After the shearing and the sale of the lambs in May, Soulas, the shepherd, had removed the sheep from La Borderie. Nearly four hundred head there were, which he led away without any other assistance than that of the little swine-herd Firmin, and his two formidable dogs, Emperor and Massacre. Until August the flocks grazed in the fallows amongst the clover and lucern, or in the waste-lands along the roads; and barely three weeks had now elapsed since he had turned them out into the stubble, immediately after the harvest, in the last blazing days of September.
This was the terrible season of the year. The fields of La Beauce lay stripped and desolate and bare, without a single fleck of green about them. The torrid summer, and the complete absence of all moisture, had dried up the splitting soil, and almost all signs of vegetation had disappeared. There was nothing left save a tangle of dead grass, and the hard bristles of the stubble-fields, which stretched out their mournful, bare nudity as far as the eye could reach, making all the plain look as though some giant conflagration had swept from horizon to horizon. The soil still seemed to be giving out a yellowish glow, a weird, threatening light, livid like that of a storm. Everything looked yellow, a frightfully mournful yellow; the baked earth, the stubble, and the high-roads and by-paths, rutted and torn up by passing wheels. The slightest breeze set clouds of dust flying, and covering the banks and hedges as with cinders. The blue sky and the blazing sun only seemed to render the scene of desolation still more mournful.
Upon that particular day there was a high wind, blowing in quick, warm puffs, which brought along heavy, scudding clouds; and when the sun shone fully out, his rays seemed to burn the skin like red-hot iron. Ever since early morning, Soulas had been expecting a supply of water for himself and his flock—water which was to be brought to him from the farm—for the stubble lands where he found himself lay to the north of Rognes, far away from any pond. In the grazing ground, between the light, movable hurdles secured with staves the sheep were lying on their bellies, panting and breathing only with difficulty; while the two dogs, stretched at full length outside the hurdles, were also panting, with their tongues lolling out of their mouths. The shepherd, to protect himself from the wind and to procure a little shade, was seated, leaning against a little hut raised on two wheels—a narrow box which served him for bed, and wardrobe, and pantry—and which he pushed along at every change of the grazing ground.
At noon, however, when the sun shone down perpendicularly, Soulas rose to his feet again, and scanned the distance to ascertain if he could see Firmin returning from the farm, where he had sent him to find out why the water did not come.
At last the little swine-herd made his appearance.
"They'll be here soon," he cried. "They had no horses this morning."
"You silly little fool, haven't you brought a bottle of water for us to drink ourselves?"
"Oh, dear, I never thought about it."
Soulas struck out a swinging blow with his closed fist, which the lad avoided by jumping aside. Then the shepherd began to swear, but he decided that he would eat without drinking, although he was almost choked with thirst. By his orders, Firmin warily took out of the hut some bread a week old, some shrivelled walnuts, and some dry cheese. Then they both sat down to eat, intently watched by the two dogs, who came and sat down in front of them, getting a crust tossed to them now and then, so hard that it cracked between their teeth as if it had been a bone. In spite of his seventy years, the old man got as quickly through his food with his gums as the youngster did with his teeth. Soulas was still straight and upright, flexible and tough like a thornwood stick. Time seemed merely to have scored furrows in his face, which was gnarled like a tree trunk beneath a tangle of faded hair, now the colour of earth.
The little swine-herd did not manage to escape his cuffing, for just as he was about to stow the remains of the bread and cheese inside the hut, and was no longer suspecting an attack, Soulas gave him a thumping whack which sent him rolling into the shelter-place.
"There, you silly little fool," cried the old man; "take and drink that, till the water comes!"
Two o'clock arrived without there being a sign of anybody coming. The heat had gone on increasing, and was well-nigh intolerable amid the complete calms which suddenly set in. Then, every now and again the breeze would rise and sweep up the powdery soil in little wheeling whirlwinds which seemed composed of blinding, suffocating smoke, and terribly enhanced the pangs of thirst.
At last the shepherd, who bore his sufferings with stoical, uncomplaining patience, gave a grunt of satisfaction.
"Thank heaven!" he exclaimed; "they've come none too soon."
