The Fouans house was the first in Rognes, on the high-road from Cloyes to Bazoches-le-Doyen, which passes through the village. On Monday, the old man was going out at seven o'clock in the morning to keep the appointment in front of the church, when, in the next doorway, he perceived his sister, "La Grande," who was already astir, despite her eighty years.
These Fouans had propagated and grown there for centuries, like some sturdy luxuriant vegetation. Serfs in the old times of the Rognes-Bouquevals—of whom not a trace survived save the few half-buried stones of a ruined château—they had been emancipated, it appeared, under Philip the Fair; becoming thenceforward landowners of an acre or so, which they had bought from the lord of the manor when in difficulties, and paid for with tears and blood at ten times the value. Then had set in the long struggle of four hundred years to defend and enlarge the property, in a frenzy of passion transmitted from father to son: odd corners were lost and bought back, the ownership was unremittingly called into question, the inheritances were subject to such a list of dues that they almost ate their own heads off; but in spite of all, both arable and plough-lands grew, bit by bit, in the ever-prevailing, stubborn craving for possession. Generations passed away, the lives of many men enriched the soil; but when the Revolution of '89 set its seal upon his rights, the Fouan of the time, Joseph Casimir, possessed about twenty-six acres, wrested in the course of four centuries from the old seignorial manor.
In '93, this Joseph Casimir was twenty-seven years of age, and on the day when what remained of the manor was declared national property and sold in lots by auction, he yearned to acquire a few acres of it. The Rognes-Bouquevals, ruined and in debt, after letting the last tower of the château crumble into dust, had long since given up to their creditors the right of receiving the revenues of La Borderie, three quarters of which property lay fallow. In particular, adjacent to one of Fouan's bits of land there was a large field, on which he looked with the fierce covetousness of his race. But the harvest had been poor, and in the old pipkin behind his oven he had barely a hundred crowns saved up. Moreover, although it had momentarily occurred to him to borrow off a Cloyes money-lender, a distrustful prudence had stood in the way: he was afraid to touch these lands of the nobility; who knew whether they would not be claimed again later on? So it happened that, divided between desire and apprehension, he had the agony of seeing La Borderie bought at auction, field by field, and for a tenth of its value, by Isidore Hourdequin, a townsman of Châteaudun, formerly employed in the collection of excise duties.
Joseph Casimir Fouan, in his old age, had divided his twenty-six acres equally among his eldest child, Marianne, and his two sons, Louis and Michel; a younger daughter Laure, brought up to dressmaking and employed at Châteaudun, being indemnified in hard cash. But marriage destroyed this equality. While Marianne Fouan, surnamed "La Grande," wedded a neighbour, Antoine Péchard, with about twenty-two acres; Michael Fouan, surnamed "Mouche," encumbered himself with a sweetheart who only expected from her father two and a half acres of vineyard. On the other hand, Louis Fouan, joined in matrimony to Rose Maliverne, the heiress to fifteen acres, had acquired that total of twenty-three acres or so, which, in his turn, he was about to divide among his three children.
La Grande was respected and dreaded in the family, not for her advanced age, but for her fortune. Still very upright, tall, thin, wiry, and large-boned, she had the fleshless head of a bird of prey set on a long, shrivelled, blood-coloured neck. In her, the family nose curved into a formidable beak; she had round fixed eyes, with not a trace of hair under the yellow silk handkerchief she always wore, though she possessed her full complement of teeth, and jaws that might have masticated flints. She never went out without her thornwood stick, which she held on high as she walked, only making use of it to strike animals and human beings. Left a widow at an early age, she had turned her one daughter out of doors, because the wretch had insisted, against her mother's will, on marrying a poor youth, Vincent Bouteroue; and even when this daughter and her husband had died of want, leaving behind them a grand-daughter and a grandson, Palmyre and Hilarion, aged respectively thirty-two and twenty-four, she had refused her forgiveness and let them starve to death, allowing no one so much as to remind her of their existence. Since her goodman's death she presided in person over the cultivation of her land; she had three cows, a pig, and a farm-hand, all fed out of a common trough; and she was obeyed by those about her with the most abject submission.
