Two years had passed in this active monotonous country life; and, with the fated return of the season, Rognes had lived its eternal round of the same toils, the same slumbers.
There stood on the road, down by the corner where the school was, a fountain of spring water, to which all the women came to get their drinking-water, the houses being furnished with nothing but pools, for the use of cattle and for watering purposes. At six o'clock in the evening the fountain was the head-quarters of the district Gazette. The least events were echoed there; and there the villagers indulged in endless commentaries upon the leg of mutton that some of their neighbours had eaten for dinner, and the daughter of such-a-one who had been in the family-way since Candlemas. For two years the same gossip had run its course with the seasons, ever renewed and never new; always children born too soon, men drunk, women beaten; a great deal of work resulting in a great deal of wretchedness. There had happened so many things, and yet nothing at all.
The Fouans, the distribution of whose property had made a sensation, were vegetating so sleepily as to be forgotten. Things had remained at the same pass: Buteau still stubborn, and still not married to the elder Mouche girl, who was rearing her child. It was the same with Jean, who had been accused of sleeping with Lise. Perhaps he didn't; but then, why was he always hanging about the house of the two sisters? That seemed suspicious. Then there were days when the fountain-time would have been dull, but for the rivalry of Cœlina Macqueron and Flore Lengaigne, whom La Bécu continually set at each other, while pretending to reconcile them. Then, amid a deep calm, there had just broken upon them two big events—the coming elections, and the celebrated question of the road from Rognes to Châteaudun. These involved a mighty blast of gossip. The full pitchers remained standing in a row; the women could never get away. One Saturday evening, indeed, there had almost been a fight.
Now, the very next day, M. de Chédeville, the late deputy, was breakfasting at Hourdequin's farm of La Borderie. He was doing his canvassing, and wanted to get on the right side of Hourdequin, who had great influence with the peasantry of the district; albeit that, thanks to his position as official candidate, he, Chédeville, was nearly certain to be re-elected. He had once been to Compiègne, and the whole district spoke of him as "the Emperor's friend." That was enough. He was chosen, as if he had spent a night at the Tuileries. This M. de Chédeville was an ex-beau; he had been the pink of fashion under Louis Philippe, retaining Orleanist tendencies in his heart of hearts, and he had ruined himself on women. He now only possessed his farm of La Chamade, near Orgères, where he never set foot save at election time. Not only was he disgusted by the falling value of farm property, but he had been seized late in life with political ambition, with a vague notion of restoring his fortunes by practical statesmanship. Tall, and still elegant, with laced bust and dyed hair, he led a reformed life, though his eyes still sparkled at the glimpse of a petticoat, and he was preparing—so he gave out—some important speeches on agricultural questions.
The night before, Hourdequin had had a violent quarrel with Jacqueline, who wanted to be present at the breakfast.
"You and your deputy, indeed! D'ye think I should eat your deputy? So you're ashamed of me?" said she.
But he held out. Only two places were laid, and she was sulking, despite the gallant air of M. de Chédeville, who, perceiving her, had drawn his own conclusions, and couldn't keep his eyes off the kitchen, whither she had retired in injured dignity.
The breakfast was drawing to a close. An Aigre trout after an omelette, and some roast pigeons.
"The fatal thing," said M. de Chédeville, "is that commercial freedom which the Emperor had gone crazy about. No doubt things went on well after the treaties of 1867, and every one marvelled. But to-day the real effects are being felt. See how prices have fallen everywhere. I am for Protection; we must defend ourselves against the foreigner."
Hourdequin, lolling back in his chair and ceasing to eat, spoke slowly and dreamily:
"Wheat, which is at fifty-two francs a quarter, costs forty-six to produce. If it falls any lower it means ruin. And every year, folks say, America is increasing her exportation of cereals. We are threatened with a regular glut of the market. What will become of us, then? See here! I've always been in favour of progress, science, and liberty. Well, I'm shaken in my creed, upon my word. Yes, indeed. We can't starve to death; let's have Protection."
He returned to the wing of his pigeon, and went on:
"You're aware that your antagonist, Monsieur Rochefontaine, the owner of the building works at Châteaudun, is a violent Free-trader?"
They chatted for a moment about this candidate, who employed from a thousand to twelve hundred workmen: a tall, intelligent, energetic fellow, opulent to boot, and greatly inclined to serve the Empire, but so hurt at not having secured the prefect's support, that he insisted on standing as an independent candidate. He had no chance, however; the country electors treating him as a public foe the moment he ceased to be on the strongest side.
