The Forest Lovers (Chapter 21)

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Chapter 21

The charcoal-burner's convoy, bearing at once the evidence and the
reward of his humanity, a battered lady on one ass and her flayed
friend on another, jogged leisurely through the forest glades. The
time was the very top of spring, the morning soft and fair, but none
of the party took any heed: the charcoal-burner because he was by
habit too close to these things, Isoult because she was in a faint,
the black ram because he had been skinned. When Isoult did finally
lift her head and begin to look timidly about her, she found herself
in a country unfamiliar, which, for all she knew, might be an hour's
or a week's journey from High March, where Prosper was. Prosper! She
knew that every mincing step of the donkey took her further from him,
but she was powerless to protest or to pray; life scarce whispered in
her yet. And what span of miles or hours, after all, could set her
wider from him than discovery, the shame, the yelling of her foes, had
hounded her?

In this new blank discomfiture of hers, she was like one who has been
taught patiently to climb by a gentle hand. The hand trusts her and
lets go--down, down she falls, and from the mire at the bottom can see
the sunny slopes above her, and the waiting guide stretched at rest
until she come. The utter abasement of her state numbed her spirit;
any other spirit would have been killed outright. But to her one thing
remained, that dull and endless patience of the earth-born, poor clods
without hope or memory, who from dwelling so hidden in the lap of the
earth seem to win a share of its eternal sufferance. Your peasant will
bow his back as soon as he can stand upright, and every year draws him
nearer to the earth. The rheumatics at last grip him unawares, and
clinch him in a gesture which is a figure of his lot. The scarred
hills, the burnt plains, the trees which the wind cows and lays down,
the flowers and corn, meek or glad at the bidding of the hour--the
earth-born is kin to these, more plant than man. I have done ill if I
have not thus expounded Isoult la Desirous, for without such knowledge
of her you will hardly understand her apathy. She had been lapped so
long on the knees of earth; her flights in the upper air had been so
short, and her tumble with a broken wing so sharp, that she resumed
the crouch, the bent knees, the folded arms, the face in hands of the
earth-born, with hardly a struggle. If she had been meant for the air,
she would be in the air; if she was meant to die a serf as she had
lived, why, at the rate she was spending, death would be quick--
ecco! The word comes pat when you talk of such lives as hers,
for the Italian peasant is the last of the earth-born, invincibly

So Isoult, it seems, had the grace to know how far she had fallen, but
not the wit to try for redemption once more. In accepting her tumble
for a fate, I think it is clear that she was so far earthy as to be
meek as a woodflower. Says she, If the rain fall, the dew rise, the
sun shine, or wind blow mild, each in their due season--well, I will
look up, laugh and be glad. You shall see how lovely I can be, and how
loving. If the frost bind the ground in May, if you parch me with
frozen wind, or shrivel me with heat, or let me rot in the soak of a
wet June--well, I will bend my neck; you will see me a dead weed; I
shall love you, but you shall hardly know it. If you are God, you
should know; but if you are a man--ah, that is my misfortune, to love
you in spite of common-sense.

Isoult believed she was abandoned by Prosper; she believed that she
deserved it. She must be graceless, would die disgraced, having served
her turn, she supposed. If, nevertheless, she persisted in loving, who
was hurt? Besides, she could not help it any more than she could help
being a scorn and a shame. Fatalist! So it was with her.

The charcoal burner had no curiosity. She hadn't been quite murdered;
she was a boy; boys do not readily die. On the other side, they are
handy to climb woodstacks, labour saving appliances--with the aid of
an ash plant. And he was a clear fat sheep to the good. So he asked no
questions, and made no remarks beyond an occasional oath. They slept
one night in the thicket, rose early, travelled steadily the next day,
and in course reached a clearing, where there were three or four black
tents, some hobbled beasts, a couple of lean dogs, and a steady column
of smoke, which fanned out into a cloud overhead. Here were the coal
stacks; here also she found the colliers, half-a-dozen begrimed
ruffians with a fortnight's beard apiece. No greetings passed, nor any
introduction of the white-faced boy shot into their midst. One of
them, it is true, a red-haired, bandy-legged fellow, called Falve,
looked over the newcomer, and swore that it was hard luck their
rations should be shortened to fatten such a weed; but that was all
for the hour.

At dusk, suppertime, there was a cross examination, held by Falve.

"What's your name, boy?"


"To hell with your echoes. Where do you come from?"

"I don't know."

"What can you do?"

"As I am bid."

"Can you climb?"




"Wink at a woman?"

"I see none."


"At need."

"Take a licking?"

"I have learnt that."

"By God he has, I'll warrant," chuckled the man who had found her.

"Hum," said Falve. "Are you hungry, Roy?"


"Then do you cook the supper and I'll eat it. Do you see this little
belt o' mine?"