Fouan, seeing her on her threshold, had drawn near out of respect. She was ten years older than he, and he regarded her sternness, her avarice, her obstinate resolution to possess and to live, with an admiring deference, shared by the whole village.
"I was just wanting to tell you about it, La Grande," said he. "I have made up my mind, and am going up yonder to see about the division."
She made no reply, but tightened her grasp upon the stick which she was flourishing.
"The other night I wanted to ask your advice again, but I knocked and no one answered."
Then she broke out in shrill tones:
"Idiot! Advice, indeed! I gave you advice. The fool, the poltroon you must be to give your property up as long as you can get about. They might have bled me to death, but, under the knife, I would still have refused. To see what belongs to one in the hands of others, to turn one's self out of doors for the benefit of rascally children.—No! No! No!"
"But," put in Fouan, "if you're incapable of farming, and the land suffers accordingly."
"Well, let it suffer. Rather than lose half an acre of it, I would go and watch the thistles grow every morning."
She drew herself up grimly, in her featherless, old vulture-like way, and, drumming on his shoulder with her stick, as if to impress her words upon him more deeply, she resumed:
"Listen, and mark me. When you have nothing and they have everything, your children will refuse you a mouthful of bread. You'll end with a beggar's wallet, like a road-tramp. And when that happens, don't come knocking at my door, for I give you fair warning, it'll be the worse for you. Would you like to know what I shall do, eh? Would you?"
He waited submissively, as behoved a younger brother; and she returned indoors, banging the door behind her and screaming:
"I shall do that! Die in a ditch!"
Fouan stood for an instant motionless before the closed door. Then, with a gesture of resigned decision, he went up the path leading to the Place de l'Eglise. On that very spot stood the old family residence of the Fouans, which, in the division of property, had fallen to his brother Michel, called Mouche; his own house, lower down along the road, had come to him from his wife Rose. Mouche, who had long been a widower, lived alone with his two daughters, Lise and Françoise, embittered by disappointments, still humiliated by his lowly marriage, and accusing his brother and sister, after forty years, of having cheated him when the allotments were drawn for. He was for ever telling the tale how the worst lot had been left for him at the bottom of the hat; and, in the course of time, this seemed to have become true, for he proved so excellent at excuses and such a sluggard at work that his share lost half its value in his hands. "The man makes the land," as folks say in La Beauce.
That morning Mouche also was on the watch at his door when his brother came round the corner of the square. The division roused his spleen, reviving old grudges, although he had nothing to expect from it. However, to demonstrate his utter indifference, he, too, turned his back and shut the door with a slam.
Fouan had suddenly caught sight of Delhomme and Hyacinthe, who were waiting twenty yards apart from each other. He made for the former, while the latter made for him. The three, without speaking, scanned the path which skirted the edge of the plateau.
"There he is," said Hyacinthe, at last. "He" was Grosbois, the local surveyor, a peasant from Magnolles, a little village near Cloyes. His knowledge of reading and writing had ruined him. When summoned from Orgères to Beaugency, on surveying business, he used to leave to his wife the management of his property, and he had contracted during his constant pilgrimages such drunken habits that he was now never sober. Very stout, very sturdy for his sixty years, he had a broad red face budding all over into purple pimples; and, despite the early hour, he was, on the day in question, in a state of abominable intoxication, the result of a merry-making held the night before by some Montigny vine-growers in honour of a divided inheritance. But that mattered nothing: the tipsier he was, the clearer his brain. He never measured incorrectly, and never added up incorrectly. He was held in deference and honour, advisedly, for he had the reputation of being extremely spiteful.
"All here, eh?" said he. "Then come along."
A dirty, bedraggled urchin of twelve was in attendance, carrying the chain under his arm and the stand and the staves over his shoulder, while with his free hand he swung the square, which was in an old burst cardboard case.
They all set out without waiting for Buteau, whom they had just descried in the distance, standing still before the largest field of the holding. That field, some five acres in extent, was immediately adjacent to the one along which La Coliche had dragged Françoise a few days before. Buteau, thinking it useless to proceed further, had stopped there in a brown study. When the others arrived, they saw him stoop down, take up a handful of earth, and gradually filter it through his fingers, as though to estimate its weight and flavour.
