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Margotte's Story, from Harper's

 

"I will tell you the story," said Margotte, pausing in her knitting, as we leaned together over the white palings of her little garden. "Yes, there is a story, madame—a story of a wolf; but you have got it wrong, madame, and I must set you right."

Picture a sunset in the Pyrenees, a glorious crimson sky tipping the distant peaks with pale pink, and deepening the purple shadows on the nearer mountains—the mountains that inclose and overtop Margotte Nevaire's pretty home. I had come for a quiet month to this picturesque, secluded village, and though my month was over, I was tempted to linger day after day, for the sake of the sunshine and the mountains, and not least, perhaps, for the sake of these two peasant girls, with whom I lodged.

Margotte was the youngest of the two by fifteen years—the three boys who came between had died—and though it is very long since we leaned side by side over the white palings, I can always call her to mind as she stood knitting there.

She was tall and strong, and finely made, with a clear white skin, and brown hair waving in heavy masses under her white starched caps. She had beautiful eyes, heavy-lidded and dark-lashed, and a firm, sweet mouth—such a woman as you see sometimes amongst the desolate mountains, as if God had given to them a grander soul, to compensate for the blessings He denied.

Léontine was different; tall too, and active, but with heavier movements, and more of firmness than of sweetness in her scarred face. She had no girlish vanity in her glossy hair, or the cap starched to such absolute perfection, for so much of her youth and beauty had vanished with that scar—a deep blue line from brow to chin—that no loving arrangement of the hair by Margotte's deft fingers could hide.

So Margotte said to me that evening, dropping her knitting into her apron pocket: "I will tell you the story of the wolf, madame. Léontine is out, and it is a grand story—a story I should like you to hear."

"It was night," said Margotte, "a cruel, cold winter night, such as we who live amongst the mountains have terrible cause to dread, for it means hunger and cold—sometimes absolute famine. It means the children crying for food when there is none to give them, and the wolves howling in the distance. Ah! those wolves, madame, how they make one shudder with their monotonous howls, that seem so near at first, and then die away into the far distance!

"Well, it was night, as I have said, and the baby was asleep, as it might be here, and Léontine was knitting on the hearth, and Marcelle, a friend of Léontine's, was chattering to her, kneeling on the stones, and the door was on the latch.

"That was the mischief, you see; but Léontine was young then, and Marcelle was a giddy, thoughtless chatterer, and she had run in with her shawl over her head for an hour's talk. Léontine has told me of it so often that I almost seem to see the two girls crouching by the fire that sent bright and flickering reflections on to the snow outside.

"Suddenly, as they talked, there came distinctly to them the howling of the wolves across the snow. Marcelle put her hands over her ears and shuddered. Léontine knelt up and stirred the fire.

"'Come closer, my friend,' she said; 'it is a dreary sound. Thank God, we are safe here!'

"'Are we safe, do you think?' asked Marcelle, with chattering teeth. 'I dare not go home to-night. Will your mother let me stay here, Léontine?'

"'Surely,' said Leontine.

"She was so brave, my sister, my dear, dear sister, madame, and so gentle! she took Marcelle's head upon her knee, and put her knitting aside to soothe her terror.

"'We are quite safe, Marcelle,' she said, 'and mother will soon be back. It is a dreary night.'

"It was a dreary night, dark and still and terribly cold; the white flakes were falling slowly to the earth, and covering the mother's footsteps on the path.

"Léontine walked over to the window and looked out; the fire-light was dancing and flickering on the snow outside, and making a cheerful patch of ruddy light in the darkness, which would guide the mother's steps for her home-coming. Through the darkness the howling of the wolves seemed nearer.

"'Ah, they are coming closer,' said Marcelle, starting upright. 'Can you see them, Léontine? I am afraid.'

"Léontine was leaning close to the glass, pressing her face against it.

"'Yes, I see shadows,' she said; 'they are coming to the light, Marcelle. No! it is only one shadow, after all; we must not frighten each other.'

"She turned with a faint smile to Marcelle's shuddering face, and tried to draw the curtains with her trembling hands, but the shadow on the snow was very near.

"'Do not be afraid, my dear,' she said, kneeling down upon the hearth again, and drawing Marcelle's cold hands into her own strong ones; 'be brave; we are quite safe, you know; the door is strong, and God is so good, Marcelle.'

"But Marcelle was sobbing.

"Her sobbing woke the baby, and it cried—little moaning cries that fretted Léontine, and that brought the dark shadow nearer to the door.

"Léontine rocked the baby, but could not hush its wailing cries; she knelt beside the cradle, singing her strange, weird songs in a voice that never trembled, and all the time that foolish Marcelle was sobbing and trembling at her feet.

"'Hush, for God's sake!' said Léontine at last, lifting her clear eyes, and trying to still the faltering of her voice. 'You frighten me, Marcelle, and you keep baby fretful. Mother will soon be home, and the night is not long, and we are quite safe, thank God.'

"But the words were still in her mouth when she heard a heavy shuffling in the snow outside, and a terrible howl that seemed to shake the little cottage to its foundations. Then—ah! think of it, madame—the door—this door against which you lean—was burst open, and out of the darkness a great wolf came bounding in, and paused for a minute on the threshold.

"Léontine was upright in an instant, standing before the cradle. Even Marcelle rose also, and stood shrieking on the hearth.

"But the great, lean, hungry wolf came slinking on—and it passed Léontine, and took the little baby from the cradle.

"Léontine had stood as if rooted to the spot, with her burning eyes fascinated by the awful sight; but now she strode to the table, and took a knife. And yet she dared not throw it, because of the baby, madame.

"They seemed so helpless all of a sudden, those two girls, while the great beast crept past them again, trotting to the door. Marcelle had taken a fagot from the fire, and cast it at him, but he only shook it off, and growled savagely, bounding out into the snow.

"Ah, madame, it was terrible—terrible; and yet, as Léontine always says, God is good.

"For while Marcelle was crying by the empty cradle, and the snow was sweeping into the room and putting out the fire, Léontine had sprung to the door, and had flung herself to the ground, with her brave white face not two inches from the wolf's glaring eyes; she stretched out her hands and caught him by his shaggy coat, twisting her strong fingers into his matted hair. She still held her knife firmly, but she dared not use it.

"She succeeded in her wish, madame, however; the wolf was surprised and angry. With a low, fierce growl, that made Marcelle's heart beat to suffocation, he dropped the baby.

"Léontine has told me often that she never knows how she came living out of that terrible struggle; she says she remembers crying aloud to God to keep the baby safe, and to take the life she offered up so willingly instead. She remembers striking with her knife at the great body that fell upon her, blinding and suffocating her; then there came to her ears a dim faint sound like music, and my cries—I was the baby, you have guessed, madame—and then silence, such silence as Léontine says she thinks will be like the silence of death.

"But it was not death. Ah, no—there is Léontine, you see, coming up with her pitcher from the well; and the wolf, the last wolf killed in St. Privât, lies buried not a foot from where we stand; but Léontine will carry her trophy of victory to her dying day. Some people say that her face would be very beautiful but for the scar; but for me, madame, I think that it is the scar that makes her face so beautiful."