to go to bed at once. Tingling with a sense of injustice, the little fellow wanted to shriek out in all his hunger and misery, defying this monster of a man; but a struggling sparrow might as well have tried to turn on the hawk that held it. He clenched his hands to keep from snatching something from the table, set out so temptingly in the kitchen, but he dared not linger even to look at it. With a feeling of utter helplessness he passed it in silence, his face white and set.
Dragging his tired feet slowly up the stairs, he went over to the casement window, and swung it open; then, kneeling down, he laid his head on the sill, in the moonlight. Was it his dream that came back to him then, or only a memory? He could never be sure, for if it were a memory, it was certainly as strange as any dream, unlike anything he had ever known in his life with Henri and Brossard. Night after night he had comforted himself with the picture that it brought before him.
He could see a little white house in the middle of a big lawn. There were vines on the porches, and it must have been early in the evening, for the fireflies were beginning to twinkle over the lawn. And the grass had just been cut, for the air was sweet with the smell of it. A woman, standing on the steps under the vines, was calling "Jules, Jules, it is time to come in, little son!"
But Jules, in his white dress and shoulder-knots of blue ribbon, was toddling across the lawn after a firefly.
Then she began to call him another way. Jules had a vague idea that it was a part of some game that they sometimes played together. It sounded like a song, and the words were not like any that he had ever heard since he came to live with Henri and Brossard. He could not forget them, though, for had they not sung themselves through that beautiful dream every time he had it?
"Little Boy Blue, oh, where are you? O, where are you-u-u-u?"
He only laughed in the dream picture and ran on after the firefly. Then a man came running after him, and, catching him, tossed him up laughingly, and carried him to the house on his shoulder.
Somebody held a glass of cool, creamy milk for him to drink, and by and by he was in a little white night-gown in the woman's lap. His head was nestled against her shoulder, and he could feel her soft lips touching him on cheeks and eyelids and mouth, before she began to sing:
"Oh, little Boy Blue, lay by your horn, And mother will sing of the cows and the corn, Till the stars and the angels come to keep Their watch, where my baby lies fast asleep."
Now all of a sudden Jules knew that there was another kind of hunger worse than the longing for bread. He wanted the soft touch of those lips again on his mouth and eyelids, the loving pressure of those restful arms, a thousand times more than he had wished for the loaf that he had just brought home. Two hot tears, that made his eyes ache in their slow gathering, splashed down on the window-sill.
Down below Henri opened the kitchen door and snapped his fingers to call the dog. Looking out, Jules saw him set a plate of bones on the step. For a moment he listened to the animal's contented crunching, and then crept across the room to his cot, with a little moan. "O-o-oh--o-oh!" he sobbed. "Even the dog has more than I have, and I'm so hungry!" He hid his head awhile in the old quilt; then he raised it again, and, with the tears streaming down his thin little face, sobbed in a heartbroken whisper: "Mother! Mother! Do you know how hungry I am?"
A clatter of knives and forks from the kitchen below was the only answer, and he dropped despairingly down again.
"She's so far away she can't even hear me!" he moaned. "Oh, if I could only be dead, too!"
He lay there, crying, till Henri had finished washing the supper dishes and had put them clumsily away. The rank odor of tobacco, stealing up the stairs, told him that Brossard had settled down to enjoy his evening pipe. Through the casement window that was still ajar came the faint notes of an accordeon from Monsieur Greville's garden, across the way. Gabriel, the coachman, was walking up and down in the moonlight, playing a wheezy accompaniment to the only song he knew. Jules did not notice it at first, but after awhile, when he had cried himself quiet, the faint melody began to steal soothingly into his consciousness. His eyelids closed drowsily, and then the accordeon seemed to be singing something to him. He could not understand at first, but just as he was dropping off to sleep he heard it quite clearly:
"Till the stars and the angels come to keep Their watch, where my baby lies fast asleep."
Late in the night Jules awoke with a start, and sat up, wondering what had aroused him. He knew that it must be after midnight, for the moon was nearly down. Henri was snoring. Suddenly such a strong feeling of hunger came over him, that he could think of nothing else. It was like a gnawing pain. As if he were being led by some power outside of his own will, he slipped to the door of the room. The little bare feet made no noise on the carpetless floor. No mouse could have stolen down the stairs more silently than timid little Jules. The latch of the kitchen door gave a loud click that made him draw back with a shiver of alarm; but that was all. After waiting one breathless minute, his heart beating like a trip-hammer, he went on into the pantry.
The moon was so far down now, that only a white glimmer of light showed him the faint outline of things; but his keen little nose guided him. There was half a cheese on the swinging shelf, with all the bread that had been left from supper. He broke off great pieces of each in eager haste. Then he found a crock of goat's milk. Lifting it to his mouth, he drank with big, quick gulps until he had to stop for breath. Just as he was about to raise it to his lips again, some instinct of danger made him look up. There in the doorway stood Brossard, bigger and darker and more threatening than he had ever seemed before.
A frightened little gasp was all that the child had strength to give. He turned so sick and faint that his nerveless fingers could no longer hold the crock. It fell to the floor with a crash, and the milk spattered all over the pantry. Jules was too terrified to utter a sound. It was Brossard who made the outcry. Jules could only shut his eyes and crouch down trembling, under the shelf. The next instant he was dragged out, and Brossard's merciless strap fell again and again on the poor shrinking little body, that writhed under the cruel blows.
Once more Jules dragged himself up-stairs to his cot, this time bruised and sore, too exhausted for tears, too hopeless to think of possible to-morrows.
Poor little prince in the clutches of the ogre! If only fairy tales might be true! If only some gracious spirit of elfin lore might really come at such a time with its magic wand of healing! Then there would be no more little desolate hearts, no more grieved little faces with undried tears upon them in all the earth. Over every threshold where a child's wee feet had pattered in and found a home, it would hang its guardian Scissors of Avenging, so that only those who belong to the kingdom of loving hearts and gentle hands would ever dare to enter.