EBOOK: THE STARS a tale from a Provencal shepherd di Alphonse Daudet

When I used to be in charge of the animals on the Luberon, I was in the pasture for many weeks with my dog Labri and the flock without seeing another living soul. Occasionally the hermit from Mont-de-l’Ure would pass by looking for medicinal herbs, or I might see the blackened face of a chimney sweep from Piémont. But these were simple folk, silenced by the solitude, having lost the taste for chit-chat, and knowing nothing of what was going on down in the villages and towns. So, I was truly happy, when every fortnight I heard the bells on our farm’s mule which brought my provisions, and I saw the bright little face of the farm boy, or the red hat of old aunty Norade appear over the hill. I asked them for news from the village, the baptisms, marriages, and so on. But what particularly interested me, was to know what was happening to my master’s daughter, Mademoiselle Stephanette, the loveliest thing for fifty kilometres around. Without wishing to seem over-curious, I managed to find out if she was going to village fetes and evening farm gatherings, and if she still turned up with a new admirer every time. If someone asked me how that concerned a poor mountain shepherd, I would say that I was twenty years old and that Stephanette was the loveliest thing I had seen in my whole life.
One Sunday, however, the fortnight’s supplies were very late arriving. In the morning, I had thought, “It’s because of High Mass.” Then about midday, a big storm got up, which made me think that bad road conditions had kept the mule from setting out. Then, just after three o’clock, as the sky cleared and the wet mountain glistened in the sunshine, I could hear the mule’s bells above the sound of the dripping leaves and the raging streams. To me they were as welcome, happy, and lively as a peal of bells on Easter Day. But there was no little farm boy or old aunty Norade at the head. It was … you’ll never guess … my heart’s very own desire, friends! Stephanette in person, sitting comfortably between the wicker baskets, her lovely face flushed by the mountain air and the bracing storm.
Apparently, the young lad was ill and aunty Norade was on holiday at her childrens’ place. Stephanette told me all this as she got off the mule, and explained that she was late because she had lost her way. But to see her there in her Sunday best, with her ribbon of flowers, her silk skirt and lace bodice; it looked more like she had just come from a dance, rather than trying to find her way through the bushes. Oh, the little darling! My eyes never tired of looking at her. I had never seen her so close before. Sometimes in winter, after the flocks had returned to the plain, and I was in the farm for supper in the evening, she would come into the dining room, always overdressed and rather proud, and rush across the room, virtually ignoring us…. But now, there she was, right in front of me, all to myself. Now wasn’t that something to lose your head over?
Once she had taken the provisions out of the pannier, Stephanette began to take an interest in everything. Hitching up her lovely Sunday skirt, which otherwise might have got marked, she went into the compound, to look at the place where I slept. The straw crib with its lambskin cover, my long cape hanging on the wall, my shepherd’s crook, and my catapult; all these things fascinated her.
—So, this is where you live, my little shepherd? How tedious it must be to be alone all the time. What do you do with yourself? What do you think about?
I wanted to say, “About you, my lady,” and I wouldn’t have been lying, but I was so greatly nonplussed that I couldn’t find a single word by way of a reply. Obviously, she picked this up, and certainly she would now take some gentle malicious pleasure in turning the screw:
—What about your girlfriend, shepherd, doesn’t she come up to see you sometimes? Of course, it would have to be the fairy Esterelle, who only runs at the top of the mountain, or the fabled, golden she-goat….
As she talked on, she seemed to me like the real fairy Esterelle. She threw her head back with a cheeky laugh and hurried away, which made her visit seem like a dream.
—Goodbye, shepherd.
—Bye, Bye, lady.
And there she was—gone—taking the empty baskets with her.