"There," resumed Grosbois, taking a greasy memorandum-book from his pocket: "I have already drawn up an accurate little plan of each lot, as you asked me to do, Fouan. It now devolves upon us to divide the whole into three portions; and that, my children, we will do together, eh? Just tell me how you intend it to be done."
The day had worn on. A ripping wind was driving continuous masses of thick clouds across the pale sky; and La Beauce lay sullen and gloomy, lashed by the keen air. Yet not one of them seemed conscious of that breeze from the offing, which inflated their blouses and threatened to carry off their hats. Not one of the five, in holiday attire, as befitted the gravity of the occasion, spoke a word. As they stood on the confines of the field, amid the boundless expanse, their lineaments had a dreamy, frozen fixedness, the musing expression of mariners who live alone in large open spaces. La Beauce, flat and fertile, easily tilled but demanding continuous effort, has made the Beauceron calm and reflective, without passion save for the land itself.
"It'll all have to be divided into three," said Buteau at length.
Grosbois shook his head, and a discussion set in. An apostle of progress, by virtue of his connection with large farms, he occasionally went so far as to set himself up against his smaller clients, by condemning extreme subdivision. Would not the labour and cost of transport from place to place become a ruinous thing, when there were only odds and ends of land left that might be covered by a handkerchief? Was it farming at all, with paltry garden-plots on which it was impossible either to improve the system of crops or to introduce machinery? No: the only sensible thing to do was to make a mutual arrangement, not to adopt the murderous course of chopping a field up like so much pastry. If one of them would be content with the plough-land, another might manage with the meadows; the portions could eventually be equalised, and the distribution decided by lot.
Buteau, with the natural liveliness of youth, adopted a jocose tone. "And, with only some meadow-land, what shall I have to eat? Grass, I suppose? No, no; I want some of everything, hay for cow and horse, corn and grape for myself."
Fouan, who was listening, nodded assent. For generations, such had been the mode of partition; and fresh acquisitions, by marriage or otherwise, had subsequently swollen the plots anew.
Delhomme, passing rich with his fifty acres or so, had broader views; but he was in a conciliatory mood, and had indeed only come, in his wife's interest, to see that she was not cheated in the measurements. As for Hyacinthe, he had gone off in pursuit of a flight of larks, with his hands crammed full of pebbles. Whenever one of the birds, distressed by the wind, stopped still a couple of seconds in mid-air with quivering wings, he felled it to the ground with the skill of a savage. Three fell, and he thrust them bleeding into his pocket.
"Come, stop your talk, and let's have it cut up into three!" said the lively Buteau, addressing the surveyor familiarly; "and not into six, mind, for you seem to me this morning to have both Chartres and Orleans in your eye at once."
Grosbois, feeling hurt, drew himself up with much dignity.
"When you've had as much to drink as I have, young shaver, see whether you can keep your eyes open at all. Which of you clever people would like to take the square instead of me?"
As no one ventured to take up the challenge, he called out harshly and triumphantly to the boy, who was rapt with admiration of Hyacinthe's pebble-shooting. The square duly installed on its stand, the stakes were being set up, when a new dispute arose over the method of dividing the field. The surveyor, supported by Fouan and Delhomme, wanted to divide the five acres into three strips parallel with the Aigre valley; while Buteau insisted on the strips being taken perpendicular to the valley, on the plea that the arable layer got thinner and thinner as it neared the slope. In this way every one would have his share of the worse end; whereas, in the other case, the third lot would be altogether of inferior quality.
But Fouan grew heated; swore that the depth was the same everywhere, and reminded them that the former partition between himself, Mouche, and La Grande had been made in the direction he indicated; in proof of which, Mouche's five acres lay adjacent to the third of the proposed lots. Delhomme, on his side, made a decisive remark: even admitting that the one lot was inferior, the owner would be benefited as soon as the authorities decided to open the road that was to skirt the field at that point.
"Oh, yes; I daresay!" cried Buteau. "The celebrated road from Rognes to Châteaudun, by way of La Borderie! And a jolly long time you'll have to wait for it!"
