35. The Fire

Ourson now forbade Violette to go alone in the forest. She was no longer allowed to carry him his dinner so he always returned to the house at midday. Violette never left the farm without Ourson.

Three years after the event in the forest, Ourson saw Violette arise in the morning pale and exhausted. She was looking for him.

“Come, come,” she said, pulling him along, “I have something to say—something to tell—Oh, come!”

Ourson was very alarmed and followed her anxiously.

“What is it, dear Violette? For the love of Heaven, speak to me! What can I do for you?”

“Nothing, nothing, dear Ourson; you can do nothing—only listen to me. You remember the dream I had in my childhood, of the toad! The river! The danger! Well, last night I had this same dream again. It is terrible! Terrible! Ourson, dear Ourson, your life is threatened! If you die, I will die also!”

“How! By whom is my life threatened?”

“Listen! I was sleeping and a toad—still a toad—always a toad—came to me and said, “‘The moment approaches when your dear Ourson is to resume his natural skin. You will be responsible for this change. I hate him! I hate you! You shall not make each other happy! Ourson shall die and you cannot accomplish the sacrifice. In a few days, yes, perhaps in a few hours I shall take revenge upon you both. Good-bye—do you hear?—till we meet again!’

“I awoke, and saw, as I saw on that day in which you saved me from the water, the hideous toad creeping upon the window ledge and gazing at me menacingly. It disappeared, leaving me more dead than alive. I arose dressed myself and came to find you my brother, my friend to warn you against the vengeance of the fairy Furious and to beg you to seek the aid of the good fairy Drolette.”

Ourson listened in great alarm. He was not frightened by the fate which menaced himself—he was disturbed by the sacrifice which Furious announced and which he understood too well. The thought alone of his dear and lovely Violette being covered up in his hideous bear’s skin through devotion to him made him tremble and he preferred death. Ourson’s anguish showed on his face, and Violette, who was watching him closely, threw herself on his neck and sobbed violently.

“Alas! My brother, my dear brother, you will soon be torn from me. You, who do not know what it is to fear, now tremble. You who comfort me encourage me and sustain me in all my fears have now no word to utter to restore my failing courage. You who have combated the most terrible dangers now bow your head and are resigned to fate.”

“No, Violette, it is not fear which makes me tremble—it is not fear which disturbs me. It is a word which the fairy Furious has uttered, which you do not understand the meaning of but which I understand perfectly. The threat was addressed to you, my Violette. It is for you I tremble!”

Violette understood from this that the moment of sacrifice had come, that she was about to be called upon to keep the promise she had made to the fairy Drolette. Instead of trembling and shrinking, she felt the greatest joy. She could now at last make some return for the devotion, the constant watchful tenderness of her dear Ourson—could in her turn be useful to him. She made no response to the fears expressed by Ourson but thanked him and spoke to him more tenderly than ever before, thinking that soon perhaps she would be separated from him by death. Ourson had the same thought. They both asked the protection of the fairy Drolette. Ourson, indeed, called upon her in a loud voice but she did not respond to his appeal.

The day passed sadly. Neither Ourson nor Violette spoke to Agnella on the subject of their disquiet for fear of aggravating her sadness which had been constantly increasing as Ourson grew to manhood.

“Already twenty years old!” she thought. “If he persists in living in this solitude and seeing no one and in refusing to change with Violette, who asks nothing better, I am certain, I am convinced, he will wear this bear-skin till his death.”

Agnella wept, often wept, but her tears brought her no relief.

The day Violette had her frightful dream, Agnella also had a dream. The fairy Drolette had appeared to her, “Courage, queen,” she said to her, “in a few days Ourson will lose his bear’s skin and you can give him his true name of Prince Marvellous.”

Agnella had awoken full of hope and happiness. She redoubled her tenderness to Violette, believing that it was to her she would owe the happiness of her son.

Everyone went to bed at night with different feelings. Violette and Ourson, full of anxiety for the future which appeared so threatening, Agnella’s heart bounding with joy at that same future which appeared so near and so full of happiness, Passerose, astonished at the sadness of the one and the joy of the other and ignorant of the cause of both.

All slept, however. Violette after weeping profusely; Ourson after having called on the fairy Drolette; Agnella after smiling and thinking of Ourson handsome and attractive and Passerose after saying to herself a hundred times, “But what is the matter with them all today?”

Scarcely an hour after all at the farm were asleep, Violette was aroused by the smell of fire and smoke. Agnella awoke at the same moment.

“Mother,” said Violette, “do you not smell something?”

“The house is on fire,” said Agnella.

They sprang from their beds and ran to the parlor. The flames had already taken possession of it and of the neighboring rooms.

“Ourson! Passerose!” cried Agnella.

“Ourson! Ourson!” exclaimed Violette.

Passerose sprang half clothed into the parlor.

“We are lost, madam! The flames are all through the house. The doors and windows are firmly closed—it is impossible to open them.”

“My son! My son!” cried Agnella.

“My brother! My brother!” exclaimed Violette.

They ran to the doors; all their efforts to open them or the windows were in vain.

“Oh! My terrible dream!” murmured Violette. “Dear Ourson, farewell forever!”

