Hyacinthe was a very windy individual, and he was constantly going off in explosions, which kept the house in a lively state, for he never allowed one of these reports to pass without indulging in some facetious jest. He had a contempt for your timid little reports, suppressed as much as possible, and sounding as though they were ashamed of themselves. He himself never let off aught but loud detonations, crisp and crackling, like gun shots; and every time, as he raised his leg with a gesture of self-satisfied complacency, he summoned his daughter in a tone of urgent command and with an air of serious gravity.
"Come here, you troll, come here at once!"
As soon as the girl hurried forward, the explosion was allowed to take place, going off with such a sharp vibrating report that La Trouille quite started at the noise it made.
"Quick, run after it and catch it, and see if it's come out straight!"
At other times when she approached him, he would give her his hand.
"Pull hard, now, you jade! Make it go off with a good crack!"
Then, when the explosion took place with all the sputter and row of a tightly jammed charge, he exclaimed:
"Ah, that's a hard one! but I'm much obliged to you all the same."
Then at other times he would hold an imaginary gun to his shoulder and pretend to take aim carefully; and when the explosion had taken place, he would cry out:
"Run off and retrieve, you lazy bitch!"
La Trouille used to laugh till she fell down on her buttocks, almost choked. It was a continual fresh and ever increasing merriment. Used as she was to the sport, the final explosion, with its comical eruptive noisiness, never failed to shake her with laughter. Oh, what a funny fellow he was, this father of hers! Sometimes he would talk of a lodger who had fallen into arrears with his rent, and whom he was obliged to eject; at other times he would turn round with an air of surprise, and bow gravely, as though the table had wished him good-morning; and at others he would trumpet out a series of salutes for his reverence the priest, his worship the mayor, and the ladies. It seemed almost, as though the fellow's belly was a sort of musical-box, from which he could extract any sound he chose; and one day, when the company at The Jolly Ploughman at Cloyes wagered a glass that he could not let off six discharges one after another, he victoriously won the bet. This accomplishment of his had become a source of honour and glory. La Trouille was quite proud of him; and, as soon as ever he raised his leg, she began to wriggle. She was constantly admiring him, and his prowess inspired her with mingled consternation and affection.
On the very evening of the day when old Fouan took up his quarters at the Château, as the old burrow in which the poacher buried himself was called, at the very first meal which the girl served to her father and grandfather, standing behind them in the respectful attitude of a servant, there were loud and merry explosions. The old man had given his son five francs, and a pleasant odour spread about—that of the kidney-beans and veal and onions, which the girl knew so well how to cook. As she was bringing in the beans she almost broke the dish in her excitement. For, before sitting down to table, Hyacinthe let off three sharp, regular reports.
"The salute for the feast!" he exclaimed. "Now we can begin!"
Then, bracing himself up, he gave vent to a fourth single discharge, very loud and odoriferous.
"That's for those brutes, the Buteaus!" he cried. "Let them stuff it down their throats!"
Fouan, who had maintained a gloomy demeanour ever since his arrival, now suddenly broke out into a snigger, and signified his approbation by nodding his head. This seemed to have put him at his ease. He, too, in his time, had been noted as a joker, and his children had grown up quietly at home in the midst of the paternal bombardments. He rested his elbows on the table, and gave himself up to a pleasant feeling of enjoyable comfort as he sat opposite that hulking rascal Hyacinthe, who gazed at him in return with his damp eyes and his air of jovial scampishness.
"Ah! God Almighty, dad. We'll enjoy ourselves. You shall see my dodge. I'll undertake to make you merry. Will you be any better off when you're underground with the moles, for having denied yourself a tit-bit up here?"
Though he had been a sober man all his life, Fouan, who now felt a craving to drown his worries, replied in the same strain:
"Well, yes, indeed, it's better to eat up everything rather than leave any for the others. Here's your good health, my lad!"
La Trouille now served the veal and onions. There was a momentary silence, and Hyacinthe, to prevent the conversation dropping, let fly a prolonged flourish, which passed through the straw seat of his chair with all the varied modulations of a human cry. Then he immediately turned to his daughter with a gravely interrogative air.
"What did you say?" he asked her.
She could make no reply, but was obliged to sit down and hold her sides. She was still more upset, however, by some final facetiousness between the father and son, after the veal and the cheese had been cleared away, and they began to smoke and help themselves to the bottle of brandy which had been placed on the table. They sat silently for some time, boozy with drink.
Presently, Hyacinthe slowly raised his leg, and let off a loud explosion. Then looking towards the door:
"Come in!" he cried.
Fouan, who felt himself challenged, and who had for a long time past been regretting his loss of form, now once more regained the accomplishment of his youthful days, and, raising his leg, he also broke out into a noisy explosion.
"Here I come!" he exclaimed.
Then they both clapped their hands, slobbering and laughing. They enjoyed it immensely. But it was too much for La Trouille, who had fallen down on the floor, and was so shaken with wild spasms of laughter that she, too, gave vent to a slight explosion, but soft and musical, like a note from a fife in comparison with the sonorous, organ-like sounds of the two men.
