Noon had just struck. The school-door opened and the youngsters streamed out tumbling over one another in their haste to get out quickly. But instead of promptly dispersing and going home to dinner as was their daily wont, they stopped a few paces off, broke up into knots and set to whispering.
The fact was that that morning Simon, the son of La Blanchotte, had, for the first time, attended school.
They had all of them in their families heard of La Blanchotte; and although in public she was welcome enough, the mothers among themselves treated her with compassion of a some what disdainful kind, which the children had caught without in the least knowing why.
As for Simon himself, they did not know him, for he never went abroad, and did not play around with them through the streets of the village or along the banks of the river. So they loved him but little; and it was with a certain delight, mingled with astonishment that they gathered in groups this morning, repeating to each other this sentence, concocted by a lad of fourteen or fifteen who appeared to know all about it, so sagaciously did he wink: "You know Simon --well, he has no papa."
La Blanchotte's son appeared in his turn upon the threshold of the school.
He was seven or eight years old, rather pale, very neat, with a timid and almost awkward manner.
He was making his way back to his mother's house when the various groups of his schoolfellows, perpetually whispering, and watching him with the mischievous and heartless eyes of children bent upon playing a nasty trick, gradually surrounded him and ended by inclosing him altogether. There he stood amid them, surprised and embarrassed, not understanding what they were going to do with him. But the lad who had brought the news, puffed up with the success he had met with, demanded:
"What do you call yourself?"
He answered: "Simon."
"Simon what?" retorted the other.
The child, altogether bewildered, repeated: "Simon."
The lad shouted at him: "You must be named Simon something! That is not a name--Simon indeed!"
And he, on the brink of tears, replied for the third time:
"I am named Simon."
The urchins began laughing. The lad triumphantly lifted up his voice: "You can see plainly that he has no papa."
A deep silence ensued. The children were dumfounded by this extraordinary, impossibly monstrous thing--a boy who had not a papa; they looked upon him as a phenomenon, an unnatural being, and they felt rising in them the hitherto inexplicable pity of their mothers for La Blanchotte. As for Simon, he had propped himself against a tree to avoid falling, and he stood there as if paralyzed by an irreparable disaster. He sought to explain, but he could think of no answer for them, no way to deny this horrible charge that he had no papa. At last he shouted at them quite recklessly: "Yes, I have one."
"Where is he?" demanded the boy.
Simon was silent, he did not know. The children shrieked, tremendously excited. These sons of toil, nearly related to animals, experienced the cruel craving which makes the fowls of a farmyard destroy one of their own kind as soon as it is wounded. Simon suddenly spied a little neighbor, the son of a widow, whom he had always seen, as he himself was to be seen, quite alone with his mother.
"And no more have you," he said, "no more have you a papa."
"Yes," replied the other, "I have one."
"Where is he?" rejoined Simon.
"He is dead," declared the brat with superb dignity, "he is in the cemetery, is my papa."
A murmur of approval rose amid the scape-graces, as if the fact of possessing a papa dead in a cemetery made their comrade big enough to crush the other one who had no papa at all. And these rogues, whose fathers were for the most part evil-doers, drunkards, thieves, and ill-treaters of their wives hustled each other as they pressed closer and closer to Simon as though they, the legitimate ones, would stifle in their pressure one who was beyond the law.
The lad next Simon suddenly put his tongue out at him with a waggish air and shouted at him:
"No papa! No papa!"
Simon seized him by the hair with both hands and set to work to demolish his legs with kicks, while he bit his cheek ferociously. A tremendous struggle ensued between the two boys, and Simon found himself beaten, torn, bruised, rolled on the ground in the middle of the ring of applauding little vagabonds. As he arose, mechanically brushing his little blouse all covered with dust with his hand, some one shouted at him:
"Go and tell your papa."
He then felt a great sinking in his heart. They were stronger than he, they had beaten him and he had no answer to give them, for he knew it was true that he had no papa. Full of pride he tried for some moments to struggle against the tears which were suffocating him. He had a choking fit, and then without cries he began to weep with great sobs which shook him incessantly. Then a ferocious joy broke out among his enemies, and, just like savages in fearful festivals, they took one another by the hand and danced in a circle about him as they repeated in refrain:
"No papa! No papa!"
But suddenly Simon ceased sobbing. Frenzy overtook him. There were stones under his feet; he picked them up and with all his strength hurled them at his tormentors. Two or three were struck and ran away yelling, and so formidable did he appear that the rest became panic-stricken. Cowards, like a jeering crowd in the presence of an exasperated man, they broke up and fled. Left alone, the little thing without a father set off running toward the fields, for a recollection had been awakened which nerved his soul to a great determination. He made up his mind to drown himself in the river.
