The Soil

by Emile Zola

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Part III - Chapter I

So at last Buteau had got his share, that land he had so ardently coveted, and yet refused during more than two years and a half, in a fury compounded of longing, rancour, and obstinacy. He himself did not know why he had been so stubborn, yearning at heart to sign the deed, fearing he might be tricked, and unable to console himself for not having secured the whole inheritance, the nineteen acres now mutilated and scattered. Since his acceptance, however, a great passion had been satisfied, the brutal joy of possession; and that joy was doubled by the thought that his sister and brother were now the swindled parties, that his holding was worth more since the new road ran by his field. He never met them without a sly chuckle, and winks that said:

"All the same, I've taken them in!"

And that was not all. He triumphed also by his long-deferred marriage, by the five acres adjoining his own field which Lise had brought him. The thought that the sisters' property must be divided did not occur to him; or, if it did, he looked upon it as something so far distant that he hoped in the interval to hit upon some scheme of evasion. Counting Françoise's share, he had eight acres of plough land, eight of meadow, and about five of vineyard, and he would stick to them. He would part with his skin first. Above all, he would never let any one cut up the piece of ground which bordered the road, and that now comprised nearly six acres. Neither his sister nor his brother had a field like it. He talked of it in inflated terms, bursting with pride. A year passed by, and this first year of possession was bliss to Buteau. Never when he had hired himself out to others had he ploughed so deeply into the bowels of the earth. It was his; he wanted to penetrate and fructify its inmost parts. At night he used to come in exhausted, with his plough-share gleaming like silver. In March he harrowed his wheat; in April his oats; taking minute care, and throwing himself heart and soul into the task. When all the work in the fields was done, he returned to them just the same; lover-like, to gaze at them. He walked round, stooping and picking up handfuls of soil with his old gesture; delighting to crush the rich clods, and let them filter through his fingers; and feeling supremely happy if he found them neither too dry nor too damp, with a fine smell suggestive of growing bread.

Thus La Beauce spread her verdure before him, from November to July, from the moment when the green tips first emerged to that when the lofty stalks turned yellow. Wishing to have the country under his eye without leaving the house, he unbarred the kitchen window—the rear one, that looked out on the plain—and there he used to station himself and survey ten leagues of country: an immense broad bare expanse, stretching under the vaulted skies. Not a single tree; nothing but the telegraph posts of the Châteaudun and Orleans road, running on unswervingly till they were lost to sight. At first there was a greenish, scarcely perceptible shade, peeping just above the soil of the large squares of brown earth. Then this soft green strengthened into velvet stretches, almost uniform in tint. Then, as the stems grew taller and thicker, each plant developed its own tinge of colour. He distinguished from afar the yellowish green of the wheat, the bluish green of the oats, the greyish green of the barley; infinite expanses of ground spread out in all directions, amid glowing patches of crimson trifolium. It was the time when La Beauce is fair and young, thus clothed about with spring, and smooth and cool to the eye in her monotony. The stalks grew taller; and there was then one deep, rolling, boundless sea of cereals. At morn, in the fine weather, a pink mist used to rise. As the sun climbed in the limpid atmosphere a breeze would blow in large regular puffs, furrowing the fields with a swell that started on the horizon, and rolled along till it died away in the opposite direction. As the plants swayed, their colour became paler; a moiré-like effect—waterings of the shade of old gold—rippled over the wheat; the oats took a bluish hue; while the barley quivered with violet lights. Undulation continually succeeded undulation; a ceaseless ebb would set in under the winds from the offing. When evening fell, the fronts of distant buildings, brightly lit, showed like white sails; steeples looked like masts, uprising behind folds in the surface of the plain. It grew cold; the gloom enhanced the damp and the murmuring character of the ocean-like prospect; a distant plantation became indistinct, and looked like the dim coast-line of some continent.