As she disappeared along the steep path, stones disturbed by the mule’s hooves, seemed to take my heart with them as they rolled away. I could hear them for a very long time. For the rest of the day, I stood there daydreaming, hardly daring to move, fearing to break the spell. Towards the evening, as the base of the valleys became a deeper blue, and the bleating animals flocked together for their return to the compound, I heard someone calling to me on the way down, and there she was; mademoiselle herself. But she wasn’t laughing any more; she was trembling, and wet, and fearful, and cold. She would have me believe that at the bottom of the hill, she had found the River Sorgue was swollen by the rain storm and, wanting to cross at all costs, had risked getting drowned. The worse thing, was that at that time of night, there was no chance of her getting back to the farm. She would never be able to find the way to the crossing place alone, and I couldn’t leave the flock. The thought of staying the night on the mountain troubled her a great deal, particularly as her family would worry about her. I reassured her as best I could:
—The nights are short in July, my Lady. It’s only going to seem like a passing, unpleasant moment.
I quickly lit a good fire to dry her feet and her dress soaked by the river. I then placed some milk and cheese in front of her, but the poor little thing couldn’t turn her thoughts to either warming herself or eating. Seeing the huge tears welling up in her eyes, made me want to cry myself.
Meanwhile night had almost fallen. There was just the faintest trace of the sunset left on the mountains’ crests. I wanted mademoiselle to go on into in the compound to rest and recover. I covered the fresh straw with a beautiful brand new skin, and I bid her good night. I was going to sit outside the door. As God is my witness, I never had an unclean thought, despite my burning desire for her. I had nothing but a great feeling of pride in considering that, there, in a corner of the compound, close up to the flock watching curiously over her sleeping form, my masters’ daughter rested,—just like a sheep, though one whiter and much more precious than all the others,—trusting me to guard her. To me, never had the sky seemed darker, nor the stars brighter…. Suddenly, the wicker fence opened and the beautiful Stephanette appeared. She couldn’t sleep; the animals were scrunching the hay as they moved, or bleating in their dreams. For now, she just wanted to come close to the fire. I threw my goat-skin over her shoulders, tickled the fire, and we sat there together not saying anything. If you know what’s it’s like to sleep under the stars at night, you’ll know that, when we are normally asleep, a mysterious world awakens in the solitude and silence. It’s the time the springs babble more clearly, and the ponds light up their will o’ the wisps. All mountain spirits roam freely about, and there are rustlings in the air, imperceptible sounds, that might be branches thickening or grass growing. Day-time is for everyday living things; night-time is for strange, unknown things. If you’re not used to it, it can terrify you…. So it was with mademoiselle, who was all of a shiver, and clung to me very tightly at the slightest noise. Once, a long gloomy cry, from the darkest of the ponds, rose and fell in intensity as it came towards us. At the same time, a shooting star flashed above our heads going in the same direction, as if the moan we had just heard was carrying a light.
—What’s that? Stephanette asked me in a whisper.
—A soul entering heaven, my Lady; and I crossed myself.
She did the same, but stayed looking at the heavens in rapt awe. Then she said to me:
—Is it true then, that you shepherds are magicians?
—No, no, mademoiselle, but here we live closer to the stars, and we know more about what happens up there than people who live in the plains.
She kept looking at the stars, her head on her hands, wrapped in the sheepskin like a small heavenly shepherd:
—How many there are! How beautiful! I have never seen so many. Do you know their names, shepherd?
—Of course, lady. There you are! Just above our heads, that’s the Milky Way. Further on you have the Great Bear. And so, he described to her in great detail, some of the magic of the star-filled panoply….
—One of the stars, which the shepherds name, Maguelonne, I said, chases Saturn and marries him every seven years.
—What, shepherd! Are there star marriages, then?
—Oh yes, my Lady.
I was trying to explain to her what these marriages were about, when I felt something cool and fine on my shoulder. It was her head, heavy with sleep, placed on me with just a delightful brush of her ribbons, lace, and dark tresses. She stayed just like that, unmoving, right until the stars faded in the coming daylight. As for me, I watched her sleeping, being somewhat troubled in my soul, but that clear night, which had only ever given me beautiful thoughts, had kept me in an innocent frame of mind. The stars all around us continued their stately, silent journey like a great docile flock in the sky. At times, I imagined that one of these stars, the finest one, the most brilliant, having lost its way, had come to settle, gently, on my shoulder, to sleep….

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