A month passed by. Old Fouan, appointed guardian to Françoise, who was entering on her fifteenth year, induced the two girls—his ward and Lise, who was the elder by ten years—to let all their land, excepting a strip of meadow, to cousin Delhomme, so that it might be properly cultivated and kept.
Now that the two girls were left alone in the house, without father or mother, they would have had to engage a servant, which would have been ruinous, on account of the increasing price of manual labour. Delhomme, moreover, was simply doing them a service, as he undertook to cancel the lease as soon as either of them married, and a division of the inheritance became necessary.
Lise and Françoise also sold their cousin their horse, which had now become useless, but they kept the two cows, La Coliche and La Rousse, as well as the donkey, Gédéon. Of course they likewise kept their patch of kitchen garden, which it became the province of the elder girl to keep in order, while the younger one looked after the live stock. To be sure, that made plenty of work; but they were hale and hearty, thank God! and would soon get through with it.
The first few weeks were very burdensome, for there was the damage of the hail-storm to be repaired, the soil to be tilled, the vegetables to be replanted. This it was that induced Jean to lend a helping hand. An intimacy had sprung up between him and the girls since the day he had brought their dying father home. The day after the burial he called and inquired after them. Next he came and chatted, growing gradually familiar and obliging, insomuch that one afternoon he took the spade out of Lise's hands to finish the digging of a bed. Thenceforth he devoted to them, in a friendly way, the time that was not taken up by his work at the farm. He belonged to the house, to that old patriarchal house of the Fouans, built three centuries back by an ancestor, and honoured by the whole family with a sort of worship. When Mouche used to complain of having had the worst lot in the distribution of the property, accusing his brother and sister of having swindled him, they answered: "And how about the house? Hadn't he got the house?"
A poor, dilapidated house it was, settling down on its foundations, cracked and rickety, patched up everywhere with odds and ends of plank and plaster. It had obviously been originally constructed of rough stones and clay; subsequently, two walls had been rebuilt with mortar; and finally, towards the beginning of the century, the owners had reluctantly replaced the thatch with a roofing of small slates, now rotten. Thus it had lasted, and thus it still held out; sunk a yard deep in the earth, as all houses were built in the olden time, doubtless for the purpose of ensuring greater warmth. The inconvenience of it was that, in heavy storms, they were flooded with water; and it was of no avail to sweep the hardened soil that composed the cellar-like floor; there was always a remnant of mud in the corners.
The house had been planned, however, with particular artfulness, its back being turned towards the far-stretching northern plain of La Beauce, whence blew the terrible winter winds. On that side, in the kitchen, the only opening was a narrow window, barricaded by a shutter, on a level with the street; while on the southern side, one found the other windows and the door. The place suggested one of those fisher-huts on the sea-shore, which do not expose a single chink to the ocean waves. The winds of La Beauce had battered the house aslant, so that it bent forward like an old broken-backed hag.
Jean was soon familiar with every corner of it. He helped to clean up the room of the deceased; that corner cut off from the granary by a mere plank partition, and containing nothing but an old chest full of straw serving as a bed, with a chair and a table. Downstairs he did not go beyond the kitchen, for he shrank from following the two sisters into their own room, where, as the door was always on the swing, one could see the double-bedded alcove, the large walnut wardrobe, and a superbly-carved round table, doubtless a relic formerly stolen from the château. There existed yet another room behind this, but it was so damp that the father had preferred to sleep upstairs. They were reluctant even to store potatoes in it, for they began immediately to germinate. They lived in the kitchen, a huge smoky room where, for three centuries, many generations of Fouans had succeeded each other. It was redolent of sustained toil and stinted food, of the constant efforts of people who, while working themselves to death, had just managed not to starve, never having a halfpenny more in December than they had in January. A door that opened flush into the cow-house brought the cattle into companionship with the occupants, and when that door was shut, the animals could still be seen and watched through a pane of glass let into the wall. Next there came the stable, where Gédéon now remained by himself; then a shed and a wood-house; and there was no need to go out of doors, for you entered every place in succession. Outside, the rains replenished the pond, which furnished them with water for the cattle and for domestic use. Every morning they had to go down to the Aigre to bring up drinking-water.
