That morning Jean, with a seed-bag of blue linen tied round his waist, held its mouth open with his left hand, while with his right, at every three steps, he drew forth a handful of corn, and flung it broadcast. The rich soil clung to his heavy shoes, which left holes in the ground, as his body lurched regularly from side to side; and each time he threw you saw, amid the ever-flying yellow seed, the gleam of two red stripes on the sleeve of the old regimental jacket he was wearing out. He strode forward in solitary state; and behind him, to bury the grain, there slowly came a harrow, to which were harnessed two horses, driven by a waggoner, who cracked his whip over their ears in long, regular sweeps.
The patch of ground, scarcely an acre and a quarter in extent, was of such little importance that Monsieur Hourdequin, the master of La Borderie, had not cared to send the drill-plough, which was in use elsewhere. Jean, then journeying due north over the field, had the farm-buildings exactly in front of him, a mile and a quarter off. On reaching the end of the furrow, he raised his eyes with a vacant look as he paused for a moment to take breath.
Before him were the low farm walls, and a patch of old slate, isolated on the outskirts of the plain of La Beauce, which stretched towards Chartres. Under a dull, late October sky lay ten leagues of arable land, where, at that time of year, great ploughed squares of bare, rich, yellow soil alternated with green expanses of lucern and clover; there was here not a slope, not a tree; the plain extended into the dim distance, curving down beyond the horizon, which was level as at sea. Westward, a small wood just edged the sky with a band of russet. In the centre a road—the road from Châteaudun to Orleans—of chalk-like whiteness, stretched four leagues straight ahead, displaying as it went a geometrical row of telegraph-posts. Nothing else but three or four wooden mills on log foundations, with their sails at rest; some villages forming islets of stone; and a distant steeple emerging from a depression in the landscape, the church itself being hidden among the gentle undulations of the wheat-fields.
Jean turned and lurched back again due south, his left hand holding the seed-bag, and his right slashing the air with an unbroken sheet of grain. He now had in front of him, quite near, and cutting trench-like through the plain, the narrow valley of the Aigre, beyond which the district of La Beauce resumed its unconfined course on to Orleans. Meadows and shady places could only be inferred from a range of tall poplars, the yellowish tops of which rose out of the dell, looking, as they just cleared the edge, like short bushes. Of the little village of Rognes, built upon the declivity, a few roofs only were in view, near the church, which raised on high its grey stone steeple, the dwelling-place of ancient families of ravens. And eastward, beyond the valley of the Loir,—where Cloyes, the chief town of the canton nestled at two leagues' distance,—the far-off hills of Le Perche were visible, tinged with violet in the slate-grey light. There the old Dunois, now become the arrondissement of Châteaudun, lay between Le Perche and La Beauce, on the very frontier of the latter, at a spot which has obtained the name of Beauce the "Lousy," the soil there being less fertile. When Jean got to the end of the field, he stopped again, and glanced down along the stream of the Aigre, rippling bright and clear through the meadows, side by side with the road to Cloyes, which on that Saturday was furrowed by the carts of peasants going to market; then he turned up again.
And still, with the same step, with the same gesture, he set out north and returned south, wrapped in a living dust-cloud of seed; while, behind him the whip cracked and the harrow buried the germs, at the same quiet, contemplative rate. Heavy rains had retarded the autumn sowing; the season's manuring had been done in August, and the deep-lying fallows, duly cleared of weeds, had long been ready for a fresh yield of corn, after the clover and oats of the triennial rotation. Now the farmers were urged on by fear of coming frost, which threatened after the storms. The weather had suddenly turned cold and gloomy: there was no breath of wind, and but a dull light was distributed over all this ocean of land. Seed was being sown on all sides; there was a sower to the left, three hundred yards away; another farther off to the right; others, and yet others, lost to sight in the receding vista of the level fields. They formed little black silhouettes, mere strokes which became slimmer and slimmer, till they vanished in the distance. All made the same gesture, as they strewed the seed, which the mind's eye still saw encircling them, as with a wave of life. It was like a quiver passing over the plain, even into the dim distance, where the scattered sowers could no longer be seen.
