Once more had the hay-making time come round, with a blue scorching sky, cooled by occasional breezes. The marriage had been fixed for Midsummer-Day, which fell that year on a Saturday.
The Fouans had enjoined upon Buteau to begin the invitations with La Grande, who was the oldest of the family. Like a rich and dreaded queen, she required to be treated with respect. Accordingly, one evening, Buteau and Lise, rigged out in their Sunday clothes, went to beg her to attend the wedding ceremony, and afterwards the dinner, which was to take place at the bride's house.
When they arrived, La Grande was knitting in the kitchen by herself; and, without checking the play of her needles, she gazed at them fixedly, and let them explain their errand, and repeat the same phrases twice over. At last, in her shrill voice:
"The wedding? Nay, nay, certainly not!" said she. "What should I find to do at a wedding? Such things are only for those who amuse themselves."
They had seen her parchment face light up at the thought of the junketing that would cost her nothing, and they were convinced that she would accept. But it was always customary to press her a great deal.
"Oh, but, aunt! Really it couldn't go off without you," they said.
"No, no! It's not for folk like me. How am I to find the time, and get the clothes I should want. It's always an expense. People can get on very well without going to weddings."
They had to repeat the invitation a dozen times before she eventually said, sulkily:
"All right; since I can't get out of it, I'll go. But I wouldn't put myself out for anybody but you."
Then, seeing that they did not leave, she battled with herself; for, in such a case as the present one, a glass of wine was usually offered. Making up her mind, she at last went down into the cellar, although there was already an open bottle upstairs. However, the fact was she kept for these occasions a remnant of wine which had turned, and which she could not drink, it was so sour. She called it "the gnat destroyer." Having filled two glasses, she fixed her nephew and niece with so full an eye that they were obliged to drain them without blenching, for fear of giving offence. They left her with their throats burning.
The same evening, Buteau and Lise repaired to Roseblanche, where Monsieur Charles lived, arriving there in the midst of a tragic occurrence.
Monsieur Charles was in his garden, in a state of great agitation. No doubt some violent emotion had come upon him just as he was trimming a climbing rose-tree, for he had his pruning scissors in his hand, and the ladder was still resting against the wall. Controlling himself, however, he showed them into the drawing-room, where Elodie was embroidering with her modest air.
"So you're marrying each other in a week's time. That's quite right, my children," he said. "But we can't be of your party, for Madame Charles is at Chartres, and won't be back for a fortnight."
So saying, he raised his heavy eyelids to glance at the young girl, and then resumed:
"At busy times, during the large fairs, Madame Charles goes over there to lend her daughter a helping hand. Business has its exigencies, you know, and there are days when they are overwhelmed with work at the shop. True, Estelle has taken over the management; but her mother is of great use to her, the more so as our son-in-law Vaucogne certainly doesn't do much. And besides, Madame Charles is glad to see the house again. No wonder! We've left thirty years of our lives there, and that counts for something!"
He was growing sentimental, and his eyes moistened as he vaguely gazed, as it were, into that past of theirs. It was true. In her dainty, snug retirement, full of flowers, birds, and sunshine, his wife was often seized with home-sickness for the little house in the Rue aux Juifs. Whenever she shut her eyes, a vision of old Chartres, sloping down from the Place de la Cathédrale to the banks of the Eure, rose up before her. She saw herself, on her arrival, threading the Rue de la Pie, and the Rue Porte-Cendreuse; then, in the Rue des Ecuyers, she took the shortest cut down the Tertre du Pied-Plat, where just at the bottom—at the corner of the Rue aux Juifs and the Rue de la Planche-aux-Carpes, Number 19 came into sight, with its white frontage and its green shutters, which were always closed. The two streets which it overlooked were wretched ones, and during thirty years she had beheld their miserable hovels and squalid inhabitants, with the gutter in the middle running with filthy water. But, then, how many weeks and months she had spent at home there, in the darkened rooms, without even crossing the threshold! She was still proud of the divans and mirrors of the drawing-room, of the bedding and the mahogany of the sleeping apartments, of all the chaste and comfortable luxury—their creation, their handiwork, to which they owed their fortune. A melancholy faintness came over her at the recollection of certain private corners, the clinging perfume of the toilet-waters, the peculiar scent of the whole house, which she had retained about her own person like a lingering regret. Thus she looked forward to all the periods of heavy work, and set out radiant and joyful, after receiving from her grand-daughter two hearty kisses, which she promised to give mamma that evening in the confectionery shop.
