THE return of the peasant at that unusual hour, before sunset, troubled the little servant-girl all the more as he seemed pale and preoccupied. She drew out of the way, taking refuge behind the open gateway, while he drove into the courtyard, one after the other, his sedate, black oxen, so large that they took up nearly the whole space, hardly leaving room along the wall ; then, when he had fastened up the beasts, after having pushed them together, and when he had sunk down rather weariedly on the stone by the door of the hut, she closed the gates and was immediately by his side, crouching on the ground in her instinctive attitude of a slave.
” Is it ill you are ? ” she asked, looking up at him.
He sat with his hands, wrinkled and like out-spread claws, on his knees ; his olive-tinted face, aureated by his ruddy beard, seemed immobilised by some fixed, sad thought ; even his eyes, which usually had a malicious look, were vacant and set like those of a bird that was sick.
” Aye, ill,” he asserted, ” and of an ill that kills.”
She sprang on to her knees and placed her little brown hands on his ; she seemed so frightened that he smiled, showing all his white teeth a smile, though, that was something of a snarl.
” Hear me,” he said ; ” there came to me one this mid-day while I was watching my corn, brother of one who was a soldier with me. Well, he told me that last night, on the point of midnight, his brother received an order to present himself at once to the Military Authority, and he was immediately dressed as a soldier, and sent far away for the war that will break out in a few days. Well, little girl, this night maybe it will be my turn.”
” You’re ill of this, is it ? ” said she, laughing ; but the look on his face had become once more hard and sad, and she sank back on her heels as she murmured : ” One can be killed at war.”
” One can be killed. But that does not matter ; it’s nothing. One must die, one time or another. The misery is that I have the corn to gather in and my oxen to mind. I have no one. You are still so young. Had I married you sooner. Now if I want to leave the things to you I shall have to make my will.”
” I don’t want nothing. I want you only to come back. And why must you go you ? Isn’t there all the soldiers already ? Don’t go ! Why don’t you hide ? ”
” You are an idiot,” he said, pushing her away from him. ” Keep quiet, at least !
And she kept quiet, fixing with her scared eyes the closed door, as if the unknown enemy with whom her man was to fight was already out there, and was attempting to invade the little house, to carry off the cattle, the corn, the chest, and to murder the patron. In her innermost, though, there remained lit the lamp of life hope.
” All are not killed in war,” she said, raising herself. ” Then you are quick and will escape. You have saved yourself so often.”
He too was sure of escape. He had saved himself so often ; always at war with men and things, and he had always escaped, from his enemies, from thieves, bandits, sunstroke, malaria, lightning and from the tarantula. Why was he not to escape in war ?
He gnashed his teeth.
” I’ll chew him like dog’s meat the enemy : since he wants me, he shall have me ! ”
He rose up and tightened his belt as if about to start ; then stepped into the little kitchen and looked around at each object, went up the little wooden steps and into the bedroom.
The girl followed him as silent and lissom as a cat.
The room was spacious and low, and contained an ancient chest of black carved wood, and the wooden bed where the wife of the peasant had died a few months back. At the thought of his dead wife he became even sadder : had she but still been alive he would have felt sure of his belongings. He trusted the servant-girl to a certain extent, although he knew her to he faithful as a dog. But she was such a child ! With him far away she might make love with another. He looked at her. She was crouched in front of the chest with her hands folded in her lap. She seemed to be adoring the heart, the fish, the dove, the stars, and the cross carved on the chest ; she seemed to be praying as if in front of a sarcophagus and it was, in fact, a sarcophagus, having within something of all his ancestors, that chest ornamented with the symbol of love, faith and pain.
He sighed. He drew out the key of the chest, looked at it, and sighed again. He had sworn to consign it to no one if he did not marry a second time. And the girl knew it, and blushed with joy and grief when he threw the key in her lap.
Then, only, she understood that he must go and perhaps never come back. She stood up, and said :
” I swear that nothing shall be missed from your house. As you leave it, you will find it.”
He then laid hold of her and began to kiss her, while his eyes flashed a bit wickedly, a bit tenderly.
” What can be missed if it is all yours ? If I come back or not it is all yours, little dove.”
” It is yours ; it is yours,” she repeated, with her eyes closed, intoxicated by his kisses. And she yielded to him in faith, for she felt that in consigning her the keys of his first wife’s chest he had already married her.
Later, they went down into the little yard ; they again sat down he on the stone with his hands on his knees, but with a more relieved look in his eyes and on his face ; she crouched on the ground.
” Thus you’ll have a son,” he said, with a malicious inflection in his tone. ” Thus, if I do not return, the population won’t diminish, and you’ll mind my belongings for him. Ah, what are you doing there, woman ? ”
She was weeping, having all of a sudden become a woman ; but he tore the apron from her eyes, gave her a ,slap on the back. She started and straightened herself. And he, placing a hand on her head, began giving her precise instructions how to reap and gather the corn, to whom consign the cattle, and how to pay the taxes. Then they were silent. Over the high walls of the little yard the violet shades of the dusk seemed to turn the large, black, motionless oxen to bronze. And the two remained silent, awaiting the carabiniere with an order from the Military Authority as some mysterious being with an order from destiny.