XII. The Soul of Forests
 

Veronique wrote to Monsieur Grossetete on the morrow. A few days later she received from Limoges three saddle-horses sent by her old friend. Monsieur Bonnet found at Veronique's request, a young man, son of the postmaster, who was delighted to serve Veronique and earn good wages. This young fellow, small but active, with a round face, black eyes and hair, and named Maurice Champion, pleased Veronique very much and was immediately inducted into his office, which was that of taking care of the horses and accompanying his mistress on her excursions.

The head-forester of Montegnac was a former cavalry-sergeant in the Royal guard, born at Limoges, whom the Duc de Navarreins had sent to his estate at Montegnac to study its capabilities and value, in order that he might derive some profit from it. Jerome Colorat found nothing but waste land utterly barren, woods unavailable for want of transportation, a ruined chateau, and enormous outlays required to restore the house and gardens. Alarmed, above all, by the beds of torrents strewn with granite rocks which seamed the forest, this honest but unintelligent agent was the real cause of the sale of the property.

"Colorat," said Madame Graslin to her forester, for whom she had sent, "I shall probably ride out every morning, beginning with to-morrow. You know all the different parts of the land that belonged originally to this estate and those which Monsieur Graslin added to it: I wish you to go with me and point them out; for I intend to visit every part of the property myself."

The family within the chateau saw with joy the change that now appeared in Veronique's behavior. Without being told to do so, Aline got out her mistress's riding-habit and put it in good order for use. The next day Madame Sauviat felt unspeakable relief when her daughter left her room dressed to ride out.

Guided by the forester and Champion, who found their way by recollection, for the paths were scarcely marked on these unfrequented mountains, Madame Graslin started on the first day for the summits, intending to explore those only, so as to understand the watershed and familiarize herself with the lay of the ravines, the natural path of the torrents when they tore down the slopes. She wished to measure the task before her,--to study the land and the water-ways, and find for herself the essential points of the enterprise which the rector had suggested to her. She followed Colorat, who rode in advance; Champion was a few steps behind her.

So long as they were making their way through parts that were dense with trees, going up and down undulations of ground lying near to each other and very characteristic of the mountains of France, Veronique was lost in contemplation of the marvels of the forest. First came the venerable centennial trees, which amazed her till she grew accustomed to them; next, the full-grown younger trees reaching to their natural height; then, in some more open spot, a solitary pine-tree of enormous height; or--but this was rare--one of those flowing shrubs, dwarf elsewhere, but here attaining to gigantic development, and often as old as the soil itself. She saw, with a sensation quite unspeakable, a cloud rolling along the face of the bare rocks. She noticed the white furrows made down the mountain sides by the melting snows, which looked at a distance like scars and gashes. Passing through a gorge stripped of vegetation, she nevertheless admired, in the cleft flanks of the rocky slope, aged chestnuts as erect as the Alpine fir-trees.

The rapidity with which she advanced left her no time to take in all the varied scene, the vast moving sands, the quagmires boasting a few scattered trees, fallen granite boulders, overhanging rocks, shaded valleys, broad open spaces with moss and heather still in bloom (though some was dried), utter solitudes overgrown with juniper and caper-bushes; sometimes uplands with short grass, small spaces enriched by an oozing spring,--in short, much sadness, many splendors, things sweet, things strong, and all the singular aspects of mountainous Nature in the heart of France.

As she watched these many pictures, varied in form but all inspired with the same thought, the awful sadness of this Nature, so wild, so ruined, abandoned, fruitless, barren, filled her soul and answered to her secret feelings. And when, through an opening among the trees, she caught a glimpse of the plain below her, when she crossed some arid ravine over gravel and stones, where a few stunted bushes alone could grow, the spirit of this austere Nature came to her, suggesting observations new to her mind, derived from the many significations of this varied scene.

