The house of Maître Baillehache, notary at Cloyes, was situated in the Rue Grouaise, on the left hand going to Châteaudun. A little white, one-storey house it was, at the corner of which a bracket was riveted for the rope of the single lantern which lighted this broad, paved street, deserted during the week, but on Saturday nights crowded with a living tide of peasants coming to market. From afar might be seen the gleam of the two professional escutcheons against the chalk-like wall of the low buildings; and, behind, a narrow garden stretched down to the Loir.
On that Saturday, in the room which served as an office, and which looked out upon the street to the right of the entrance hall, the youngest clerk, a pale, wizened boy of fifteen, had drawn up one of the muslin curtains to see the people pass. The other two clerks—one old, corpulent, and very dirty; one younger, scraggy, and a hopeless victim to liver complaint—were writing at a double desk of ebonised deal, there being no other furniture except seven or eight chairs and a cast-iron stove, which was never lit till December, even if it snowed a month before. Rows of pigeon-holes decorated the walls, with greenish pasteboard boxes, broken at the corners and full to repletion with bundles of yellow papers, and the room was pervaded with an unwholesome smell of ink gone bad and dust-eaten documents.
However, seated side by side, two peasants, man and wife, were waiting in deep respect, like statues of Patience. So many papers, and, more than all, the gentlemen who wrote so fast, with their pens all scratching away at once, sobered them by evoking vague visions of law-suits and money. The woman, aged thirty-four, very dark, with a countenance which would have been pleasant but for a large nose, had her horny, toil-worn hands crossed over her black cloth, velvet-edged body, and was scanning every corner with her keen eyes, evidently musing on the many title-deeds which reposed here. In the meanwhile the man, five years older, red-haired and stolid, in black trousers and a long, bran-new blue linen blouse, held his round felt hat on his knees, with not a spark of intelligence illuminating his broad, clean-shaven, terra-cotta-like face, which was perforated with two large eyes of porcelain blue, having a fixed stare that reminded one of a somnolent ox.
A door opened, and Maître Baillehache, who had just breakfasted with his brother-in-law, farmer Hourdequin, made his appearance; ruddy and fresh-complexioned despite his fifty-five years, with thick lips and crow's feet, which gave him a perpetually amused expression. He carried a double eye-glass, and had a lunatic habit of always pulling at his long, grizzled whiskers.
"Ah! it's you, Delhomme," said he. "So, old Fouan has consented to divide the property?"
The reply came from the woman.
"Yes, sure, Monsieur Baillehache. We have all made an appointment, so that we may come to an agreement, and that you may tell us how we are to proceed."
"Good, good, Fanny; we'll see about it. It's hardly more than one o'clock, we must wait for the others."
The notary stopped an instant to chat, asking about the price of corn, which had fallen during the last two months, and showing Delhomme the friendly consideration due to a farmer who owned fifty acres of land, and kept a servant and three cows. Then he returned to his inner room.
The clerks had not raised their heads, but were scratching away with their pens more vigorously than ever; and, once more, the Delhommes waited motionless. Fanny had been a lucky girl to marry a respectable, rich lover without even getting into the family-way beforehand, she whose only expectations had been some seven or eight acres of land from old Fouan. Her husband, however, had not repented of his bargain, for he could not anywhere have found a more active or intelligent housekeeper. Hence he followed her lead in everything, being of a narrow mind, but so steady and straightforward as to be frequently selected as an umpire by the Rognes people.
At that moment the little clerk, who was looking out into the street, stifled a laugh behind his hand, and murmured to his old, corpulent, and very dirty neighbour: "Here's Hyacinthe the saint coming!"
Fanny bent down quickly to whisper to her husband: "Now, leave everything to me. I am fond enough of papa and mamma, but I won't have them rob us; and keep a sharp eye on Buteau and that rascal Hyacinthe."
She referred to her two brothers, having seen one of them approach as she looked out of the window: Hyacinthe, the elder, whom the whole neighbourhood knew as an idler and a drunkard, and who, at the close of his military service, after going through the Algerian campaigns, had taken to a vagabond life, refusing all regular work, and subsisting by poaching and pillage, as if he were still extortioner-in-ordinary among a terrified people of Bedouins.