"How disappointing! How disappointing!" said Buteau, really vexed at the idea of Monsieur and Madame Charles not coming to the wedding. "But suppose our cousin wrote to aunt to come back?"
Elodie, who was in her fifteenth year, thin-haired, and so poor-blooded that the fresh air of the country seemed to make her more anæmical still, raised her puffy, chlorotic, virginal face:
"Oh, no!" she murmured, "grandmamma told me the sweetmeats would be sure to keep her more than a fortnight. She is to bring me back a bag of them, if I'm good."
This was a pious fraud. At each journey she was brought some sweetmeats, which, she believed, had been manufactured at her parents' place.
"Well!" proposed Lise at length, "come without her, uncle, and bring the girl."
Monsieur Charles was not listening, however, having relapsed into an agitated state. He was going to the window, seemingly on the look-out for some one, and was swallowing a rising burst of anger. Unable to contain himself any further, he dismissed the young girl with a word.
"Go away and play for a minute or two, my darling," he said.
Then, when she had left—being accustomed to be sent away while grown-up people talked—he took his stand in the middle of the room and folded his arms, while his full, yellow-tinted, respectable face—very like that of a retired magistrate—quivered with indignation.
"Would you believe it? Such an abominable thing! I was trimming my rose-tree, and I had got on to the highest rung of the ladder, and was bending mechanically over the wall, when what do I see? Honorine, my maid Honorine, with a man, at their dirty tricks! At the foot of my wall, too, the swine, the swine!"
He was choking, and began to pace up and down, with noble maledictory gestures.
"I'm waiting for her to pack her off, the disreputable hussy! We can't keep one. They're always put into the family-way. Regularly, at the end of six months, they become a perfect sight, and there's no having them in a respectable family. And now this one, caught in the act! Ah! the end of the world is come; there are no bounds to debauchery now-a-days!"
Buteau and Lise, who were astounded, joined, out of deference, in his indignation.
"Certainly, it's not proper; not at all proper—oh, no!"
He set himself in front of them once more.
"And just fancy Elodie climbing up that ladder, and coming on a scene like that! She, so innocent, who knows nothing at all, over whose very thoughts we watch! On my honour, it makes one shiver! What a shock, if Madame Charles were here!"
At that very moment, glancing out of the window, he perceived the child, who had set her foot on the lowest rung of the ladder, out of mere curiosity. He rushed forward and called out, in an agonised voice, as if he had seen her on the brink of a precipice:
"Elodie! Elodie! Come down; go away for the love of Heaven!"
Then his legs gave way, and he sank into an arm-chair, continuing to lament over the immorality of servants. Had he not come upon one in the kitchen showing the child what the posteriors of fowls were like? He had quite enough worry as it was to keep her clear of the grossness of the peasantry, and the cynicism of animals; and he lost heart altogether to find a constant hot-bed of immorality in his own house.
"There she is coming in," he said, sharply. "You shall see."
He rang the bell, and having by an effort recovered his calm dignity, he received Honorine seated, and in solemn fashion.
"Mademoiselle," he said, "pack up your box and leave at once. You shall be paid a week's wages in lieu of notice."
The servant, a skinny, insignificant chit of a thing, of humble and shame-faced aspect, attempted to explain, stammering out excuses.
"It's no use. All I can do for you is not to hand you over to the authorities for indecent behaviour."
