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Produced by David Widger





THE DEVIL'S POOL

By George Sand


Translated From The French By Jane Minot Sedgwick And Ellery Sedgwick


With An Etching By E. Abot

1901




THE DEVIL'S POOL



THE AUTHOR TO THE READER

_A la sueur de ton visaige,
Tu gagnerais ta pauvre vie.
Après long travail et usaige,
Voicy la mort qui te convie._ *

THIS quaint old French verse, written under one of Holbein's pictures,
is profoundly melancholy. The engraving represents a laborer driving his
plow through the middle of a field. Beyond him stretches a vast horizon,
dotted with wretched huts; the sun is sinking behind the hill. It is the
end of a hard day's work. The peasant is old, bent, and clothed in rags.
He is urging onward a team of four thin and exhausted horses; the
plowshare sinks into a stony and ungrateful soil. One being only is
active and alert in this scene of toil and sorrow. It is a fantastic
creature. A skeleton armed with a whip, who acts as plowboy to the old
laborer, and running along through the furrow beside the terrified
horses, goads them on. This is the specter Death, whom Holbein has
introduced allegorically into that series of religious and philosophic
subjects, at once melancholy and grotesque, entitled "The Dance of
Death."

* In toil and sorrow thou shalt eat
The bitter bread of poverty.
After the burden and the heat,
Lo! it is Death who calls for thee.

In this collection, or rather this mighty composition, where Death, who
plays his part on every page, is the connecting link and predominating
thought, Holbein has called up kings, popes, lovers, gamesters,
drunkards, nuns, courtesans, thieves, warriors, monks, Jews, and
travelers, - all the people of his time and our own; and everywhere the
specter Death is among them, taunting, threatening, and triumphing. He
is absent from one picture only, where Lazarus, lying on a dunghill at
the rich man's door, declares that the specter has no terrors for him;
probably because he has nothing to lose, and his existence is already a
life in death.

Is there comfort in this stoical thought of the half-pagan Christianity
of the Renaissance, and does it satisfy religious souls? The upstart,
the rogue, the tyrant, the rake, and all those haughty sinners who make
an ill use of life, and whose steps are dogged by Death, will be surely
punished; but can the reflection that death is no evil make amends for
the long hardships of the blind man, the beggar, the madman, and the
poor peasant? No! An inexorable sadness, an appalling fatality brood
over the artist's work. It is like a bitter curse, hurled against the
fate of humanity.

Holbein's faithful delineation of the society in which he lived is,
indeed, painful satire. His attention was engrossed by crime and
calamity; but what shall we, who are artists of a later date, portray?
Shall we look to find the reward of the human beings of to-day in
the contemplation of death, and shall we invoke it as the penalty of
unrighteousness and the compensation of suffering?

No, henceforth, our business is not with death, but with life. We
believe no longer in the nothingness of the grave, nor in safety bought
with the price of a forced renunciation; life must be enjoyed in order
to be fruitful. Lazarus must leave his dunghill, so that the poor need
no longer exult in the death of the rich. All must be made happy, that
the good fortune of a few may not be a crime and a curse. As the laborer
sows his wheat, he must know that he is helping forward the work of
life, instead of rejoicing that Death walks at his side. We may
no longer consider death as the chastisement of prosperity or the
consolation of distress, for God has decreed it neither as the
punishment nor the compensation of life. Life has been blessed by Him,
and it is no longer permissible for us to leave the grave as the only
refuge for those whom we are unwilling to make happy.

There are some artists of our own day, who, after a serious survey of
their surroundings, take pleasure in painting misery, the sordidness of
poverty, and the dunghill of Lazarus. This may belong to the domain of
art and philosophy; but by depicting poverty as so hideous, so degraded,
and sometimes so vicious and criminal, do they gain their end, and is
that end as salutary as they would wish? We dare not pronounce judgment.
They may answer that they terrify the unjust rich man by pointing out to
him the yawning pit that lies beneath the frail covering of wealth; just
as in the time of the Dance of Death, they showed him his gaping grave,
and Death standing ready to fold him in an impure embrace. Now, they
show him the thief breaking open his doors, and the murderer stealthily
watching his sleep. We confess we cannot understand how we can reconcile
him to the human nature he despises, or make him sensible of the
sufferings of the poor wretch whom he dreads, by showing him this
wretch in the guise of the escaped convict or the nocturnal burglar. The
hideous phantom Death, under the repulsive aspect in which he has been
represented by Holbein and his predecessors, gnashing his teeth and
playing the fiddle, has been powerless to convert the wicked and console
their victims. And does not our literature employ the same means as the
artists of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance?

