For the last two days Jean had been driving the mowing-machine over the few acres of meadow belonging to La Borderie, on the banks of the Aigre. From daybreak till night the regular click of the blades had been heard, and that morning he was getting to the end. The last swaths were falling into line behind the wheels, forming a layer of fine, soft, pale-green herbage. The farm having no hay-making machine, he had been commissioned to engage two haymakers: Palmyre, who worked to the utmost of her strength and harder than a man; and Françoise, who had got herself engaged out of caprice, finding amusement in the occupation. Both of them had come with him at five o'clock, and, with their long forks, had laid out the mulons: little heaps of half-dried grass which had been gathered together over night, by way of protecting it from the night-dews. The sun had risen in a clear glowing sky cooled by a breeze. It was the very weather to make good hay in.
After breakfast, when Jean returned with his haymakers, the hay of the first acre mowed was finished. He felt it and found it dry and crisp.
"I say," cried he, "we'll give it just another turn, and to-night we'll begin the stacking."
Françoise, in a grey linen dress, had knotted over her head a blue handkerchief, one edge of which flapped on her neck, while two corners fluttered loosely over her cheeks, and shaded her face from the sun's brilliant rays. With a swing of her fork she took the grass and flung it up, while the wind blew out of it a kind of golden dust. As the blades fluttered, a strong subtle scent arose from them: the warm scent of cut grass and withered flowers. She had grown very hot, walking on amid the continuous fluttering, which put her in high spirits.
"Ah, my child," said Palmyre, in her doleful voice, "it's easy to see you're young. When night comes, you'll feel your arms stiff."
They were not alone, for all Rognes was mowing and making hay in the meadows around them. Delhomme had got there before daybreak, for the grass, when wet with dew, is tender to cut, like spongy bread; whereas it toughens in proportion as the sun grows hotter. At that moment, one distinctly heard its resistant whir under the scythe, which, held by Delhomme, swept restlessly to and fro. Nearer, in fact contiguous with the grass of the farm, there were two bits of land, belonging one to Macqueron and the other to Lengaigne. In the first, Berthe, in a genteel dress with little flounces, and a straw hat, had come in attendance on the haymakers, by way of recreation, but she was already tired, and remained leaning on her fork in the shade of a willow. In the other field, Victor, who was mowing for his father, had just sat down, and, with his anvil between his knees, was beating at his scythe. For ten minutes nothing had been distinguishable, amid the deep thrilling silence of the air, save the persistent hurried taps of the hammer on the steel.
Just then Françoise came near to Berthe.
"You've had enough of it, eh?" asked the former.
"More or less. I'm beginning to feel tired. You see, when one isn't used to it."
Then they chatted, whispering about Suzanne, Victor's sister, whom the Lengaignes had sent to a dressmaking establishment at Châteaudun, and who, after six months, had fled to Chartres to live "gay." It was said she had run off with a notary's clerk; and all the girls in Rognes whispered the scandal and speculated on the details. Living gay to them meant orgies of gooseberry syrup and Seltzer water, in the midst of a seething crowd of men, dozens of whom waited to court you, in Indian file, in the back shops of wine-sellers.
"Yes, my dear, that's how it is. Isn't she going it?"
Françoise, being younger, stared in stupefaction.
"Nice kind of amusement!" she said at last. "But unless she comes back the Lengaignes will be all alone, as Victor has been drawn for the conscription."
Berthe, who espoused her father's quarrel, shrugged her shoulders. A lot Lengaigne cared. His only regret was that the child hadn't stopped at home to be turned up, and so bring some custom to his shop. Hadn't an uncle of hers, an old man of forty, had her already, before she went to Châteaudun, one day when they were peeling carrots together. And, in a lower whisper, Berthe gave the exact words and circumstances. Françoise, bending double, was suffocated with laughter, it seemed so funny to her.
"Gracious goodness! How stupid to do things like that!"
Then resuming her work she withdrew, raising forkfuls of grass and shaking them in the sun. The persistent hammering on the steel was still heard. Some minutes later, as she came near to where the young man was sitting, she spoke to him.
"So you're going to be a soldier?"
"Oh, in October. Plenty of time yet; there's no hurry."