"Lord!" resumed M. de Chédeville: "there's only one thing he wants: bread to be low, so that he may pay his hands more cheaply."
The farmer who had been about to pour himself out a glass of claret set the bottle on the table again.
"That's the dreadful part of it!" cried he. "On the one hand, there are ourselves, the peasants, who want to sell our grain at a remunerative price; and, on the other, there's the manufacturer, who drives prices down to lessen wages. It's war to the knife; and how's it to end? Come!"
In truth, here was the burning question of the hour: the antagonism that strains the framework of society. This question was far beyond the ex-beau, who contented himself with nodding his head, and making an evasive gesture.
Hourdequin, having filled his glass to the brim, emptied it at a draught.
"It can't end. If the peasant makes a profit out of his corn, the artisan starves; if the artisan feeds well, the peasant dies. What then? I don't know. Let's feed on one another!"
With both his elbows on the table, fairly launched, he relieved his feelings in a violent way. His secret disdain for this absentee landlord, who knew nothing of the land he lived by, betrayed itself by a certain ironical tremor in his voice.
"You've asked me for facts for your speeches. Well, to begin with: it's your own fault if La Chamade doesn't pay. The farmer you've got there is taking things easy, because his lease is expiring, and he suspects your intention of raising the rent. You're never seen; so people snap their fingers at you and rob you. Nothing more natural. Then there's a simpler reason for your ruin: we're all being ruined. La Beauce—fertile La Beauce, our nurse and mother—is worked out!"
So he went on. For instance, in his young days, Le Perche, on the other side of the Loir, was a poor ill-cultivated country, almost grainless, the inhabitants of which used to come to Cloyes, Châteaudun, and Bonneval, and hire themselves out at harvest-time. Now-a-days, thanks to the continued rise in price of manual labour, it was Le Perche that prospered, and would soon outstrip La Beauce; without taking into account that it was growing rich on live stock. For the markets of Mondoubleau, Saint-Calais, and Courtalain supplied the open districts with horses, oxen, and swine. La Beauce only lived thanks to her sheep. Two years earlier, when congestion of the spleen had decimated the flocks, she had gone through a terrible crisis, so much so, that if the plague had continued, she would never have survived.
Then he entered on his own struggles, his own story; his twenty years' battle with the land, which had left him poorer than before. He had always lacked capital. He had not been able to improve certain fields as he would have wished. Marling, alone, was inexpensive, yet no one but him had given any attention to it. It was the same with the manures. No one used aught but farm manure, which was insufficient. All his neighbours scoffed at his trying chemical manures, the inferior quality of which, however, often justified the mockers. As for the rotation of crops, he had been bound to conform to the custom of the country, and use the triennial system without fallows, now that the plan of artificial meadows and the culture of hoed plants was extending. Only one machine, the threshing-machine, was beginning to find acceptance. Such was the deadly, inevitable, numbing influence of routine; and if he, progressive and intelligent, felt that influence, what must it be for the hard-headed peasantry hostile to all improvement? A peasant would starve sooner than take a handful of earth from his field and carry it for analysis to a chemist, who could tell him what it contained in excess and in what it was deficient; the manure it required, and the crops best adapted to it. No; the peasant was always receiving from the soil, and never dreaming of restoring anything; acquainted with no manure but that of his two cows and his horse, of which he was very thrifty. The rest was left to chance; the seed thrown into any kind of soil, and left to germinate at random; and heaven was blasphemed if it never germinated at all. Whenever the peasant's eyes became opened, and he decided to devote himself to a rational and scientific system, the produce would be doubled. Till then, ignorant and headstrong, without a ha'porth of progress in him, he would go on murdering the soil. And thus it was that La Beauce—the ancient granary of France, flat and arid, with nothing but her corn—was gradually wasting away through exhaustion; weary of being bled at every vein, and of nurturing a race of blockheads.
