The Crime of Old Blas, Part II, 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. Part I was posted here and Part III will be coming soon.

The Crime of Old Blas

by

Catulle Mendes

Part II: The Story of the Little Boy Who Had No Ears, and of the Black Dog Who Smoked His Pipe

“Once upon a time–”

“Where?”

“In a country. Once upon a time, there was a man and his wife, peasants, as we are, but much more unfortunate — a man and his wife to whom nothing ever happened, except that very frequently they had no bread for supper before going to sleep.”

“But soup?”

“Not even the soup dish, for the cat had broken it. They were really very poor, and what made themi sadder still was that their little boy was a child who had no ears.”

“Then he could not hear!”

“Oh yes!”

“How?”

“By the nose, perhaps, or by the eyes. The story does not explain that.”

Little Blas reflected a moment and then said: “It is not very amusing, this story.”

“But this is only the beginning. You will see very soon. Now the boy who had no ears and who yet heard very well, heard his father tell his mother one day, that, in a mountain in that country, there was a cave where a very rich enchanter had concealed much gold and silver, and that, by permission of the enchanter, the treasure would belong to the one who had the courage to go to seek it amid a thousand dangers.”

“An eachanter?”

“Like in the ‘Blue Princess.'”

“Ah, yes!”

“Guignonet, for that was the boy’s name, thought ‘I should like to go to that mountain to see the enchanter’s gold and silver, because we should then be rich, and father and mother would not have to work as they do, and we should not have to go to bed without any supper.’ He was, you see, of a good disposition, this little boy without ears; and he resolved to start for the mountain all alone, without saying a word to anybody, because he wished to surprise his parents when he came back with the treasure. What made him hesitate a little was that he usually did not have much luck in what, he undertook. When he did something very good, things turned out so that it seemed that he had done something very bad, and he was punished for his good intentions. There are many people like him in the world, who never meet with any success, and who are always wrongfully accused.

Thus, one day, seeing a beggar on the road, although he was very poor himself, Guignonet gave him a sou that he had received as a present. What do you think the beggar said to him? ‘Thanks? ‘ Not at all. He suddenly threw the sou in his face and cried out, shaking his fist, ‘it is very wicked in you to try to deceive a poor beggar — the good God will punish you well.'”

“Why did the beggar say that?”

“The sou was bad; but that was not Guignonet’s fault, as it had been given to him.

“Another time, during the night, he heard a hen cackle in the stable; it cackled and cackled. He felt so sorry for it that he jumped out of bed and went to the aid of the poor fowl. He found it tied in a round basket, and it cackled as if asking somebody to help it. Guignonet caressed it, but it still cackled. Then he said to himself, ‘it must be that there is something in the basket that hurts it’ ; He. wanted to help it, so he opened the basket. The hen flew out with wide-stretched wings, cackling louder than ever; and what do you think fell out of the basket? Twp dozen eggs. And all the eggs were broken. You can imagine whether Guignonet was scolded by his parents who had put the eggs in the basket for the hen to hatch. Still the little earless boy wanted to help the hen.

“And wait; in regard to his ears; I must tell you how he Iost them; because he was not born so. He was one time in the woods, when he was about eight years old, and he came upon a big black dog, seated on his haunches, who quietly smoked his pipe.”

“Who smoked his pipe?”

“Yes. In the country where Guignonet lived, you met, very frequently, dogs who smoked while walking in the streets and on the roads. In our country, they are much more rare. The dog that Giiignonet met smoked his pipe quietly, or rather, he did not smoke, but that was not his fault, because the pipe had gone out.

“Guignonet approached him and said, ‘Mr. Dog, if you wish, I will go to the village to get you some matches.’ Was not that amiable and polite ? Well, the dog raised himself on his paws, barked furiously, threw himself upon Guignonet and in two bites took off both his ears. Then turning and running quickly away, he disappeared in the forest.”

“With Guignonet’s ears?”

“With both ears.”

“Say, grandfather, in the story, does he not get them back again later?”

“I can’t tell you that yet. Who listens will know: You can understand that all these adventures had rendered Guignonet a little timid, but, nevertheless, the desire of doing good was stronger than the fear of being ill-treated, and so one night, when everybody in the house was asleep, he got up, took his shoes in his hand, so as to make no noise, went out, and, although it was very dark on the road, started without any fear for the mountain.

“Now, that mountain was all black like the one before us, and there was no road up it; and, besides, Guignonet did not know in what place he would find the cave, so that he was very much puzzled, and he was on the point of returning home when a great raven came flying around his head.

