"I only hope La Coliche won't calve at the same time as me!" repeated Lise every morning.
Lost in thought she stood in the cow-house, gazing at the cow, whose belly was distended beyond measure. Never had any animal swollen to such an extent. She looked round as a barrel on her shrunken shanks. The nine months fell exactly on Saint-Fiacre's Day, for Françoise had been careful to note the date on which she had taken her to the bull. Lise, on her side, was unfortunately by no means certain, that is within a few days. Still the child would certainly be born somewhere about Saint-Fiacre's Day, perhaps on the day before, perhaps on the day after. So she repeated, forlornly:
"I only hope La Coliche won't calve at the same time as me! A pretty job that'd be! Yes, good gracious! We should be in a nice pickle!"
La Coliche, who had been ten years in the house, was greatly spoilt. She had come to be considered as one of the family. The Buteaus nestled near her in winter time, having no other firing than the warm exhalation from her flanks. She in return, displayed great affection, particularly towards Françoise, whom she could never see without a tender feeling moistening her large eyes. She would lick her with her rough tongue till the blood came; or seizing her skirt between her teeth she would pull her near, so as to have her all to herself. Accordingly she was taken great care of, now that her calving time drew near: warm mashes, excursions out at the best times of the day,—in fact, she met with hourly attention. All this was not merely due to their fondness for her; they remembered the five hundred francs she represented, as well as the milk, butter, and cheese she gave; quite a fortune, which would be lost in losing her.
A fortnight had elapsed since the harvest. Françoise had resumed her every-day life in the household, as though nothing had occurred between her and Buteau. He seemed to have forgotten; and she herself was glad to avoid thinking of these matters, which disturbed her. Jean, whom she had met and warned, had not called again. He used to watch for her beside the hedges, and implore her to slip out and meet him in the evening in ditches which he particularised. But she refused, in alarm, concealing her coldness under an assumption of great prudence. Later on, she said, when she wouldn't be so much wanted at home. One evening when he surprised her going down to Macqueron's to buy some sugar, she obstinately refused to accompany him behind the church; and talked to him the whole time about La Coliche, about her bones which were giving way, and her hind-quarters which were opening: sure signs, which made him remark that the time could not now be far off.
And now, just on Saint-Fiacre's Eve, Lise was seized with severe pains, as she went into the cow-house after dinner with her sister to look at the cow, who, with her thighs drawn apart by the swelling of her womb, was also in pain, lowing softly.
"What did I say?" cried Lise, furiously. "A nice mess we're in now."
Towards ten o'clock, Buteau, annoyed at nothing having happened, decided to go to bed, leaving Lise and Françoise obstinately remaining in the cow-house beside La Coliche, whose pains seemed to be increasing. They both began to feel uneasy. No progress was made, although, as far as the bones were concerned, the labour seemed at an end. There was the passage, so why did not the calf come out? They stroked the animal, encouraged her, and brought her dainties—sugar, which she refused, with her head bent and her croup profoundly agitated. At midnight, Lise, who had hitherto been writhing and groaning, found herself suddenly relieved. In her case it had only been a false alarm; some wandering pains. But she was convinced that she had driven it back, just as she would have repressed a need of nature. The whole night through she and her sister sat up with La Coliche, nursing her carefully, and even applying fomentations of hot rags; while Rougette, the other cow, the one last bought at Cloyes market, astonished by the lighted candles, watched their movements with her large, bluish, drowsy eyes.
At dawn of day, Françoise, seeing that nothing had yet come off, decided to run over and fetch their neighbour La Frimat, who was renowned for her knowledge, having assisted so many cows that people readily had recourse to her in ticklish cases, so as to avoid sending for the veterinary. On her arrival she made a grimace.
"She don't look well," she muttered. "How long has it been like this?"
"Why, for twelve hours."
She kept on walking round the animal, poking her nose everywhere, and alarming the other two with her dissatisfied grimaces and the way she jerked her chin.
