dedicated to P. M. Neist
Alphonse Dupuy was nearly the last one in the village to hear about the voices in his beech tree. Some late-night visitor to the inn had started the rumor, telling of giggles and whispers high up in the dark, and of beech nuts dropped in his path. The incident was quietly repeated and jested about for several days, until suddenly without explanation most of the village began to lay common store by it, avoiding the quarter-mile rise along the southern verge of Dupuy’s farm. They especially shunned any place where the old tree stood a chance of throwing its shadow. Alphonse went unperturbed about his mowing and wall-mending, grateful for the unusual quiet along the lane, until one night his mother-in-law Marie-Georges fixed her small eyes on him and began a litany of reproaches.
“There are evil spirits in the beech tree,” she said. “All the village knows it and they talk of nothing else.” Alphonse wondered how his wife’s mother, a shrill misanthropic woman who never left the cottage except to curse at blackbirds congregating in the yard after the rain, had come to hear such a tale. But Marie-Georges was a Brignac, of the southernmost and maddest branch of Brignacs, and the universe gave her strange intuitions from time to time. She never put the gift to any helpful use.
Alphonse understood that he would hear no end of the matter until he had done something about it. His wife Hélène kept silent. From long years spent caring for her mother, she reasoned that putting in her oar would not help.
Although he never questioned any villager directly, over the following week Alphonse gathered in bits and snatches that his land was thought to have a spiritual malady brought on by isolation. He knew that many folks considered him reclusive. He considered himself one of an endangered species of men who chiefly value hard work, solitude, and quiet. He found nobody eager to debate the point, as the suspicion of imps or ethereal forces in the beech tree had taken on the quality of folklore virtually overnight. In cases of the unknown, people take more pleasure in speaking reluctantly, in superstitious whispers, than in trying to discern the plain truth.
Alphonse had been meaning to fell the beech tree for months, not that he would have admitted this to Marie-Georges under torture. He had simply tired of dealing with it. Planted by Alphonse’s grandfather to mark the birth of his own son, it had stood for nearly two whole generations as a sign of eternal prosperity, with sacred pledges passed from father to child to preserve it from frost and drought, infestation and conflagration. Alphonse had never faced fire during his possession of the land, but these other assaults had come to him in their turn. He remembered the hellish summer in which he had toiled for days on end around the base of the water-starved tree, hauling bucket after bucket of water to the roots. He recalled tending small bonfires in a circle around the trunk like a pagan priest, smoking to death hosts of small yellow beetles who dwelt for a time in the bark. He had vowed not to pass another season as caretaker of the venerable but surprisingly vulnerable beech. Lean living had made a practical man of Alphonse, and he intended to fell the tree in autumn when the work was pleasant. He meant no disrespect or ingratitude by the cutting and burning of a family legacy. He was simply a more modern man than his Dupuy ancestors, and he had a reason just as any sound-minded person should have for doing away with something old and grand. He could use the wood. He might have six months of free winter warmth from the timber. As the time of execution drew near, Alphonse had felt the odd pang of reluctance, but these new murmurs about the tree being haunted set his resolve firm. The following dawn, he arose and sharpened his axe.
Coming up the rise behind the cottage, where the beech tree held its unsuspecting branches over him in blessing, he spied the pointed ears of Louise, the German shepherd who patrolled his farm when the fancy took her. She was a fit, youngish hound with a keen black stare and uncanny dignity in her bearing. Alphonse would not dare call her his dog, for though she often spent an evening stretched before the cottage hearth, she would just as soon strike alone out for a fortnight or a month without warning, returning as silently and serenely as she had gone. Alphonse was glad of her company when he had it, and Louise seemed the same. He had given her the name, and when in earshot she answered to it. That was the substance of their mutual understanding. Louise stood and watched him from a distance, only her head visible above the downhill slope. She seemed conscious of something about to happen, but did not run to dissuade him or turn him aside. He was content to have her keep vigil from where she was, offering support but not scrutiny.
His heart still chided him to spare the tree, but he was not one to shirk a chore once he had begun it. He did not intend to warn any demons, nymphs or leprechauns who might have nested in the branches. They would know his business before long. Shouldering the axe to line up his first stroke, he thought his ears were tricking him. A soft titter drifted down the breeze, giving the impression that it had come from the leaves above. He shook the notion from his head and cocked the handle for a purposeful blow. He was a blink away from swinging when a distinct rustle, punctuated with a stifled snicker, startled him out of focus. Something was in the tree, with physical form enough to break sticks. He quailed with momentary dread over giant opossums with voices like laughing children. The sound had been laughter, and now a handful of beech nuts from above struck him squarely on the forehead. He blinked and gathered his thoughts. Could he have monkeys? There had been a traveling show early in the spring, which had camped in the derelict orchard of Madame Langlois, but Alphonse could not imagine an escaped animal traveling so far and keeping itself out of sight.
Suddenly his attacker spoke in a clear, sweet voice.
“Pardon, monsieur. I only meant to knock the axe from your hands.”
Alphonse felt he must still be asleep. Did his beech tree mean to defend itself? Perhaps it would argue for its life.
“Who are you up there?” called Alphonse. He was not so chickenhearted as to cry “Imps!” and flee, yet he reckoned it would take a child of special cunning and agility to climb it. How little he remembered of childhood.
“What are you doing up there?” he called.
“I am sitting, monsieur, enjoying the view, and I would like to stay, if you please.”
Alphonse considered this. Had the voice growled or jeered at him with aggression, he would have attacked the trunk with gusto. So polite was the request that it left him at a loss. As he weighed possible replies he saw that something was moving aloft, giggling as it went. The naked foot of a child poked into view and out of again, nestled among the foliage.
“We will not harm the tree, monsieur.” called a second voice. “Please have no fear that we would. She is lovely!”
The direction and timbre of the voice assured Alphonse that it could not have come from the same speaker, unless he were truly dealing with the supernatural. A tousled chestnut head peeked from a high gap near the treetop. The girl’s face, red with fresh glee, grinned so sweetly without malice that Alphonse found himself nearly smiling in return.
“Ahoy there, ma petite. Have you and your friend been climbing my tree?”
A pair of arms leapt out on either side of the ruddy face, like the springs of a toy, in a grand victory gesture. “We have all climbed her!”
The whole tree seemed to erupt in high-pitched mirth. Stray nuts and leaves rained down through quivering branches. There was no scorn in the laughter, only a pure childish happiness Alphonse had not encountered since a time lost to memory. He and Hélène were childless, which Hélène accepted with grace but which Marie-Georges had stored away as a symptom of moral shiftlessness in her daughter’s husband. Never mind her reliance on his long day’s work.
