The following Sunday happened to fall just on All Saints' Day, the first of November; and, on the stroke of nine, the Abbé Godard, who was priest of Bazoches-le-Doyen, with subordinate charge of the ancient parish of Rognes, reached the top of the slope which led down to the little bridge over the Aigre. Rognes, more important in days of yore, but now reduced to a population of barely three hundred souls, had had no priest of its own for years, and seemed completely indifferent to the fact, insomuch that the municipal council had lodged the rural constable in the half-ruined parsonage.
So, every Sunday, the Abbé Godard walked the two miles between Bazoches-le-Doyen and Rognes. Being stout and dumpy, with a neck red at the nape and so swollen at the throat as to tilt his head backward, he compelled himself to this exercise for the sake of his health. On this particular Sunday, finding himself late, he was puffing terribly, with his mouth wide open in his apoplectic face, the fat of which half smothered his small snub nose and tiny grey eyes; and, despite the livid, snow-laden sky, and the premature frost which had followed the storms of the week, he was swinging his hat in his hand, having bared the thick tangles of his grizzled, carroty hair.
The road made an abrupt descent, and on the left bank of the Aigre, before reaching the stone bridge, there were only a few houses, a sort of suburb, through which the Abbé rushed tempestuously. He did not even cast a glance, either up or down stream, on the slow, limpid river winding through the meadows amid clumps of willows and poplars. On the right bank began the village proper, a double row of frontages edging the high road, while others climbed at random up the slope; and just past the bridge one found the municipal offices and the school, an old barn raised a floor higher and white-washed. For an instant the Abbé hesitated, and then craned his neck into the empty entrance-hall of the school. When he turned round, he cast a searching glance into two taverns facing him: the one having a neat shop-front, filled with flasks, and surmounted by a little yellow wooden sign bearing the inscription: Macqueron, grocer, in green letters; the other merely having its door decorated with a holly-branch, and displaying in black upon a roughly-whitened wall the words: Lengaigne. Tobacco. The priest was making up his mind to enter a steep lane between these two houses, a short ascent leading straight to the front of the church, when he caught sight of an old peasant and stopped.
"Aha! so it's you, Fouan. I'm in a hurry, but I wanted to see you. Tell me, what's doing? It's out of the question for your son, Buteau, to leave Lise in the plight she's in, with her figure unmistakably on the increase. She is one of the 'Handmaidens of the Virgin.' It's a disgrace, a disgrace!"
The old man listened, with an air of deferential politeness.
"Why, your reverence, what do you expect me to do, if Buteau holds out? And, besides, the lad's right, so far as that goes; he can't marry at his age on nothing."
"But there's a baby!"
"To be sure there is. Only the baby's not yet born, and one can never tell. That's just where it is: a baby's not an encouraging thing when you can't afford a shift for its back."
He made these remarks sagely, as became an old man who knew life. Then he added, in the same measured tone:
"Besides, an arrangement may, perhaps, be made. I am dividing my property. The lots will be drawn for presently, after mass. Then, when Buteau gets his share, he will, I hope, see about marrying his cousin."
"Good!" said the priest. "That's enough. Fouan, I rely upon you."
The pealing of a bell curtailed his speech, and he asked, apprehensively:
"That's the second bell, isn't it?"
"No, your reverence, the third."
"Good gracious! that brute of a Bécu at it again! Ringing without waiting for me!"
He cursed, and ran violently up the pathway. At the top he all but had a fit; he was puffing away like a blacksmith's bellows.
The bell rang on, while the ravens it had disturbed flew cawing round the steeple, a fifteenth-century spire, which bore witness to the ancient importance of Rognes. In front of the wide, open door a group of peasants were waiting, among whom the innkeeper, Lengaigne, a freethinker, was smoking his pipe. Farther on, against the churchyard wall, farmer Hourdequin, the mayor—a well-built man, with strongly-marked features—chatted with his assessor, the grocer Macqueron. When the priest had passed by with a salute, they all followed him, excepting Lengaigne, who ostentatiously turned his back, pulling at his pipe.
Inside the church, to the right of the porch, there was a man hanging on to a rope, which he still went on pulling.