She struggled against her desire to question him about his sister, but she spoke of her despite herself.
"Is it true what they say, that Suzanne is now at Chartres?"
He, completely indifferent, made answer:
"I suppose so! She seems to enjoy it."
Then, in the distance, seeing Lequeu, the schoolmaster, who was seemingly strolling down by chance, he resumed:
"Hullo! There's somebody after the Macqueron girl. What did I tell you? He's stopping and poking his face into her hair. Get along with you, you old nincompoop! You may sniff round her, but you'll never get anything but the smell!"
Françoise began laughing again, and Victor pursued the family vendetta by falling foul of Berthe. No doubt the schoolmaster wasn't worth much: a bully who cuffed children, a sly-boots whose opinions nobody knew, capable of toadying the girl to get her father's money. But, then, Berthe was no better than she should be, with all her fine town-bred airs. It was no use her wearing flounced skirts and velvet bodices, and stuffing out her behind with table-napkins; the underneath was none the better. Quite the reverse, indeed, for she was up to snuff; she'd learnt more by being brought up at the Châteaudun school than by stopping at home to mind the cows. No fear of her getting herself let in for a child; she preferred to ruin her constitution in solitude.
"How do you mean?" asked Françoise, who did not understand.
He made a gesture, whereupon she became serious, and said, unreservedly:
"That's how it is, then, that she's always saying dirty things, and rubbing herself up against you."
Victor had begun beating his blade again; and, tapping between each phrase, he went on saying some very improper things about Berthe.
These set Françoise off into another fit of mirth; and she only calmed down, and went on hay-making, on seeing her sister Lise on the road coming towards the meadow. Lise went up to Jean, and explained that she had settled to go and see her uncle about Buteau. For the last three days that step had been agreed upon between them, and she promised to come back and tell him the answer. When she went off, Victor was still tapping, and Françoise, Palmyre, and the other women were still flinging the grass in the dazzling light of the vast bright sky. Lequeu was very obligingly giving a lesson to Berthe, thrusting, raising, and lowering her fork as stiffly as a soldier at drill. Afar off, the mowers advanced unceasingly, with a constant, steady motion, swinging on their loins, and with their scythes perpetually sweeping to and fro.
For an instant Delhomme stopped and stood upright, towering above the others. From the cow-horn, full of water, that hung at his belt, he had taken his hone, and was sharpening his scythe with a bold, rapid gesture. Then he bent his back again, and the sharpened steel was heard whizzing still more keenly and bitingly over the meadow.
Lise had arrived at the Fouans' house. At first she was afraid there was no one at home, the place seemed so dead. Rose had parted with her two cows; the old man had just sold his horse; there were no signs of animals, no work, nothing stirring in the empty buildings and yard. Nevertheless the door yielded to her touch; and on entering the common room, which was gloomy and silent amid all the mirth out-of-doors, Lise found old Fouan standing up and finishing a bit of bread and cheese, while his wife was idly seated and looking at him.
"Good morning to you, aunt. Everything going on satisfactorily?"
"Why, yes!" answered the old woman, brightening up at the visit. "Now we are gentlefolks, we have only to take a holiday all day long."
Lise tried to make herself agreeable to her uncle too. "And the appetite's all right, it seems?" said she.
"Oh!" he answered, "it isn't that I'm hungry. Only it's something to do if one eats a bit now and then, it helps to pass the day."
He seemed so dull that Rose started off into an enthusiastic account of their happiness in not having to do any work. True enough, they had earned it well: it was not a bit too soon to see others running about while they lived on their income. Getting up late, twiddling their thumbs, not caring a pin for wind and weather, not having a single care—ah! it was a thorough change for them; it was perfectly heavenly. He, roused and exhilarated, joined in and improved upon her account. And yet, under all the forced joy, under the feverish exaggeration of their talk, there was plainly perceptible the profound tedium, the torture of idleness, that had racked these two old folks ever since their arms, suddenly becoming inert, had begun to get out of order by disuse, like old machinery thrown aside as waste iron.
At length Lise ventured on the subject of her visit.
"Uncle, they tell me that the other day you had a talk with Buteau."
