Légendes de Noël
Another Christmas tale set in the time of the Terror, translated from G. Lenotre. Paternal sympathy triumphs over the Revolutionary divide!
Illustrations are by Paul Thiriat from the 1911 edition of the Légendes de Noël which is available on Gallica.
As far back as I can remember, I can picture the old marquise de Flavigny seated, smiling and serene, in an old armchair covered in peach-coloured velvet. Her grey hair and her great bonnet of lace decorated with trembling knots stood out against the upholstery.
Next to her on a low chair, there almost always sat a woman of the same age, also smiling, with a calm and peaceful expression. They called her "Mademoiselle Odile" . She was not a servant; an intimacy united the two old ladies; they would sit together knitting the coarse blue woollen garments which were distributed to the poor, along with a loaf of bread and five two-liard coins, on Thursday mornings. They exchanged interminable confidences in low voices, with an air of camaraderie, almost of complicity. On certain days, days of tidying and arranging, the two friends laid aside their knitting and visited their cupboards, great chests of varnished oak with long brass lock fittings, narrow and tall, cut into arabesques. They opened boxes, tied up linen, spread out on shelves embroidered napkins, dusted and cleaned all day long. We children were admitted to this salutary spectacle on condition that we touched nothing.
In the depths of one of these mysterious cupboards, as though in a sanctuary, there reposed in a glass case an object held by the two ladies in a sort of veneration. It was a large doll, dressed in old-fashioned style, with a gown of threadbare silk. It was almost bald with age; its nose was broken, its hands and face cracked and discoloured. I remember that it had only one shoe, of cracked Moroccan leather with a blackened silver buckle and a high heel which had once been red.
When they came to this imposing trinket, the marquise and Mlle Odile moved it with great like a choirboy moving a reliquary. They spoke about it in hushed voices, in short phrases.
SHE has lost more hair... Her petticoat is now completely worn out... This finger will come away soon...
The glass cover was lifted off with great care, the spices renewed, the skirts straightened carefully with a fingernail. Then the doll was put back in its place, upright on the best shelf, as though on an altar.
Is she all right, my dear?" asked the marquise.
This was how she addressed Mlle Odile. The latter called her familiarly "Madame Solange", without ever giving her her title. She spoke with with a hint of an Alsatian accent, but without roughness and so slight that it appeared eroded by time.
We knew nothing about the history of these two old ladies and their doll until one evening - it was Christmas Eve in a year now long past - when we were suddenly initiated into the mystery. That day Odile and the marquise had chattered with more animation than usual. But towards evening they withdrew and became silent: they held hands, looked at each other affectionately and it was clear that a common memory filled their minds. When it got completely dark, Odile lit the candles; then, bringing out a bunch of keys from under her apron, she opened the cupboard containing the doll.
The doll was taken out of its box. With its stained frills and its hairless skull, it seemed even older than the two women who passed it from one to another with careful, almost tender movements. The marquise took it on her knee, gently straightened the plaster arms which creaked complainingly, and contemplated the "lady" with an affectionate smile.
My dear, she said, as though speaking to the doll, shall I tell these children our story?
It was Odile who nodded solemnly in acquiescence.
The marquise indicated that we should gather round her. She kept the doll sitting on her knee and seemed to be addressing it. She told us how many years ago, when she was just a child, civil war had devastated her native Brittany; it was the time of the Great Terror.
Early in 1792 the parents of Little Solange had emigrated; fearful of the dangers of exile, they had left the child in the care of a peasant woman in Ploubalay, a village close to their chateau, in the region of Saint-Malo. They were convinced that the "just cause" would soon triumph and their absence would be short.
However, almost immediately, the frontier was closed. Harsh laws threatened émigrés who tried to return to France; a terrible torment descended on Brittany. For the whole time that the bloody storm raged Solange remained with the Rouault family, the villagers to whom she had been entrusted. These good people were frightened; they had no news of the little girl's parents nor any possibility of contacting them, since any attempt to correspond with émigrés was punishable by death. Ploubalay was a large village three leagues from Saint-Malo and half-an-hour's journey away from the coast. The shoreline bristled with red rocks and was protected by an archipelago of reefs continually buffeted the ocean; any attempt to land by boat was perilous. The Revolutionary soldiers, who had chased out the Chouans, occupied the village; the sergeant who commanded them was a typical petty officer of the Revolutionary army; a rough patriot, inflexible and blunt. He was an Alsatian and his name was Metzger. The whole village feared him; Little Solange trembled on the doorstep of the Rouault house when she saw this terrible man; his big moustache, thick eyebrows, suspicious gaze, booming voice and harsh accent gave her nightmares. When Sergeant Metzger was not out on patrol with his troops, he was to be found outside the guard post in the disused church, sitting astride a chair and ostentatiously smoking his pipe. From there he could survey fiercely all three roads of the village.
