For a whole year Fouan lived in this fashion, silent and alone, in the empty house. He was ever to be found there on his legs, roaming hither and thither with trembling hands and doing nothing. He would stay for hours in front of the mouldy troughs in the cow-house; and then he would turn and station himself at the door of the empty barn, as if riveted there in profound reverie. The garden still gave him some occupation; but he was growing weaker, and stooped more and more, as though the soil were recalling him little by little to herself. Twice had he been picked up lying face downwards among his young salads.
Since those twenty francs had been given to Hyacinthe, Delhomme alone paid his share of the allowance. Buteau stubbornly refused a single copper, declaring he would rather go into a court of law than see his money pass into the pockets of his disreputable brother. The latter did, indeed, from time to time, wring some alms from his father, whom his tearful heroics prostrated.
Then it was that Delhomme, seeing the old man's growing distress, his enfeeblement and forlornness, conceived the notion of taking him into his own home. Why should not Fouan sell the house and live at his daughter's? He would want for nothing there; and they would no longer have to pay him the two hundred francs' allowance. The next day Buteau, having heard of this offer, hastened to make a similar one, with an elaborate display of filial affection. Money to fling away—no, no, indeed! But if it were merely a question of caring for his father, why the latter could come and eat and sleep and enjoy himself. At bottom, no doubt, Buteau's idea must have been that his sister was only trying to get hold of the old man with the intention of grabbing the suppositious hoard. Yet even he was beginning to doubt the existence of that money, which he had hunted after in vain. And he was in two minds—offering his father a shelter out of pride, expecting that the old man would refuse, and yet exasperated at the notion that he might accept Delhomme's hospitality. Fouan, on his side, displayed great repugnance, almost dread, as regards both proposals. No, no! Better dry bread in his own house than roast meat at other people's; it was less bitter. He had lived there and there he would die.
So things went on till mid-July—Saint Henri's day, which was the patronal feast-day of Rognes. A travelling ball-room, under canvas, was usually set up in the meadows of the Aigre; and on the road, in front of the municipal offices, there were three stalls, one kept by a cheap-jack, who sold everything down to ribbons; a shooting-gallery, and a game of turn-about, at which sticks of barley-sugar could be won. That day Monsieur Baillehache, who was breakfasting at La Borderie, profited by the occasion to go and have a chat with Delhomme, who begged him to accompany him to Fouan's, and persuade the old man to listen to reason. Since Rose's death the notary also had advised Fouan to take up his abode with his daughter and sell the house, which was now uselessly large. It was worth some three thousand francs; and he, the notary, even offered to take care of the money and to pay Fouan the interest on it in little sums, according to his humble wants.
They found the old fellow in his customary bewilderment, trudging about at random in a state of stupor, in front of a heap of wood, which he wanted to saw up without having the strength to do so. That morning his poor hands shook even more than usual, for on the night before he had undergone a terrible onslaught from Hyacinthe, who, to get hold of twenty francs, in view of the morrow's festivity, had brought all his resources into play, bellowing maddeningly, crawling on the ground, and threatening to kill himself with a knife which he had purposely concealed up his sleeve. At this the old man had given the twenty francs, as he at once confessed, with an air of anguish, to the notary.
"Tell me, would you do otherwise? I'm dead beat, dead beat!"
So Monsieur Baillehache took advantage of the circumstance.
"I've not come to talk about all that," said he. "You can't keep on like this. You won't even have your own skin left you. At your age it isn't prudent to live alone; and if you don't want to be eaten alive, you must listen to your daughter. Sell this place and go and live with her!"
"Ah! so that's your advice, too?" muttered Fouan.
He glanced askance at Delhomme, who affected to hold himself aloof. However, remarking the old man's look of distrust, he spoke out.
"You know, father," he began, "that I say nothing, because you perhaps imagine that I have some selfish object in inviting you. Good gracious, no! You'll give us extra work at home, but then it annoys me to see you so uncomfortably situated when you might be living at ease."
"Well, well," replied the old fellow, "we must think it over. As soon as I make up my mind, I'll be sure and let you know."