Jean was coming down for the last time when he perceived, approaching from Rognes, a large red and white cow, the halter of which was held by a young girl, almost a child. The little peasant-girl and the animal were coming along the path which skirted the valley at the top of the plateau; and, with his back turned to them, he had gone up and finished the field, when a sound of running, mingled with stifled cries, made him look round, just as he was untying his seed-bag to depart. It was the cow running away, galloping over a field of lucern, and followed by the girl, who was exhausting her strength in trying to keep it back. Fearing an accident, he shouted:
"Leave go; why don't thee?"
But she did nothing of the kind, only panting and abusing her cow in angry, frightened tones.
"Coliche! Would you, then, Coliche? Ah, you foul brute! Ah, you cursed beast!"
So far, running and leaping to the full extent of her little legs, she had managed to follow. But she stumbled, fell once, then rose only to fall again farther on; and from that point, the animal growing frantic, she was dragged along. Then she began to shriek, while her body left a furrow in the lucern.
"Leave go, in God's name!" Jean continued shouting. "Leave go, why don't thee?"
He shouted thus mechanically, out of fright; for he also had started running, grasping, at length, the situation. The rope had evidently got entangled round her waist, and was being more closely twined at each fresh effort. Fortunately he took a short cut across a ploughed field, and made for the cow with such speed that the frightened and perplexed animal stopped dead. Jean was already undoing the rope, and seating the girl upon the grass.
"Thou hast broken nothing?" he asked.
No; she had not so much as swooned. She stood up, felt herself all over, and coolly lifted her petticoats up to her thighs, to look at her knees, which smarted. Meanwhile, she was still so breathless that she could not speak.
"See, it's there it hurts me," she said at last. "All the same, I'm alive and kicking; there's nothing the matter. Oh! I was frightened. Over on the road there I was a regular jelly!"
And, examining the circle of red on her strained wrist, she moistened it with spittle and applied her lips to it; then, comforted and restored, she added with a deep sigh:
"She's not vicious, Coliche. Only since yesterday she has plagued us to death, because she's in heat. I'm taking her to the bull at La Borderie."
"At La Borderie?" repeated Jean. "That's capital; I'm going back there; I'll go with thee."
He still used the second person singular, treating her as a little urchin, so slight was she for her fourteen years of age. She, raising her chin, looked seriously at the big, ruddy, crop-haired, full-faced, regular-featured young fellow, whose twenty-nine years made him in her eyes an old man.
"Hullo! I know you. You are Corporal, the carpenter who stopped as farm-hand with Monsieur Hourdequin."
Hearing the nickname, which the peasants had given him, the young fellow smiled; and he contemplated her in turn, surprised to find her almost a woman so soon, with her little bust firm and taking shape, her oval face, her deep, black eyes; and full lips, fresh and rosy as ripening fruit. She was clad in a grey skirt and black woollen bodice; on her head there was a round cap; and she had a very dark skin, scorched and burnished by the sun.
"Why, thou'rt old Mouche's youngest!" cried he. "I didn't call thee to mind. Isn't that so? Thy sister was keeping company with Buteau last spring, when he worked with me at La Borderie?"
She replied simply:
"Yes, I'm Françoise. My sister Lise went with cousin Buteau, and is now six months with child. He's bolted; he's down Orgères way, at the farm of La Chamade."
"That's it," concluded Jean; "I have seen them together."
And they remained an instant mute, face to face; he smiling at having one evening surprised the two lovers behind a mill, she still sucking her bruised wrist, as if the moisture of her lips allayed its smarting; whilst, in an adjoining field, the cow quietly plucked tufts of lucern. The waggoner and the harrow had gone off by a roundabout way, to reach the road. Two ravens, which kept wheeling round and round the steeple, were heard to caw. The three notes of the angelus rang through the still air.
"Hullo! Twelve o'clock already!" cried Jean. "Let's make haste!"
Then, noticing La Coliche in the field: "Eh, but thy cow is doing damage! Suppose any one saw her! Wait a bit, I'll make it lively for her!"