Louise, the silent sentinel, had padded across the unmown grass of the rise and stood about ten feet behind and to the side of Alphonse. She gave a low, tentative growl. It was an inquiry, not a threat. Alphonse was glad to see that she did not find the situation altogether natural.
“Show yourselves,” he said, “and speak. I have a great deal of work to do.”
Three more faces peered out at him, each with dark little rodent’s eyes and framed in a certain shade of straight brown hair. The first girl to address him spoke again. She had a longer nose than the others, like a fox.
“It was Adèle who dared me to climb, because she was afraid.”
“Not true!” sang out the chestnut, evidently Adèle. “I had already climbed halfway, so I called to Thérèse and said she should not be scared to go a little higher. She’s a year older than me, and won’t wade in the creek without shoes.”
“Leeches, leeches, leeches!” the others chanted in unison.
“Don’t you talk!” called a little auburn head from the other side of the tree. The smallest. “You cried when you found a spider on the window.”
“And you won’t go to sleep without a candle burning, Sylvie!” shouted Thérèse and Adèle together. Sylvie’s face drew into a sour pout that confirmed she was the youngest of the sisters.
“Be quiet, you two,” said a gaunt, plain girl with long legs dangling from the lowest of the branches. “I am sorry for all the noise, monsieur,” she said courteously to Alphonse. “My name is Aurore Bottine. My sisters and I appreciate being allowed to play in this beautiful tree of yours.”
Alphonse moved his mouth as he thought, making no sound. They had not come to the house and asked Hélène’s permission to be there. Hélène would have mentioned it. And Marie-Georges believed it was wicked spirits who held court in the old beech.
“Allowed?” he asked.
“The wind bent her branches down as we were passing. It was an invitation and a blessing.”
Something stirred in Alphonse’s memory, only for an instant. The laws between children and Mother Nature. The code of savages in the wood. He felt sure that these benign little pagans would not be easy to evict.
“It was Ginette’s idea!” yelled little Sylvie, as though Aurore had stolen credit for a stroke of genius. “She said we should, that we were blessed and it would be all right.”
“Who is Ginette?” asked Alphonse, suddenly afraid that they had named his tree and would stake some personal claim that way.
“She is our sister,” said Adèle with a dainty chortle, as though it were the plainest fact in the world. “It’s true, she found the tree and led us up here.”
“She talks to stars as well.” said Thérèse.
“And animals!” said Sylvie.
“Where is… which of you is she, then?”
“She is around the other side, right at the top,” said Aurore. “She has fits of mood, and pretends she has to go and think important things, when all she does is eavesdrop on the rest of us.”
A solitary branch, pointing upward from the tree’s very pinnacle, shuffled as if insulted. Alphonse walked in a wide arc around the tree. He heard the shaking of limbs as the girls crept around to watch him from better perches. Craning his neck and shielding his eyes from the sun of almost-noon, he spied a solitary figure nestled so high that he could not imagine what kept her in place.
Of the five, she had the reddest hair, and despite the distance he could see her eyes were lighter. Green or blue or grey. By some fancy trick of balance, she supported herself with her slender feet twined in the greenery. With both hands free she held a small notebook and scribbled in it. Whether she was sketching the view or composing odes to the Great Mother Beech Tree he could only guess.
“Good day,” she murmured in bored sing-song, as though he were a passing stranger on the road, not the owner of her precarious nest.
“Good day, mademoiselle,” he began patiently. “Are you very comfortable up there?”
“Oh yes, thank you.” She looked sufficiently relaxed and self-assured to accept coffee, had he offered it. She took sudden notice of Louise standing by him and made mawkish noises of affection. Alphonse felt dismay as the shepherd wagged her tail and lay upon the ground. He realized that she had been guarding not him but the occupants of the tree.
“Your sisters tell me that you are Ginette?”
“My sisters are a bunch of cackling magpies,” said Ginette, shutting her notebook a little crossly. “But yes, I am Ginette Bottine.”
The name resounded somewhere in his brain, near the back where old lumber goes. Bottine was not a villager but some seasonal resident. That explained the sudden encroachment of his offspring. He must be a university lecturer, or just some holiday maker with a bit of money. He could afford to educate his children, for in addition to their mystical attitudes about private property, they spoke well and politely. Alphonse fancied himself a sort of rustic intellectual. He knew literacy when he saw it.
“I wonder if you know, Ginette,” he said gently, “that this tree stands on my land.”
“Indeed,” said Ginette. “You have a lovely little farm here, monsieur. And though I see your wife does the milking and the churning and collects the eggs, you do a grand job of pulling stumps and mowing the pasture. You have an artistic eye for landscapes, though you are too concerned with symmetry for my taste.”
Alphonse flushed red. He was a man who kept to himself, and the idea that this brash child had been watching his operation so closely made his spine prickle.
“Then I am sorry,” he replied less gently, “that your view must be spoiled.”
“Spoiled?” she called back with genuine puzzlement. “Spoiled how?”
“I mean to cut this tree down,” he said, “and so I must ask you to come out of it.”
The tree shivered in a collective gasp from the little Bottine sisters.
“Monsieur, it would not be right!” cried Ginette., grasping the limb beneath her with protective tenderness.
“See here,” said Alphonse, finding a firm voice with which to command, “it is my tree, after all.”
The declaration broke Ginette’s mature composure. The invocation of adult rules made her face droop, and a child’s tears glistened in her eyes.
“Please monsieur, you cannot chop her down! You have a charming farm with a sweet cottage and wonderful grassy pastures and quaint little fences. We can see how you love it and how pretty you keep it, and it’s yours to do with as you please, but this tree? Oh, monsieur, you must not even think of it!”
The beech tree began to wail, its five piteous voices mingling in a dirge of sorrow. Even the dog covered her face with a paw and began to whine. Alphonse was dumbstruck. He had expected to be pelted with nuts or cones or twigs or whatever the little girls found close to hand. He had been ready for their anger and petulant entreaties, but he had not prepared himself for such grief. He had no daughters of his own.
Walking home, the head of his axe dragging along the ground, he considered his options. It was not exactly that he cared what mischief the little girls got up to in his tree. It was that they stood directly in the way of a task he had talked himself into doing. The felling, chopping and splitting of the tree would be a long and rewarding chore, and now that he had set out with axe in hand he meant to see it through
There was no question of going to the girls’ parents until he knew something about them, and what sort of exception they might take to his territorial attitude. He was not inclined to trust the sensibilities of Parisians, and Parisians he believed them to be. It would be better to ask first at the inn, the bakery or the post office the following day. In all likelihood the inn, which was best suited to civilized discourse.
He supposed he was within his rights to have them thrown off his land by the constable, provided he was willing to bear the mark of cold-hearted pariah from that day forward. Beyond the minimum community standing he needed for the continued subsistence of his family, there were yet more practical concerns. How would a constable get children out of a tree if Alphonse could not? One could hardly shoot them down like crows.