"That'll do, Bécu!" said the Abbé Godard, beside himself. "I've told you twenty times to wait for me before you ring the third time."
The rural constable, who was also the bell-ringer, fell to his feet, aghast at his own disobedience. He was a little man of fifty, with the square, bronzed physiognomy of an old soldier, grey moustache and goatee, and a rigid neck, seeming as if he were continually choked by a tight collar. Already very tipsy, he stood to attention, without venturing to excuse himself.
Moreover, the priest had already made off, and was crossing the nave, with a glance at the seats. There was a scanty attendance. On the left, he as yet saw only Delhomme, present in his capacity of municipal councillor. On the right, the women's side, there were at the most a dozen. He recognised Cœlina Macqueron, shrivelled, sinewy, and overbearing; Flore Lengaigne, buxom, mild, and good-humoured; and Bécu's good woman, a lanky, very dirty, dark brunette. But what put the finishing touch to his wrath was the behaviour of the "Handmaidens of the Virgin" in the front row. Françoise was there between two of her friends—the Macquerons' daughter, Berthe, a handsome brunette, brought up as a lady at Cloyes, and the Lengaignes' daughter, Suzanne, a fair, plain, bold-faced hussy, whom her parents were about to apprentice to a dressmaker at Châteaudun. All the three were indulging in unseemly laughter. And, beside them, poor Lise, plump and cheerful, faced the altar, exposing her scandalous condition to public comment.
Finally, the Abbé Godard was going into the sacristy, when he came across Delphin and Nénesse pushing each other about in play, whereas they were supposed to be getting the wine vases ready for mass. The first-named, Bécu's son, aged eleven, was a sun-burnt youngster, already well-knit, and just leaving school to become a ploughman; while Ernest, Delhomme's eldest, of the same age, fair, slim, and given to loafing, always carried a looking-glass in his pocket.
"Now, then, you mischievous imps," cried the priest, "do you think you're in a cow-shed?"
And turning towards a tall, thin, young man, whose sallow face bristled with a few light hairs, and who was arranging some books on the shelf of a cupboard, he added:
"Really, Monsieur Lequeu, you might keep them quiet when I am out of the way!"
This was the schoolmaster, a peasant's son, whose education had taught him to hate those of his own station. He resorted to violence with his boys, treating them like brute beasts, and cloaked Republican ideas under a scrupulously formal demeanour towards the priest and the mayor. He sang well in the choir, and even looked after the sacred books; but he had refused point-blank to ring the bell, in spite of custom, such a task being unworthy of a free man.
"I am not entrusted with maintaining order in church," he responded, dryly. "At my place, though, wouldn't I just box their ears!"
And as the Abbé, without answering, hastily shuffled into his alb and stole, he went on:
"Low mass, isn't it?"
"Yes, to be sure, and be quick! I've got to be at Bazoches by half-past ten for high mass."
M. Lequeu, who had taken an old missal from the cupboard, closed the latter and went out to place the book on the altar.
"Make haste, make haste," repeated the priest, hurrying Delphin and Nénesse.
And, still perspiring, still panting, with the chalice in his hand, he went back into the church and began the mass, at which the two urchins officiated with sly, quizzical side-looks. The church had but one aisle, with a vaulted, oak-panelled roof, falling to pieces through the obstinate refusal of the municipal council to allow any funds. The rain dripped through the broken slates of the roofing, deep stains marked the advanced state of decay of the woodwork, and beyond the choir, shut off by a railing, a greenish leakage aloft disfigured the fresco of the apsis, cutting the figure of an Eternal Father, worshipped by angels, atwain.
When the priest turned, open armed, towards the congregation, he calmed down a bit on observing that some people had come in—the mayor, his assessor, some municipal councillors, old Fouan, and Clou the farrier, who played the trombone when there was a musical service. Lequeu had remained, with a stately air, in the front row. Bécu, although drunk, stood bolt upright in the background. On the women's side, especially, the seats had filled up, Fanny, Rose, La Grande, and others had come, so that the "Handmaidens of the Virgin," now poring over their books in an exemplary way, had had to crowd closer together. What particularly flattered the priest was to perceive Monsieur and Madame Charles, with their grand-daughter Elodie; he in a black frock-coat, she in a green silk dress, both of them solemn and splendiferous, setting a good example.