"Nay, let be," said Françoise, stopping him. "The plot is ours. Our folk own the whole bank as far as Rognes. We reach from here up to yonder; the next to that is uncle Fouan's; then comes aunt Grande's."
While indicating the patches she had led the cow back into the path. And not till then, when she again held her, fearlessly, by the rope, did she think of thanking the young fellow.
"Anyhow, I owe you a pretty debt of gratitude! Thanks, you know, thanks, very much!"
They had started walking along the narrow road which skirted the valley before cutting through the fields. The final peal of the angelus had just died away, the ravens alone kept on cawing. They trudged on behind the cow tugging at her rope, neither of the two conversing, for they had relapsed into the silence of rustics who travel for leagues, side by side, without exchanging a word. On their right their glance fell on a drill-plough, the horses of which turned close by them; the ploughman bade them good-day, and they answered him in the same sober tone. Down on their left, along the road to Cloyes, carts continued to file by, the market not opening till one o'clock. These vehicles jolted heavily along on their two wheels, like jumping insects, so diminished in the distance as to leave merely the white specks of the women's caps distinguishable.
"There's uncle Fouan and aunt Rose over there, on their way to the notary's," said Françoise, gazing at a conveyance the size of a nutshell, which sped along nearly a mile off.
She had a sailor's eye, the long sight of those bred in the country, trained in details, and capable of identifying man or beast even when they were but little moving specks afar off.
"Oh, yes; I've been told so," resumed Jean. "So it's settled that the old man divides his property among his daughter and two sons?"
"It's settled. They've all agreed to meet to-day at Monsieur Baillehache's."
She again watched the cart in its course, and then resumed:
"We don't care one way or the other; it won't make us any fatter or thinner. Only, on account of Buteau, sister thinks he'll marry her, perhaps, when he gets his share. He says one can't start housekeeping on nothing."
"Me and Buteau were pals, hang him! Oh, he don't think twice about telling girls lies! And he must have 'em, by hook or by crook; he gets at 'em by foul means, if they won't by fair."
"He's a pig, that's flat!" declared Françoise, peremptorily. "People have no business to play dirty tricks like that, putting their cousins in the family-way and then leaving 'em in the lurch."
But suddenly, in a fit of rage, she exclaimed:
"You wait, Coliche! I'll make you dance! There she is at it again; she's mad, the brute, when she gets that way."
She had violently jerked the cow back. At that spot the road left the edge of the plateau, and the cart disappeared from view, while they both continued their walk on the level, now having in front of them, and on either side, only the endless expanse of arable land. Between the fallows and the artificial meadows the path ran flat and bushless, terminating at the farm, which you might have thought within reach of the hand, but which kept receding under the ashen-grey sky. They had relapsed into silence again, no longer opening their mouths, as if impressed by the contemplative gloominess of La Beauce, so sad and yet so fruitful.
When they arrived, the large square yard of La Borderie, shut in on three sides by cow-sheds, sheep-cots, and barns, was deserted. But there immediately appeared upon the kitchen door-step a short, bold, pretty-looking young woman.
"How's this, Jean, you're not eating this morning?"
"I'm just going to, Madame Jacqueline."
Since the daughter of Cognet, the Rognes road-labourer,—La Cognette, as they called her when she washed up the farm dishes at twelve years of age—had been raised to the honours of servant-mistress, she despotically required that every one should treat her as a lady.
"Oh, it is you, Françoise," she resumed. "You've come for the bull. Well, you must wait. The neatherd is at Cloyes with Monsieur Hourdequin. But he'll be back; he ought to be here now."
And as Jean was making for the kitchen, she took him round the waist and fondled him smilingly, regardless of spectators, hungering, as it were, for love, and not satisfied with having the master.
Françoise, left alone, waited patiently, sitting on a stone bench in front of the manure-pit, which took up a third of the yard. She was listlessly watching a group of fowls, pecking and warming their feet in the broad low layer of manure, which in the cold air began to steam with a slight bluish vapour. At the end of half-an-hour, when Jean re-appeared, finishing a slice of bread and butter, she had not stirred. He sat down near her, and as the cow fidgeted, lashed its tail and lowed, he finally said:
"It's tiresome he doesn't come back."