Jean felt happy there, without troubling his head to inquire what the attraction was. Lise, who gave him a good welcome, was as gay and buxom as ever. Nevertheless, she was already looking older than twenty-five; indeed, she was growing very plain, more especially since her confinement. But she had good stout arms, and applied herself to her work with such zest—bustling about, shouting, and laughing—that it was delightful to look at her. Jean treated her as a grown-up woman, and did not thee and thou her as he did Françoise, whose fifteen years made her seem to him quite a mere child. The younger girl, whose good looks out-of-door life and hard work had not yet had time enough to spoil, retained her pretty, long face, with its slight, headstrong forehead, its dark, pensive eyes, and its thick lips, shaded by a precocious down. Although deemed a child, she was a woman also; and apt to conceive, as her sister used to say, without being tickled very closely. It was Lise who had brought her up, their mother being dead; and thence came their great fondness, active and noisy on the part of the elder sister, and passionate and restrained on that of the younger one.
Françoise was reputed to have a strong will of her own. Injustice exasperated her. When she had said: "This is mine, and that is yours," she would have gone to the scaffold rather than retract; and, putting everything else aside, she adored Lise, from a notion that such adoration was Lise's due. Withal, she was tractable and very good, free from bad thoughts, and only tormented by her early womanhood, which made her nerveless, slightly dainty, and lazy. One day she also began to address Jean in the second person singular, he being quite a middle-aged and kindly-natured friend, who was wont to draw her out, and sometimes tease her; telling falsehoods of malice aforethought, and defending injustice for the fun of seeing her choke with rage.
One Sunday afternoon in June, the heat already being intense, Lise was engaged in the kitchen garden, hoeing some peas and nipping them round. She had placed Jules under a plum-tree, where he had dozed off to sleep. The sun was beating straight down upon her, and she was puffing as she bent forward to pull up some weeds, when a voice came from behind the hedge:
"What, what! No rest even on Sunday?"
She had recognised the voice, and drew herself up, with red arms and a flushed face, but laughing through it all.
"No, indeed! The work doesn't do itself on a Sunday any more than on a week-day!"
It was Jean. He skirted the hedge, and came in through the yard.
"Let that alone; I'll soon polish off your work!"
However, she refused. She would soon have finished. And then, if she didn't do that, she would be doing something else. There was never a chance of being idle. Although she got up at four o'clock in the morning, and sat sewing till late in the evening by candlelight, she never got to the end of it all.
So as not to oppose her, Jean sat himself in the shade of the neighbouring plum-tree, being careful not to sit upon Jules. He watched Lise, stooping double again, and every now and then pulling down her petticoat, which kept working up behind and showing her fat legs; and then with her head close to the ground, she worked away with her arms without any fear of the rush of blood that swelled her neck.
"Lucky for you," he said, "that you're sturdily built!"
She took some pride in that, and laughed complacently without getting up. He laughed too, conscientiously admiring her, thinking her as strong and energetic as a man. No improper desire was suggested to him by her attitude, by her tense calves, by this woman on all fours, sweating and smelling like an animal in heat. He was simply thinking that with limbs like that one could get through a rare lot of work. It was quite certain that, in a household, a woman of that build would be worth as much as her husband.
No doubt some association of ideas worked in him, for he involuntarily blurted out a piece of news which he had resolved to keep to himself.
"I saw Buteau the day before yesterday."
Lise slowly rose up. But she had no time to question him, for Françoise—who had heard Jean's voice, and who, with her arms bare and white with milk, was now coming from the dairy at the further end of the cow-house—flew at once into quite a temper.
"Oh, you've seen him? The cad!"
Her antipathy had increased. She could never now hear her cousin mentioned without being stirred by one of her gusts of honest indignation, as if she had had a personal injury to avenge.
"Certainly he's a cad," declared Lise calmly; "but it don't do any good to say so at this time of day."
She had stuck her arms a-kimbo, and now in a serious voice she asked:
"And what's Buteau got to say for himself?"
"Why, nothing," replied Jean, with some embarrassment, sorry that he hadn't kept a quiet tongue in his head. "We spoke of his affairs, on account of his father giving out everywhere that he'll disinherit him. Buteau says there's no hurry about that, for the old man's hearty enough, and that, anyway, he don't care a curse."
"Does he know that Hyacinthe and Fanny have signed the deed, whether or no, and that they're both in possession of their shares?"
"Yes, he knows; and he knows, too, that old Fouan has let his son-in-law, Delhomme, the share that he, Buteau, wouldn't have. He knows, also, that Monsieur Baillehache was in such a fury that he took an oath he'd never again have the lots drawn for before seeing the papers signed. Oh, yes; he knows that it's all over."