Nevertheless, he hurried over his mass, mangling the Latin and maiming the rites. In his address, not going into the pulpit, but sitting on a chair in the middle of the choir, he made a miserable exhibition of himself, lost the thread of his discourse, and gave up as hopeless the task of ever finding it again. Eloquence was not his strong point; he stumbled over his words, and hum'd and ha'd without ever being able to finish his sentences, which explained why his lordship the Bishop had overlooked him for twenty-five years in his little cure of Bazoches-le-Doyen. The rest of the service was vamped; the bell-ringing, during the elevation of the Host, sounded like electric signals gone mad, and the priest dismissed the congregation with an "Ite missa est," as smart as the crack of a whip.
The church was barely empty when the Abbé Godard re-appeared, with his hat hastily put on wrong side foremost. Before the door stood a group of women—Cœlina, Flore, and old mother Bécu—all much annoyed at having been raced along at that pace. It was making very light of them to give them no more on a high holiday.
"I say, your reverence," asked Cœlina, in her shrill voice, as she stopped him: "You've got a spite against us, packing us off just like a bundle of rags."
"Why, it's like this," he replied; "my own people are waiting for me. I can't be both at Bazoches and at Rognes. Get a priest of your own if you want high masses."
This was always a sore point between Rognes and the Abbé, the villagers insisting on special attention, and he strictly confining himself to what he was obliged to do for a village which refused to repair its church, and where, moreover, constant scandals discouraged him. Indicating the "Handmaidens of the Virgin," who were leaving together, he resumed:
"And, besides, is it decent to go through ceremonies with young folks who have no respect whatever for God's commandments?"
"You don't mean that for my girl, I hope?" asked Cœlina, between her teeth.
"Nor for mine, I'm sure?" added Flore.
Then he lost all patience and burst out:
"I mean it for those it concerns. It's as plain as a pike-staff. White dresses, indeed. A pretty thing! I never have a procession here without one of them being in the family way. No, no; you'd tire out God Almighty himself."
He left them; and Bécu's wife, who had remained silent, had to make peace between the two mothers, who, in considerable excitement, were heaping reproaches on each other on their daughters' account. But her peace-making was of such a bitterly insinuating character that the quarrel rose higher.
Oh yes! They would see how Berthe would turn out, with her velvet bodices and her piano! And Suzanne, what a first-rate idea to send her to the milliner's at Châteaudun, so that she might go the pace with the best of them!
The Abbé Godard was rushing off, when he came full upon Monsieur and Madame Charles. A broad, beaming smile overspread his face, and his hat performed a sweeping obeisance. Monsieur bowed majestically. Madame made her best curtsey. It was fated that the priest should never get off, for no sooner had he cleared the square than he was brought up by another chance encounter. This was with a tall woman of thirty, who looked quite fifty, with thin hair and a flat, flabby, bran-yellow face. Broken down and worn out by excessive exertion, she was staggering under the weight of a faggot of brushwood.
"Palmyre," he asked, "why didn't you come to mass on All Saints' Day? It's disgraceful."
"No doubt, your reverence," she groaned, "but what's to be done? My brother is cold, and we are freezing at home. So I've been picking up these along the hedges."
"La Grande is still as hard as ever, then?"
"Rather! She'd die before she'd chuck us a crust or a log."
In a dolorous voice she repeated her own and her brother's story: how their grandmother had turned them out of doors, how she had had to take refuge with her brother in an old deserted stable. Poor Hilarion, bandy and hare-lipped, lacked intelligence; indeed, despite his twenty years of age, he was so idiotic that no one would give him employment. And so she was bringing herself to death's door in working for him, tending him with the impassioned care and untiring tenderness of a mother.
As the Abbé Godard listened to her, his coarse, perspiring face assumed a look of the purest kindness, his little angry eyes grew beautiful with charity, his large mouth took a sweetly sad expression. This formidable scold, always being whirled to and fro by gusts of wrath, was passionately devoted to the wretched, and gave them everything—his money, linen, and clothes. To such a point that in all La Beauce you would not find a priest with a rustier or a more extensively darned cassock.