He remembered, in fact, that eight days ago a poor devil who begged for his livelihood had thrown himself into the water because he had no more money. Simon had been there when they fished him out again, and the sight of the fellow, who had seemed to him so miserable and ugly, had then impressed him--his pale cheeks, his long drenched beard, and his open eyes being full of calm. The bystanders had said:
"He is dead."
And some one had added:
"He is quite happy now."
So Simon wished to drown himself also because he had no father, just as the wretched being did who had no money.
He reached the water and watched it flowing. Some fishes were rising briskly in the clear stream and occasionally made little leaps and caught the flies on the surface. He stopped crying in order to watch them, for their feeding interested him vastly. But, at intervals, as in the lulls of a tempest, when tremendous gusts of wind snap off trees and then die away, this thought would return to him with intense pain:
"I am about to drown myself because I have no papa."
It was very warm and fine weather. The pleasant sunshine warmed the grass; the water shone like a mirror; and Simon enjoyed for some minutes the happiness of that languor which follows weeping, desirous even of falling asleep there upon the grass in the warmth of noon.
A little green frog leaped from under his feet. He endeavored to catch it. It escaped him. He pursued it and lost it three times following. At last he caught it by one of its hind legs and began to laugh as he saw the efforts the creature made to escape. It gathered itself up on its large legs and then with a violent spring suddenly stretched them out as stiff as two bars.
Its eyes stared wide open in their round, golden circle, and it beat the air with its front limbs, using them as though they were hands. It reminded him of a toy made with straight slips of wood nailed zig-zag one on the other, which by a similar movement regulated the exercise of the little soldiers fastened thereon. Then he thought of his home and of his mother, and overcome by great sorrow he again began to weep. His limbs trembled; and he placed himself on his knees and said his prayers as before going to bed. But he was unable to finish them, for such hurried and violent sobs overtook him that he was completely overwhelmed. He thought no more, he no longer heeded anything around him but was wholly given up to tears.
Suddenly a heavy hand was placed upon his shoulder, and a rough voice asked him:
"What is it that causes you so much grief, my fine fellow?"
Simon turned round. A tall workman, with a black beard and hair all curled, was staring at him good-naturedly. He answered with his eyes and throat full of tears:
"They have beaten me because--I--I have no papa--no papa. "
"What!" said the man smiling, "why, everybody has one."
The child answered painfully amid his spasms of grief:
"But I--I--I have none."
Then the workman became serious. He had recognized La Blanchotte's son, and although a recent arrival to the neighborhood he had a vague idea of her history.
"Well," said he, "console yourself, my boy, and come with me home to your mother. She will give you a papa."
And so they started on the way, the big one holding the little one by the hand. The man smiled afresh, for he was not sorry to see this Blanchotte, who by popular report was one of the prettiest girls in the country-side--and, perhaps, he said to himself, at the bottom of his heart, that a lass who had erred once might very well err again.
They arrived in front of a very neat little white house.
"There it is," exclaimed the child, and he cried: "Mamma."
A woman appeared, and the workman instantly left off smiling, for he at once perceived that there was no more fooling to be done with the tall pale girl, who stood austerely at her door as though to defend from one man the threshold of that house where she had already been betrayed by another. Intimidated, his cap in his hand, he stammered out:
"See, Madame, I have brought you back your little boy, who had lost himself near the river."
But Simon flung his arms about his mother's neck and told her, as he again began to cry:
"No, mamma, I wished to drown myself, because the others had beaten me--had beaten me--because I have no papa."
A burning redness covered the young woman's cheeks, and, hurt to the quick, she embraced her child passionately, while the tears coursed down her face. The man, much moved, stood there, not knowing how to get away. But Simon suddenly ran to him and said:
"Will you be my papa?"
A deep silence ensued. La Blanchotte, dumb and tortured with shame, leaned against the wall, her hands upon her heart. The child, seeing that no answer was made him, replied:
"If you do not wish it, I shall return to drown myself."
The workman took the matter as a jest and answered laughing:
"Why, yes, I wish it certainly."
"What is your name, then," went on the child, "so that I may tell the others when they wish to know your name?"
"Philip," answered the man.
Simon was silent a moment so that he might get the name well into his memory; then he stretched out his arms, quite consoled, and said:
"Well, then, Philip, you are my papa."
The workman, lifting him from the ground, kissed him hastily on both cheeks, and then strode away quickly.
When the child returned to school next day he was received with a spiteful laugh, and at the end of school, when the lads were on the point of recommencing, Simon threw these words at their heads as he would have done a stone: "He is named Philip, my papa."
Yells of delight burst out from all sides.
"Philip who? Philip what? What on earth is Philip? Where did you pick up your Philip?"
