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( Tale of a Provençal Shepherd )

Translated by TRUC HUY

When I kept my sheep on the Luberon (2), I used to pass whole weeks without seeing a living soul, alone among the pastures with my dog Labri and my flocks. From time to time, the hermit of Mont-de-l’Ure went by, in search for simple plants; or occasionally, I saw the black face of some charcoal burner from Piedmont; but they were quiet folk, silent by solitude, having lost the taste of talking, and knew nothing of what was said down below, in the villages and towns.

And so, every second week, when I heard the bells of our farm mule tinkling up the road, with my provisions for another fortnight, and when I saw, appearing little by little above the slope, the brisk head of our little miarro (the farm boy) or the red coif of old aunt Norade, I was truly happy. I made them tell me all the news of the countryside below, the baptisms, the marriages; but what interested me above all was to hear about my masters’ daughter, miss Stéphanette, the most fairest maiden for ten leagues around.

Without seeming to take too much interest, I inquired if she went about much to fairs or parties, and if fresh lovers were flocking to her; and to those who asked what this mattered to me – a poor upland shepherd – I must answer that I was over twenty years old, and that Stéphanette was the most beautiful maiden I had seen in my life.

One Sunday, as I was waiting for my fortnight’s supplies, I realized they were arriving very late. In the morning, around ten o’clock, I said to myself: “It's because of today’s high mass”; then, towards noon, a heavy storm broke, and I thought that the mule could not have started, because of the bad state of the roads. Finally, however, at three o’clock, the sky having cleared and the mountain gleamed under sudden sunshine, I heard among the dripping of the leaves and the rushing of the swollen streams, the bells of our mule ringing as clear and gay as a great chiming of church bells on an Easter day. But it was not little miarro, nor old aunt Norade. It was... guess who!... our demoiselle, my friends ! It was my masters’ daughter ! Our young lady in person, sitting upright between the osier baskets, all rosy with the mountain air and the freshening breath of the storm.

“The little farm boy was sick, aunt Norade off on a holiday to visit her children.” The beautiful Stéphanette told me all this as she alighted from her mule; and also that she was late in coming because she had lost her way. But, to see her dressed in that Sunday attire, with her flowered ribbons, her gleaming white skirt and her lace, one would have thought she had lingered at some dance rather than for finding her way in the thickets.

Oh, the charming creature ! My eyes couldn’t get enough of looking at her. It is true that I had never before seen her quite so close. Sometimes in winter, when the flocks had come down to the plain, and I returned to the farmhouse in the evening for supper, she would cross the hall quickly, scarcely speaking to the servants, always dressed and a little haughty... And now, I had her there in front of me, just for me only; wasn't it not enough to make me embarrass ?

When she pulled the provisions out of the baskets, Stéphanette began to look about her with curiosity. Lifting her pretty Sunday skirt a little, lest the mud should spoil it, she entered the sheepfold, asked to see the corner where I slept, the straw bed with the sheepskin coverlet, my cape hitched on the wall, my crucifix, my flint gun. All of these amused her.

– So, this is here that you live, my poor shepherd ? How lonely you must be. What are you doing ? What do you think about ?

I wanted to answer: “About you, mistress.” It wouldn’t have been a lie; but my confusion was so great that I could not even utter a word. I believe, indeed, that she saw this and took malicious pleasure in increasing my embarrassment with her mischievousness by teasing me :

– And your sweetheart, shepherd ? Does she come up here to see you sometimes ? She must be the Lady of the Golden Goat, or the fairy Estérelle who only inhabits the mountain tops ?

And she herself, speaking to me, looked like the fairy Estérelle, with the pretty smile of her head thrown back and her haste to leave, which made her visit an apparition.

– Farewell, shepherd !

– God keep you, mistress !

And then she left, carrying the empty baskets.

As she disappeared down the sloping path, it seemed to me that the pebbles, rolling under the mule’s hooves, were falling one by one in my heart… And, until the end of the day, I remained as if asleep, not daring to stir for fear of breaking my dream. Towards the evening, as the bottom of the valley started to turn blue and the animals huddled together, bleating against each other to return to the park, I heard someone call me down the slope, then I saw our young lady appear, no longer laughing as she was earlier, but trembling with cold, fear and wetness.

It seemed that, down of the mountain, she had found the Sorgue swollen by the rain of the late storm, and that, wishing to cross it at all hazard, she had come near to drowning herself. Worst of all, at this hour of the night, the young lady could not dream of returning to the farm, as she would never find the crossroads by herself; and as for me, I could not leave the flock. The prospect of spending the night on the mountain greatly disturbed her above all, because her parents at home would be so anxious. As for me, I reassured her as best I could :

– In July, the nights are short, mistress. Your worry would soon be over.

I quickly lit a large fire to dry her feet and her dress, soaked in the water of the Sorgue. Then I brought in front of her some milk and cheese; but the poor young lady, however, did not wish to warm herself or to eat. Seeing great tears come into her eyes, I wanted to cry myself, too.

