The next morning Fouan took up his abode with the Buteaus. The removal of his belongings did not give him any trouble, as they merely consisted of a couple of bundles of clothes, which he carried himself in two journeys. It was in vain that the Delhommes tried to bring about an explanation; he went off without replying to them.
At Buteau's house he was given the big room on the ground-floor—behind the kitchen—which had hitherto merely been used for the storage of potatoes and beet-root for the cows. This room, unfortunately, was only lighted by a small window, some six or seven feet from the ground, and it was always as dim as a cellar. Then, too, the floor of hardened soil, the heaps of vegetables, and the rubbish that had been tossed into the corners gave rise to a copious moisture, which trickled down the bare plaster of the walls. The Buteaus, besides, left everything just as it was, and merely cleared out a corner for an iron bed, a chair, and a deal table. The old man, however, seemed quite delighted.
Buteau now felt very triumphant. Ever since Fouan had been living with the Delhommes he had been mad with jealousy, for he knew very well what would be said in Rognes. It would be reported from mouth to mouth that it made no difference to the Delhommes having to keep their father; but the Buteaus, poor folks, had barely sufficient for themselves. So now, during the earlier time of Fouan's stay with him, he plied him with food in the hope of fattening him, and thus proving to the neighbourhood that there was no scarcity in his house. Then, too, there were the hundred and fifty francs a year, the proceeds of the sale of the house, which he felt sure the old man would leave to the one who looked after him and took care of him. Moreover, he reflected, now that Delhomme had no longer to support his father, he would doubtless begin to pay his share of the allowance again, two hundred francs a year, and in this expectation he was not disappointed. Buteau had reckoned upon getting these two hundred francs, he had calculated everything, and he flattered himself that he would get the credit of being a good and dutiful son without it costing him anything, besides having the prospect of reaping a substantial reward later on; to say nothing of the secret hoard which, so he still suspected, the old man must possess, though he had never been able to make certain on the point.
For Fouan the change was a perfect honeymoon. He was feasted and shown to the neighbours. Didn't he look plump and well? the Buteaus asked. There were no signs of wasting or decline about him, were there? The little ones, Laure and Jules, were always playing with him, keeping him amused and delighted. But what, perhaps, pleased him most was the liberty to indulge himself in his elderly whims and ways, and to comport himself as he liked in the greater freedom of this household. Though Lise was a good and cleanly house-wife, she lacked Fanny's precise tendencies and susceptibilities, and the old man was allowed to spit wherever he liked, to go out and come in as the fancy seized him, and to eat every minute if he chose, prompted by that spirit of the peasant who cannot pass a loaf without cutting a thick slice off it. Three months passed away in this pleasant fashion. It was now December; and although the severe frosts froze the water in the old man's jug at the foot of his bed, still he made no complaints. When it thawed, the moisture soaked through the walls of his room, and ran down them in dripping streams; but he seemed to take all this as a matter of course; he had been brought up in the midst of similar discomforts. So long as he had his tobacco and coffee, and was not badgered and worried, he declared he needed nothing more.
Matters began to cloud over, however. One fine, sunny morning, Fouan, on going back to his bedroom to get his pipe—the others imagined that he had already left the house—found Buteau there struggling to get the better of Françoise. The girl, who was strenuously resisting him, without, however, saying a word, pulled herself together and left the room, after taking the beet-root which she had come to get for the cows. The old man, on being left face to face with his son, became angry.
"You filthy swine, to be going after that girl, with your wife only a yard or two away!" he cried. "And it wasn't she who wanted you either; I could see her wrestling with you!"
Buteau, however, who was still panting and flushed, received the old man's remonstrances very badly.
"Why do you come poking your nose into everything?" he retorted. "You'd better shut your eyes and hold your jaw, or you'll find it the worse for you."