His importunity being, nevertheless, disregarded, he entered a protest from between his clenched teeth.
Hyacinthe himself had drawn near, and they were all absorbed in watching Grosbois trace out the lines of division. They kept a sharp eye on him, as if they suspected him of trying by unfair means to make one share half-an-inch bigger than the others. Three times did Delhomme put his eye to the slit in the square, to make quite sure that the line fairly intersected the stave. Hyacinthe swore at the "d——d youngster" because he did not hold the chain right. But Buteau, in particular, followed the process step by step, counting the feet, and going over the calculations again in his own way with trembling lips. With this consuming desire to possess, with the joy he felt at getting at last a grip of the land, his bitterness and sullen rage at not being able to keep the whole grew and grew. Those five acres, all of one piece, made such a fine field. He had insisted on the division, so that no one might have what he couldn't get; and yet the wholesale destruction drove him distracted. He again tried to find frivolous causes of quarrel.
Fouan, standing in a listless attitude, had been looking on at the dismemberment of his property without a word.
"It's finished!" said Grosbois. "And look at it how you will, you won't find a pound difference between the lots."
There were still, on the plateau, ten acres of plough-land divided into a dozen plots, none of which were much more than an acre in size. Indeed, one was only about a rood, and the surveyor having inquired, with a sneer, whether that also was to be sub-divided, a fresh dispute arose.
Buteau, with his instinctive gesture, had stooped down and taken up a handful of earth, which he raised to his face as if to try its flavour. A complacent wrinkling of his nose seemed to pronounce it better than all the rest; and, after gently filtering it through his fingers, he said that if they left the lot to him it was all right, otherwise he insisted on a division. Delhomme and Hyacinthe angrily refused, and likewise wanted their share. Yes, yes! A third of a rood each; that was the only fair way. By sub-dividing every plot, they were sure that none of the three could have anything which the other two lacked.
"Come on to the vineyard," said Fouan, and as they turned towards the church, he threw a last glance over the vast plain, pausing for an instant to look at the distant buildings of La Borderie. Then, with a cry of inconsolable regret, alluding to the old lost opportunity of buying up the national property:
"Ah!" said he, "if father had only chosen, Grosbois, you would now be measuring all that!"
The two sons and the son-in-law turned sharply round, and there was a new halt and a lingering look at the seven hundred and fifty acres of the farm spread out before them.
"Ugh!" grunted Buteau, as he set off again: "Much good it does us, that story! It's always our fate to be the prey of the townsfolk."
Ten o'clock struck. The main part of the work was over. But they hastened their steps, for the wind had fallen, and a heavy dark cloud had just discharged itself of a premonitory shower. The various Rognes vineyards were situated beyond the church, on the hill-side which sloped down to the Aigre. In former times, the château had stood there with its grounds; and it was barely more than a century since the peasantry, encouraged by the success of the Montigny vineyards, near Cloyes, had decided to plant vines on this declivity, though it was specially adapted for the purpose by its Southern aspect and the steepness of its slope. The wine it yielded was thin but of a pleasantly acid taste, and resembled the minor Orléanais vintages. Each owner only secured a few casks, Delhomme, the wealthiest, possessing some seven acres of vine-land; the rest of the country-side was entirely given up to cereals and plants for fodder.
They turned down behind the church, skirted the old ruined presbytery which had been turned into a lodging for the rural constable, and gained the narrow chequered patches. As they crossed a piece of stony ground, covered with shrubs, a shrill voice cried through a gap:
"Father, it's raining! and I've brought out my geese."
It was the voice of "La Trouille," Hyacinthe's daughter, a girl of twelve, thin and wiry like a holly branch, with fair towzled hair. Her large mouth had a twist to the left, her green eyes stared so boldly that she might have been taken for a boy, and her dress consisted of an old blouse of her father's, tied round her waist with some string. The reason everybody called her La Trouille—although she bore, by right, the fair name of Olympe—was that Hyacinthe, who used to yell at her from morning till night, could never say a word to her without adding:
"Just wait, you dirty troll, and I'll make it hot for you!"