Two carts, which in the distance looked scarcely bigger than a man's fist, had now at length made their appearance on the line where the plain intersected the horizon. In the first one, which was driven by Jean, Soulas had distinctly recognised the barrel of water. The second one, which Tron was in charge of, was loaded with sacks of corn, which were being taken to the mill, whose lofty wooden carcass could be seen some five hundred yards away. This second cart came to a standstill on the road, and Tron accompanied Jean through the stubble-fields up to the sheep-fold, under pretence of lending him a hand with the water, but really for the sake of idling and indulging in a few minutes' gossip.
"Do they want us all to die of thirst?" cried the shepherd.
The sheep, also having sniffed the water, had sprung up in eager tumult, and were now pressing against the hurdles, craning out their heads, and bleating plaintively.
"Patience! patience!" replied Jean; "there's something here to make you tipsy."
The men now quickly put the trough into position, and filled it by the aid of a wooden spout. Some of the water ran over, and the two dogs lapped it up eagerly, while the shepherd and the little swine-herd, too thirsty to wait any longer, drank greedily out of the trough. Then the whole flock swarmed up to it, and the air was filled with the flowing murmur of refreshing water, and the gurgling sound of animals and men swallowing it, and splashing and drenching themselves with it in delight.
"Now," said Soulas, who had become quite cheery again, "you would be doing me a kindness if you would help me to move the pens."
Jean and Tron both helped him. The hurdles were constantly moved over the surface of the far-spreading stubble, never being kept for more than two or three days in the same position, just sufficient time to enable the sheep to crop down the stray vegetation. This system, moreover, had the advantage of gradually manuring the land, patch by patch. While the shepherd, assisted by his dogs, looked after the sheep, the two men and the little swine-herd pulled up the stakes and carried the hurdles some fifty yards further on. Then they again fixed them so as to enclose a vast square, into which the animals rushed of their own accord before it was quite completed.
Despite his great age, Soulas was already propelling his wheeled hut towards the fold.
"What's the matter with Jean?" he presently asked. "One would say he was burying God Almighty!"
Jean only shook his head sadly. He had been very gloomy ever since he believed that he had lost Françoise.
"Ah! there's some woman in the matter, I expect," continued the old man. "The confounded hussies, they ought all to have their necks wrung!"
Thereupon the giant-limbed Tron began to laugh with an innocent air.
"Ah!" he said, "it's only those who are past everything that say that."
"Do you mean to say that I am past everything?" exclaimed the shepherd, contemptuously. "When did you find that out? But there's one wench, my lad, whom it's best for you not to touch, or you may be sure that matters will have a bad ending."
This allusion to Tron's connection with Madame Jacqueline made the farm-hand blush up to his ears. Soulas had caught them together one morning in the barn behind some sacks of oats; and in his detestation of the ex-scullerymaid, who was now so stern and harsh towards her old pals, he had, after much deliberation, determined to open his master's eyes as to her conduct. However, at his first word, the farmer had looked at him with so angry an expression that he had said no more, resolving to remain silent, unless La Cognette forced him to extreme measures by bringing about his dismissal. The consequence was that they were now living together in a state of hostility: Soulas dreading that he might be turned away like a broken-down old beast of burden, and Jacqueline biding her time till her influence became sufficiently consolidated to induce Hourdequin, who was attached to his shepherd, to dismiss him. Throughout La Beauce nobody understood the art of sheep-grazing better than Soulas did. His flocks were well-fed and there was neither loss nor waste, the fields being clean shaved from one end to the other, without a blade of grass being left behind.
The old man, possessed by the propensity for talking which often leads those who live solitary lives to take any opportunity of unbosoming themselves, now continued:
"Ah, if my jade of a wife, before she managed to kill herself, hadn't put all my brass down her throat as fast as I earned it, I'd have taken myself off the farm of my own accord before now, so as to get away from the sight of so much beastliness. That Cognette has made a lot more money by her face than with her hands, and it's her looks, not her deserts, that have gained her her present position! Just to think of the master letting her lie in his dead wife's bed, and being so infatuated with her that he has ended by taking his meals alone with her, just as though she were his lawful wife! She'll turn us all out of the place, neck and crop, at the first opportunity, and the master himself into the bargain. A filthy sow who has wallowed with every dirty hog!"
