The Crime of Old Blas, Part I, by Catulle Mendes

I found this searching for old texts related to the Basque Country. This story is set in the Basque Country, though that is the only Basque connection of the story. But, it also features two characters named Blas, so I had a particular affinity to it. Parts II and III will be coming soon.

The Crime of Old Blas

by

Catulle Mendes

Part I: Old Blas and Young Blas

It is a pleasant thing to begin a hard day’s work by sitting down in the low-ceilinged dining-room of the farm house, amid the copper vessels glistening in the opening daylight, before the well scrubbed wooden table and, leaning drowsily on the elbow, to eat long slices of black bread, moistened in milk still foaming round the edge of the bowl.

Cadije, twenty-nine years old, bare-armed, her rosy face made still more glowing by her red cotton, Basque head-dress, goes to the foot of the staircase and cries, “Heavens! are they deaf, those people up there ? Halloo, father, husband, boy! Are you not ashamed to be sleeping still, after I am up?”

It is a fine farm and pleasing to the eye. There are only twenty acres; but they are acres of the very richest soil well enclosed by a thick hedge. The long rows of apple trees are carefully placed at regular intervals; and under them the denizens of the barnyard, cackling on the turf, hissing around the pond, crowing on the fence-tops, hens and chickens, turkeys and geese, are a collection sufficient to satisfy any farmer’s wife. And Cadije does feel very happy amid her fruit trees and her fowls. She goes and comes from morning till evening, doing the work of two; familiar with people generally, but not always good tempered, because you must scold sometimes to make both animals and men mind you.

There are in our Basque country, among the foot-hills of the Pyrenees, generally near some mountain stream that roars and thunders along, many of these fertile farms, where the herbage thrives, and the branches are heavy with fruit. The hills guard them from the winds; the torrent widens into a placid river or flows into a lake. In short, a miniature Normandy, with its apple trees and grassy fields, can be found in these valleys.

Presently the rough staircase of white wood creaks heavily under the tread of descending feet. Old Blas appears, holding little Blas by the hand. The one was the father, the other the son, of Cadije.

They leaned on each other and were gradually becoming of the same height; little Blas increasing in stature as old Blas bent more and more. The latter was seventy-one years old, the former six.

A large face, very sunburned, with many wrinkles, short white hair and beard, little yellowish eyes always winking as if fatigued by seeing too many days — such was the old man. He was rather heavy, had short limbs, and wore the short vest of the Basque of the plain and the knitted cap with its large red tassel falling on his shoulder. He had lived — he now only existed. He had been a great gallant in his time; he had not had his equal in attacking the bull or throwing the ball; but he feels now that his time is past. He finds a heaviness, a trembling in his limbs formerly so quick and ready; and his head, which he carries a little bent towards the left, shakes involuntarily. His mind even is not as bright and clear as it used to be. It sometimes happens that he does not recall a thing that he had said the evening before. And sometimes, when they come back to the country, he does not recognize the comrades with whom he had emptied more than one bottle before the inn door in the old days. But what of all this? He knows enough yet, after his glass of cider, to tell a good story; he can still walk his four leagues without a cane. He has no use for any support but the shoulder of his grandson. It sustains old Blas to hold up the boy.

The latter was a child of the mountains, robust and healthy. Nourished by a strong mother, by plain living, by the pure air that vivified his lungs, he had grown and hardened. A powerful and beautiful manhood was visible in his infancy. From his babyhood he had always been pretty, with that air of astonishment, even of wildness, which shows the mind that is always questioning and is beginning to comprehend. Restless and vivacious, he was still without care or anxiety. It was the highest pleasure of old Blas’ life to kiss that blooming face, already a little tanned, fringed by rings of black hair, beneath which the clear blue eyes sparkled like the lakes of the mountains.

Behind these came Cadije’s husband, the child’s father, Antonin Perdigut. He was thirty years old and had that serious look which the man of the mountain valleys usually has. He walked with a measured step, without haste, but without hesitation — the step of a laborer.