The girl shrugged her shoulders, as though to say that she was in no hurry. Then, after a fresh silence:
"So, Corporal, they call you Jean, and nothing else?"
"Why, no; Jean Macquart."
"And you don't belong to our part of the country?"
"No, I'm a Provençal, from Plassans, a town over yonder."
She had raised her eyes to examine him, surprised that any one could come from so far off.
"After Solferino," continued he, "eighteen months since, I came back from Italy with my discharge, and a fellow-soldier brought me here. Then, d'ye see, my old trade of carpenter no longer suited me, and, what with one thing and another, I stopped at the farm."
"Ah!" said she, simply, without taking her big, black eyes off him, "it's curious, all the same."
At that moment, as La Coliche gave a prolonged, despairing low of desire, a hoarse murmur came from the cow-house, the door of which was shut.
"Hullo!" cried Jean, "that brute of a Cæsar has heard her. Hark! he's talking inside there. Oh, he knows his business. You can't bring one of 'em into the yard but he smells her out, and knows what he's wanted for."
Then, breaking off:
"I say, the neatherd must have stopped with Monsieur Hourdequin. If thee liked, I would bring thee the bull, and thee needn't come back again. We could manage it all right by ourselves."
"Not half a bad idea," said Françoise, getting up.
As he opened the door of the cow-house, he paused to ask:
"Must thy animal be tied up?"
"Tied up? No, no! not worth while. She is quite ready; she won't so much as stir."
When the door was opened you saw, in two rows on either side of the central path, the thirty farm cows, some lying in the litter, others crunching the beets in their manger; and, from the corner where he stood, one of the bulls, a black Dutch, spotted with white, stretched out his head in anticipation of his task.
As soon as he was untied, he slowly emerged. Then stopping short, as though surprised by the fresh air and sunlight, he remained motionless for a minute, bracing himself up, his sinewy tail swinging, his neck inflated, his muzzle outstretched to sniff. La Coliche, without stirring, turned towards him her large, fixed eyes, and lowed more softly. Then he advanced, pressed against her, and laid his head on her hind-quarters, abruptly and roughly; with his tongue, which was hanging out, he put her tail aside, and licked her as far as the thighs; she letting him do as he pleased, and keeping quite still, save for a slight quivering of her skin. Jean and Françoise waited gravely, their arms hanging beside them.
When Cæsar was ready, he got upon La Coliche with a jerk, and with such weighty force as to shake the ground. She had not given way, and he compressed her flanks with his two feet. But she, a strapping animal from the Cotentin, was so tall, so broad for him, who was of a smaller breed, that he could not reach. He was conscious of it, and made a vain effort to raise himself and to bring her nearer.
"He is too small," said Françoise.
"Yes, a little," said Jean. "But that don't matter; he'll do it all the same."
She shook her head in doubt; and, as Cæsar still fumbled about, and seemed to be getting exhausted, she came to a resolution.
"No, he must be helped," she said. "If he goes wrong, it'll be waste of time."
Calmly and carefully, as if bent on a serious piece of work, she had drawn near. Her intentness made the pupils of her eyes retreat, left her red lips half open, and kept her features motionless. Raising her arm with a sweep she aided the animal in his efforts, and he, gathering up his strength, speedily accomplished his purpose. It was done. Firmly, with the impassive fertility of land which is sown with seed the cow had unflinchingly received the fruitful stream of the male. Indeed, she had not even trembled at the shock; and he had already dropped again to the ground, shaking the earth once more.
Françoise having withdrawn her hand, remained with her arm in the air. Finally she lowered it, saying:
"That's all right."
"Yes, and neatly done," replied Jean, with an air of conviction, mingled with a good workman's satisfaction at seeing work well and expeditiously performed.
It did not occur to him to indulge in any of the spicy remarks with which the farm-servants used to chaff the girls who brought their cows for this purpose. The child seemed to consider it all so simple and necessary that there was, indeed, nothing to laugh at fairly. It was Nature.
However, Jacqueline had been standing at the door again for an instant or so, and with a chuckle which was habitual to her, she cried jestingly:
"Eh! poke your nose everywhere! So you hold the candle now!"