Ourson had also been awoken by the flames and smoke. He slept out of the farm-house, and near the stable. His first impulse was to run to the front of the house but despite his extraordinary strength he could not open it. One would have thought that the door would break to pieces under his efforts. It was evidently held fast by the fairy Furious.

Ourson sprang upon a ladder and passed across the flames into a granary through an open window, then descended into the room where his mother and Violette were embracing, expecting instant death. Before they had time to recognize him he seized them in his arms and cried to Passerose to follow him. He ran along the granary and descended the ladder with his mother in one arm and Violette in the other and followed by Passerose. The moment after they reached the ground in safety, the ladder and granary burst into flames.

Ourson led Agnella and Violette some distance from the fire. Passerose was calm. She had quite a large case of clothing which she had collected at the start of the fire. Agnella and Violette had escaped barefooted and in their night robes, and the clothing brought by Passerose was thus very necessary to protect them from the cold. After having thanked Ourson for saving their lives at the peril of his own they complimented Passerose on her forethought.

“See,” said Passerose, “the advantage of not losing one’s senses. Whilst you two were only thinking of your Ourson, I made up this case of necessary things.”

“That is true, my good Passerose. But what purpose would your package have served, if my mother and Violette had died in the flames?”

“Oh, I knew very well that you would not allow them to be burned up alive. Is anyone ever in danger when you are present? Is not this the third time you have saved Violette’s life?”

Violette pressed Ourson’s hands tenderly. Agnella embraced her and said, “Dear Violette, Ourson is happy in your tenderness which fully rewards him for all he has done for you. I feel assured that on your part you would be happy to sacrifice yourself for him if a need arose, that would you help him only too willingly.”

Before Violette could speak, Ourson said with emotion, “Mother, do not say anything to Violette about sacrificing herself for me. You know the thought alone makes me wretched.”

Instead of replying to Ourson, Agnella placed her hand on her forehead and cried out anxiously, “The casket, Passerose! The casket! Have you saved the casket?”

“I forgot it, madam,” said Passerose.

Agnella expressed such regret and anxiety, that Ourson asked her about this precious casket which seemed to trouble her so much.

“The casket was a present from the fairy Drolette. She told me that the happiness of Violette was contained in it. It was in the wardrobe, at the foot of my bed. Alas! Why did I forget it?”

She had scarcely uttered these words when the brave Ourson sprang towards the burning house and despite the tears and begging of Agnella, Violette and Passerose, disappeared in the flames exclaiming, “You shall have the casket, mother, or I will die with it!”

A horrible silence followed this act of Ourson. Violette fell on her knees with her arms extended towards the burning house, Agnella with her hands clasped looked with straining eyes at the opening through which Ourson had entered while Passerose was motionless, hiding her face with her hands. Some moments passed and they appeared ages to the three women who were expecting a sentence of life or death.

Ourson did not reappear. The crackling of the burning wood, the flashing of the flames, increased in violence. Suddenly, a frightful noise made Violette and Agnella utter a cry of despair.

The roof, covered with flames, had fallen in and Ourson was buried under the ruins—crushed by the ruins, consumed by the fire.

The silence of death followed this dreadful catastrophe. The flames died away—no sound now interrupted the despair of Agnella and Violette.

Violette had fallen into the arms of Agnella and they sobbed thus a long time in silence. Passerose gazed at the smoking ruins and wept. Poor Ourson was buried there a victim of his courage and his devotion! Agnella and Violette still wept bitterly. They appeared neither to hear nor understand what was happening around them.

“Let us leave this place,” said Passerose, at last.

Agnella and Violette made no response.

Passerose tried to lead Violette away.

“Come,” she said; “come, Violette, let us seek a shelter for the night—the evening fortunately is mild.”

“What shelter do I want?” said Violette. “What is the evening to me or the morning? There are no more beautiful days for me! The sun will shine no more except to light up my despair!”

“But if we remain here weeping we shall die of hunger, Violette, and in spite of the bitterest grief, we must think of the necessities of life.”

“Better to die of hunger than of grief! I will not leave this place where I saw my dear Ourson for the last time—where he perished, a victim of his tenderness for us.”

Passerose shrugged her shoulders. She remembered that the stable had not been burned so she ran there with all speed, milked the cow, drank a cupful of milk and tried in vain to make Agnella and Violette do the same.

Agnella rose and said to Violette in a solemn tone, “Your grief is just, my daughter. Never did a more noble or generous heart beat in a human form than Ourson’s and he loved you more than he loved himself—to spare your grief he sacrificed his happiness and his life.”

Agnella now told Violette what had happened before Ourson’s birth, the power Violette had to deliver him from his deformity by accepting it for herself and Ourson’s constant prayer that Violette should never be informed of the possibility of such a sacrifice.

It is easy to understand the feelings of loving tenderness and regret which filled the heart of Violette after learning this secret and she wept more bitterly than ever.

“And now, my daughter,” continued Agnella, “there remains one duty to fulfil, that is to bury my son. We must clear away these ruins and remove the ashes and when we have found the remains of our well-beloved Ourson——”

Sobs interrupted her speech; she could say no more.