Claude André Theuriet - A Woodland Queen (la Reine Du Bois)
This story was the author's own favorite among his works of fiction, and was crowned by the French Academy in 1890.
MONSIEUR CLAUDE—ODOUART DE BUXIÈRES had died intestate, and his estate and comfortable property had reverted to a distant relative, Julien de Buxières. The deceased had been a man of unbridled freedom of life, though having many jovial and kindly qualities. For many years, his housekeeper, Manette, had had him under her influence, and her son, Claudet, a handsome, bold young fellow, a fine hunter, was a favorite of his father's and was openly acknowledged to be his heir. But M. Claude-Odouart had neglected to take the necessary legal steps to bring this about, and his sudden death had cut off mother and son without a penny.
Julien de Buxières was ignorant of these circumstances, never having seen his uncle. He was an orphan, and a young man of sensitive and retired nature, abhorring women and devoted to his books. He had been educated in a monastery, and had with difficulty been prevented from taking orders. He was hardly able to realize his sudden happiness, and went immediately to take possession of the château.
Traveling was not easy in that neighborhood, and driving late at night in an old cabriolet the driver lost his way, and the two were obliged to apply at a farm, called La Tuillière, for supper and accommodation. They were made welcome by the servants and ushered into a wide, low kitchen. Everything betokened neatness, prosperity, and comfort.
"It's jolly here!" said the driver, smacking his lips. "I wish Ma'mselle Reine would arrive."
Just as he said this a mysterious falsetto voice repeated "Reine! Reine!"
"What in the world is that?" said the driver, puzzled.
Both looked toward the beams; at the same moment there was a rustling of wings and a magpie flitted by, to rest on one of the joists.
Immediately another voice, a human voice, childish and wavering, faltered "Rei-ne—Rei-ne!"
The driver seized the lamp, and proceeding to that part of the room still in the shadow they perceived a strange-looking being stretched in an easy-chair. His long white hair formed a frame for a face of bloodless hue, from which two vacant eyes stared fixedly.
Notwithstanding their apologies, the old man kept repeating, like a frightened child: "Rei-ne! Reine!"
Suddenly the magpie flapped his wings and repeated, in his turn: "Refine, queen of the woods!"
"Here I am, papa, don't get uneasy!" said a clear, musical voice behind them.
Reine Vincart had suddenly entered. She wore on her head a white cape, or hood, and held in her arms an enormous bouquet of glistening leaves which seemed to have been gathered as specimens of all the wild fruit-trees of the forest, the different tints of which brought out the whiteness of her complexion, her limpid eyes, and the brown curls escaping from her hood. When she saw the two young men she exclaimed:
"What are you doing here? Don't you see that you are frightening him?"
She accepted their confused explanations hurriedly, and going to her father soothed him like a petted child, and then pre-pared a simple supper for him from the saucepan on the stove. After this, excusing herself, she turned to the visitors once more.
"You have probably come," she said, "on business connected with the château. Is not the heir of Monsieur de Buxières expected soon?"
"I am that heir," replied Julien, blushing.
"You are Monsieur de Buxières?" she exclaimed in astonishment that so slender and melancholy a young man should be the successor of the portly, jovial Odouart de Buxières. Then, recovering herself, she made them welcome and insisted upon their remaining for the night, directing that two plates be laid for them at the long supper-table.
Julien watched furtively the pretty, robust young girl pre-siding at the supper. He thought her strange; she upset all his ideas. His theories pictured a young woman as a submissive, modest, and shadowy creature, only raising her eyes to consult her husband or her mother as to what she might do. Reine did not fulfil this ideal. She seemed hardly twenty-two years old, yet acted with the decision of a man, remaining a young girl while doing so. He was also astonished at the evident education she had had, as well as her adaptation of herself to the rough surroundings in which she was placed. On her part she examined him, the stiff, constrained young man, with astonishment, mentally comparing him with the alert young huntsman, Claudet.
When she discovered by questioning him that he did not hunt, drink wine, nor play cards, she shook her head and warned him prettily that he would find difficulty in dealing with his simple neighbors.
