At seven o'clock, after dinner, the Fouans, Buteau, and Jean went to share the cow-house with the two cows which Rose had decided to sell. The animals, fastened up at the farther end, near the trough, kept the closed shed warm with the powerful exhalation from their bodies and their litter; whereas the kitchen, containing only three meagre, smouldering logs, left there after the cooking, was already chilled by the early November frost. So, in the winter, the evening meeting was held in the cow-house, on the trampled earth, snugly and warmly, with no other preparation than carrying in a small round table and a dozen old chairs. Each neighbour brought a candle in rotation. Tall shadows flickered over the bare, dust-begrimed walls, reaching up to the cobwebs on the beams; and from the rear came the warm breath of the cattle, that lay and chewed the cud.
La Grande was the first to arrive, with a piece of knitting. She never brought a candle, presuming on her great age, and she was held in such awe that her brother dared not remind her of the custom. She forthwith took the best place, drew the candlestick towards her, and kept it to herself, on the score of her failing eyes. She had rested the stick, which never left her, against her chair. Glittering flakes of snow were melting on the bristles which stuck up over her fleshless, bird-like head.
"It's coming down?" asked Rose.
"It is," she replied in her curt tones. And setting straightway to work with her knitting, she compressed her thin lips, never prodigal of speech, and cast a searching glance at Jean and Buteau.
The others made their appearance behind her. First Fanny, her son, Nénesse—Delhomme never came to the meetings—then, almost immediately, Lise and Françoise, who laughingly shook off the snow which covered them. The sight of Buteau made the former faintly blush. He looked at her unmoved.
"Been all right, Lise, since we last met?"
"Pretty well, thanks."
"Glad to hear it."
Palmyre, meanwhile, had stolen in through the half-open door, and she was shrinkingly placing herself as far as possible from her grandmother, the redoubtable La Grande, when a tumult outside made her start up. Furious stammerings, tears, laughter, and yells were heard.
"Those rascally children are at him again!" cried she.
She had made a spring forward, and opened the door again. With a bold rush, and growling like a lioness, she rescued her brother Hilarion from the mischievous clutches of La Trouille, Delphin, and Nénesse. The last-named had just joined the other two, who were hanging round the cripple and yelling. Hilarion, breathless and scared, shambled in on his twisted legs. His hare's lip made him dribble at the mouth. He stuttered unintelligibly, was decrepit-looking for his age, and brutishly hideous like the cretin that he was.
He was in a very spiteful mood, quite furious at not being able to catch and clout the urchins who were teasing him. Once more he complained that he had been pelted with a volley of snow-balls.
"Oh! what a story!" said La Trouille, with an air of surpassing innocence. "He's bitten my thumb; look!"
At this Hilarion all but choked in his struggle to get his words out; while Palmyre soothed him, and, wiping his face with her handkerchief, called him her darling boy.
"There, that'll do," said Fouan at length. "You ought to be pretty well able to prevent his catching you. Sit him down, anyhow, and let him keep quiet. Silence, you brute, or you'll be sent back home with a flea in your ear."
As the cripple continued to stutter, with the intention of putting himself in the right, La Grande, with her eyes flashing fire, seized her stick and brought it down on the table so sharply as to make every one jump. Palmyre and Hilarion collapsed in affright and stirred no more.
Then the evening began. The women, gathered round the single candle, knitted, spun, or did needlework, that they never so much as looked at. The men, stolid and taciturn, smoked in the rear, while the children pushed and pinched each other in a corner, amid suppressed giggling.
Sometimes they told stories: that of the Black Pig which guarded a treasure with a red key in its mouth; or that of the Orleans beast, which had a man's face and bat's wings, with hair down to the ground, two horns, and two tails (one to lay hold with and the other to kill with), which monster had devoured a Rouen traveller, of whom nothing remained but his hat and boots.
At other times they told tales about the wolves which, for centuries, had devastated La Beauce. In days of old, when La Beauce, now stripped and bare, had a few clumps of trees left out of its primeval forests, countless packs of wolves, urged by hunger, issued forth in winter time to prey upon the flocks. Women and children were devoured, and the old country-folk remembered how, in heavy falls of snow, the wolves would enter the towns. At Cloyes, they would be heard howling in the Place Saint-Georges; at Rognes, they would sniff round the imperfectly closed doors of the cow-houses and sheep-pens. Then came a succession of hackneyed anecdotes: of the miller surprised by five large wolves, and putting them to flight by lighting a match; of the little girl chased for two leagues by a she-wolf, and eaten up just at her own door, where she tripped and fell; legends upon legends of wer-wolves, men changed to animals, who leaped upon the necks of belated travellers, and ran them to death.