“As it flew, the raven croaked, but in a manner that had nothing frightful or terrible in it. You would have said on the contrary, that the great black bird had good intentions and wished to give good advice to the little earless boy.

“Guignonet looked at it, and it seemed to him that he had already seen that large, pointed head, which held in its beak a pine twig. No, he had never seen it, but the raven with the pine twig in its beak resembled, a little, the black dog who smoked his pipe.

“On account of this resemblance the child wished to flee, fearing for his eyes or his nose, since his ears were gone; but the raven flying over him said, ‘Guignonet, don’t be discouraged. The beggar to whom you gave the sou called you names. You were scolded for helping the cackling hen. The black dog has stolen your ears, because you offered to get him matches to light his pipe. Many other things have happened in which you had not the least luck, and it is on that account that you are called Guignonet, or Little Luckless. But sooner or later the good that you do will bring its reward, as the seed brings the harvest, as the acorn becomes the oak. Be always a good little boy, ready to sacrifice yourself for others, and do not trouble yourself about anything else. Now Seat yourself between my wings, and I will carry you to the side of the cave where the enchanter has concealed his treasure.

“After speaking thus, the raven perched on the ground with wings extended. It was such a big bird that Guignonet, who was very little and very thin because he did not have much to eat, easily found room between the great wings.

“The raven flew off, but Guignonet was not afraid. He thought of the pleasure of his parents when he brought them the treasure of the mountain. After it had flown higher than the highest peak, the raven gradually descended into a clump of bushes in a kind of ravine which was very dark and very terrible, because you could see, shining here and there, the frightful eyes of owls.

“Guignonet jumped down, saying: ‘Thanks, Mr. Raven. I pray you now to show me the way that leads to the cave.’ But the bird was no longer a bird. It had changed very quickly into an old black dwarf, who looked with an evil smile and who had a pipe in his mouth. Guignonet thought again of the wicked dog whothad stolen his ears. But he was not afraid, and be said: ‘Mr. Dwarf, will you please show me the road which leads to the cave of the enchanter?’ Then it was terrible. The dwarf with a great stick, the owls with their beaks, began to beat, pinch and maltreat in every way the little earless boy. ‘Go, you thief! You have no right to take money that does not belong to you! What would you do with the treasure of the mountains? You would buy marbles to play in the street, instead of going to school.’ Guignonet answered: ‘I can take the money, because it belongs to nobody, since the enchanter has left it for the most courageous of men. And I assure you, it is not to buy marbles that I want it; but so that my parents may not have to go to bed hungry, and that I may give alms to the beggars.’ But they were useless words.

“The wicked birds and the cruel dwarf did not cease to abuse the little boy, who, finally fleeing, all bruised from the strokes of the stick, all bleeding from the bites of the beaks, slipped and slid down over the stony side of the ravine to a great hole that opened there.

“Anybody else would have given up the enterprise on account of the injustice that was shown him. Guignonet did not lose courage for so little. He thought of nothing but of making his parents happy.

“It was very dark in the hole on which he had chanced, and in the blackness there was some kind of a beast, more black still, that looked like a wolf. It had between its teeth a bone that it had gnawed all white, so that you might well have taken it for a great pipe. The wolf said, ‘Get out of my house, little wretch; I am the guardian of the treasure which is there under the stone, and I will not allow you to touch it.’ But Guignonet threw himself boldly upon the wolf, and his desire to be useful lent him so much strength that he threw the beast over backwards, raised the stone that concealed the treasure, and there in place of the money and gold he had expected, he saw a little open casket in which was a great number of jewels, so beautiful that one alone would have been enough to make the fortune of many kings. He seized the heavy box, while the wolf snapped at his heels and bit his legs: but Guignonet paid no attention to the sharp teeth that bit him. He thought of the happiness of his mother when she would have beautiful dresses like those of the city ladies, and when she would be able every day to give soup to the passing beggars.

“That was the kind of boy he was. It was all right for him to suffer, provided others were happy. Then, pursued by the wolf that clung close to his heels, he sought among the brambles to find the road that led to the foot of the mountain and to his home. He found a little stony path which descended very rapidly.

“But in the shadows all around him was a crowd of creatures, men and beasts, which ran backwards and forwards, crying with all their might, ‘See the little boy who has committed a great crime;’ and the birds following him, flying among, the branches, sang, ‘Catch the robber!’