He fumbled anxiously in his pockets, and slipped a five-franc piece into Palmyre's hand.
"Here! Put it away; I've none for anybody else. I shall have to talk again to La Grande, since she's so wicked."
This time he got clear off. Luckily, as he was puffing and blowing up the slope on the other side of the Aigre, the Bazoches butcher, on his way back, gave him a lift in his cart; and he all but vanished as he gained the level of the plain, jolting along with the dancing silhouette of his three-cornered hat alone standing out against the leaden sky.
Meantime the church square had emptied, and Fouan and Rose had just gone down home, where they found Grosbois already waiting. A little before ten, Delhomme and Hyacinthe arrived in their turn; but Buteau was waited for in vain till twelve.
The eccentric rascal never could be punctual. Doubtless he had stopped on the road somewhere to breakfast. It was proposed to go on without him; then, a vague fear inspired by his hot-headedness led to the decision that the lots should not be drawn for till two o'clock, after breakfast. Grosbois, accepting a bit of bacon and a glass of wine from the Fouans, finished up one bottle, started on another, and relapsed into his usual state of intoxication.
Two o'clock, and still no Buteau appeared. So Hyacinthe, languishing for debauch, like the rest of the village, that Sunday feast-day, went lounging past Macqueron's. This succeeded: the door was flung open, and Bécu appeared shouting:
"Come along, you rascally baggage, and let me treat you to a glass."
Bécu had got stiffer still, assuming more and more dignity as his intoxication increased. A drunken, old-soldierly fellowship, a secret affection, drew him towards the poacher; but he avoided recognising him when he was on duty with his badge on his arm, being always on the point of catching him flagrante delicto, and struggling between duty and inclination. In the tavern, however, when he was tipsy, he stood him treat like a brother.
"Take a hand at piquet, eh?" said he; "and, by God, if the Bedouins bore us, we'll slit their ears for 'em!"
They installed themselves at a table, and played cards boisterously, while quart after quart of wine was served them.
Macqueron, with his fat, moustachioed face, sat huddled up in a corner, twiddling his thumbs. Since he had been gaining money by speculating in the light wines of Montigny, he had fallen into idle ways—hunting, fishing, and playing the gentleman; though he remained filthy and ragged, while his daughter Berthe flounced to and fro in silk. If his wife had heeded him they would have shut up shop, giving up both the grocery and the refreshment business; for he was growing conceited, and had dim ambitions, as yet unrecognised by himself. But she was ferociously eager for gain, and he, although concerning himself personally about nothing, was content to let her go on serving tipple, just to annoy his neighbour Lengaigne, who kept the tobacco shop, and also dealt in drink. 'Twas a long-standing rivalry, ever smouldering, and ever ready to burst into a blaze.
Yet sometimes they were at peace for weeks together; and, as it happened, Lengaigne then came in with his son Victor, a tall, awkward youth, who was to draw for the conscription the next year. Lengaigne himself, a lanky, frozen-looking man, with a little owl's head set upon broad, brawny shoulders, had remained a peasant and tilled the soil, while his wife weighed out the tobacco and drew the wine. He derived a special importance from the fact that he was barber and hair-cutter to the whole village, an avocation which he had brought back from his regiment, and which he plied either at his shop, amid the eaters and drinkers, or else, if his customers preferred it, at their own homes.
"Well, this beard of yours, is it to be done to-day, my boy?" he asked, from the door.
"Bless me! Right you are, I told you to come," cried Macqueron. "This very moment, if you like."
He reached an old shaving-dish from its hook, and took some soap and warm water, while the other drew from his pocket a razor the size of a cutlass, which he set about sharpening on a strop fixed to the case. A squeaky voice now issued from the adjacent grocery department:
"I say," cried Cœlina, "are you going to mess the tables which people drink at? Well, then, you sha'n't! I won't have hair found in the glasses at my house."
This was an attack on the cleanliness of the rival tavern, where customers ate more hair than they drank genuine wine, she said.
"Sell your salt and pepper, and hold your row!" replied Macqueron, annoyed by this public curtain-lecture. Hyacinthe and Bécu tittered.