Simon answered nothing; and immovable in faith he defied them with his eye, ready to be martyred rather than fly before them. The schoolmaster came to his rescue and he returned home to his mother.
For a space of three months, the tall workman, Philip, frequently passed by La Blanchotte's house, and sometimes made bold to speak to her when he saw her sewing near the window. She answered him civilly, always sedately, never joking with him, nor permitting him to enter her house. Notwithstanding this, being, like all men, a bit of a coxcomb, he imagined that she was often rosier than usual when she chatted with him.
But a fallen reputation is so difficult to recover, and always remains so fragile that, in spite of the shy reserve La Blanchotte maintained, they already gossiped in the neighborhood.
As for Simon, he loved his new papa much, and walked with him nearly every evening when the day's work was done. He went regularly to school and mixed in a dignified way with his schoolfellows without ever answering them back.
One day, however, the lad who had first attacked him said to him:
"You have lied. You have not a papa named Philip."
"Why do you say that?" demanded Simon, much disturbed.
The youth rubbed his hands. He replied:
"Because if you had one he would be your mamma's husband."
Simon was confused by the truth of this reasoning; nevertheless he retorted:
"He is my papa all the same."
"That can very well be," exclaimed the urchin with a sneer, "but that is not being your papa altogether."
La Blanchotte's little one bowed his head and went off dreaming in the direction of the forge belonging to old Loizon, where Philip worked.
This forge was entombed in trees. It was very dark there, the red glare of a formidable furnace alone lit up with great flashes five blacksmiths, who hammered upon their anvils with a terrible din. Standing enveloped in flame, they worked like demons, their eyes fixed on the red-hot iron they were pounding; and their dull ideas rising and falling with their hammers.
Simon entered without being noticed and quietly plucked his friend by the sleeve. Philip turned round. All at once the work came to a standstill and the men looked on very attentively. Then, in the midst of this unaccustomed silence, rose the little slender pipe of Simon:
"Philip, explain to me what the lad at La Michande has just told me, that you are not altogether my papa."
"And why that?" asked the smith.
The child replied in all innocence:
"Because you are not my mamma's husband."
No one laughed. Philip remained standing, leaning his forehead upon the back of his great hands, which held the handle of his hammer upright upon the anvil. He mused. His four companions watched him, and, like a tiny mite among these giants, Simon anxiously waited. Suddenly, one of the smiths, voicing the sentiment of all, said to Philip:
"All the same La Blanchotte is a good and honest girl, stalwart and steady in spite of her misfortune, and one who would make a worthy wife for an honest man."
"That is true," remarked the three others. The smith continued:
"Is it the girl's fault if she has fallen? She had been promised marriage, and I know more than one who is much respected to-day and has sinned every bit as much."
"That is true," responded the three men in chorus.
"How hard she has toiled, poor thing, to educate her lad all alone, and how much she has wept since she no longer goes out, save to church, God only knows."
"That also is true," said the others.
Then no more was heard save the roar of the bellows which fanned the fire of the furnace. Philip hastily bent himself down to Simon:
"Go and tell your mamma that I shall come to speak to her."
Then he pushed the child out by the shoulders. He returned to his work and in unison the five hammers again fell upon their anvils. Thus they wrought the iron until nightfall, strong, powerful, happy, like Vulcans satisfied. But as the great bell of a cathedral resounds upon feast days above the jingling of the other bells, so Philip's hammer, dominating the noise of the others, clanged second after second with a deafening uproar. His eye on the fire, he plied his trade vigorously, erect amid the sparks.
The sky was full of stars as he knocked at La Blanchotte's door. He had his Sunday blouse on, a fresh shirt, and his beard was trimmed. The young woman showed herself upon the threshold and said in a grieved tone:
"It is ill to come thus when night has fallen, Mr. Philip."
He wished to answer, but stammered and stood confused before her.
"And you understand quite well that it will not do that I should be talked about any more."
Then he said all at once:
"What does that matter to me, if you will be my wife!"
No voice replied to him, but he believed that he heard in the shadow of the room the sound of a body falling. He entered very quickly; and Simon, who had gone to his bed, distinguished the sound of a kiss and some words that his mother said very softly. Then he suddenly found himself lifted up by the hands of his friend, who, holding him at the length of his herculean arms, exclaimed to him:
"You will tell your school-fellows that your papa is Philip Remy, the blacksmith, and that he will pull the ears of all who do you any harm."
On the morrow, when the school was full and lessons were about to begin, little Simon stood up quite pale with trembling lips:
"My papa," said he in a clear voice, "is Philip Remy, the blacksmith, and he has promised to box the ears of all who do me any harm."
This time no one laughed any longer, for he was very well known, was Philip Remy, the blacksmith, and he was a papa of whom anyone in the world would be proud.