In the bad weather, also, Buteau gazed out over La Beauce, thus spread out at his feet, just as the fisher gazes from his cliff over the raging sea, when the tempest is robbing him of his livelihood. He saw a violent storm; a dark cloud shedding a livid, leaden light, and red flashes glowing over the grass-tips amid claps of thunder. He saw a waterspout come from more than six leagues away; at first a thin, tawny cloud twisted like a rope, then a howling mass galloping on like a monster; then, as it passed away, the crops could be seen torn up, and everything trampled upon, broken, and razed along a track two miles wide. His own fields had escaped, and he pitied the disasters of others with inward chuckles of delight. As the wheat grew, his enjoyment increased. A grey islet formed by a village had disappeared on the horizon behind the rising level of verdure. There only remained the roofs of La Borderie which, in their turn, were submerged. A mill, with its sails, remained alone like a waif. On all sides there was corn—an encroaching, overflowing sea of corn, covering the earth with its immensity of verdure.

"God a' mercy!" said he, every evening, as he sat down to table; "if the summer's not too dry, we shall never be at a loss for bread."

The Buteaus had established themselves in their new home. The married pair had taken the large room downstairs, and Françoise, above them, put up with a little room, formerly occupied by old Mouche, which had been scoured and furnished with a fold-up bedstead, an old chest of drawers, a table and two chairs. She still busied herself with her cows, and led much the same life as of old. However, although all was outwardly calm, there was a dormant source of disagreement: that question of dividing the property between the two sisters, which had remained in abeyance. On the day after the marriage of the elder girl, old Fouan, as guardian of the younger one, had pressed for the division of the property, so as to avoid all unpleasantness in the future. But Buteau had protested. What was the good? Françoise was too young; she didn't want her land. Wasn't everything just as before? She lived with her sister still, she was boarded and clothed. In short, she certainly could have no cause of complaint. At all these reasons the old man shook his head. No one knew what might happen, the best thing to do was to settle everything in due form; and the girl herself was anxious to know what her share would consist of, though that point being settled she was ready to leave it in charge of her brother-in-law. The latter, however, had his own way, by means of his genial, obstinate, humbugging bluffness. Nothing further was said, and he proclaimed everywhere what a happy, charming, domestic mode of life theirs was.

"There's nothing like having a good understanding with one another!" said he.

In point of fact there had not been any quarrel between the two sisters, nor any domestic disagreement during the first ten months; but then matters gradually became unpleasant. It started with displays of bad temper. There were fits of sulking, and at last loud words were exchanged; and, beneath it all, the fermenting question of "mine" and "thine" was at its ravaging work, gradually destroying affection.

Certainly Lise and Françoise no longer loved one another as tenderly as of old. No one now met them with their arms round each other's waists, walking out in the gloaming wrapped in the same shawl. A separation had come between them; a coolness was growing up. Since there had been a man in the house, it seemed to Françoise that her sister had been taken from her. She who once had shared everything with Lise, had no share in this man; and he had thus become a something foreign, an obstacle shutting her out from the heart in which she had lived alone. All this, moreover, had a material side. She used to leave without kissing her elder sister when Buteau did so, feeling as shocked as if some one had drunk out of her glass. In matters of ownership, she kept to her childish notions with passionate earnestness. "This is mine, that is yours;" and, as her sister belonged thenceforward to another, she let her go. But she wanted what was her own, one-half of the land and of the house.

This wrath of hers was also caused by another matter which she herself could not have explained. There had, so far, been nothing to disturb her in the house, where love scenes had been unknown, a chill having fallen upon the place when old Mouche became a widower. But now it was inhabited by a brutal man with the instincts of his sex, who had always been in the habit of running after the girls in the fields, and whose unrestrained dalliance with her sister, which she was obliged to be cognisant of, made her feel alike disgusted and exasperated. During the daytime she preferred to go out, and let them indulge in their dirty tricks unrestrained. In the evening, if they began laughing on getting up from table, she called to them to wait till she had finished washing up the dishes. And then she rushed madly to her room, slamming the doors and muttering insults: "The beasts! The beasts!" between her clenched teeth. In spite of all, she still fancied that she could hear what was going on below her, downstairs. With her head buried in the pillow, and with the sheets drawn up to her eyes, she grew hot and feverish; her hearing and her sight were haunted by hallucinations, and her revolting puberty made her suffer.