Alphonse arrived home with the conviction that in this battle, he would have no ally. It was not lost on him that even his capricious dog had chosen to stay behind and comfort the Bottinettes. Hélène heard his story with amusement and a barely concealed surge of maternal sympathy, as expected. Eager to avoid his mother-in-law’s counsel on the subject, he suspended further discussion and took his supper in meditative silence.
At least the next day would be a market day, which would get him away from the cottage and the beech tree and even treacherous Louise for most of the morning. Alphonse only had a few dozen eggs and a crate of midsummer roots to sell, but he needed coffee and a cart wheel mended, which would give him time to make inquiries about his curious interlopers. He hoped, as a vague sort of prayer in his vague sort of pious way, that with firm concentration he might be able to dream the problem away overnight by force of will.
At dawn, Alphonse prepared his own breakfast. Hélène would have done it for him in a few minutes’ time, but his eagerness for solitude prompted an early start. He had his cargo to load and secure. With a good cart horse it would have taken less than an hour to reach the village, but fate had burdened him with an uncommonly recalcitrant mule. Besides the cockerel, which paid Alphonse no mind at all, it was the only other male creature on the farm. This did nothing to breed fraternal fondness between them. No doubt the mule sensed, by some beastly intuition, its master’s plan to purchase a healthy new draught horse with the proceeds of the fall harvest, which only compounded its cowardice and surly aversion to work.
As expected, progress toward the village was slow and grudging. Several minutes were lost when a great pumpkin-colored tomcat crossed the road, signifying to the mule a positive curse on the journey. It was full daylight by the time Alphonse tied it securely in the village square, the only place he feared it might run away, and went about his marketing.
Once he had money in hand, coffee in cart and cart wheel on carpenter’s bench, it was the appropriate hour for refreshment. Alphonse treated himself to an extravagant portion of ham and eggs from Mademoiselle Dulex, who kept the inn, along with a suitable measure of the house brew. He also managed to bend the ear of Villiers, the postmaster. It would seem the best of fortune to find such an oracle close by, except that Alphonse had come fully expecting to find him there, rather than engaged in the service of the post.
“Bottine? He is up from Paris for the season,” ventured Villiers for a nominal consideration of brandy. So much Alphonse had guessed already, and he pressed for particulars.
“But is he a politician or a speculator in real estate, or does he own a chocolate factory?”
Villiers thundered a great laugh, his great beard expanding the sound like a cave. In truth he looked more like a country rambler or a shepherd than any postman.
“Chocolates, no! He is a diplomat. A deputy secretary to some foreign place or other. Scotland or Poland or whatever blasted land you like! He stays at the widow Granville’s place, that little cottage she built for herself when old Jules had his accident. It’s too much for her to keep up, though. It’s shut most of the time, but this Bottine takes it every other year or so and he’s the only one. “
His attention began to veer. Alphonse applied more brandy the way he might treat his mule with a carrot, and prodded with more questions the way he might use a stick.
“Bottine? A decent fellow, keeps to himself. Widower, I think. He’s got some children but they’re never about the place. Running wild in the country. I fancy they’re locked up in society schools half the year. Every healthy child ought to get out in the fresh air when they can.”
Soon after, Villiers trailed off into placid silence as though he needed winding. Alphonse, who had pestered the man enough, quietly settled their bill and let the old postman doze.
He left the mule and the laden cart tied up in the square. In those days it was still the sort of village where one could. Taking the east road, he walked the quarter mile to the old Granville estate. Despite the hard fall of its once prosperous owners, the house was not in disreapir, and they must be taking handsome sums from the diplomat’s family to maintain it.
He found nobody at the large house, and learned from the half-blind crone who kept yardbirds at the widow’s cottage that the Honorable Romain Bottine was out on a country drive with a friend. It was their habit every two or three days, as they were wont to let the girls run free and amuse themselves. These picnics tended to last until after sundown, and had Alphonse any particular message he wished to leave? Alphonse hardly knew where to begin such a tale, and was not about to entrust it to such a woman. With the same witchery that Marie-Georges had used to divine the local gossip, she would have talk racing round the village in no time. He knew such women. To speak more broadly and perhaps more fairly, he knew people.
The sun had tipped into afternoon by the time he got the mule and cart moving back toward home. Somewhere in a mystical part of his heart, he had hoped to wish the nuisance of the Bottine sisters away by learning their identities, as with the fellow who spun gold from straw. He took the mule back the way he had deliberately avoided that morning, along the south fence of his land where the beech tree stood. He soon wished he had not bothered, as the mule was sure to be agitated by whatever he encountered.
Hélène stood under the tree, with Louise prancing around her in excited circles. From her egg basket on the ground nearby, she drew a succession of small objects and tossed them upward. Each disappeared into the leaves with a rustle and a tiny cry of joy. They were not eggs but apples, the very good apples Alphonse had brought home the previous week as a special treat. He had only eaten one or two himself, and here his wife was busy feeding an infestation with them! At very least, he would have inquired after getting some more in the village, had he known.
Alphonse wished, perversely, that the girls would throw or otherwise abuse the precious fruit, which would give him real grounds for being angry. Instead, the sounds of their contented munching made him heartsick. Rather than stop the mule and endure the indignity of having to start him again with an audience watching, he pressed on over the rise toward the south gate and thence to the cottage yard.
To her credit, Hélène had made a fine stew for Alphonse from chicken and wine, along with a few apples she had saved. It was not the same as a crisp cool batch of them all to himself, but the gesture was well calculated to quell his temper. Marie-Georges had a pain in her ear and groused all through dinner, which gave Alphonse a pain in his ear as well. He had nearly put the whole day from his mind when Hélène remarked, a little too brightly, “It really is a lovely tree, you know. It would be such a pity to see it go, just for a cord of wood.”
Alphonse continued lighting his pipe, staring into the smoke as though he had not heard. They both knew he had, and that she knew he had. The beech tree atop the southern rise of the Dupuy land became an insurmountable reality in the life of its owner. He had wanted to fell and chop it in late summer, because the fall harvest would be demanding enough without the distractions of storing a great load of timber. Thanks to the reports of foreign ministers such as the distinguished M. Bottine, predictions about world affairs had led to a year of robust military recruitment. This had caused a scarcity of able-bodied young men, whom Alphonse would usually hire annually to help with the extra work. The dearth of strong backs meant that the farmer, otherwise blessed with plenty, could anticipate a long and grueling harvest. The forces Alphonse could scrape together were meager but would have to do. He resigned himself to keeping the tree another winter if he could. It would be simpler than disrupting the harmony that had wrought itself on the farm very much against his will.
