One evening, some days later, Jean was walking back from Cloyes when, a mile or so before reaching Rognes, he was astonished by the mode of progress of a peasant's cart which was going along, ahead of him. It seemed empty. No one sat on the driver's seat, and the horse, left to its own devices, was leisurely jogging back to its stable, being evidently well acquainted with the road. Accordingly, the young man quickly caught it up. He stopped it, and raised himself on tip-toe to look into the vehicle. A man was lying at the bottom—a short, fat old man of sixty, who had fallen backwards, and whose face was so purple that it appeared black.
Such was Jean's surprise that he began to talk aloud:
"Hallo, there! Is he asleep or drunk? Why, if it isn't old Mouche, the father of those two down yonder. Heavens! I think he's kicked the bucket! Well, well, here's a start!"
But, although laid low by a fit of apoplexy, Mouche still breathed, in a short and laboured way. So Jean raised his head and straightened him out; and then sat himself down in front and whipped up the horse, driving the dying man home at a round trot, for fear that he might slip through his fingers.
Just as he turned into the church-square, he perceived Françoise standing before her door. The sight of the young fellow in their cart, driving Coco, dumbfounded her.
"What's up?" she asked.
"Your father's not well."
"Where is he?"
She climbed up on the wheel and looked. For a moment she stood there, without seeming to understand, and staring stupidly at that purple face, half of which had been, as it were, wrenched downwards. The night was falling, and a great livid cloud, which turned the sky yellow, lit up the dying man as with the glow of a conflagration.
Then all at once, she burst into sobs, and ran out of sight to prepare her sister.
"Lise! Lise! Oh, my God!"
Jean, on remaining alone, hesitated. Still the old man could not be left lying in the cart. The basement of the house was three steps below ground, on the side of the square; and to descend into that dark hole seemed to him inconvenient. Then he bethought himself that, on the roadway side, to the left, another door opened level into the yard. It was a good-sized yard, enclosed by a quickset hedge; the turbid water of a pool took up two-thirds of it, and two-thirds of an acre of kitchen and fruit garden extended in the rear. Jean left Coco to himself, and the horse, of his own accord, entered and drew up before his stable, near the shed in which were the two cows.
Françoise and Lise ran up with tears and lamentations. The latter, confined four months previously, and now taken by surprise while suckling her infant, had, in her affright, kept him in her arms; and he howled too. Françoise again got on one wheel, while Lise climbed up on the other. Their lamentations grew deafening; and meantime Mouche, at the bottom of the cart, still kept up his laboured wheezing.
"Papa, answer; won't you? Say what's the matter. Oh, dear! what is the matter? Oh, dear! oh, dear! It's in your head, then, since you can't even speak? Papa, papa, do speak; do answer!"
"Come down. He'd better be got out of the trap," said Jean, sagely.
They gave no help, but only screamed the louder. Luckily a neighbour, Madame Frimat, came upon the scene, attracted by the noise. She was a tall, withered, bony old woman, who for two years had been nursing her paralytic husband, supporting him by cultivating in person, with the doggedness of a beast of burden, the single acre or so that they possessed. She was not at all put out, seeming to think the misadventure a matter of course, and she lent a helping hand as a man would have done. Jean took Mouche by the shoulders, and pulled him up until La Frimat was able to catch hold of his legs. Then they carried him into the house.
"Where's he to be put?" asked the old woman.
The two girls, who were following, had lost their wits, and did not know. Their father's room was a small one upstairs, partitioned off from the grain-loft, and it was almost out of the question to carry him up there. Downstairs there was the kitchen, and the large double-bedded room which he had given up to them. In the kitchen it was as dark as pitch. With their arms stiff with exertion, the young man and the old woman waited, not daring to take another step forward for fear of knocking against some piece of furniture.
"Come, something must be settled, anyhow."
Françoise at last lit a candle, and just then the wife of the rural constable, Madame Bécu came in; she had smelt disaster in the air, or had been warned by that occult agency which is wont to carry news through a village in no time.
"Why! what's amiss with the poor fellow?" said she. "Ah! I see; his blood has turned. Quick! Set him on a chair."
But Madame Frimat was of a different opinion. The idea of seating a man who could not hold himself upright! The thing to do was to stretch him on one of his daughters' beds. The discussion was growing keen, when Fanny came in with Nénesse. She had heard about it while buying some vermicelli at Macqueron's, and had come to see what there was to be seen; being at the same time somewhat affected on her cousins' account.
"Perhaps," she declared, "it's best to sit him down, so that the blood may run back."
And so Mouche was huddled on to a chair near the table, on which the candle was burning. His chin drooped upon his chest, his arms and legs hung limp. His left eye had been drawn open by the displacement of that side of his face, and one corner of his twisted mouth wheezed more than the other. Silence fell. Death was taking possession of the damp room, with its floor of trodden earth, its stained walls, and its large gloomy fireplace.
