The Soil

by Emile Zola

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Part III - Chapter II

One day that summer old Rose, who had suffered from swooning fits, and whose legs were failing her, sent for her grand-niece, Palmyre, to clean the house. Fouan had gone out to prowl round the fields, as usual; and while the wretched creature, drenched with water, was scrubbing with all her might, the other woman followed her about, step by step, both of them going over the same eternal old gossip.

They began with Palmyre's misfortunes, for her brother Hilarion had taken to beating her. The soft-witted cripple had grown malicious; and, as he did not know how strong he was with his fists, which were capable of pulverising stones, she was in terror of her life whenever he seized hold of her. Still she wouldn't have any interference; and when anybody came she sent them away, managing to appease the young fellow by dint of the infinite fondness which she entertained for him. The other week there had been a scandal, which all Rognes was still talking about: such a fight that the neighbours had run in, and had found him behaving abominably.

"Tell me, my child," asked Rose, to elicit some confidential revelation, "what was the brute doing?"

Palmyre, ceasing to scrub, and squatting in her dripping rags, flew into a passion without giving an answer.

"Is it any business of those folks I should like to know? What do they want to come spying in our house for? We don't rob any one."

"Well, well!" resumed the old woman, "all the same, if you do as people say, it's a very dreadful thing."

For an instant the poor creature remained silent; and an expression of suffering came over her features as her eyes vacantly stared afar. Then, bending down once more, she mumbled, with the to-and-fro movement of her skinny arms breaking in upon her words:

"I don't know about it being so very dreadful. The priest sent for me, to say that we both of us should go to hell. Not that poor darling, anyhow. 'A natural, your reverence,' says I to him 'a mere child with no more sense than a babe three days old, and who'd have died if I hadn't fed him—and perhaps it'd have been better for him if he had?' It's my affair alone, isn't it? The day he strangles me, in one of the fits of rage such as have lately come over him, I shall see fast enough whether the blessed God'll forgive me."

Seeing that she would not obtain any fresh particulars, Rose, who had long known the truth, sagely concluded: "Sure enough, things must be one way or the other. But put it as you like, it's not a life you're leading, my girl."

Then she lamented that everybody had their misfortunes. The miseries, now, that she and her husband had gone through, since they'd been kind enough to strip themselves for their children's benefit! Once started on this topic she never stopped. It was an eternal subject of complaint with her.

"Deary me! One can get used to disrespect. When one's children are swine, they're swine, and that's all about it. But if they'd only pay their allowance—"

Then she explained, for the twentieth time, that Delhomme alone brought his fifty francs every quarter, and punctual, too, to the tick! Buteau was always in arrears, and haggled over coppers. Thus, although the money was ten days overdue, she was still awaiting payment. He had promised to pay up that very night. As for Hyacinthe, that was a simpler matter. He didn't pay anything; they never saw the colour of his money. And he'd actually had the cheek to send La Trouille that morning to borrow five francs, to enable her to make some broth for him as he was very ill. Oh, yes! they all knew what he suffered from—a spark in his inside! And so the wench had been sent to the right-about in no time, with orders to tell her father that if he didn't bring his fifty francs that night, like his brother Buteau, he should have the lawyer after him.

"Just to frighten him, you know, for the poor boy's not bad at heart, after all," added Rose, whose partiality for the elder son had already softened her.

At night-fall, Fouan having come in to his dinner, she began again at table while he bent silently over his food. Could it be possible that, out of their six hundred francs, they should only get two hundred from Delhomme, scarcely a hundred from Buteau, and nothing at all from the other? That made just half the allowance. And the scamps had signed at the notary's; it was set down in black and white, and was under the charge of the law! But a vast deal their children cared about the law!

To every complaint Palmyre, who was scouring the tiled floor of the kitchen in the dark, made the same answer, which sounded like a refrain of misery.

"Sure enough, we've all of us got our troubles; they bring us to the grave!"

Rose was at length deciding to light the candle when La Grande came in with her knitting. During the summer there was no evening meeting; but, to avoid using even a candle-end, she was wont to spend an hour at her brother's before groping her way to bed in the darkness. She established herself forthwith; and Palmyre, who had still the pots and pans to scour, breathed not a word more, over-awed by the sight of her grandmother.

"If you want any hot water, my girl," said Rose, "undo a faggot."

Then she contained herself for a moment, and forced herself to talk of other matters. In La Grande's presence the Fouans avoided complaining, knowing how pleased she was whenever she heard them regret having parted with their property. But passion was too much for Rose, and finally she spoke again:

"And you may as well put on the whole faggot at once, if they call that a faggot, indeed! Merely some dead twigs and hedge-clippings! Fanny must certainly scrape the floor of her wood-house to send us rotten stuff like that!"