Then she turned upon him.
"Oh, so it's because I omitted to pay the fee."
He rose from his seat, tall and upright, and dismissed her with a majestic gesture, his finger pointing to the door. When she had gone he relieved his feelings coarsely.
"The idea of a strumpet like that bringing dishonour on my house."
"Ah, sure, she's one; that she is!" repeated Lise and Buteau, complaisantly.
The latter thereupon resumed:
"Then it's settled, isn't it, uncle? You'll come with the child?"
Monsieur Charles was still quivering. Feeling anxious, he had gone to look at himself in the glass, and was returning satisfied.
"Where? Oh, to be sure, to your wedding. It's the right thing to do, my children, to marry. Rely on me. I will be there; but I don't promise to bring Elodie, because, you know, people are a little free at weddings. I turned the baggage out pretty sharp, eh? I won't put up with women annoying me. Good-bye, rely on my coming."
The Delhommes, whom Buteau and Lise next invited, also accepted, after the usual refusal and insistence. Hyacinthe was the only one of the family that remained to be invited. But, in sooth, he had become unbearable, being on bad terms with everybody, and bringing all his people into discredit by playing the lowest pranks. So it was decided to put him on one side, though apprehensions were entertained that he would revenge himself in some abominable manner.
Rognes was on the tip-toe of expectation. This marriage, so long deferred, was quite an event. Hourdequin, the mayor, took the trouble to officiate in person at the civil ceremony; but when asked to attend the evening repast, he excused himself, as he was obliged to pass that very night at Chartres on account of a law-suit. Still, he promised that Madame Jacqueline should come, as they had the politeness to invite her also. For a moment, moreover, they had thought of inviting the Abbé Godard, by way of having some superior kind of person with them; but, as soon as the wedding was even mentioned, the priest lost his temper, because it was fixed for Midsummer-Day. He had to officiate that day at high mass, established by foundation, at Bazoches-le-Doyen, so how could he be expected to come to Rognes in the morning? However, the women—Lise, Rose, and Fanny—became obstinate, and he finished by giving way. He came at mid-day in such a passion that he flung their mass at their heads, as it were, and left them smarting under a deep sense of injury.
After discussion, it had been resolved that the wedding should take place quietly among the family, on account of the bride's position—with a child now nearly three years old. They had been, however, to the Cloyes pastry-cook to order a pie and some dessert, on which they determined to spare no expense, so as to show people that they could make the money fly on proper occasions. As at the marriage of the eldest daughter of the Bordiers—some rich farmers at Mailleville—they were to have a regular wedding-cake, two ice creams, four sweet dishes, and some little tarts. At home, some meat soup would be provided, together with chitterlings, four stewed chickens, four rabbits, also stewed, and some roast beef and veal. And all this for fifteen or twenty people—they did not know the exact number. If there were any food left after the repast, they would finish it up on the morrow.
The sky, which had been a little dull in the morning, had cleared, and the day was drawing to its close, amid cheerful warmth and glow. The covers had been set in the middle of the spacious kitchen, right in front of the fireplace and the oven, where meats were roasting, and pots boiling over large fires. This made the room so hot that the two windows and the door were left wide open, and the sweet, penetrating scent of new-mown hay came in.
Since the day before, the Mouche girls had had the assistance of Rose and Fanny. There was a sensation when the pastry-cook's cart made its appearance at three o'clock, bringing all the women in the village to their doors. The dessert was at once laid out on the table to see how it looked. Just then La Grande arrived, before the time. She sat down, clasped her stick between her knees, and never once took her hard eyes off the food. She questioned whether it wasn't sinful to go to such an expense. She herself, however, had eaten nothing all the morning, so that she might be able to do full justice to the feast.