One day Solange had gone to fetch bread for Mother Rouault. She was returning with the heavy black loaf in her apron, when she noticed Sergeant Metzer, in his habitual place at the church porch, following her with his eyes. She would have liked to have gone another way, but she dare not. Sticking bravely to her path she began to walk faster, as though someone was waiting for her at home. She trotted past the fronts of the houses without turning her head. At the moment she thought she had escaped danger, she heard the voice of the Blue boom out:
- Stop there, little one!
The child felt her heart stop beating; she stood rooted to the spot with fear, close to fainting.
- Come here! Come closer,! added the voice.
She obeyed, feeling lightheaded; even now that she was two paces away from the Sergeant she did not dare to lift her eyes. He let her stand there, without saying a word; then, in a voice that made the child tremble as though it were a thunderbolt:
- Are you a little aristocrat? he asked.
She stood with her mouth open, without speaking, and commended herself to God. She did not understand very well; but she know that the word aristocrat was used for people that were put to death.
- How old are you? asked the man.
In a weak, hoarse voice, shaking with terror, she replied:
- Eight years
She was going to add politely "monsieur" but, as if by instinct, she swallowed the word, certain that if she uttered it, the soldier would slaughter her immediately.
He did not appear to be thinking of doing that; Instead he mumbled: Eight years....eight years; very well...Suddenly he added:
- You are well built and strong for your age.
He said this in so different a tone that she looked at him in surprise. He was fearsome to see - his bicorne hat with its a red tassle, his tanned face, his blackened pipe, his striped sleeves, the white bands crossed over his chest, his great sword and his muddy gaiters. And, worse of all were his eyes, deep and penetrating, which seemed to devour her.
- Run along, little girl, he ordered.
Shaken and trembling, she turned on her heels and started to walk once more towards the house.
From that day on, she sensed that she was being watched by the sergeant. When he passed the Rouaults' door, at the head of his men, he would glance inside to look for her. If he met her in the street, he would follow her with his eyes, or even call out to her loudly in his rough voice, with its diabolical accent:
- Hey there, little one!
Solange would have preferred never to venture outside, but Mother Rouault, who thought that the child would never see her parents again, compelled her to help with the housework. Almost every day she found herself in the presence of the man she feared. She was convinced that the sacrifice of her life would be required; the evil Blue was only waiting for his chance. She was left in no doubt when, seeing her washing vegetables at the fountain in the square, he asked her suddenly:
- Little one, what is your name?
Convinced that her moment had come, she replied with resignation - Solange.
The sergeant exclaimed:
Solange! (He pronounced it "Zaulanche"). What a funny name! He grabbed her arms and lifted her up off the ground to test her weight. Eight years old! How well she grows!
She imagined herself in the hands of an ogre drooling over his prospective prey.
When Christmas Eve came that year, 1793, no-one seemed to give a thought to the festivities of former times. The church was closed; the church bells silent, The night fell, with a thick fog. All day long the dogs had been heard barking from the shore: the Blues had enjoyed a good day's hunting. Little Solange went to bed, on the first floor of the Rouault house, in an attic next to the hayloft, a room full of shadows, She would shiver through the night, immobile in her bed, scared of the mysterious dangers that lurked in the darkness.
That night she was very sad. As she undressed shivering, she remembered earlier happy Christmas Eves when she was still with her parents and her little heart was filled to bursting with love and joy. How good it was to wake up in the bright morning! What transports of joy she felt at the sight of the fireplace, filled with toys, sweets and white ribboned packages! While she dreamed she held in her tired hands her rough clogs, which she would not put in the hearth, knowing as she did that they would remain empty. Did the Baby Jesus fear that he would never come to France again?
She thought she heard a noise in the loft and quickly put out her candle. Burying herself under the covers, Solange went to sleep.
As she slept, it seemed to her that the door opened gently and a shadow entered her attic room. She peeped out from the covers; the night was now clear, the chamber lit up by the moon. Was she dreaming? She could see now that the shadow was a man, a man dressed like the émigrés that she had seen in the streets of the village escorted as prisoners to Saint-Malo. She heard a very gentle voice saying:
- Don't be afraid, little Solange! Don't be afraid!
Solange was not afraid.