"Ah! And he said nothing?"
"No, he said nothing."
Lise stooped down in silence, walked on a bit, pulling up some weeds and showing nothing save the full rotundity of her behind; then she turned her neck round, and added, with her head down: "It comes to this, Corporal, if you want to know, I shall have to keep Jules, and that'll be the end of it."
Jean, who had heretofore held out some hopes, nodded.
"Faith! you're perhaps right."
He glanced at Jules, whom he had forgotten. The brat still slept, swathed in his long-clothes, with his little motionless face bathed in light. That was the awkward part of it, that urchin! Otherwise, why shouldn't he have married Lise, now she was free? The idea came to him all at once, then and there, as he watched her working. Perhaps he loved her. Perhaps it was the pleasure of seeing her that brought him so much to the house. None the less was he surprised, not having desired her, not even having jested with her, as he had jested with Françoise, for instance. And, pat, as he raised his head, he saw the latter standing rigid and furious in the sunshine, with her eyes so strangely ablaze with passion that he was enlivened even in the agitation of his new discovery. Just then the sound of a trumpet, a strange topsy-turvy roll-call, rang out; and Lise, leaving her peas, exclaimed:
"Why, here comes Lambourdieu! I want to order a hood of him."
On the road, on the other side of the hedge, there appeared a dumpy little man, blowing a trumpet, and walking ahead of a long vehicle drawn by a grey horse. It was Lambourdieu, a shopkeeper from Cloyes, who had added, bit by bit, millinery, drapery, shoemaking, and even ironmongery to his novelty business. He went from village to village, within a radius of five or six leagues, with a regular bazaar. The peasants had ended by buying everything from him, from their saucepans to their wedding clothes. His vehicle was made to open out and turn back, displaying rows of drawers, and enough goods to stock a whole shop.
When Lambourdieu had taken the order for the hood, he added:
"In the meantime you don't happen to want a fine silk handkerchief?"
So saying he drew out of a box some gorgeous red gold-patterned handkerchiefs, and swished them up and down in the sunlight.
"There you are! Three francs each! It's giving them away. Five francs for the pair!"
Lise and Françoise, to whom they had been handed over the hawthorn hedge, on which Jules's napkins were drying, hankered after them. But they were sensible girls; they had no need of them, and why spend money? They were indeed handing them back, when Jean suddenly made up his mind to take Lise, baby and all. So, in order to precipitate matters, he called out to the young woman:
"No, no! Keep it. I offer it you! Oh, you wouldn't pain me by refusing: it's out of pure friendship, to be sure!"
He had said nothing to Françoise, and as she still held out her handkerchief to the dealer, he glanced at her, and felt a pang of grief as he fancied he saw her cheek pale and her lips quiver with pain.
"You, too, stupid! Keep it. Nay, I insist. None of that self-will of yours!"
He struggled with the two sisters who laughingly defended themselves. Lambourdieu had already held out his hand, across the hedge, for his five francs. And away he went. The horse behind him started off with the long vehicle, and the hoarse flourishes of the trumpet died away as the road wound out of sight.
Jean had all at once taken it into his head to push matters on with Lise, and pop the question. But an accident prevented this. The stable-door had no doubt been badly fastened, for suddenly they saw the donkey, Gédéon, valiantly chewing some carrot tops in the kitchen garden. This donkey, big, sturdy, and russet-coloured, with a large grey cross on his spine, was full of artfulness, and quite a wag in his way. He was very good at lifting latches with his mouth, was wont to fetch bread out of the kitchen, and by the style in which he wagged his long ears when he was reproached with his vices, it was obvious that he understood. As soon as he saw himself discovered he put on an indifferent, easy air; then, on being threatened and waved off, he moved away; only, instead of going back into the yard, he trotted along the walks to the bottom of the garden. Then a regular pursuit set in; and when Françoise had at length caught him, he drew himself together and huddled his head and legs against his body, as if to increase his weight, and make slower progress. He was impervious to everything, whether in the shape of kicks or blandishments. Indeed, Jean had to intervene, and hustle him from behind with his man's strength; for Gédéon, since he had been under the management of the two women, had conceived the most hearty contempt for them. Jules had awoke at the noise and was now howling. The opportunity for popping the question was altogether lost, and Jean had to leave without speaking.