Since Lise's confinement, and the fight with Jean, Buteau had been hotly pursuing Françoise again. He had waited till his arm was strong, and now all over the house he systematically made onslaughts on the girl, feeling sure that if he could but once overcome her she would belong to him in future as much as he wished. Was not this the best way of preventing the marriage, and of keeping both the girl and her land? His passion for the two became intermingled, as it were; his resolute determination to retain the land, and not to part with what was in his possession, being blended with his unsated sexual lust, now exasperated by resistance. His wife was becoming enormously stout, a perfect heap of flesh, and she was still suckling, with Laure constantly hanging at her breasts; whereas the other one, the little sister-in-law, exhaled a most appetising odour; her bosom, moreover, being firm and elastic like the udder of a young heifer. He didn't turn up his nose at either of them, by the way; in fact, he wanted to have them both, the one soft and flabby, and the other firmly built; both of them were attractive in their different styles. He considered himself quite a good enough cock to have two hens, and he dreamt of leading a pasha-like life, petted, caressed, and glutted with enjoyment. Why shouldn't he marry both sisters, if he could get them to consent to his doing so? It seemed to him to be the best way of keeping things pleasant, and of avoiding a division of the property, which he dreaded as much as though he were threatened with having one of his limbs wrenched off.
Now, whenever he and Françoise found themselves alone for a moment, whether in the stable or the kitchen or anywhere else, it mattered not where, there was a sudden attack and defence; Buteau rushing upon the girl, and the girl striking him. It was always the same short, sharp struggle; the man seizing Françoise firmly round the waist, and the girl, with clenched teeth and savage eyes, forcing him to let go his hold by striking him with full force with her clenched fist. Not a word was spoken by either; there was no sound but that of their hot breath, a sort of stifled panting, the deadened stir of a struggle. Then Buteau would with difficulty restrain a cry of pain, while the girl straightened her clothes and limped away, feeling bruised and sore. These scenes took place when Lise was in the next room, and sometimes even when she was in the same room, with her back turned to them while she arranged some linen in the wardrobe. It was as though the wife's presence excited the husband; he being at the same time certain of the girl's proud and resolute silence.
Quarrels, however, had broken out since old Fouan had seen them among the potatoes. He had bluntly told Lise everything that he had seen, so that she might prevent her husband from making any further attempt upon his sister-in-law. Then Lise, after shouting to her father to mind his own business, angrily attacked her younger sister. She had only herself to blame, she cried, for enticing the men on, and what had happened to her was only what was to be expected; all the men were swine. In the evening, however, Lise made such a scene with Buteau that she came out of her room the next morning with her eye bunged up and blackened by a heavy blow which he had dealt her with his fist during the discussion. After that there was constant quarrelling going on. There were always two of the inmates of the house trying to bite each other's heads off, the husband and wife, or the husband and his sister-in-law, or else the two sisters, even if they were not all three engaged in devouring one another.
Then it was that the slowly and unconsciously-developed hatred between Lise and Françoise became truly bitter. Their whilom tender affection for each other gave place to a savage feeling, which kept them irritated with one another from morning till night. The real and only cause of it all was this man, Buteau, who was like some poisonous leaven. Françoise, quite upset by his perpetual onslaughts, would have succumbed long previously if her will had not shielded her against desire each time he touched her. Her obstinate notions of abstract justice, her resolute determination neither to give up what was her own nor to take what was another's, brought her no little trouble. She was angry with herself for feeling jealous and execrating her sister for possessing this man, rather than have shared whom she herself would have died. When he pursued her, she angrily retaliated by spitting upon him, and sent him back, befouled with her saliva, to his wife. To do this seemed in some way to soothe her struggling desires: it was as though she had spat in her sister's face in her envious contempt, for the pleasure in which she had no share. Lise, on the other hand, was free from jealousy, feeling quite certain that Buteau had merely bragged in asserting that he enjoyed both of them—not that she believed him incapable of such a thing, but she was convinced that her sister was too proud to yield. The only grudge she felt against Françoise was that, owing to her persistent rejection of Buteau's advances, the whole house was becoming a hell upon earth. The fatter she grew, the more complacent she seemed to become, taking a lively delight in existence, and egotistically craving for pleasant, easy surroundings. It seemed to her the height of folly that her husband and sister should go on quarrelling like that, marring the sweetness of life, when they really had everything that was necessary for their happiness. The girl's perverse disposition was the sole cause of all the trouble.