"Ah! Every blasted thing is failing!" he cried, brutally. "Our sons will see the bankruptcy of the soil. Are you aware that our peasants, who once used to save up their coppers to buy a bit of land they had hungered after for years, are now buying stocks and shares—Spanish, Portuguese, even Mexican? And they wouldn't risk fifty francs to improve an acre. They have lost confidence. The parents go round and round in a circle of routine like foundered animals; the sons and daughters think of nothing but letting the cows run loose, and sprucing themselves up to gad off into town. And the worst of it is that education—that famous education, don't you know? that was going to put everything straight—favours this exodus, this depopulation of the country, by inspiring the children with silly vanity and false ideas of comfort. See here, now. At Rognes they've a schoolmaster, that Lequeu, a fellow broken loose from the plough and eaten up with spite against the land he just missed cultivating. Well, how can you expect him to reconcile his boys to their lot, when he treats them every day like savages, like brute beasts, and sends them back to the paternal dung-heap with a scholar's contempt. The remedy, good heavens! The assured remedy would be to have other schools—a practical system of teaching, graduated courses of agriculture. There's a fact for you. I insist upon that. It is there, in those schools perhaps, that salvation lies, if there's yet time."
M. de Chédeville, pre-occupied, and feeling thoroughly uncomfortable under this mighty avalanche of facts, hastened to reply:
"No doubt, no doubt."
Then as the servant brought in the dessert—a cream cheese and some fruit—leaving the kitchen door wide open, he caught sight of Jacqueline's pretty profile. He bent forward, winked, and fidgeted, to attract that amiable personage's attention; and then resumed, in the mellow tones of his old lady-killing days:
"You don't tell me anything about the small holdings."
He set forth the current notions—the small proprietorships created in '89, favoured by the law, destined to regenerate agriculture; in short, everybody a landowner, and each man devoting his intellect and energies to the cultivation of his scrap of land.
"Stuff and nonsense!" declared Hourdequin. "To begin with, the petty landowners existed before '89, and in almost as large a proportion. And in the next place, there's a good deal to be said on both sides about cutting up the soil."
With his elbows again on the table, eating some cherries and spitting out the stones, he now entered into details. In La Beauce the petty landowners, those who inherited less than fifty acres, were in the proportion of eighty per cent. For some time almost all the day labourers—those who worked on the farms—had been buying bits of land, fragments of large demesnes, and cultivating them at odd moments. That was certainly an excellent plan, for the labourer was thus at once bound to the soil. It might be added in favour of the system of petty holdings that it developed worthier, more self-reliant, and better educated men. Finally, it conduced to a comparatively larger yield, the produce also being of better quality; for the owner exerted himself to the utmost, and tended his crop minutely. But how many inconveniences there were on the other hand! First, this superiority in yield and quality was due to excessive work. The parents and children toiled to death in order to live. Indeed, it was this exhausting, ungrateful labour that was finally depopulating the rural districts. Next, with the subdivision of the soil there was increased transport, which spoilt the roads and augmented the cost of production, besides leading to waste of time. It was impossible to employ machinery on the smaller holdings, on which, moreover, the triennial rotation was necessary. This was certainly unscientific, for it was unreasonable to demand two successive crops of cereals, oats, and wheat. In short, extreme subdivision of the soil seemed so surely to portend danger, that, after having encouraged it by law just after the Revolution—for fear of seeing the large domains formed again—the State had now begun to facilitate transfers by diminishing the charges thereon.
"Mark this," he continued, "a strife has set in, and is growing in acrimony, between the larger and smaller landowners. Some, like me, favour the system of large holdings, because they seem more in accord with science and progress, with the increased use of machinery, and the circulation of large sums of money. Others, on the contrary, only believe in individual effort, and praise the system of small holdings; dreaming of cultivation on the most minute scale; a system in which every one would produce his own manure, look after his own quarter of an acre, sort out his seeds one by one, allotting the required soil to each kind, and then raise each plant by itself under glass. Which of the two will get the upper hand? Hang me if I've any idea! I am well aware, as I told you just now, that every year large ruined farms are dropping to pieces in my neighbourhood, and falling into the hands of gangs, and that the system of small holdings is gaining ground. I know, moreover, at Rognes, a very curious instance of an old woman who derives quite a comfortable subsistence for herself and her husband from less than an acre of land. They nickname her Mother Caca, because she doesn't shrink from emptying the contents of her own and her husband's chamber vase on to her vegetables, as is the custom of the Chinese, so it would seem. But that is hardly better than gardening. I can't picture cereals growing in beds like turnips; and if, for a peasant to be independent, he produced something of everything, what would become of our Beaucerons—who have only their wheat to rely upon—when our Beauce has been cut up like a chess-board? However, if one lives long enough, one will see which will triumph in the future—the system of large holdings or that of small ones."
At this point he broke off and shouted: "Are we going to have that coffee to-day or to-morrow?"
