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page 10 of 618





Chapter 3
The Catalans.

Beyond a bare, weather-worn wall, about a hundred paces from
the spot where the two friends sat looking and listening as
they drank their wine, was the village of the Catalans. Long
ago this mysterious colony quitted Spain, and settled on the
tongue of land on which it is to this day. Whence it came no
one knew, and it spoke an unknown tongue. One of its chiefs,
who understood Provencal, begged the commune of Marseilles
to give them this bare and barren promontory, where, like
the sailors of old, they had run their boats ashore. The
request was granted; and three months afterwards, around the
twelve or fifteen small vessels which had brought these
gypsies of the sea, a small village sprang up. This village,
constructed in a singular and picturesque manner, half
Moorish, half Spanish, still remains, and is inhabited by
descendants of the first comers, who speak the language of
their fathers. For three or four centuries they have
remained upon this small promontory, on which they had
settled like a flight of seabirds, without mixing with the
Marseillaise population, intermarrying, and preserving their
original customs and the costume of their mother-country as
they have preserved its language.

Our readers will follow us along the only street of this
little village, and enter with us one of the houses, which
is sunburned to the beautiful dead-leaf color peculiar to
the buildings of the country, and within coated with
whitewash, like a Spanish posada. A young and beautiful
girl, with hair as black as jet, her eyes as velvety as the
gazelle's, was leaning with her back against the wainscot,
rubbing in her slender delicately moulded fingers a bunch of
heath blossoms, the flowers of which she was picking off and
strewing on the floor; her arms, bare to the elbow, brown,
and modelled after those of the Arlesian Venus, moved with a
kind of restless impatience, and she tapped the earth with
her arched and supple foot, so as to display the pure and
full shape of her well-turned leg, in its red cotton, gray
and blue clocked, stocking. At three paces from her, seated
in a chair which he balanced on two legs, leaning his elbow
on an old worm-eaten table, was a tall young man of twenty,
or two-and-twenty, who was looking at her with an air in
which vexation and uneasiness were mingled. He questioned
her with his eyes, but the firm and steady gaze of the young
girl controlled his look.

"You see, Mercedes," said the young man, "here is Easter
come round again; tell me, is this the moment for a
wedding?"

"I have answered you a hundred times, Fernand, and really
you must be very stupid to ask me again."

"Well, repeat it, -- repeat it, I beg of you, that I may at
last believe it! Tell me for the hundredth time that you
refuse my love, which had your mother's sanction. Make me
understand once for all that you are trifling with my
happiness, that my life or death are nothing to you. Ah, to
have dreamed for ten years of being your husband, Mercedes,
and to lose that hope, which was the only stay of my
existence!"

"At least it was not I who ever encouraged you in that hope,
Fernand," replied Mercedes; "you cannot reproach me with the
slightest coquetry. I have always said to you, `I love you
as a brother; but do not ask from me more than sisterly
affection, for my heart is another's.' Is not this true,
Fernand?"

"Yes, that is very true, Mercedes," replied the young man,
"Yes, you have been cruelly frank with me; but do you forget
that it is among the Catalans a sacred law to intermarry?"

"You mistake, Fernand; it is not a law, but merely a custom,
and, I pray of you, do not cite this custom in your favor.
You are included in the conscription, Fernand, and are only
at liberty on sufferance, liable at any moment to be called
upon to take up arms. Once a soldier, what would you do with
me, a poor orphan, forlorn, without fortune, with nothing
but a half-ruined hut and a few ragged nets, the miserable
inheritance left by my father to my mother, and by my mother
to me? She has been dead a year, and you know, Fernand, I
have subsisted almost entirely on public charity. Sometimes
you pretend I am useful to you, and that is an excuse to
share with me the produce of your fishing, and I accept it,
Fernand, because you are the son of my father's brother,
because we were brought up together, and still more because
it would give you so much pain if I refuse. But I feel very
deeply that this fish which I go and sell, and with the
produce of which I buy the flax I spin, -- I feel very
keenly, Fernand, that this is charity."

"And if it were, Mercedes, poor and lone as you are, you
suit me as well as the daughter of the first shipowner or
the richest banker of Marseilles! What do such as we desire
but a good wife and careful housekeeper, and where can I
look for these better than in you?"
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