"An extinguisher for the good lady that!" They ordered of her a fresh quart of wine, which she brought in speechless fury. Then they shuffled the cards, and dashed them violently on to the table, as if to exasperate each other. Trump, trump, and trump!
Lengaigne had already lathered his customer, and was holding him by the nose, when Lequeu, the schoolmaster, pushed the door open.
He stood silently in front of the stove, warming his loins, while young Victor, stationed behind the players, became absorbed in watching their game.
"By the by," resumed Macqueron, taking advantage of a moment when Lengaigne was wiping the lather off the razor on to his shoulder, "just now, before mass, Monsieur Hourdequin spoke to me again about the road. Things must be settled some way or another."
The road in question was the famous one direct from Rognes to Châteaudun, which was to shorten the distance by about two leagues, for vehicles were now forced to pass through Cloyes. Of course, the farm was much interested in this new route, and to carry the point the mayor relied greatly on his assessor—himself interested in a speedy settlement. There was a question of facilitating the approach of vehicles to the church, which could now only be reached by goat-paths, and the projected line of route followed the steep lane that wound its narrow way between the two taverns. Only broaden that, and level down the ascent a bit, and the grocer's grounds—which would be by the road-side, and of easy access—would increase tenfold in value.
"Yes," he continued, "it would seem that the Government, before giving us any help, is waiting for us to vote something. That's so, isn't it? You are in it."
Lengaigne, who was a municipal councillor, but who had not as much as a square inch of garden behind his house, replied:
"I don't care a curse! What the deuce has your road to do with me?"
Then, making an attack on the other cheek, which he rasped as with a nutmeg-grater, he fell foul of the farm. These latter-day gentlefolks were even worse than the nobles of old. Why, they had kept everything to themselves in the distribution of the land, made laws merely for their own advantage, and they lived only on the distress of poor folks. The others listened, constrained, yet inwardly pleased by his temerity, for they had the peasant's immemorial, unconquerable hatred of the landowner.
"It's a good thing we are among ourselves," muttered Macqueron, glancing uneasily at the schoolmaster. "I am on the Government side. So is our deputy, Monsieur de Chédeville, who is, they say, a friend of the Emperor's."
Lengaigne began furiously shaking his razor.
"And that's another pretty rogue of a fellow! Oughtn't a rich man like him, possessing more than two thousand acres of land over there towards Orgères, oughtn't he to make you a present of your road, instead of trying to wring coppers out of the village? The low beast!"
The grocer, alarmed this time, protested. "No, no. He's very straightforward, and not proud. But for him you wouldn't have had your tobacco-counter. What would you say if he took it away from you again?"
Abruptly calming down, Lengaigne went on scraping the other's chin. He had lost his temper and gone too far; his wife was right in saying that his ideas would play him false. At that moment a quarrel was heard to threaten between Bécu and Hyacinthe. The former was in an ill-tempered, pugnacious state of drunkenness, while the other, on the contrary, grim and overbearing though he was when sober, grew more and more maudlin with every glass of wine, subsiding into the genial meekness of a tipsy apostle. Add to this their radical difference of opinion: the poacher being a Republican—a Red, as people said—who boasted of having made the gentlefolks dance the rigadoon at Cloyes in '48; and the rural constable being a wild Bonapartist and worshipping the Emperor, with whom he pretended to be acquainted.
"I swear it! We had partaken of a red herring salad together, when he said to me: 'Not a word. I am the Emperor.' I knew him at a glance, because of his likeness on the five-franc pieces."
"Maybe! Anyhow, he's a low fellow, who beats his wife and never loved his mother!"
"Hold your tongue, in God's name! or I'll break your jaw for you!"
The quart bottle which Bécu was brandishing had to be taken from him; whilst Hyacinthe, with tearful eyes, sat awaiting the blow in cheerful resignation. Then they resumed their game, like brothers. Trump, trump, and trump!
Macqueron, rendered uneasy by the assumed indifference of the schoolmaster, finished by asking him:
"And you, Monsieur Lequeu, what do you say?"
Lequeu, who was warming his slender, sallow hands against the stove-pipe, smiled the bitter smile of a superior person who is compelled by his position to remain silent.