Neither his son-in-law nor the notary could get anything more out of him. He complained of being bustled. His authority, which had gradually died out, just lingered in this obstinacy of old age—this obstinacy which made him regardless even of his own comfort and well-being. In addition to his vague dread at the idea of no longer having a house of his own—a dread which was by no means unnatural, seeing how much he already suffered from having no land left him—he said "no," because they all wanted to make him say "yes." The brutes had something to gain by it, then? Well, he would say "yes" when he chose to do so, and not before.
On the evening before, Hyacinthe having been weak enough in his rapture to show La Trouille his four five-franc pieces, had gone to sleep clutching them in his hand, for on the last occasion the minx had stolen one from under his bolster, taking advantage of the fact that he had come home drunk to assert that he must have lost it out of doors. On awaking he had a fright, the coins having escaped from his grasp during his sleep; but he found them again, quite warm, under his buttocks, and was then thrilled with a mighty joy. His mouth was already watering at the thought of how he would spend the cash at Lengaigne's. It was the village fête, and no one with any decency would go back home at night-time with any change left in his pocket. During the morning La Trouille vainly coaxed her father to give her one of the five-franc pieces, just a little one, she said; but he repulsed her, and was not even grateful for the stolen eggs with which she made him an omelette. No, no! It didn't suffice that she was fond of her father; money was made for men. Then in a fit of wrath she put on her blue poplin dress—a present dating from the period of plenty—saying that she, too, was going to enjoy herself. She hadn't got twenty yards from the door when she turned round and called out:
"Father, father, look!"
Her hand was raised, and she displayed between the tips of her slender fingers a five-franc piece which shone like a sun.
Hyacinthe fancied that he had been robbed, and, growing pale, he fumbled in his pockets. But the twenty francs were there all right. The hussy must have sold some of her geese, and the dodge striking him as funny, he chuckled paternally and let her go.
He was only strict on one point: morality; and it was on that account that, half-an-hour later, he fell into a violent passion. He also was going out, and was on the point of fastening the door, when a peasant, in holiday garb, passing along on the road below, hailed him.
"Hyacinthe, ahoy! Hyacinthe!"
"What is it?"
"I have just seen your daughter."
"What of it?"
"Well, there's a fellow with her."
"Whereabouts are they?"
"In the ditch over there, at the corner of Guillaume's field."
On hearing this Hyacinthe raised both hands furiously to heaven.
"All right; thanks," said he to the peasant. "I'll fetch my whip. The dirty drab! Bringing dishonour on me like this, indeed!"
Having returned into his house, he took down from behind the door, on the left, a long horse-whip which he only used on these occasions; then with the whip under his arm he set out, creeping past the bushes as if after some game, so as to come upon the guilty couple unawares.
When, however, he turned round the bend of the road, Nénesse, who was keeping watch on a heap of stones, caught sight of him. It was Delphin who was with La Trouille. The two were taking turns, the one acting as outpost while the other amused himself.
"Look out!" cried Nénesse; "here's Hyacinthe."
He had seen the whip, and he started off across country like a hare.
La Trouille and Delphin were in the grassy ditch. What a nuisance! So here was her father coming! Still she had her wits sufficiently about her to hand Delphin her five-franc piece.
"Look here," said she, "hide this somewhere. You can give it me back again. Quick, cut away, hang you!"
Hyacinthe came up like a hurricane, shaking the ground as he ran, and brandishing his whip, which smacked with a sound like that of crackling flames.
"Oh, you foul drab, you!" he shouted; "I'll rouse you!"
He was so infuriated, on recognising the rural constable's son, that he missed the lad, as the latter scuttled off on all fours through the brambles. La Trouille, hampered by her petticoats, could neither escape nor plead innocence. A lash of the whip soon set her upright, and brought her out of the ditch. Then the sport began.
"Take that, you dirty troll! See if that won't quiet you!"
La Trouille, without saying a word, accustomed to these races, leapt away like a goat. Her father's usual tactics were to bring her back home like that, and then lock her up. So she tried to make her escape towards the plain, hoping to tire him out; and on this occasion she all but succeeded, thanks to a chance encounter. For the last moment or so, Monsieur Charles and Elodie, whom he was taking to the fête, had been standing there stock-still, in the middle of the road. They had seen everything; the young girl staring wide with innocent stupefaction, the father red with shame and bursting with indignation. The worst was that as that shameless hussy La Trouille recognised him she tried to obtain his protection. He repulsed her, but the whip was within range, and, to avoid it, she took to dodging round her uncle and cousin; while her father swore more loudly than ever, coarsely reproaching her with her misbehaviour. Meantime he also dodged round Monsieur Charles, and launched forth a volley of lashes, with all his might. Monsieur Charles, dumbfounded and aghast at being thus encircled, could only bury Elodie's face in his waistcoat, so that she might not see or hear anything. To such an extent did he lose his wits, that he himself became very coarse.