Hyacinthe sprang up with an air of indignant protest, and stretched out his arm with a tragical gesture of authority:
"Out of the room with you, you dirty sow. Out of the room at once, you stink-pot! I'll teach you to show proper respect to your father and grandfather!"
He had never tolerated this familiarity on her part. It was only for people of a certain age. He cleared the air as it were with his outstretched hand, and pretended to be nearly choked by the little flute-like sound. His own, and his father's, he said, only smelt of gunpowder. Then, as the culprit, who had turned very red, and was quite upset by her forgetfulness of etiquette, hung back and showed a disinclination to leave, he, himself, cast her out of the room with an energetic shove.
"Go and shake your petticoats, you filthy sow, and don't venture in here again for another hour, till you've got yourself well ventilated!" said he.
That day was the commencement of a careless life full of jovial merriment. The girl's bedroom was given up to the grandfather. It was one of the divisions of the old cellar, cut off by a wooden partition. La Trouille herself, relinquishing her room with the greatest willingness, now took up her quarters at the far end of the cellar, in an excavation in the rock, which led, so the local legends said, into some immense subterranean caverns which had been blocked up by land-slips. Unfortunately this fox-hole of a Château was getting more deeply buried every winter by the action of the heavy rains, which flowed down the steep slope of the hill and swept the earth and pebbles along with them. The old ruin, with its ancient foundations and rough repairs, would have disappeared altogether if the aged lime-trees that had been planted over it had not kept the stones together by their thick, spreading roots. However, when the spring-time came round it was a charmingly fresh little spot, a kind of grotto lying hid beneath a tangle of briars and hawthorns. The sweet-briar that grew in front of the window was starred over with pink blossoms, and the door was wreathed with a drapery of wild honey-suckle, which had to be lifted like a curtain before one could enter the place.
It was by no means every evening that La Trouille was called upon to cook kidney beans and veal and onions. This only happened when the old man had been induced to part with a five-franc piece. Hyacinthe never attempted to obtain the money by any show of force or harshness; he worked upon his father's love of good living and his paternal feelings to despoil him of his money. There was always a good deal of feasting at the commencement of each month, when Fouan received his sixteen francs' allowance from the Delhommes; and every quarter, when the notary paid him his dividend of thirty-seven francs and a-half, there was the most uproarious junketing. At first the old man, clinging to his ingrained habits of parsimony, would only hand out half a franc at a time, expecting that amount to last for a long while; but, by-and-bye, he gradually surrendered himself to his scamp of a son, who flattered him and wheedled him, and sometimes so worked upon his feelings by his extraordinary stories that he was dissolved in tears, and easily prevailed upon to part with two and three francs. He, too, then took to stuffing himself with food, saying that it was best to enjoy one's-self while one could.
In justice to Hyacinthe, however, it must be said that he fairly divided everything with the old man; and, if he robbed him, he also kept him amused. The lazy fellow, with his knavishness, was, at all events, a better sort than Buteau, and indeed he often boasted to that effect. At first, when his belly was delighted with fat living, he dropped all thought even about his father's supposed hoard, and did not make the least attempt to discover anything concerning it. Old Fouan was quite free to do as he pleased so long as he cheerfully provided the means for their festive junketings. It was only during the second fortnight of the month, when the old man's pockets were quite empty, that his son indulged in speculations as to where the money of which he had caught a glimpse could be hidden away. He could not get hold of a copper of it. He grumbled at La Trouille who served him dish after dish of potatoes without butter; and, as he felt a painful void in his belly, he reflected that it was really most idiotic for them to remain on such short commons simply for the sake of hoarding up some money. It would certainly be necessary to unearth that hoard some day and have a fling with it.
Still, even on the evenings when he had fared most wretchedly, and when he felt utterly weary and tired out, he bravely struggled against circumstances, and was as genial and hilarious as if he had just made an excellent dinner: restoring the general gaiety by a cannonade of heavy guns.
"There, that's for the turnips, La Trouille, and that's for the butter!" he cried.
Fouan, too, kept brisk and cheerful even during those painful times—the last days of the month—for the daughter and the father then scoured the country for the means of keeping the pot boiling, and the old man, who was gradually induced to join them, ended by employing his time in the same way. He had become angry when he first saw La Trouille come home with a fowl which she had fished up from over a wall with a piece of looped string; but on a second occasion she made him shake with laughter by attaching a hook baited with some meat to the end of a string, which she concealed among the branches of a tree, allowing the baited hook to dangle down in front of a troop of ducks who were taking a walk. One of them suddenly rushed forward, and swallowed meat, hook, and string at a bolt. Then it immediately rose in the air, being sharply pulled up by the girl, before it was able to utter a single quack. This was not a very honest proceeding certainly; but they argued that animals which lived out-of-doors belonged to those who could catch them, and that so long as one did not steal money, one's honesty could not be impeached. From that time the old man took some interest in the adventures of the young marauder, who performed some scarcely credible feats, such as stealing a sack of potatoes and then getting the owner of them to help her to carry them home; milking cows out at pasture into a bottle; and sinking the laundresses' linen to the bottom of the Aigre by loading it with stones, and then going and fishing it up again during the night.