Every night when she went to bed she exclaimed to Buteau:
"It's all my sister! But if she causes me any more annoyance, I'll have her turned out of the house!"
This course, however, would by no means have suited Buteau.
"A fine notion, indeed! Why, we should have all the country-side crying shame on us! What a plague you women are! I shall have to duck you both in the pond till you can live together in harmony."
Two months more passed away, and Lise, who was so upset, might have sugared her coffee twice, as she said, without finding it to her palate. She divined whenever her sister had repelled some fresh onslaught of her husband's, for she then had a further experience of his angry ill-temper, and she now lived in constant dread of these repeated repulses, feeling anxious whenever she caught sight of him creeping up slily behind Françoise's skirts, and making sure that when he came back again he would be in a violent temper, breaking everything that came in his way, and making the whole house wretched. These were hateful days to her, and she could not forgive the obstinate wench for not restoring tranquillity.
One day matters reached a terrible pitch. Buteau, who had gone down into the cellar with Françoise to draw some cider, came up again so harshly repulsed, and in a state of such raging anger, that for the merest trifle, just because his soup was too hot, he hurled his plate against the wall, and then rushed out of the room, after knocking Lise down with a blow that would almost have killed an ox.
Crying and bleeding, she struggled on to her feet again, with her cheek sadly swollen, and at once fell foul of her sister.
"You dirty drab!" she cried, "go to bed with him, and have done with it! I'm sick to death of it all; and if you persist in being obstinate, simply to make him beat me, I'll run away!"
Françoise listened to her, quite pale and horrified.
"As true as God hears me, I'd rather do that," continued Lise. "Perhaps he'd leave us in peace then!"
She fell down on a chair, and began to sob spasmodically. Her fat body, which had now begun to shrink, bespoke her recklessness, her one desire for quiet happiness, even at the cost of sharing her husband with another. She would still keep a share of him herself, and would have all that was necessary. People, she thought, had foolish ideas on these matters. A husband was not like a loaf, that was consumed at each bit one ate. Ought they not to agree amongst themselves, and live together in a friendly fashion?
"Come, now, why won't you?" she asked.
Choked with disgust, Françoise could only cry, angrily:
"You are more disgusting than he is!"
Then she, too, went away to sob in the cow-house, where La Coliche gazed at her with her big, sad eyes. What roused her indignation was not so much the thing itself as the complaisant part she herself was to play—to surrender herself just for the sake of securing peace and quietness in the house. If Buteau had been her own husband, she thought she would never have consented to give up the least bit of him. Her bitter feeling against her sister turned into one of scorn and contempt, and she vowed to herself that she would be flayed alive rather than give way.
Her life now became still more embittered than before. She became the general drudge of the house, the beast of burden that came in for everybody's kicks and buffetings. She was reduced to the level of a hired servant overburdened with work, and continually rated, and thumped, and ill-treated. Lise would not permit her a single hour's leisure; but made her rise before daylight, and kept her up so late at night that the poor girl often fell asleep without having enough strength left her to undress herself. Buteau took a malicious pleasure in torturing her by his familiarities, slapping her on the loins, pinching her thighs, and falling upon her with all sorts of savage caresses, which left her bleeding, and with her eyes full of tears, but as obstinately silent as ever. Buteau himself laughed, and derived some little satisfaction whenever he saw the girl growing faint, and with difficulty refraining from crying out from sheer pain. Her body was sadly discoloured and disfigured with bruises and scratches. In her sister's presence she especially forced herself to repress every sign of suffering, and to comport herself as though a man's hands were not actually fingering her flesh. Sometimes, however, she could not altogether control herself, but replied to Buteau's attacks by a swinging blow. Then there would be a general engagement. Buteau would belabour Françoise; while Lise, under the pretence of separating them, would assail them both with vigorous kicks from her heavy boots. Little Laure and her big brother Jules yelled at the top of their voices, and all the dogs about the premises began to bark, arousing the pity of the neighbours for Françoise. "Ah, poor girl!" they used to say; "she must have rare pluck to remain in such a place!"