Then, lighting his pipe, he resumed: "Unless both be killed at once, and that's what folks are in a fair way of doing. Mark this, agriculture is on its last legs, and will die if some one doesn't come to its assistance. Everything is crushing it down—taxes, foreign competition, the continued rise in the cost of manual labour, the drain of money which goes to manufacturing undertakings, and stocks and shares. To be sure, there are no end of promises abroad. Every one is lavish of them—the prefects, the ministers, the Emperor. But the dust rises on the roads, and nothing is seen coming. Shall I tell you the strict truth? Now-a-days, a cultivator who holds on either wastes his own money or other people's. It's all right for me, because I have a few coppers laid by. But I know people who borrow money at five per cent., while their land does not yield them so much as three. The collapse is fatally ahead. A peasant who borrows is a ruined man. He will infallibly be stripped of everything—to his last shirt.
"Only last week one of my neighbours was evicted, the parents and their four children being flung into the street, after the lawyers had robbed them of their live stock, their land, and their house. And yet for years and years people have been promising us the establishment of an agricultural loan-company which would lend money at a reasonable rate of interest. I only wish they may get it! All this disgusts even good workers, who have come to such a pass that they think twice even before getting their wives into the family way. No, thanks! What! another mouth to feed—another starveling born to wretchedness! When there isn't bread enough for all, no more children are born and the nation perishes."
Monsieur de Chédeville, who was quite disconcerted, ventured on an uneasy smile, and murmured: "You don't look on the bright side of things."
"That is true, there are times when I feel inclined to let everything go hang," replied Hourdequin gaily. "And no wonder; these troubles have been going on now for thirty years. I don't know why I have persisted. I ought to have sold everything off, and taken to something else. One reason with me, no doubt, was force of habit; and then there is the hope that things will mend, and then—why not confess it?—a passionate fondness for the occupation. When once this cursed land gets hold of you, it doesn't let go in a hurry. Look here! Look at that ornament on that table. It is foolish of me, perhaps, but when I look at it I feel consoled."
He stretched out his hand and pointed to a silver cup, protected from the flies by a piece of muslin. It was a reward of merit gained in an agricultural competition.
These competitions, in which he triumphed, were the whetstone of his vanity and one of the causes of his obstinacy.
In spite of the obvious weariness of his guest, he dallied over his coffee, and was pouring some brandy into his cup for the third time when, drawing out his watch, he suddenly started up: "Goodness! It's two o'clock, and I am due at a meeting of the Municipal Council. It's about a road. We are quite willing to pay half the money, but we should like to obtain a subsidy from the State for the other half."
Monsieur de Chédeville had risen from his chair, delighted at being set free.
"In that matter I can be of service to you," he said. "I'll get your subsidy for you. Shall I take you to Rognes in my gig since you are pressed for time?"
"Just the thing!" replied Hourdequin, and he went out to see to the harnessing of the conveyance, which had remained in the yard.
When he came back the deputy was no longer in the room, but eventually he perceived him in the kitchen. No doubt he had pushed the door open; and he was standing there smiling in front of the radiant Jacqueline, and complimenting her at such close quarters that their faces nearly touched. Having sniffed each other, they had summed each other up, and told each other so by unmistakable glances.
When Monsieur de Chédeville had got into his gig again, La Cognette held Hourdequin back for a minute to whisper in his ear:
"He is nicer than you are. He doesn't think that I am only fit to be hidden away."
On the road, while the vehicle was rolling along between the wheat fields, the farmer returned to his one pre-occupation, the soil. He now volunteered manuscript notes and figures, for he had kept accounts for some years. In the whole of La Beauce there were not three people who did as much, and the small landowners, the peasants, shrugged their shoulders at the idea, and did not even understand it. Nevertheless, one's situation could only be made clear by accounts, which indicated what products had proved profitable and what had entailed a loss. Moreover, accounts gave one the cost price, and thus indicated on what terms one ought to sell. At Hourdequin's, every servant, every animal, every field, every tool even, had a page to itself, with debit and credit columns, so that he was constantly enlightened as to the success or failure of his operations.
"At all events," said he, with his hoarse laugh, "I know how I am ruining myself." Then he broke off to indulge in a muttered curse. During the last few minutes, as the vehicle rolled along, he had been trying to make out what was going on by the road-side some distance off. Although it was Sunday, he had sent a recently-purchased hay-making machine, on a new system, to turn a cutting of lucern, which required immediate attention. The farm-hand, being off his guard, and not recognising his master in this strange vehicle approaching, was making fun of the machine in company with three peasants whom he had stopped on the way. "There," said he, "that's a nice old tin-pot thing. It creaks like an old pulley, breaks the grass to bits, and poisons it. On my word, three sheep have already died of it."