The men—Buteau, Jean who had been the former's "best-man," old Fouan, Delhomme and his son Nénesse—all in frock-coats, black trousers, and tall silk hats, that nothing would induce them to part with, were playing at pitch and toss in the yard. Monsieur Charles came by himself, having on the day before conducted Elodie to her boarding school at Châteaudun; and, without joining in the game, he took an interest in it and made some judicious suggestions.
At six o'clock, when all was ready, Jacqueline had to be waited for. The women now let down their skirts, which they had pinned up, so that the stove might not soil them. Lise was in blue, Françoise in pink; hard-coloured, old-fashioned silks which Lambourdieu had sold to them at double their value, passing them off as the latest Parisian novelty. Old Madame Fouan had looked out the violet poplin which she had paraded for forty years at all the country weddings, and Fanny, dressed in green, wore all her jewels; her watch and chain, a brooch, rings in her ears and on her fingers. Every minute one of the women would go out on to the road and run as far as the church corner to see whether the lady from the farm was not in sight. The sauces were burning, and the soup, which had unfortunately been served, was getting cold in the plates. At length there was a shout:
"There she is! There she is!"
The gig appeared, and Jacqueline leapt lightly out. She looked charming, having had the good taste to set off her attractions by a simple white cretonne dress with red spots. There were no jewels about her bare skin, save some little brilliants in her ears: a present from Hourdequin, which had set the neighbouring farms in a ferment. They were surprised that she did not dismiss the farm-hand who had brought her, when they had helped him to stable the vehicle. He was a kind of giant, named Tron, with white skin, red hair, and a child-like look. He came from Le Perche, and had been at La Borderie for a fortnight as yard-helper.
"Tron remains, you know," said she gaily. "He'll see me home."
In La Beauce, people are not partial to the Percherons, whom they accuse of being false and sly. Glances were exchanged. This, then, was La Cognette's last fancy, this big brute! However, Buteau, who had been very agreeable and jocular since the morning, replied:
"Certainly he can stop! It's enough that he comes with you."
Lise having given the word to begin, they sat down to table, with a deal of bustle and noisy talk. There were three chairs short, so they ran and fetched two stools, with their straw seats worn through, and laid a plank across them. Spoons were already briskly rattling against the plates. The soup was cold, and covered with congealed bubbles of fat. They didn't mind that, however. Old Fouan made the remark that it would get warm in their bellies, an idea which provoked tempestuous laughter. From that moment the scene was one of gluttonous massacre: the chickens, rabbits, meats appeared and vanished in succession, amid a gruesome sound of munching. Although very temperate at their own homes, they stuffed till they almost burst when visiting. La Grande did not speak, in order to eat the more, and she kept at it with never-resting jaws; it was indeed frightful to see how much her lean, shrivelled, octogenarian stomach could engulf, without so much as swelling. It had been settled that, for the look of the thing, Françoise and Fanny should see to the guests, so that the bride might not have to get up; but she could not keep still; she left her chair every instant, tucking up her sleeves, and giving her best attention to the pouring out of a sauce, or the dishing of a joint. In a short time, however, the whole table took a share in the waiting, and some one was always on his legs, cutting bread or trying to get hold of a dish. Buteau, who had taken charge of the wine, no longer sufficed as butler, though to save himself the trouble of corking and uncorking bottles he had simply put a cask on tap. However he could not get any time to eat, and at last Jean had to relieve him and replenish the pitchers. Delhomme, seated at his ease, declared in his sagacious way that there must be plenty of liquor if one didn't want to be stifled. When the pie, which was as broad as a cart wheel, was served there was a thrill, the force-meat balls making a deep impression. Monsieur Charles carried his politeness so far as to swear upon his honour that he had never seen a finer one at Chartres. At this point, old Fouan, in high feather, sparkled once more.
"I say," he remarked, "if a fellow had any chaps on his buttocks, he could cure them by sticking that on behind."
On hearing this the table went into fits, especially Jacqueline, who laughed till she cried. She stuttered out some emendatory remarks, which were lost amid her laughter.