When Buteau came in from the fields to breakfast, he also took fright, and talked of sending for Patoir, albeit shuddering at the idea of the expense.
"A veterinary!" said La Frimat tartly, "to kill her, hey? Old Saucisse's animal died before his very eyes. No! See here. I'll open the bladder, and I'll look after your calf for you!"
"Why," remarked Françoise, "Monsieur Patoir says the bladder shouldn't be opened. He says that the water inside is a help."
La Frimat shrugged her shoulders in exasperation. Patoir was an ass! Then she slit open the pocket with a pair of scissors. For a moment La Coliche breathed more easily, and the old woman triumphed. Lise and Françoise watched her with anxiously quivering eyelids, as she tried to ascertain the posture of the calf. Buteau himself, who had not gone back into the fields, waited breathless and still.
"I can feel the feet," she muttered, "but not the head. It's a bad sign when you can't feel the head."
"Better not bustle her," said La Frimat, sagely; "it'll come all right by-and-bye."
It was now three o'clock. They waited till seven. Nothing happened, however, and the house was a perfect hell. On the one hand, Lise, obstinately remaining on an old chair, was writhing and groaning; on the other, La Coliche was lowing incessantly amid shiverings and sweatings, which grew more and more serious. Rougette, the second cow, also began to low with fright. Françoise was at her wits' end, and Buteau kept swearing and bawling alternately. At last La Coliche, her strength failing her, fell on to her side, and lay stretched out upon the straw panting pitiably.
"We sha'n't get the brute!" declared Buteau; "and the mother will die as well!"
Françoise clasped her hands entreatingly.
"Do go and fetch Monsieur Patoir! Cost what it may, go and fetch Monsieur Patoir!"
Buteau had grown gloomy. Then, after a final struggle with himself, he got out the cart without saying a word.
La Frimat, who affected to pay no further heed to the cow since the veterinary had again been mentioned, was now getting anxious about Lise. The old woman was also good at accouchements; all the neighbourhood had passed through her hands. She seemed uneasy, and did not conceal her apprehensions from La Bécu, who called Buteau back as he was putting the horse to.
"Look here! Your wife's not well. Suppose you bring back a doctor at the same time?"
He stood mute and staring. What? Another of 'em to be coddled! Not likely that he was going to pay for everybody!
"No, no!" cried Lise, in an interval between two throes. "I shall be all right. We can't be throwing money into the gutter like that!"
Buteau hastily whipped up his horse, and the cart on its way to Cloyes vanished amid the falling shades of night.
When Patoir at last arrived, two hours later, everything was in the same state: La Coliche lay groaning on her side, and Lise, writhing like a worm, was half falling off her chair. Things had lasted thus for twenty-four hours.
"Which is my patient, hey?" asked the veterinary, who was of a jovial disposition.
And addressing Lise familiarly:
"Then, if it's not you, my fat beauty, please put yourself to bed. You want it badly."
She made no answer, nor did she go. He was already examining the cow.
"Heavens! she's in a wretched state, this beast of yours. You always come for me too late, you clumsy wretches!"
They all listened to him with a respectful, despondent, hang-dog look; that is, all of them excepting La Frimat, who screwed up her lips in high disdain. Patoir, taking off his coat and turning up his shirt sleeves, proceeded to make an elaborate examination.
"Of course," he resumed, after an instant's pause, "it's exactly as I thought. Let me tell you, my children, it's all up with this calf of yours. I've no wish to cut my fingers against his teeth, in turning him round. Besides, I shouldn't get him out any the more if I did so, and I should certainly damage the mother."
Françoise burst into sobs.
"Monsieur Patoir," said she, "I implore you, save our cow. Poor Coliche! she's so fond of me!"
Both Lise, sallow with a fit of griping, and Buteau, in rude health, so unfeeling as they were regarding the woes of others, now lamented and softened, making the same supplication.
"Save our cow, our old cow that has given us such good milk for years and years," they begged in chorus. "Pray save her, Monsieur Patoir."