There is no spot in a forest which does not have its significance; not a glade, not a thicket but has its analogy with the labyrinth of human thought. Who is there among those whose minds are cultivated or whose hearts are wounded who can walk alone in a forest and the forest not speak to him? Insensibly a voice lifts itself, consoling or terrible, but oftener consoling than terrifying. If we seek the causes of the sensation--grave, simple, sweet, mysterious--that grasps us there, perhaps we shall find it in the sublime and artless spectacle of all these creations obeying their destiny and immutably submissive. Sooner or later the overwhelming sense of the permanence of Nature fills our hearts and stirs them deeply, and we end by being conscious of God. So it was with Veronique; in the silence of those summits, from the odor of the woods, the serenity of the air, she gathered--as she said that evening to Monsieur Bonnet--the certainty of God's mercy. She saw the possibility of an order of deeds higher than any to which her aspirations had ever reached. She felt a sort of happiness within her; it was long, indeed since she had known such a sense of peace. Did she owe that feeling to the resemblance she found between that barren landscape and the arid, exhausted regions of her soul? Had she seen those troubles of nature with a sort of joy, thinking that Nature was punished though it had not sinned? At any rate, she was powerfully affected; Colorat and Champion, following her at a little distance, thought her transfigured.

At a certain sport Veronique was struck with the stern harsh aspect of the steep and rocky beds of the dried-up torrents. She found herself longing to hear the sound of water splashing through those scorched ravines.

"The need to love!" she murmured.

Ashamed of the words, which seemed to come to her like a voice, she pushed her horse boldly toward the first peak of the Correze, where, in spite of the forester's advice, she insisted on going. Telling her attendants to wait for her she went on alone to the summit, which is called the Roche-Vive, and stayed there for some time, studying the surrounding country. After hearing the secret voice of the many creations asking to live she now received within her the touch, the inspiration, which determined her to put into her work that wonderful perseverance displayed by Nature, of which she had herself already given many proofs.

She fastened her horse to a tree and seated herself on a large rock, letting her eyes rove over the broad expanse of barren plain, where Nature seemed a step-mother,--feeling in her heart the same stirrings of maternal love with which at times she gazed upon her infant. Prepared by this train of emotion, these half involuntary meditations (which, to use her own fine expression, winnowed her heart), to receive the sublime instruction offered by the scene before her, she awoke from her lethargy.

"I understood then," she said afterwards to the rector, "that our souls must be ploughed and cultivated like the soil itself."

The vast expanse before her was lighted by a pale November sun. Already a few gray clouds chased by a chilly wind were hurrying from the west. It was then three o'clock. Veronique had taken more than four hours to reach the summit, but, like all others who are harrowed by an inward misery, she paid no heed to external circumstances. At this moment her being was actually growing and magnifying with the sublime impetus of Nature itself.

"Do not stay here any longer, madame," said a man, whose voice made her quiver, "or you will soon be unable to return; you are six miles from any dwelling, and the forest is impassable at night. But that is not your greatest danger. Before long the cold on this summit will become intense; the reason of this is unknown, but it has caused the death of many persons."

Madame Graslin saw before her a man's face, almost black with sunburn, in which shone eyes that were like two tongues of flame. On either side of this face hung a mass of brown hair, and below it was a fan- shaped beard. The man was raising respectfully one of those enormous broad-brimmed hats which are worn by the peasantry of central France, and in so doing displayed a bald but splendid forehead such as we sometimes see in wayside beggars. Veronique did not feel the slightest fear; the situation was one in which all the lesser considerations that make a woman timid had ceased.

"Why are you here?" she asked.

"My home is near by," he answered.

"What can you do in such a desert?" she said.

"I live."

"But how? what means of living are there?"

"I earn a little something by watching that part of the forest," he answered, pointing to the other side of the summit from the one that overlooked Montegnac. Madame Graslin then saw the muzzle of a gun and also a game-bag. If she had had any fears this would have put an end to them.

"Then you are a keeper?" she said.

"No, madame; in order to be a keeper we must take a certain oath; and to take an oath we must have civic rights."

"Who are you, then?"

"I am Farrabesche," he said, with deep humility, lowering his eyes to the ground.

Madame Graslin, to whom the name told nothing, looked at the man and noticed in his face, the expression of which was now very gentle, the signs of underlying ferocity; irregular teeth gave to the mouth, the lips blood-red, an ironical expression full of evil audacity; the dark and prominent cheek-bones had something animal about them. The man was of middle height, with strong shoulders, a thick-set neck, and the large hairy hands of violent men capable of using their strength in a brutal manner. His last words pointed to some mystery, to which his bearing, the expression of his countenance, and his whole person, gave a sinister meaning.

"You must be in my service, then?" said Veronique in a gentle voice.

"Have I the honor of speaking to Madame Graslin?" asked Farrabesche.

"Yes, my friend," she answered.

Farrabesche instantly disappeared, with the rapidity of a wild animal, after casting a glance at his mistress that was full of fear.