"Buteau is a thorough beast!" cried Fouan, suddenly infuriated, and not giving her time to finish. "If he wasn't as pig-headed as a carroty-haired donkey, should I ever have had that bother with Fanny?"
This first disagreement with his children he had so far kept to himself, but, in his bitterness of heart, the allusion had now escaped him.
On entrusting Delhomme with Buteau's share, he had intended to rent it out at eighty francs a hectare, while Delhomme purposed simply paying a double allowance: two hundred francs for his own share, and two hundred for the other. That was fair, and the old man was the more angry because he had been in the wrong.
"What bother?" asked Lise. "Don't the Delhommes pay you?"
"Oh, yes!" replied Rose. "Every three months, at the stroke of twelve, the money is there on the table. Only there are ways and ways of paying, aren't there? And my old man, being sensitive, would like people to behave at least decently. Whereas, since this worry about Buteau's share, Fanny comes to us with the same air as she would go to the process-server, as if she were being cheated."
"Yes," added the old man, "they do pay, and that's about all. I don't think that enough. There's a certain consideration due. Their money don't pay off everything, does it? We're mere creditors now, nothing more. And yet we're wrong to grumble. If they'd all of them pay."
He broke off, and an awkward silence fell. This allusion to Hyacinthe, who hadn't handed in a copper, but was mortgaging his share bit by bit, and getting drunk on the proceeds, wrung the heart of his mother, who was always impelled to defend that darling scamp of hers. She dreaded lest this other sore point should be laid bare, and so she hastily resumed:
"Don't go fretting yourself about trifles! What's the odds so long as we're happy? Enough's as good as a feast."
She had never opposed her husband like this before, and he looked at her fixedly.
"Your tongue runs too fast, old woman. I don't mind being happy, but I won't be worried."
She shrank into herself again, huddling lazily together on her chair while he finished his bread, rolling the last mouthful over and over to prolong the recreation. The dull room sank to sleep.
"I wanted to know," went on Lise, "what Buteau means to do with regard to me and his child? I haven't worried him much hitherto, but it's time to settle one way or the other."
The two old people uttered not a word. She then questioned the father pointedly.
"As you saw him, he must have mentioned me. What did he say?"
"Nothing. He never opened his lips on the subject. And, in fact, there's nothing to be said. The priest's pestering me to arrange things, as if anything could be arranged so long as the fellow refuses to accept his share."
Lise pondered in great perplexity.
"You think he'll accept some day?"
"It's still possible."
"And you think he'd marry me?"
"There's a chance of it."
"Then you'd recommend me to wait?"
"Why, that depends on yourself. Everybody acts as they feel."
She was silent, unwilling to speak of Jean's proposal, and not knowing how to get a definite answer. Finally she made a last effort.
"You can well understand that I'm sick of not knowing what to expect after all this time. I want a yes or a no. Suppose, uncle, you went and asked Buteau? Do!"
Fouan shrugged his shoulders.
"To begin with, I'll never speak to the skunk again. And then, my girl, how simple you are! Why make a stubborn fool like that say no, who'd always say no afterwards. Leave him free to say yes some day, if it's to his interest."
"To be sure!" concluded Rose, simply, once more the echo of her husband.
Lise could get nothing more definite out of them. She left them, shutting the door upon the room, which relapsed into its benumbed condition; and the house seemed empty once more.
In the meadows on the banks of the Aigre, Jean and his two haymakers had begun the first stack. It was Françoise who built it up. Placed on a heap in the centre, she disposed circularly around her the forkfuls of hay which the young man and Palmyre brought her. Little by little the stack grew bigger and higher, she being always in the midst, and filling up the hollow in which she stood with bundles of hay as soon as the wall around her rose up to her knees. The rick was now beginning to take shape. It was already more than two yards high, and Palmyre and Jean had to raise their forks on high. The work did not proceed without the accompaniment of loud laughter, inspired by the exhilaration of the open air, and by the jests bandied to and fro amid the sweet-scented hay. Françoise, whose handkerchief had slipped down off the back of her head, which was bare to the sun, and whose hair was in disarray and entangled with grass and withered flowers—was in the happiest of moods amid that growing pile in which she was plunged up to her thighs. She buried her bare arms in the mass; every bundle tossed up from below covered her with a shower of stalks; and at times she vanished from sight and pretended to come to grief among the eddies.