At every sentence spoken by the old man, Tron clenched his fists more tightly. He was brimming over with suppressed rage, which was rendered the more terrible by his giant-like strength.
"There that will do!" he cried; "you'd better just shut up. If you hadn't got into your dotage, I'd have knocked you down before now. There's more decency in her little finger than there is in the whole of your old carcass."
Soulas, however, only shrugged his shoulders jeeringly at the other's threat; and, though he scarcely ever laughed, he now broke out into a sharp grating giggle, which seemed to come from some mechanism rusted by disuse.
"You great simpleton, you! You're as foolish and gullible as she's cunning! Oh, yes, she'll swear hard enough to her virginity! Why, I tell you that all the country-side has had to deal with her! She was scarcely fourteen when she and old Mathias, a hunch-back who's dead now, came together in the stable; then later on, as she was kneading the dough, she had to do with that little scamp Guillaume, the swine-herd, who's in the army now, and who found her alone in the kitchen; and she's been with every farm-labourer that's ever come into the neighbourhood, in every sort of place imaginable, in every hole and corner, as is very well known all over the place. Oh! you haven't far to seek, if you want to tax her with it. I myself saw a fellow belonging to these parts with her in the hay-loft one morning not long ago."
He broke out into a fresh giggle, and the side-long glance which he cast at Jean seemed to make the latter very uneasy. He had been fidgeting about in silence ever since the conversation had turned upon Jacqueline.
"It'll be bad for any one whom I find touching her now," growled Tron, as angry as a dog who has had its bone snatched from it. "I'll spoil his appetite for him!"
Soulas gazed at the fellow for a moment, surprised by this show of brutish jealousy.
"Well, that's your own affair, my lad," he drily said in conclusion, and then he relapsed into one of his fits of contemplative silence.
Tron finally returned to the cart which he was driving to the mill, while Jean remained for a few minutes longer with the shepherd to help him to hammer down some of the hurdle stakes. The old man, noticing his silence and gloomy appearance, began to question him.
"I trust it isn't La Cognette that's upsetting your heart?" he said.
The young fellow shook his head energetically in sign of denial.
"Is it some other wench, then? Who is it, for I don't remember having seen you with any one?"
Jean glanced at old Soulas, and bethought himself that the counsel of old men was often valuable in matters of this sort. He also felt a longing to unbosom himself, and so he told him the whole story, how he had possessed Françoise, and how he was hopeless of ever seeing her again since the fight with Buteau. He had even been afraid for a time, he said, that the latter would prosecute him on account of his broken arm, which still prevented his doing any work, though it was now half-way well again. Buteau, however, had probably thought it more prudent to keep the law from spying into his concerns.
"You have had to do with Françoise, then?" said the old shepherd.
The old man reflected with a grave look, and finally continued:
"You had better tell old Fouan all about it; perhaps he will give her to you."
Jean heard this with astonishment. He had never thought of such a simple plan. The fold was now complete, and he went away, saying that he would go and see old Fouan that very evening. As he plodded along behind his empty cart, Soulas resumed his everlasting watch, his thin, erect figure standing out like a greyish bar against the flat expanse of the plain. The little swine-herd was lying down between the two dogs in the shadow of the movable hut. The wind had suddenly dropped, and the storm clouds had rolled away towards the east. It was as hot as ever, and the sun was blazing in a sky of unflecked blue.
That evening Jean left his work an hour earlier than usual, and went to the Delhommes' to see old Fouan before dinner. As he was going down the hill-side, he caught sight of the Delhommes amongst their vines, where they were stripping off the leaves, so as to expose the fruit to the sun. There had been some heavy rains during the closing quarter of the moon, and the grapes were ripening badly, so that it was necessary to take every advantage of the late sunshine. As the old man was not there with his children, Jean quickened his steps, in the hope of being able to speak to him alone—a course which he much preferred. The Delhommes' house was at the other end of Rognes, across the bridge; it was a little farm, which had recently received various additions in the shape of barns and out-houses, and the buildings now formed three irregular blocks, enclosing a fairly large yard. The latter was swept every morning, and even the dunghills were kept in a state of the greatest neatness.