"Now, then, you dirty troll, will you leave me alone? Whoever cursed me with such a family in this strumpets' country?"
As soon as La Trouille was dislodged she felt that she was lost. One lash of the whip, which curled round her up to her arm-pits, made her spin like a top; another knocked her down, and dragged out a wisp of her hair. After that, brought back into the right road, her only idea was to get home as sharply as possible. She leapt over the hedges, cleared the ditches, and cut across the vineyards, without fear of impalement on the stakes. However, her little legs could no longer hold out; the lashes still rained down upon her round shoulders, upon her loins, indeed over all her precocious flesh. Not that she cared a straw; she had got to think it rather amusing to be tickled so hard. With a nervous laugh she finally leapt into the house, and took refuge in a corner, where the big whip could no longer reach her.
"Hand over your five francs," said the father, "by way of penalty."
She swore that she had lost them while running home, whereupon he sniggered incredulously, and rummaged her all over. Finding nothing, he flew into a passion again.
"What! So you've given them to your gallant! You blessed fool! You amuse them, and then you pay them!"
After that he went off in a towering rage, locking her in, and calling out that she should stay there all by herself till the next day, as he didn't mean to return.
La Trouille, when once he had gone off, made an inspection of her body, which was just striped with two or three weals. Then she put her hair straight, and tidied her dress. Finally, she calmly undid the lock—a trick at which she had grown extremely skilful—and bolted off, without even taking the trouble to refasten the door. Nicely robbed the robbers would find themselves, if any came! She knew where to find Nénesse and Delphin again: in a copse beside the Aigre. They were, indeed, waiting for her there; and now it was her cousin Nénesse's turn. He had three francs with him, the other threepence. She had got her money back, and she decided good-naturedly that they would spend the whole lot together. They returned to the fair, and she set them a-shooting for macaroons, after buying herself a big bow of red satin, which she stuck in her hair.
Meanwhile, on arriving at Lengaigne's, Hyacinthe fell in with Bécu, who had his official badge fastened on to a new blouse. The scamp apostrophised the constable vehemently.
"Look here, you! You've a pretty way of going your rounds! D'you know where I found your swine of a boy?"
"Why, with my daughter! I'll write to the prefect and have you cashiered, you swine's father—swine, yourself!"
This made Bécu fire up.
"Daughter, indeed! Why, she's always flourishing her legs in the air—and so now she's led Delphin astray? Hell and thunder! I'll send the gendarmes after her!"
"Just try it on, you thief!"
Then the two snarled in each other's faces, till, all at once, the strain was relaxed, and their fury dropped.
"We must have an explanation; let's go in and liquor," said Hyacinthe.
"I haven't a copper," replied Bécu.
Then the other merrily produced his first five-franc piece, tossed it in the air, and stuck it in his eye.
"Well, shall we spend it, you gay dog? Come along, my buck! It's my turn now; you've paid often enough."
They went into Lengaigne's, chuckling for joy, and slapping each other affectionately on the back. Lengaigne had had an idea that year. As the owner of the strolling ball-room refused to come and pitch his tent in the village, disgusted at not having cleared his expenses the year before, the innkeeper had daringly made a ball-room of his barn, which adjoined his tavern, with its front door communicating with the road. He had even made another doorway in the party-wall, so that ball-room and tavern communicated. This idea had brought him the custom of the whole village, and his rival, Macqueron, was furious at having his house empty.
"Two quarts at once; one for each of us!" yelled Hyacinthe.
As Flore, bewildered and radiant at sight of the throng of people, was attending to his order, he noticed that his arrival had interrupted Lengaigne, who had been reading a letter aloud, standing amid a group of peasants. On being questioned, the taverner replied, with a deal of dignity that, it was a letter sent by his son Victor from the regiment.
"Ah, indeed, the rascal!" said Bécu, becoming interested. "And what does he say? You must begin it again for us."