A tall, strapping fellow came in, rejoicing in the brawny strength of his forty years; he had curly hair, and a pointed, long, unkempt beard, with the face of a saint laid waste, a saint sodden with strong drink, addicted to forcing girls, and to robbing folks on the highway. He had already got tipsy at Cloyes since the morning, and wore muddy trousers, a filthily-stained blouse, and a ragged cap stuck on the back of his neck. He was smoking a damp, black, pestilential halfpenny cigar. Yet, in the depths of his fine liquid eyes lurked a spirit of fun free from ill-feeling, the open-heartedness of good-natured blackguardism.
"So father and mother haven't turned up yet?" he asked.
When the thin, jaundiced clerk responded testily by a shake of the head, he stared for an instant at the wall, while his cigar smouldered in his hand. He had not so much as glanced at his sister and his brother-in-law, who, themselves, did not appear to have seen him enter. Then, without a word, he left the room, and went to hang about on the pavement.
"Hyacinthe! Hyacinthe!" droned the little clerk, turning streetwards, and seeming to find infinite amusement in this name, which brought many a funny tale back to his memory.
Hardly five minutes had passed before the Fouans made their tardy appearance, two old folk of slow, prudential gait. The father, once very robust, now seventy years of age, had shrivelled and dwindled down under such hard work, such a keen land-hunger, that his form was bowed as if in a wild impulse to return to that earth which he had coveted and possessed. Nevertheless, in all save the legs, he was still hale and well-knit, with spruce little white mutton-chop whiskers, and the long family nose, which lent an air of keenness to his thin, leathery, deeply-wrinkled face. In his wake, following him as closely as his shadow, came his wife; shorter and stouter, swollen as if by an incipient dropsy, with a drab-coloured face perforated with round eyes, and a round mouth pursed up into an infinity of avaricious wrinkles. A household drudge, endowed with the docile, hard-working stupidity of a beast of burden, she had always stood in awe of the despotic authority of her husband.
"Ah, so it's you!" cried Fanny, getting up. Delhomme, also, had risen from his chair. Behind the old people, Hyacinthe had just lounged in again without a word. Compressing the cigar end to put it out, he thrust the pestiferous stump into a pocket of his blouse.
"So we're here," said Fouan. "There's only Buteau missing. Never in time, never like other people, the beast!"
"I saw him in the market," asserted Hyacinthe in a husky voice due to drink. "He's coming."
Buteau, the younger son, owed his nickname to his pigheadedness, being always up in arms in obstinate defence of his own ideas, which were never those of anybody else. Even when an urchin, he had not been able to get on with his parents; and, later on, having drawn a lucky number in the conscription, he had run away from home to go into service, first at La Borderie, subsequently at La Chamade.
While his father was still grumbling, he skipped cheerfully into the room. In him, the large Fouan nose was flattened out, while the lower part of his face, the maxillaries, projected like the powerful jaws of a carnivorous beast. His temples retreated, all the upper part of his head was contracted, and, behind the boon-companion twinkle of his grey eyes, there lurked deceit and violence. He had inherited the brutish desires and tenacious grip of his father, aggravated by the narrow meanness of his mother. In every quarrel, whenever the two old people heaped reproaches upon his head, he replied: "You shouldn't have made me so!"
"Look here, it's five leagues from La Chamade to Cloyes," replied he to their complaints; "and besides, hang it all, I'm here at the same time as you. Oh, at me again, are you?"
They all disputed, shouted in shrill, high-pitched voices, and argued over their private matters exactly as if they had been at home. The clerks, disturbed, looked at them askance, till the tumult brought in the notary, who re-opened the door of his private office.
"You are all assembled? Then come in!"
This private office looked on to the garden, a narrow strip of ground running down to the Loir, the leafless poplars along which were visible in the distance. On the mantelpiece, between some packets of papers, there was a black marble clock; the furniture simply comprised the mahogany writing-table, a set of pasteboard boxes, and some chairs. Monsieur Baillehache at once installed himself at his writing-table, like a judge on the bench, while the peasants who had entered in a file hesitated and squinted at the chairs, feeling embarrassed as to where and how they were to sit down.
"Come, seat yourselves!" said the notary.