"Good day, Father Fouan!" Jean shouted to the old man from the road, in a somewhat tremulous voice.
Fouan was sitting in the yard with his stick between his legs. His head was bent down, and he was so absorbed in his thoughts that he did not hear Jean's greeting. A second shout, however, made him raise his eyes, and presently he recognised who was addressing him.
"Ah, is it you, Corporal?" said he. "Are you coming to see us?"
His greeting was so pleasant and so destitute of spite that the young man went into the yard. He did not, however, dare to speak immediately on the subject which had brought him there. His courage failed him at the thought of openly confessing his intercourse with Françoise. They talked together of the fine weather, and the good it would do the grapes. If they only had another week of sunshine the wine would be excellent.
"What a happy man you must be!" said Jean, wishing to make himself agreeable. "There isn't such another fortunate fellow in the whole country-side."
"And such children, too, as you've got! You'd have a long way to go before you found better!"
"Yes, yes, indeed; but every one has his troubles, you know."
The old man seemed to have grown gloomy. Since he had taken up his abode with the Delhommes, Buteau had no longer paid him his share of the allowance, saying that he did not want his sister to profit by his money. Hyacinthe had never given him a copper from the outset, and Delhomme, now that he boarded and lodged with him, had discontinued all payments. It was not, however, the want of pocket-money that troubled the old man, for he received from Monsieur Baillehache a hundred and fifty francs a year, just twelve francs and a-half per month, the interest on the sum realised by the sale of his house. With this he was quite able to pay for all his little luxuries, his daily allowance of tobacco, his drop of brandy at Lengaigne's, and his cup of coffee at the Macquerons'. Fanny, who was a very careful house-wife, never took any coffee or brandy out of her cupboard unless some one were ill. However, despite the fact that he had the means of taking his pleasure away from home, and wanted for nothing in his daughter's house, the old man felt aggrieved and seemed to live in a constant state of discontent.
"Ah, yes, indeed," said Jean, unwittingly putting his finger on Fouan's sore place, "when one lives with other folks, it isn't quite the same as being in one's own house."
"You're quite right there. Quite right!" replied the old man in a grumpy voice.
Then he rose from his seat, as though he felt a yearning impulse to assert his independence.
"Let us go and have a glass together," he said. "I dare say that I may offer that much to a friend!"
As he was entering the house, however, his courage began to ebb.
"Wipe your feet, Corporal," he said, "for they prate so much, you know, about their cleanliness and tidiness."
Jean went inside with an awkward gait, intending to make a clean breast of what he had to say before the others came back. He was surprised by the trim order of the kitchen. The pans were gleaming brightly, and there was not a speck of dust on the furniture, while the flooring was quite worn with the amount of scrubbing it had received. Some cabbage-soup of the day before stood warming by the side of a cinder-piled fire.
"Here's your good health!" said the old man, who had taken a couple of glasses and a partially emptied bottle from the side-board.
His hand trembled slightly as he drained his glass, as if he felt an uneasy alarm about what he was doing. As he put the glass down with the air of a man who has risked everything, he abruptly exclaimed:
"Would you believe, now, that Fanny has never once spoken to me since the day before yesterday, just because I spat? Spat, indeed, just as though every one didn't spit! I spit, of course, when I feel so inclined! One had better have done with it altogether than be worried in this way!"
Then filling his glass a second time, and delighted at having found some one to whom he could pour out his complaints, he eased his mind, never giving Jean an opportunity to get in a word. His troubles, however, did not appear to be very grievous ones, and were born chiefly of the angry indignation of an old man, to whose feelings and faults but little toleration was accorded, and upon whom his children were trying to force a mode of life different from what he had been accustomed to. However, he was as much affected by his grievances, slight though they were, as he could have been by actual cruelty and harsh treatment. A remark repeated in too loud a tone was as hard for him to bear as a blow would have been; and his daughter made matters still worse by her excessive touchiness, which seemed to find an offence and insulting intention in every little sentence which she could twist into an equivocal meaning. The result of all this was that the relations between father and daughter were becoming more and more strained and embittered every day. She who formerly, prior to the division of the property, had certainly been the kindlier hearted of the children, was now degenerating into a cross-grained shrew, subjecting the old man to perfect persecution, constantly following him about with her broom and duster, and finding fault with him both for what he did and for what he omitted to do. Without being subjected to actual cruelty, Fouan was kept in moral torture, over which he silently moaned in any quiet corner he could find.