But what froze the blood of the girls gathered round the slim candle, what made them take wildly to flight and scan the darkness apprehensively as they left the house, was the villany of the Chauffeurs, the notorious Orgères band of sixty years ago, at the thought of which the whole country-side still trembled.
There were hundreds of them, tramps, beggars, deserters, spurious pedlars—men, women, and children, all living by robbery, murder, and debauchery. They were the descendants of the old armed and disciplined troops of brigands, and, taking advantage of the revolutionary disturbances, they laid formal siege to lonely houses, into which they burst like bomb-shells, breaking the doors in with battering-rams. When night came on, they issued forth like wolves from the forest of Dourdan and the copses of La Conie, the wooded lairs wherein they lurked; and, with the darkening shadows, terror fell upon the farmers of La Beauce, from Etampes to Châteaudun, and from Chartres to Orleans.
Of their many legendary atrocities, the one which was most popular at Rognes was the pillage of the Millouard farm, only a few leagues distant, in the Canton of Orgères. Beau-François, their noted chief, the successor of Fleur d'Epine, had with him that night his lieutenant, Rouge d'Auneau, Grand-Dragon, Breton-le-cul-sec, Lonjumeau, Sans-Pouce, and fifty others, all with blackened faces. First, they bayonetted into the cellar the farm people, the servants, the waggoners, and the shepherd. Then they "warmed" old Fousset, the farmer, whom they had kept by himself. Having stretched his feet over the glowing coals of the fireplace, they set his beard and all the hair on his body on fire with burning straw. Then they reverted to his feet, which they notched with the point of a knife for the flames to penetrate the better. At length the old man, having decided to reveal where his money was, they let him go and carried off considerable booty. Fousset, who had strength enough to drag himself to a neighbouring house, did not die till later on. The tale invariably concluded with the trial and execution of the Chauffeurs at Chartres, after they had been betrayed by Borgne-le-Jouy. Eighteen long months were devoted to preparing the case against the prisoners, and in the meanwhile sixty-four of the latter died in prison of a plague brought on by their filthy habits. Still the trial before the Assize Court dealt with a hundred and fifteen accused, thirty-three of whom were contumacious; seven thousand eight hundred questions were submitted to the jury, and finally there were twenty-three condemnations to death. On the night after the execution, the headsmen of Chartres and Dreux had a fight over the criminals' clothes, beneath the scaffold still red with blood.
Fouan, in alluding to a murder Janville way, thus once more recounted the abominations done at the Millouard farm; and he had got as far as the song of complaint composed in prison by Rouge d'Auneau, when the women were alarmed by strange noises in the road—footsteps, struggles, and oaths. They grew pale, and listened in terrified expectation of seeing a gang of blackened men come in like bomb-shells. Buteau, however, bravely went and opened the door.
"Who goes there?"
He at last perceived Bécu and Hyacinthe, who, at the conclusion of a quarrel with Macqueron, had just left the tavern, carrying with them the cards and a candle to finish their game elsewhere. They were so tipsy, and the company had been so frightened, that every one began to laugh.
"Come in, anyhow, and mind you behave yourself," said Rose, smiling at her tall vagabond son. "Your children are here, you can take them back with you."
Hyacinthe and Bécu sat down on the ground near the cows, placed the candle between them, and went on with their game. "Trump, trump, and trump!" The conversation had changed; the others were now talking of the youths in the neighbourhood who had to draw in February for the conscription—Victor Lengaigne and two others. The women had grown grave, and spoke slowly and sadly.
"It's no joke," resumed Rose: "no joke for any one."
"War, war!" murmured Fouan. "Oh, the harm it does! It's simply destruction to culture. When the youths leave us, our best hands go, as is easily seen when work-time comes. And when they come back, why, they're altered, and their heart is no longer with the plough. Cholera even is better than war!"
Fanny left off knitting.