Her remaining with the Buteaus was, indeed, the standing wonder of all Rognes. Why didn't she run away? the neighbours asked of each other. The knowing ones shook their heads; the girl was not of age, she still had another eighteen months to wait. To run away would be to her own disadvantage, for she could not take her property with her, and she showed her sense by remaining. Ah! if Fouan, her guardian, had only supported her cause? But he himself hadn't too easy a life with his son-in-law; he had his own peace and quietness to look after, and, for the sake of his own comforts, was obliged to stand aloof. The girl, moreover, with her independence and self-reliance, had forbidden him to interfere in her affairs.
Every outbreak now ended in the same way.
"Off you go at once! Clear out with you!"
"Oh, yes, that's just what you'd like! Once I was foolish, and wanted to go away; whereas now you may kill me if you choose, but you won't get me to go. I shall stop here, and wait for what belongs to me. I want the land and the house, and I mean to have them, too; every inch and every stone!"
For the first few months Buteau's great fear had been that Françoise might prove to be with child. He had counted the days since he had caught her and Jean together among the corn, and he kept casting anxious, side-long glances at the girl, for the arrival of a baby would have spoilt everything by necessitating his sister-in-law's marriage. The girl herself was quite easy about the matter; but when she noticed the manifest interest that Buteau showed in her figure, she took a pleasure in puffing herself out, in order to deceive him. And whenever he seized hold of her, she always imagined that he was measuring her with his big fingers, the consequence of which was that she ended by saying to him, with a defiant air:
"Ah, there's one coming, and growing fast enough!"
One day she even folded up some towels and wrapped them round her. But in the evening there was almost a massacre. A feeling of terror now seized her at the murderous glances which her brother-in-law cast at her; she felt quite sure that if she had really been with child the brutal fellow would have struck her some foul blow in the hope of killing her. So she discontinued her acting.
"Go and get yourself a baby!" said Buteau one day to her, with a leer.
"If I haven't got one, it's because I don't choose," she replied, angrily, turning pale.
This was quite true. She obstinately rejected Jean's advances. Buteau, however, was none the less noisily triumphant, and he now began to abuse the girl's lover. A fine sort of a man he must be! he cried. Why, he must be rotten! He might be able to break people's arms by cowardly tricks, but he hadn't backbone enough about him to put a girl in the family-way! After that he began to overwhelm Françoise with sarcastic allusions to Jean, and indulged in filthy jokes about her own person.
When Jean heard of Buteau's remarks about himself he threatened to go and break his jaw. He was constantly haunting Françoise, and beseeching her to yield again. He'd soon let them see, he said, if he couldn't get a child, and a big one, too! His lustful desire was now heightened by anger. But the girl was always ready with some fresh reason for putting him off. She had no great dislike for him, it is true, she simply had no desire for him, that was all; and, indeed, she must have been completely free from all desire whatever not to have given way and surrendered herself when she fell into his arms behind a hedge, still flushed and angered by one of Buteau's onslaughts. Oh, the filthy swine! She always spoke of him as a filthy swine, boiling over with passion and excitement; but growing suddenly cold and calm again when Jean tried to profit by the opportunity. "No, no!" she cried. She felt ashamed at the thought of it. One day, when he pressed her very closely, she told him that he must wait a little longer, till the evening of their wedding-day. This was the first time that she had said anything that could be interpreted into an engagement, for she had hitherto always avoided giving Jean a definite answer when he asked her to be his wife. After that it was taken for granted that he should marry her, but not until she was of age, and became entitled to her property, in a position to demand the rendering of accounts. This, Jean now felt, was the most prudent course: he advised the girl to be as patient as she could in the meantime, and he ceased to worry her with his importunities, except at times when the idea of a spree was strong within him. Françoise, feeling easy and tranquil at the thought of a promise which was not to be redeemed for a long time, contented herself by grasping his hands so as to make him desist, and gazing at him with her pretty, beseeching eyes, the look of which seemed to say that she did not wish to risk having a child unless its father was her husband.