Then Fouan and Rose were pushed forward by the rest on to the two front chairs; Fanny and Delhomme got behind, also side by side; Buteau established himself in an isolated corner against the wall; while Hyacinthe alone remained standing, in front of the window, blocking out the light with his broad shoulders. The notary, out of patience, addressed him familiarly.
"Sit down, do, Hyacinthe!"
He had to broach the subject himself.
"So, Fouan, you have made up your mind to divide your property before your death, between your two sons and your daughter?"
The old man made no reply. The rest were as if frozen to stone; there was deep silence.
On his part, the notary, accustomed to such sluggishness, did not hurry himself. His office had been in his family two hundred and fifty years. Baillehache, son, had succeeded Baillehache, father, at Cloyes, the line being of ancient Beauceron extraction, and they had contracted from their rustic connection that ponderous reflectiveness, that artful circumspection, which protract the most trivial debates with long pauses and irrelevant talk. Having taken up a penknife the notary began paring his nails.
"Haven't you? It would appear that you have made up your mind," he repeated at length, looking hard at the old man.
The latter turned, looked round at everybody, and then said, hesitatingly:
"Yes; that may be so, Monsieur Baillehache. I spoke to you about it at harvest-time. You told me to think it over; and I have thought it over, and I can see that it will have to come to that."
He explained the why and wherefore, in faltering phrases, interspersed with constant digressions. But there was one thing which he said nothing about, but which was obvious from the repressed emotion which choked his utterance—and that was the infinite distress, the smothered rancour, the rending asunder, as it were, of his whole frame, which he felt in parting with the property so eagerly coveted before his father's death, cultivated later on with the violent avidity of lust, and then added to, bit by bit, at the cost of the most sordid avarice. Such-and-such a plot represented months of bread and cheese, tireless winters, summers of scorching toil, with no other sustenance than a few gulps of water. He had loved the soil as it were a woman who kills, and for whose sake men are slain. No spouse, nor child, nor any human being; but the soil! However, being now stricken in years, he must hand his mistress over to his sons, as his father, maddened by his own impotence, had handed her over to him.
"You see, Monsieur Baillehache, one has to look at things as they are. My legs are not what they used to be; my arms are hardly better; and, of course, the land suffers accordingly. Things might still have gone on if one could have come to an understanding with one's children."
He glanced at Buteau and Hyacinthe, who made no sign, however; their eyes were looking into vacancy, as though they were a hundred miles away from him and his words.
"Well, am I to be expected to take strange people under our roof, to pick and steal? No, servants now-a-days cost too much; they eat one out of house and home. As for me, I am used up. This year, look you, I have hardly had the strength to cultivate a quarter of the nineteen setiers I possess; just enough to provide corn for ourselves and fodder for the two cows. So, you understand, it's breaking my heart to see good land spoiled by lying idle. I had rather let everything go than look on at such sinful waste."
His voice faltered; his gestures were those of resigned anguish. Near him listened his submissive wife, crushed by more than half a century of obedience and toil.
"The other day," he continued, "Rose, while making her cheeses, fell into them head first. It wears me out only to jog to market. And then, we can't take the land away with us when we go. It must be given up—given up. After all, we have done enough work, and we want to die in peace. Don't we, Rose?"
"That's true enough; true as we sit here," said the old woman.
There fell a new and prolonged silence. The notary finished trimming his nails, and at last he put the knife back on his desk, saying:
"Yes, those are very good reasons; one is frequently forced to resolve on a deed of gift. I should add that it saves expense, for the legacy duties are heavier than those on the transference of property."
Buteau, despite his affectation of indifference, could not help exclaiming:
"Then it's true, Monsieur Baillehache?"
"Most certainly. You will save some hundreds of francs."
There was a flutter among the others; even Delhomme's countenance brightened, while the parents also shared in the general satisfaction. The moment they knew it was cheaper, the thing was as good as done.
"It remains for me to make the usual observations," continued the notary. "Many thoughtful persons condemn such transfers of property, and regard them as immoral, in that they tend to sever family ties. Deplorable instances might, in fact, be mentioned, children having sometimes behaved very badly, when their parents had stripped themselves of all."
The two sons and the daughter listened to him, open-mouthed, with trembling eyelids and quivering cheeks.
"Let papa keep everything himself, if those are his ideas," brusquely interrupted the very susceptible Fanny.