"I won't have Nénesse go," she declared. "Monsieur Baillehache explained a sort of lottery dodge to us. Several people club together, each of them lodging in his hands a sum of money, and those who have unlucky numbers are bought off."
"People must be well off to do that," said La Grande, drily.
Bécu had caught a stray word or so between two tricks.
"War! Heart alive!" said he. "There's nothing like it for making men! When you've not been in it, you can't know. There's nothing like taking shot and steel as they come! How about yonder, among the blackamoors?"
He winked his left eye, while Hyacinthe simpered knowingly. They had both served in Algeria, the rural constable in the early days of the conquest, the other more recently, at the time of the late revolts. Accordingly, in spite of the difference in period, they had some reminiscences in common; of Bedouins' ears cut off and strung into chaplets; of oily-skinned Bedouin women seized behind hedges and corked up in every orifice. Hyacinthe, in particular, had a tale, which set the bellies of the peasants shaking with tempestuous laughter, a tale of a big lemon-coloured cow of a woman whom they had set a-running quite naked, with a pipe stuck in her.
"Zounds!" resumed Bécu, addressing Fanny: "You want Nénesse to grow up a girl, then? However, Delphin shall wear regimentals in no time, I promise you!"
The children had left off playing, and Delphin raised his hard bullet-like head, already even redolent of the soil.
"Sha'n't!" he said, bluntly and stubbornly.
"Hallo!" rejoined his father, "what's that? I shall have to teach you what bravery is, my traitor Frenchman."
"I won't go away; I'll stop at home."
The rural constable raised his hand, but was checked by Buteau.
"Let the child alone! He's right. Is he wanted? There are others. Why on earth should we be supposed to come into this world just to leave home and go and get our heads broken, on account of a lot of nonsense we don't care a copper about? I've never left the neighbourhood, and I'm none the worse for it."
He had, in fact, drawn a lucky number, and was a regular stay-at-home, attached to the land, and only acquainted with Orleans and Chartres, never having seen an inch beyond the flat horizon of La Beauce. He seemed to plume himself on having thus grown in his own soil, with the limited, lush energy of a tree. He had risen to his feet and the women were gazing at him.
"When they come back from serving their term, they're all so thin!" ventured Lise, in an undertone.
"And you, did you go far, corporal?" asked old Rose.
Jean was smoking in silence, like a contemplative young man who preferred listening. He slowly took his pipe out of his mouth.
"Yes, pretty far, one might say. But not to the Crimea. I was about to start when Sebastopol was taken. Later on, though, I was in Italy."
"And what's Italy like?"
The question seemed to perplex him. He hesitated, and ransacked his memory.
"Why, Italy's like home. There's farming there, and woods with rivers. It's the same everywhere."
"Then you fought?"
He had again begun to pull at his pipe, and did not hurry himself. Françoise, who had looked up, remained with her mouth half open, expecting a story. And, indeed, all of them were interested; La Grande herself thumped the table afresh to silence Hilarion, who was grunting, La Trouille having devised a little diversion by slyly sticking a pin into his arm.
"At Solferino 'twas warm work; yet, gracious! how it rained! I hadn't a dry thread on me; the water was running down my back and trickling into my shoes. Wet through we were, and no mistake!"
Everybody still waited, but he said no more about the battle. That was all he had seen of it. After a minute's silence, however, he resumed in his matter-of-course way:
"Goodness me! War isn't so bad as people think. The lot falls upon one, doesn't it? and one must do one's duty. I left the service because I liked other things better. But it may have its advantages for those who are sick of their trade, and who feel furious when the foe comes and tramples on us in France."
"It's a beastly thing, all the same," wound up old Fouan. "Each man ought to defend his own homestead, and nothing more."
A fresh silence fell. It was very warm, with a damp animal warmth, accentuated by the strong smell of the litter. One of the two cows got up and relieved herself, and the dung splashed down softly and rhythmically. From the gloom of the rafters came the melancholy chirp of a cricket, and along the walls the lissom fingers of the women, plying their knitting-needles, played in shadow to and fro, looking amid the darkness like gigantic spiders.
Palmyre, taking the snuffers to trim the candle with, snuffed it so low as to extinguish it. A tumult followed. The girls laughed, the children stuck their pin into poor Hilarion's buttocks; and the meeting would have been quite upset if the candle brought by Hyacinthe and Bécu, who were nodding over their cards, had not served to re-kindle the other one, despite its long wick, which had swollen at the top into a kind of red mushroom. Conscience-stricken at her awkwardness, Palmyre quaked like a naughty child in terror of the lash.