Jean still waited in perplexity, while the two girls and the three women dangled round the old fellow, looking at him.
"Hadn't I better go and fetch the doctor?" the young man ventured to ask.
Madame Bécu nodded her head, but no one else made any reply. If it were to be nothing after all, why incur the expense of a visit? And if it were really the end, what good could the doctor do?
"Vulnerary's a capital thing," said La Frimat.
"I've got some camphorated spirits," murmured Fanny.
"That's a good thing too," declared Madame Bécu.
Lise and Françoise, now in a state of stupor, listened and took no steps at all. The one was nursing her baby, Jules; the other was holding a glass full of water which her father would not drink. Fanny, however, bustled Nénesse, who was held spell-bound by the contorted visage of the dying man.
"Run home and tell them to give you the little bottle of camphorated spirits on the left in the wardrobe. D'ye hear? In the wardrobe on the left. And call at grandfather Fouan's, and at your aunt La Grande's. Tell them that uncle Mouche is taken very bad. Run, run quick!"
The urchin having bounded out of sight, the women continued their dissertations on the case. La Bécu knew a gentleman who had been saved by having the soles of his feet tickled for three hours. La Frimat, remembering that she had some linden-flowers left out of the pennyworth bought the previous winter for her good man, went and fetched it. She was coming back with the little bag, and Lise was lighting a fire, after handing her child to Françoise, when Nénesse re-appeared.
"Grandpapa Fouan had gone to bed. La Grande said that if uncle Mouche hadn't drunk so much he wouldn't have made himself so sick."
Fanny examined the bottle he handed her, and then cried:
"You fool! I told you on the left. You've brought me the Eau de Cologne."
"That's a good thing, too," said La Bécu.
They forced the old man to take a cup of linden-flower tea, by inserting the spoon between his clenched teeth. Then they rubbed his head with Eau de Cologne. And yet he didn't get any better: it was most discouraging. His face had become blacker still. They were obliged to hitch him up on the chair, for he was sinking down, and on the point of tumbling flat on the floor.
"Oh!" muttered Nénesse, who had gone to the door again, "it's going to rain like I don't know what. The sky's a funny sort of colour."
"Yes," said Jean, "I saw a villainous cloud gathering." And, as if brought back to his first idea: "It's no odds. I'll go and fetch the doctor if you like."
Lise and Françoise looked at each other, frightened and anxious. At last the second came to a resolution in the generous impulse of her youth.
"Yes, yes, Corporal. Go to Cloyes and fetch Monsieur Finet. It sha'n't be said that we didn't do our duty."
Coco, in the midst of the bustle, had not even been unharnessed, and Jean had only to jump into the cart. They heard the clink of iron, and the rumble of the wheels. Then La Frimat mentioned the priest; but the others signified by a gesture that enough trouble was already being taken in the matter. And Nénesse having proposed to walk the two miles or so to Bazoches-le-Doyen, his mother lost her temper. A likely thing that she was going to let him trot off on so threatening a night, with that dreadful rust-coloured sky! Besides, as the old man neither heard nor answered, one might as well knock up the priest to minister to a mile-stone.
Ten o'clock struck from the cuckoo-clock of painted wood. Here was a surprise! To think that they had been there more than two hours without effecting anything. But not one of them seemed inclined to stir, they were fascinated by the sight, and resolved to see it out. A ten-pound loaf lay on the bread-box, with a knife. First the girls, racked with hunger despite their anguish, mechanically cut themselves slices of bread, which they unconsciously ate, quite dry. Then the three women followed their example. The bread diminished, and one or the other of them was always cutting and munching. No other candle had been lighted; they omitted even to snuff the one that was burning; and it was not lively, sitting in that poor, gloomy, bare, peasant room, and listening to the death-rattle of the form huddled together near the table.
All at once, half an hour after Jean's departure Mouche tumbled over and fell headlong to the floor. He no longer breathed; he was dead!
"What did I tell you? Only you insisted on sending for the doctor," remarked La Bécu, tartly.
Françoise and Lise, stupefied for a moment, burst out into fresh tears. With an instinctive impulse they had thrown themselves into each other's arms in their tender, sisterly adoration; and in broken phrases they repeated: "Oh, dear! We have only each other now. It's all over; there are only the two of us. What will become of us! Oh, dear!"
But the corpse could not be left on the floor. In a trice La Frimat and La Bécu did everything necessary. As they dared not carry the body, they went and drew a mattress off a bed, brought it, and stretched Mouche out upon it, covering him up to the chin with a sheet. Meanwhile Fanny lit the candles in two other candlesticks, and placed them on the floor in lieu of wax tapers on either side of the head. For the moment all was well, except that Mouche's left eye, although closed three times by one of the women with her thumb, persisted in opening again, and seemed to be looking at everybody from out of the distorted purple face, which contrasted so sharply with the whiteness of the linen.