He had begotten this wilding of a drab, whom he had picked up in a ditch after a fair, and whom he had installed in his den, to the great scandal of all Rognes. For nearly three years the household had been at sixes-and-sevens, and one harvest evening the baggage went off the way she came, in company with another man. The child, then scarcely weaned, had grown apace after the manner of ill weeds; and, as soon as she could walk, she got the meals ready for her father, whom she both dreaded and worshipped. Her chief passion, however, was for geese. At first she had only had two, male and female, stolen when quite young from behind a farm hedge. Then, thanks to her maternal care, the flock had increased, and she now possessed twenty birds, which she fed by pillage.
When La Trouille made her appearance, with her brazen, goat-like look, driving the geese before her with a stick, Hyacinthe flew into a temper.
"Be sure you're back for dinner, or else you'll catch it! And mind you keep the house carefully locked up, you dirty troll, for fear of robbers!"
Buteau sniggered, and even Delhomme and the others could not help laughing, they were so tickled at the idea of Hyacinthe being robbed. His house was a sight; an old cellar consisting of three walls crumbled to their original clay, a regular fox-hole, amid heaps of fallen stones and under a cluster of old lime-trees. It was all that remained of the château; and when our poaching friend, falling out with his father, had ensconced himself in this stony corner belonging to the village, he had had to close up the cellar by building a fourth wall of rough stones, in which he left two openings for window and door. The place was overgrown with brambles, and a large sweet briar hid the window. The country folk called it the Château.
A new deluge poured down. Luckily the acre or so of vineyard was close by, and the division into three was effected straightforwardly, without any new ground for a quarrel arising. There now only remained seven or eight acres of meadow down by the river side; but at this moment the rain became so heavy, and fell in such torrents, that the surveyor, passing the gate of a residence, suggested that they should go in.
"What if we took shelter for a minute at Monsieur Charles's?"
Fouan had come to a standstill, wavering, full of respect for his brother-in-law and sister, who had made their fortune, and lived in a retired way in this middle-class residence.
"No, no," he muttered; "they breakfast at twelve. It would disturb their arrangements."
But Monsieur Charles put in an appearance on his stone steps under the verandah, taking an interest in the fall of rain, and, on recognising them, he called out:
"Come in, come in, do!"
Then, as they were all dripping wet, he bade them go round and enter by the kitchen, where he joined them. He was a fine man of sixty-five summers, close-shaven, with heavy eyelids over his lack-lustre eyes, and the solemn, sallow face of a retired magistrate. He was clad in deep-blue swan-skin flannel, with furred shoes, and an ecclesiastical skull-cap, which he wore with the dignified air of one whose life had been spent in duties of delicacy and authority.
When, at the age of twenty-five, Laure Fouan, then a dressmaker in a shop at Châteaudun, married Charles Badeuil, the latter kept a little café in the Rue d'Angoulême. The young pair, ambitious, and eager to make a rapid fortune, soon left there for Chartres. But, at first, nothing succeeded with them; all they put their hands to came to grief. They vainly tried another eating-house, a restaurant, even a salt-fish shop; and they despaired of ever having a copper to call their own, when Monsieur Charles, being of an enterprising nature, had the idea of buying one of the "licensed houses" in the Rue aux Juifs, which had greatly declined, owing to an unsatisfactory staff and notorious uncleanliness. He took in the situation at a glance: the requirements of Chartres, and the void to be supplied in a large town which lacked a respectable establishment, abreast of modern progress as regards safety and comfort. Indeed, before two years had passed, Number 19, re-decorated, fitted with curtains and mirrors, and provided with a highly select staff, became so very favourably known that the number of women had to be increased to six. All the officers, all the public functionaries—in short, society in general—went nowhere else. This success was kept up, thanks to the strong right arm of Monsieur Charles and his unflagging paternal administration; while Madame Charles proved herself extraordinarily active, keeping her eye on everything, letting nothing go to waste, and yet shrewd enough to overlook, when necessary, the petty larcenies of rich customers.