"Come," said Fouan, "who will read us a bit of this, to finish the evening? Corporal, you ought to read print very well, now!"
He had been to fetch a greasy little book, one of the books of Bonapartist propaganda with which the Empire had flooded the country-side. It had come out of a pedlar's pack, and was a violent onslaught upon the old monarchy: a dramatised history of the peasant before and since the Revolution, with the lament-like title of "The Misfortune and Triumph of Jacques Bonhomme."
Jean had taken the book, and instantly, without waiting to be pressed, he began to read in a colourless, stumbling, schoolboy tone, heedless of punctuation. They listened to him devoutly.
He started with the free Gaul reduced to slavery by the Romans, and then vanquished by the Franks, who transformed slaves into serfs, by establishing the feudal system. Then began the protracted martyrdom of Jacques Bonhomme, tiller of the soil, slave-driven and worked to death, century after century. Many towns-people revolted, founding corporations and acquiring the right of citizenship, but the enthralled peasantry, isolated and dispossessed of everything, only managed to free themselves at a later period, buying their manhood and their liberty for money. And what a delusive liberty it was! They were overwhelmed by exorbitant and ruinous taxes; their rights of ownership were ceaselessly called into question, and the soil was burdened with so many charges as to leave one merely flints to feed upon! Next began the terrible enumeration of the impositions that lay so heavy on the poor peasant No one could draw up a full and accurate list, the taxes poured in so abundantly from king, bishop, and baron all at once. Three beasts of prey tore at the same carcase. The king had the poll-tax and tallage, the bishop the tithes, the baron laid a tax on everything, and turned everything into gold. The peasant had nothing left him to call his own—neither earth, water, fire, nor even the air he breathed. He paid for this, and he paid for that; paid to live, paid to die; paid for his contracts, flocks, business, and pleasure. Paid for having the rain-water from the ditches diverted on to his grounds; paid for the highway dust kicked up by his sheep in the drought of summer. Who ever could not pay was obliged to give his body and his time, taxable and taskable without limit; forced to till the soil, to garner and reap, to trim the vines, clean out the château moat, make and repair the roads. Then there were the dues in kind; and the manor mill, oven, and wine-press, where he was forced to leave a quarter of his crop; and the imposition of watch and ward, which survived in money even after the demolition of the feudal keeps; and the imposition of shelter and purveyance, which, whenever the king or baron passed by, sacked the cottages, dragged mattresses and coverlets from beds, and drove the owner out of his house—lucky not to have his doors and windows torn from their fastenings if he were at all dilatory in turning out. But the most execrated imposition, the remembrance of which still rankled in the hamlets, was the salt-tax; with public store-houses for salt, and every family rated at a certain quantity, which they were, willy-nilly, compelled to purchase of the king; and the system of collection was so iniquitous and despotic that it roused France to rebellion and drowned her in blood.
"My father," interrupted Fouan, "saw the time when salt was ninepence a pound. Truly, times were hard."
Hyacinthe sniggered in his sleeve, and endeavoured to lay stress upon those indelicate rights to which the little book merely made a modest allusion.
"And how about the bridal rights, eh? My word! The baron popped his legs into the bride's bed on the wedding night; and——"
They silenced him. The girls, even Lise, notwithstanding her rotundity of form, had reddened deeply; while La Trouille and the two brats, with their eyes turned downwards, were stuffing their fists into their mouths to restrain their laughter. Hilarion drank in every word open-mouthed, as if he understood it all.
Jean went on. He had now got to the administration of justice, the three-fold justice of king, bishop, and lord, which racked the poor folk toiling on the glebe. There was common law, there was statute law, and, above all, there was the arbitrary right of might. No safeguard, no appeal against the all-powerful sword. Even in the ages which followed, when equity put in a protest, judgeships were bought, and justice was sold. Worse still was the recruiting system: a blood-tax which, for a long time, was only levied upon the inferior rural classes. They fled into the woods, but were driven thence in chains, with musket-stocks, and enrolled like galley-slaves. Promotion was denied them. A younger son, nobly born, dealt in regiments as in goods he had paid for; sold the smaller posts to the highest bidder, and drove the rest of his human cattle to the shambles. Lastly came the hunting rights, rights of dove-cot and warren, which even now, although abolished, have left a fierce resentment in the peasant's heart. The chase was an hereditary madness: an old feudal prerogative authorising the lord to hunt here and everywhere, and punishing with death the vassal audacious enough to hunt over his own ground. It was the caging under the open sky of the free beast and bird for the pleasure of one man. It was the grouping of fields into hunting-captaincies ravaged by game, without it being lawful for the peasant to bring down so much as a sparrow.