The peasants, meanwhile, sneered and examined the hay-making machine as if it were some strange, spiteful animal. One of them even said: "All these things are devilish inventions to ruin poor folks. What will our wives do when people are able to make hay without them?"
"A precious lot the masters care about that," resumed the farm-hand, launching out a kick at the machine. "Ugh! you beast!"
Hourdequin had heard him, and popping his head and shoulders out of the vehicle, he shouted: "Go back to the farm, Zéphyrin, get your wages, and take yourself off."
The farm-hand stood stupefied, while the three peasants went off, indulging in insulting laughter and loudly audible jests.
"There," said Hourdequin, throwing himself back on the seat. "You saw them. That's the state in which they are. One might imagine that improved machinery burnt their fingers. Besides, they treat me as if I were a townsman. They take less trouble with my land than with other people's, saying that I can afford to pay higher prices; and they are supported by my neighbours, who accuse me of getting the country folk into idle ways. They even assert that if there were many like me, the farmers would no longer be able to get their work done as they used to."
The gig now reached the foot of the hill, and was entering Rognes by the Bazoches-le-Doyen road, when the deputy perceived the Abbé Godard coming out of Macqueron's shop, where he had breakfasted that morning after mass. Monsieur de Chédeville's election worries once more took possession of him, and he asked: "How about the religious feeling in our country districts?"
"Oh! there's an outward show, but nothing at the bottom of it," carelessly replied Hourdequin, who certainly made no outward show himself. He stopped at the tavern kept by Macqueron, who was standing at the door with the priest, and he introduced his assessor, who was wearing a greasy old overcoat. Cœlina, looking very neat in her print dress, ran up, pushing forward her daughter Berthe, the pride of the family, who was genteelly clad in a silk dress, with narrow mauve stripes.
Meanwhile, the village, which had been in a dead-alive state, as if every one had been made lazy by so fine a Sunday, woke up in its surprise at this unusual visit. Peasants appeared on the thresholds, and children peeped out from behind their mothers' skirts. At the Lengaignes' especially there was much hurrying to and fro, and the husband was craning his head out, with his razor in his hand, while his wife, Flore, stopped weighing twopenny worth of tobacco to press her face against the window-pane, both of them being extremely vexed at seeing the gentleman get down at their rival's door. Little by little people came round, and a crowd collected, the whole of Rognes being by this time aware of the important event.
Addressing the deputy, Macqueron, who was flushed and embarrassed, exclaimed: "This is, indeed, an honour, sir."
But Monsieur de Chédeville was not listening to him, being enchanted with the pretty face of Berthe, who, with her bright eyes, surrounded by slight bluish rings, was staring at him boldly. Her mother was saying how old she was and where she had been to school; while she herself, smiling and curtseying, invited the gentleman to condescend to walk in.
"Why, certainly, my dear child!" he exclaimed.
Meanwhile the Abbé Godard, button-holing Hourdequin, was begging him once more to persuade the Municipal Council to vote some funds, so that Rognes might at length have a priest of its own. He returned to this subject every six months, giving his reasons—the strain it was upon him, and the constant quarrels he used to have with the village; not to mention that the service itself suffered. "Don't say no!" he added, quickly, seeing the farmer make an evasive gesture. "Speak about it, all the same; I will await the reply."
Then just as Monsieur de Chédeville was on the point of following Berthe, he pushed forward and stopped him in his stubborn, genial way.
"Excuse me, sir," he began. "But the poor church here is in such a state! I want to show it to you, and you must get it repaired for me. No one listens to me. Come, come, I implore you!"
Very much annoyed, the ex-beau was resisting, when Hourdequin, on learning from Macqueron that several of the councillors were already at the municipal offices, where they had been waiting half-an hour, said unceremoniously: "That's the thing! Go and see the church. You will kill time like that until I have done, and then you can take me back home." Monsieur de Chédeville was thus obliged to follow the priest. The crowd had now become larger, and several people started off, dogging his steps. They had grown bolder, too, and everybody was thinking of asking him for something.
