The Crime of Old Blas, Part III, 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 II here.

The Crime of Old Blas

by

Catulle Mendes

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

He did not return. He crossed the plain, climbed the mountain, slept a sleep full of horrible dreams under a projecting rock, and on awakening, fled again. He feared that he was not far enough away from that river that had taken away his child, from that dear farm-house where now they only wept.

With a few sous that he found in his pockets, he bought some food while passing through a village. People were afraid of him, because he was very pale and was continually looking back, like one who is afraid of being followed. A woman who was sowing corn, seeing him begin to run when he had passed the last house in the village, said to herself, “One would say that that old man had just done something wicked.”

The next day he came to another valley where nobody knew him, because in the Basque country the mountains are frontiers that are seldom passed. As he had only a dozen sous left, he asked a man who was breaking stones on the road if he could not be employed in that work.

With the woe-begone air that he had now, he did not inspire confidence; nevertheless, the man answered, “You cannot get this kind of work in a day. It is necessary to have a friend in the government. I advise you to look for some other work. Now if you are an honest man, which everybody that happens along is not, you would do well to go to that saw-mill there, at the end of the valley, by the stream. The owner wants workmen and, although you don’t look very strong, perhaps he will hire you to watch the mill, or for some other easy work.”

He followed that advice: went to the mill, asked to see the master, offered himself and was accepted. There were some difficulties made, because he had no passport, and did not have a very reassuring look. The master said lo himself that he didn’t like to take in vagabonds that came from nobody knows where, perhaps from prison; and then added, “I shall keep an eye on that old man.”

Days and weeks passed. The work that had been given to him was to scrape the mill-wheel paddles with a knife, so that stones and sand could not lodge there. At first, the work was very painful, on account of the noise of the stream always beside him; it made him shudder; but he soon resigned himself to it. Old and bent, he ran his knife amid the paddles and always looked as if he were thinking of something afar off.

The death of his grandson had nearly killed him. He was not even sure now that he himself was alive. His ideas grew obscure, his mind confused. He had only these thoughts — little Blas was in the water — it is all true — it is all over — now they know all at the farm and, in their tears, curse him; and he was as if made drowsy by the weight of his sorrow.

Being so absorbed, he did not notice the glances that the other workmen cast on him. At noon, nobody spoke to him, but he would not have heard them if they had. He did not think how suspicious his silence was; he did not know what stories were told about him.

They said that perhaps he had more money than he showed. It happened frequently that a thief, having robbed some peasant, made a show of working and of being poor, for a time, so as not to awaken suspicion. They even said he might have assassinated somebody in order to rob them, because one evening, seated by the water, watching with a mournful eye its rapid flow, he had beep heard repeating in a low voice: “Ah! my poor Blas, my poor Blas, I have killed him!”

All this talk made the master determined to find out the truth. The peddlers who go from valley to valley hear much gossip and never keep it to themselves.

So one day the master made old Blas come to him. As he was a rough man, he said harshly, “Old man, you must leave.”

Blas, stupefied, said, “Go away! Why?”

“Don’t pretend you don’t understand,” said the master, “we know your story.”

”Well?” said the old man.

“Well,” said the master, “it is possible that you did not kill the child, I do not say that you did kill him, but you went out together, you were alone together, the child did not come back, and you fled without saying anything to the parents.”

Old Blas burst into tears. Ah, Heaven! see what they believed; that he had killed Blas, his little Blas, for whom he would have died twenty times, had it been possible; who was all his delight, all his joy, all his life! He tried to explain, but the story about the bridge, which was raised and lowered, did not appear very clear. A child that falls into the water at the very moment a train is passing — it is very unlikely. And then to think that this poor man, a peasant, hardly knowing how to read, had had the perfect heroism to sacrifice his grandson for the safety of some unknown travelers.  It would be necessary to esteem him so much that it was much simpler to Judge him guilty.

He himself, who had done a sublime act, without analyzing it; naturally, because it seemed that he ought to do it, could not now explain the sentiment that had animated him; he could not find words to justify himself; he stammered and grew ashamed.

The master said, “All is possible, we will not discuss it. It is not I who send you away; all my workmen will leave me if I do not dismiss you. There they are; speak to them; they will not conceal their opinions.”

The workmen entered, two by two, carrying long, swaying planks. They formed a group, spoke in low tones, and then from all sides words like these were heard : “Yes, yes, the old man must go. We will not have him among us. It is too bad to have to work beside a man who has killed a child; to sit beside him at table. Just a glance at his hands and one must shudder. His face, too, says very well what he is. Come, draw your wages, old man, and don’t let us see you around here again, or one of us will make an end of you.”

Under this unjust wrath, before these menaces, old Blas bent as if he were a criminal, opened the door with trembling hands and went out. Poor, admirable old man! When he commenced to mount the side of the valley, he looked back and saw all the workmen before the mill, who cursed him still with cries he could no longer hear, and who still shook their fists furiously after him.

He advanced through a ravine, the old bed of a mountain torrent, dry at that season. The stones, rolling under his heavy step, made it hard walking. The little Blas had perished in calling to him, stretching out his arms to him; he had been forced to flee the dear farm where his happy old age laughed, and this was not enough. Now they accused him of a crime, and because he had done right, they believed him infamous.

All this seemed very cruel to him. He suffered the more because in his obscure conscience, the conviction of having done well was not sufficiently clear to enable him to console himself, for injustice done him, by pride in his noble deed.

A strong mind would have asserted itself, certain of its rectitude, but this humble intelligence bent under the load. He had even sometimes the idea that he was wrong, since all the world said so.

