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Pierre Mille
1864-1941

   

The Stricken Doe

by Pierre Mille


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             AFTER DINING AT BRANTES, at the Deux Couronnes, the three men made ready to get into their motor-car. Suddenly a little servant-girl appeared: Béville had left his camera behind in the dining-room: she handed it to him without a word and went back into the hotel.
             "She's not very talkative!" he observed.
             "Oh!" said the garage attendant, "that's the Breton girl. She only arrived here from Brittany two days ago and she doesn't know a word of French yet."
             "The Breton girl?" echoed Béville.
             "Why, doesn't Monsieur know?" asked the fellow with a snigger. "In hotels like this, small-town hotels, they always get hold of a Breton girl. For the travellers, in case . . ."
             The three laughed. The car started, and a few moments later they were in the open country.
             "Do you notice the smell of the air; isn't it delightful?" Béville asked the man next to him.
             "Yes," replied Bottiaux. "That's because it's been raining and the earth is still warm and the car is going very fast, so that the air is full of fragrance."
             Béville spread himself out, half asleep, a little intoxicated from the champagne he had drunk at dinner and intoxicated, too, by the brisk, warm night air which bathed him, buffeted him, impregnated his body and gave him a feeling of lazy, languid voluptuousness. He was no longer on earth, but floated above it, and from time to time he stretched out his arms as though trying to seize some delectable object of his thoughts.
             "Pity there are no women, eh, Jalin?"
             But Jalin, the owner of the car, who was driving, did not even turn his head. He had quite enough to do to steer the formidable machine over the road along which they sped, whitened by the light of the huge headlights, and on either side of which the straight lines of the trees formed, as it were, two solid walls, so fast were they travelling.
             He merely growled:
             "Women? Certainly not!"
             All his virility, all his vigour, all his strength as a male and as an intelligent athlete were now concentrated in his brain and in his hands. But, like the others, he spread his nostrils to inhale the perfumes of the summer night, those of the limes, of the mountain-ash and of thousands of little herbs, whose names no one knows, which have been fertilized by the sun-lit hours and during the night enjoy the raptures of that contact within their closed petals. That was enough for him. He merely murmured:
             "It's lovely, isn't it?"
             Rabbits, roused by the roar of the car, blinded by the headlights and crazy with fear, ran out of the ditches beside the road and sped like black bullets across their path. But suddenly the road was plunged into darkness and the branches above their heads were interspersed with patches of sky. One second before, this machine, this meteor, this furious rushing object seemed to be the sole source of light in the world; and now it was nothing but the centre of a world of darkness, while other objects sprang into life again in the gloom. It was staggeringly sudden and unexpected. Jalin exclaimed:
             "Good Heavens, the lights have gone out!"
             "Light them again, then," said Bottiaux.
             Jalin shrugged his shoulders.
             "I'm afraid they're short-circuited. I can't do anything about it."
             "Well then, drive by the side-lights."
             "Yes, but they're really only parking lights!" replied Jalin.
             "They're quite enough for the police. Anyway, drive on! We must get to Paris. I want to sleep in Paris."
             Jalin nodded his head. An eighty horse-power car is no more capable of travelling slowly than a race-horse on a track or a destroyer on the seas. However much one tries to hold it back it leaps forward and takes matters into its own hands. Jalin knew the folly of travelling blindly at sixty miles an hour when in two seconds one is upon an object which one first sees sixty yards away. Yet he consented. Like the other two he was feeling too happy, too impetuous, too much lifted out of himself, and too much carried away by the movement of which he thought himself master. It is the same in a cavalry charge: one goes straight to one's death and one cannot prevent oneself from doing so.
             The gloom above them and on each side of the road became more intense. They were travelling through a wood, a dark confused mass of serried trees whose trunks and branches seemed to be intertwined. It was dark, so dark that it almost hurt their eyes, and made them want to shade them with their hands, as though to protect them from a sudden shock. And at that very moment, when this alarming condition seemed at its worst, Jalin thought he could distinguish something in front of him, a shadow even darker than the prevailing gloom, a living, terrified shadow. He wrenched his steering-wheel and jammed on the brakes. Anyone who knows about the modern machine has experienced the physical consequences of that sudden stopping, that abrupt deviation of a projectile meant to travel in a straight line; the whole of one's inside seems to displace itself, and one has a sort of bitter forecast of the agony of death. But the car was wide and low-sprung, so it did not turn over but obeyed as best it could, mounted a heap of stones and came shudderingly to a standstill.
             "What's the matter?" asked Béville, who had gone quite grey.
             Bottiaux jumped out and joined Jalin who was mopping his forehead and kneeling before a pathetic object which still quivered as it lay stretched on the ground, dimly lit by one of the side-lights of the car.
             "What a bit of luck," observed Béville who had also got out of the car. "It's only a doe!"
             The three men sighed deeply and their voices echoed among the trees as they expressed their relief. With their heavy overcoats, caps and goggles they were strangely alike: fine-looking men, all three bearded, and with an air of wealth, vigour and strength.
             "What a bit of luck!" repeated Jalin.
             But his laughter, which mingled with that of the others, suddenly ceased. He had just noticed the doe's eyes: they were so soft, so sad and so frightened, full of the puzzled terror of not knowing why it was there and of what had struck it in the night. Poor pretty little thing! Poor little woodland beast, so wild and innocent! They had all killed many others when they were out hunting with horses and hounds and beaters. But not like that. It lay mangled, wounded and dying, and quivering so painfully, with that despairing look still in its suffering eyes.