The Bottine sisters had taken to the tree like lost children to an enchanted castle. In the weeks following his first encounter, he tried every sort of trick he knew to lure them out and away from the leafy stronghold so that he could at least notch the trunk and make it unsafe for tenants. They never left the tree all at once. One might go and search for food, while two others spent an hour playing games with Louise the shepherd in the pasture. Red-haired Ginette, the ringleader, was almost always posted in her watchtower position. Now and then she would send them in twos and threes to sleep at home or gather new books for her. Their occasional visits must have assured the Honorable M. Bottine that his darlings had not fallen among wolves.
It took a certain liberality of mind to allow children this much freedom, Alphonse mused. Not as much as it would take for a rural gentleman to allow his children free run of a bustling city, but even so he wondered whether Bottine’s philosophy of child-rearing carried into his dealings with governments abroad. He really had no idea what the man did for work, or what influence it might have, but was it not risky sending such a permissive parent to deal head-on with foreign powers?
In outward appearance, the girls were model tenants. They did not throw refuse on the ground, not even apple cores or the shells of nuts. They thanked Hélène politely when she brought them nice things. They never quarreled among themselves (no more than sisters will, at least) and when Alphonse passed by they were always happily playing at pirates, or red Indians, or the court of the Faeries. Now and then they held impromptu concerts, singing in unison as Alphonse worked far away down the hill, and he had to admit they had sweet little voices. Gradually he lost hope in his ability to drive them away. The more time he let pass, the more vicious it would seem to deprive them of their adopted nest. It was plain that they loved the tree better than Alphonse ever could.
Various fanciful accounts of the situation had come to the village, but Alphonse never responded to questions directed his way. He supposed that the polite thing to do would be to introduce himself to M. Bottine and make friends, but through a prolonged lack of contact he had formed a certain disagreeable opinion of the man.
One morning Alphonse came out to the pasture to mend a fence tie that his mule had kicked, and passing the beech tree he was alarmed to find the girls in an acrobatic contest, swinging from branch to branch. Even Louise, the patient sentry, seemed agitated by the game.
“I don’t think you ought to leap around like that,” he called up into the tree. “How would your mother like it if you fell and broke your head?” Instantly he felt a prickle of regret at his choice of words, for he remembered that M. Bottine was a widower, yet his warning only prompted a new game.
“Do not worry, monsieur!” sang little Thérèse. “We are most adaptable creatures. Our mother raised us to study the qualities of the world around us. I myself am at least half Amazon tree-frog.”
Adèle’s head popped upside -down out of the foliage, her hair hanging in a wild cascade. She must have been suspended by her knees. “And I” she shouted, “am a Japanese snow monkey!”
Sylvie, like any child torn between two wonderful choices, could not decide. “I am half swallow and half butterfly,” she declared, leaving no room for her humanity.
Aurore pinched her long face in concentration for a moment. “Although I’m fond of the pygmy sloth, I most identify with the Brazilian porcupine, whose climbing ability is also superb.”
“And I,” cried Ginette Bottine, who had taken on a wilder aspect during her time in the tree, “am a full-blood Barbary ape!”
This was evidently the key phrase of a joke only the sisters knew. They erupted in gales of laughter for more than a minute, then began to imitate their chosen animals. Alphonse went back down the hill no wiser than he had come.
The five girls had long since abandoned their prim little bonnets. Their simple country dresses were scratched and stained almost beyond recognition. They clung to the savagery of their treetop existence with a kind of holy zeal. Alphonse wondered whether their father would find them much changed, with their bare callused feet and suntanned faces, when he saw them next. He hoped, at least, that they were not permanent runaways for whom he and Hélène would thenceforth be responsible. It would be all he could bear to find them colonizing the henhouse after the first fall of snow, to say nothing of how the hens would take it.
On the last day of August, Alphonse glanced out the south window of his cottage as he prepared for bed. It took him a moment to comprehend what he saw. A burning sprite danced high in the air, weaving in ghostly circles. A second light appeared and began to mimic the first. Several more followed until there were nearly a dozen spinning in whimsical circles. Counting carefully, he made ten, one for each hand of each little Bottinette in the boughs of the beech tree. Somehow they had gotten hold of candles or lanterns and were performing a curious light show.
“Bon Dieu!” cried Alphonse, and reached for his coat. Hélène laid a hand on his arm.
“Woman,”Alphonse said, “let me go. They will burn up the tree and themselves in it. I’ll not be held accountable for that.”
“Let them be, Alphonse. They will be careful.”
“We’ve put up with them all summer and been more than generous, but I tell you, Hélène, this is the limit.”
“Is it not beautiful, though?” She stared, entranced, as the loops and arcs began to slow, finally settling into a peaceful circle as the lamps were hung on branches to burn through the night. Watching his wife watch them glow, Alphonse could see that the argument was finished. The best thing he could do was get some sleep.
The most insidious part of the magic wrought by the lantern show was that only Alphonse perceived its dark effects. In the morning he awoke to the bewitching smell of fougasses. Before opening his eyes, he could picture their rich golden crusts with stray tufts of soft white loaf peeking through. He smelled the tender mantle of cheese across the perfect sprinkling of crisp bacon. Love was kindled anew in his breast, and looking out upon the farm he saw the triumphant climax of summer where a less inspired man would only have seen the pallor of approaching autumn.
Hélène carried herself with such dignity and docility that Alphonse often forgot she was a southern woman. Having left any riparian temperament behind in her youth, she had thoughtfully carried the culinary verve of her ancestors into married life and middle age. She made hearty fare and kept a warm house all the year long, but certain treats only appeared once in a while. Her fougasses were treasures, with not a crumb for wasting.
He pursued the aroma to the kitchen, only to find the oven empty and smoldering out. A more saintly man might have taken the burn of want as a holy purification, like our Lord fasting in the wilderness. But Alphonse was not a saint, and he cursed the heavenly smell for a hollow temptation. The sweet pang of hunger turned corrosive in him.
He stomped into the yard where the hens had been set free to make their way. Shielding his eyes against the sun, a coin of harsh, blinding silver just barely risen, he could see the cloaked figure of his wife hoisting the bounty of the morning into the beech tree’s greedy golden maw.
A sequence of notions came sweeping through his mind, as rhythmic and keen as the strokes of a barber. The leaves of the beech had turned with astonishing speed to an autumn hue of almost heart-stopping beauty, yet not a single leaf had come loose from the branches. There were no gaps through which he could spy the girls whose breakfast he coveted. If anything, the foliage seemed to have grown fuller and more lush, even in the raiment of September. Ordinarily he would have dismissed such an absurd notion, but his life had lately come to defy credulity in many ways. A desperate urge to march across the rise and demand his fair share inflamed him for a few seconds, then died on his cheeks. No matter what he did, the magnificent pastries were forfeit to him. He also had no wish to be snapped at by Louise, who tolerated his proximity to the beech tree as long as there was no hint of threat or discourtesy in his gait. His present passion would certainly alert the dog, who seemed to have abandoned their tenuous friendship in favor of protecting the girls in the tree.