"That's intelligible," muttered Bécu, who would have fired at a poacher as soon as at a rabbit.
Hyacinthe had pricked up his ears, now that the hunting question was dealt with, and he slily whistled, as if to say that game belonged to those who knew how to kill it.
"Ah! dear me!" said Rose, simply, fetching a deep sigh.
They all felt the need of similar relief. The reading was gradually bearing heavy upon them, with the oppressive weight of a ghost story. Nor did they always understand, which doubled their uneasiness. Things having gone on like that in olden times, might easily become the same again.
"Go on, poor Jacques Bonhomme," read Jean in his drawling, schoolboy way: "shedding your sweat and blood; you are not yet through your troubles."
And the peasant's Calvary was set forth. Everything was a source of suffering to him: mankind, the elements, his own self. Under the feudal system, when the nobles sallied forth to seek their prey, it was he who was hunted, tracked down, and made booty of. Every private war between lord and lord ruined if it did not slay him; his hut was burnt, his field laid waste. Later on came the "great companies,"—the worst of all the scourges that ever made our country districts desolate,—bands of adventurers at the beck and call of any one who would pay them; now for France, now against her, marking their passage with fire and sword, and leaving only bare earth behind them. The towns, thanks to their walls, might hold out, but the villages were swept away in that murderous madness which pervaded the centuries from end to end. There were centuries steeped in blood—centuries during which our unfortified districts never ceased to moan with pain: women were violated, children crushed to death, men hanged. Then, when war gave over, the king's tax collectors made provision for the continued torture of the poor; for the number and the magnitude of the taxes were nothing in comparison to the wonderful and fearful method of their collection. Villain-tax and salt-tax were farmed out; injustice presided over the distribution of all the impositions; armed troops extorted payment of treasury-dues in the same way as one might raise a contribution of war. Insomuch that scarcely any of the money ever reached the State coffers, being appropriated on its way, and dwindling more and more at every fresh pair of pilfering hands it passed through. Then famine interposed. The tyrannical folly of the law, causing the stagnation of commerce and preventing the free sale of grain, produced terrible dearths every ten years or so, whenever the season was too hot or the rains were too prolonged,—dearths which seemed chastisements of Heaven. A storm flushing the rivers, a dry spring, the smallest cloud, the slightest sunbeam that marred the crops laid thousands of human beings low, involving agonies of starvation, a sudden and general rise of prices, and periods of awful anguish, during which men browsed like brute beasts on the grass of the ditches. After war and famine, fatal epidemics set in, and killed those whom the sword and hunger had spared. Corruption ever sprang forth anew from ignorance and uncleanliness: there was the great Black Death, whose gigantic spectre looms above the old time, mowing down with its sickle the wan, melancholy dwellers in the country districts.
Then his burden being greater than he could bear, Jacques Bonhomme revolted. Behind him lay centuries of terrified submission, his shoulders inured to the last, his spirit so crushed that he felt not his own degradation. It was possible to beat and beat him; to famish him, and rob him of all he had, without rousing him from the timid stupor into which he had sunk, pondering confused thoughts that signified nothing even to himself. But some last injustice, some last anguish, made him suddenly spring at his master's throat like a maddened, over-beaten domestic animal. So for ever, from century to century, the same exasperation bursts forth, and the Jacquerie arms the tillers of the soil with pitchfork and bill-hook, as soon as they have nothing left them but to die. There were the Christian "Bagandes" of Gaul, the "Pastoureaux" of the Crusades, and in later times the "Croquants" and "Nu-pieds" who fell upon the nobles and royal soldiers. After four hundred years the cry of the Jacques, in their pain and wrath, was again to sweep over the desolate fields, and make the masters quake in their castle strongholds. What if they once more became angry, they who had numbers on their side? What if they claimed their share of worldly joy? And the vision of old sweeps by: sturdy, half-clad, tattered hordes, mad with brutality and lust, spreading ruin and destruction, as they too had been ruined and destroyed, and violating in their turn the wives of others.