When Hourdequin and Macqueron had gone upstairs into the room where the council met, they found three councillors there—Delhomme and two others. The apartment, a moderately large white-washed room, had no other furniture than a long deal table and twelve straw-bottomed chairs. Between the two windows, from which one overlooked the road, there was a cupboard in which the archives were kept, mingled with sundry official documents, while on shelves round the wall there were piles of canvas fire-buckets, the gift of a gentleman, which they did not know where to put, and which proved a useless encumbrance, as they had no fire-engine.
"Gentlemen," said Hourdequin, politely, "I ask your pardon. I have had Monsieur de Chédeville breakfasting with me."
No one moved a muscle; and it was impossible to say whether they accepted this excuse. From the windows they had certainly seen the deputy arrive, and they were also interested in the coming election. But it was not politic for them to commit themselves.
"The devil!" now cried the farmer. "There are only five of us. We shall not be able to come to any decision."
Fortunately, Lengaigne came in. At first he had resolved not to attend the meeting, as the question of the road did not interest him, and he had even hoped that his absence would hamper the voting. Later on, the arrival of Monsieur de Chédeville throwing him into a fever of curiosity, he had decided to go upstairs to find out all about it.
"Good! There are six of us now, and we shall be able to vote," cried the mayor.
Lequeu—who acted as secretary—having made his appearance, with a snappish, surly air, and with the minute-book under his arm, there was no further impediment in the way of opening the meeting. Delhomme, however, had begun to whisper to his neighbour, Clou, the farrier, a tall, withered fellow, very dark. As the others began to listen to them, they suddenly became silent. One name had, however, been caught—that of the independent candidate, Monsieur Rochefontaine—and then the rest of them, after sounding each other, fell with a word, a sneer, or a simple grimace upon this candidate, whom nobody even knew. They were on the side of order; in favour of keeping things as they were, and of remaining submissive to the authorities who ensured the sale of produce. Did that gentleman think himself stronger than the Government? Did he imagine that he could raise corn to eighty-eight francs a quarter? It was bold, indeed, for a man without a vestige of support to send out circulars and promise more butter than bread. They ended by dubbing him an adventurer and a rogue, who went on the stump through the villages for the sake of robbing them of their votes, just as he would have robbed them of their coppers. Hourdequin—who might have explained to them that Monsieur Rochefontaine, a free-trader, really shared the Emperor's ideas—wilfully let Macqueron display his Bonapartist zeal, and Delhomme propound his opinion in his strong, limited, common-sense way; while Lengaigne, whose official position kept his mouth shut, sat growling in a corner, inaudibly repeating his vague Republican views. Although Monsieur de Chédeville had not once been mentioned, he was alluded to in every sentence that was uttered; they all grovelled, as it were, before his title of official candidate.
"Come, gentlemen," resumed the mayor; "suppose we commence."
He had seated himself at the table in his presidential broad-backed arm-chair.
The assessor was the only one who sat down by his side. Two of the councillors remained standing upright, and two leaned upon a window-sill. Lequeu had handed the mayor a sheet of paper, and whispered in his ear. Then he left the room in a dignified way. "Gentlemen," said Hourdequin, "here is a letter addressed to us by the schoolmaster."
It was read aloud, and proved to be a request for an increase of thirty francs in the master's yearly salary, the application being based upon the energy he displayed. Every face had grown dark. They were always very close with the public money, as if it came out of their own pockets, especially in the matter of the school. There was not even a discussion; they refused the application point-blank.
"Good! we'll tell him to wait. The young man is in too much of a hurry. And now let's deal with this matter of the road."
"Beg pardon!" interrupted Macqueron, "I want to say a word or two about church matters."
Hourdequin, surprised, now understood why the Abbé Godard had breakfasted with the innkeeper. What ambition was urging the latter to push himself to the front like this? However, his propositions met with the same fate as the schoolmaster's request. It was in vain he argued that they were rich enough to pay for a priest of their own, and that it was scarcely respectable to have to put up with the leavings of Bazoches-le-Doyen. They all shrugged their shoulders, and asked if the Mass would be any better for it. No, no! They would have to repair the parsonage; it would cost too much to have a priest to themselves, and half an hour of the other's time each Sunday was sufficient.
The mayor, hurt by his assessor taking matters into his own hands, concluded: "There is no need for any change. The council has already decided. Now about our road. We must make an end of it. Delhomme, pray have the goodness to call in Monsieur Lequeu. Does the fellow imagine that we are going to discuss his letter all day long?"