The revelers of Holbein fill their glasses in a frenzy to dispel the
idea of Death, who is their cup-bearer, though they do not see him. The
unjust rich of our own day demand cannon and barricades to drive out
the idea of an insurrection of the people which Art shows them as slowly
working in the dark, getting ready to burst upon the State. The Church
of the Middle Ages met the terrors of the great of the earth with the
sale of indulgences. The government of to-day soothes the uneasiness of
the rich by exacting from them large sums for the support of policemen,
jailors, bayonets, and prisons.

Albert Durer, Michael Angelo, Holbein, Callot, and Goya have made
powerful satires on the evils of their times and countries, and their
immortal works are historical documents of unquestionable value. We
shall not refuse to artists the right to probe the wounds of society
and lay them bare to our eyes; but is the only function of art still
to threaten and appall? In the literature of the mysteries of iniquity,
which talent and imagination have brought into fashion, we prefer the
sweet and gentle characters, which can attempt and effect conversions,
to the melodramatic villains, who inspire terror; for terror never cures
selfishness, but increases it.

We believe that the mission of art is a mission of sentiment and love,
that the novel of to-day should take the place of the parable and the
fable of early times, and that the artist has a larger and more poetic
task than that of suggesting certain prudential and conciliatory
measures for the purpose of diminishing the fright caused by his
pictures. His aim should be to render attractive the objects he has at
heart, and, if necessary, I have no objection to his embellishing them
a little. Art is not the study of positive reality, but the search for
ideal truth, and the "Vicar of Wakefield" was a more useful and healthy
book than the "Paysan Perverti," or the "Liaisons Dangereuses."

Forgive these reflections of mine, kind reader, and let them stand as
a preface, for there will be no other to the little story I am going
to relate to you. My tale is to be so short and so simple, that I felt
obliged to make you my apologies for it beforehand, by telling you what
I think of the literature of terror.

I have allowed myself to be drawn into this digression for the sake of a
laborer; and it is the story of a laborer which I have been meaning to
tell you, and which I shall now tell you at once.




I - The Tillage of the Soil

I HAD just been looking long and sadly at Holbein's plowman, and was
walking through the fields, musing on rustic life and the destiny of
the husbandman. It is certainly tragic for him to spend his days and his
strength delving in the jealous earth, that so reluctantly yields up her
rich treasures when a morsel of coarse black bread, at the end of the
day's work, is the sole reward and profit to be reaped from such arduous
toil. The wealth of the soil, the harvests, the fruits, the splendid
cattle that grow sleek and fat in the luxuriant grass, are the property
of the few, and but instruments of the drudgery and slavery of the many.
The man of leisure seldom loves, for their own sake, the fields and
meadows, the landscape, or the noble animals which are to be converted
into gold for his use. He comes to the country for his health or for
change of air, but goes back to town to spend the fruit of his vassal's
labor.

On the other hand, the peasant is too abject, too wretched, and too
fearful of the future to enjoy the beauty of the country and the charms
of pastoral life. To him, also, the yellow harvest-fields, the rich
meadows, the fine cattle represent bags of gold; but he knows that
only an infinitesimal part of their contents, insufficient for his daily
needs, will ever fall to his share. Yet year by year he must fill those
accursed bags, to please his master and buy the right of living on his
land in sordid wretchedness. Yet nature is eternally young, beautiful,
and generous. She pours forth poetry and beauty on all creatures and
all plants that are allowed free development.