Where would he go now? They sent him away from here; they would send him away everywhere. To return to the farm? He would never dare. How would Cadije feel toward him ? How Antonin Perdigut would hate him, since people who were neither the father nor the mother hated him so much. He must go on, that was evident. But to go on without knowing where, when the heart is heavy with sorrow and the eyes are full of tears, when you are sleepy and hungry and very old,— ah! it is terrible.

Without rebelling, still submissive, he, nevertheless, could not keep from thinking that all the world was very bitter against him, a poor old man.

He climbed upward, pushing through bushes, which scratched his face and tore his beard: maltreated by things as well as by man, he thinks that he resembles a little that Guignonet of the story, always punished when he had done nothiing bad.

The day appeared very long. His old limbs were fatigued with climbing slowly, but steadily, the rocky ravine. When evening came, having neither eaten nor drank, he felt that he could go no farther. He threw himself down on a rock, and rested against a fir trunk, worn out, desolate.

Around him were innumerable blocks of granite, huge, weather-beaten, broken by avalanches of long ago. A somber verdure grew between the rocks, and against the sky, where the clouds were gathering, the savage cliff raised itself, black and threatening.

Suddenly, with inconceivable quickness, a thunder-storm bends the trees, moves the huge stones, raises a whirlwind of branches and stones. These sudden storms are common in the Pyrenees. The traveler hardly sees the lightning, before he is enveloped by the whirlwind.

The clouds, hurling themselves together, thunder: from their broken sides the rain pours down, driven in sheets by the wind; already it is running in streams down the rocks. Broken tree-trunks roll down, stripped of foliage; bowlders leap from side to side of the ravine and, above the howling of the storm, now sounds the roar of the avalanche.

It has carried away old Blas. From stone to stone, from tree to tree, amid this tumultuous descent, with hands and head bleeding, dragged as if on an immense hurdle, he can not save himself until the bottom of the ravine is reached. Rocks and trees pile themselves above him, bruised wounded, dying, as if heaven itself had built his tomb.

Under the ever increasing weight of stones which pressed upon him, he was dying. Every inch of his body was in agony.

And then, ready to render up his soul, this old man, although hitherto resigned, revolted.

No! He had done no wrong! And it was terrible, that chance first, then man, and now nature, had been so bitter against him. The plain had cast him unto the mountain, and lo! the mountain had cast him unto death.

Ah, well; there was, then, no such thing as justice; there was no good God. With what could he be reproached? Nothing. Why then must he suffer? Why kill him?

He panted under the immense weight, while the thunder roared and the wind howled.

But hold! He feels a great numbness that mounts his legs, gains his chest, and finally reaches his head, now less painful. Blood still flows from his wounds, but he feels them less and less. He enters into a kind of calm, deep and profound, perhaps because it is the beginning of the everlasting sleep. He hears only vaguely, and like a noise that comes from afar off, the thundering of the tempest. Then he ceases to hear even that. He can almost believe he is sleeping in his old bed at the farm, so soft the stones seem, so comfortable is everything.

Thus, as in a dream, he thinks that he is again on the banks of the river, near the bridge, playing.with little Blas amid the flowers of the garden. Yes, the little Blas is there! Oh! he knows well when he had the little Blas on his knees! But the child is no longer a child; his face shines like a brilliant star; he has wings, white like the seraphim.

The little Blas says to him, “Now, that I am in heaven, I know many stories, and I will tell you some if you wish. The end of your beautiful story about the boy without ears and the dog who smoked his pipe — the end of that delightful story you were rather in doubt about, were you not? Listen, grandpa, I will tell it to you myself.

“When the little Guignonet found himself in prison, because they accused him of having stolen, he was at first very sad, as you are now. He, also, had done nothing but good, and all the world was against him, because of the good he had done. But while he was weeping, believing that he was lost, behold! the black dog who smoked his pipe entered the dungeon, still smoking the pipe, and said, ‘Guignonet, thy trials are over. The beggar on the road who returned you your sou with curses, it was I. The hen whose eggs you broke, it was I. The raven with great wings and the dwarf and the policemen — each was I. But I am not a black dog who smokes his pipe. I am a fairy, a good fairy. Look at me.’

“And then the prison was no longer a prison, but a garden all ablaze with luminous flowers. And Guignonet saw a beautiful lady with golden hair, who was clad like the sun in splendor, and who had a diamond wand.

“‘Guignonet,’ said she, ‘you have resisted all temptations, you have never rebelled against injustice; now rejoice, because you are in the golden garden of heaven, where you will play forever, with little angels as companions.’ And when she had spoken thus, the fairy disappeared. Guignonet saw running toward him a crowd of beautiful children, more beautiful than he had ever imagined. They asked him to come and play with them, and there is nothing more pleasant than to play hide and seek in the garden of heaven.”

It was thus that the little Blas, an angel with snowy wings, spoke to old Blas lying under the rocky debris, and thus ended the history of “the Little Boy who had no Ears and the Black Dog who smoked his Pipe.”

And the good man, understanding now that justice does exist and that there is a good God, died, without sorrow, on the hard bed of rocks, pressing against his heart the little Blas, now the little angel.

The grandfather hastened to hear the beautiful stories that the child in his turn was now going to tell him in the garden of heaven.

One thought on “The Crime of Old Blas, Part III, by Catulle Mendes”

  1. I don’t quite like the overly religious ending, but I guess that’s also a sign of the times. Overall, a very emotional story. The climax is more the middle part than the end. The story could almost end on Part II and be just as good or even better in some ways.

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