So Lengaigne read it over again.
"My Dear Parents,—This is to tell you that we have been here at Lille in Flanders for a month, less seven days. The country's not bad except for the dearness of the wine, for which we have to pay as much as eightpence a quart."
In all the four closely-written pages there was hardly anything else. The same detail recurred with infinite monotony, spun out into lengthened phrases. However, they all expressed surprise each time that the price of the wine was mentioned. So there were parts like that! How horrid! In the last lines of the letter came an attempt at spongeing: a request for twelve francs to replace a lost pair of shoes.
"Ah, the rascal!" repeated the rural constable. "Something like a fellow that, good God."
After the first two quarts, Hyacinthe asked for two more: bottled wine, at a franc apiece, paying as he was served so as to create astonishment, and rapping his money on the table, in a way that revolutionised the tavern. When the first five-franc piece had been expended in drink, he pulled out a second one, screwed it into his eye, as before, and cried out that there was plenty more where that one had come from. So the afternoon slipped by, amid a bustle of drinkers passing in and out, and increasing tipsiness. Dull and sedate though they were on work-days, they were now all yelling, thumping, and spitting vehemently. It occurred to one tall thin fellow to get shaved, and Lengaigne sat him down forthwith in the midst of them, and scraped his skin so roughly, that the razor was heard going over the leathery integument as if at work on a scalded pig. A second took the first one's place; 'twas fine sport. And how the tongues wagged! There was Macqueron, now, who didn't dare show himself outside. Wasn't it this fool of an assessor's own fault if the usual ball hadn't come? Arrangements might have been made. But, sure enough, he preferred voting roads, and getting three times as much money for his land as it was worth. This allusion provoked a tempest of laughter. Fat Flore, whose triumph the day was to be, kept neglecting her customers to run to the door, bursting into insolent mirth, whenever she saw Cœlina's jaundiced visage behind the opposite window-panes.
"Cigars! Madame Lengaigne," thundered Hyacinthe at last. "Expensive ones, mind! Penny each!"
As night was falling, and the petroleum lamps were being lit, Madame Bécu came in to look for her husband. But he had started on a monstrous game at cards.
"Are you coming?" she said; "it's past eight. You must have some dinner."
He stared at her with tipsy majesty.
"Go to blazes!" he replied.
Then Hyacinthe displayed intense delight. "Madame Bécu," said he, "I invite you. Eh? Yes, we'll just peck a bit, between the three of us. D'ye hear there, mistress? Give us your best: some ham, some rabbit, and dessert. And don't be anxious. Just look here. Attention!"
He then pretended to fumble himself all over. Then he suddenly produced his third coin, and held it up.
"Cuckoo! Aha, there it is!"
Everybody was doubled up with laughter, and one fat man all but suffocated. That rascal Hyacinthe was thundering funny! And some of them, by way of a joke, felt him from head to foot, as if he had had crowns all over him.
"I say, La Bécu," he repeated a dozen times over while he was eating, "if Bécu don't mind, we'll sleep together? What do you say?"
She was very dirty, not having known, she said, that she should stop at the fête; and she laughed, did this dark pole-cat of a woman, wiry and rusty like an old needle; while Hyacinthe, without further delay, grabbed hold of her legs under the table. Meantime the husband, blind drunk, dribbled and chuckled, shouting out that two men would be none too many for the hussy.
It was ten o'clock when the ball began. Through the communicating doorway the four lamps, fastened by iron wires to the beams, could be seen blazing. Clou, the farrier, was there with his trombone, as well as the nephew of a Bazoches-le-Doyen rope-maker, who played the violin. The admission was free, but you paid two sous for each dance you joined in. The beaten soil underfoot had just been watered, on account of the dust. Whenever the instruments left off playing, the sharp, regular detonations of the neighbouring shooting-gallery could be heard. The road, usually so gloomy, was all ablaze with the reflectors of the two other booths; the trinket stall glittered with gildings, while the turn-about was bedecked with mirrors and hung with red curtains like a chapel.
"Hallo! Why, there's my little daughter!" cried Hyacinthe, with swimming eyes.