"Calm thyself, dweller in the fields," pursued Jean, in his placid, sedulous style, "for thy hour of triumph will soon strike from the clock of history."
Buteau had brusquely shrugged his shoulders. A pretty piece of work, revolting. To be laid hold of by gendarmes. Oh, yes! All the others, moreover, since the little book had begun to relate their forefathers' risings, had listened with downcast eyes, not venturing on the least gesture, but full of mistrust although at home. These were things no one ought to talk about openly; no one need know what they thought on the subject. Hyacinthe, having tried to interrupt, announcing that he would shortly be at the throats of more than one, Bécu violently declared that all Republicans were pigs, and Fouan had to silence them, solemnly, with the subdued gravity of an old man who knows a thing or two but won't speak. La Grande, while the other women seemed to become more interested than ever in their knitting, observed: "What one has one keeps"—a remark which did not appear to have any connection with what was being read. Françoise alone, her work dropping on her lap, gazed at Corporal, amazed at his reading so long without making a mistake.
"Ah, dear me! Dear me!" repeated Rose, sighing more deeply.
The style of the book changed. It became lyrical, and magniloquently celebrated the Revolution. 'Twas then, in the apotheosis of '89, that Jacques Bonhomme triumphed. After the taking of the Bastille, while the peasants burned the châteaux, the night of the 4th of August legalised the conquests of centuries by recognising the freedom of man and the equality of civil rights. "In one night, the ploughman had become the equal of the lord who, by virtue of his parchments, had drunk the peasant's sweat and devoured the fruits of his toilsome nights." Abolition of serfdom, of all the privileges of the nobles, of the ecclesiastical and manorial courts of justice; the re-purchase of vested rights, the equalisation of taxation, the admission of every citizen to all civil or military offices—so the list went on. The evils of the old life seemed to vanish one by one. It was the hosanna of a new golden age dawning for the ploughman, who was made the subject of a whole pageful of eulogy, and hailed as king and foster-father of the world. He only was of importance: down on your knees before his holy plough! The horrors of '93 were stigmatised in burning words, and the book wound up with a high-flown panegyric on Napoleon, the child of the Revolution, who had succeeded in "extricating it from the grooves of License, to ensure the happiness of the rural districts."
"That's true!" from Bécu, as Jean turned to the last page.
"Yes, that's true," said old Fouan. "We had fine times of it, I can tell you, when I was young. I saw Napoleon once, at Chartres. I was twenty. We were free; we had land; it was first-rate! I mind how my father once said that he sowed coppers and reaped crowns. Then we had Louis XVIII., Charles X., and Louis Philippe. Things still went on; we had enough to eat, and couldn't complain. And now we've got Napoleon III., and things weren't so bad, either, up to last year. Only——"
He meant to break off, but the words forced their way.
"Only, what the odds does it make to Rose and me, their liberty and their equality? Are we any the fatter for it, after toiling and moiling for fifty years?"
Then, in a few slow and hesitating words, he unwittingly summed up the whole of this tale. The soil so long tilled for the lord's benefit by the cudgelled and naked slave, whose skin was not even his own—the soil, fertilised by his efforts, passionately loved and desired during close constant intimacy, like another man's wife, whom one tends, embraces, but must not possess—the soil, after centuries of such longing torment, at length taken full possession of, becoming one's own, a love-dalliance and life-spring. This desire of ages, this hope constantly delayed, explained the peasant's love for his field, his passion for land, for the utmost quantity possible, for the loamy soil, palpable to the touch, and poiseable in the palm of the hand. And yet the indifference and ingratitude of this earth! Worship it as you would, it never warmed nor produced one grain the more. Too much rain rotted the seeds, hail ravaged the green wheat, a thunderstorm laid the stalks low, two months' drought shrivelled the ears: and what with devouring insects, nipping frosts, cattle plagues, and leprosies of noxious weeds, everything conspired to bring ruin; the struggle was a daily one, every mistake a danger, one's faculties were ever at full stretch. Surely he had never hung back; had worked body and soul, and had maddened to find his toil insufficient. He had withered his sinews, had withheld nothing of himself from this soil that, after having barely fed him, left him wretched, unsated, ashamed of his senile impotence, to seek the arms of another, without so much as a pitying thought for those poor bones of his that would soon be earth.