She owns the secret of happiness, of which no one has ever robbed her.
The happiest of men would be he who, knowing the full meaning of his
labor, should, while working with his hands, find his happiness and his
freedom in the exercise of his intelligence, and, having his heart in
unison with his brain, should at once understand his own work and love
that of God, The artist has such delights as these in contemplating and
reproducing the beauties of nature; but if his heart be true and tender,
his pleasure is disturbed when he sees the miseries of the men who
people this paradise of earth. True happiness will be theirs when mind,
heart, and hand shall work in concert in the sight of Heaven, and there
shall be a sacred harmony between God's goodness and the joys of his
creatures. Then, instead of the pitiable and frightful figure of Death
stalking, whip in hand, across the fields, the painter of allegories
may place beside the peasant a radiant angel, sowing the blessed grain
broadcast in the smoking furrow. The dream of a serene, free, poetic,
laborious, and simple life for the tiller of the soil is not so
impossible that we should banish it as a chimera. The sweet, sad words
of Virgil: "Oh, happy the peasants of the field, if they knew their own
blessings!" is a regret, but, like all regrets, it is also a prophecy.
The day will come when the laborer too may be an artist, and may at
least feel what is beautiful, if he cannot express it, - a matter of far
less importance. Do not we know that this mysterious poetic intuition
is already his, in the form of instinct and vague reverie? Among those
peasants who possess some of the comforts of life, and whose moral
and intellectual development is not entirely stifled by extreme
wretchedness, pure happiness that can be felt and appreciated exists
in the elementary stage; and, moreover, since poets have already raised
their voices out of the lap of pain and of weariness, why should we say
that the labor of the hands excludes the working of the soul? Without
doubt this exclusion is the common result of excessive toil and of deep
misery; but let it not be said that when men shall work moderately and
usefully there will be nothing but bad workers and bad poets. The man
who draws in noble joy from the poetic feeling is a true poet, though he
has never written a verse all his life.

My thoughts had flown in this direction, without my perceiving that
my confidence in the capacity of man for education was strengthened by
external influences. I was walking along the edge of a field, which some
peasants were preparing to sow. The space was vast as that in Holbein's
picture; the landscape, too, was vast and framed in a great sweep of
green, slightly reddened by the approach of autumn. Here and there in
the great russet field, slender rivulets of water left in the furrows by
the late rains sparkled in the sunlight like silver threads. The day was
clear and mild, and the soil, freshly cleft by the plowshare, sent up
a light steam. At the other extremity of the field, an old man, whose
broad shoulders and stern face recalled Holbein's plowman, but whose
clothes carried no suggestion of poverty, was gravely driving his plow
of antique shape, drawn by two placid oxen, true patriarchs of the
meadow, tall and rather thin, with pale yellow coats and long, drooping
horns. They were those old workers who, through long habit, have grown
to be _brothers_, as they are called in our country, and who, when one
loses the other, refuse to work with a new comrade, and pine away with
grief. People who are unfamiliar with the country call the love of the
ox for his yoke-fellow a fable. Let them come and see in the corner of
the stable one of these poor beasts, thin and wasted, restlessly lashing
his lean flanks with his tail, violently breathing with mingled terror
and disdain on the food offered him, his eyes always turned toward the
door, scratching with his hoof the empty place at his side, sniffing the
yokes and chains which his fellow used to wear, and incessantly calling
him with melancholy lowings. The ox-herd will say: "There is a pair
of oxen gone;' this one will work no more, for his brother is dead. We
ought to fatten him for the market, but he will not eat, and will soon
starve himself to death." The old laborer worked slowly, silently, and
without waste of effort His docile team were in no greater haste than
he; but, thanks to the undistracted steadiness of his toil and the
judicious expenditure of his strength, his furrow was as soon plowed as
that of his son, who was driving, at some distance from him, four less
vigorous oxen through a more stubborn and stony piece of ground.

My attention was next caught by a fine spectacle, a truly noble subject
for a painter. At the other end of the field a fine-looking youth was
driving a magnificent team of four pairs of young oxen, through whose
somber coats glanced a ruddy, glow-like name. They had the short, curry
heads that belong to the wild bull, the same large, fierce eyes and
jerky movements; they worked in an abrupt, nervous way that showed how
they still rebelled against the yoke and goad, and trembled with anger
as they obeyed the authority so recently imposed. They were what is
called "newly yoked" oxen. The man who drove them had to clear a corner
of the field that had formerly been given up to pasture, and was
filled with old tree-stumps; and his youth and energy, and his eight
half-broken animals, hardly sufficed for the Herculean task.