However, the night was already coming. There was nothing left on the crest of the mountains but a dust of the sun, a vapor of light towards the setting sun. I wanted our young lady to come and rest in the park. After spreading a nice new skin on the fresh straw, I wished her good night, and I went to sit outside by the door… May God be my witness that, despite the fire of love which burned my blood, no one bad thought occurred to me; nothing but a great pride to think that, in a corner of the park, very close to the curious flock which watched her sleep, the daughter of my masters – like a sheep more precious and whiter than all the others – was resting, entrusted to my care. Never had the sky seemed so deep to me, the stars so bright…

Suddenly, the hatch of the sheepfold opened and the beautiful Stéphanette appeared. She could not sleep. The sheep rustled the straw as they stirred, or bleated in their sleep. She would rather get out and be near the fire. Seeing this, I wrapped my goatskin over her shoulders, and made the fire brisker; and we stayed there, next to each other, without speaking.

If you’ve ever spent the night under the stars, you should know that, when we sleep, a mysterious world awakens in solitude and silence. Then the springs sing much more clearly, and the ponds are lit up with small flames. All the spirits of the mountain come and go freely; and in the air, there are whisperings, imperceptible noises, as if one could hear the branches and the grass growing. During the day, it is the life of beings; but at night, it is the life of things. When you’re not used to it, it’s scary…

Thus, our young lady was all shivering and pressed against me at the slightest noise. Once a long mournful cry, from the shining pond far below, came towards us. At the same time, a shooting star was flashing above our heads, going in the same direction, as if the moan we had just heard carried the light with it.

– What is that ? Asked Stéphanette in a low voice.

– A soul entering paradise, mistress; and I made the sign of the cross.

She also crossed herself, and looked up meditatively for a moment. Then she said :

– It is true, then, shepherd, that you people are sorcerers ?

– By no means, my young lady. But up here, we live closer to the stars, and we know them better than the people of the plain.

She was still staring upward, her head rested on her hand, wrapped in her sheep skin, like a little shepherdess straight from heaven.

– How beautiful the stars are ! I have never seen so many. Do you know their names, shepherd ?

– Oh, yes, mistress… Look straight above our heads. That is Saint Jacques Road (la Voie lactée) (3); it goes from France straight over Spain. It was Saint Jacques de Galice (4) who traced there to show his way to the brave Charlemagne when he was making war against the Sarrasins (5). Further on, you have the Chariot of Souls, with its four resplendent wheels. The three stars that go in front are the Three Beasts, and this tiny one against the third is the Carter. Do you see all around this shower of falling stars and that quite little one, close to the third, is the Charioteer ? Do you see that shower of stars falling all around ? Those are the souls which the good God will not accept to dwell with Him… A little further down, here is the Rake or the Three Kings; this is what serves as the clock for us. Only by glancing at them I know, this minute, that midnight is past. A little lower, still towards the south, blazes John of Milan (6), the torch of the stars. Listen to what the shepherds tell about that star: It seems that one night John of Milan, with the Three Kings and La Poussinière (La Pléiade), were invited to the wedding of a star of their friends. La Poussière, more in a hurry, left, it is said, the first, and took the high road. Look at her up there, deep in the heaven. The Three Kings took a short cut, lower down, and caught her up; but that lazy John of Milan, who had overslept himself, was left behind, and in a fury, hurled his walking stick after them, to stop them. This is why the Three Kings are likewise called John of Milan’s Walking Stick… But, the loveliest of all the stars, mistress, is our own, the Shepherd’s Star, which gives us light as we lead forth our flocks in the dawn, and in the evening also, when we bring them to the fold again. We call her Maguelonne too, the beautiful Maguelonne who chased after Pierre of Provence and was married to him for seven years.

– What, shepherd ? Are there, then, marriages between the stars ?

– Why, of course, mistress.

And while I was trying to explain to her what these weddings were about, I felt something light and delicate fall gently on my shoulder. It was her sleep-heavy head leaning against me, with a lovely rustle of ribbons, lace and wavy hair. She stayed like that, still, until the stars faded before the coming day. As for me, I watched her sleep, a little troubled in the bottom of my soul, but piously protected by this clear night, which only gave me beautiful thoughts. Around us, the stars continued their silent march, obedient as a great flock; and at times, I imagined that one of these stars, the most beautiful, the brightest, having lost its way, had come to rest on my shoulder and to sleep…

(1) - Translated from the French “Les Étoiles”, from the work “Lettres de mon moulin” (Letters from My Mill) by Alphonse Daudet (1840-1897).
(2) - Luberon : a mountainous region not high, near the Alps in France.
(3) - Chemin de Saint Jacques : Milky Way (la Voie lactée).
(4) - Galice : the name of a Spanish city.
(5) - Sarrasins : the name of the Arabs, in the middle ages, who invaded Europe and Africa.
(6) - Jean de Milan : the star Sirius.
(7) - La Poussinière (also known as The Pléiade) : the star Taurus is the name of a small constellation in the northern hemisphere.

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