Though Buteau had now satisfied himself that she was not in the family-way, he was seized with a fresh fear that she might become so if she saw anything more of Jean. He was still greatly bothered about the latter, for folks told him on all sides that Jean had vowed he would get Françoise with child. So Buteau now exercised unremitting surveillance over his sister-in-law from morning till night, forcing her to work every single minute of the day, keeping her near-by under threat of a hiding, just as though she had been some beast of burden which could not be trusted to itself for a moment. This was a great torture for the girl. Either her brother-in-law or her sister was continually behind her, and she could not so much as go to the yard without being followed by a spying eye. At night they locked her up in her bedroom; one evening, after a quarrel, she even found the shutter of her little window secured by a padlock. In spite of all their strict surveillance, however, she managed now and then to make her escape, and upon her return there were very violent scenes, the girl having to submit to the most disgusting questions, and sometimes even to examinations of her person, Buteau seizing hold of her by the shoulders while his wife partially undressed her and scrutinized her. All this brought her upon easier terms with Jean, and she made several appointments with him, taking a pleasure in thwarting her tormentors. She might even have yielded to her lover, if she had known that Buteau and Lise were hiding behind them watching. At all events, she again repeated her promise, that come what might, she would certainly be his in time; and she swore to him in the most solemn way that Buteau had lied when he boasted that he slept with both the sisters. He had said that, she continued, from mere braggartism, and in the hope of bringing about a state of affairs which did not exist. Jean, who had previously been much tormented on this score, was quite satisfied with Françoise's explanation, and felt much easier in mind. As they parted they kissed each other affectionately; and from this time forward the girl took the young man for her confidant and adviser, trying to see him as often as possible, and doing nothing without his sanction and approbation; while he, on his side, now made no further attempts upon her, but treated her like a comrade whose interests were identical with his own.
Every time now that she ran to meet him behind a wall, the conversation was of a similar kind. The girl excitedly tore open her bodice or pulled up her sleeves.
"See!" she exclaimed; "just look where that swine has been pinching me again!"
Then Jean would look at her flesh, remaining quite calm and unimpassioned.
"He shall be made to pay for it! You must show it to the women about here. But don't try to do anything to avenge yourself just at present. By-and-bye we will have justice, when we have got the power on our side."
"And that sister of mine," continued Françoise, "stands by and watches him. Only yesterday, when he sprang upon me, instead of throwing a pail of cold water over him, she never stirred."
"Your sister will have a bad time of it yet with this scoundrel. You needn't be afraid. He can't force you, so long as you refuse to let him have you, and you can get over all the rest. If we keep united, we shall beat him."