The worst of it was that Buteau, seeing so much of her attention given to these matters, used to chaff her about them by way of a joke. Goodness gracious! what next? What would she say when she had to go through the same thing herself? Lise, too, used to laugh, seeing nothing whatever wrong about it; and then Buteau would explain his ideas on the subject. The pleasure cost nothing, and it was perfectly lawful to indulge in it. But no children; no, no! No more of them! There was always too much of that sort of thing before marriage; people were so stupid. Thus little Jules had made his appearance, for instance; a confounded nuisance, which had to be put up with all the same. But when folks were married, they sobered down. He'd rather be a capon than have any more children. A likely thing! Bringing another mouth into a house where there wasn't too much to eat as it was! And so he kept constantly on the alert with regard to his wife, who was so plump, the hussy! that she'd get in the family-way in a trice if he'd only let her. He'd be glad to reap as much corn as the full womb of the earth could be made to yield; but no babies! They had done with children for ever!

Amidst these constant details, this copulation that rustled audibly near her, as it were, Françoise's agitation kept increasing. Folks asserted that her temper was changing; and she did yield to inexplicable moods which abruptly changed: first merry, then sad, and then surly and spiteful. In the morning she watched Buteau with a black look, whenever he unceremoniously crossed the kitchen, half undressed. Quarrels, too, broke out between herself and her sister about the most trivial matters—a cup that she had just broken, for instance. Wasn't the cup hers as well, half of it at all events? Couldn't she break half of everything, if she liked? On these questions of ownership their disputes always became most bitter, entailing grudges that lasted days and days.

The worst of it was that Buteau himself became subject to odious fits of temper. The land was suffering from a terrible drought, not a drop of rain having fallen for six weeks; and he would come in with his fists clenched, made ill by the sight of the spoilt crops—the stunted barley, the shrivelled oats, and the wheat, which was already scorched up before coming into ear. He actually suffered as if he had been part of the crops themselves; his stomach shrank, his limbs were racked with cramps, he dwindled and pined away with anxiety and anger. In this state he, one morning, came to loggerheads with Françoise for the first time. It was hot, and after washing at the well, he had left part of his shirt hanging out behind. As he was sitting down to eat his soup, Françoise, on coming forward to help him, observed it. Then she burst out, reddening all over:

"Tuck your shirt in, do! It's disgusting!"

He was in a bad humour already, and now flew into a passion.

"God's truth! Haven't you done picking me to pieces yet? Don't look, if it offends you. One would think you had some lewd fancy in your head from the way you jaw about it!"

She reddened still more, and began to stammer; while Lise injudiciously added:

"He's right. You end by plaguing one. Go elsewhere if one can't be at home in one's own house."

"Quite so; I will go elsewhere," said Françoise savagely, banging the door after her as she went out.

But on the following day Buteau was once more pleasant, conciliatory, and jocular. During the night the sky had clouded over, and for twelve hours a fine, warm, penetrating rain had fallen; one of those summer rains that freshen up the country. He had opened the window, which looked on to the plain, and since daybreak he had stood at it with his hands in his pockets, radiant, and watching the stream pour down, while he repeated:

"Now we're gentlefolks, since the blessed God is doing our work for us. Ah! thunder and blazes! The days spent like this, idling about, are a lot better than those when one wears oneself out for no return."

The rain still came streaming down slowly, softly, and endlessly. He could hear thirsting, riverless, and springless La Beauce drinking this water. 'Twas one vast murmur, a universal gurgling, full of comfort. Everything absorbed the moisture, everything bloomed anew under the shower. The wheat was regaining its youthful healthfulness; it was sturdy and upright now, bearing on high the ears which would swell mightily and burst with meal. Buteau, like the soil, like the wheat, drank in at every pore, feeling cheerful, refreshed, and restored to health, ever returning to his post at the window, and shouting:

"Go on, go on! It's like five-franc pieces falling."

Suddenly he heard some one open the door, and on turning round he was surprised to recognise old Fouan.

"Why, father! You've been frog hunting, then?"

The old man, after a struggle with a large blue umbrella, came in, leaving his wooden shoes on the threshold.

"Something like a watering!" said he, simply. "We wanted it."

During the year that had elapsed since the partition had been finally concluded, signed, and registered, he had had but one occupation: that of visiting his old fields. He was always to be met prowling round them with a deal of interest, grave or gay, according to the state of the crops; yelling at his children if things went wrong, and declaring that it was their fault if matters were at a standstill. This rain had enlivened him also.

"And so," resumed Buteau, "you've looked in to see us as you were passing by."

Françoise, hitherto silent, now came forward and said distinctly:

"No: it was I who begged uncle to come."