"You must try to take it easily," repeated Jean, at each of the old man's complaints. "An understanding can always be arrived at with a little patience."
Fouan, however, who had just lighted a candle, now became angrily excited.
"No, no, I've had quite enough of it!" he cried. "Ah, if I'd only known what was in store for me here! It would have been better for me if I had died when I sold my house! But they are very much mistaken if they think they're going to keep me here! I'd rather go and break stones on the road."
He was almost choking with emotion, and he was obliged to sit down. Jean profited by the opportunity to speak out:
"I say, I wanted to see you," he began, "about what took place the other day. I have regretted it very much, but I was obliged to defend myself—wasn't I?—since an attack was made upon me. All the same, it was agreed between me and Françoise. But at present you are the only person who can put things straight. If you would go to Buteau's, you could explain matters to them."
The old man became very grave. He wagged his chin, and seemed embarrassed as to what he should say; however, the return of Fanny and her husband spared him the necessity of replying. The Delhommes showed no surprise at finding Jean in their house; they gave him their customary cordial welcome. Fanny, however, had immediately caught sight of the bottle and the two glasses on the table. She removed them, and went to get a duster. Then she spoke to her father for the first time for forty-eight hours. "Father," she said, "you know that I won't have that kind of thing."
Fouan rose up, trembling with indignation at this public rebuke.
"At me again! Am I not even at liberty to offer a glass of wine to a friend? Go and lock your precious wine up! I'll drink water for the future!"
Fanny was now dreadfully put out by being thus charged with avarice.
"You can drink the house dry and burst yourself, if it gives you any pleasure to do so," she exclaimed, quite pale with anger; "but I won't have my table marked with your sticky glasses, just as though the place were a tavern."
The tears sprang to the old man's eyes.
"A little less anxiety about appearances, and a little more affection, would become you better, my daughter," he said.
Then, while Fanny was vigorously wiping the table, he went and stood in front of the window, and painfully overcome by his bitter thoughts, looked out into the dark night, which had now fallen.
Delhomme had avoided openly taking any part in the incident, but he had, by his silence, supported his wife's firm attitude. He would not allow Jean to go away before he had finished the bottle of wine with him, pouring the remaining contents into some glasses which Fanny brought to them on plates. She now began, in low tones, to defend her conduct.
"You've no idea of the trouble that old folks are. They're full of all sorts of whims and bad habits, and would rather die than be corrected. There's nothing really bad about my father; he's not strong enough for anything of that kind now; but I'd rather have to look after four cows than one old man."
Jean and Delhomme nodded their heads in acquiescence. However, Fanny's further remarks were interrupted by the sudden entrance of Nénesse, dressed in town-fashion in a fancy-patterned coat and trousers, bought ready-made at Lambourdieu's, and with a little hard-felt hat on his head. His long hairless neck, his blue eyes, and his pretty soft face, gave him a rather girlish look, as he stood there swaying from side to side. He had always had a horror of the soil, and he was leaving the next morning for Chartres, where he was going to take service in a restaurant where public balls were given. His parents had for a long time offered a strenuous opposition to his desertion of agriculture, but at last the mother on being coaxed had persuaded the father to consent. Since the morning Nénesse had been larking with his friends in the village, by way of bidding them good-bye.
He seemed surprised for a moment at finding a stranger in the room; but throwing off his hesitation, he exclaimed:
"I say, mother, I'm going to stand them a dinner at Macqueron's. I shall want some money."
Fanny looked at him keenly, and opened her lips to refuse his request. But she was so vain that Jean's presence checked her words. Their son might surely spend a score of francs without ruining them! And thereupon she left the room, stiffly and silently.
"Have you got any one with you?" Nénesse's father asked.
He had caught sight of a shadow by the door; and on taking a step forward, he recognised the young man who had remained outside.