Although old Fouan did his best to steer clear of the quarrels, he was always made to suffer from them. If he remained in the house and tried to keep silent he was straightway forced into the row; and if he went out he found himself upon his return in the midst of a scene of confusion, his mere appearance often sufficing to rekindle the flame again. So far, he had never had any real physical suffering, but there now commenced a season of privations, of scantily-doled food, and a suppression of all his little indulgences. The old man was no longer stuffed with grub, as had been the case at first; every time that he cut too thick a slice of bread he was assailed with abuse. What a bottomless pit his belly was! they cried. The less he did, the more he stuffed and swilled! Every quarter, when he went to Cloyes to receive from Monsieur Baillehache the interest on the money realised by the sale of his house, he was strictly watched, and his pockets were emptied on his return. Françoise was reduced to pilfering her sister's coppers to buy him a little tobacco, for she herself was kept equally destitute of pocket-money. The old man also felt very uncomfortable in the damp room where he slept, now that he had broken one of the panes in the window, the aperture having merely been stuffed with straw to save the expense of a new piece of glass. Oh, those beastly children! he moaned; they were all equally barbarous! He growled and grumbled from morning till night, and bitterly regretted having left the Delhommes, sick at heart at now finding himself so much worse off than before. However, he concealed his feelings as far as possible, and it was only his involuntary exclamations that testified to their existence, for he knew that Fanny had asserted that he would return and ask her on his knees to take him back again. That remark made it impossible for him to return; it would sear his heart for ever, like a bar of iron that he could never remove. He would rather die of hunger and indignation with the Buteaus, so he told himself, than return and humble himself before the Delhommes.
One day as Fouan was returning from Cloyes, where he had been to receive his dividends from the notary, he sat down to rest on the slope of a dry ditch. Hyacinthe, who happened to be prowling about the neighbourhood examining the rabbit holes, observed the old man deeply absorbed in counting a number of five-franc pieces in his handkerchief. He immediately stooped down and crawled along in silence till he got close up to his father. As he lay there, concealed from sight, he was much surprised to see Fouan carefully knotting up a considerable sum of money, as much, probably, as eighty francs. Hyacinthe's eyes glistened at the sight, and his wolfish teeth were bared in a quiet smile. The idea of a secret hoard at once returned to his mind. The old man evidently had some secret investments, the dividends of which he received every quarter, taking advantage of his visits to Monsieur Baillehache to do so without any one being the wiser.
Hyacinthe's first impulse was to put on a piteous air and beg for twenty francs. On second thoughts, however, this seemed too paltry a scheme, and, thinking of a better plan, he glided away as noiselessly as he had come, with all the sinuous suppleness of a snake. Thus Fouan, who had now set off again, did not feel the least suspicion when, a hundred yards further on, he met his son, who seemed merely to be on his way back to Rognes. They walked on together and talked. The father fell foul of the Buteaus, who were destitute of all human feeling, and whom he accused of starving him to death. Then the son, with a filial, sympathetic air, his eyes damp with emotion, offered to rescue his father from these wretches by taking him to live in his own house. Why shouldn't he come? he asked. There was no worrying or hardship there; they led a merry life from morning till night. La Trouille cooked for two now, and she could just as easily cook for three. And fine cookery hers was whenever there was any money.
Astonished by his son's offer, and overcome with a feeling of vague uneasiness, Fouan shook his head in token of refusal. No, no, indeed. At his age a man could not flit about in that sort of way from one house to another, changing his mode of life every year.
"Very well, father; but think the matter over. I am quite sincere in my offer. My place will always be open to you. When you have had enough of those filthy scamps, come and live with me."
Hyacinthe then went off, perplexed and wondering, asking himself how his father spent his income, for he unquestionably had one. A heap of money like that coming in four times a year must amount to a nice sum—at least three hundred francs. If he did not spend the cash he must be hoarding it up somewhere. It was clearly a matter to be investigated. It must be a really magnificent hoard by this time!
That day—a mild, damp October day it was—when Fouan returned home, Buteau claimed the thirty-seven francs and a-half which the old man had received, as was usual, every quarter since the sale of his house. It had been agreed that Buteau should receive this money, as well as the two hundred francs paid yearly by the Delhommes, on account of the old man's board and lodging. That day, however, a couple of five-franc pieces had got mixed up with those which the old man had secured in his handkerchief; and when, after turning out his pockets, he only produced twenty-seven francs and a-half, his son burst into a violent fit of rage, treating him as though he were a thief, and accusing him of having frittered away the missing ten francs in drink and disgraceful dissipation. The old father, in a state of great consternation, and keeping his hand upon his handkerchief, full of alarm lest it should be examined, stammered out excuses, and swore that he must have lost the money in pulling out his handkerchief to blow his nose. Again the house was topsy-turvy until night.