"I say nothing," he answered. "It's none of my business."
Macqueron soused his face in a basin of water, and while spluttering and wiping himself dry, replied:
"Well, mark my words! I mean to do something. If the road's voted, by God, I'll let 'em have my ground for nothing."
This declaration stupefied the audience. Even Hyacinthe and Bécu looked up, despite their intoxication. There was a pause. They gazed at Macqueron as if he had suddenly gone mad; and he, spurred on by the effect produced, yet with his hands trembling at the engagement he was taking, added:
"There'll be something like half an acre. The man who goes back on his word is a scoundrel! I've sworn it!"
Lengaigne departed with his son Victor, exasperated and disgusted by his neighbour's munificence. Land didn't cost him much, the way he robbed people.
Macqueron, despite the cold, now took his gun, and went out to see if he could come across a rabbit he had noticed in his vineyard the day before. In the tavern there only remained Lequeu—who spent his Sundays there without taking anything to drink—and the two gamblers, who were poring over their cards. Hours elapsed, while other peasants came and went.
Towards five o'clock the door was roughly pushed open, and Buteau appeared, followed by Jean. Immediately he saw Hyacinthe, he cried:
"I'd have wagered five francs. Don't you care a damn for anybody? We're waiting for you."
The drunkard, slobbering and merry, replied:
"That's a good 'un! I'm waiting for you. You've kept us hanging about since morning, and I think it cool of you to complain."
Buteau had stopped at La Borderie, where Jacqueline, whom, at the age of fifteen, he had knocked head over heels in the hay, had kept him to eat some hot buttered toast with Jean. Farmer Hourdequin having gone to breakfast at Cloyes after mass, the two sparks had kept it up pretty late, and had only just reached the village in each other's company.
Meantime, Bécu yelled out that he would pay for the five quarts, but that the game was to stand over; while Hyacinthe, reluctantly unfixing himself from his chair, followed his brother, chuckling to himself, with his eyes swimming in mildness.
"Wait there," said Buteau to Jean, "and in half an hour come and pick me up. You know you dine with me at father's."
When the two brothers had entered the sitting-room of the Fouans' house, they found the company assembled in full. The father was standing up with bent head. The mother, seated near the table in the middle, was mechanically knitting. Opposite her was Grosbois, who had eaten and drunk so much as to be in a state of doze, with his eyes half-open; while, farther off, Fanny and Delhomme were waiting patiently on two low chairs. There were some unwonted articles in the smoky room, with its shabby old furniture and its utensils worn by scrubbing: a blank sheet of paper, an ink-bottle, and a pen stood on the table beside the surveyor's hat—a monumental, rusty-black hat with which he had trudged through rain and sunshine for ten years past. Night was falling, and through the narrow window came an expiring, murky glimmer, in which the flat brim and urn-like body of the hat loomed strangely.
Grosbois, always ready for business in spite of his intoxication, woke up and stammered out:
"Now we're right. I told you the deed was ready. I called yesterday at Monsieur Baillehache's, and he showed it me. Only the numbers of the lots are left blank after your names. So we will draw, and the notary need then only write in the lots and you can sign on Saturday at his place."
He roused himself and raised his voice: "Come, I will get the tickets ready."
Fouan's children abruptly approached, making no secret of their distrust. They watched Grosbois, and kept a sharp eye on his slightest movements, as on those of a conjuror capable of juggling away the shares. First he had cut the sheet of paper into three with his drink-sodden, shaking fingers; now he was writing the figures 1, 2, 3, and enormous, strongly-marked figures they were. The others watched his pen over his shoulders, the parents themselves nodding their satisfaction on seeing the impossibility of deception. The tickets were slowly folded up and thrown into the hat. A solemn stillness reigned.
At the expiration of two long minutes Grosbois exclaimed:
"Well, you must make up your minds. Who begins?"
No one stirred. The night deepened, and the hat seemed to grow larger in the gloom.
"By order of seniority, eh?" proposed the surveyor. "You begin, Hyacinthe, you're the eldest."