So it was. La Trouille was just coming into the ball, attended by Delphin and Nénesse; and the father did not seem at all surprised to see her there, although he had locked her in. She not merely had the red bunch of ribbons flaunting in her hair, for round her neck there was now a heavy imitation coral necklace, formed of beads of sealing-wax, which showed blood-red against her dark skin. All three of them, moreover, tired of rambling about in front of the booths, were dull and sticky with sweetmeats, of which they had eaten more than they could digest. Delphin, who was only happy when out and about in all the hidden nooks of the country-side, wore a blouse, and his shaggy round savage-like head was bare. Nénesse, on the other hand, already yearning after the refinements of town life, was clad in a suit of dittos bought at Lambourdieu's, one of those scant outfits turned out wholesale by cheap Paris clothiers; and he wore a round felt hat, to mark his contempt of the village, which he looked down upon.
"Petty!" called Hyacinthe. "Little daughter, come and taste this. First-rate, ain't it?"
He let her drink out of his glass, while Madame Bécu asked Delphin sternly:
"What have you done with your cap?"
"Lost it? Come here, and and I'll cuff you!" But Bécu interposed, chuckling complacently at the recollection of his son's precocious gallantries.
"Let him be! He's getting a big boy now. And so, you scum of the earth, you've been amusing yourselves together? Ah! the lickerish dog."
"Go and play," concluded Hyacinthe paternally. "And mind you're to be good."
"They're as drunk as pigs," said Nénesse, with an air of disgust, as he went back to the ball-room.
La Trouille laughed.
"I should just think so! I quite expected it. That's why they're so amiable."
The dancing was getting lively. The explosive blasts of Clou's trombone, which smothered the faint music of the little fiddle, were all that could be heard. The ground, watered over copiously, was turning to mud under the thick-soled boots of the dancers; and presently, from all the shaken petticoats, from the jackets and bodices that grew moist under the arm-pits with broad stains of sweat, there uprose a strong goat-like smell, accentuated by the smoky acridity of the lamps. Between two quadrilles, a sensation was created by the arrival of Berthe, Macqueron's daughter, arrayed in a foulard dress, exactly like those that the tax-collector's young ladies had worn at Cloyes, on Saint Lubin's day. Could her parents have given her leave to come? Or had she slipped out behind their backs? It was observable that she danced all the time with the son of a wheelwright, whom her father had forbidden her to speak to, on account of a family quarrel. Jests were bandied about. Apparently she was no longer content with her pernicious solitary habits.
Hyacinthe, tipsy as he was, had, for the last moment or so, noticed that beast Lequeu, stationed beside the communicating doorway, and watching Berthe as she curvetted about in her gallant's arms. He could not restrain himself.
"I say, Monsieur Lequeu," he exclaimed, "you're not leading your sweetheart out?"
"What sweetheart?" asked the schoolmaster, green with bile.
"Why, the pretty dark-ringed eyes, over there!"
Lequeu, furious at having been detected, turned his back, and stood motionless, in one of those haughty spells of silence in which he enwrapped himself, out of prudence and disdain. Lengaigne having come forward, Hyacinthe buttonholed him. "Aha! he had given that paper-stainer over there one for his nob! Rich girls for him, indeed! Not that Berthe was such a catch, for she had a peculiar physical defect." Being now thoroughly aflame, he swore to the truth of his assertion. It was current talk from Cloyes to Châteaudun. Stupefied by this information, the others craned over to look at Berthe, making slight grimaces of repugnance whenever her white skirts came flying round that way, in the course of the dance.
"You old rogue," resumed Hyacinthe, beginning to address Lengaigne familiarly, "your girl's all right."
"Rather!" replied the taverner, complacently.
Suzanne was now in Paris, in the swell set, people said. Lengaigne, acting discreetly, used to hint at a good situation she had there. Meanwhile peasants still kept coming in, and a farmer having asked after Victor, the letter was produced again. "My dear Parents,—This is to tell you that we have been here, at Lille in Flanders ..." They all listened anew; even people who had already heard the letter read five or six times over, gathered round again. Not really eightpence a quart? Yes, really; eightpence!
"A beastly country!" repeated Bécu. At that moment Jean made his appearance; at once going to glance into the ball-room, as if he were looking for some one. Then he returned looking disappointed and uneasy. For the last two months he had not dared to pay such frequent visits to Buteau, for he felt that the latter was cool, not to say hostile. Doubtless he, Jean, had ill-concealed his feelings for Françoise, the growing affection which now fevered him, and his comrade had noticed it. It must have displeased him, interfering with his plans.