The bridal pair faced each other, Buteau being between his mother and La Grande, and Lise between old Fouan and Monsieur Charles. The other guests were disposed according to their own fancy; Jacqueline beside Tron, who watched her with his soft, stupid eyes: Jean near Françoise, and only separated from her by little Jules, upon whom both of them had engaged to keep an eye. However, on the appearance of the pie, the child displayed such strong symptoms of indigestion that the bride had to go and put him to bed. Then Jean and Françoise were brought side by side. She was very lively, deeply flushed by the heat of the large fire on the hearth, and over-excited, albeit tired to death. He was attentive, and wished to get up and help her; but she broke away, having moreover to hold her own against Buteau, who, being much given to teasing when in a pleasant mood, had made a set at her from the beginning of the feast. He pinched her whenever she went by, whereupon she retorted with a furious slap; and then she would get up again on some pretext or other, as if fascinated and anxious to be pinched again and to slap him in return. She complained that her hips were black and blue.
"Stop where you are, then!" repeated Jean.
"Oh, no!" cried she, "he mustn't think he's my master too, simply because he's married Lise."
They had lighted six tallow candles as soon as it was dark, and the meal had been in progress for three hours, when at length, towards ten o'clock, an onslaught was made on the dessert. From that point, coffee was drunk; not one or two cups, but large bowlfuls of it, without stopping. The fun grew more pointed. Coffee gave one vigour, it was said, and was excellent for the men who took too much sleep. Every time a married guest swallowed a spoonful the others split their sides laughing.
"You've very good cause to take some," said Fanny to Delhomme. She was very merry, that evening, the feast having drawn her out of her habitual reserve.
Her husband reddened, and to excuse himself roundly declared that it was due to over-work; whereupon their son Nénesse laughed from ear to ear, amid the burst of shouts and the thigh-slapping provoked by this conjugal revelation. However, the lad had eaten so much that he seemed to be bursting. Soon he vanished, and he was not seen again till the party broke up, when he was found slumbering in company with the two cows.
La Grande was the one who held out the longest. At midnight she was hard at work on the tartlets, in mute despair at being unable to finish them. The bowls of cream had been cleaned out, the crumbs of the cake swept up; with the freedom of increasing tipsiness, with bodices unhooked and trouser buttons undone, they split up into little knots, and chatted round the table, which was greasy with sauce, and stained with spilt wine. Songs had been started, but had come to nothing; except that old Rose, with a maudlin expression of countenance, went on humming some past century ribaldry, a reminiscence of her young days, to which she kept time by nodding her head. They were also too few to dance. Besides the men preferred to tipple brandy and smoke their pipes, the ashes of which they shook out over the table-cloth. In a corner, Fanny and Delhomme, with Jean and Tron before them, were reckoning up, within a halfpenny, the pecuniary position and expectations of the bride and bridegroom. This went on interminably. Every square inch was appraised. They knew every fortune in Rognes, even to the value of the linen possessed by each household. At the other end of the table, Jacqueline had buttonholed Monsieur Charles, whom she was contemplating with a winning smile, her pretty, wicked eyes aflame with curiosity. She questioned him.
"So Chartres is a queer place, eh? There's a gay life to be led there?"
He answered her by praising the town circuit: a line of promenades planted with old trees, which encompass Chartres with shade. In the lower part especially, along the banks of the Eure, the boulevards were very cool in summer. Then there was the cathedral. He expatiated on this edifice, being a well-informed man with great respect for religion. Yes, it was one of the finest buildings; but it had become too vast for the present times of weak Christianity, and was almost always empty, in the midst of its deserted square, which the devout alone crossed on week-days. He had realised the desolation of the place one Sunday when he had gone in casually while the vesper service was taking place. You shivered with the cold inside, and you could hardly see on account of the stained glass; so that all he could eventually descry were two little girls' schools, lost in the space like a handful of ants, and singing under the vaulted roof in shrill, fife-like voices. It was truly heartrending that the churches should be thus abandoned for the drinking-shops.