Cadije kissed the three and they seated themselves around the table and ate in silence. Breakfast is not the hour for chatting and laughing. It is then necessary to keep your force and activity for the day’s work, and not to dissipate it in badinage. But at evening, when the task is done, then you can amuse yourself; when you have paid your debt, you are permitted to be a prodigal.

Besides, they had slept late at the farm that morning, and it was the sowing season. Antonin Perdigut had to hasten to the field with his bag of grain on his shoulder. As to the grandfather, he was employed on a railroad which passed near by; an easy task, not at all fatiguing, which a child could have done, but which had been confided to the old man.

So, without speaking, they quietly softened tbe long pieces of rye bread in the blue-tinted whiteness of the milk. From out of doors the rosy grayness of the morning, entering by the lowered windows, lifted little by little the long shadows from the wall. The darkness, already pierced by light, became less and less sombre, as if heavy curtains drawn upwards were vanishing one after another. The wakening of the farm resounded in the chattering of birds, the whispering of the leaves, the mooing from the stable, in all the mingled noises of farm animals, and in the freshly blowing, cool wind.

Old Blas, having emptied his bowl, spoke with a timid air:

“It would be very nice to let the little one come with me to the bridge to amuse him — to amuse me, too. To see one train go by after another, all day long, is not very gay. I even get tired, after a while, of watching the flowing stream. Young people make the old young again. They put gayety in the aged spirits and light in the old eyes. The other day it rained the whole time, but Blas was with me, and on coming home I said, ‘What beautiful weather we have had to-day!’ Besides, it is very good for the child to breathe the pure air of the river side, and to play with the flowers by the side of my little hut.”

Do you mean,” said Cadije, rising, ” that the air at the farm is not good, or that there are no flowers in the garden? The child stays at home with me and the animals. If he wants to amuse himself, he can drive the geese along the road outside the hedge. He is small, it is true, but that has nothing to do with it; he must begin to make himself useful. You may be sure I am not going to let him go with you. The number of passing trains is frightful, and I don’t like to have him play by the edge of the stream; the bank is slippery, and the stones keep rolling under your feet.”

The boy had not made any objection at first, because he was still drinking his milk, but now he began to cry with a heartbroken air and to rub his eyes with his fists.

“Good, good,” said Cadije, ” what I have said is said. You want to go with your grandfather, because he tells you stories, because he lets you run wherever you want to, because he spoils you; but I don’t intend to have you spoiled. Didn’t you come back in a beautiful state the other day?  Wet with perspiration, trousers in tatters, thistles in your hair; it took me more than an hour to mend your blouse. If you don’t know how to take care of a child, you ought not to ask to take him with you.”

But little Blas kept on crying, and even old Blas, had some moisture in his little, yellow eyes that was going to form a tear.

Antonin Perdigut then interposed, and having remarked that one time doesn’t make a custom, said that she might, as an extraordinary favor, let the little one go with the grandfather to-day.

Cadije said no! a hundred times; scolded and talked and ended by saying, “At least, be as careful as you can, both of you.” And when they had promised not to run on the way, not to approach too near the river, and especially, to be very careful when the trains passed, then the mother added—

“Well, yes, I give my consent, but it is for the last time!”

They started out after many cautions and many kisses, with a slow step in order to prove how really careful they were going to be; they crossed the yard, and going through the wooden gate, went slowly along the hedge which was so low just there that they could still be seen. But when they had passed the low hedge and nobody in the house could see them,’ — how things changed then!

Young Blas pulled his hand loose, ran ahead, came back, jumped ditches, climbed trees, lost his hat in the branches, tore his trousers on the bark, and all the growing light of morning, and the cool breeze whispering among the branches, played around and about him; while the grandfather, old child that he was, who wanted to play too, followed, running and murmuring in his white beard, ”All right; the mother can’t see us now; wake up, my boy!”