"Well, one thing must be clearly understood: I shall be forced to cut up the calf."
"Who cares a curse for the calf? Save our cow, Monsieur Patoir, save her!"
Then the veterinary, who had brought a large blue apron with him, borrowed a pair of canvas trousers. Stripping himself quite naked in a corner, behind Rougette, he slipped on the trousers, and then tied the apron round his loins. When he re-appeared in this scanty costume, with his genial bull-dog face and his fat and dumpy figure, La Coliche lifted her head and, no doubt from astonishment, ceased to complain. However, no one even smiled, so wrung with anxiety was every heart.
"Light some candles!" said Patoir.
He set four on the ground, and then lay down flat on his stomach in the straw, behind the cow, who was now unable to get up. For a moment he remained flat, examining her. Near by he had placed a little box, and, having raised himself on his elbow, he was taking a bistoury out of it, when a husky groan startled him, and he at once assumed a sitting posture.
"What, still there, my stout matron? Well, I thought that couldn't be the cow!"
It was Lise, seized with the final pangs.
"For goodness sake go and get your business over in your own room, and leave me to do mine here! It disturbs me; it acts on my nerves, 'pon my honour it does, to hear you straining behind me. Come, come! It's not common sense! Take her away, the rest of you!"
La Frimat and La Bécu decided to take her each by an arm and lead her to her room. She surrendered herself, no longer having the strength to resist. But on crossing the kitchen, where a solitary candle was burning, she asked to have all the doors left open, with the idea that she would thus not be so far off. La Frimat had already prepared the bed of anguish according to rural custom—a simple sheet spread out in the middle of the room over a truss of straw, and three chairs turned down. Lise squatted down and stretched herself, with her back against one chair and one leg against each of the others. She was not even undressed.
Buteau and Françoise had remained in the cow-house to light Patoir; they squatted on their heels, each holding a candle, while the veterinary, again stretched out on his stomach, cut a section round the left ham with his bistoury. He loosened the skin, and then pulled at the calf's shoulder, which came away. Françoise, pale and faint, dropped her candle and fled with a shriek.
"My poor old Coliche," she exclaimed; "I won't see it! I won't see it!"
Thereupon Patoir lost his temper, the more so as he had to rise up and extinguish an incipient conflagration, caused by the fall of Françoise's candle among the straw.
"Drat the wench! She might be a princess, with her nerves. She'd smoke us like so many hams," he remarked in a peevish tone.
Françoise had run and flung herself on a chair in the room where her sister was being confined. The latter's exposure did not disturb her. It seemed a mere matter of course, after what she had just seen. She waved from her memory that vision of living severed flesh, and gave a stammering account of what was being done to the cow.
"It's sure to go wrong; I must go back," said Lise suddenly; and despite her sufferings, she made an effort to get up from among the three chairs. But La Frimat and La Bécu grew angry, and held her down.
"Good heavens! will you keep still! What on earth possesses you?" exclaimed La Frimat.
"So as to keep you quiet," said La Bécu, "I'll go myself and bring you the news."
From that moment La Bécu did nothing but run to and fro between the room and the cow-house. To save continually making the journey, she at last shouted out her report from the kitchen. The veterinary was still busily occupied with his nasty, troublesome job, and he emerged from it disgustingly filthy from head to foot.
"It's all right, Lise," exclaimed La Bécu; "don't be uneasy. We've got the other shoulder, and it will soon be all over now."
Lise saluted each phase of the operation with a heartrending sigh; and no one knew whether the lament was for herself or for the calf. There was not the slightest cessation of her travail, and she seemed to be seized with inconsolable despair.
"Oh, dear, how unlucky! Oh, dear, how unlucky to lose such a fine calf!"
Françoise likewise lamented, and the regrets they all expressed grew so aggressive, so full of implied hostility, that Patoir felt hurt. He hurried to them, stopping, however, outside the door, for decency's sake.
