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After a certain height the plant life ceased. Aloft in air the granite took upon itself the most fantastic shapes, and assumed those misty tints that give to high mountains a dim resemblance to clouds in the sky. The bare, bleak cliffs, with the fearful rents in their sides, pictures of wild and barren desolation, contrasted strongly with the pretty view of the valley; and so strange were the shapes they assumed, that one of the cliffs had been called "The Capuchin," because it was so like a monk. Sometimes these sharp-pointed peaks, these mighty masses of rock, and airy caverns were lighted up one by one, according to the direction of the sun or the caprices of the atmosphere; they caught gleams of gold, dyed themselves in purple; took a tint of glowing rose-color, or turned dull and gray. Upon the heights a drama of color was always to be seen, a play of ever-shifting iridescent hues like those on a pigeon's breast.
Oftentimes at sunrise or at sunset a ray of bright sunlight would penetrate between two sheer surfaces of lava, that might have been split apart by a hatchet, to the very depths of that pleasant little garden, where it would play in the waters of the pool, like a beam of golden light which gleams through the chinks of a shutter into a room in Spain, that has been carefully darkened for a siesta. When the sun rose above the old crater that some antediluvian revolution had filled with water, its rocky sides took warmer tones, the extinct volcano glowed again, and its sudden heat quickened the sprouting seeds and vegetation, gave color to the flowers, and ripened the fruits of this forgotten corner of the earth.
As Raphael reached it, he noticed several cows grazing in the pasture-land; and when he had taken a few steps towards the water, he saw a little house built of granite and roofed with shingle in the spot where the meadowland was at its widest. The roof of this little cottage harmonized with everything about it; for it had long been overgrown with ivy, moss, and flowers of no recent date. A thin smoke, that did not scare the birds away, went up from the dilapidated chimney. There was a great bench at the door between two huge honey-suckle bushes, that were pink with blossom and full of scent. The walls could scarcely be seen for branches of vine and sprays of rose and jessamine that interlaced and grew entirely as chance and their own will bade them; for the inmates of the cottage seemed to pay no attention to the growth which adorned their house, and to take no care of it, leaving to it the fresh capricious charm of nature.
Some clothes spread out on the gooseberry bushes were drying in the sun. A cat was sitting on a machine for stripping hemp; beneath it lay a newly scoured brass caldron, among a quantity of potato-parings. On the other side of the house Raphael saw a sort of barricade of dead thorn-bushes, meant no doubt to keep the poultry from scratching up the vegetables and pot-herbs. It seemed like the end of the earth. The dwelling was like some bird's-nest ingeniously set in a cranny of the rocks, a clever and at the same time a careless bit of workmanship. A simple and kindly nature lay round about it; its rusticity was genuine, but there was a charm like that of poetry in it; for it grew and throve at a thousand miles' distance from our elaborate and conventional poetry. It was like none of our conceptions; it was a spontaneous growth, a masterpiece due to chance.
As Raphael reached the place, the sunlight fell across it from right to left, bringing out all the colors of its plants and trees; the yellowish or gray bases of the crags, the different shades of the green leaves, the masses of flowers, pink, blue, or white, the climbing plants with their bell-like blossoms, and the shot velvet of the mosses, the purple-tinted blooms of the heather,--everything was either brought into relief or made fairer yet by the enchantment of the light or by the contrasting shadows; and this was the case most of all with the sheet of water, wherein the house, the trees, the granite peaks, and the sky were all faithfully reflected. Everything had a radiance of its own in this delightful picture, from the sparkling mica-stone to the bleached tuft of grass hidden away in the soft shadows; the spotted cow with its glossy hide, the delicate water-plants that hung down over the pool like fringes in a nook where blue or emerald colored insects were buzzing about, the roots of trees like a sand-besprinkled shock of hair above grotesque faces in the flinty rock surface,--all these things made a harmony for the eye.
The odor of the tepid water; the scent of the flowers, and the breath of the caverns which filled the lonely place gave Raphael a sensation that was almost enjoyment. Silence reigned in majesty over these woods, which possibly are unknown to the tax-collector; but the barking of a couple of dogs broke the stillness all at once; the cows turned their heads towards the entrance of the valley, showing their moist noses to Raphael, stared stupidly at him, and then fell to browsing again. A goat and her kid, that seemed to hang on the side of the crags in some magical fashion, capered and leapt to a slab of granite near to Raphael, and stayed there a moment, as if to seek to know who he was. The yapping of the dogs brought out a plump child, who stood agape, and next came a white-haired old man of middle height. Both of these two beings were in keeping with the surroundings, the air, the flowers, and the dwelling. Health appeared to overflow in this fertile region; old age and childhood thrived there. There seemed to be, about all these types of existence, the freedom and carelessness of the life of primitive times, a happiness of use and wont that gave the lie to our philosophical platitudes, and wrought a cure of all its swelling passions in the heart.