Fouan, who had remained at table, with his glass full, then broke the silence in which he had seemingly wished to enwrap himself.

"God a' mercy!" he shouted. "Haven't we had enough of your faggots? They're muck, and we know it! But what's to be said, pray, of the beastly dregs that Delhomme gives me for wine?"

He raised his glass to the candle and glanced at it.

"Eh? What the devil has he put into it? It's worse even than the rinsings of casks. And he's the honest one! The two others would let us die o' thirst, before they'd go and fetch us even a bottle of water from the river."

At length he made up his mind to drink his wine at a gulp. But he spat violently afterwards.

"Ugh! the poison! P'raps it's to kill me right off."

After that Fouan and Rose gave way to their rancour, and, casting all restraint aside, relieved their aching hearts. There was a perfect litany of recriminations, each in turn exposing his or her wrongs. Take, for instance, the ten quarts of milk per week. To begin with, they only got six; and then what milk it was! Although it didn't pass through the priest's hands it must be real Christian milk, judging by the way it was baptised! The same with the eggs. They must have been specially ordered of the fowls, for such little ones could never have been found in all the Cloyes markets. They were regular curiosities, and so grudgingly given, that they had time enough to go bad on the way. As for the cheeses! Cheeses indeed! Rose was doubled up with colic every time she ate any. She ran to fetch one, insisting on Palmyre's tasting it. Well, wasn't it horrible? Didn't this demand redress? They must put flour into it, and perhaps plaster as well. Then Fouan struck in, lamenting that he was cut down to a sou's worth of tobacco per day; and Rose immediately regretted her black coffee which she had had to give up. Finally, both together, they taxed their children with the death of their decrepit old dog, which they had drowned the day before, because he cost them too much to keep.

"I gave them everything," cried the old fellow; "and the scamps don't care a damn about me. It'll kill us for certain—it makes us so wild to be left in such wretchedness!"

At length they became silent, and La Grande, who had not unclosed her lips, looked from one to the other with her round, evil, bird-of-prey-like eyes.

"Serve you right!" said she.

Just at that moment, however, Buteau came in. Palmyre, having finished her work, took advantage of the opening of the door to slip out and make her escape, with the fifteen sous which Rose had just put into her hand. Buteau stood motionless in the middle of the room, maintaining the prudent silence of the peasant, who will never be the first to speak. A couple of minutes elapsed, and then the father was forced to open the discussion.

"So you've made up your mind. That's fortunate. We've had plenty of time to wait for you during these last ten days."

The son swayed carelessly from side to side, and eventually said: "One can't do more than one can. Every one knows how his bread bakes."

"Possibly. But if things were to go on at that rate, you'd be eating your bread while we starved. You signed, and you ought to pay up on the right day."

Seeing his father's ill-humour, Buteau began to laugh.

"If I'm too late, you know, I can go back. It's not so nice to have to pay as it is. Some don't pay at all."

This allusion to Hyacinthe disquieted Rose, who, not daring to interfere, confined herself to twitching her husband's jacket. He had made a gesture of anger, but checked himself.

"Good. Hand over your fifty francs. I've drawn out the receipt."

Buteau leisurely fumbled in his clothes. He had glanced in a vexed way at La Grande, and seemed put out by her presence. She dropped her knitting, and glared at him in expectation of seeing the money produced. The parents, too, had drawn near, and never took their eyes off the young fellow's hand. Under the stare of those three pairs of eyes, he reluctantly drew out his first five-franc piece.

"One," said he, laying it down on the table. Others followed, more and more slowly. He went on counting them aloud, in faltering tones. After producing the fifth he stopped, and had to make an exhaustive search to find another; then he shouted loudly and emphatically:

"And six!"

The Fouans still waited, but nothing more came.

"What, six?" the father said at last. "There ought to be ten. Are you making fun of us? Last quarter, forty francs; and only thirty this time."

Buteau immediately assumed a whining tone. Nothing prospered. Wheat had fallen still lower, the oats were wretched. There was even a swelling on his horse's stomach, and he had had to send twice for Monsieur Patoir. In short, he was ruined, and he didn't know how to make both ends meet.

"That's no concern of mine," repeated the old man furiously. "Hand over the fifty francs, or I'll summons you!"

He grew cooler, however, as it occurred to him to accept the six coins on account; and he spoke of making out a fresh receipt.

"Then you will give me the twenty francs next week? I'll put that on the paper."