The next morning, when Julien came to an early breakfast before resuming his journey, he found Reine arranging the pillows in her father's corner. The magpie was hopping about, and called out again : " Reine, queen of the woods! "
"Why `queen of the woods?"' asked Julien curiously.
"Ali," said the young girl, "it is a nickname the people give me because I spend all the time I can spare in our woods. I love them."
She told him simply of her education in the city, given by her mother, who had been a city girl, but of her true love of the country.
As his cabriolet came around he stepped into it, having finished the coffee she had given him. She gave him her hand in farewell and called out, "Good luck!" as the vehicle jolted away.
Julien experienced a pleasant sense of proprietorship as he approached the château, noting the woods, the fields, and the numerous slate roofs of the old homestead. His native shyness came back, however, as they stopped before the door. Manette and her son were surprised at his coming so early. Julien took them for servants, and they waited on him, Claudet in a surly manner, Manette with a watchful slyness. She confided to her son that she understood the new master at a glance, and said that if they played their cards well they might remain there on the old terms. He acquiesced sullenly, and between the two everything was done to bewilder the new incumbent. The former master had kept his accounts in a haphazard, ignorant way, and Julien found himself entangled in all kinds of difficulties in collecting rents. He grew bewildered and unhappy, not under-standing the unfriendly attitude of Claudet and the antagonism he felt growing up everywhere in spite of his efforts to be kind.
His bewilderment was enlightened by Reine, who came one day to pay a debt, and who told him with simple frankness of the relationship Claudet bore to the late Odouart de Buxières. This was a complete surprise to Julien, whose lack of knowledge of the world had prevented his suspecting such a thing. He thought the matter over, and came quickly to the decision of giving Claudet his moral share of the property, and announced this determination to the surprised young man.
This action procured the gratitude of Manette and the friendship of Claudet, who would gladly have initiated Julien into the forms of gaiety prevalent in. the neighborhood. But Julien turned in distaste from the coarse revelry of these people and became more than ever introspective and taciturn. He regretted his inability to live as his neighbors did, and became more and more depressed. He was like a new vase cracked before it had served its use, and felt thoroughly ashamed of the weakness and infirmity of his inner self. Reine Vincart was the only being who seemed to him to have intelligence and attraction, and his thoughts often turned to her, although the fact that she was a woman roused doubts of her truth in his mind.
Once, after a scene of gaiety in which he had appeared very much at a disadvantage, he strayed in the direction of La Tuillière, and discovered Reine standing in the center of a court-yard, surrounded by myriads of birds, for which she was scattering grain. The novelty of the pretty sight attracted him, and when she talked in a lively and sympathetic manner of her little friends he was more pleased still, being reminded, in his religious way, of St. Francis of Assisi and his "little brethren."
Finishing her task, the young girl asked Julien to go with her to the clearing where they were felling trees. They walked silently through the woods at first. Suddenly, as if by enchantment, the fog which had hung over the forest became converted into needles of ice.
Never had Julien de Buxières been so long in fête-a-fête with a young woman. The extreme solitude, the surrounding silence, rendered this dual promenade more intimate and also more embarrassing to a young man who was alarmed at the very thought of a woman's countenance. It was natural that his walk across the fields should assume an exaggerated importance in his eyes. It was difficult for him to talk, and the conversation went by fits and starts, as Reine led it herself, criticizing him gently for his lack of effort to accommodate himself to the people among whom he was thrown.
As they proceeded farther Reine became silent, and Julien looked at her with an uneasy kind of admiration. She was walking slowly, grave and reverent as if in a church. Her white hood had fallen on her shoulders and her hair floated like a dark aureole around her pale face. Her luminous eyes gleamed between the double fringes of her eyelids and her mobile nostrils quivered with suppressed emotion. The brambles from the wayside intermixed with ivy caught on the hem of her dress and formed a verdant train, giving her the appearance of the high priestess of some mysterious temple of Nature. At this moment she identified herself so perfectly with her nickname, "Queen of the Woods," that Julien, already powerfully affected by her peculiar and striking kind of beauty, began to experience a superstitious dread of her influence. His Catholic scruples and education recalled to him certain legends of temptations to which the Evil One used to subject the anchorites of old, by causing to appear before them the attractive but elusive forms of the heathen deities. He wondered whether, like the Lamias and the Dryads of antiquity, this queen of the woods were not some spirit of the elements incarnated in human form and sent to him for the purpose of dragging his soul down to perdition.