She was continually to be met on the roads, her geese affording her a pretext for her perpetual wanderings, and she would sit for hours on the slope of a ditch on the look-out for an opportunity, with a sleepy, innocent air, as though she had not a thought in the world beyond attending to her geese. She often even made use of these latter as watch-dogs, the gander giving her notice, by his hissing, of the inopportune approach of any one who might surprise her at work. She was now eighteen years old, but she was scarcely any taller than she had been at twelve; being still as slight and supple as a hazel-branch, with her kid-like head, her green eyes, and her large mouth, twisted towards the left. Her little, childish bosom had grown hard beneath her father's old blouses, without in any way developing. She was more like a boy than a girl, and seemed to care about nothing save her geese. However, although she scoffed contemptuously at men, this did not prevent her, when she got larking with some lad of her own age, from ending with a little amatory amusement, almost as a matter of course, for it seemed to her quite natural, and no consequences ever followed. She was lucky enough to keep clear of the tramps and vagrants that passed along the roads, for grown-up men, finding nothing tempting about her, left her alone. As her grandfather said, amused and won over by her quaint ways, apart from the fact that she was given to thieving and didn't care much about decency, she was a rum sort of girl, more decorous and less disreputable than might have been expected.
Fouan found especial amusement in accompanying Hyacinthe in his prowling rambles about the fields. Every peasant, even the most honest, is at heart a poacher, and the old man took a deep interest in the setting of snares, and the laying of lines, and in all the various other ingenious devices of this campaign of ruses, this continual warfare carried on against gamekeepers and gendarmes. As soon as the laced hats and yellow shoulder belts of the latter were seen emerging from a lane and making their way through a corn field, the father and son, lying on some sloping bank, pretended to be asleep. Presently, however the son would creep on his hands and knees along the ditch, and take up his traps; while the father, with his honest elderly countenance, would keep a careful watch on the receding hats and shoulder belts.
There were some splendid trout in the Aigre, which they sold for forty and fifty sous apiece to a dealer at Châteaudun, but the fish were so artful that it was necessary for the men to lie flat on their stomachs on the grass watching them for hours. They often, too, sallied out as far as the Loir, from whose slimy bed some very fine eels were to be obtained. When his lines brought him nothing, Hyacinthe had a very simple plan for securing a haul. During the night he plundered the fish-preserves of the river-side residents. Fishing, however, he only indulged in as an occasional amusement; the pursuit of game was his absorbing passion. He ravaged the neighbourhood for miles around, and no prey was too humble for him. He would snare quails as well as partridges, and even starlings as well as larks. He seldom fired a gun, for the report of firearms carried too far over a level expanse. There was not a single covey of partridges that ever rose from the clover and lucern without his recognising it, and he knew perfectly well when and where he could easily lay his hands upon the young birds, drowsy with sleep and soaked with the night-dew. He was extremely clever in liming twigs for the capture of larks and quails, and he hurled stones with a deadly aim at the dense flocks of starlings which the high winds of autumn brought into the district. For twenty years past he had been exterminating the game of the neighbourhood, and there was now scarcely a rabbit to be seen amongst the brushwood about the Aigre, a fact which extremely angered the local sportsmen. It was only the hares that escaped him. There were very few of them, however, and what there were scampered safe from his pursuit over the open country, where it was too risky to follow them. He smacked his lips at the thought of the few hares which were to be found on the La Borderie land, and every now and then he risked being sent to gaol, by sending one rolling over with a shot from his gun. When Fouan saw him going out with his gun, he always refused to accompany him. It was too hazardous and foolish, he said; he would certainly get caught one day or other.
And caught he did get, as was only natural. Farmer Hourdequin, exasperated by the destruction of his game, had given the most stringent orders to Bécu, and the latter annoyed at never being able to catch any one, had determined to pass his nights on a stack and keep watch. One morning, just at daybreak, the report of a gun, the flame of which flashed in front of his face, awoke him with a start. It was Hyacinthe, on the look-out behind the stack, who had just killed a hare at short range.
"Ah, God Almighty! it's you, is it?" cried the rural constable, seizing hold of the gun which the other had laid down so as to pick up the hare. "Ah! you scamp, I ought to have guessed it was you!"
They were boon companions at the taverns, but in the fields they could not meet without danger; the one being constantly on the point of arresting the other, and the latter being determined to wring his neck.
"Well, yes, it's I!" replied Hyacinthe; "and I don't care a fig for you. Come, give me my gun back!"
Bécu was already regretting his capture. He generally turned to the right whenever he saw Hyacinthe on his left. What was the good of having a bother with a friend? he used to say. But this time his duty was evident, and it was impossible for him to close his eyes. And, besides, when a man is taken red-handed, the least that can be expected of him is to be civil!
"Your gun, you scamp! No, I'm going to keep that and take it to the mayor. Now, you be quiet, and don't try to play any of your tricks, or I'll let you have the other barrel in your guts!"