Buteau, however, had immediately snatched up the money lying on the table.

"No, no! None of that! We must be quits. Leave the receipt as it is, or I'm off. Likely thing! It wouldn't be worth while my pinching and screwing if I were still to be in your debt."

Then there was a terrible scene. Both father and son held out stubbornly, untiringly repeating the same phrases; the one exasperated at not having pocketed the money in the first instance, the other clutching it firmly, and determined not to give it up again without having the receipt in full. Once more the mother had to twitch her husband's jacket, and once more he gave way.

"There, you confounded thief; there's the paper! You ought to have it smacked on your jaw! Hand over the money."

The transfer was made from fist to fist, and Buteau, having played the comedy out, began to laugh. He went off, pleasant and contented, wishing the company a very good evening. Fouan, who looked exhausted, had sat down at the table; and La Grande, before resuming her knitting, shrugged her shoulders and shouted in his face:

"You stupid fool!"

Silence ensued. Then the door re-opened, and Hyacinthe came in. Having been informed by La Trouille that his brother was to pay that night, he had watched him on the road, and had waited for him to leave before presenting himself in his turn. His mild expression was simply due to the maudlin effects of dissipation over-night. From the doorway, his glance fell straight on the six five-franc pieces which Fouan had been imprudent enough to leave on the table.

"Ah, it's Hyacinthe," exclaimed Rose, pleased to see him.

"Yes, it's me. Hope I see you all well!"

He came forward, with his eyes riveted on the white coins, which glistened like so many moons in the candle light. His father, who had turned his head, observed his look, and perceived the money with a start of disquietude. He clapped a plate over the coins to hide them, but it was too late.

"Infernal fool I was!" thought he, irritated at his own carelessness. "La Grande is right."

Then, aloud, and coarsely: "You do well to come and pay us, for as true as that candle's shining, I'd have sent the lawyer to you to-morrow."

"Yes, La Trouille told me so," groaned Hyacinthe very humbly: "and so I put myself about to come, because you surely can't wish my death, do you? Pay, good Lord! what's one to pay with, when one hasn't even bread enough to live on? We've sold everything—oh! I'm not kidding; come and see for yourself if you think I'm kidding. There are now no sheets on the beds, no more furniture, no nothing! And on the top of that, I'm ill."

A guffaw of incredulity interrupted him. He went on without heeding:

"Perhaps it doesn't show much, but, all the same, there's something wrong in my inside. I cough, I feel that I'm going. If I could only get some broth! But when one can't even get broth, one kicks the bucket, eh? That's true enough. To be sure I'd pay you if I had the money. Tell me where there is any, and I will give you some, and boil a bit of beef to begin with. It's now a fortnight since I tasted meat, indeed it is! on my honour."

Rose began to be affected, while Fouan got more angry.

"You've turned everything into drink, you good-for-nothing vagabond. So much the worse for you! You've pledged all that fine land that had been in the family for years and years! Yes, you've been on the spree for months, you and your daughter; and if it's finished now, well, go and die."

Hyacinthe hesitated no longer, but sobbed.

"It isn't fatherly to say that. Only unnatural people cast off their children. It's because I'm good-hearted that I shall come to grief. If you hadn't any money one could make allowances! But when a father has the cash, does he refuse alms to a son? I shall go and beg at other people's houses; and a nice thing that'll be—a very nice thing indeed!"

At every phrase, jerked out amid his tears, he made the old man tremble by casting side-long glances at the plate. Then, pretending to suffocate, he screamed in a deafening way as if he were having his throat cut.

Rose, who was quite upset and vanquished by his sobs, clasped her hands in supplication to Fouan.

"Come, husband."

But he, struggling with himself, and still refusing, cut her short.

"No, no, he's only making fools of us. Will you hold your tongue, you brute? Is there any sense in howling like that? The neighbours will come in. You're making us ill."

This only made the sot increase his clamour, as he bellowed out:

"I haven't told you. But the lawyer is coming to-morrow to put in an execution for a bill I gave Lambourdieu. I'm a swine; I disgrace you; I must put an end to it. Pig that I am, and I deserve to be soused in the Aigre for good. If I only had thirty francs!"

Fouan, tried beyond endurance, and overcome by the scene, started at the mention of thirty francs. He removed the plate. What good was it, when the scamp saw the money and counted it through the china?

"You want the whole. In God's name, is that reasonable? Look here! You're driving us distracted. Take half, and go; and don't let us see you again."

Hyacinthe, suddenly cured, apparently took counsel with himself. Then he declared:

"No, fifteen francs is too little; it would be of no use. Call it twenty, and I'll leave you."