What had put Buteau into such a savage temper was, that while bringing his harrow back he had seen Jean and Françoise hurrying away behind a wall. The girl, who had gone out on the pretence of getting some grass for her cows, had not yet returned, for she knew what kind of reception awaited her. The night was already falling, and Buteau, in a furious rage, went out every minute into the yard, and even on to the road, to see if the hussy were coming back. He swore at the top of his voice, and poured out a torrent of filthy language, without observing old Fouan, who was sitting on the stone bench, calming himself after the row, and enjoying the warm softness of the air, which made that sunny October like a spring month.
The sound of clogs was now heard coming up the slope, and Françoise made her appearance, bending double, for her shoulders were laden with an enormous bundle of grass, which she had tied up in an old cloth. She was panting and perspiring, almost hidden beneath her burden.
"So here you are, you filthy hussy!" cried Buteau. "You'll soon find out your mistake if you imagine you can make a fool of me, and go off with your lover for a couple of hours at a stretch, when there's work to be done here!"
Then he knocked her over on to the bundle of grass, which had fallen down, and threw himself upon her, just as Lise came out of the house to rave, in her turn, at the girl.
"Ah, you dirty jade," she cried, "let me get at you and I'll kick you. Have you no shame at all?"
Buteau had already firmly seized hold of the girl by her petticoats. His outbursts of rage always turned into sharp desire. While he attacked her he growled, nearly choking, with his face empurpled and swollen by the rush of blood.
"You damned cat!" he sputtered out, "I'll have my turn now! Heaven's lightning sha'n't prevent me!"
Then there began a furious struggle. Old Fouan could not see very well in the darkness, but he was able to observe that Lise was standing there, looking on, without making any attempt to interfere, while her husband struggled and fought with Françoise, over whom he sprawled. In the end, however, the girl managed to shake him off.
"You swine! You filthy swine!" she cried, in a panting voice, "you haven't succeeded, and you never shall—no, never! never!"
Then she strode up to Lise and addressed her in taunting triumph. Her sister was just silencing her by a heavy blow on the mouth, when old Fouan, having sprung up from his seat, quite disgusted and horrified at what he had seen, rushed forward, brandishing his stick.
"You filthy brutes, both of you!" he cried; "can't you leave the girl alone? There's been more than enough of this!"
Lights were now seen in the neighbouring houses. All these goings-on were beginning to make people feel anxious, so Buteau hurriedly drove his father and Françoise into the kitchen, where the candlelight showed Laure and Jules crouching in a corner, where they had taken refuge in their terror. Lise also had come in, bewildered and silent ever since the old man had issued out of the darkness. Fouan now addressed himself to her again.
"It was too revolting on your part," he said. "I saw you looking on!"
Buteau now brought down his fist on the table with all his strength.
"Silence!" he cried; "the matter's done with. I'll smash the next one who says another word about it!"
"And if I choose to speak," demanded Fouan, in a quavering voice, "will you smash me?"
"You as soon as another. I'm quite sick of you!"
Françoise bravely came forward between the two men.
"I beg of you not to interfere, uncle. You have seen that I am able to take care of myself."
The old man, however, pushed her aside.
"Leave me alone. At present you are not concerned. It is my business now. Ah, you would smash me, would you, villain?" he cried, raising his stick. "You had better take care that I don't chastise you!"
But Buteau quickly snatched the old man's stick from him, and tossed it under the dresser. Then, with a wicked look in his leering eyes, he planted himself straight in front of Fouan, and spoke to him cheek-by-jowl.
"Will you just leave me alone, eh? Do you think I mean to tolerate your airs? No, no. Just look at me if you want to know who I am."