A child of six or seven years old, lovely as an angel, wearing round his
shoulders, over his blouse, a sheepskin that made him look like a little
Saint John the Baptist out of a Renaissance picture, was running along
in the furrow beside the plow, pricking the flanks of the oxen with a
long, light goad but slightly sharpened. The spirited animals quivered
under the child's light touch, making their yokes and head-bands creak,
and shaking the pole violently. Whenever a root stopped the advance
of the plowshare, the laborer would call every animal by name in his
powerful voice, trying to calm rather than to excite them; for the oxen,
irritated by the sudden resistance, bounded, pawed the ground with their
great cloven hoofs, and would have jumped aside and dragged the plow
across the fields, if the young man had not kept the first four in order
with his voice and goad, while the child controlled the four others.
The little fellow shouted too, but the voice which he tried to make of
terrible effect, was as sweet as his angelic face. The whole scene was
beautiful in its grace and strength; the landscape, the man, the child,
the oxen under the yoke; and in spite of the mighty struggle by which
the earth was subdued, a deep feeling of peace and sweetness reigned
over all. Each time that an obstacle was surmounted and the plow resumed
its even, solemn progress, the laborer, whose pretended violence was
but a trial of his strength, and an outlet for his energy, instantly
regained that serenity which is the right of simple souls, and looked
with fatherly pleasure toward his child, who turned to smile back at
him. Then the young father would raise his manly voice in the solemn
and melancholy chant that ancient tradition transmits, not indeed to all
plowmen indiscriminately, but to those who are most perfect in the art
of exciting and sustaining the spirit of cattle while at work. This
song, which was probably sacred in its origin, and to which mysterious
influences must once have been attributed, is still thought to
possess the virtue of putting animals on their mettle, allaying their
irritation, and of beguiling the weariness of their long, hard toil.
It is not enough to guide them skilfully, to trace a perfectly straight
furrow, and to lighten their labor by raising the plowshare or driving
it into the earth; no man can be a consummate husbandman who does not
know how to sing to his oxen, and that is an art that requires taste
and especial gifts. To tell the truth, this chant is only a recitative,
broken off and taken up at pleasure. Its irregular form and its
intonations that violate all the rules of musical art make it impossible
to describe.

But it is none the less a noble song, and so appropriate is it to the
nature of the work it accompanies, to the gait of the oxen, to the peace
of the fields, and to the simplicity of the men who sing it, that no
genius unfamiliar with the tillage of the earth, and no man except an
accomplished laborer of our part of the country, could repeat it. At the
season of the year when there is no work or stir afoot except that of
the plowman, this strong, sweet refrain rises like the voice of the
breeze, to which the key it is sung in gives it some resemblance. Each
phrase ends with a long trill, the final note of which is held with
incredible strength of breath, and rises a quarter of a tone, sharping
systematically. It is barbaric, but possesses an unspeakable charm, and
anybody, once accustomed to hear it, cannot conceive of another song
taking its place at the same hour and in the same place, without
striking a discord.

So it was that I had before my eyes a picture the reverse of that of
Holbein, although the scene was similar. Instead of a wretched old man,
a young and active one; instead of a team of weary and emaciated horses,
four yoke of robust and fiery oxen; instead of death, a beautiful
child; instead of despair and destruction, energy and the possibility of
happiness.

Then the old French verse, "À la sueur de ton vis-aige," etc., and
Virgil's "O fortunatos... agricolas," returned to my mind, and seeing
this lovely child and his father, under such poetic conditions, and with
so much grace and strength, accomplish a task full of such grand
and solemn suggestions, I was conscious of deep pity and involuntary
respect. Happy the peasant of the fields! Yes, and so too should I be
in his place, if my arm and voice could be endowed with sudden strength,
and I could help to make Nature fruitful, and sing of her gifts, without
ceasing to see with my eyes or understand with my brain harmonious
colors and sounds, delicate shades and graceful outlines; in short, the
mysterious beauty of all things. And above all, if my heart continued
to beat in concert with the divine sentiment that presided over the
immortal sublimity of creation.