"I say! I give you warning. Just remember that you implored me to save your cow. I know you so well, you beggars. Now, don't you go about telling everybody that I killed your calf."
"That's right enough, right enough," muttered Buteau, going back with him into the cow-house. "All the same, it was you that cut it up."
As Lise lay prostrate among the three chairs, a kind of billow passed over her. Françoise, who in her desolation had so far seen nothing, became quite thunderstruck.
"A little more patience," said La Frimat. "It'll soon be all right."
Françoise, on her part, shook herself free from the fascination of the sight, and feeling embarrassed, went and took her sister's hand.
"My poor Lise," she said affectionately, "what great trouble you're in!"
"Oh, yes, yes! And no one pities me. If I only had some pity! Oh, dear! It's beginning again. Won't it ever be born?"
This kind of talk might have gone on for a considerable time, but some exclamations were heard in the cow-house. They came from Patoir, who, astonished to find La Coliche still quivering and moaning, had suspected the presence of a second calf. And, indeed, there was one. Buteau ran into his wife's room carrying the little animal, which hung its astonished head in a tipsy-like way.
Amid the general acclamations at the sight, Lise broke into an endless, irresistible peal of mad laughter, stuttering:
"Oh, how funny it looks! Oh! it's too bad to make me laugh like this! Oh, dear! Oh! oh! how I am suffering! No, no! don't make me laugh any more: I've had enough!"
The climax was at length reached.
"It's a girl," declared La Frimat.
"No, no!" said Lise, who felt disappointed, "I don't want one: I want a boy."
Patoir went away, after two quarts of sweetened wine had been given to La Coliche. La Frimat undressed Lise and put her to bed, while La Bécu, assisted by Françoise, cleared away the straw and swept up the room. In ten minutes' time all was in order. No one would have had any idea that a confinement had just taken place, except for the constant mewling of the baby, who was being washed in warm water. However, after being swathed, the infant gradually became quiet; while the mother, now utterly prostrate, fell into a leaden sleep, and lay with her face congested, almost black, between the thick brownish sheets.
Towards midnight, when the two neighbours had left, Françoise told Buteau that he had better go up into the hay-loft to sleep. She had laid a mattress on the floor, and meant to stay there for the night, so as not to leave her sister alone. He made no answer, but finished his pipe in silence. All was quiet, save for the heavy breathing of the sleeping Lise.
As Françoise was kneeling on her mattress, at the very foot of the bed, in a darkened corner, Buteau, still silent, suddenly came up behind her and laid her flat. She turned her head, and instantly grasped the situation, from the look of his drawn, flushed face. He was at it again; he had not relinquished his purpose, and, presumably, the longing was a violent one, since he attacked her thus beside his wife, and just after occurrences which were scarcely of an engaging kind. Françoise repulsed and overturned him, however, and then there was a suppressed, panting struggle.
With a snigger, and in a choking voice, he said:
"Come, come! Why should you mind? I'm equal to taking on the two of you."
He knew her well, and felt sure she would not scream. Nor did she. She resisted without a word, too proud to call to her sister, unwilling to acquaint any one, even Lise, with her business. He was stifling her, however, and seemed on the point of succeeding.
"It'll be so convenient, as we're living together, and shall be always with each other," he said.
But suddenly he gave a cry of pain. She had silently dug her nails into his neck. Then he grew mad, and spoke of Jean, saying:
"Don't think you'll marry him, that blackguard fellow of yours. Never, so long as you're under age."
As he was now doing her brutal violence, she kicked him so vigorously that he howled aloud. Then he bounded up in alarm, looking anxiously towards the bed. His wife was sleeping so soundly, however, that she had not stirred. Nevertheless, he went off, with a terrible threatening gesture.
When Françoise had stretched herself on the mattress, amid the deep stillness of the room, she lay there with her eyes open. She would never let him have his way, that she wouldn't, even although she herself were perchance desirous. And she felt astonished at it all; for the idea that she might marry Jean had never yet occurred to her.