Hyacinthe, deprived of his gun and in a great rage, thought for a moment of making a spring at the other's throat. However, when he saw him directing his steps towards the village, he followed him quietly, still holding the hare dangling from his hand. The two men walked on for nearly a mile without speaking, but casting fierce furtive glances at each other. A violent scene seemed inevitable every moment, though both of them were regretting what had happened more and more acutely every minute. How unfortunate it was that they had come across each other in that way!
As they passed behind the church, at a couple of steps from the Château, the poacher made a last effort.
"I say, old fellow, don't be stupid; come inside, and have a glass."
"No, I must go and lay an information," replied the rural constable stiffly.
He was obstinate, like an old soldier whose orders are his only law. However, he stopped, and, as his companion took hold of his arm and tried to induce him to come with him, he ended by saying:
"Well, if you've got pen and ink, it will make no difference, I don't care where the statement is drawn up, whether in your house or elsewhere, so long as it is drawn up somewhere."
When Bécu arrived at Hyacinthe's abode, the sun was just rising. Old Fouan, who was already smoking his pipe at the door, guessed what had happened, and began to feel very uncomfortable, the more so, as matters assumed a serious aspect. Some ink and a rusty old pen were hunted up, and the constable, spreading out his elbows, and assuming an air of deep thought, began to rack his brains for suitable phrases. In the meantime, La Trouille, at a word from her father, brought a quart of wine and three glasses; and by the time Bécu had got to his fifth line, he accepted a bumper feeling exhausted by his struggle with the complicated statement of facts. Then the situation gradually became less strained. A second quart of wine was produced, and then a third. Two hours later, the three men were talking together in loud and friendly voices. They were all very drunk, and they had quite forgotten the incident of the morning.
"You blessed cuckold!" suddenly cried Hyacinthe to Bécu, "you know that I do as I like with your wife."
This was quite true. Since the day of the local fête he had tumbled Bécu's wife in quiet corners, looking upon her as an elderly person with whom no particular show of delicacy was necessary. Bécu, however, whose wine had made him irritable, now lost his temper. Although he was able to tolerate the poacher's relations with his wife when he was sober, the mention of them wounded his feelings when he was drunk.
"You filthy swine!" he bellowed out, brandishing an empty bottle.
Then he hurled the bottle, which broke against the wall, just missing Hyacinthe, who went on with his maudlin chatter, smiling a weak, tipsy smile. To appease the cuckold, they settled to remain there together, and eat the hare at once. Whenever La Trouille cooked a "civet," a pleasant odour spread from one end of Rognes to the other. It was a rough sort of feast, which lasted all day. They were still at table, sucking the bones, when darkness closed in. Then they lighted a couple of candles, and still sat on. Fouan found a couple of two-franc pieces, and sent the girl off to buy a quart of brandy. The men were still sipping their liquor after the whole village had fallen asleep. As Hyacinthe's fumbling fingers were groping about for something with which he could light his pipe, they came across the unfinished report, which was lying on the corner of the table, stained with wine and gravy.
"Ah, it's true, we ought to get this finished!" he stammered out, his belly shaking with tipsy laughter.
As he looked at the paper he tried to think of some facetious trick by which he might show his deep contempt both for the report and the law. Then he suddenly raised his leg, and, slipping the paper underneath him, he let off on the face of it a heavy, sonorous discharge, one of those explosions which, he used to say, came from a tightly-loaded mortar.
"There, it's signed for you now!"
They all began to laugh merrily, even Bécu himself. There was no dullness that night at the Château!
It was about this time that Hyacinthe made a friend. As he went to hide one evening in a ditch till the gendarmes he had espied passed by, he found it already occupied by another man, who, like himself, was desirous of escaping observation. They began to talk. The stranger seemed a pleasant fellow. His name, he said, was Leroi, but he was generally known as Canon. He was a journeyman carpenter, and had left Paris some two years before on account of certain little incidents in his career which had had troublesome consequences, preferring to live in the country, and to wander from village to village, staying a week here and a week there, and going about to the different farms to offer his services whenever patrons were scarce. Trade, he said, was shocking bad just now, and he had taken to begging on the high roads as he tramped along. He had been living on stolen vegetables and fruit, hustled about from pillar to post, and was only too happy whenever he was able to get a night's lodging behind a hay-rick.
It must be said, however, that his appearance was not calculated to inspire any confidence. His clothes were all in rags, and he was very dirty and very ugly, bearing evident marks of a life of wretchedness and vice. His face, fringed with a scanty growth of hair, was so fleshless and pallid that the women shut their doors and windows at the mere sight of him. What was worse, however, than his appearance was his conversation. He talked about cutting the throats of all the rich folks, and of having, some fine day, a glut of licentious pleasure with the wives and wine of other people. He let fall all kinds of threats in a tragic voice, clenching his fist, and launching out into wild revolutionary theories which he had picked up in the slums of Paris. He ranted, for instance, in the most virulent language about the rights of the people, and their coming enforcement, his flood of words quite frightening and dazing the peasants who heard him. During the last two years the inhabitants of the farms had been accustomed to see him make his appearance at night-fall asking for a corner and a bundle of straw for a bed. When he sat down by the fire he quite froze every one's blood by his terrible words. Then the next morning he went off, to re-appear again a week later on, at the same gloomy twilight hour, and with the same prophecies of approaching ruin and death. And it was because his gloomy and uncanny appearance about the neighbourhood caused so much fear, and excited so much angry indignation, that he was now always sent about his business as soon as possible.