“Guignonet was very sad because he was afraid that they would kill him, but more sad to see that everybody thought so badly of him. When he reached the plain, he believed that he was out of danger and that nobody could any longer call him wicked names. He already saw himself waking his father and mother in the little chamber. ‘Behold the treasure concealed by the enchanter of the mountain cave, and which was reserved for the bravest of men! I have found it and I have brought it to you. Rejoice! Eat, drink, and share with all the world the fortune which I have gained at the peril of my life!’

“But things did not stop here as the little earless boy hoped. He saw suddenly by his side and in front of him three monstrous policemen, and as the moon had risen, he could see clearly the shining steel of their sabers and their white belts. But what was very extraordinary in these three policemen was that they all had, over their faces, great dog’smuzzles, and,nevertheless, they quietly smoked their pipes.”

Old Blas had reached this point in his story when the electric bell was heard. The first train would soon pass; it was time to lower the bridge. He was just getting up, but little Blas, stopped him, saying, “Then, grandfather, those policemen were dogs?”

“Real dogs,” answered old Blas. And as he knew the train would not arrive for a quarter of an hour yet, and a couple of minutes were all that were necessary to lower the bridge, by means of the crank, he continued —

“At least they looked like real dogs, but, you know, in stories, people are not always what they seem.

“When the policemen saw Guignonet they ran to him, took his casket away from him and said, ‘It is you, then, who robbed the travelers in the woods?’

“The earless boy answered, ‘You are mistaken. I come from the mountain. I am carrying to my parents the treasure which belongs to the bravest.’

“They would not listen to a word. They put handcuffs on him and led him to the city prison. There he was placed in a very dark dungeon where the rats ran all over him. All the city was aroused. From his cell he heard the people outside say, ‘Oh! Oh! He is arrested; that little thief! Who would have thought that Guignonet, with his honest face, was such a rascal?’

“In loneliness, he wept, knowing well that he had not wished to do wrong, and feeling that he had not really done wrong.”

Here old Blas jumped up quickly. Two whistles were heard, and one could already see, below, the black rolling smoke. He ran toward the bridge, while the child began to play with the stones in the path. He began to turn the crank. He heard behind him, but still far off, the whistle, roar and thunder of the heavy locomotive and its long train of cars.

It was an express train. If old Blas had turned, he could have seen the travelers, whose heads were thrust out the windows, looking at the high mountain under which they were going.

The bridge descended slowly, had already descended a little more than a third of its way. Old Blas did not hurry; he had plenty of time. All was well. Suddenly there came a cry. He knew that voice; it was the voice of little Blas. Playing on the river’s edge, on the sand and stones, the child had slipped, rolled down, fallen into the water. Alas, he saw his grandchild, his love, his darling, disappear in the current.

Old Blas was seventy-one, but he was strong, a splendid swimmer too. He dropped the crank and leaped toward the water. He would save his child, whose head appeared there, farther down.

But the train was now very near — if he did not hasten to lower the bridge, the locomotive would hurl itself against the massive platform; there would be a frightful disaster, the engine and cars would be crushed into fragments; and men and women would lie there, dead and dying.

The child appeared again, still farther off, calling to him, stretching his arms to him. What did the grandfather do? He turned, took the crank in his two strong hands, and very soon the bridge rested on the opposite side. The loco-motive and its cars rolled over with the noise of thunder, buried itself in the tunnel and disappeared; there was only a distant roar that shook the mountain. The train had passed, — the child was drowned.

Old Blas, with horror-stricken eyes, stared at the river that had carried away little Blas.

He stood there, stupefied, watching the deep water and the flowing current. His little Blas was drowned, his little Blas was dead. Two things tormented him; its impossibility and its reality.

What! He would never see again that pretty, happy face, those clear blue eyes where laughed the sun ? He would never hear again, the cries of joy over a butterfly caught, or a bird pursued; never, never for him, poor old man, that ecstasy again.

He started to run along the bank. He would find the little body. He would again hold it in his arms. No! The river had too great a start. The current so quickly carries away bodies, especially when they are little and light.

And then, he must stay where he was, to watch over the road, to make the customary signals; he must remain at his post, since he was a kind of soldier. He would not even have the consolation of seeing the pale body of his grandson stopped by some tree, or caught in the grass.

“Did I do right in lowering the bridge? If I had left the crank alone without troubling myself about the train, if I had immediately thrown myself into the water, I could have saved my poor, dear child. The cars would have hurled themselves, broken into a frightful mass, against the bridge of iron and wood, many of the travelers would have perished; they would now be lying there bleeding, wounded, shattered. But what are the misfortunes and curses of others to me? A grandfather ought first to save his child. I did wrong to do my duty.