"Oh! it's Delphin. Come in, my lad."
Delphin ventured into the room, excusing himself as he made his greetings. He was wearing a blue blouse and heavy field-boots. He had no tie round his neck, and his face was brown from exposure to the hot sun.
"Well," continued Delhomme, who had a high opinion of the lad, "will you be setting off for Chartres one of these days?"
Delphin opened his eyes widely, and then energetically exclaimed:
"Oh! Curse it all! No, I should be suffocated in the place."
The father cast a side-long glance at his son, and then Delphin, coming to the rescue of his friend, continued:
"It's all very well for Nénesse to go there, as he looks so well when he's dressed up, and can play the cornet."
Delhomme smiled, for he was very proud of his son's skill with the cornet. Fanny now returned with a handful of two-franc pieces. She slowly counted out ten of them into Nénesse's palm. All the coins were quite white from having been kept beneath a heap of corn. She never trusted her money to her wardrobe, but hid it away in small sums in odd corners all over the house, underneath the corn, or the coals, or the sand; the consequence being that when she paid the coins away they were sometimes one colour, and sometimes another, white, black, or yellow.
"It will do, all the same," said Nénesse, by way of thanks. "Now, Delphin, are you coming?"
Then the two young fellows went off together, and their merry laughter could be heard dying away in the distance.
Jean now emptied his glass, seeing that old Fouan, who had kept aloof during the whole of the last scene, had left the window to go out into the yard. Then he said good-bye to the Delhommes, and went out in his turn, finding the old man standing alone in the black night.
"Now, Fouan," said Jean, "will you go to Buteau's and arrange about my having Françoise? You are the master, and you have only got to say the word."
"I cannot, I cannot," replied the old man in the darkness, with a jerky voice.
Then he broke out excitedly, and unbosomed himself of his brooding wrath. He had done with the Delhommes, he declared, and in the morning he would go to live with Buteau, who had offered to give him a home. Even if his son beat him, he would prefer that to being gradually tortured to death by his daughter's pin-thrusts.
This new obstacle exasperated Jean, and he spoke out bluntly:
"I must tell you, Monsieur Fouan, that Françoise and I have been together."
The old peasant uttered a simple exclamation: "Ah!" Then, after a moment's reflection, he added: "We had better wait. By-and-bye we'll see what can be done."
Fanny now appeared at the door, and called to her father to come in, as the soup was ready.
"Stick your soup behind!" shouted the old man, turning round to her. "I'm going to bed."
And, indeed, he went upstairs to bed, with an empty stomach, and boiling over with anger.
Jean walked slowly away from the farm, so absorbed in his vexation that he found himself in the level plain again without being conscious of the road he was taking. The blue-black sky gleamed with stars, and the night was close and hot. The immobility of the atmosphere told of the approach of a storm now passing afar, and the reflection of lightning could be seen towards the east. As Jean raised his head he caught sight on his left hand of hundreds of phosphorescent eyes gleaming like candles, and turning towards him at the sound of his steps. It was the sheep in the pen, alongside of which he was now passing. Then he heard Soulas ask in his drawling voice: "Well, my lad?"
The dogs, who were lying on the ground, had not stirred, for they had scented that Jean belonged to the farm. The little swine-herd, driven from the wheeled hut by the excessive heat, was sleeping in a furrow; the shepherd standing quite alone on the cropped plain, which was now enveloped in night.
"Well, my lad, have you settled it?"
"He says," replied Jean, without even stopping, "that if she's in the family-way he'll see."
He had already stridden past the pen, when old Soulas's response reached him, sounding solemnly in the deep silence.
"That's true. You must wait."
Jean continued on his way. La Beauce lay stretched around him, buried in a leaden sleep; and there was an overwhelming sense of the silent desolation of the scorched stubble and the baked, parched soil in the burnt smell that floated in the air, and in the chirrup of the crickets which sounded like the cracking of embers among ashes. Nothing but the dim forms of the ricks rose above the melancholy nakedness of the plain; but every twenty seconds or so, low on the horizon, the lightning flashed in violet streaks of mournful aspect, which swiftly disappeared.