There are other sounds that are peculiar to that time of year, and are heard principally in the orchards. The fruit is not yet gathered, and a thousand unaccustomed snappings and crackings make the trees resemble animate beings. A branch creaks as it bends under a weight that has suddenly reached the last stage of development; or an apple detaches itself and falls at your feet with a dull thud on the damp ground. Then you hear a creature whom you cannot see, brushing against the branches and bushes as he runs away; it is the peasant’s dog, the restless, inquisitive prowler, impudent and cowardly as well, who insinuates himself everywhere, never sleeps, is always hunting for nobody knows what, watches you from his hiding-place in the bushes and runs away at the noise made by a falling apple, thinking that you are throwing a stone at him.
On such nights as those—gray, cloudy nights—the hemp-beater narrates his strange adventures with will-o’-the-wisps and white hares, souls in torment and witches transformed into wolves, the witches’ dance at the cross-roads and prophetic night-owls in the grave-yard. I remember passing the early hours of the night thus around the moving flails, whose pitiless blow, interrupting the beater’s tale at the most exciting point, caused a cold shiver to run through our veins. Often, too, the goodman went on talking as he worked; and four or five words would be lost: awful words, of course, which we dared not ask him to repeat, and the omission of which imparted a more awe-inspiring mystery to the mysteries, sufficiently harrowing before, of his narrative. In vain did the servants warn us that it was very late to remain out-of-doors, and that the hour for slumber had long since struck for us; they themselves were dying with longing to hear more. And with what terror did we afterward walk through the hamlet on our homeward way! how deep the church porch seemed, and how dense and black the shadow of the old trees! As for the grave-yard, that we did not see; we closed our eyes as we passed it.
But the hemp-beater does not devote himself exclusively to frightening his hearers any more than the sacristan does; he likes to make them laugh, he is jocose and sentimental at need, when love and marriage are to be sung; he it is who collects and retains in his memory the most ancient ballads and transmits them to posterity. He it is, therefore, who, at wedding-festivals, is entrusted with the character which we are to see him enact at the presentation of the livrees to little Marie.
When everybody was assembled in the house, the doors and windows were closed and fastened with the greatest care; they even barricaded the loop-hole in the attic; they placed boards, trestles, stumps, and tables across all the issues as if they were preparing to sustain a siege; and there was the solemn silence of suspense in that fortified interior until they heard in the distance singing and laughing, and the notes of the rustic instruments. It was the bridegroom’s contingent, Germain at the head, accompanied by his stoutest comrades, by his relations, friends, and servants and the grave-digger,—a substantial, joyous procession.