The robust health of the tree, fostered by the merrymaking of its occupants, only made the rest of the farm seem starker in its decline toward winter slumber. One might have supposed that the Bottine sisters wrought their mystic rituals with that result in mind, drawing vitality from his yard and pastures toward their sacred bower. In fact, it was precisely what Alphonse had begun to think. He found an egg in the kitchen and boiled it, swallowed it practically whole like a jungle snake, and wept in his heart.
Hélène bustled in sometime later. Alphonse, who had set himself a few trifling chores around the house, looked up from the dubious adjustment of a door hinge. Whether his ministrations were repairing or damaging the device, it would be difficult to say. His heartsick eyes fell on the conspicuously empty bread basket she carried. She put fresh coffee on to boil.
“I do hope,” she said with breezy kindness, and none of the gravity he felt the occasion deserved, “that you did not miss a nice breakfast too much. The dough rose badly and only made enough for six. I was silly not to think of making extra.”
He felt sure that Hélène had not indulged herself but had given the sixth loaf to Marie-Georges, who had no doubt relished it in bed where there was no danger of Alphonse asking her to share. As for not having enough to go around, Alphonse knew better. Hélène’s fougasses were princely in size as well as composition. A sturdy man could have worn a pair of them for boots. A whole specimen would be entirely too much for a small girl to enjoy in one sitting. Her conciliatory tone rattled among his ribs like a false coin in a beggar’s cup.
Alphonse did not need anyone to explain the betrayal. Hélène was a solicitous caretaker. In baking a batch of her finest for the Bottines, she could only have forgotten him through the malign effects of sorcery. Hélène had been manifestly enchanted by the girls from the start. For the sake of domestic peace Alphonse had used his will power to cultivate a tolerant indifference to them. Had they been content to share in joys that were rightfully those of his household, he might have grown fond of them. But the spells they wove were plainly meant to poach the pleasures of farm life for their exclusive enjoyment.
Shortly after the incident of the fougasses, Alphonse resolved to reason with the Bottine patriarch. Whatever his flighty habits, his help would be vital in curbing the usurpation. Alphonse took his mule to market as usual, having summer surplus to offload before the bounty of the harvest. He also meant to secure the services of whatever hired hands might be loitering about the village. First, though, he went to call on his illustrious neighbor. As if in snide opposition to his quest, the first autumn rain chose that moment to arrive.
Arriving at the old Granville mansion, he was decidedly unwilling to accept its placid and deserted appearance. As if to warn him away, the force of the shower increased sharply, literally softening the earth to mud around his ankles as he trudged up the walk. The little squall reached its peak as he knocked twice, three times, each time more fervently on the looming lacquered front door. Through half-open shutters, he could see how curiously dim the large house must remain even at midday.
Alphonse had just decided to light a pipe and shelter himself more fully under the eaves when the door opened. Peering past it was a slight, reedy man with sandy hair and a fussily trimmed moustache. He wore a smoking jacket unbefitting to the hour and a bemused expression well suited to the shape of his head. He had a strong Persian cigarette in his free hand and appeared, until that moment, to have been in a state of superb relaxation.
“Yes?” he asked in a tone of jovial sort of puzzlement. “Is everything quite all right?” He spoke proper French, but with a clipped British cadence.
“Pardon, Monsieur Bottine,” said Alphonse thickly, not pausing to confirm the man’s identity. “I am sorry to disturb you, only… “
“My dear man, you must come in out of the wet. Whatever’s brought you out in this frightful weather can wait that long.”
Over brandy, before a hearty fire in the elegant Granville sitting room, Alphonse introduced himself. He could see drop cloths on much of the furniture. The room did not look much lived in except for the jolly hearth.
“Dupuy?” said Romain Bottine in a chummy pantomime whisper, “Of course, Monsieur Dupuy! Why, you’re the fellow with the lovely farm. I don’t see much of my dear little girls in the summertime, but I’ve heard so much about your place I feel I’ve been there myself.”
Alphonse sat mystified. He listened for clues that the children had at last come back to visit the manse. If so, he had not a moment to lose in returning to the farm and claiming his tree. He heard no telltale sounds in the house to mark such a coincidence, but coiled himself for a quick escape as he prodded the issue gingerly.
“Your daughters, they… are they at home now?”
Bottine laughed, “My word, no! I only hope they’ve sense enough to find a friendly hearth somewhere.”
Alphonse bristled, imagining his own hearth so crowded. Bottine resettled himself with prim discomfort. Clearly he did not feel at liberty to lounge at full length with company present, despite his friendly manner.
“They drop in one or two at a time to fetch some plaything or pack a picnic basket, but I hardly see them all in the same room during the holidays. Once we are back in town they’ll have a season’s worth of adventure stories to tell me over dinner. It’s a custom we have.”
“Do you not worry sometimes,” Alphonse said quietly, “that they are getting too accustomed to running barefoot?”
“Oh, I suppose they ought to have a governess or something on their holidays, but they spend the year shut up in schools. The winter governesses are obliged to keep them in such tight order, such a state of polish and shine. One expects to see them in society with Papa, doesn’t one? All the good London schools are dreadfully strict, and prone to such ghastly damp, but the alternative is so much worse, don’t you imagine? They are such sports about it that I haven’t the heart to cage them during holidays. I worry it’s an imposition on the kindness of neighbors, but it really is why I take them to the country. Puts the roses back in their faces. Their mother, I fear, might not have approved, but really…” he trailed off into a long draught of brandy.
For a moment it seemed that Bottine had given Alphonse an opening for his line of attack, but it had passed too quickly.
“I was sorry, monsieur” said the farmer, “to hear about your wife.” Had he definitely confirmed the state of the man’s wife? He could not recall, yet he seemed to have put out the right sentiment, for Bottine gave an appreciative look.
“Oh, dear fellow, it’s simply too, too good of you. I do my best with them, God knows. They’re such little dears, so attracted by the simplest little marvels of life. But listen, friend,” he said, sitting up in a posture of attention, “here I am nattering on about my girls, such a bore, and here you come dragging yourself through wind and rain on important business. What can I do for you?”
Alphonse had nearly forgotten his errand in the dreamy comfort of the fireplace, and did not feel equal to making his point. Instead, he improvised some trivial inquiry about the latest fads of Paris and London, and the possibility of obtaining some extravagant present for Hélène. He attended little of Bottine’s windy, prattling reply.