He and Hyacinthe, however, took to each other at once.
"Ah," cried the latter, "what a mistake I made in not cutting every throat in Cloyes in '48! Come along, old fellow, and let's have a glass together!"
He then took Canon off to the Château, where he made him sleep that night, inspired with more and more respectful admiration for the tramp the longer he listened to him. He considered him to be a man of superior mind, one who knew what he was talking about, with his plans for reorganising society at a single swoop. Two days afterwards, Canon went away. A fortnight later, however, he appeared again in the twilight, and after that he constantly dropped in at the Château—eating and sleeping there as though he were at home, and swearing each time he came that the well-to-do classes would be swept clean out of existence before another six weeks had gone by. One night when the father was out poaching, Canon made an attempt to ravish the daughter; but La Trouille, scarlet with shame and boiling over with indignation, scratched him and bit him so severely that he was obliged to let her go.
Fouan was no fonder of Canon than La Trouille was. He accused him of being an idle good-for-nothing, and of trying to bring about a state of general rapine and bloodshed; and, whenever the vagrant was in the house, the old man grew quite gloomy and silent, and went out of doors to smoke his pipe. There was another matter, too, which was disturbing his life again, and causing an increased disagreement between himself and his son, indisposing him for all his former hilarious merriment. Hitherto Hyacinthe, in parting with his share of the land, had never disposed of it to any one save his brother Buteau or his brother-in-law Delhomme, to whom indeed he had sold the greater portion, a little bit at a time. Fouan had always given his signature, as was necessary, without saying a word in opposition. So long as the land remained in the family, he had no objection to its being sold. But now a troublesome question arose about the last field, upon which the poacher had borrowed money. The mortgagee was threatening to put it up to auction, as he had not received a copper of the interest that had been agreed upon. Monsieur Baillehache had been consulted, and had declared that the field would have to be sold, and sold at once, if they did not wish to be ruined by law costs. Buteau and Delhomme, unfortunately, refused to buy it, being angrily indignant with the old man for allowing himself to be preyed upon by that rascal his elder son; indeed they had sternly resolved to do nothing for him as long as he remained where he was. The consequence was that the field was now to be sold by order of the authorities; writs and stamped paper were already flying about. It would be the first piece of land that had gone out of the family. The old man could get no sleep at nights for thinking of it. This land which his father and grandfather had looked at with such longing eyes, and had worked so hard to obtain; this land which, when acquired, had been guarded as jealously as a wife, was now being frittered away in law-costs, passing into the possession of another, some neighbour, for half its value! The old man groaned with rage, and he was so heart-broken that he sobbed like a child. Oh, that scamp of a poacher!
There were now several terrible scenes between the father and son. The latter, however, never replied, but allowed his father to exhaust himself in reproaches and lamentations. The old man would stand there vociferating and unburdening himself of his wrathful indignation in the most tragic fashion.
"Yes, you are a murderer! It is just as though you had taken up a knife and sliced off a bit of my flesh! Such a splendid field as it is! There isn't a finer anywhere! A field where anything will grow by just being planted! What a poor miserable creature you must be to allow it to go to another! Ah, good heavens, to another! The very thought of it going to an outsider makes my blood turn! And it's all caused by your cursed drunkenness! You have drunk the land away, you filthy, swilling swine!"
Then, as the old man almost choked with anger, and nearly sank down from sheer exhaustion, his son quickly answered:
"It's really very foolish of you, dad, to worry yourself in this way. Fly at me as much as you like, if it relieves you in any way at all; but you really ought to take things more philosophically. One can't eat the land, you know! You'd pull a very wry face if any one served you with a dish of soil, wouldn't you? I've borrowed money on it, because five-franc pieces are the crop it best suits me to raise on it. If there's a surplus of a few crowns, we'll drink them! That's the sensible way to look at things. We shall have more than enough of the soil when we're dead!"
On one point, however, father and son were perfectly in accord, and that point was their common detestation of Vimeux the bailiff—a shabby little fellow who was entrusted with the discharge of such duties as his colleague of Cloyes refused to undertake, and who had ventured one evening to come and leave a formal notification of judgment at the Château. Vimeux was a very dirty-looking little creature, a bundle of yellow beard and whiskers, from the midst of which there peered forth a red nose and a pair of bleared eyes. He was always dressed in shabby-genteel fashion—a tall hat, black trousers, and a frock-coat, but these garments were most shockingly worn and stained. He was notorious in the neighbourhood on account of the terrible thrashings he had received from the peasants every time that he had been compelled to serve them with unpleasant documents in places distant from all help and succour. Stories were told about sticks being broken over his shoulders, of his being ducked in ponds, of his being pursued for a couple of miles and kept running at full speed by the continued application of pitchforks; and of a certain sound thrashing that had been administered to him by a mother and her daughter, after his trousers had previously been let down.