"We have always been dutiful," said Buteau.
"And we're not afraid of work," added Hyacinthe.
With a wave of his hand Maître Baillehache restored calm.
"Pray, let me finish! I know you are good children, and honest workers; and, in your case, there is not the slightest danger of your parents ever repenting of their resolution."
He spoke without a tinge of irony, repeating the conciliatory phrases which five-and-twenty years of professional practice had made smooth upon his tongue. However, the mother, although seeming not to understand, glanced with her small eyes from her daughter to her two sons. She had brought them up, without any show of fondness, amid the chill parsimony which reproaches the little ones with diminishing the household savings. She had a grudge against the younger son for having run away from home just when he was capable of earning wages; the daughter she had never been able to get on with, encountering in her a strain too like her own, a robust activity made haughty and unyielding by the intermingled intelligence of the father; and her gaze only softened as it rested upon the elder son, the ruffian who took neither after her nor after her husband—the ill weed sprung none knew whence, and, perhaps, excused and favoured on that account.
Fouan also had looked at his children, one after the other, with an uneasy mistrust of the uses they might make of his property. The laziness of the drunkard was not so keen an anguish to him as the covetous yearning of the two others for possession. However, he bent his trembling head. What was the good of kicking against the pricks?
"The partition being thus resolved upon," resumed the notary, "the question becomes one of terms. Are you agreed upon the allowance which is to be paid?"
Everybody suddenly relapsed into mute rigidity. Their sun-burnt faces assumed a stony look, an air of impenetrable gravity, like that of diplomatists entering on the appraisement of an empire. Then they threw out tentative glances one to another, but nobody spoke. At last the father once more explained matters.
"No, Monsieur Baillehache, we have not entered on the subject; we were waiting till we met all together, here. But it's quite simple, isn't it? I have nineteen setiers, or, as people now say, nine hectares and a half (about twenty-three acres). So that, if I rented them out, it would come to nine hundred and fifty francs, at a hundred francs per hectare (two and a half acres)."
Buteau, the least patient, leapt from his chair.
"What! A hundred francs per hectare! Do you take us for fools, papa?"
And a preliminary discussion began on the question of figures. There was a setier of vineyard; that, certainly, would let for fifty francs. But would that price ever be got for the twelve setiers of plough-land, still less for the six setiers of natural meadow-land, the fields along the Aigre, the hay of which was worth nothing? The plough-land itself was hardly of good quality, especially at the end which edged the plateau, for the arable layer got thinner and thinner as it neared the valley.
"Come, come, papa," said Fanny, reproachfully, "you mustn't take an unfair advantage of us."
"It's worth a hundred francs a hectare," repeated the old man stubbornly, slapping his thigh. "I could let it out to-morrow at a hundred francs if I wanted to. And what's it worth to you, now? Just let's hear what it's worth to you?"
"It's worth sixty francs," said Buteau, but Fouan, greatly put out, sustained his price, and launched into fervent eulogy of his land—such fine land as it was, yielding wheat of itself—when Delhomme, silent till then, declared in his blunt, honest way: "It's worth eighty francs, not a copper more, and not a copper less."
The old man immediately calmed down.
"All right, say eighty. I don't mind making a sacrifice for my children."
Rose, twitching at a corner of his blouse, expressed in one word the outraged instincts of her mean nature—"No!"
Hyacinthe held himself aloof. Land had been no object to him since the five years he had spent in Algeria. He had but one aim: to get his share at once, whatever it might be, and to turn it into money. Accordingly, he went on swinging to and fro with an air of amused superiority.
"I said eighty," cried Fouan, "and eighty it is. I have always been a man of my word; I swear it. Nine hectares and a half, look you, come to seven hundred and sixty francs, or, in round numbers, eight hundred. Well, the allowance shall be eight hundred francs, that's fair enough?"
Buteau burst into a violent fit of laughter, while Fanny protested by a shake of the head, as if dumbfounded. Monsieur Baillehache, who, since the discussion began, had been looking vacantly into the garden, again turned to his clients and seemed to listen, tugging in his lunatic way at his whiskers, and dreamily digesting the excellent meal he had just made.