He said this in his sorrow, but it seemed to him, nevertheless, that he had done right. He should not even have hesitated between the life of his child and that of so many men and women. Yes, but it was terrible just the same. He was in despair and was fainting with grief. He gained the little flower-surrounded hut. He looked at the narrow walks that he had made for the saunterings of the boy, and throwing himself upon the ground caressed the place where the boy had seated himself to listen to the story. In his white beard, the daisies which little Blas had thrown at him, still clung, and old Blas, picking them off, kissed them, with sobs that shook his whole body.

The setting sun reddened the granite mountain, like a fire in the depths of a black mirror, then, little by little, the shadows mounted, and, amid the great silence, old Blas heard only the sinister sound ot the rushing waters.

It was time to go back to the farm. To enter alone without the child — what should he say to the mother? He took a staff from the hut; he needed it now. How gay supper had always been when the day’s task was done! How many times he used to empty his glass of cider; and how would the lad, to whom the grandfather had been passing the tidbits of his supper, under the table, go to sleep finally in his high chair, tired and happy.

But this evening’s supper! The old man walked slowly, like one who did not wish to advance. He rested against a tree as if not able to take another step, and leaned his head against the bark, weeping.

To tell this to Cadjie and the father? How? With what words? The cry of the mother, when he said to her, ‘Little Blas is drowned’ — that cry, sharp, bitter, terrible, already rang in his ears. And not only would he see his daughter sob, his son-in-law turn pale, not only would he witness their awful anguish, but he foresaw, as a supreme agony, their reproaches.

He understood it well. A father and mother would not stop to think whether he ought to consider others first and then himself and his own. “It was necessary to save the little one,” Cadije would cry, “and let all those people we do not know, die.” Yes, Cadije would say that; old mind, troubled by that great catastrophe, thinks perhaps she is right.

Heroic by instinct then, he was not sure now that he had done right and he thinks, perhaps he himself, if Cadije, on entering the house some evening, had said, “I had sacrificed the little one in order to save a crowd of people” — perhaps he would have cried, “You are a bad mother.”

All this weighed him down. He walked with head lowered and shoulders bent, like one who carries a heavy burden. He wished that the farm was very far off, ten leagues, twenty leagues, or that between it and him there was a lofty mountain peak that could not be climbed.

But no matter how slowly he walked, he had finally to come to his journey’s end. It was now dark. He went along the hedge, bending down so as not to be seen. He remembered how joyously he had passed there that morning. And he was so weak that he was hardly able to open the wooden gate. He recoiled, alarmed at the noise of the dog’s chain as he passed the kennel. He advanced toward the other side of the yard; the wide open door showed the well-lighted table where the supper was smoking. Cadije appeared on the door-sill.

“Ah! father!” said she with a smile, “where now are your twenty-year-old legs? The good man is already returned. The soup is hot. Hurry, because it is not so good cold, and I have brought you a cup of cider to cheer you up.”

He drew near with a timid look, and hesitated, with the air of a dog that is going to be beaten. Seated before the table, Antonin Perdigut lowered his head to smell the sweet cabbage, and then cried joyously, “Enough talking; I am dying of hunger in here.”

This calm, like that of other evenings, this home-coming, like all the others, frightened old Blas. Ah! How it would all change! How they would cease laughing! How their hunger would depart! The mother demanded, “But, where is the child?”

Behold, the moment had come! The confession could no longer be kept back. It was necessary to answer, “The child is drowned.” He raised his head, mouth open, eyes fixed; as one looks at death, if it rises suddenly before him, so he looked at the strong, good, happy Cadije, with her gay smile.

Then he lowered his head and stammered, — “The child is there, behind the hedge; he has walked slowly on account of a nest that we have found. It is the truth, it is really the truth. Wait an instant. He is there, behind the hedge. I will go and find him.”

“Ho! Blas!” called the mother.

“No! no!” repeated he, trembling in all his limbs, “he will — will not obey. — He thinks that he is going to be scolded, because we are so late. I tell you that I am going to look for him myself. Do not be impatient and — begin supper.”

Then old Blas turned around, passed through the gate, closed it, and when he was alone outside the farm-yard, said “No, truly no; — I did not dare; I was not able.”

And quickly, without any other thought than that of not seeing his daughter in despair, of not hearing the curse of his son, he began to run across the fields, through the shadows and darkness, like one who has committed a crime, or a beast suddenly stricken with madness.

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