The old man belonged to the type of model dear to the masculine brush of Schnetz. The countless wrinkles upon his brown face looked as if they would be hard to the touch; the straight nose, the prominent cheek-bones, streaked with red veins like a vine-leaf in autumn, the angular features, all were characteristics of strength, even where strength existed no longer. The hard hands, now that they toiled no longer, had preserved their scanty white hair, his bearing was that of an absolutely free man; it suggested the thought that, had he been an Italian, he would have perhaps turned brigand, for the love of the liberty so dear to him. The child was a regular mountaineer, with the black eyes that can face the sun without flinching, a deeply tanned complexion, and rough brown hair. His movements were like a bird's-swift, decided, and unconstrained; his clothing was ragged; the white, fair skin showed through the rents in his garments. There they both stood in silence, side by side, both obeying the same impulse; in both faces were clear tokens of an absolutely identical and idle life. The old man had adopted the child's amusements, and the child had fallen in with the old man's humor; there was a sort of tacit agreement between two kinds of feebleness, between failing powers well-nigh spent and powers just about to unfold themselves.
Very soon a woman who seemed to be about thirty years old appeared on the threshold of the door, spinning as she came. She was an Auvergnate, a high-colored, comfortable-looking, straightforward sort of person, with white teeth; her cap and dress, the face, full figure, and general appearance, were of the Auvergne peasant stamp. So was her dialect; she was a thorough embodiment of her district; its hardworking ways, its thrift, ignorance, and heartiness all met in her.
She greeted Raphael, and they began to talk. The dogs quieted down; the old man went and sat on a bench in the sun; the child followed his mother about wherever she went, listening without saying a word, and staring at the stranger.
"You are not afraid to live here, good woman?"
"What should we be afraid of, sir? When we bolt the door, who ever could get inside? Oh, no, we aren't afraid at all. And besides," she said, as she brought the Marquis into the principal room in the house, "what should thieves come to take from us here?"
She designated the room as she spoke; the smoke-blackened walls, with some brilliant pictures in blue, red, and green, an "End of Credit," a Crucifixion, and the "Grenadiers of the Imperial Guard" for their sole ornament; the furniture here and there, the old wooden four-post bedstead, the table with crooked legs, a few stools, the chest that held the bread, the flitch that hung from the ceiling, a jar of salt, a stove, and on the mantleshelf a few discolored yellow plaster figures. As he went out again Raphael noticed a man half-way up the crags, leaning on a hoe, and watching the house with interest.
"That's my man, sir," said the Auvergnate, unconsciously smiling in peasant fashion; "he is at work up there."
"And that old man is your father?"
"Asking your pardon, sir, he is my man's grandfather. Such as you see him, he is a hundred and two, and yet quite lately he walked over to Clermont with our little chap! Oh, he has been a strong man in his time; but he does nothing now but sleep and eat and drink. He amuses himself with the little fellow. Sometimes the child trails him up the hillsides, and he will just go up there along with him."
Valentin made up his mind immediately. He would live between this child and old man, breathe the same air; eat their bread, drink the same water, sleep with them, make the blood in his veins like theirs. It was a dying man's fancy. For him the prime model, after which the customary existence of the individual should be shaped, the real formula for the life of a human being, the only true and possible life, the life-ideal, was to become one of the oysters adhering to this rock, to save his shell a day or two longer by paralyzing the power of death. One profoundly selfish thought took possession of him, and the whole universe was swallowed up and lost in it. For him the universe existed no longer; the whole world had come to be within himself. For the sick, the world begins at their pillow and ends at the foot of the bed; and this countryside was Raphael's sick-bed.
Who has not, at some time or other in his life, watched the comings and goings of an ant, slipped straws into a yellow slug's one breathing-hole, studied the vagaries of a slender dragon-fly, pondered admiringly over the countless veins in an oak-leaf, that bring the colors of a rose window in some Gothic cathedral into contrast with the reddish background? Who has not looked long in delight at the effects of sun and rain on a roof of brown tiles, at the dewdrops, or at the variously shaped petals of the flower-cups? Who has not sunk into these idle, absorbing meditations on things without, that have no conscious end, yet lead to some definite thought at last. Who, in short, has not led a lazy life, the life of childhood, the life of the savage without his labor? This life without a care or a wish Raphael led for some days' space. He felt a distinct improvement in his condition, a wonderful sense of ease, that quieted his apprehensions and soothed his sufferings.
He would climb the crags, and then find a seat high up on some peak whence he could see a vast expanse of distant country at a glance, and he would spend whole days in this way, like a plant in the sun, or a hare in its form. And at last, growing familiar with the appearances of the plant-life about him, and of the changes in the sky, he minutely noted the progress of everything working around him in the water, on the earth, or in the air. He tried to share the secret impulses of nature, sought by passive obedience to become a part of it, and to lie within the conservative and despotic jurisdiction that regulates instinctive existence. He no longer wished to steer his own course.
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The Magic Skin -by- Honore de Balzac