The Essential Thing
How many times in my childhood have I heard this short sentence, “Quelle est la chose principale?’’ “What is the principle thing?’’ “What is the essential thing?’’ would probably be a better translation.
One cold winter night this short sentence took on a special meaning for me when my brother Robert appeared at our door carrying on his back a big bag containing all his possessions. He looked so sad, so that we knew at once that something was wrong. It was a week day and he only came on Sundays to bring his laundry and spend a few hours with the family.
Entering the house, he let his bag fall on the floor with such an air of discouragement and despair that this young boy of 13 looked suddenly old. He sat down and began to cry, but so hard that his whole body shook with sobs. Mama tried to comfort him. She, too, cried without knowing the cause of his distress.
At last, he calmed himself enough to say between sobs, “Je ne suis plus bouvier à Villars.’’ “I no longer tend the cattle at the Villars farm.’’ Here in this short sentence was so much despair that Mama did not say anything. She waited for the explanation of this great misfortune, for to lose one’s job so suddenly in the middle of winter was bad. After calming down, Robert told us that since he started to work at the Chateau de Villars, the horseman at the farm had tormented him steadily.
It was one thing after another. Robert had never spoken of it hoping that this man would tire of teasing him. But Etienne, the horseman, had continued to make life difficult for Robert. His narrow bed under the stars was often full of thistles. His soup was often so full of pepper that he could not eat it. His tools disappeared or were broken. And worst of all, this very afternoon Robert had found his best aiguillon broken and thrown in a ditch. An aiguillon is a long sharp stick which is used to prod the oxen and encourage them to work. “Such a beautiful aiguillon, Mama! I have carved it myself and decorated it and put my name on it.’’ This last insult had provoked this crisis and Robert had put his oxen in the stable, packed his bag and left.
It was time for supper and Robert, in spite of his sorrow, ate heartily the good potato and cabbage soup, the good bread and cheese, and even a glass of wine to give him courage.
Mama then asked Robert, “Did you feed your oxen before leaving?’’ Robert was ashamed and blushed. “No, Mama, I wanted to leave right away.’’ Mama said, “That is not good, for your animals count on you. They are your duty. Take your bag, my boy. We’ll go with you up to the approach of the Chateau. As for this Etienne, you’ll be in your right to speak to your boss. He is a just man and will know what to do.’’
By this time, there was a full moon. It was very cold but it was pleasant to be outside and we were well wrapped in our warm coats as we walked through the sleeping village. I always liked this narrow road which ends at the Chateau. This road which was built by the Romans has large white pavement blocks and has endured all these centuries.
We do not speak and the only noise is that of our wooden shoes on the stony road and the regular barking of the farm dogs who seem to smell us. Arriving near the Chateau we stopped and Mama, putting her hand on Robert’s shoulder, looked at him tenderly and said, “You see, Robert, in life the main thing is to do one’s duty. True, there is injustice in the world, but when one does one’s duty, there is no regret. Hurry, your oxen must be very hungry. The willows have many branches and you have a good knife to make another aiguillon. Kiss us good-bye and bring your laundry next Sunday and I will make you a good galette.’’ Robert shifted his bag to his other shoulder and turned towards the farm.
Translation: Rebecca Goethe De Vries
Edited and copyright: Lucy DeVries Duffy, May 12, 2001, Brewster, MA, 02631, USA
The Chateau de Villars, ancient Château (XVI century)where Robert went to work at age 13.