But, alas! this man has never understood the mystery of beauty; this
child will never understand it. God forbid that I should not think them
superior to the animals which are subject to them, or that they have not
moments of rapturous insight that soothe their toil and lull their cares
to sleep. I see the seal of the Lord upon their noble brows, for they
were born to inherit the earth far more truly than those who have bought
and paid for it. The proof that they feel this is that they cannot be
exiled with impunity, that they love the soil they have watered with
their tears, and that the true peasant dies of homesickness under the
arms of a soldier far from his native field. But he lacks some of my
enjoyments, those pure delights which should be his by right, as a
workman in that immense temple which the sky only is vast enough
to embrace. He lacks the consciousness of his sentiment. Those who
condemned him to slavery from his mother's womb, being unable to rob him
of his vague dreams, took away from him the power of reflection.

Yet, imperfect being that he is, sentenced to eternal childhood, he is
nobler than the man in whom knowledge has stifled feeling. Do not set
yourselves above him, you who believe yourselves invested with a lawful
and inalienable right to rule over him, for your terrible mistake shows
that your brain has destroyed your heart, and that you are the blindest
and most incomplete of men! I love the simplicity of his soul more than
the false lights of yours; and if I had to narrate the story of his
life, the pleasure I should take in bringing out the tender and touching
side of it would be greater than your merit in painting the degradation
and contempt into which he is cast by your social code.

I knew the young man and the beautiful child; I knew their history, for
they had a history. Everybody has his own, and could make the romance
of his life interesting, if he could but understand it. Although but a
peasant and a laborer, Germain had always been aware of his duties and
affections. He had related them to me clearly and ingenuously, and I had
listened with interest. After some time spent in watching him plow, it
occurred to me that I might write his story, though that story were as
simple, as straightforward, and unadorned as the furrow he was tracing.

Next year that furrow will be filled and covered by a fresh one. Thus
disappear most of the footprints made by man in the field of human life.
A little earth obliterates them, and the furrows we have dug succeed one
another like graves in a cemetery. Is not the furrow of the laborer of
as much value as that of the idler, even if that idler, by some absurd
chance, have made a little noise in the world, and left behind him an
abiding name?

I mean, if possible, to save from oblivion the furrow of Germain,
the skilled husbandman. He will never know nor care, but I shall take
pleasure in my talk.




II - Father Maurice

"GERMAIN," said his father-in-law one day, "you must decide about
marrying again. It is almost two years now since you lost my daughter,
and your eldest boy is seven years old! You are almost thirty, my boy,
and you know that in our country a man is considered too old to go to
housekeeping again after that age; you have three nice children, and
thus far they have not proved a burden to us at all. My wife and my
daughter-in-law have looked after them as well as they could, and loved
them as they ought. Here is Petit-Pierre almost grown up. He goads the
oxen very well; he knows how to look after the cattle; and he is strong
enough to drive the horses to the trough. So it is not he that worries
us. But the other two, love them though we do, God knows the poor little
innocents give us trouble enough this year; my daughter-in-law is about
to lie in, and she has yet another baby to attend to. When the child
we are expecting comes, she will not be able to look after your little
Solange, and above all your Sylvain, who is not four years old, and who
is never quiet day or night. He has a restless disposition like yours;
that will make a good workman of him, but it makes a dreadful child, and
my old wife cannot run fast enough to save him when he almost tumbles
into the ditch, or when he throws himself in front of the tramping
cattle. And then with this other that my daughter-in-law is going to
bring into the world, for a month at least her next older child will
fall on my wife's hands. Besides, your children worry us, and give us
too much to do; we hate to see children badly looked after, and when we
think of the accidents that may befall them, for want of care, we cannot
rest. So you need another wife, and I another daughter-in-law. Think
this over, my son. I have called it to your mind before. Time flies,


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