She felt a hand, carefully touching the curls that covered her forehead. A shaft of moonlight from the curtainless window fell on her. The man who had entered looked at her.
- You are so beautiful my little Solange; so fine and strong!
He seemed not to tire of contemplating her. Then suddenly he took her in his arms, embraced her frantically and covered her with kisses. She did not know any more whether she was awake or dreaming. Suddenly it came to her that if her father were still alive, he would speak to her in those tones and give her those gentle caresses, those hugs and kisses. It seemed to her that the man was kneeling by her bed and that he was crying; she buried herself in his arms and - feeling so happy - fell back to sleep.
At dawn, when she opened her eyes, she had difficulty in sorting out her memories. She soon decided that she must have been dreaming; the room was empty; the door of the loft was closed; below she could hear Mother Rouault coming and going as usual, with heavy footsteps. Solange sat on her bed and suddenly, she gave a cry of joy....On top of her neatly paired clogs, she saw a large doll in a splendid green silk dress. Smiling and imposing, the doll was dressed like an aristocratic lady, with beautiful well kept curls falling in corkscrews round her enamel cheeks, a lace mantle and Moroccan leather shoes with shining silver buckles. The child fell to her knees before the "lady", and immediately called her Yvonne. She got dressed in a few moments and holding her "little girl" in her arms, she went down into the main room. Mother Rouault saw her appear with this marvellous toy, the like of which she had never seen, and she exclaimed in amazement:
- My goodness, Solange, who has given you that doll?
- Madame, replied the child in all simplicity, it was the Baby Jesus.
The Bretonne stood with her mouth open. She was still a believer, but this miracle seemed to surpass the boundaries of divine power. She knew that such a marvel was not to be bought in Ploubalay, nor yet in Matignon, nor even in Saint-Malo or Rennes. She became suddenly respectful, examining without daring to touch this lady that Solange presented to her so triumphantly. Then she called to her husband;
- Look. Rouault, what the Baby Jesus has brought our demoiselle!
Rouault was less astonished. He was a simple soul, who know little of silks and fineries. But already their female neighbours were running up. They cooed and twittered, their hand joined in admiration. Some of them bowed naively in front of the undoubted miracle. Others, of a more sceptical bent, searched in vain for a satisfactory explanation. Solange, did not trouble herself with them, but cradled Yvonne with the utmost care, scarcely daring to touch with her lips the blond curls and lustrous cheeks. She held her up to the window, showing her the view of the main road of Ploubalay. Then Mother Rouault, who had returned to more practical matters, sent her out on an errand to the end of the village, to the saddlemaker Coiquaud, who sold peas. The child, radiant, took her doll with her.
These events were already known to half the village; peasant women came out onto their doorsteps to watch. Solange passed by, proud and serious, conscious of her importance. When she arrived in front of the church where Sergeant Metzer usually sat astride his chair, she did not think to turn round: what danger could menace her on such a day? Her interior joy was so complete that she was frightened of nothing and no-one; and when the sergeant called to her and asked her what she was carrying, she stopped with aplomb and went up right up to him.
- It is a doll.
- What a pretty doll! How did you come by that, urchin?
- Monsieur le Sergent, the Baby Jesus gave it to me.
The Jacobin got up, looking fearsome, and kicked away his chair.
- What did you say? he shouted.
- It is a doll that the Baby Jesus brought me for Christmas, repeated the child.
Metzger was enraged by such audacity.
- Do you think, he snarled, that I am going to believe in this....Confronted by the child's air of innocence, he stopped; but he took the doll in his hands and examined it carefully
- A beautiful lady, it is true, he said, a real lady; and look what is written on the soles of her slippers: Berkint-London. So the Baby Jesus is an Englishman, is he?
- I don't know, monsieur, Solange replied taking back her lady, her joy spoiled.
- We will see about that, growled the sergeant.
Turning towards the guard post he cried out, La Cocarde!
The corporal appeared.
- Did anyone enter the village yesterday?
- I don't think so, Sergeant: the men kept a good watch. In the evening the dogs were howling in an odd way but we searched and found nothing.
- That's good. Assemble the men.
He attached his cartridge pouch, tightened his belt, took his gun, and began to march at the head of his troop towards the Rouault house. Solange, instinctively in agony, walked beside him, dragging her feat and holding the beautiful smiling Yvonne to her chest. When he arrived, the sergeant positioned his soldiers, two on guard at the front door and others in the orchard so that the house was surrounded. Then followed by the rest of his men, he went indoors, holding Solange by the hand. He sat down on a bench, pulled the little girl onto his knees and said in a gentle reassuring tone:
- Come, little one, tell me all about it.