In less than twenty-five years the Badeuils saved three hundred thousand francs, and they then thought of fulfilling the dream of their lives: an idyllic old age, face to face with nature, amid trees, flowers, and birds. But they were kept two years longer by their inability to find a purchaser for Number 19 at the high price they valued it. And what a heartrending thing it was! An establishment furnished by themselves on the best scale, bringing in a larger income than a farm, and yet about to pass, perforce, into strange hands, in which, possibly, it would degenerate. On his settling in Chartres a daughter had been born to Monsieur Charles, by name Estelle, whom he sent to the nuns of the Visitation, at Châteaudun, when he moved into the Rue aux Juifs. In this devout, rigidly moral boarding school, he left the young girl till the age of twenty, to further purify her purity; sending her some distance off for her holidays, and keeping her in ignorance of the business in which he made his money. He only took her away on the day he wedded her to Hector Vaucogne, a young fellow employed on the local excise staff, whose excellent natural gifts were marred by extraordinary laziness. Estelle was close on thirty, and had a daughter, Elodie, aged seven, when, being at length acquainted with the facts by hearing that her father's business was in the market, she went to him of her own accord and asked him to give her the preference. Why should so safe and flourishing a business go out of the family? All was duly arranged. The Vaucognes took the place over, and the Badeuils, before a month had elapsed, had the fond satisfaction of ascertaining that their daughter, although brought up to other ideas, had turned out a first-rate manageress, which, happily, compensated for their son-in-law's supineness and lack of administrative power. They had lived in retirement at Rognes for five years, and had the supervision of their grand-daughter, Elodie, who, in her turn, had been sent to the nuns of the Visitation at Châteaudun, there to be religiously trained in principles of the strictest morality.
When Monsieur Charles came into the kitchen, where a maid was whipping some eggs, while she kept her eye upon a pan of larks fizzing in butter, they all of them, even old Fouan and Delhomme, uncovered their heads, and seemed extremely flattered at shaking hands with him.
"Bless me!" said Grosbois, to make himself agreeable, "What a charming property this is of yours! And to think that you picked it up for a mere song. Oh, you artful dog, you!"
The other puffed himself out like a turkey-cock.
"A bargain, a windfall. We took a fancy to it, and, besides, Madame Charles had set her heart on ending her days in her own part of the country. As for me, where the heart is engaged I have always been indulgent."
Roseblanche, as the property had been christened, was the "folly" of a townsman of Cloyes, who had just laid out upon it nearly fifty thousand francs, when a fit of apoplexy struck him down before the paint was dry on the walls. The house, very trim, and situated on the slope of the plateau, stood in a garden of some seven acres, which reached down to the Aigre. In that out-of-the-way spot, on the confines of sombre Beauce, no purchaser could be found, and Monsieur Charles had got the place for twenty thousand francs. There he blissfully satisfied all his tastes, fishing the stream for superb trout and eels, making beloved collections of rose-trees and carnations, and keeping a large aviary full of wood warblers, which no one but himself tended. There the fond old pair ran through an income of twelve thousand francs, in a state of perfect happiness, which they looked upon as the rightful recompense of their thirty years of toil.
"Eh?" added Monsieur Charles. "At least people know who we are, here."
"Undoubtedly you are known," replied the surveyor. "Your money is sufficient recommendation."
All the rest assented.
"True; quite true."
Then Monsieur Charles bade the servant bring some glasses, he himself going into the cellar to fetch up two bottles of wine. With their noses turned towards the frying-pan, in which the larks were browning, they all sniffed the savoury smell, and solemnly drank, rolling the wine round in their mouths.
"Gracious! It don't come from this part of the country, I know! Capital!"
"Another drop. Your health!"
As they laid down their glasses, Madame Charles, an estimable-looking matron of sixty-two, with snowy frontlets, made her appearance. In her the thick, large-nosed visage of the Fouans was of a pale, pink hue; hers was the calm, sweet, monastic complexion of an aged nun who had led a sequestered life. Clinging to her with awkward shyness followed Elodie, who was spending a two days' holiday at Rognes. Preyed upon by chlorosis, and over-tall for a girl of twelve, her flabby ugliness, and her thin, blanched hair bespoke an impoverished system; and she had been, moreover, kept in such restraint during her course of training for spotless maidenhood that she was half an imbecile.