Lise had determined to put Jules to bed, and the wake began. Three times did Fanny and La Bécu say they were going, as La Frimat had offered to stay the night with the young ones; but they did not go, continuing to talk in low tones, and glancing askance from time to time at the corpse, while Nénesse, who had got possession of the bottle of Eau de Cologne, finished it up by drenching his hands and hair with its contents.
As twelve o'clock struck, La Bécu raised her voice.
"And how about Monsieur Finet, I should like to know! Plenty of time he gives people to die in! More than two hours bringing him here from Cloyes!"
The door leading to the yard was open, and just then a great gust came in, and blew out the candles on either side of the corpse. This terrified them all, and as they re-lit the candles, the tempestuous blast returned with greater fury, while a prolonged howling arose and swelled in the dark depths of the country-side. It might have been the gallop of a devastating army approaching, so loudly did the branches crash, so deep was the wail of the riven fields. They had run to the doorway, and saw a coppery cloud whirl wildly across the livid sky. Suddenly there was a rattle, as it were, of musketry, and a rain of bullets fell lashing and rebounding at their feet.
A cry of ruin and desolation burst from their lips.
Pale and aghast at the scourge above them, they stood there watching. It lasted barely six minutes. There were no thunder-claps; but great bluish flashes seemed incessantly to run along the ground in broad phosphoric furrows. The night was not now so gloomy: the hail stones lit it up with numberless pale streaks as if jets of glass had fallen. The noise became deafening: like a discharge of grape shot, like a train rushing at full speed over an endlessly thundering metal bridge. The wind blew furiously, and the obliquely falling stones slashed everything, accumulated and covered the soil with a layer of white.
"Hail! Oh, dear! What a misfortune! Look, look! Exactly like hen's eggs!"
They dared not venture into the yard to pick any up. The violence of the hurricane continued to increase; all the window-panes were broken; and the momentum was such that one hailstone cracked a jug, while others rolled as far as the dead man's mattress.
"There wouldn't be five to the pound," said Madame Bécu, poising them in her hand.
Fanny and La Frimat made a gesture of despair.
"Everything ruined! A massacre!"
It was over. The disastrous roar was heard rapidly passing away, and a death-like silence fell. The sky, in the rear of the cloud, had become as black as ink. A fine close rain streamed noiselessly down. Nothing was now distinguishable on the ground but the thick layer of hailstones: a gleaming sheet that had, as it were, a light of its own, the shimmer of infinite millions of night-lights.
Nénesse having rushed out of doors, returned with a perfect iceberg, an irregular jagged mass bigger than his fist: and La Frimat, who could no longer keep still, was unable to resist the temptation to go and see how things were.
"I'm going to fetch my lantern; I must know what the damage is," she said.
Fanny controlled herself a few minutes longer, prolonging her lamentations. Oh, what a piece of work! What destruction among the vegetables and fruit-trees! The wheat, oats, and barley were not high enough to have suffered much. But the vines! Ah, the vines! And, standing at the door, she peered into the thick, impenetrable night, and quivered in a fever of uncertainty, trying to estimate the mischief, exaggerating it, and imagining that she saw the land riddled with shot and its life oozing from the wounds.
"Hey! my pets," she said at last: "I'll borrow one of your lanterns and run over as far as our vines."
Then she lit one of the two lanterns and disappeared with Nénesse.
La Bécu, who had no land, didn't at heart care a fig. She fetched sighs and apostrophised Heaven, merely out of a habit she had of feebly moaning and melting into tears on all occasions. Nevertheless, curiosity continually took her to the door; and a lively interest fixed her there once for all as soon as she noticed that the village was starred all over with luminous points. Through a gap in the yard, between the cow-house and a shed, the eye could command the whole of Rognes. Doubtless, the hail-storm had awoke the peasants, and they were all seized with the same impatience to take a look at their fields, all too anxious to wait till daylight.
And indeed the lanterns came forth one by one, multiplying and flitting lightly to and fro, in so dense an opacity, that the arms that held them were merely conjectural. But La Bécu, always on the watch, knew the site of every house, and succeeded in putting a name to every lantern.
"There, now! That one's lit in La Grande's house, and that one's coming out of the Fouans', and over yonder it's Macqueron, and next door it's Lengaigne. Bless me, poor souls! it's heart-breaking. Well, so much the worse! I'm off to join them!"
