He remained among the stones long enough for the wood to burn down nearly to his hand. When he came out, and flung the burning fragment from him, his face was flushed deeply, his eyes sparkled. He leaped carelessly on to the heath, over the bushes through which he had threaded his way so warily but a few minutes before, exclaiming, “I may marry Perrine with a clear conscience now; I am the son of as honest a man as there is in Brittany!”
He had closely examined the cavity in every corner, and not the slightest sign that any dead body had ever been laid there was visible in the hollow place under the Merchant’s Table.
“I may marry Perrine with a clear conscience now!”
There are some parts of the world where it would be drawing no natural picture of human nature to represent a son as believing conscientiously that an offense against life and the laws of hospitality, secretly committed by his father, rendered him, though innocent of all participation in it, unworthy to fulfill his engagement with his affianced wife. Among the simple inhabitants of Gabriel’s province, however, such acuteness of conscientious sensibility as this was no extraordinary exception to all general rules. Ignorant and superstitious as they might be, the people of Brittany practiced the duties of hospitality as devoutly as they practiced the duties of the national religion. The presence of the stranger-guest, rich or poor, was a sacred presence at their hearths. His safety was their especial charge, his property their especial responsibility. They might be half starved, but they were ready to share the last crust with him, nevertheless, as they would share it with their own children.
Any outrage on the virtue of hospitality, thus born and bred in the people, was viewed by them with universal disgust, and punished with universal execration. This ignominy was uppermost in Gabriel’s thoughts by the side of his grandfather’s bed; the dread of this worst dishonor, which there was no wiping out, held him speechless before Perrine, shamed and horrified him so that he felt unworthy to look her in the face; and when the result of his search at the Merchant’s Table proved the absence there of all evidence of the crime spoken of by the old man, the blessed relief, the absorbing triumph of that discovery, was expressed entirely in the one thought which had prompted his first joyful words: He could marry Perrine with a clear conscience, for he was the son of an honest man!
When he returned to the cottage, Francois had not come back. Perrine was astonished at the change in Gabriel’s manner; even Pierre and the children remarked it. Rest and warmth had by this time so far recovered the younger brother, that he was able to give some account of the perilous adventures of the night at sea. They were still listening to the boy’s narrative when Francois at last returned. It was now Gabriel who held out his hand, and made the first advances toward reconciliation.