"Good evening," said Jean, drawing near a table where Fouan and Delhomme were drinking a bottle of beer.
"Will you join us, Corporal?" said Delhomme, politely.
Jean accepted; and after clinking glasses:
"Funny thing Buteau hasn't turned up," he said.
"Here he is, pat!" said Fouan.
And, indeed, Buteau now came in, but all by himself, and Jean's face grew still darker. The other strolled round the tavern, shaking hands; then, on reaching his father and brother-in-law's table, he stood there, refusing to sit down or to take anything.
"Lise and Françoise don't dance, then?" Jean finally asked, in a faltering voice.
Buteau looked at him hard out of his little grey eyes.
"Françoise has gone to bed," he replied; "it's the best place for young folks."
An incident near them now attracted their attention, and cut the conversation short. It was Hyacinthe at loggerheads with Flore, whom he had asked for a quart of rum to make some punch, and who refused to bring it.
"No! No more! You're drunk enough."
"Hallo! what's that she's saying? Do you fancy that I sha'n't pay? Why, I'll buy up your whole shanty, if you like. I've merely to blow my nose. Here! Look at this!"
He had concealed his fourth five-franc piece in his hand; and now pinching his nose with his fingers, he blew it loudly, and apparently drew out the coin, which he then paraded round like a monstrance.
"That's what I blow from my nose, when I've got a cold!"
A round of applause shook the walls, and Flore, quite vanquished, brought the quart of rum and some sugar. Next a salad-bowl was wanted, and then the scamp took possession of the whole room, stirring the punch, with his elbows squarely set, while his red face was lighted up by the glow of the flames, which increased the heat of the atmosphere, already densely befogged by the lamps and pipes. Buteau, exasperated at sight of the money, suddenly broke out:
"You thundering swine, aren't you ashamed of tippling away like that with the money you rob our father of?"
The other adopted a low-comedy tone.
"Oh, it's you, young 'un! I suppose it's your empty stomach that makes you talk such rot!"
"I tell you, you're a dirty beast, and you'll finish at the galleys. To begin with, it was you that killed our mother with grief."
The sot rattled his spoon and stirred up a tempest of flame in the salad-bowl, while he split his sides with laughter.
"Right you are; go on. Sure enough it was me—supposing it wasn't you!"
"And I tell you further that spendthrifts of your kidney don't deserve that the corn should grow. Only to think that our property—yes, all that land that the old folks took so much trouble to leave us—has been pledged by you, and handed over to others. You dirty blackguard, what have you done with the land?"
At this Hyacinthe was roused. His punch went out, and he settled himself, leaning back in his chair, seeing that all the drinkers were silently listening, to judge between him and his brother.
"The land!" he yelled: "why, what the deuce does the land care for you? You're its slave, it robs you of your enjoyments, your strength, your life! You idiot! And it doesn't so much as make you rich! While I, who fold my arms and despise it, confining myself to giving it a kick or two, why, I, you see, am independent and can wet my whistle! Oh, you confounded simpleton!"
The peasants laughed again, while Buteau, surprised by the roughness of the attack, could only mutter:
"A good-for-nothing lazy lout; who does no work and boasts of it."
"Land, indeed! A lot of humbug!" resumed Hyacinthe, now thoroughly aroused. "Well, you must be an ancient, if you still believe in humbug like that! Does it exist, this land? It's mine, it's yours, it's nobody's. Wasn't it once the old 'uns? And hadn't he to cut it up to give it to us? And won't you cut it up for your young 'uns? Very well, then! It comes and goes, increases and diminishes—diminishes especially; for there you are, a fine gentleman with your seven or eight acres, when father had over twenty. I got disgusted with my share. It was too little, so I blued the lot. And, besides, I like sound investments, and, look'ee! young 'un, land's shaky! I would not put a copper into it. It's bad business, and there's an ugly catastrophe at hand that'll wipe you all out. Bankruptcy! A set of blockheads!"
A death-like silence gradually spread through the tavern. No one laughed now. The anxious faces of the peasants were turned towards this tall ruffian, who, in his cups, poured out the muddled contents of his brain—the confused ideas that he had formed as an Algerian campaigner, as a hanger-about-town, and tavern politician. What was paramount in him was the old leaven of '48, the humanitarian communistic views of one who still worshipped at the shrine of '89.