Alphonse came to understand a great deal about the work done by diplomats. Riding back to the center of town under dissipating rain, he felt the whole encounter melt into a tepid yet not unpleasant muddle. He had been sent off with a token presentation of brandy which came from no region Alphonse had heard of before, and with the diplomat’s best wishes that he and his too, too good wife would enjoy good health and fortune for their hospitality. This left Alphonse confounded in the matter of mutual courtesy. Was he now obliged to invite Bottine for supper, and if so what allowable time could elapse before the invitation? Was a separate invitation necessary for the daughters, who had so thoroughly colonized him already? The only sure conclusion was that the Honorable M. Bottine would be no use whatsoever in curbing the invasion of his daughters, who enjoyed his highest affection and were well disposed to do precisely what they wished, when they wished, once beyond the influence of hired disciplinarians.
Alphonse had meant to water the mule in the village before setting off home again. Instead, following a visit to the post office, he sent the young Rocheville twins, each a coin richer, back to his farm with the cart and mule.
Alphonse took the north road toward Lécluse on foot. What he had found in the post was a scrawled note from his cousin Bertrand, a rough type with an eye for a fine horse. He specialized in the racing kind, but had promised to keep a lookout for one with good shoulders for a cart. The letter said he had found a beauty in Lécluse whose owner would not wait, as there were several good offers already. Bertrand claimed to have staked his reputation on Alphonse making the best offer. Alphonse decided not to lose any time, for perhaps his cousin had more of a reputation to lose in Lécluse than he had at home.
With the mule cart he had also sent a note to Hélène informing her of his business, adding that she should expect him back within the week. This done, he had nothing to worry him on the road. In the first cool days of the year he found the journey and the exercise quite pleasant. By the time he knocked at the door of the house where his cousin had taken a room, he had quite forgotten a certain beech tree for the first time in two months.
The two men spent a good night with a hot meal and a decent bottle, and the next morning Alphonse found that the horse gave every satisfaction. She was a dappled grey mare from Ireland, so far as Bertrand could tell, and Alphonse was glad to pay a fair price. He would rather have had the horse than the money and the mule together. Now the reluctant puller of carts could live out his days fat and indolent, free of the need to earn his keep. Hélène, always fond of a pet, would see to it.
On the trip home, Alphonse found himself riding into rough weather once again. It had been a mild summer, and by all reckoning, the region was due for at least one fearsome storm before the snow came. Despite the misery of riding into rain and wind, Alphonse felt delight at the hardiness of his mare, who plodded on unruffled even as Villiers beckoned from the inn, urging them to take shelter.
Rather than take the path along the southern fence, Alphonse had meant to enter the farm from a smaller gate which he calculated to have less muck and fewer obstacles. Thunder and lightning had joined the fray now, and he did not intend to cripple his prized animal on her first day of work. Such was the noise of shouting from the beech tree, however, that he could discern it above the whistling of wind and the patter of steady rain.
A short distance from the tree, he dismounted and walked the horse cautiously. The Bottine sisters leapt from branch to branch in a simian bacchanal.
“Little girls,” he called up to them, “Fun is fun, but you must come down from there at once! I have spoken with your father and he insists I see you home before a storm blows this tree down.”
Thérèse Bottine poked her fox face out to peer at Alphonse suspiciously. “It sounds like a lie, monsieur!” The reproach was a cold slap to Alphonse, who had never been called a liar by anyone but his raving mother-in-law.
“Our Papa has never insisted on anything,” Aurore intoned in her haughty, dreary voice. For some curious reason, their voices penetrated the weather to reach his ears clearly, although they did not have to shout as he did.
Ginette’s slender frame swung down into view, suspended like a bat by her knees. From this absurd posture, with her hair splaying wildly in the breeze, she had no less sinister authority in her tone than ever.
“We do not doubt, monsieur, that you went to see him, for it is more than time you were introduced. Yet all you are likely to have gotten is a snootful of brandy and a dozen hearty handshakes. He is a dear, our Papa, such a silly old dear.”
“Silly old dear! Silly old dear,” sang Adèle and Sylvie from some high hidden perch, “There goes Papa, the silly old dear!”
Ginette continued her speech over their chant. “We do not fear the storm, for we are the one who invited him to play with our dear mother tree. See how he tousles her leaves!”
The other four girls made ghostly sounds, imitating the wind. Ginette flashed an approving smile and joined them, howling loudest of all.
“Child, be quiet!” shouted Alphonse. “Any moment now a great blue bolt of lightning will come down from that cloud and settle your foolishness.”
“Begone, unbeliever!” cried Ginette. “We are no longer here for you to abuse.”
Alphonse opened his mouth to reply, but the girl’s next utterance was a piercing jabber of ape speech that shivered his bones. The others joined in with gusto, their heathen chorus filling his ears. Thérèse croaked with froggy glee. Adèle chattered with a macaque’s indignation. Sylvie cooed like a swallow half-mad with rage, flailing her wings so recklessly that Alphonse felt sure she would plummet into the mud at his feet. Aurore gave the bass part with a horrid purring, her imaginative best attempt at either sloth or porcupine.
Alphonse lost his long-tended composure, hurling hoarse imprecations into the maelstrom. Only when a new sound surprised him did he pause. The growl was almost as low as the thunder and far nearer. Around the tree, unrecognizable from the menace in her eyes and the bristly stand of hair along her back, stalked Louise the dog. She advanced on Alphonse with the deadly gait of a predator. His new mare, temporarily forgotten, shied at her approach. Alphonse turned to see it run down the rise across the pasture, lit by a sheet of lightning. To hold his ground was not worth the ruin of his handsome animal and the humiliation of a savage attack by his beloved shepherd. Soaked and defeated, he followed his horse in shameful retreat toward the lights of the house.
By the time he was able to catch the mare, calm her and lead her to shelter, the mud had streaked and covered him, investing him with a slightly demonic appearance. He tripped over a frantic hen who had escaped the safety of her coop and ran about the yard in the stupid manner of her kind. Despite her furious pecking, he shoved her under an outcropping rather than surrender good poultry to the malefic enchantment of the Bottine sisters. Marie-Georges shrieked aloud when he crashed into the kitchen with the storm whistling at his back.
“Diable!’ she cried, making holy signs with her clawed hands. “The unholy one is come! Sauvez-nous, Sainte Marie!”
On any other night, Alphonse would have grumbled at his mother-in-law to hush her foolishness, resigned to Hélène’s reproachful glance but refusing to let it wound him. That night, something about her choice of invocation parted the heavens and brought a ray of inspiration shining down into his brain.
He had taken a defensive stand, protecting his rights and his home ground the only way he knew how. For his trouble he had been foiled and ousted from his comfortable place by stubborn high spirits with which he had no capacity to reason. He realized with sudden clarity that he must learn to pay his oppressors in their own currency.
