IV. WINTER AT THE CHATEAU
We were pottering about in our woods one day, waiting for Labbez (the keeper) to come and decide about some trees that must be cut down, when a most miserable group emerged from one of the side alleys and slipped by so quickly and quietly that we couldn't speak to them. A woman past middle age, lame, unclothed really - neither shoes nor stockings, not even a chemise - two sacks of coarse stuff, one tied around her waist half covering her bare legs, one over her shoulders; two children with her, a big overgrown girl of about twelve, equally without clothing, an old black bodice gaping open over her bare skin, held together by one button, a short skirt so dirty and torn that one wondered what kept it on, no shoes nor stockings, black hair falling straight down over her forehead and eyes; the boy, about six, in a dirty apron, also over his bare skin. I was horrified, tried to make them turn and speak to me, but they disappeared under the brushwood as quickly as they could, "evidently up to no good," said W. In a few moments the keeper appeared, red and breathless, having been running after poachers - a woman the worst of the lot. We described the party we had just seen, and he was wildly excited, wanted to start again in pursuit, said they were just the ones he was looking for. The woman belonged to a band of poachers and vagabonds they could not get hold of. They could trace her progress sometimes by the blood on the grass where the thorns and sharp stones had torn her feet. It seems they were quite a band, living anywhere in the woods, in old charcoal-burners' huts or under the trees, never staying two nights in the same place. There are women, and children, and babies, who appear and disappear, in the most extraordinary manner. Many of them have been condemned, and have had two weeks or a month of prison. One family is employed by one of the small farmers near, who lets them live in a tumbledown hut in the midst of his woods, and that is their centre. We passed by there two or three days later, when we were riding across the fields, and anything so miserable I never saw; the house half falling to pieces, no panes of glass, dirty rags stuffed in the windows, no door at all, bundles of dirty straw inside, a pond of filthy water at one side of the house, two or three dirty children playing in it, and inside at the opening, where the door should have been, the same lame woman in her two sacks. She glowered at us, standing defiantly at the opening to prevent our going in, in case we had any such intention. I suppose she had various rabbits and hares hung up inside she couldn't have accounted for. There was no other habitation anywhere near; no cart or vehicle of any kind could have got there. We followed a narrow path, hardly visible in the long grass, and the horses had to pick their way - one couldn't imagine a more convenient trysting-place for vagabonds and tramps. It seems incredible that such things should go on at our doors, so to speak, but it is very difficult to get at them. Our keepers and M. de M., whose property touches ours, have had various members of the gang arrested, but they always begin again. The promiscuity of living is something awful, girls and young men squatting and sleeping in the same room on heaps of dirty rags. There have been some arrests for infanticide, when a baby's appearance and disappearance was too flagrant, but the girls don't care. They do their time of prison, come out quite untamed by prison discipline, and begin again their wild, free life. One doesn't quite understand the farmer who gives any shelter to such a bad lot, but I fancy there is a tacit understanding that his hares and rabbits must be left unmolested.