"And that's where it is!" went on the old fellow. "In youth we're always hard at it; and, having contrived with great difficulty to make both ends meet, we find ourselves old, and have to quit. Isn't it so, Rose?"
The mother bent her trembling head. Great heaven, yes! She, too, had worked harder than a man, for certain. Rising before the rest of the household, getting the meals, sweeping, scouring, wearing herself out over a thousand duties—the cows, the pigs, the baking—and always the last in bed. She must have had a strong constitution not to have broken down altogether, and her only reward was to have lived her life. One got nothing but wrinkles, and one was lucky if, after pinching and screwing, after going to bed in the dark and putting up with bread and water, one saved just enough to keep the wolf from the door in one's old age.
"All the same," resumed Fouan, "we mustn't complain. I've heard tell there are districts where the land gives a deal more trouble. Thus, in Le Perche, there's nought but flintstones. In La Beauce, the ground is still soft, and only wants good, steady work. But it's spoiling. It's certainly less fertile than formerly, and fields that once gave crops of seven quarters now yield little more than five. And for a year past the prices have been going down. They say that corn is coming in from savage parts. There's some mischief brewing—a crisis, as they say. Is misfortune ever at an end? This universal suffrage, now, it don't bring meat to the pot, does it? The land tax weighs us down, they keep on taking our children away to fight. It's not a bit of use having revolutions, it's six of one and half a dozen of the other, and a peasant always remains a peasant."
The methodical Jean had been waiting to finish his reading. Silence being re-established, he went on softly:
"Happy husbandman, forsake not the village for the town; where everything—milk, meat, vegetables—must be bought, and where you would always spend more than necessary, because of the opportunities offered. Have you not fresh air and sunshine, healthy toil, and honest joys in the village? Rural life is peerless; far from gilded pomp, you enjoy true happiness; in proof thereof, do not the town artisans go for jaunts into the country, just as the tradesman's one dream is to seek retirement near you, culling flowers, eating fruit off the tree, and gambolling on the sward. Be sure, Jacques Bonhomme, that money is but a chimera. If your bosom be at peace, your fortune is made."
Jean's voice faltered. He was fain to repress his emotion, this big, tender-hearted, town-bred fellow, whose soul was touched by these pictures of rustic bliss. The others remained gloomy; the women bending over their needles, the men stolid and moody. Was the book making game of them? Money was the only desirable thing, and they were starving in penury. As the young fellow found this silence—heavy with suffering and spleen—rather oppressive, he ventured on a sage reflection:
"Anyhow, things would, perhaps, be better with education. People were wretched in former times because they knew nothing. Now-a-days we know a little, and times are certainly easier. So the thing is to be taught thoroughly, and have schools of agriculture."
Fouan, an old fogey averse to new-fangled ways, interrupted him violently:
"Come, hang you and your science! The more a man knows the worse he gets on. I tell you the land gave a better yield fifty years ago! It gets angry at being worried so, and never gives more than it chooses, the beggar! Hasn't Monsieur Hourdequin run through his own weight in silver, pottering about with new inventions? No, no; a peasant is bound to remain a peasant, that's flat!"
Ten o'clock was striking, and after this conclusive remark, as weighty as the chop of an axe, Rose got up to fetch a pot of chestnuts, which she had left in the hot ashes in the kitchen. This was the usual treat on All Hallow E'en. She even brought two quarts of white wine to make the festival complete. Thenceforward stories were forgotten, the fun grew fast and furious, and nails and teeth alike were busy extracting the steaming boiled chestnuts from their husks.
La Grande at once pocketed her share, as she was slower at eating than the others. Bécu and Hyacinthe gulped theirs down, skin and all, pitching them into their mouths from a distance; while Palmyre, grown bold, cleaned hers with extreme care, and stuffed Hilarion with them, as if he were a fowl. As for the children, they "made pudding." La Trouille dug one tooth into the chestnut, and then squeezed it so as to cause a thin stream to spurt out, which Delphin and Nénesse licked up. This being very nice, Lise and Françoise decided to do the same. Then the candle was snuffed for the last time, and glasses were clinked to the good fellowship of all present. The heat had increased; a ruddy vapour rose from the liquid manure; the cricket chirped more loudly in the great shifting shadows of the rafters; and, so that the cows might join in the festivities, they were given some husks, which they munched with a subdued and measured noise.