Before either woman could address him further, Alphonse made the fears of Marie-Georges manifest. Tearing the shirt from his back, he began to rave like a man possessed. He smeared the mud to an even shade of black across his countenance, snorting and howling. He kicked over his wife’s sewing chair and snatched up the sheet she had been mending, throwing it about him like a cloak. He capered up and down the small room, shouting snatches of nonsense verse he had not spoken since childhood. He carried the charade just until Marie-Georges brandished the fire poker. Shooting his wife a shrewd glance that he hoped she would understand, Alphonse bounded like the very devil out the door, taking care to toss the panicked hen into the room with them before disappearing into the night.
The storm had abated and the village gone to bed when Alphonse Dupuy trotted through the square a second time on his Irish mare. He had a small bag of stones tied on his hip, and still wore the ruined bedsheet like Caesar’s bloody cloak. He sang out songs and hunting cries, anything he could conjure to rouse the village from sleep. He dismounted, tied the horse securely, and began hurling stones through windows. The shivering glass brought faces to peer out at him, and when he was certain he had the general attention, he addressed his terrified neighbors.
“My friends,” he wailed, “I come to ask your mercy, for I know not what I do!”
“Who is that?” cried someone in the dark.
“It speaks with Dupuy’s voice!” thundered Villiers. “Call the priest!”
Alphonse reeled as though faint, moaning. “It is I,” he said, “your neighbor Alphonse Dupuy, but I am sore oppressed by evil. Forgive me while I have sense left to beg it of you.”
Rocheville the butcher appeared, bearing an axe but keeping a cautious distance. “Look here, Dupuy, you were always the steadiest of men, honest and thorough. How have you come to lose your senses?”
“O monsieur le boucher. My senses are plundered and my body is no longer my own. Fool that I was to ignore your whispered warnings, I tried to appease and commune with the wicked spirits in my beech tree. I wished only to bless and protect my land, and see how I am paid for my honest ambition. I am a thing of mischief in their thrall.”
Only a man with a sterling reputation for calm and reason could have fooled them so. Alphonse ran suddenly at Madame Lenz, an Alsatian widow who had grudgingly come to the village three years ago to nurse an ailing cousin. She made plain her disapproval of any and all things in the village, yet her prying curiosity had compelled her to creep closest to the madman. Alphonse tore the bedsheet cloak from his body and hurled it over Madame Lenz’s astonished head. Screaming and flailing, she stumbled this way and that until the trough used for watering livestock in the square tripped her up. Rocheville barked a command to his twins, who stopped their howls of laughter long enough to rescue the widow from either drowning or apoplexy. Satisfied that he had made his point, and doubly satisfied to have gotten away with behavior no sane man would attempt, Alphonse continued his entreaty.
“Come, good neighbors! Back to my farm, and bring the power of your faith along with you. Help me drive this evil from my land before we all lose our souls to it!”
There was talk of confining Alphonse for his own safety until the evil could be found and banished, but they needed him for a guide. He led them along the road, their voices raised in somber hymns, all the way back to the southern verge of the farm where they could be let in at the gate.
This was how Hélène came to peer out her window a quarter of an hour later and find a ring of pallid faces praising Almighty God by torch light. Even she, the most sanguine of women, felt a shiver of supernatural foreboding.
“There!’ Alphonse was shouting at the same moment. “There in the boughs of my lovely beech the evil ones play!”
“Chop it down!” cried Villiers.
“Burn it to ash,” Rocheville thundered, “and scatter it at the crossroads!” failing in his excitement to consider what an impassable hill the ashes of such a large tree would make.
“Pray to the angel Gabriel,” said Madame Lenz’s niece who had come in proxy for the sake of her poor aunt, “that the sword of heaven might smite it from the earth!” Nobody was exactly sure what this would look like, but they yelled their assent until a shrill but commanding voice came from the heart of the tree itself.
“Silence, pestilent mortals!” cried Ginette Bottine, who had hidden herself in perfect imitation of an invisible devil. Alphonse was surprised by the passion and strength of her voice, and did not begrudge the others imagining her as something more fearsome than an insolent child. The company, who had been so brave, held silence at her command.
“We have taken our ease and made our pleasure in this leafy temple, who is a kinder and more beautiful mother than any that gave you life. But your chattering and mewling grow tiresome, and spoil our fun.”
At this a chorus of unearthly shrieks rang out from all sides of the tree, prostrating the faint of heart and scaring the rest quite badly enough. Alphonse, watching with grim hope, gave an involuntary shrug of respect to the coaching Ginette must have given her sisters in the art of demonic theatre. They must have realized they were cornered, but in danger their hearts never failed.
“Some days ago,” Ginette intoned, “we took possession of five little girls for a joke, and should we consent to withdraw from this place to our shadowy abode, you must each give your solemn pledge to let them pass by unmolested. You are not to lay hands on them, question them or burn them at the stake. Neither shall we suffer this night to be spoken of by any of you again.”
Shock hung heavy in the atmosphere around the beech tree, as one villager looked to another and so on until the host of them stood blinking in bovine consternation. Alphonse, knowing where to look, perceived a single eye glaring down at him through the foliage, a moist angry glint of torchlight in the center. He could easily guess the name of the one who surveyed him. He knew that any attempt to explain the truth to his mob would serve no good. Rather than incite further outrage at the cost of his well-tended land, he judged it best that all parties leave the battlefield under a dignified, if grudging, flag of truce.
“I give my pledge!” he cried hoarsely. “It is my land, and if the spirits are content to go their way and spare the innocent, let there be peace between us.”
“Why,” said Villiers, “that’s good sensible Dupuy talking again. Keep a prayer in your hearts neighbors, but draw back. Draw back!”
They did so. One by one, five little she-creatures appeared, all dimpled and pretty with dirty bare feet and wild hair woven through with twigs. Down the trunk they came with the ease of menagerie monkeys. They spoke not a word but stood blinking in the torchlight until all were safe on the ground.
“Poor lambs!” Mademoiselle Dulex nearly sobbed. “Let us take them to a doctor, and thence to a bishop.”
Alphonse laid a hand on her to keep her from sweeping the girls up against her bosom. “Stay, madame. They seem unhurt, and we gave our oath to the…” he fumbled for a term that would sound appropriately grave but not too ridiculous, “to the others.”
And so, absurd as it seemed, the gathered villagers parted and stood by as the Bottine sisters found their own way to the gate. Just before stepping off his land, Ginette Bottine turned to regard Alphonse Dupuy. Her gaze was sharp and feline, the parting glance of a hateful adversary. Alphonse felt the look in her eyes pass down into his stomach. Passing through the gate onto the southern lane, the five girls broke into a run and let the night swallow them up.