On the evening when Vimeux paid his visit to the Château. Hyacinthe was just entering the house with his gun. Old Fouan was sitting on the trunk of a tree smoking his pipe and watching the bailiff's approach.
"See the disgrace you are bringing upon us, you rascal!" the old man growled to his son.
"Just you wait a moment!" returned the poacher.
Vimeux, on catching sight of the gun, came to a standstill some thirty yards away. The whole of his dirty, shabby, black-clothed person quaked with fear.
"Monsieur Hyacinthe," he began in a weak, quavering voice, "I have come about the business you are aware of. I leave this here. Good evening."
He then laid the official document on a stone, and was already hastily retiring, when the poacher called out to him:
"Do you want me to come and teach you politeness, you confounded paper-stainer? Just be good enough to bring that paper to me!"
Then, as the wretched man stood speechless and rooted to the ground with terror, daring neither to advance nor to retreat an inch, the poacher took aim at him with his gun.
"I'll just send you a little bit of lead," he cried, "if you don't make haste and do what I tell you. Look sharp now, take up your paper, and bring it here! Oh, you must come nearer than that; and nearer than that. Hurry along now, you miserable eunuch, or I shall fire!"
Frozen and pale with terror, the bailiff tottered along on his short legs. He cast an imploring glance at old Fouan. But the latter went on quietly smoking his pipe, meditating savagely anent the expenses attaching to the law, and full of bitter rancour against the man who, in the eyes of the peasantry, personified them.
"Come along, or I shall fire! There, that's better now; you have managed to get here at last. Now, give me your paper. No, not in that way, with the tips of your fingers as though you were reluctant to part with it. Give me it politely and cordially. There, that's very nicely done!"
Vimeux, paralysed with fright at the sight of the grinning poacher, stood blinking his eyes and shaking in his shoes at thought of the blow or cuff which he felt sure was coming.
"Now then, turn round!"
The poor fellow knew only too well what this meant, and he remained stock-still, nervously twitching his posterior.
"Turn round, or I'll come and turn you myself!"
The luckless bailiff felt that he could do nothing but submit to his fate; and with a pitiably wretched air he turned himself round, and presented to view his poor little fleshless posterior, as shrunken as that of a half-starved tom-cat. Then the poacher, taking a vigorous spring, brought his foot to bear full on the centre of Vimeux's buttocks, and with such energy that he sent the luckless bailiff reeling over on to his nose fully four yards away. The poor fellow painfully struggled on to his feet again, and bolted off in a state of abject terror as he heard the poacher yelling after him:
"Look out! I'm going to fire!"
Hyacinthe had indeed raised his gun to his shoulder, but he then contented himself with lifting his leg and letting off such a violent explosion that Vimeux, terrified by the report, fell headlong on to the ground again. This time his black hat fell off, and rolled away amongst the stones. He ran after it, picked it up, and then bolted off faster than before, pursued by a constant cannonade from the poacher, and a jeering accompaniment of noisy laughter which drove the wretched fellow quite crazy. Careering wildly down the slope, looking like some hopping insect, he had got a hundred yards away, but the echoes still repeated the sound of the fusillade. In fact, all the country-side reverberated with it, and there was a final terrific discharge just as the bailiff, who, in the distance, now looked about the size of an ant, disappeared into Rognes. La Trouille, who had hastened out on hearing the noise, lay down on the ground, holding her sides and clucking like a hen; while old Fouan took his pipe out of his mouth so that he might laugh more at his ease.
The following week it was necessary for the old man to make up his mind to give his signature, so that the land might be sold. Monsieur Baillehache had found a purchaser, and it seemed most prudent to follow his advice. It was consequently settled that the father and son should go to Cloyes on the third Saturday in September, the eve of Saint Lubin's Day, which was one of the two fêtes of the town. The old man relied upon getting rid of his son in the midst of the holiday-makers and going to fetch the dividends of his hidden investment, as he had done since July. They were to make the journey both ways on foot.
As Fouan and Hyacinthe were standing before the closed barrier at the level-crossing just outside Cloyes, waiting for a train to pass, they were joined by Buteau and Lise, who drove up in their cart. A violent quarrel immediately broke out between the two brothers, and they hurled volleys of filthy abuse at each other till the gate was opened; Buteau, as his horse carried him away down the hill on the other side, even turned round, his blouse puffed out by the wind, and hurled behind him a volley of insults which he would have done better to keep to himself.
"Go along with you, you worthless fellow, I am supporting your father!" roared Hyacinthe with all his might, making a speaking-trumpet of his two hands.