"It's a terror, this belt. Don't seek to be nearer acquaint. Go and

The ram proved excellent eating--tender and full of blood. Humane,
even liberal, counsels prevailed over the sated assembly. The boy
seemed docile enough, and likely; just a Jack of the build needful to
climb the stacks of smouldering boughs, see to the fires, cord the cut
wood and the burnt wood, lead the asses, cook the dinner, call the men
--to be, in fact, what Jack should be. Jack he was, and Jack he should
be called. Falve held out for a thrashing as a set-off; it seemed
unnatural, he said, to have a belt and a boy at arms'-length. It was
outvoted on account of the lateness of the hour, but only delayed. The
beds were made ready, and Jack and his masters went to sleep.

The argument, which, holding as I do steadfastly with Socrates, I must
follow whithersoever it runs, assures me that charcoal-burning is a
grimy trade, and the charcoal-burners' Jack the blackest of the party;
for if he be not black with coal-smoke, he will be black and blue with
his drubbings. Isoult, in the shreds of Roy, grew, you may judge, as
black and uncombed as any of the crew. She had not a three-weeks'
beard, but her hair began to grow faster; the roses in her cheek were
in flower under the soot. Her hair curled and waved about her neck,
her eyes shone and were limpid, her roses bloomed unawares; she grew
sinewy and healthy in the kind forest airs. She worked very hard, ate
very little, was as often beaten as not. All this made for health; in
addition, she nursed a gentle thought in her heart, which probably
accounted for as much as the open air. This was the news of Prosper's
return to High March, and of the fine works he performed there in the
hall. It came to her in a roundabout way through some pony drovers,
who had it from Market Basing. The pietist at March, who made the
image of Saint Isolda, may have spread the news. At any rate it came,
it seeded in her heart, and as she felt the creeping of the little
flower she blushed. It told her that Prosper had avenged her--more,
had owned her for his. This last grain of news it was which held her
seed. If he owned her abroad--amazing thought!--it must be that he
loved her. As she so concluded, a delicate, throbbing fire fluttered
in her side, and stole up to burn unreproved and undetected in her
cheeks. Her reasoning was no reasoning, of course; but she knew
nothing of knightly honour or the dramatic sense, so it seemed
incontrovertible. At this discovery she was as full of shame as if she
had done a sin. A sin indeed it seemed almost to be in her, that one
so high should stoop to one so low, and she not die at once.
Sacrilege--should not one die rather than suffer a sacrilege to be
thrust upon one? So Clytie may have felt, and Oreithyia, when they
discerned the God in the sun, or wild embraces of the wind.

Yet the certainty--for that it was--coincided with her lurking
suspicion of the virtue lying in her own strong love. It made that
suspicion hardy; it budded, as I have said, and bore a flower. She
could feel and fondle her ring again, and talk to it at night. "Lie
snug," she would say, "lie close. He will come again and put thee in
place, for such love as mine, which endureth all things, is not to be
gainsaid." Thus she grew healthy as she grew full of heart, and gained
sleek looks for any who had had eyes to see them.

Luckily for her, at present there was none. It is providence for the
earth-born that their mother's lap soon takes furrows in which they
may run. The charcoal-burners' life was no exception: hard work from
dawn to dusk, food your only recreation, sleep your only solace. The
weather is no new thing to you, to gape at and talk about. As well
might the gentry talk about the joys of their daily bath. You have no
quarrels, do no sins, for you have neither women nor strong waters in
your forest tents. And if you knew how, you would thank God that you
are incapable of thought, since a thinking vegetable were a lost
vegetable. To think is to hope, and to hope is to sin against
religion, which says, God saw that it was good. More than any
reflecting man your earth-born believes in God, or the devil. It comes
to much the same, if you will but work it out. He is a deist, his God
an autocrat.

Isoult, the demure little freethinker, had another secret god--him of
the iris wings. She loved, she was loved; she dared hope to be happy.
So far of the earth as to be humble, so far from it as to hope, she
grew in the image of her god and was lovely; she remembered the
precepts of her mother earth and was patient. Whenever she could she
washed herself in the forest brooks; so woods and running water saw in
her the blossoming rod. At these times she could have hymned her god
had she known how; but Prosper had only taught her what his priests
had taught him, that this was a world where every one is for himself,
and to him that asks shall be given. To him that asks twice should be
twice given. The consequence is that life is a great hunting, with no
time for thanksgiving unalloyed. You must end your Gloria in a
whining petition. Having, however, nothing to ask, she sat at these
times in ecstasy inarticulate, her rags laid by for a season, looking
long and far through the green lattice towards the blue, bent upon
exploration of the joyful mysteries. A beam of the sun would fall upon
her to warm her pale beauty and make it glow, the wind of mid-June
play softly in her hair, and fold her in a child's embrace. Then again
she would toy with her ring. "Ring, ring, he will come again, and put
thee where thou shouldest be. Meantime lie still until he lie there
instead of thee."

July heats stilled the forest leaves; the coal-stacks grew apace. The
charcoal-burners' Jack had hair to his waist and had to hide it in his
cap; the charcoal-burners' beards were six weeks old. There was talk
of nights of a market in Hauterive, where Falve's mother kept a
huckster's shop.

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