In thls frame of mind he followed her until they reached the clearing, where the workmen were in the very act of felllng one of the kings of the forest. They watched it, towering and apparently impervious to the strokes of the ax until suddenly the workmen fell back. There was a moment of solemn suspense; then the enormous trunk heaved and plunged down among the brushwood. A sound as of lamentation rumbled through the forest, and then all was still.
The men, with unconsclous emotion, stood contemplating the monarch oak lying prostrate on the ground. Reine had turned pale; her dark eyes glistened with tears.
"Let us go," she murmured to Julien; "this death of a tree affects me as if it were that of a Christian."
As winter wore away, thoughts of Reine began to take complete possesslon of Julien's mind. His state of mind acted like wltchcraft and alarmed him. What was she, this strange creature? A peasant apparently, but also a refined and cultivated being, different from the girls about her, though retaining the frankness of untutored natures.
The suspicion that she was not as irreproachable as she seemed came sometimes to his mind. He reflected on the easy standard of morals in the village, on the toleration of Odouart's irregularities, on Claudet's parentage, and the after-dinner conversations to which he had listened with repugnance.
The conflict of feeling wore on his spirits and health. Naturally he did not confide in Claudet. who was puzzled at a depression he did not understand, and who recommended that Julien amuse himself by a love-affair with some of the girls of the village.
He was in this contradictory state of mind when an event happened which opened his eyes as to Reine's true character.
A grand fete was to take place. The charcoal-burners had completed their new furnaces, and the opening was to be celebrated in the Ronces woods. All the peasants gathered there and made merry with songs, wine, and dances. Flower-crowned and gay, they did not lndulge, contrary to the customs of the gentry, to excess.
Reine was queen of the fête, and at length skipped lightly up the steps to the top of the chimney and made ready to throw into the embers a votive offering to good luck.
Her graceful outline came out in strong relief against the clear sky, as one by one she took the embers handed to her by the charcoal dealer. The crackling fire was soon heard.
"Bravo, we've got it!" cried the charcoal dealer.
"Sing us a song, Reine," called the villagers. In her clear voice she intoned a popular song, with a rhythmical refrain, which set them all to dancing on the greensward. She, accom-parfied by Julien, stood neat the forest watching the dancers till they disappeared. Then, as the day was hot, she proposed to him to enter the but and rest. He accepted readily but was surprised that she, a young girl, should be the one to suggest it. Once more the spirit of doubt took possession of him. Annoyed at his taciturnity, she at last broke the silence.
"You do not speak, Monsieur Julien. Do you regret coming to the fête?"
"Regret it! No. I am overwhelmed with the beauty of the trees, and I sympathize with these simple people who live so happily. It is you who have wrought this miracle."
Astonished at his enthusiasm, she turned and looked at him and perceived that he was altogether transformed. He was no longer the sickly youth whose words froze on his tongue, his slender frame had become rounded and supple. She was moved and won by his enthusiasm, the first he had ever shown her, and replied gaily:
"As to the queen of the woods working miracles, I know none so powerful as these flowers." She handed him the bouquet of starry white woodruff from her corsage. "Do you know them?" she said.
He had carried the bouquet to his lips and was inhaling its perfume. She continued talking, while he fixed his eyes upon her.
"Let me keep these flowers," he implored in a choking voice. " Do not thank me," she said, surprised at his emotion. He dared not reply that the fact that she had worn them was the reason of his feeling. As she had so readily granted this first favor, was she not encouraging him to ask for more? His gaze became more steady. "Will you not give me your hand as well as these flowers?" he said.
After a moment's hesitation, she held out her hand. Hardly had he touched it when he completely lost control of himself, and drawing her toward him lightly touched her neck with his lips.