Fouan felt very unhappy when he reached Monsieur Baillehache's office in the Rue Grouaise, and the more so as it was full of clients, people who were taking advantage of market-day to transact their business. The old man and his son had to wait for nearly two hours. The scene recalled to Fouan's mind that Saturday when he had decided upon the division of the property. It would have been better if he had hanged himself rather than done that. When the notary at last received them, and the signature had to be affixed, the old man took out his spectacles and wiped them; but his tearful eyes fogged the glasses, and his hand trembled so much that it was necessary to place his fingers on the very spot where he was to inscribe his name, which he proceeded to do, making a lot of blots. It tried him so much that he was now perspiring and trembling, and glancing about him in dazed confusion, just as though he had been undergoing a surgical operation, as if he were a man who, after having a leg amputated, looks about him for the severed limb. Monsieur Baillehache administered a severe lecture to Hyacinthe, and then dismissed them both with a dissertation upon the law. The division of property, so he declared, was immoral, and it would certainly be one day made illegal, to prevent it from over-riding the system of inheritance.
After leaving the notary's, Fouan contrived to give his son the slip in the crowd in the Rue Grande, just by the door of "The Jolly Ploughman." Hyacinthe, indeed, played into his father's hands, and quietly smiled to himself, for he felt quite sure what the old man's purpose was. Fouan at once made his way to the Rue Beaudonnière, where, in a bright-looking house, with a courtyard and garden, lived Monsieur Hardy, the tax-collector, a stout, jovial person, with a florid face and a carefully-trimmed black beard. He was greatly feared by the peasants, who accused him of upsetting them with his threats. He received his visitors in a narrow office, cut atwain by a balustrade, on one side of which he himself sat, while those who came to see him remained on the other. There were frequently a dozen people there at once, standing crowded together. At the present moment, however, Buteau, who had just come in, happened to be the only person there.
Buteau could never make up his mind to pay his taxes promptly and at once. When he received the demand-note in March he got into a bad temper for a week, and stormed angrily, and in turn, at the land-tax, the head-tax, the tax on personal property, and that on doors and windows. His greatest wrath, however, was poured out upon the growing increase in the total amount, which got more and more every year. Then he waited till he was served with a free summons. This gave him an additional week. Then he paid a twelfth part of the taxes every month, whenever he went to market; and every month all the old torture of mind began over again. He felt quite ill on the eve of paying an instalment, and he went off with his money in as miserable a frame of mind as though he were going to execution. Oh, that damnable government! It robbed everybody!
"Ah, is that you?" Monsieur Hardy exclaimed, cheerily, at sight of him. "I'm glad to see you here, for I was just going to put you to the expense of a summons!"
"That would have capped the business!" snarled Buteau. "But you must understand that I'm not going to pay those six francs increase on the property-tax. It's really most unjust!"
The collector began to laugh.
"What, are you going to begin all that discussion over again? It is always the same old story every month. I have already explained to you that it is obvious that the planting of your meadow by the Aigre must have increased your income. Oh, we know very well what we are about, I can assure you!"
Buteau, however, boiled over with angry remonstrances. His income was increasing in a pretty sort of way, forsooth! His meadow had once measured a couple of acres, but the river had altered its course and robbed him of a great slice of his land, and yet he still was forced to pay the tax on two acres! Was that justice?
Monsieur Hardy quietly replied that he had nothing to do with the survey, and that Buteau must get that altered if he wanted his tax lowered. Then, under the pretence of explaining details to him, he overwhelmed him with a flood of figures and technical terms which were completely unintelligible to an outsider.
"Well, it makes no difference to me whether you pay or not," he said in conclusion, with a bantering smile; "I shall merely have to send the bailiff to you if you don't."
Frightened and abashed, Buteau now quickly cooled down; recognising that, as might lay on his opponent's side, there was no other course for him but to yield. However, the fear which forced him to yield only increased his long-standing spite against the vaguely understood and complicated system of rule to which he was forced to bend—the government—its courts and the staff of officials, all loafing gentlefolks, as he was wont to say. Very reluctantly he drew out his purse with trembling fingers. He had received a large number of coppers in the market, and he fingered every coin before letting go his hold of it. He counted the sum three times over, paying it all in coppers; and the size of the pile gave an additional wrench to his heart-strings. With sad and troubled eyes he was watching the collector put the money away in the safe, when old Fouan made his appearance.
The old man had not recognised his son from behind, and he was seized with consternation when Buteau turned round.
"Ah, how do you do, Monsieur Hardy?" he then stammered in confusion. "I was passing by, and I thought I'd just come in and wish you good morning. I don't often get a chance of seeing you now."