             "We'll have to go back to Brantes," said Jalin. "I can't go on without my headlights. We can sleep at the hotel where we dined."
             He turned the car and they returned to Brantes as slowly as they could. Gradually the memory of the slaughtered animal was obliterated from their minds. It might have been a human being, they might themselves have been killed, indeed they had for a moment been faced by the fear of death. But they were alive, their blood coursed healthily through their veins and the world would still be theirs for years and years to come. The future stretched before them like a colonnade which one can follow endlessly with one's eyes, in an atmosphere of pure happiness.
             The door of the Hôtel des Deux Couronnes was shut. Everyone was asleep. They knocked for a long time before a light appeared. Even then they had to wait a little longer, because in small towns people have to be cautious: they want to know with whom they are dealing.
             "Look," said Bottiaux, when the door opened at last, "it's the Breton girl."
             In her hand she held one of those tiny lamps, the wicks of which are protected by small globes, and which for the past twenty years have taken the place of night-lights. This feeble light gave a pink tinge to one side of her soft, childish, homely face, and everything else, her dressing-jacket hurriedly thrown over her rough night-dress, her linen petticoat, her bare slippered feet were lost in shadow. All that was visible was her sensitive little face, suspended in the air like a disembodied soul.
             "Room?" she asked in rather a husky voice, in the way people do when they speak a foreign language.
             "Yes, sleep; beds, eh? Good beds!" explained Bottiaux.
             She lit candles for them, smiled, showed them to their rooms and retired.
             But when Béville got to bed he found that he was unable to sleep. He was feeling too shattered, and still too excited by the fragrance of the night, by the speed of the car and by that strong feeling of gratitude towards life which infects everyone who has just escaped a great danger. Then he remembered the words of the garage attendant: "The Breton girl? That's what she's there for!" and he left his room, bare-footed, and crept noiselessly along the passage.
             Béville had noticed where the Breton girl slept; in a kind of lean-to, a cupboard fixed up on the staircase, between the ground floor and the first floor. He went straight there, shading his candle with his hand. Yes, that was the right place: she was sleeping on a common iron bedstead, her hair loose about her shoulders and one hand beneath her head to raise it as she had no pillow. All that could be seen of her body was a rounded neck and the delicate swell of a very young breast. Béville put his hand on her shoulder and kissed her. He had blown out the candle. The girl woke with a start and put her hands out in an instinctive gesture of self-protection:
             "Ma Doué," she said.
             But Béville already had her in his arms and she felt his mouth upon hers again. Yes, it was true, she was the Breton girl, she was employed for that, paid for that, thirty francs a month in addition to presents from the guests. And besides, this man was a gentleman. Centuries of domination, almost of slavery, had taught her race that one must always obey "gentlemen," the leaders, the masters; their men followed them to war, their women to bed. So she must submit. Her poor little servile soul dared not protest. Only her body recoiled in horror, because it was still pure. Every virgin defends herself, every virgin is afraid. No doubt this is an instinct which nature has given her so that she must need courage to give herself and that thus she should only give herself from choice and, as it were, as a sacrifice to the man she loves. The Breton girl, humble savage, sold as in ancient days, but even more basely, experienced a feeling of terror. She implored him to let her go, in confused hurried words, in her obscure language, the language spoken on the shores of western seas, the only one she knew; but Béville did not understand.
             He never knew why the girl did not return the kisses he gave her before possessing her. Neither did he understand when, a satisfied and yet sadly disappointed male—for such is the punishment of careless, brutal males that his only thought was to leave an offering and to get away—he never understood why a mouth had brushed, not his lips, she would not have dared, but his cheek and his forehead: the caress of a timid child who wanted so much, yes, so much, to be able to imagine the memory of the shadow of true tenderness after the horror of her ravishment. But there was nothing. He just went away and that was all.
             Next day at dawn Jalin came and woke his two friends. When Béville came down he had almost forgotten. Happy men have, as it were, no memories. They live in advance and discount their future pleasures daily. If he had thought at all about the events of the night he would merely have felt that he had been rather unkind and, as he knew this, he took care to divert his thoughts into other channels. Moreover, Jalin had already got everything ready for their departure. The bill was paid and the engine of the car was running. He threw his two companions their coats and caps.
             "Off we go!"
             He backed into the hotel courtyard to enable him to turn before the front door. And at that moment there appeared in the doorway the misused slave who had let them in the previous night. She had just come out of her room where she had no doubt lain awake for hours, alone and defiled. She was wearing the same clothes, humble to the point of abjectness, a rough chemise and a shapeless jacket. She had not done her hair, she was not pretty, even her youth seemed to have become tarnished, and she stared at the three men hopelessly, her eyes full of misery. For the appalling thing that had happened to her and had perhaps left a living result within her, had taken place in inky darkness and she could not tell which of the three men it had been. Nor would she ever know.
             The motor-car turned, well under control, and shot off. Bottiaux remarked musingly:
             "That Breton girl's eyes. . . . What did they remind me of? Ohl yes, they were just like those of that doe last night. Did you see them?"
             "No," replied Béville, "I didn't notice."

 
           

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