Lise and Françoise remained alone with their father's corpse. The downpour of the rain continued; little moist breezes skimmed along the ground and guttered the candles. The door ought to have been shut, but neither of them thought of it, being themselves absorbed and agitated by the drama outside, despite the mourning in the house. It wasn't enough, then, to have Death at home? The good God was smashing up everything; one didn't so much as know if there would be a bit of bread left to eat.
"Poor father," murmured Françoise; "what a stew he would have been in! Better that he can't see it."
And, as her sister took up the second lantern, she added:
"Where are you going?"
"I'm thinking of the peas and beans. I'll be back directly."
Lise crossed the yard, through the driving rain, and went into the kitchen-garden. There was only Françoise left with the old man, and even she was standing at the doorway, keenly agitated by the flitting of the lantern to and fro. She thought she could hear complaints and sobs. Her heart was wrung.
"Hey! What is it?" she cried. "What's the matter?"
No voice replied, but the lantern ran to and fro more quickly, as if distracted.
"Tell me, are the beans cut down? And the peas, are they hurt? Gracious! And the fruit and salad stock?"
An exclamation of grief, which now distinctly reached her ears, decided her. She caught up her skirts and ran through the rain to join her sister. The dead man remained, deserted, in the empty kitchen, lying rigid under the sheet, between the two dull, smoky wicks. His left eye, still obstinately open, stared at the old joists of the ceiling.
What a ravage had laid that stretch of land desolate! What a lamentation arose from the scene of disaster, half visible in the flickering gleam of the lanterns. Lise and Françoise carried theirs hither and thither, though it was so wet with rain that scarcely any light passed through the panes; and they brought it close to the beds, confusedly distinguishing, in the narrow ring of light, the beans and peas cut down short, the lettuces so chopped and hacked that it was futile even to think of utilising the leaves. The trees, especially, had suffered. The smaller branches and the fruit had been cut off as with knives. The very trunks were splintered and bruised, and the sap was escaping through the holes in the bark. Farther on, among the vines, matters were worse: the lanterns swarmed and leaped, as if maddened, amid groans and oaths. The stocks seemed to have been mown down, and bunches of blossom bestrewed the soil in company with shattered branches and spurs. Not only was the season's crop ruined, but the stems, stripped bare, would decay and die. No one felt the rain. A dog was howling murder, and women were bursting into tears, as on the brink of a grave. Macqueron and Lengaigne, in spite of their rivalry, were lighting each other, visiting each other's ground, and joining in ejaculations of dismay, as each new vision of ruin, wan and short-lived, met their gaze, and then faded again into shadow behind them. Although old Fouan now had no land of his own, he wanted to look on, waxing wroth. By degrees they all flew into a temper. To actually lose the fruit of a year's work in a quarter of an hour! Could it be possible? What had they done to be so punished? There was no security or justice; unreasoning scourges and caprices slew the world. La Grande, in a fury, abruptly picked up some pebbles, and flung them into the air to pierce the heaven she could not discern. And she blasphemously screamed out:
"Hey, up there! Can't you manage to leave us in peace?"
On the mattress in the kitchen, the deserted Mouche was still staring fixedly at the ceiling with his one eye, when two vehicles drew up at the door. Jean had at length brought Monsieur Finet, after waiting for him at his house during nearly three hours; and had returned in the cart, while the doctor had ordered out his gig.
The medical man, tall and thin, with a face jaundiced by stifled ambition, entered roughly. In his heart he loathed this peasant connection, which he held responsible for his mediocrity.
"What, no one here? Things have mended, then."
But perceiving the corpse: "No, too late! Didn't I tell you? I didn't want to come! It's always the same old game: they call me in when they're dead."
This useless summons in the middle of the night annoyed him; and Lise and Françoise, just then returning, put the finishing touch to his exasperation by apprising him that they had waited a couple of hours before sending for him.
"It's you that have killed him, sure enough. Eau de Cologne and linden-flower tea for a fit of apoplexy! How idiotic! And, what's more, no one keeping him company. It's pretty certain he won't see salvation."
"It's because of the hail, sir," stammered Lise, in tears.
Monsieur Finet became interested, and calmed down. Dear, dear! So there's been a hail-storm? By dint of living among the peasantry he had eventually caught their passions. Jean, also, had drawn near; and they both uttered exclamations of amazement, for, in coming from Cloyes, they had not seen a single hailstone. Some spared, and others, half a mile or so off, turned topsy-turvy! Really, what a piece of ill luck to have one's land in the damaged part of the country! Then, as Fanny returned, bringing back the lantern, La Bécu and La Frimat following her, and all the three launching out into grievous and interminable details of the harrowing things they had seen,—the doctor gravely declared:
"It's a calamity, a great calamity. There's no greater calamity for country-folk."
A muffled sound, a kind of bubbling noise, interrupted him. It came from the corpse, lying forgotten between the two candles. They all became silent, and the women crossed themselves.