Finally, at half-past ten, the party broke up. First of all Fanny led Nénesse away. Then Hyacinthe and Bécu went out quarrelling, the outer cold bringing on a relapse of intoxication; and La Trouille and Delphin were soon heard sustaining their respective parents, prodding them and restoring them to the right path, as if they were restive animals forgetful of the way to the stables. Every time the door swung to, an icy gust blew in from the snow-white road. La Grande did not hurry at all, as she twisted her handkerchief round her neck and pulled on her mittens. Not a glance did she vouchsafe towards Palmyre and Hilarion, who slunk timidly away, shivering in their rags; but, eventually betaking herself back to her home, which was adjacent, she slammed the door violently after her. There only remained Françoise and Lise.
"I say, Corporal," asked Fouan, "you'll see them on their way as you go back to the farm, won't you? It's on your way."
Jean nodded assent, while the two girls were wrapping their shawls round their heads.
Buteau had got up and was pacing to and fro in the cow-house, grim, restless, and pre-occupied. Since the reading he had been silent, as if engrossed by the book's tales about the laboriously acquired land. Why not have the whole? A division had become intolerable to him. And there were other things besides confusedly jostling each other within his thick skull: wrath, pride, a dogged resolve to keep to his word, the exasperated craving of the man who would like, and yet will not, for fear of being taken advantage of. However, he abruptly came to a decision.
"I am going up to bed. Good-bye!" he said.
"I shall start for La Chamade before daybreak. Good-bye, in case I don't see you again."
His father and mother, shoulder to shoulder, had planted themselves in front of him.
"Well, and your share?" said Fouan. "Do you accept it?"
Buteau walked as far as the door, then, turning round:
"No!" he replied.
The old peasant trembled in every limb. He drew himself up to his full height, and his ancient authority flashed forth for the last time.
"Very good. You are a wicked son. I shall give your brother and sister their shares, and shall let them farm yours; and when I die, I shall arrange for them to keep it. You shall have nothing. Be off with you!"
Buteau did not flinch from his rigid attitude. Then Rose, in her turn, tried to soothe him.
"Why, you are just as much cared for as the others, silly! You're only quarrelling with your bread and butter. Accept!"
"No!" And then off he went, going up to bed.
Outside, Lise and Françoise, aghast at the scene, walked a few steps in silence. They had again taken one another's waist, and their figures mingled, looking quite black against the snow which glimmered through the night. Jean, who followed them, also in silence, presently heard them crying. He then tried to cheer them up.
"Come, come, he'll think better of it; he'll say yes to-morrow."
"Ah, you don't know him!" cried Lise. "He'd be cut to pieces sooner than give way. No, no, it's all over!"
Then, despairingly, she added:
"What shall I do with his child?"
"Well, it'll have to come any way," murmured Françoise.
This made them laugh. But their spirits were too low, and they began to cry again.
When Jean had seen them to their door he made the best of his way across the plain. It had left off snowing; the sky was once more clear and bright; a wide, star-spangled, frosty sky it was, shedding a crystalline blue light; and La Beauce extended afar, quite white, and level and still like a sea of ice. Not a breath came from the distant horizon; he heard nothing but the tramp of his own thick shoes on the hard soil. 'Twas a deep calm, the peacefulness of the cold. All that Jean had read was whirling in his brain. He took off his cap to cool himself, feeling an oppression behind his ears, and wishing to escape from thought. The idea of that girl with child and her sister annoyed him too. The tramp of his thick shoes still rang out. Then a shooting-star started down the sky, furrowing it with fire in its silent flight.
Over there, the farm of La Borderie was vanishing from sight, hardly forming as much as a bump on the white expanse of snow; and as soon as Jean had entered the cross-path, he remembered the field he had sown in the vicinity some days before. Looking to the left, he recognised it under the winding-sheet that covered it. The layer of snow, of the lightness and purity of ermine, was a thin one, leaving the crests of the furrows apparent, and but imperfectly veiling the earth's benumbed limbs. How soundly must the seeds be sleeping! How deep a rest in those icy flanks until the warm morn, when the Spring sun would again awaken them to life!