Her heart in her mouth, in a breathless whisper, she started her story; she told him about her "dream", the man that she thought she saw in her room, how she imagined his kisses, and, in the morning, her surprise at discovering the beautiful doll....The sergeant took in every word. Suddenly, he turned towards the soldiers that were with him and commanded:
- Do a turn about, and guard the outside of the house. Fire on the first person that looks like they are trying to escape.
The men went out. Metzger remained alone with the little girl.
- Now then, gamine: you said that the man kissed you, that he called you his "Little Solange", that he knelt by your bed and cried?
The child nodded yes to the questions. She did not want to lie but realised all the same that catastrophe threatened. Metzger was in no hurry to act. He put his rough hands on Solange's shoulders, and appeared to be talking to himself.
Yes, he said gravely, I have a little one like this at home in Alsace, at Gerlsheim. She is eight years old as well....and it is also two long years since I have seen her. To catch a glimpse of her, even asleep in the shadows, to embrace her for an instant, to feel her sleeping on my shoulder, her blond hair against my cheek ... I too would risk my neck....All fathers, it seems, are the same.
He seemed to think deeply. Then, coming to himself suddenly, he got up, shook his head and turned towards the open door.
- Two men with me; he said; we are going to search the place.
Solange cried out:
- Monsieur le Sergeant, wait!
She had listened and suddenly understood that it had been her father. He had risked death for a few moments with his little girl; he had left exile, crossed the sea, disembarked among the rocks, climbed up to the village under the guns of the guards. . It was her father who, stricken by idea that his child had no toy for Christmas, had brought her the "lady". It was her father who was up in the attic; they would take prisoner; she would see him chained up and taken away by the soldiers. Great sobs wracked the broken-hearted little girl. She threw herself on the sergeant.
-Wait ! Wait!
The Alsatian had regained his brutal expression and rough voice:
- Wuat now? he asked.
Solange had had an inspiration: to save her father she would have given all she possessed; but she only possessed a doll. She decided to make a great sacrifice.
- Monsieur le Sergent, is it true that you have a little girl...who is the same age as me...that you haven't seen for two years?
It was Metzger's turn to reply: he nodded.
- All right! All right! added Solange with tears in her eyes; perhaps, because you aren't there, the Baby Jesus will have forgotten her. Take my doll; send it to her; I am giving it to her.
The soldier leaned towards the little girl; he looked at her great wet eyes; he whistled hard; his lips were trembling under his moustache and his cheeks twitched with suppressed emotion. Two of the men entered the room.
- Be quiet, little one, don't be afraid, said the sergeant in a low voice.
Then addressing the soldiers:
- We are going to go up and search everything. Have your guns at the ready and keep your eyes open. And you, mioche, go in front.
The three soldiers and the little girl climbed the stairs. When the arrived at the attic room, the sergeant posted one man at the entrance and the other by the window. Then went into the loft alone and shut the door behind him. Solange's heart raced in her chest. After a moment, the loft door reopened and Metzger reappeared.
- There is nothing there, he said. Lets go back down. The bird has flown. We have been fooled.
When he was back in the downstairs room, alone with Solange, he leaned down and whispered in her ear:
- Listen well; "the man" can stay up there tonight and the next day. Tell him not to worry; he will not be disturbed. When he leaves the next night he should make for Lancieux and Saint-Briac, where he can catch a boat. The route will not be guarded; I will take my troops in the other direction. Do you understand?
- Yes, Monsieur le Sergent.
- Good. As to your doll. I will take her: I will send her to my little Odile. I will take her, because someone else might be as surprised as I was that the Baby Jesus brings toys like this from England for kiddies of your age. Your young lady will cause you too much trouble. Go on up! And remember: towards Lancieux and Saint-Briac.
He went out and reassembled his troops, which that very evening he led off on patrol for three days, with their hounds, in the direction of Matignon.
- That is our story, added the marquise de Flavigny, the great drama of our lives, Odile's. Yvonne's and mine. Fifteen years later, after I was married, I made a journey to Alsace with the marquis. I went to Gerlsheim, I inquired after Sergeant Metzger and his daughter Odile, for all these names, as you can imagine, were lodged in my memory. I found the old soldier in his hop-field: he had left the army, having been decorated at Austerlitz by the Emperor himself. He had often told the story of little Solange to his daughter who had taken care of the "lady"; when he died a few years later, I brought Odile to live with me: she returned Yvonne to me, and since that day, we have never again been parted.