Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1250
For years the man called Sailor lives with his wife Junie and their twin sons in a woodcutters’ camp in the forest beyond Christol’s Pass. Shortly after one of the twins, who was married and had a child, is killed by a landslide in a clay pit, the other red-haired twin goes north into the Rebeillard country to cut fir trees and raft them down the river. When he fails to return two months later, Junie becomes alarmed and sends her husband to ask help of Antonio, who lives on the isle of jays.
Antonio is a fisherman, a fierce, hardy, yet strangely compassionate fellow, wise in the ways of streams and the weather. He carries three scars on his body—a knife wound, a man’s bite, and the slash of a billhook—for he is as reckless in a fight as he is daring in making love to the maidens and wives of the river villages. Men call him Goldenmouth. He promises to help Sailor search the river and creeks for some sign of Danis, the red-haired twin.
The men start early the next morning, Antonio on one side of the stream, Sailor on the other. Both are armed, for the Rebeillard region is wild country beyond the gorges. There Maudru, the ox tamer, keeps his great herds, and his word is the only law. The wind blowing from the north is chill with frost as the two men work their way up the river. Although they find no sign of Danis or his logs, they see some of Maudru’s drovers and hear their horns, which seem to signal the coming of strangers into the district. Antonio wonders why Maudru’s men are on watch.
At nightfall, he swims across the river to join Sailor. While they sit by a fire that they build to warm themselves and to cook their food, they hear the moaning of a creature in pain. Investigating, they find a young woman suffering in childbirth. Following the directions of a drover who was spying on their fire, they carry her and her newborn child to the house of a peasant woman called the mother of the road. The next morning Antonio learns that the woman he helped is unmarried, blind, and named Clara. When he sees her for the first time in the daylight, he loves her. That day, over the protests of Maudru’s men, he kills a wild boar to provide meat for the house. Four drovers come to the house at twilight. They are sent to the fields near the river gorges to keep two travelers from leaving the country. Because Antonio and Sailor came into the district, the watchers are uneasy. While Antonio and Sailor wait to see whether the drovers will make a fight of the matter, signal beacons flash on the northern hills. From what is said, Antonio realizes that the red-haired twin, for whom the whole country is searching, was sighted or captured.
Antonio asks the mother of the road to keep the blind woman for him while he and Sailor travel on toward Villevielle, where they hope to have some word of Danis’ doings from Junie’s brother Jérôme, the almanac vendor and healer. On the way, they overtake a cart carrying Mederic, Maudru’s wounded nephew. Danis shot him, Antonio learns from a drover, and the young herder is likely to die. For that reason, beacons are burned on the hills.
Years before, Maudru’s sister, Gina, ran away from her brother’s farm at Puberclaire with twenty-three of his drovers and took the Maladrerie estate as her own. There she ruled her fields and her bed, and she bred her sons as she did her bulls. Mederic is the last of her children. Maudru married and had a daughter, Gina. It is planned that the cousins should marry, but Danis shot old Gina’s son and carried off her namesake. While Maudru’s men are searching for the fugitives, the wounded man is being carried to Puberclaire to die.
Saying they wish to visit the healer of Villevielle, Antonio and Sailor enter the old medieval town and find the house of Jérôme, a hunchback whom the Rebeillard folk call Monsieur Toussaint. Danis and young Gina are hiding in his house. The twin cut his trees and hid the raft in Villevielle creek, where it remains. Then he stole Gina, but Maudru sent out an alarm before Danis and Gina could escape down the river. Now men watch the river and every hamlet and road. The lovers are trapped.
Winter comes early in the Rebeillard country. After the first snows, Jérôme sends a messenger to tell Junie that Danis and Sailor still live. Since they are unknown in the town, Antonio and Sailor visit the wine shops from time to time and hear the news. Gina grows fretful. Sometimes she treats Danis with great tenderness; sometimes she mocks him because he is not stronger and more clever than her father or complains because they live like cuckoos in another’s house. In spite of Jérôme’s efforts, Mederic dies. Antonio goes to the burial at Maladrerie and meets Maudru, a powerful, slow-spoken man. One day, Danis goes out on skis to inspect his raft and is almost captured. A short time later, three of Maudru’s men, pretending to be sick, came to Jérôme’s house. The inmates realize then that the fugitives are located. When he ventures out thereafter, Antonio comes and goes through passages connecting the cellars of the old houses.
One day, when there is a touch of spring in the air, Antonio and Sailor go out through the cellars and drink at an inn. Both become drunk. Antonio pursues a woman whom he mistakes for Clara and leaves Sailor alone. Sailor is confused by the brandy; it seems to him that he is young again and about to embark on a long sea voyage. Forgetting to be cautious, he never hears the two drovers who creep up behind him and stab him in the back.
Antonio returns home and discovers that Clara arrived with Jérôme’s messenger. Her child died, and she no longer wishes to be alone. In his joy at seeing her, Antonio completely forgets Sailor, until Jérôme becomes alarmed by his absence. Then, with Clara’s keen sense of hearing to tell them where danger might lurk in the darkened streets, Antonio and the healer search for the old man. When they find him, they carry his body back to the house and call Danis to look at his dead father. Danis is enraged. That night, he and Antonio go to Puberclaire and set fire to Maudru’s barns and house. Many of his prize bulls and tame oxen die in the blaze as the great bull farm is destroyed.
The light of the burning draws off Maudru’s watchers; under cover of the confusion, Danis, Gina, Clara, and Antonio start off down the flooded stream on the log raft. Below the gorges they see green on the trees; spring arrived. Danis is planning the house he will build for Gina. Antonio thinks of his life with Clara on the isle of jays. None of the travelers sees Maudru, alone on horseback, as he watches from a high peak the raft passing below him and out of sight toward the south.
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