Lequeu, who had been waiting on the stairs, came in gravely, and as they did not apprise him of the fate of his request, he remained snappish and restless, swelling with covert insult. What a contemptible set of men these peasants were! However, he had to take the map of the road out of the cupboard and spread it out on the table.
The council knew the map well. It had been hanging about for years. But none the less they all approached, elbowing one another, and deliberating once more. The mayor enumerated the advantages which Rognes would derive. The gentleness of the slope would allow vehicles to drive up to the church. Then two leagues would be gained on the road to Châteaudun, which now passed through Cloyes. And the village would only have to pay the cost of some two miles of the road, their Blangy neighbours having already voted the remaining bit, as far as the junction with the highway from Châteaudun to Orleans. They listened to him with their eyes fixed steadfastly on the paper, and never opening their mouths. What had especially prevented the plan from coming to a head was the indemnity question. Every one saw a fortune to be made out of this road, and was anxious to know if one of his fields would be required, and if he would be able to sell it to the village at the rate of a hundred francs a perch. But supposing their own fields were not encroached upon, why on earth should they vote for the enrichment of others? A deal they cared about the gentle slope or the shorter route! Their horses would have to pull a bit harder, that was all!
So Hourdequin had no need to make them talk to learn their opinions. He only desired the road so eagerly because it would run past the farm and several of his fields. In the same way Macqueron and Delhomme, whose land would border the road, were in favour of the vote. That made three; but neither Clou nor the other councillor had any interest in the question; and as for Lengaigne, he was violently opposed to the project, having in the first place nothing to gain by it, and being also aggrieved that his rival, the assessor, should reap any advantage by it. If Clou and the doubtful one voted on the wrong side there would be three against three, so Hourdequin became anxious. At last the discussion began.
"What's the good? what's the good of it?" repeated Lengaigne. "We've a road already, haven't we? It's just the pleasure of spending money, taking it out of Jean's pocket to put it in Pierre's. Now, there's you! You promised to give your ground up for nothing!"
This was a slap at Macqueron, who, bitterly regretting his fit of generosity, gave the lie direct.
"I never promised anything! Who told you that?"
"Who? Why, confound it! you did! Before people, too! Why, Monsieur Lequeu was there, he can tell us. Wasn't it so, Monsieur Lequeu?"
The schoolmaster, angered at not being told his fate, made a coarse gesture of contempt. What were their beastly disputes to him?
"Oh, all right!" resumed Lengaigne. "If people can't be open and honest, we'd better live in the woods! No, no, I'll have nothing to do with your road! A piece of jobbery!"
Seeing that matters were taking a nasty turn, the mayor hastened to interpose.
"That's all rubbish. We haven't to enter into private questions. It's the public interest, the interest of all, that ought to be our leading guide."
"Quite so," said Delhomme, "The new road will be of great service to the whole place. Only we must be certain of our ground. The prefect keeps on saying to us: 'Vote a sum of money, and then we will see what the Government will do for you.' Now, if it didn't do anything at all, what's the good of our wasting our time voting?"
Hourdequin thought this the moment to publish the great piece of news he was holding in reserve.
"Talking of that, gentlemen, I have to tell you that Monsieur de Chédeville engages to get a subsidy representing half the expenses from the Government. You know he is the Emperor's friend. He will only have to speak to him about us at dessert."
Lengaigne himself was moved at this. All the faces had assumed a beatifical expression, as if the Host were passing. In any case the re-election of the deputy was secured. The Emperor's friend was the man for them, the man who had access to the fountain-head of office and wealth—the known, honourable, powerful master! Nothing passed, however, but some noddings of the head. These things were self-evident. Why mention them?
Still Hourdequin was disquieted by the non-committal policy of Clou. He got up and glanced outside; and perceiving the rural constable, he bade him go for old Loiseau and bring him in alive or dead. This Loiseau was an old deaf peasant, appointed a member of the council by way of a joke; he never attended its meetings, because they set his head in a whirl, so he declared. His son worked at La Borderie, and he was entirely devoted to the mayor. Accordingly, on his appearance, the latter merely shouted into one of his ears that it was about the road. Each of them was already awkwardly filling up his voting paper, poring over the writing with outstretched elbows, to prevent the others from reading it. Then they proceeded to vote the half of the outlay, placing their papers in a little tin receptacle like a poor-box. The majority was superb. There were six votes for, and only one against—that of Lengaigne. That beast Clou had voted right. The meeting was dissolved, after every one had signed the minute-book, which the schoolmaster had previously prepared, leaving the result of the vote blank. Then they all went away moodily, without a farewell word or the pressure of a hand, dropping off one by one on the stairs.