The boy ran, the old man laughed; and finally they arrived at the river’s bank, before the bridge. The lumber rafts, and the sail boats, with their tall masts, float down the narrow and deep river, which here flows between a sandy beach and a mountain of black granite. At the foot of the mountain yawns the gloomy tunnel. There the trains disappear, after having crossed the little bridge of wood and iron, the thread that connects the bank of sand with the bank of rock.

The spot, solitary and bare as it is, appears more mournful on account of the high black mountain. But the sun, now fully risen, lightens and gilds the plains below where the farms here and there make isles of verdure.

At present, the drawbridge is raised. Quickly old Blas goes to see that the dew of the night has not rusted the chains; that the crank moves easily when pressed. It is his duty to raise the bridge when the rafts and boats go by, and to lower it again for the passage of trains, eack time that the signal is given to him by the noise of the electric bell or, afterwards, by the whistle of the locomotive.

But little Blas don’t trouble himself about the bridge and the crank and trains and boats; his duty to himself is to roll on the grass before the little wooden hut, which his grandfather has built by the side of the water as a shelter from the autumn rains. It is a pretty little house, which a young vine clothes in climbing verdure, and where the swallows come to drink the drops of dew from the gently-drooping cups of the morning-glory.

Then there is a garden, with paths bordered with wood, so narrow that it seems as if the old man wished that only the child should stroll there. And, besides, the plants are very small ones; pinks and tulips and pansies, upon which the little Blas is able to look down proudly from his own lofty height. In the middle of the garden a sunflower raises itself pompously, like a very drum-major of flowers.

The machinery of the bridge put in order, the grandfather comes noiselessly, on tiptoe, and suddenly takes in his two great hands the head of the child, who turns quickly, at first frightened, then laughing.

“Ah! I have you! I have you! But I will let you go again. I catch birds and hold them a minute in my hand, so that they may have more pleasure when I let them fly away. You know, Blas, the stones are all ready to skip on the water; the flowers are only there in order to be gathered, and I don’t even forbid your running over the beds. That is the way I bring up my children. These little angels should be little imps once in a while.” Then he added, “Down in that clump of bushes I found a bird’s nest; we will go and look for it pretty soon, when the train has passed.”

But the little Blas had another plan. He gathered daisies and threw them, one by one, at the old man’s head; the petals caught in the white hair, and soon old Blas had a beard of flowers. This was charming. He seated himself before the cabin, took the child on his knees and, in reprisal, tickled him with the daisy petals. All this occurred amid laughter, little cries of pure happiness, and scattered flowers, under the wheeling flight of swallows, and in the beautiful sunlight which grew clearer and more golden above their heads.

Then the boy, becoming serious, said suddenly, “I have played enough; now, tell me a story.”

It was for that that old Blas waited. The child never failed to reward him with a kiss after a fine story all full of giants and fairies, and the pleasure of a good kiss is well worth the trouble of telling a story. But long ago the grandfather had told all his stories: “Hop o’ My Thumb,” “Blue Beard” and “Goldilocks.” He had even bought from a peddler a big book which the man told him was full of very pretty stories. He found that the book was ” An Essay on the Establishment of French Banks on tbe Mississippi.” Little Blas had asked for something more amusing.

Since then his memory was empty and his library useless. In order to earn his kiss the grandfather was obliged to become a poet. He lay awake nights, inventing wonderful adventures of princesses and fairies, which he repeated the next morning in the little hut.

“All right,” he said, “a story; a story so beautiful that the little city boys have never heard its equal.”

“What is it called?”

”It is the ‘Story of the Little Boy who had no Ears, and of the Black Dog who smoked his Pipe.'”

“Oh!” said the child.

“Wait, and you will learn all about it,” said the grandfather.

And little Blas, seated on the doorstep, raised his pretty sun-browned face witb its laughing lovelocks, while old Blas commenced slowly and deliberately; a little disturbed, too, because the story was very complicated, and he was not quite sure that he had found the right ending.

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