"Oh, good gracious! There's something pricking me!"
"Under my petticoats; up here."
"It's a spider. Hold hard! keep your legs together."
And the laughter grew louder, at improper jests that made them split their sides.
Delhomme, in the distance, was disturbed, and turned his head for an instant but without ceasing to ply his scythe. Oh, yes! a lot of work that little chit must be doing, playing like that! Now-a-days girls were spoiled, and only worked to amuse themselves. He went on, laying the swath low with hurried strokes, and leaving a clear wake behind him. The sun sank in the heavens, the mowers broadened the gaps they had made. Victor, although he had left off hammering his blade, evinced no particular haste; and as La Trouille went by with her geese, he slily slipped off, and ran to meet her under shelter of a thick line of willows that edged the stream.
"Aha!" cried Jean; "he prefers something else to mowing."
Françoise burst into a fresh guffaw.
"He's too old for her," said she.
"Too old! Listen, and you'll hear them."
Then he began to coo so funnily and successfully that Palmyre, holding her stomach as if she were griped by colic, said:
"What's come to that fellow Jean to-day? Isn't he funny?"
The forkfuls of grass were being flung up higher and higher, and the stack was steadily growing.
They joked about Lequeu and Berthe, who had eventually sat down. Most likely she was having herself tickled at a respectful distance with a straw. But let the schoolmaster set the pastry to bake as much as he liked, he wouldn't have the eating of it.
"Isn't he dirty!" repeated Palmyre, who couldn't laugh, and was consequently suffocating.
Then Jean chaffed her.
"Don't tell me that you've got to the age of thirty-two and never yet had to do with a young man!"
"What! No young man ever caught hold of you? You've no lovers?"
She had grown quite pale and serious, with her long grief-stained face, already worn and stupefied by labour, and retaining only the clear, shallow, faithful eyes of a hound. Perchance she was recalling her miserable, friendless, loveless life, the existence of a beast of burden whipped back at night, heavy-eyed, to its stable. She had stopped short, and stood grasping her fork, with a far-away look towards the distant country-side, that she had never even seen.
There was a silence. Françoise was listening, motionless, at the top of the stack; while Jean, who had also stopped to take breath, went on with his banter, hesitating to say what was on the tip of his tongue. At length he resolved to speak out.
"Then it's all lies what they say about you and Hilarion?" he asked.
Palmyre's face suddenly turned from white to crimson, the rush of blood momentarily restoring her the aspect of her lost youth. She stammered with surprise and vexation, at a loss for the disclaimer she desired.
"Oh, the backbiters! Only to think of it!"
Françoise and Jean, with a resumption of noisy mirth, spoke both at once, pressed her hard, and flurried her. Why, in the ruined cow-shed, where Palmyre and Hilarion lodged, there was hardly any room to move about. Their mattresses lay touching on the floor; how easy it was to make a mistake in the dark!
"Come, it's true; confess it's true! Besides, it's well known."
Drawing herself up, Palmyre, quite bewildered, gave vent to her passion and pain:
"Well, and supposing that it were true," she exclaimed, "what the devil is it to you? The poor boy hasn't so happy a life as it is."
A couple of tears rolled down her cheeks, so wrung was she by her feeling of motherhood for the cripple. After earning him his bread, supposing she did accord him what others refused him, why it cost them nothing! With the darkened intellect of clod-like beings, these pariahs and outcasts of love would have been at a loss to relate how the thing had been brought about. An instinctive approach without deliberate consent, he stung by desire, she passively yielding to his purpose; thus it had begun. Then, too, there was the happiness of their feeling warmer, in that miserable hovel where they both shivered with the cold.
"She is right, what is it to us?" resumed Jean, in his grave, kindly way, touched to see her in such agitation. "It's their own concern and nobody else's."
Besides, another circumstance took up their attention. Hyacinthe had just come down from the Château, the old cellar in which he dwelt amid the brushwood, half-way up the hill; and from the top of the road he was calling for La Trouille with all his might, cursing and bawling out that his drab of a daughter had disappeared two hours ago, without troubling her head about their evening meal.
