The great tree--l'Arbre F‚e do Bourlemont was its beautiful name--was never afterward quite as much to us as it had been before, but it was always dear; is dear to me yet when I got there now, once a year in my old age, to sit under it and bring back the lost playmates of my youth and group them about me and look upon their faces through my tears and break my heart, oh, my God! No, the place was not quite the same afterward. In one or two ways it could not be; for, the fairies' protection being gone, the spring lost much of its freshness and coldness, and more than two-thirds of its volume, and the banished serpents and stinging insects returned, and multiplied, and became a torment and have remained so to this day.
When that wise little child, Joan, got well, we realized how much her illness had cost us; for we found that we had been right in believing she could save the fairies. She burst into a great storm of anger, for so little a creature, and went straight to PŠre Fronte, and stood up before him where he sat, and made reverence and said:
"The fairies were to go if they showed themselves to people again, is it not so?"
"Yes, that was it, dear."
"If a man comes prying into a person's room at midnight when that person is half-naked, will you be so unjust as to say that that person is showing himself to that man?"
"Well--no." The good priest looked a little troubled and uneasy when he said it.
"Is a sin a sin, anyway, even if one did not intend to commit it?"
PŠre Fronte threw up his hands and cried out:
"Oh, my poor little child, I see all my fault," and he drew here to his side and put an arm around her and tried to make his peace with her, but her temper was up so high that she could not get it down right away, but buried her head against his breast and broke out crying and said:
"Then the fairies committed no sin, for there was no intention to commit one, they not knowing that any one was by; and because they were little creatures and could not speak for themselves and say the saw was against the intention, not against the innocent act, because they had no friend to think that simple thing for them and say it, they have been sent away from their home forever, and it was wrong, wrong to do it!"
The good father hugged her yet closer to his side and said:
"Oh, out of the mouths of babes and sucklings the heedless and unthinking are condemned; would God I could bring the little creatures back, for your sake. And mine, yes, and mine; for I have been unjust. There, there, don't cry--nobody could be sorrier than your poor old friend--don't cry, dear."
"But I can't stop right away, I've got to. And it is no little matter, this thing that you have done. Is being sorry penance enough for such an act?"
PŠre Fronte turned away his face, for it would have hurt her to see him laugh, and said:
"Oh, thou remorseless but most just accuser, no, it is not. I will put on sackcloth and ashes; there--are you satisfied?"
Joan's sobs began to diminish, and she presently looked up at the old man through her tears, and said, in her simple way:
"Yes, that will do--if it will clear you."
PŠre Fronte would have been moved to laugh again, perhaps, if he had not remembered in time that he had made a contract, and not a very agreeable one. It must be fulfilled. So he got up and went to the fireplace, Joan watching him with deep interest, and took a shovelful of cold ashes, and was going to empty them on his old gray head when a better idea came to him, and he said:
"Would you mind helping me, dear?"
He got down on his knees and bent his head low, and said:
"Take the ashes and put them on my head for me."
The matter ended there, of course. The victory was with the priest. One can imagine how the idea of such a profanation would strike Joan or any other child in the village. She ran and dropped upon her knees by his side and said:
"Oh, it is dreadful. I didn't know that that was what one meant by sackcloth and ashes--do please get up, father."
"But I can't until I am forgiven.