It was a winter night, and the ground around Paris was covered with snow, although the flakes had ceased to fall since some hours.
Spite of the cold and the darkness, a young man, wrapped in a mantle so voluminous as to hide a babe in his arms, strode over the white fields out of the town of Villers Cotterets, in the woods, eighteen leagues from the capital, which he had reached by the stage-coach, towards a hamlet called Haramont. His assured step seemed to indicate that he had previously gone this road.
Soon above him streaked the leafless boughs upon the grey sky. The sharp air, the odor of the oaks, the icicles and beads on the tips of branches, all appealed to the poetry in the wanderer.
Through the clumps he looked for the village spire and the blue smoke of the chimneys, filtering from the cottages through the natural trellis of the limbs.
It was dawn when he crossed a brook, bordered with yellow cress and frozen vines, and at the first hovel asked for the laborer's boy to take him to Madeline Pi-tou's home.
Mute and attentive, not so dull as most of their kind, the children sprang up and staring at the stranger, led him by the hand to a rather large and good-looking cottage, on the bank of the rivulet running by most of the dwellings.
A plank served as a bridge.
"There," said one of the guides nodding his head to-wards it.
Gilbert gave them a coin, which made their eyes open still more widely, and crossed the board to the door which he pushed open, while the children, taking one another's hand, started with all their might at the handsome gentleman in a brown cloth coat, buckled shoes and large cloak, who wanted to find Madeline Pitou.
Apart from them, Gilbert, for such was the young man's name, simply so for he had no other, saw no liv-ing things: Haramont was the deserted village he was seeking.
As soon as the door was open, his sight was struck by a scene full of charm, for almost anybody, and par-ticularly for a young philosopher like our roamer.
A robust peasant woman was suckling a baby, while another child, a sturdy boy of four or five, was saying a prayer in a loud voice.
In the chimney corner, near a window or rather a hole in the wall in which was stuck a pane of glass, an-other woman, going on for thirty-five or six, was spin-ning, with a stool under her feet, and a fat poodle on an end of this stool.
Catching sight of the visitor the dog barked in a civil and hospitable manner just to show that he had not been caught napping. The praying boy turned, cutting the devotional phrase in two, and both females uttered an exclamation between joy and surprise.
"I greet you, good mother Madeline," said Gilbert with a smile.