This time the old man was right, it was fair. But the children, heated and possessed by the one idea of concluding the bargain on the lowest possible terms, grew absolutely ferocious, and haggled and cursed with the bad faith of yokels buying a pig.
"Eight hundred francs!" sneered Buteau. "Seems you want to live like gentle folks——Oh, indeed! Eight hundred francs, when you might live on four! Why not say at once that you want to gorge till you burst?"
Fouan had not yet lost his temper, considering the higgling natural, and simply facing the expected storm, himself excited, but making straight for the goal he had in view.
"Stop a bit! that's not all. Till the day of our death we keep the house and garden, of course. Then, as we shall no longer get anything from the crops, or have our two cows, we want every year a cask of wine and a hundred faggots; and every week eight quarts of milk, a dozen eggs, and three cheeses."
"Oh, papa!" groaned Fanny in piteous consternation. "Oh, papa!"
As for Buteau, he had done with discussion. He had sprung to his feet, and was striding brusquely to and fro; he had even jammed his cap on his head as if he were about to go. Hyacinthe also had likewise got up from his chair, disquieted by the idea that this fuss might prevent the partition after all. Delhomme alone remained impassive, with his finger laid against his nose, in an attitude of deep thought and extreme boredom.
At this point Maître Baillehache felt it necessary to help matters forward a little. Rousing himself up, and fidgeting more energetically with his whiskers:
"You know, my friends," said he, "that wine, faggots, cheese, and eggs are customary."
But he was cut short by a volley of bitter phrases.
"Eggs with chickens inside, perhaps!"
"We don't drink our wine, do we? We sell it!"
"It's jolly convenient not to do a blasted thing and be made warm and comfortable, while your children are toiling and moiling!"
The notary, who had heard the same thing often enough before, continued unmoved:
"All that is no argument. Come, come, Hyacinthe, sit down, will you? You're keeping out the light; you're a perfect nuisance! So that's settled, isn't it, all of you? You will pay the dues in kind, because otherwise you would become a by-word. We have, therefore, only to discuss the amount of the allowance."
Delhomme at length indicated that he had something to say. Everybody having resumed his place, he began slowly, amid general attention:
"Excuse me; what the father asks seems fair: he might be allowed eight hundred francs on the ground that he could let the property for eight hundred francs—only we don't reckon like that on our side. He is not letting us the land, but giving it to us, and what we have to calculate is: how much do he and his wife require to live on? That is all. How much do they require to live on?"
"That is, certainly," chimed in the notary, "the usual basis of calculation."
Another endless dispute set in. The two old folks' lives were dissected, exposed, and discussed, need by need. Bread, vegetables, and meat were weighed out; clothing appraised, linen and woollen, to the utmost farthing; even such trivial luxuries as the father's tobacco—cut down, after interminable recriminations, from two sous a day to one—were not beneath notice. When people were beyond work, they ought to reduce their expenditure. The mother, again; could she not do without her black coffee? It was like their twelve-year-old dog, who ate, and ate, and made no return; he ought to have had a bullet put through his head long ago! The calculation was no sooner finished than it was begun all over again, on the chance of finding some other item to suppress: two shirts or six handkerchiefs in the year. And thus, by cutting closer and closer, by pinching and scraping in the paltriest matters, they got down to five hundred and fifty odd francs, which left the children in a state of uncontrollable agitation, for they had set their hearts upon not giving more than five hundred.
Fanny, however, was growing tired. She was not a bad sort, having more of the milk of human kindness than the men, and not yet having had her heart or her skin hardened by rough life in the open air. Accordingly she spoke of making an end of it, and resigned herself to some concessions. Hyacinthe, for his part, shrugged his shoulders, in a most liberal, not to say maudlin mood; ready to offer, out of his own share, any little balance which, be it remarked, he would never have paid.
"Come," asked the daughter, "shall we let it go at five hundred and fifty?"
"Right you are!" answered he. "The old 'uns must have a little pleasant time!"