A week went by. A great shyness had come upon the young man, who had now lost heart. Not that the transaction seemed to him disadvantageous; contrariwise, he had, on reflection, become more deeply conscious of its advantages. Each side could not do otherwise than gain. If he had nothing, she was encumbered with her infant. That equalised matters. This was no sordid calculation on his part. He argued as much for her happiness as for his own. Then, again, marriage, by taking him away from the farm, would rid him of Jacqueline, who still worried him, and to whom he still yielded out of fleshly weakness. So at last he made up his mind, and waited for an opportunity to declare himself, conning the words he meant to say, for even regimental life had left him somewhat a ninny with women.
At last, one day at about four o'clock, he slipped away from the farm and went to Rognes, resolved to speak. This was the time when Françoise led her cows to evening pasture, and he had chosen it so as to be alone with Lise. But he was dismayed, at the outset, by a great annoyance. La Frimat was established there in her character of obliging neighbour, helping the younger woman to scald the linen in the kitchen.
The sisters had scoured it on the evening before, and since the morning the ash liquor, scented with orris root, had been boiling in a cauldron hanging from the pot-hook over a clear, poplar wood fire. With bare arms, and her skirts tucked up, Lise, with the aid of a yellow earthen jug, was drawing the water off and wetting the linen, with which the bucking-tub was filled—the sheets at the bottom, then the house-cloths, then the body linen, and, at the top of all, some other sheets. La Frimat was not of much use; but she stopped to gossip, allowing herself that recreation, and contenting herself, every now and then, with removing and emptying into the cauldron the pail which stood under the tub to catch the lye, that kept draining away.
Jean waited patiently, hoping she would leave. She did not do so, however; but went on talking of her poor paralytic husband, who could now only move one hand. It was a great affliction. They had never been well off; but, when he could still work, he rented land which he turned to account, whereas now she had a world of trouble to cultivate by herself the patch that was their own. She struggled her hardest; collecting horse dung from the roads as manure, for they kept no animals; tending her salad stock, beans, and peas, plant by plant; and watering even her three plum and two apricot trees. The result was that she made an enormous profit out of the ground; and started every Saturday for the Cloyes market, staggering under the burden of two tremendous baskets, without reckoning the heavy vegetables which a neighbour conveyed for her in his cart. She rarely returned without two or three five-franc pieces, particularly in the fruit season. Her constant grievance was the lack of manure. Neither the horse dung, nor the sweepings from the few rabbits and hens she kept, made a sufficient supply. She had come at length to utilising the excrements of her old man and herself, that human manure so much despised, which provokes disgust even in the country. This had got abroad, and people chaffed her about it, and dubbed her Mother Caca—a nickname which did her a deal of harm at the market; she had seen shopkeepers' wives turn with aversion and disgust from her superb carrots and cabbages. Despite her great mildness, this set her beside herself with fury.
"Come, now, tell me—you, Corporal—is it reasonable? Isn't it permissible to use all that the good God has put in our way? And then to go and say that the dung of animals is cleaner! No; it's jealousy! Folks have a spite against me in Rognes, because the vegetables grow more vigorously on my ground. Tell me, Corporal, does it disgust you?"
Jean replied, in embarrassment: "Well, I don't find it exactly appetising. One ain't used to it. I daresay though, that it's only fancy."
This frankness threw the old woman into despair. Though she was not habitually a tale-bearer, she could not restrain her bitterness.
"Oh, that's it, is it? They've already set you against me. Ah, if you only knew how spiteful they are, if you had any idea of what they say about you!"
Then she let loose the gossip of Rognes about the young man. To begin with, they had execrated him because he was an artisan, and sawed and planed wood, instead of tilling the ground. Then, when he had taken to the plough, they had taxed him with taking the bread out of other people's mouths, by coming into a district that wasn't his own. Did any one know where he came from? Hadn't he done some evil deed at home, that he didn't even dare to go back there? Then they spied upon his intercourse with La Cognette, and asserted that some fine night the two of them would administer a bowl of devil's broth to Hourdequin, and rob him.
"Oh, the blackguards!" muttered Jean, who became pale with indignation.
Lise, who was drawing a jugful of boiling lye from the cauldron, started laughing at the mention of La Cognette, a name she sometimes twitted him with in jest.