Then, when he'd got the four five-franc pieces, he made them all laugh by relating what a trick he had played Bécu, with some imitation bottom lines so placed in the reserved part of the Aigre that the rural constable had tumbled into the water while trying to get them out. At last he went away, after getting himself offered a glass of the bad wine sent by Delhomme, whom he called a dirty scoundrel to dare send such stuff to a father.

"He's a pleasant fellow, anyhow!" said Rose, when the door had shut behind him.

La Grande had risen, and was folding up her knitting, prior to leaving. She stared at her sister-in-law and then at her brother; and finally in her turn she went out after screaming, in a fit of passion long suppressed:

"Not a copper, you infernal fools! Never ask me for a copper, never!"

Outside, she met Buteau, who was returning from Macqueron's, having been astonished to see Hyacinthe come in there, looking very lively, and rattling a pocketful of crowns. He had at once smelt a rat.

"Oh, yes! The rascal's making off with your money. Ah, what a night of it he'll make! and what an ass he'll think you are!"

Buteau, beside himself, knocked with both fists at the Fouans' door. If they hadn't let him in he would have broken it down. The old folks were already going to bed. The mother had taken off her cap and her dress, and was in her petticoat, with her grey hair falling over her temples. When they decided to open the door, he burst in upon them, shouting in a stifled voice:

"My money! My money!"

They recoiled in fear and bewilderment, not understanding him as yet.

"Do you suppose I half-kill myself for that scoundrel, my brother? So he's to do nothing, and I'm to provide for him! Oh, no! Oh, no!"

Fouan tried to deny it, but Buteau coarsely interrupted him.

"What's that? Oh, you're going to lie, now! I tell you he's got my money. I smelt it; I heard it rattling in the blackguard's pocket! My money, that I sweated for, and that he's going to spend in tipple! If it's not so, show it me! Show me the coins, if you have them still. I know them; I can tell them. Show me the coins!"

He stubbornly repeated this phrase a score of times, as if applying the spur to his anger. He got to thumping the table with his fist, demanding the coins on the spot, at once, swearing that he did not want to take them back, but simply to see them. Then, as the old folks shook and stammered, he burst out furiously:

"He's got them; that's clear! Hell and thunder, if I ever bring you another copper! One might bleed one's-self for you; but I'd sooner cut off my arms than keep that sodden cur!"

At last, however, the father also got into a passion.

"Now then, haven't you about finished," said he. "Is it any business of yours what we do? The money's my own, and I can do what I like with it."

"What's that you say?" retorted Buteau, going up to him, pale and with clenched fists. "So you expect me to give up everything. Well, then, I tell you it's simply filthy—yes, filthy—to get money out of your children, when you have certainly enough to live on. Oh! it's no use your denying it! You've got a hoard in there, I know!"

The startled old man was struggling wildly, his voice and arms both failing him, with nought of his old authority left to turn his son out.

"No, no; there's not a copper. Will you go off?"

"Suppose I look! Suppose I look!" repeated Buteau, already opening some drawers and tapping the walls.

Rose, terrified, and dreading an encounter between father and son, hung on the latter's shoulder, and faltered:

"You unfortunate fellow, do you want to kill us?"

Turning sharply upon her, he seized her by the wrists, and shouted in her face, regardless of her poor, grey, worn, and weary head:

"It's all your fault! It was you that gave the money to Hyacinthe. You never liked me, you old hag!"

With these words he gave her so rough a push that, uttering a faint cry, she fell swooning in a heap against the wall. He looked at her for an instant as she reclined there, huddled up like a bundle of rags, and then madly rushed out, slamming the door and swearing.

The next day Rose could not leave her bed. Doctor Finet was called in, and returned three times, without being able to afford her any relief. At his third visit, finding her in extremity, he took Fouan aside, and asked as a favour to be allowed to write out the burial certificate, and leave it. This plan, which he generally adopted for distant hamlets, would save him a journey. Nevertheless, Rose survived for thirty-six hours longer. The doctor, when questioned, had replied that she was dying of old age and over-work: that the end was bound to come when the body was worn out. But in Rognes, where the story was known, all the folks said that she had died of "curdled blood," meaning apoplexy. There were a great many people at the funeral, and Buteau and the rest of the family behaved with great decorum.

When the grave had been filled up, old Fouan went back alone to the house where the two of them had lived and suffered for fifty years. He ate a bit of bread and cheese standing. Then he prowled through the empty buildings and garden, not knowing what occupation would enable him to get rid of his grief. He had nothing more to do now, so he went up to his old fields on the plateau to see if the wheat were growing.

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