The young girl tore herself away, her eyes blazing, and ex-claimed in a hollow voice : " If you come a step nearer, I will call those men!"
Julien did not explain to Claudet the mistake he had made with Reine, but in talking with him drew from him an assertion that she was of high character, and a confession of his own deep love for her. Julien then formed the quixotic resolve to tell her himself of Claudet's love, hoping that this proceeding would develop in some way the fact of her loving himself.
The young girl was taken unawares at this proposal by proxy. She had hoped that Julien's action at the charcoal-burning was due to a deep passion for herself, which was indeed the fact, but when he calmly offered her the hand of another she became convinced that it had proceeded from a brutal caprice. She therefore, although with a heavy heart, acquiesced, and promised herself to Claudet, for whom she could entertain no stronger feeling than that of comradeship.
After a time she realized that the sensitive and reserved Julien had won her heart, and was unable to return the raptures of Claudet, putting off his prayers for a speedy union, to his disquietude and perplexity. Julien, on the other hand, instead of relief at having affairs come to certainty, was convinced that his former unhappiness had been a mere shadow compared to his present sufferings.
The curé appeared to be horrified when Claudet asked him to perform the marriage ceremony, and a night of prayer and fasting followed, that the simple man might be prepared for this painful duty.
"My child," he said to Reine, after he had sought her at the farm and prepared her mind somewhat for his difficult piece of information, "you cannot marry Claudet. You are forcing me to violate a secret which has been confided to me."
"What do you mean?" asked Reine, pale and trembling.
"I mean," sighed the curé, "that you are Claudet's sister, not having the same mother, but the same father—Claude-Odouart de Buxières."
"Oh! you are mistaken! That cannot be."
"I am stating facts. It grieves me to the heart, my dear child, to have to reveal the confession made to me by your deceased mother, but—"
She appeared not to hear him. She had buried her face in her hands to hide the flushing of her cheeks, and sat motionless, altogether crushed.
It was impossible to soften the blow to Claudet. Not being able to reveal the truth to him, she was obliged to assume the rôle of a heartless coquette.
Claudet saw quite clearly that Julien and Reine loved each other, and at last talked freely with the former. He told him that to be refused by the only girl he had ever cared for was too discouraging, and that he intended to leave the country and en-list as a soldier. His bitterness increased at noting the half-hearted relief with which Julien received this, and it was not lessened at the forced coldness which Reine, fearing both herself and him, displayed at his farewell.
"No!" he exclaimed, between his set teeth, "she never loved me. She thinks only of the other man! I have nothing more to do but go away and never return."
Claudet did not return. He was killed in his first engagement during an action of rash bravery. At his funeral, which had been attended by the whole neighborhood, for the brave fellow had been well liked, Julien caught a glimpse of Reine's black dress through the trees. He hurried and joined her.
"Mademoiselle Reine," said he gently, "will you let me walk with you?"
"Certainly," she replied briefly. She felt a presentiment that he was about to say something decisive, and trembled.
"Reine, "said he suddenly, "I have decided to speak frankly and open my heart to you. I love you, Reine, and have loved you for a long time. But I have been so accustomed to hide what I think, I know so little how to conduct myself in the varying circumstances of life, that I have never dared to tell you before. I must tell you this, although I know that Claudet's shadow, dead though he is, stands between us."
"I never have loved him in the way you suppose," she said. A gleam of happiness, followed by an expression of doubt, showed on his face, as he glanced at her mourning garb. "But you are lamenting his loss," he said.
She began to reflect that a man of his despondent and distrustful temperament would, unless the whole truth were revealed to him, be forevermore tormented by morbid and injurious misgivings. She knew he loved her and she wished him to love her in entire faith and security. She leaned forward and with tearful eyes and burning cheeks whispered the secret of her close relationship with Claudet.
The sun was shining everywhere; the woods were as full of verdure and blossoms as on the day when the young man had manifested his passion with such savage violence. Hardly had the last words of her avowal expired on Reine's lips when Julien de Buxières threw his arms around her and fondly kissed away the tears from her eyes.
This time he was not repelled.
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
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