"Oh, I forgot!" said Hourdequin, coming back to Lequeu, who was still waiting. "Your request for an increase of salary is rejected. The council is of opinion that too much money is already spent on the school."
"A set of beasts!" cried the young man, green with fury, when he was alone. "Go and live in your pig-sties!"
The meeting had lasted two hours. In front of the municipal offices Hourdequin picked up Monsieur de Chédeville, who was just come back from his visits round the village. To begin with, the priest had not spared him a single one of the church dilapidations—the cracked roof, the broken windows, the bare walls. Then, as he was at length making his escape from the vestry, which wanted repainting, the inhabitants, quite emboldened, fought for him, each one trying to bear him away, to hear some complaint, or to grant some favour. One had dragged him off to the village pond, which was not cleaned out for want of money; another pointed out a spot on the bank of the Aigre where he wanted a wash-house built; a third pressed for the widening of the road in front of his door, so that his cart could turn round; there was even an old woman who, having pushed the deputy into her cottage, showed him her swollen legs, and asked him whether he didn't know of a remedy in Paris. Flustered and breathless, he smiled, made himself pleasant, and kept on promising. Oh, he was a good sort, and affable to the poor!
"Well, shall we go?" asked Hourdequin. "They are waiting for me at the farm."
Just then Cœlina and her daughter Berthe ran out again to beg Monsieur de Chédeville to come in for a moment; and that gentleman would have gladly done so, for he had at length found breathing-space, and was gratified to renew his acquaintance with the pretty, bright, dissipated eyes of the young lady.
"No, no!" resumed the farmer, "we haven't time. Some other occasion."
He then bundled him back into the gig; while to a question from the waiting priest he answered that the council had taken no steps in the matter of the parish service. The driver whipped forward his horse, and the vehicle spun off through the midst of the friendly and delighted village. The priest alone was furious, as he set off to walk his two miles from Rognes to Bazoches-le-Doyen.
A fortnight later Monsieur de Chédeville was elected by a large majority, and towards the end of August he had redeemed his promise—the subsidy was granted for the opening of the new road, and the work was immediately put in hand.
On the evening when the first stroke of the pick-axe was given the thin and dark Cœlina stood at the fountain listening to La Bécu, who, with her lanky arms intertwined under her apron, was talking at endless length. For the last week the meetings at the fountain had been revolutionised by this mighty question of the road. The constant topic was the money paid as an indemnity to So-and-so, and the slanderous rage of the rest. Every day La Bécu kept Cœlina posted as to what Flore Lengaigne said; not, of course, to provoke dissension, but, contrariwise, to induce them to explain themselves, that being the surest way of bringing them to an harmonious understanding. Women were standing round, forgetful and listless, with their pitchers full beside them.
"Well, so she said, just like that, that it was all arranged between the assessor and the mayor how they could best swindle in the matter of the ground. And she also said that your husband was double-tongued."
At this moment Flore came out of her house with her pitcher in her hand. When she had got there, fat and flabby, Cœlina, with her arms a-kimbo, shrewish and virtuous, broke out into vile abuse, falling upon her in fine style, flinging in her teeth her hussy of a daughter, and taxing her with behaving improperly with her customers. The other, dragging along her slippers trodden down at heel, confined herself to repeating, in a whimpering tone:
"There's a baggage for you! There's a baggage for you!"
La Bécu then threw herself between them, and tried to make them kiss each other; which all but resulted in their tearing one another's hair out. Then she let fly a piece of news.
"I say! Talking of that, you know that the Mouche girls are going to get five hundred francs?"
"You don't say so!"
The quarrel was at once forgotten. They all crowded up amid the pitchers.
Certainly! The road up there on the plateau skirted the field belonging to the Mouche girls, and cut five hundred yards off it. At a franc the yard, that made five hundred francs; and the ground that bordered the road would be enhanced in value. It was, indeed, a piece of luck.
"In that case," said Flore, "Lise has become a capital match, child and all. That big simpleton Corporal has been wide awake, all the same, in sticking out."
"Unless," added Cœlina, spitefully, "unless Buteau comes back again. His share, too, is finely improved by the road."
At this moment La Bécu turned round and nudged them.
"'Sh! Be quiet!"
Lise was coming up, gaily swinging her pitcher. Then the procession past the fountain resumed its course.