Jean having burst into a horse-laugh, Françoise suddenly flushed all over, quite confused; and to hide her embarrassment—while Cæsar returned of his own accord into the cow-house, and La Coliche munched a stalk of oats which had grown in the manure-pit—she dived into her pockets, fumbled about, eventually produced her handkerchief, untied the corner of it, in which she had wrapped up the two-franc fee, and said:
"Here! There's the money! And good day to you!"
She set out with her cow, and Jean took his bag again and followed her, telling Jacqueline that he was going to the Poteau field, according to the instructions issued by Monsieur Hourdequin, for the day.
"Good!" she replied. "The harrow ought to be there."
Then as the young man came up with the girl, and they went off in single file down the narrow path, she called out to them again, in her coarse, bantering voice:
"No danger, eh? If you lose yourselves together the chit knows her way about."
Behind them the farmyard was again deserted. Neither had laughed this time. They walked on slowly, and the only sound was that of their shoes striking against the stones. All that Jean noticed of Françoise was the nape of her child-like neck, over which curled some short black hair under her round cap. At last, after going some fifty paces:
"She does wrong to chaff others about the men," said Françoise, sedately. "I might have answered her——"
And turning towards the young fellow with a mischievous upward glance:
"It's true, isn't it, that she is false to Monsieur Hourdequin, just as if she were already his wife? You know as much about that, maybe, as most people."
His eyes fell, and he looked sheepish. "Lord! she does as she likes; it's her affair," he answered.
Françoise had turned her back and was pursuing her road.
"That's true enough. I was only in fun, because you're old enough to be my father, and because it's of no consequence one way or the other. But there's one thing, since Buteau played that dirty trick on my sister, I've taken an oath that I'd rather be cut in two than have a lover."
Jean bent his head, and they spoke no more. The little Poteau field lay at the bottom of the path, half way to Rognes. When the young fellow got there he stopped. The harrow was waiting for him, and a sack of seed had been emptied out into a furrow. He filled his bag, saying:
"Good-bye," replied Françoise. "Thanks again!"
But, in sudden apprehension, he drew himself up and called out:
"I say! suppose La Coliche began again; shall I go with you all the way?"
She was already some distance off, but she turned round, and through the deep stillness of the country air came the sound of her calm, steady voice:
"No, no! There's no need, it's all right! She's got quite as much as she can carry!"
Jean, with his seed-bag at his waist, had started down the piece of plough land, with his ceaseless gesture of throwing the grain; he raised his eyes and looked at Françoise diminishing in height among the fields, looking quite small behind her lazy cow, which was swinging heavily from side to side. When he turned up again, he ceased to see her; but, as he came back, there she was again, but smaller still, so slim as to seem like some new kind of dandelion, with her slight figure and her white cap. Thrice she dwindled thus; then, when he once more looked for her, she had apparently turned down by the church.
Two o'clock struck. The sky remained grey, dull, and cold, as if the sun were buried under spadefuls of ashes for weary months, till the spring-time returned. The dreariness of the clouds was relieved by one lighter patch towards Orleans, as if the sun were shining somewhere in that direction, leagues away; and against that glimmering patch the steeple of Rognes stood out, the village itself sloping down from view into the fold made by the valley of the Aigre. But on the north, towards Chartres, the level line of the horizon clearly separated the leaden uniformity of the waste sky from the endless vista of La Beauce, like an ink-stroke across a monochrome sketch. Since the mid-day meal, the number of sowers seemed to have increased. Now each patch of the little farm-lands had one to itself; they multiplied and teemed like black laborious ants roused to activity by some heavy piece of work, and straining every nerve over a mighty task, giant-like in size as compared with their littleness. And still you might descry, even in the most remote, the one persistent never-varying gesture; still did the pertinacious insect-like sowers wrestle with the vast earth, and become eventually the victors over space and life.
Till night-fall Jean sowed. After the Poteau field there were the Rigoles and the Quatre-Chemins. To and fro, to and fro, he paced the fields, with long, rhythmical steps, till the corn in his bag came to an end; while, in his wake, the seed strewed all the soil.