Jacqueline, who was astonished to hear him say all this, continued to stare at him steadily, with the same smile. At last to attain her object, she had to murmur:
"But tell me now, the Chartres women——"
He understood, and grew very grave, but he unbosomed himself, under the expansive influence of the general intoxication. She, flushed and tittering, rubbed up against him as if to penetrate that mystery of a rush of men, night after night. But it was not what she imagined. He told her about the hard work of it, for, in his cups, he was wont to be melancholy and paternal. Then he grew more animated, when she told him that she had amused herself one day by taking a look at the front of the Châteaudun night-house, at the corner of the Rue Dairgnon and the Rue Loiseau: a little dilapidated house it was, with its shutters closed and rotting. Behind, in a neglected garden, there was a large silvered globe of glass reflecting the house; while, in front of the dormer-window of the topmost floor, turned into a pigeon-house, some pigeons were flying and cooing in the sunshine. On that day, too, some children were playing on the door-step, and she had heard the words of command resounding over the wall of the adjacent cavalry barracks. He, interrupting her, grew angry. Yes, yes! He knew the place: two disgusting used-up women, and not even any mirrors downstairs. It was these dens that brought disgrace on the profession.
"But what can you expect in a sub-prefecture?" he added at length, calming down, with the philosophical tolerance of a superior person.
It was now one in the morning, and it was suggested that they should go to bed. When people had had a baby, there wasn't much use (was there?) in making a fuss about getting under the blankets together. It was the same with the old practical jokes—unpinning the bedstead, and popping scratching hair, or toys that squeaked when they were squeezed, between the sheets, and so on. All that, in this case, would have come the day after the fair. The best thing to do was to drink a parting cup, and then say good-night.
At that moment, however, Lise and Fanny shrieked. Through the open window a liberal shower of cow's dung had just been thrown, and both women's dresses were splashed from top to bottom, and ruined. What swine had done that? They ran out and looked over the square, along the road, and behind the hedge. Nobody. However, they all agreed that this was Hyacinthe's revenge for not having been invited.
The Fouans and Delhomme set out, and Monsieur Charles too. La Grande made a tour of the table, to see whether there was anything left; and finally made up her mind to go, after observing to Jean that the Buteaus would die in a ditch. Her firm, sharp step, and the measured tap of her stick, were heard down the road in the distance; while the others, all very tipsy, went staggering over the stones.
As Tron was putting the horse to the gig for Madame Jacqueline, she, already with one foot on the step, turned round and asked:
"You're not going back with us, are you, Jean?"
The young fellow, who was preparing to get in, changed his mind, glad enough to leave her to Tron, since she seemed to wish it. He watched her cuddling up against the tall figure of her new gallant, and could not help laughing when the vehicle was out of sight. He would walk back, he thought. But first, pending the departure of the others, he went and sat down for an instant on the stone bench in the yard, near Françoise, who had installed herself there, being overcome with both the heat and fatigue. The Buteaus were already in their room, and she had promised to fasten everything up before going to bed herself.
"Ah! it's pleasant here," she sighed, after five long minutes of silence.
Then quietude fell again, calm and majestic. The cool, delicious night was spangled with stars. The scent of the hay was borne so strong from the meadows of the Aigre that its balmy fragrance seemed like the perfume of flowers.
"Ah, yes! it's pleasant," repeated Jean, at length. "It does the heart good."
She made no reply, however, and he saw that she was asleep. She slid down, resting upon his shoulder, and then he stopped there an hour longer, meditating in a confused manner. Evil thoughts came to him, but died away. She was too young. It seemed to him that, by waiting, she alone would become older and get to be nearer his age.
"I say, Françoise, we'd better go to bed!" he exclaimed at last. "We might catch something out here."
She started out of her sleep.
"Dear, yes! we shall be better abed. Till we meet again, Jean!"
"Till we meet again, Françoise!"