It did not seem a fit time for speeches. Slowly and without farewell the mob dissipated, none sure of what they had witnessed. A few whistled softly as one may do when crossing a churchyard. Others went so far as to harmonize a holy air together, but before long the last of the lights had disappeared down the village road.
Only when Alphonse was alone, surveying the black outline of the beech tree against the more muted darkness of the night sky, did the import of Ginette’s evil eye become clear. From a dry sky already half-cleared of clouds, a sudden vibration filled the air. Alphonse felt his fine hairs crackle for three whole seconds, and then a tremendous bolt of lightning ripped the universe in half. It struck the highest part of the tree, Ginette’s throne, and shook the trunk all down its length. When the whole hulk burst asunder, Alphonse barely had time to dive for cover and save himself from mortal injury. Bark and splintered wood flew in all directions, as though a Prussian shell had hit the farm. Hardly a trace of a stump, hardly a lone root, remained standing where the tree had been.
Alphonse lay quivering with his face in the dirt, first with fear and then with a rising sense of outrage. By the most childish of dark arts, the peculiar Bottine sisters had marked his tree for destruction merely because he had dared to invoke the right of ownership. It mattered little at that moment that he had meant to cut it down all along.
In the days that followed, he found large pieces of wood still intact. Among these he perceived five separate and distinct imprints of the human hand. They varied a little in size, but seemed to have been placed on various parts of the tree by identical means. The dark brown staining had most likely come from beech nut oil, which they had squeezed or trod upon to make ink. Then in some queer ceremony, no doubt invented by their high priestess, they had signed the tree with a doom pact in case one day he should find a way to expel them from their capricious Eden. They had prepared their vengeance all along. Alphonse had taxed his own limits of imagination by playing a demon before the whole village, but the experience had also broadened him. He was better able to accept the undeniable power of youthful conviction over more sensible reality.
The storm did minimal damage to the fall crops, and the harvest came in due season more or less as expected. The hired hands proved adequate, and the Irish mare gave excellent service.
Meanwhile, the season for school had come. Alphonse heard that the old Granville mansion lay vacant once more. He supposed that the clan Bottine had returned to what passed for normal life among the dreary cobblestones of London, where governesses lurked. For a while he wondered whether perverse courtesy would move his guests to send a letter of acknowledgment, whether friendly thanks or spiteful coda to their impressive hex. In time he realized that the handprints left on the shattered trunk were parting correspondence enough.
Alphonse managed to chop and split the remains of the tree into a good winter reserve, with plenty of kindling for the box thanks to the splintering effect of the lightning. He managed it because it needed to be done, along with everything else. Louise reappeared near the end of the project, keeping her distance for the first few days but drawing closer each afternoon until she could incline her head for him to scratch. Having paid him this rare courtesy, she retreated a few steps and sat down in the sun to watch him. She seemed to grasp the emotional turbulence of the past summer as keenly as he, and her apparent eagerness for a return to normal relations was a comfort.
In the end, Alphonse had more firewood than he could easily store. He could have sold it in the village, but not for much since by then, all his neighbors had filled up their own woodpiles. The effort of finding buyers and transporting the goods outweighed any profit he stood to make. He moved the surplus to the barn and stacked it on his workbench.
Over the following weeks, Alphonse became scarce about the house. Marie-Georges asked every half hour what he could be doing with all that sawing and hammering and foul language, which they could hear clearly from inside the cottage. Hélène offered no opinion for the first week, and after the second week she asked her mother why she did not go and look for herself, if she was so curious. Clearly it was not the sound of Alphonse’s work that she found annoying. Marie-Georges sulked in silence after that. Hélène knew she would not move from the hearth to go and see about anything.
Just about the time that winter fell in earnest, when it grew too cold for outdoor activity beyond the basic duties of keeping the animals alive and the roof intact, Alphonse entered the cottage with stubble on his chin and blisters on his hands. Hélène had just boiled coffee, and poured him a tall drink with a generous measure of Bottine’s brandy mixed in. He accepted it with a grateful nod and seated himself before the fire. Marie-Georges snored away raucously in her chair.
Hélène drew her heavy coat down from its hook and stepped into her yard boots. Squinting against the bitter wind, she slipped outside and walked the three dozen paces to the barn.
Her eyes took a moment to clear and adjust to the darkness inside. Alphonse had hung a lamp over his workbench, and it had nearly burned out. Hélène could just discern the shapes of the five little chairs, arranged in a circle as if waiting for a table. They were crude little slatted things, standing from three to just under five feet high. There were knots and patches of bark still showing here and there, but they all followed a uniform pattern and made a charming little rustic set. Alphonse was no great carpenter, but the pile of half-planed rejects in the far corner told her that he had summoned uncommon patience and care in choosing the right design. It was unlikely that the smallest ones would be any more useful than doll furniture in a year, and even the largest would scarcely accommodate a growing girl for long. Drawing closer, she noticed a peculiar emblem carved with special care into the seat of every chair. It was a lovely whimsical figure, spiraling outward with an ancient elegance that seemed at odds with her husband’s homespun taste.
Hélène’s heart came close to melting. At the end of a hard season working himself thin for the farm, he had found the conviction and strength of limb to hew the beloved beech tree into heartfelt tokens for the little girls whose high spirits had so strained his patience. To know that he must miss them touched her deeply. She resolved to take his grousing and his gruff spells with better humor.
Alphonse, drowsing before the roar of the fire, knew nothing of his wife’s discovery, nor of the way it had stirred her affection. His mind, still cooling from the frenzy of his work, dwelt on the swirling ornate emblem that had consumed his attention all day. He had found it in an antique volume of lore, located at his request by Madame Franju, the baker’s wife, who dealt in curious books. The precision of his request had required her to pore over her old and esoteric pages, but at length she had found exactly what he wanted. The tapering shell-like design had been worn by the first Frankish men to till the land. Cast in lead, it hung around their necks as a periapt, an amulet to protect against malign creatures and their wicked influence. Adopting it as a maker’s mark, he had hewn it with care into each of the small seats fashioned from the stricken beech wood. Should the Bottine sisters come calling again, they would find a curious kind of hospitality in the Dupuy home. The seats he had made them would be set out with all good cheer, the fire stoked and a fine supper laid. If all he had learned from the bookseller’s counsel held true, such a talisman carved into the very wood they had dashed out of childish love and spite would simultaneously bewitch and infuriate them. This improvised warding charm, his final play in the witch’s contest he had so reluctantly joined, would so bedevil them that they would either give the farm a wide berth or be driven mad.
Never again would he grumble to longsuffering Hélène of the trouble they had given him, not even if word came that they would be returning for a long winter holiday. He would hold his peace, for surely in a house so blessed there would always be room at the table for a swallow, a porcupine, or a Barbary ape.