There was great rejoicing among the children in the farmhouse of Belle Prairie, one of the most flourishing farms in the beautiful part of Touraine where it was situated. To-morrow would be their mother’s birthday, and for as long back as any of the small people could remember “mother’s birthday” had always been a holiday. For it fell in June, the loveliest month of the year, and the fun began the day before, when, as soon as they were released from school, they, and some chosen ones among their companions, came racing down the village street on their way to what was still called the “château,”—although the house had long since disappeared—there, in the grounds now left to run wild, to gather to their hearts’ content honey-suckle and roses, which had not always been “wild,” bunches of forget-me-nots and trailing branches of ivy, with which to adorn the sitting-room at the farm which was considered peculiarly their mother’s. It was what in an English farmhouse used to be called “the best parlour,” and very proud of it were the boys and girls of Farmer Marcel, the owner of Belle Prairie. For it was not by any means every farmhouse that had a best parlour at all, and none possessed one so pretty as that of Madame Marcel, the farmer’s wife.
The old gates of the château were still standing, as massive as ever, though only a few moss-covered stones marked the place where the mansion had once been. And the villagers were too used to the sight of them, and the still distinct traces of a carriage-drive leading to nowhere, to be struck with their strangeness and melancholy, as occasional visitors often were.
“It was burnt down in the great Revolution, like many another,” they would reply with a shrug of their shoulders. “But what of that? Those old times are past. We are happy and prosperous in our village of Valmont-les-Roses, and the lands of the de Valmonts have long been divided among those who make a better use of them than the old owners—though, to be sure,” some of the older among them would add, “they were not bad masters after all, those Counts of Valmont.”
And so the village children played unchecked within the ancient gates, and gathered flowers as many as they wished, with none to say them nay.
Flushed and breathless, but eager and triumphant, the Marcel children hastened home with their spoils.
“Out of the way, little stupid!” cried Pierre, the eldest boy, nearly knocking over his tiny brother of three, in his hurry to get to his mother in the kitchen, where she was busied in some mysterious way which he pretended not to observe—Madame Marcel on her side handing him the key of the best parlour in the most innocent manner possible.
“Come quickly, Edmée,” he called out as he hurried back again, this time nearly tumbling over his sister as well, for she was employed in comforting little Roger, whose feelings had been much wounded.
“Pierre shan’t call you ‘little stupid!’” she said. “See, you have made him cry, poor dear: and he was so clever; he gathered such a lot of flowers all himself for the dear mother’s birthday.”
“Pierre was only in fun; Roger mustn’t cry,” said the big, elder brother, good-naturedly picking up the tiny one. “Where are Marie and Joseph? Come quick, all of you, we shall only have time to put up the wreaths before father comes in to supper.”
In another minute the five children were collected in the parlour, Pierre carefully locking the door inside when they had entered to secure against surprises. It was always with a certain awe that the young Marcels crossed the threshold of this room. They spoke in softer voices—they carefully wiped their thick shoes on the mat at the door—they would as soon have thought of romping or jumping in church as in here. And yet they themselves could hardly have explained why they felt so. The room, though pretty in a rather stiff way, was, after all, very simple. The wooden floor, to be sure, was polished like a mirror, and there were little lace curtains in the windows, which were never torn or soiled, for Madame Marcel took the greatest care of them, washing and getting them up twice a year with her own best caps, and never allowing Susette, the servant, to lay a finger on them. The brass handles of the old marble-topped chest of drawers were as bright as the copper pans in the kitchen, and so was the heavy old brass fender, behind which were the iron bars for the logs of wood which, on very rare occasions, such as New Year’s Day, or a marriage or christening feast, should it fall in winter, made a cheerful blaze up the old chimney. But the stiff hard sofa backed up against the wall, and the stiff hard chairs and arm-chairs standing round in a row, were no longer white as in the days of their long past youth, and the old-fashioned tapestry with which their seats and backs were covered had little colour left, and here and there a careful darning was plainly to be seen.
The children stood still and looked round them, as they always somehow did on first entering the room, as if they expected to discover something they had never seen before. Then said Pierre:
“How shall we do it? The same as last year—a wreath on the chimney-piece, and two smaller ones round the mirror and the little old portrait? Yes, I think that is the best.”
For there was a small, queerly-shaped mirror in a heavy, now dull, gilt frame on one side of the fire-place, and on the other, matching it, the object which the children regarded with more interest than anything in the room, “the little old portrait,” they called it among themselves, and “some day,” their father had promised them, they should be told its history. But all they knew at present was that it had been many, many years—not far off a hundred—in the best room of the old farmhouse.