Lise, who was standing by the table shelling peas, left off and waited motionless, a harsh expression suddenly coming over her face. Buteau, who had at first clenched his fists, resumed his genial air, having determined not to lose his temper.

"Yes," explained the old man, slowly, "the child spoke to me yesterday. You see now how right I was when I wanted to have matters settled at the outset. To each his own. There's nothing in that for any one to get angry about; on the contrary, it prevents quarrels. It's now high time to make an end of it. She has a right, hasn't she? to know exactly how she stands. Otherwise I should be to blame. So we'll fix a day, and go together to Monsieur Baillehache's."

Lise could hold out no longer.

"Why don't she send for the gendarmes? Good Heavens! one would suppose she was being robbed. What if I were to go about and tell everybody what a filthy beast she is, and that there's no knowing where to take hold of her?"

Françoise was about to reply in the same strain, when Buteau, who had playfully caught her up from behind, cried out:

"A pack of nonsense! People may badger each other, but they love each other all the same, eh? A nice thing it would be if sisters fell out!"

The girl had shaken herself free, and the quarrel was about to continue, when Buteau raised a joyous shout on seeing the door again open:

"Jean! Sopping wet! Why, he's a regular poodle!"

Jean, who had run over from the farm, as he often did, had merely thrown a sack over his shoulders for protection; and he was wet through—dripping, steaming, and laughing good-humouredly through it all. While he was shaking himself, Buteau, returning to his window, grew more and more expansive at the sight of the steady, endless downpour.

"Oh, how it's coming down! What a blessing! My! it's quite a game to see it come down like that!"

Then, turning back, he said to Jean:

"You come pat. These two were tearing each other's eyes out. Françoise wants the property divided, so that she may leave us."

"What? That child!" cried Jean, amazed.

His desire had become a violent hidden passion, and the only satisfaction he had was to see her in this house, where he was received as a friend. He would have proposed for her half a score of times already, if he had not so keenly felt the disparity in their ages. It was in vain that he had waited; the fifteen years' difference had not been spanned. In the country, a great difference of age is reckoned such an obstacle, that nobody—not she herself, nor her sister, nor even her brother-in-law—seemed to imagine he could ever fix his thoughts on her. And this was why Buteau received him so cordially, without any fear of the consequences.

"You may well say child!" said he, paternally shrugging his shoulders.

But Françoise, standing rigidly erect, with her eyes on the ground, proved obstinate.

"I want my share."

"It would be the wisest thing," murmured old Fouan.

Then Jean gently took hold of her wrists, and drew her towards him. Holding her thus, his hands quivering at the contact of her flesh, he addressed her in his kind voice, which faltered as he besought her to remain. Where could she go? Into service with some strangers at Cloyes or Châteaudun? Was she not better off in the house where she had grown up, amid people who loved her? She listened to him, and she also softened; for although she scarcely thought of him as a lover, she was wont to obey him readily, chiefly out of regard for him and a little from fear, thinking him a very serious person.

"I want my share," she repeated, beginning to give way, "but I don't say that I shall go away."

"Why, stupid!" interposed Buteau, "what on earth would you do with your share if you stay? Everything is as much yours as it is your sister's or mine. What do you want the half for? Pooh! it's enough to send one into fits! Harkee, the day you marry the property shall be divided."

Jean's eyes, which were fixed on her, fell, as if his heart had failed him.

"You hear? On your wedding day."

She felt oppressed, and made no reply.

"And now, my little Françoise, go and kiss your sister. That'll be much better."

Lise, the buxom matron, was still good-hearted in her gay, noisy way, and she wept when Françoise fell on her neck, Buteau, delighted at having postponed the evil day, cried out that, God's mercy! they would have a drink. He fetched five glasses, uncorked one bottle, and went back to fetch another. Old Fouan's bronzed face had flushed as he explained that he was in favour of order and duty. They all drank, women and men alike, to the health of every one present.

"Wine's a good thing," said Buteau, slapping down his glass, "but, say what you like, that falling water's a deal better. Just look at it! There it goes, and there it goes again. Isn't it glorious?"

Crowding to the windows, with radiant faces, and in a sort of religious ecstacy, they all watched the warm, slow, endless rain stream down, as though beneath this beneficent water they had seen the tall green corn visibly growing.

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