"Your daughter," cried Jean to him, "is under the willows with Victor."
Hyacinthe raised both his hands to heaven.
"Oh, the cursed troll! Bringing dishonour upon me! I'll go and fetch my whip."
He then ran back again to fetch the large horse-whip he kept hung up behind his door for use on these occasions.
La Trouille must have heard him, for there was a prolonged rustling under the leaves, as of some one escaping; and, two minutes later, Victor carelessly strolled back. He examined his scythe, and finally returned to his work. When Jean called over to him to ask if he had got the stomach-ache, he replied:
The rick was now nearly completed, more than four yards high, solid, and rounded into bee-hive shape. Palmyre flung up the last trusses with her long thin arms; and Françoise, standing on the apex, seemed to grow taller against the pale sky, lit up by the pink glow of the setting sun. She was now quite out of breath, quite tremulous after her exertion, bathed in perspiration, with her hair clinging to her skin. Her bodice was open, showing her firm little bosom, while her skirt had burst its fastenings and was slipping down from her haunches.
"Oh, dear! How high it is! I'm getting giddy," she said; and then she laughed shiveringly, and hesitated; not venturing to descend, but merely stretching out her foot and instantly drawing it back again.
"No, it's too high. Go and get a ladder," she added.
"Sit down, stupid, why don't you!" said Jean. "Slide down."
"No, no! I'm afraid; I can't!"
There were shouts of encouragement, and some free jesting.
Not on her stomach; that would make it swell! On her croup, provided she had no chilblains there! He, standing below, was getting excited as he looked up at the legs of the girl, gradually feeling exasperated to see her so high out of reach, and unconsciously seized with a virile desire to get close to her and embrace her.
"Don't I tell you you won't do yourself any damage," he called. "Roll down; you'll fall into my arms."
He had stationed himself in front of the rick, and spread out his arms, displaying his chest that she might throw herself upon it. When she suddenly came to a decision, and, shutting her eyes, let herself go, her fall down the slippery side of the stack was so smart that she knocked him over and got somehow a-straddle round his ribs. She lay on the ground, with her petticoats up, choking with laughter and spluttering out that she wasn't hurt. On feeling her burning and perspiring form against his face, he had seized her in his arms. Her powerful feminine odour, the strong smell of the hay and the fresh air, intoxicated him, stiffening all his sinews with a sudden mad desire. Then, too, there was something else; a hitherto unknown passion for this child, now bursting into strength; a sentimental and sensual fondness which had originated long back, increasing with their frolicsome, hearty laughter, and ending in this longing to clasp her there upon the grass.
"Oh, Jean, don't! You're breaking my bones!"
She still laughed, thinking him in play. He, catching sight of Palmyre's saucer-like eyes, started up shivering, with the wild aspect of a drunkard sobered by the view of a yawning chasm. What was this? It was not Lise he wanted, but this chit! The thought of Lise's flesh in contact with his own had never so much as quickened his heart; whilst all his blood rose and suffocated him at the mere idea of kissing Françoise. Now he knew why he was so fond of visiting and helping the two sisters. Yet the child was so young that he was ashamed and in despair.
Lise was just then coming back from the Fouans. On the road she had reflected. She would have preferred Buteau, because, after all, he was the father of her baby. The old folks were right; why push things on? The day Buteau said no there would still be Jean to say yes.
She accosted the latter without delay.
"No answer; uncle knows nothing. Let us wait."
Still distraught and quivering, Jean stared at her without comprehending. Then he remembered: the marriage, the infant, Buteau's consent, the whole arrangement that, two hours earlier, he had considered advantageous for her and for himself. He hastened to reply:
"Yes, yes, let us wait. That'll be best."
Night was drawing in. One star already shone in the violet sky. In the growing twilight, the dim round outlines of the first stacks—protuberances on the smooth expanse of meadow—were all that was distinguishable. But the odours from the warm earth rose in greater strength amid the calm air: sounds were heard more distinctly, more prolonged and more musically limpid. Voices of men and women, faint laughter, mingled with the snort of an animal, the clink of an implement; while some mowers, growing pertinacious over a strip of meadow, went on unremittingly with their task, the broad regular whizz of the scythe still resounding, although the work was no longer visible.