It was the portrait of a little girl—a very little girl. She did not seem more than four or five years old: one dimpled shoulder had escaped from the little white frock, the fair hair brushed back from the forehead was tied with a plain white ribbon—nothing could be simpler. But there was a great charm about it: the eyes were so bright and happy-looking, the rosy mouth seemed so ready to kiss you—it looked what it was, the picture of a creature who had never known sorrow or fear.
“How pretty she is!” said Edmée, as she twisted the ivy-leaves round the frame, and a ray of sunshine fell on the little face. “I think she gets prettier and prettier—don’t you, Marie? I wonder when father and mother will tell us the story about her.”
Pierre stopped short in his part of the business, which was that of arranging the garland over the mantelpiece, to listen to what his sisters were saying.
“Suppose we ask to hear it to-morrow,” he said, “for a treat? Mother is always ready to give us a treat on her birthday.”
“Not instead of the creams and the cake,” put in Joseph, who was rather a greedy little boy. “I wouldn’t like that. Stories aren’t as nice as cake.”
“Little glutton!” exclaimed Pierre: “you deserve to have none. All the same I know what I know. One has but to step inside the kitchen and to sniff a little to see that mother forgets nothing.”
“Indeed!” said Joseph, with satisfaction. “Yes, truly, I could almost fancy I smelt it even in here. That comes of having an oven of one’s own. There is no other house at Valmont with an oven like ours. When I am a man, if I cannot afford an oven of my own in my kitchen, I shall—”
“What?” asked Marie.
“I shall be a baker,” said Joseph, solemnly. “I always stop before the door of Bernard, the baker, to smell the bread, especially on Saturdays, when he is baking the Sunday cakes and his Reverence’s pie. Ah, how it smells!”
“A baker!” said Pierre with disdain. “Not for worlds! To see Bernard stewing away in his bakehouse till he can scarcely breathe is enough to make one hate the thoughts of cakes. A baker indeed! Ah, no—the open air and the fields for me! I shall be a farmer, like my father and my grandfathers and my great-grandfathers. We have always been plain, honest farmers, we Marcels—and my mother’s people, the Laurents, too!”
“Some one told me once,” said Edmée, who, her work finished, was standing thoughtfully contemplating the effect of the pretty wreath round the little face, “some one told me once, or I dreamt it, that the little old portrait was that of a great-grandmother of ours. I wonder if it is true? If all our people have always been farmers I don’t see how it can be, for that little girl doesn’t look like a farmer’s daughter—and besides, they wouldn’t have made a grand picture of her in that case.”
“Mother must know,” said Marie.
“I asked her once if it was true,” said Edmée, “but she said I was to wait till I was older, and she would tell us the story. I would so like to hear it. She is so sweet, that dear little girl. I wonder if she lived to grow old. How strange to think of her, that little baby-face, growing into an old woman, with grey hair.”
“And little wrinkles all over her face, and her eyes screwed up, and red patches on her cheeks, like old Mother Mathurine, down in the village,” said Joseph. “They do say, you know, that old Mathurine is nearly a thousand years old,” and Joseph nodded his head sagaciously.
“Joseph!” exclaimed Marie, “how can you tell such stories? Nobody is a thousand!”
“Well, then, it is a hundred,—I meant to say a hundred,” said Joseph. “I always forget which is the most—a thousand or a hundred,” for poor Joseph was only seven.
“What things she must remember!” said Edmée. “Fancy, Pierre, a hundred years ago! Perhaps she remembers the little girl. Oh, Pierre, do let us ask mother to tell us the story to-morrow!”
“Yes,” Pierre agreed, “I should very much like to hear it. We’ll ask her to-night, Edmée.”
And just then the sound of their father’s voice, as he crossed the farmyard on his way into the house, made them hasten to pick up the stray leaves and flowers which had fallen from the wreaths, and to put the chairs and all back in their places, so as to leave the room in perfect order for to-morrow.
That evening, when the little ones were in bed, Pierre, Edmée, and Marie lingered a moment when they were going to say good-night to their parents.
“What is it, my dears?” said their mother, for she saw there was something they wanted to ask.
“Mother,” said Pierre, “you know you are always very good to us on your birthday; we want to ask you a favour. Will you to-morrow tell us the story of the little picture in the parlour?”
“You said you would when we were older,” said Edmée, persuasively.
“What do you think?” said Madame Marcel, turning to her husband.
The farmer shrugged his shoulders good-naturedly.
“I have no objection,” he said. “They are sensible children, and not likely to get foolish notions in their heads. On the contrary, they are old enough to learn good lessons from the story of these troubles of long ago. I am quite pleased that they should hear it, and I should like to hear it again myself, for I am not so good a scholar as you. I have sometimes looked into the papers, but I find the writing difficult.”
“I think I almost know it by heart,” said his wife. “My mother liked me to read it to her. Well, then, my children, to-morrow evening, when the little ones are asleep, you shall hear the story of the little old portrait.”
Categories: English Literature