"And since I've begun, I'd better make an end of it," pursued La Frimat. "Well, there's no kind of abomination they don't talk about, since you began visiting here. Last week—wasn't it?—you presented them both with silk neckerchiefs, which they were seen wearing on Sunday at mass. The filthy beasts say that you go to bed with the two of them!"
This settled matters. Trembling, but resolute, Jean got up and said:
"Listen, my good woman. I will make reply in your presence, which shall not stand in my way. I will ask Lise if she will consent to my marrying her. You hear me ask, Lise? and if you say yes, you will make me very happy."
She was just then emptying her jug into the bucking-tub. She did not hurry, but finished carefully watering the linen. Then, with her arms bare and moist with steam, becoming quite grave, she looked him in the face.
"So you're in earnest?"
"Thoroughly in earnest."
She did not seem surprised. It was natural. Only she did not answer yes or no; there was evidently something on her mind which annoyed her.
"You needn't say no on account of La Cognette," resumed he, "because La Cognette——"
She cut him short with a gesture. She was well aware that all the larking at the farm was of no consequence.
"There is also the fact that I've absolutely nothing but my skin to bring you; whereas, you own this house and some land."
Again she waved her arm, as if to say that in her position, with a child, she agreed with him in thinking that things were evenly balanced.
"No, no! it's not that," she declared at length. "Only there's Buteau."
"But since he refuses?"
"That's certain. And now there's no sentiment in the matter, for he's behaved too badly. But, all the same, Buteau must be consulted."
Jean reflected for a good minute. Then, very sensibly, he replied:
"As you please. It's due to the child."
La Frimat, who was gravely emptying the pail of drainings into the cauldron, thought herself called upon to approve the step—albeit favourable to Jean, the honest fellow; he surely was neither pig-headed nor brutal—and she was delivering herself to this effect, when Françoise was heard outside, returning with the two cows.
"I say, Lise," she cried, "come and look. La Coliche has hurt her foot."
They all went out, and Lise, at the sight of the limping animal, with her left fore-foot bruised and bleeding, flew into a sharp passion—one of those surly bursts with which she used to sweep down upon her sister when the latter was little, and happened to be in fault.
"Another of your pieces of neglect, eh? You, no doubt, dropped off to sleep on the grass, the same as you did the other day?"
"I assure you I didn't. I don't know what she can have done. I tied her to the stake, and she must have caught her foot in the cord."
"Hold your tongue, liar and good-for-nothing! You'll get killing my cow some day."
Françoise's black eyes flashed fire. She was very pale, and indignantly stammered out:
"Your cow, your cow! You might, at least, say our cow."
"Our cow, indeed? A chit like you with a cow!"
"Yes, half of all that's here is mine. I've a right to take half and destroy it if it amuses me to do so!"
The two sisters stood facing each other, hostile and threatening. It was the first painful quarrel in the course of their long fondness. This question of meum and tuum left them both smarting: the one exasperated by the rebellion of her younger sister, the other obstinate and violent under a sense of injustice. The elder gave way, and went back into the kitchen, so as to restrain herself from boxing her sister's ears. When Françoise, having housed her cows, re-appeared, and went to the pan to cut herself a slice of bread, there was an awkward silence.
Lise, however, had calmed down. The sight of her sister's sullen resistance was now an annoyance to her, and she was the first to speak, thinking to make an end of it by an unexpected piece of news.
"Do you know," she asked, "Jean wants to marry me, and has proposed?"
Françoise, who was standing by the window eating her bread, remained indifferent, and did not even turn round.
"What odds does that make to me?"
"The odds it makes to you," replied Lise, "are that you'd have him for a brother-in-law, and I want to know if you'd like him?"
Françoise shrugged her shoulders.
"Like or dislike, him or Buteau, what's the good? So long as I don't have to sleep with him. Only, if you want to know, the whole thing is hardly decent."
And she went outside to finish her bread in the yard.
Jean, feeling rather uncomfortable, affected to laugh, as at the whims of a spoilt child; while La Frimat declared that in her young days a wench like that would have been whipped till the blood came. As for Lise, she remained a moment silent and serious, absorbed once more in her washing. Then she wound up by saying:
"Well, Corporal, we'll leave it like that. I don't say no, and I don't say yes. The hay-making is come: I shall see our people; I'll make inquiries, and find out how things stand. And then we'll settle something. Will that do?"
He held out his hand, and shook the one she gave him. From her whole person, steeped in warm steam, there exuded a true housewifely scent: a scent of wood-ash perfumed with orris.