"Liberty, equality, fraternity!" he shouted. "We must hark back to the Revolution. We were swindled in the division of property; the gentlefolks have taken everything, and, by God, they shall be forced to give it back. Isn't one man as good as another? Is it fair, for instance, such a lot of land held by that ass at La Borderie, while I've got none? I want my rights; I want my share; everybody shall have his share."
Bécu, who was too drunk to uphold the principle of authority, approved without understanding. Still, he had a gleam of sense left, and imposed certain limitations.
"That's so, that's so," said he; "but the king's the king, and what is mine isn't yours."
A murmur of approbation ran round, and Buteau took his revenge.
"Don't listen to him; he's only fit to kill!"
There was a fresh burst of laughter, and Hyacinthe, losing all control, stood up, wildly shaking his fists in the air.
"Just you wait a bit. I'll talk to you, you cursed coward! You're in fine feather now, because you've got the mayor, the assessor, and that twopenny-halfpenny deputy on your side! You lick his boots, and you are fool enough to think that he's a power and will help you to sell your corn. Well, I, who have nothing to sell, I don't care a fig for you or your mayor, assessor, deputy, or gendarmes! To-morrow, it'll be our turn to be the stronger; and it won't be me alone, it'll be all the poor devils who are starving to death. Ay, and it'll be you, too; you, I say! when you've got tired of keeping the gentlefolks, without having so much as a crust of bread to eat yourselves. A pretty plight they'll be in, the landowners. They'll have their jaws broken, and the land'll be free for any one to take. D'ye hear, young 'un? I'll take that land of yours and —— on it!"
"You just try it on, and I'll shoot you down like a dog!" shouted Buteau, so wild with rage that he went out, slamming the door after him.
Lequeu, having listened with a reserved air, had already left, unwilling, as an official, to compromise himself any further. Fouan and Delhomme, with their faces over their liquor, breathed not a word; feeling ashamed, and knowing that if they interposed the sot would only shout the louder. The peasants at the surrounding tables were eventually getting angry. What! Their property wasn't their own? It would be taken from them? And, growling, they were about to pummel the communist soundly and turn him out, when Jean rose up. He had not taken his eyes off the speaker, or missed one of his words, as he sat there listening with a serious face, as if seeking what justice might underlie these things that shocked him.
"Hyacinthe," said he quietly, "you'd better hold your tongue. It's not the sort of thing to say; and if by any chance you are right, you're not very clever to put yourself so in the wrong."
So wise a remark from so cool a speaker calmed Hyacinthe instantaneously. He fell back in his chair, declaring that, after all, he didn't care a fig. He then began larking again: kissed Madame Bécu, whose husband was asleep with his head on the table, and finished up the punch, drinking out of the salad-bowl. The laughter had recommenced, amid the dense smoke, and he was voted a funny fellow, all the same.
At the far end of the barn, the dancing was still going on. Clou was still smothering the squeaky notes of the little fiddle with his thunderous blasts of trombone accompaniment. Sweat drained off the bodies of the dancers, and exhaled amid the ruddy smoke of the lamps. La Trouille, whirling about in turn in the arms of Nénesse and Delphin, was conspicuous by her red bow. Berthe, too, was still there, faithful to her gallant and dancing with no one else. In a corner, some young men whom she had cast off were tittering together. Oh, well; if that great gawky was willing, she did right to stick to him; there were plenty of others who, for all her money, would have certainly thought twice before marrying her.
"Let's go home to bed," said Fouan at last to Jean and Delhomme.
Outside, when Jean had left them, the old man walked on in silence, apparently pondering over all he had just heard. Then, abruptly, as if that had decided him, he turned to his son-in-law.
"I'll sell the shanty and come and live with you. That's settled. Good-bye!"
He went slowly home. His heart was heavy; as his boots stumbled over the dark road, a terrible sadness made him stagger like a drunken man. As it was, he had no land, and he would soon have no house. It seemed to him that people were already sawing down the old rafters and pulling off the slates from over his head. He now had not the shelter of a single stone left him; he was like a beggar wandering along the roads, by day and night, unceasingly; and when it rained, the chill, never-ending downpour would fall upon his head.