Both the men stood silently confronting each other for a moment or two, glaring fiercely, as though they hoped to cow each other by their glance. The son, since the division of the property, had grown stouter and stood more solidly on his legs, and his jaws seemed to project further from his bull-dog-shaped skull, with its narrow, retreating brow; while the father, worn out by his sixty years of toil, had shrunk still further, his stoop increasing slightly day by day. His loins seemed broken, and his body bent forward towards the ground. His huge nose was the only feature which retained its pristine shape and proportions.
"Who you are?" retorted Fouan. "I know it only too well. I begot you."
"Ah, you shouldn't have done so!" he replied. "Everybody his turn. There's your blood in me, you know, and I hate to be interfered with. So once more I tell you, leave me alone, or it will be worse for you!"
"For yourself, you mean. I never spoke to my father in such a way."
"Oh, come now, that's a stiff 'un! Why, you would have killed your father if he hadn't died before you had time!"
"You lie, you filthy swine! And, by the Lord God, you shall unsay that this very minute!"
Françoise, for the second time, now tried to interpose; and Lise herself, terrified by this fresh outbreak, made a similar effort. But the two men thrust the women aside, and confronted each other, breathing violently in each other's faces, as they stood there, father against son, boiling over with that spirit of overweening despotism which the one had bequeathed to the other.
Fouan wanted to exalt himself by attempting to regain his old absolute supremacy as head of the family. For half a century, in the days when he still retained his property and authority, his wife, his children, and his cattle had trembled at his word.
"Say that you have lied, you filthy swine; say that you have lied, or I will make you dance, as surely as that candle is burning there!"
Raising his hand, he threatened his son with that gesture which had once made all his family sink to the ground.
"Say that you have lied!"
Whenever Buteau in his younger days had felt a buffet coming he had raised his elbow to shield himself, his teeth chattering the while; but now he merely shrugged his shoulders with an air of insolent contempt.
"You are vastly mistaken. You imagine that you frighten me," he said. "It was all very well when you were the master to treat us like that!"
"I am the master—the father!"
"Nonsense, you old joker; you are nothing at all. Ah, so you won't leave me alone, won't you?"
Then seeing that the old man's unsteady arm was descending to deal a blow, he seized hold of it, and crushed it in his rough grasp.
"What a pig-headed fellow you are!" he cried. "Can't you get it into that old noddle of yours that no one cares a fig about you now? Do you suppose that you are good for anything at all? You are so much expense, and that's all! When a man has outlived his time, and passed his land over to others, he ought to be content with chewing his grub quietly, and keep from being a nuisance to other folks."
He shook his father to emphasise what he was saying; and then, giving the old man a final shake, he hurled him backwards, trembling and quaking, upon a chair near the window. And there the old man remained, half choking, for a moment, conquered and humiliated by the complete loss of his old authority. It was all over with him. He counted for nothing at all, now that he had stripped himself of his property.
Complete silence reigned in the kitchen, and all remained in embarrassed inactivity. The children had scarcely dared to breathe for fear of receiving a cuffing. Presently, however, work was begun again as if nothing unusual had happened.
"Is that grass going to be left out in the yard?" asked Lise.
"I'll go and put it in the cow-house," replied Françoise.
When she had returned, and after they had dined, Buteau, who was quite incorrigible, thrust his hand into her bodice, to hunt for a flea which she said was biting her. She no longer showed any signs of annoyance, and, indeed, she joked about it.
Fouan had never moved, but still remained stiff and silent in his dark corner. Two big tears were rolling down his cheeks. He called to mind the evening when he had broken with the Delhommes; and now again on this evening he experienced the same bitterness and humiliation at finding himself no longer the master; the same anger which had then made him obstinately refuse to eat. They had called to him three times, but he refused to join in the meal. Presently he sprang up, and went off to his bedroom. The next morning, as soon as it was light, he left the Buteaus, to take up his quarters with Hyacinthe.