The mother turned to her elder son with a smiling and yet almost tearful look of affection, while the father continued his contention with the younger. He had only given way step by step, disputing every reduction, and making a stubborn stand on certain items. But, beneath his ostensibly cool pertinacity, his wrath rose high within him as he confronted the mad desire of his own flesh and blood to fatten on his flesh, and to drain his blood dry while he was yet alive. He forgot that he had thus fed upon his own father. His hands had begun to tremble; and he growled out:
"Ah, the rascals! To think that one has brought 'em up, and then they turn round and take the bread out of one's mouth! On my word, I'm sick of it. I'd rather be already rotting under ground. So there's no getting you to behave decently; you won't give more than five hundred and fifty?"
He was about to accept the sum, when his wife again twitched his blouse and whispered:
"And that's not all," resumed Buteau, after a little hesitation. "How about the money you have saved up? If you've any money of your own you don't want ours, do you?"
He looked steadily at his father, having reserved this shot for the last. The old man had grown very pale.
"What money?" he asked.
"Why, the money invested; the money you hold bonds for."
Buteau, who only suspected the hoard, wanted to make sure. One evening, he had thought he saw his father take a little roll of papers from behind a looking-glass. The next day and the days following he had been on the watch, but nothing had turned up; the empty cavity alone remained.
Fouan's pallor now suddenly changed to a deep red as his torrent of wrath at length burst forth. He rose up, and shouted with a furious gesture:
"Great heaven! You go rummaging in my pockets now. I haven't a sou, a copper invested; you've cost too much for that, you brute. But, in any case, is it any business of yours? Am I not the master, the father?"
He seemed to grow taller in the re-assertion of his authority. For years everybody, wife and children alike, had quailed before him, under his rude despotism as chief of the family. If they fancied all that at an end, they made a mistake.
"Oh, papa!" began Buteau, with an attempt at a snigger.
"Hold your tongue, in God's name!" resumed the old man, with his hand still uplifted. "Hold your tongue, or I strike!"
The younger son stammered, and shrank into himself on his chair. He had felt the blow approaching and had raised his elbow to ward it off, seized once more with the terrors of infancy.
"And you, Hyacinthe, leave off smirking! And you, Fanny, look me in the face, if you dare! True as the sun's shining, I'll make it lively for some of you; see if I don't!"
He stood, threateningly, over them all. The mother shivered, as if apprehensive of stray buffets. The children neither stirred nor breathed, they were conquered and submissive.
"Understand, the allowance shall be six hundred francs; or else I shall sell my land and invest in an annuity. Yes, an annuity! All shall be spent, and you sha'n't come into a copper. Will you give the six hundred francs?"
"Why, papa," murmured Fanny, "we will give whatever you ask."
"Six hundred francs. Right!" said Delhomme.
"What suits the rest, suits me," declared Hyacinthe.
Buteau, setting his teeth viciously, gave the consent of silence. Fouan still held them in check, with the stern look of one accustomed to obedience. Finally, he sat down again, saying: "Good! Then we are agreed."
Maître Baillehache had begun to doze again, unconcernedly awaiting the issue of the quarrel. Now, opening his eyes, he brought the interview to a peaceful close.
"Well, then, as you're agreed, that's enough! Now I know the terms, I will draw up the deed. For your part, get the surveying done, portion out the lots, and tell the surveyor to forward me a note containing the description of the lots. Then, when you've drawn your numbers, all we shall have to do will be to write the number drawn against each name, and sign."
He had risen from his arm-chair to see them out. But they, hesitating, and reflecting, would not stir. Was it really over? Was nothing forgotten? Had they not made a bad bargain, which there was yet time, perhaps, to cancel?
Four o'clock struck; they had been there nearly three hours.
"Aren't you going?" said the notary to them at last. "There are others waiting."
He precipitated their decision by hustling them into the next room, where, indeed, a number of patient rustics were sitting still and rigid upon their chairs, while the small clerk watched a dog-fight out of the window, and the two others still drove their pens, sulkily and scratchily, over stamped paper.
Once outside, the family stood for a moment stock-still in the middle of the street.
"If you like," declared the father, "the measuring shall take place on the day after to-morrow—Monday."
They nodded assent, and went down the Rue Grouaise in scattered file.
Then, old Fouan and Rose, having turned down the Rue du Temple, towards the church, Fanny and Delhomme went off through the Rue Grande. Buteau had stopped on the Place Saint-Lubin, wondering if his father had a hidden hoard or not; and Hyacinthe, left by himself, relighted his cigar-end, and went into the Jolly Ploughman café.