Buteau, however, was not deceived. He said good morning, and went away as though he were in a hurry, but five minutes later he returned again, to ask some question which he pretended he had forgotten before; and he did this just as the collector was handing Fouan his quarter's dividend, seventy-five francs, in five-franc pieces. Buteau's eyes glittered, but he pretended not to notice what was going on; indeed he carefully avoided looking at his father, and affected not to have seen the old man throw his handkerchief over the coins, and then fish for them, and thrust them down to the bottom of his pocket. This time they both left together: Fouan greatly distressed in mind and casting suspicious glances at his son, while Buteau was in an excellent humour and manifested a sudden renewal of affection for his father. He kept close to him, and insisted upon taking him off with him in his cart, in which, indeed, he drove him to "The Jolly Ploughman," where they found Hyacinthe in company of little Sabot, a vine-dresser from Brinqueville, a well-known facetious character, who, like his companion, was windy enough to keep a mill turning. Just now, upon meeting, they had wagered ten quarts of wine as to which of them could blow out the greater number of candles. Several friends, laughing noisily and manifesting great enthusiasm, had accompanied them into a room at the back of the premises. A circle had been formed, and one of the rivals was placed on the right and the other on the left, ready to commence operations. Each of them had his own special candle, and just then little Sabot had succeeded in extinguishing the flame ten times, whereas Hyacinthe had scored only nine times, having once failed in producing the necessary amount of wind. He appeared annoyed; his reputation was at stake. It would never do for Rognes to be beaten by Brinqueville! So he blew as never blacksmith's bellows had blown—Nine! ten! eleven! twelve! The drummer from Cloyes, who had been appointed to re-light the candle, was himself almost blown away. Little Sabot, who had with difficulty extinguished his tenth candle, was now quite exhausted, but his opponent triumphantly blew out another couple, which he bade the drummer light for a final demonstration; and, when they were lighted, they burned with a bright yellow flame, the colour of gold, which rose up like the sun in its glory.
"What a wonderful chap he is!" the spectators cried. "What guts he has got! He ought to have a medal!"
The company shouted and laughed and cheered till they almost split their throats. They felt a good deal of real admiration and envy, for a man must be very solidly built to be able to contain so much wind, and to discharge it just as he pleased. They spent the next two hours in drinking the ten quarts of wine, and nothing else was discussed but the feat they had just witnessed.
While his brother was fastening up his trousers again, Buteau gave him a friendly slap across the buttocks, and this victory, so pleasing to the family pride, seemed to have put them on the best terms again with each other. Old Fouan related, in the most sprightly fashion, a story of his youthful days, of the time when the Cossacks were in La Beauce. One of them had gone to sleep on the bank of the Aigre with his mouth open, and Fouan recounted how he had so freely discharged himself thereinto that he had buried the sleeping man's face up to the hair.
The market was now drawing to a close, and the company separated, all very drunk.
Buteau took Fouan and Hyacinthe off with him in his cart, and Lise, to whom her husband had whispered a word or two, made herself very pleasant and agreeable. They all petted the father, and made a great fuss with him; and there was no more quarrelling. The elder son, who was now getting sober again, was deep in thought. He felt sure that the reason why his younger brother was manifesting such unusual amiability was that he, also, had discovered the secret payments made by the collector. And then he sadly reflected that even if his scamp of a brother had hitherto had the delicacy to refrain from plundering his father's hoard, he certainly would never be weak enough to let it fall into any one else's hands. He determined, however, that as the family were now on good terms together once more, he would diplomatically, and without showing any signs of vexation, make a full inquiry into this important matter. When Rognes was reached, and the old man asked to be set down, the two brothers sprang out of the gig, and rivalled each other in their demonstrations of respect and affection.
"Lean on me, father."
"Give me your hand, father."
They then carefully assisted him out of the trap, and the old man remained standing between them, full of uneasy consternation, for he now felt sadly certain that they had discovered his secret.
"What has come over you all?" he asked. "Why you seem to have suddenly grown very fond of me?"
Their amiability, indeed, quite frightened him. He would rather have seen them comporting themselves as usual towards him—rough and harsh, and wanting in respect. He foresaw a world of trouble in store for him, now that they knew of his secret hoard; and he returned to the Château in a very distressful state of mind.
It happened that Canon, who had not made his appearance for the last two months, was now there, sitting on a stone and waiting for Hyacinthe's return. As soon as he caught sight of him, he called out:
"There's that daughter of yours in Couillard's wood, and there's a man with her."
The father almost exploded with rage and indignation, and the blood rushed angrily to his face.
"The lewd hussy," he said, "to disgrace me in that way!"
He took down a big carter's whip which was hanging behind the door, and then hurried off down the stony bank to the little wood. La Trouille's geese, however, kept guard over her like faithful watch-dogs, when she was up to her pranks. The gander immediately sniffed the father's approach, and darted forward, followed by the whole flock. Raising his wings and stretching out his neck, the male bird broke out into a continuous, menacing hiss, while the rest of the flock, forming into line of battle, also stretched out their necks, and opened their great yellow beaks, ready to bite. The poacher cracked his whip at them, and the sound of a hasty retreat then became audible behind the bushes. La Trouille had heard the warning, and had made her escape.
When Hyacinthe restored the whip to its place, he seemed overcome by a deep philosophical sadness. It might be that his daughter's persistent lewdness filled him with pity for human passions, or it might merely be the natural reaction after his triumphant hilariousness at Cloyes. Shaking his rough scampish-looking head:
"Bah!" he cried to Canon, "it isn't worth that much!"
And then, raising his leg over the valley that was now buried in shadow, he let off a violent and contemptuous detonation, as though he wished to overwhelm the neighbourhood.