Hyacinthe, the amiable, came forward, but he lost his balance, and all but fell sprawling. He had violently shoved his fist into the hat as though with the purpose of extracting a mass of rock from it. When he had secured one of the tickets, he had to go to the window to see.
"Two!" cried he, evidently finding something exceedingly humorous in the figure, for he choked with laughter.
"Your turn, Fanny," now called Grosbois.
When Fanny had got her hand to the bottom, she did not hurry. She fumbled about, stirred the papers round, and seemed to weigh them one after the other.
"Picking and choosing's not allowed," said Buteau, savagely. He was suffocating with passion, and had turned pale on ascertaining the number drawn by his brother.
"Eh? Why not?" replied Fanny. "I'm not looking; surely I may feel."
"Get on," murmured the father; "there's nothing to choose between 'em; one's as heavy as the other."
At last she made up her mind, and ran to the window.
"Well, then, Buteau has number three," resumed Fouan. "Draw it, my boy."
In the growing darkness they had not seen how the face of the young man changed. He burst out in wrath:
"If you think I'm going to assent to this, you're wrong! The third lot, eh? The bad one! I told you over and over again that I wanted a different division. But you pooh-pooh'd me! Besides, can't I see through your trickery? Oughtn't the youngest to have drawn first? No, I won't draw, since there's been cheating!"
The parents gazed at his wild movements as he gesticulated and stamped about.
"My poor boy, you're going crazy," said Rose.
"Oh, yes, mamma, I know well enough you never liked me. You'd strip the skin off my back to give it to my brother. You'd all of you eat me alive."
Fouan sternly interrupted him. "Enough of this folly! Will you draw?"
"It'll have to be done all over again."
At this there was a general protest. Hyacinthe and Fanny clutched their papers as if a forcible attempt were being made upon them. Delhomme declared that the drawing had been fair, and Grosbois, much aggrieved, threatened to leave if his honesty were called in question.
"Then papa shall add a thousand francs to my share out of his hoard," said Buteau.
The old man, taken aback for an instant, stammered. Then he drew himself up and advanced threateningly.
"What's that you say? So you're anxious to get me assassinated, you brute? Raze the house to the ground and you won't find a copper. Take that paper, or, by God, you shall have nothing at all!"
Buteau, with a hardened and obstinate brow, did not quail before his father's raised fist.
An awkward silence again fell. The huge hat was now an encumbrance and obstruction, with this solitary scrap of paper, which nobody would touch, inside it. The surveyor, to cut things short, advised the old man to draw it out himself. He did so, gravely, and went to the light to read it, as if the number were still unknown.
"Three! You've the third lot, d'ye hear? The deed is ready, and it's quite certain that Monsieur Baillehache won't alter it, for once done can't be undone. As you're sleeping here, I give you the night to think it over in. So that's done with. Let's say no more about it."
Buteau, wrapped in shadow, made no reply. The others noisily assented, while the mother at last made up her mind to light a candle so as to lay the cloth.
At that moment Jean, who was coming to meet his comrade, espied two intertwined shadows watching, from the dark deserted road, the progress of events at the Fouans. Feathery snow-flakes were beginning to flutter across the slate-grey sky.
"Oh, Monsieur Jean," said a soft voice, "how you frightened us!"
Then he recognised Françoise's long face and thick lips. She was nestling against her sister Lise, and had one arm round her waist, while she leant her head on her shoulder. The two sisters adored each other, and were always seen about like this, hanging on each other's neck. Lise taller, and of pleasant aspect, despite her large features and the incipient development of her whole plump person, bore her misfortune with equanimity.
"You were spying, eh?" Jean inquired gaily.
"Why, what's going on in there has an interest for me," replied Lise, freely and openly. "It's a point whether it will make Buteau come to a decision."
Françoise, with her other arm, had now caressingly encircled her sister's swollen figure.
"What a shame, the brute! When he's got some land, p'raps he'll be looking out for some one better off."
But Jean gave them hope. The drawing of the lots must have come to an end, and the rest was matter of arrangement. When he told them he was to sup at the old folks' house, Françoise added, as she turned away: "Well, we shall see you presently; we're going to the evening meeting."
He watched them disappear in the darkness. The snow was thickening and embroidering their mingled dresses with fine white down.