"Ha! you here!" said Madame Charles, shaking hands with her brother and nephew, slowly and impressively, in token of the distance between them. Then, turning round, and giving no further heed to such fellows, she added:
"Come in, come in, Monsieur Patoir; the animal is here."
Patoir was the Cloyes veterinary—short, stout, full-blooded, and purple; with the aspect of a trooper, and wearing heavy moustaches. He had just driven up in a mud-splashed gig through the pelting rain.
"This poor darling," she went on, taking out of a warm oven a basket in which an old cat lay in the throes of death; "this poor darling was seized yesterday with a shivering fit, and it was then I wrote to you. Ah! he's not young; he is nearly fifteen. We had him ten years at Chartres, but last year my daughter had to get rid of him, and I brought him here because he misbehaved himself in every corner of the shop."
"Shop" was for Elodie's benefit, she being told that her parents kept a confectionery business, amid such a press of work, that they could not receive her there. The country-folk, however, did not even smile, for the expression was current in Rognes, where people said that "even Hourdequin's farm was not so profitable as Monsieur Charles's shop." The men stared at the shrivelled, old, yellow, mangy, miserable cat; the old cat who had purred in all the beds in the Rue aux Juifs, the cat stroked and fondled by the plump hands of five or six generations of women. Long had he been pampered and petted, the spoiled darling of the saloon and retiring-rooms, licking up unconsidered trifles of pomade, drinking the water in the toilet-glasses, a mute, abstracted spectator of what went on, seeing everything with his slender pupils set in gold.
"Monsieur Patoir, pray cure him," concluded Madame Charles.
The veterinary distended his eyelids, and screwed up his nose and mouth, all his bluff, coarse, bull-dog physiognomy being set in motion. And he cried:
"What? You've brought me all this way for that! I'll cure him for you! Tie a stone round his neck and chuck him into the water!"
Elodie burst into tears, and Madame Charles became purple in the face with indignation.
"Why, he stinks, this pet of yours! Keeping a horrid thing like that, to give the house cholera! Chuck the beast into the water!"
Nevertheless, the old lady being really angry, he eventually sat down at the table and grumblingly wrote out a prescription.
"Oh! all right, if you enjoy being plague-stricken. So long as I'm paid, what on earth can it matter to me? Look here; get this down his throat, a spoonful at a time, every hour; and here's another mixture for two baths, one this evening, the other to-morrow."
For the last instant or so Monsieur Charles had been restless feeling disconsolate at seeing the larks burn, while the maid, tired of beating up the omelette, stood idly by. So he briskly gave Patoir his six francs 'consulting fee, and urged the others to empty their glasses.
"Anyhow, the breakfast's got to be eaten. Ah! see you again soon. The rain has given over."
They left reluctantly, and the veterinary, getting into his rickety old trap, said once more:
"A cat that isn't worth the cord to chuck him into the water with! Well, that's just how it is, when people are well off!"
But all of them, even Buteau, who had grown pale with sullen envy, shook their heads in protest; and Delhomme the wise declared:
"Say what you will, people who have managed to put by an income of twelve thousand francs can't be either idlers or fools."
The veterinary had whipped up his horse, and the others made for the Aigre, through pathways now converted into torrents. They had got to the seven or eight acres of meadow that were to be divided, when the rain came down again in a perfect deluge. But this time they stuck obstinately to the task, being desperately hungry, and anxious to get it over. Only one dispute delayed them, with reference to the third lot, which was treeless, whereas a copse happened to be distributed between the other two. However, all now seemed settled and sanctioned. The surveyor promised them he would forward the memoranda to the notary, to enable him to draw up the deed; and it was agreed to defer the drawing of the lots till the following Sunday, when it should take place at ten o'clock, at the father's house.
As they returned into Rognes, Hyacinthe jerked out an oath:
"Wait, wait, you dirty troll, and I'll make it pretty hot for you!"
By the grassy wayside, La Trouille was leisurely driving her geese under the muttering downpour. At the head of the dripping, delighted flock, walked the gander, and when he turned his big yellow beak to the right, all the other big yellow beaks went to the right too. The child, taking fright at her father's words, sped home to see to the dinner, followed by a file of long-necks, which were all stretched out in the rear of the outstretched neck of the gander.