It was now early in October. The vintage was about to commence; a week of merry joviality, during which such families as had fallen out were in the habit of getting reconciled over pots of new wine. For a whole week Rognes stunk of grapes, such a quantity of which was eaten that the women were pulling up their petticoats and the men letting down their trousers behind every hedge; while the lovers, with juice-stained faces, kissed each other greedily amid the vines. The evil of all this was that the men got drunk and the girls in the family-way.
On the morning after his return from Cloyes, Hyacinthe duly began to hunt for his father's hoard; for in accordance with all probability the old man did not carry his money and vouchers about with him; he must hide them away in some secret corner. But although La Trouille assisted her father in his search, they turned the house topsy-turvy without any result, and this despite their cunning and practice in marauding. It was not until the following week that the poacher, chancing to remove from a shelf a cracked earthenware pan, which was no longer used, discovered therein, beneath some lentils, a packet of papers very carefully enclosed in a piece of gum-covered canvas which had been torn out of an old hat. There was not a single coin, however. The cash must be hidden somewhere else, and there must be a pretty pile of it, the poacher reflected, for his father had spent nothing for the last five years. There was the scrip there, however, representing three hundred francs a year in five per cent. Rente. As Hyacinthe was counting the bonds and examining them, a piece of stamped paper, covered with large handwriting, fell from the packet, and the perusal of this document quite stupefied the poacher. The murder was out now! He had discovered where all the money had gone!
It was the most amazing story possible. A month after the old man had divided his property among his children he had fallen ill; brooding sadly over the fact that he had now absolutely nothing of his own, not even so much as a handful of corn. He could not go on living in this way, he moaned to himself; and it was then that he was guilty of a sad piece of folly—folly as infatuated as that of those lustful old men who spend their last coppers in secretly stealing back to some drab who has gone into other keeping. Despite all his earlier shrewdness, Fouan had allowed himself to be completely gulled by that cunning old sharper, Saucisse. That earth-hunger, that furious desire for possession which feverishly racks the bodies of all the old peasants who have spent their lives on the soil, had so completely mastered him, that he had entered into a written agreement with Saucisse to pay him fifteen sous every day as long as he lived, on condition that he, Saucisse, left him upon his death an acre and a quarter of land. A pretty bargain this, considering that Fouan was seventy-six, and that Saucisse was ten years younger. As some justification, however, of Fouan's conduct, it should be said that Saucisse had been crafty enough to take to his bed just before the bargain was struck; and he had coughed so distressingly, seeming so near the point of death, that Fouan, goaded on by his covetousness, and thinking himself the craftier of the two, had eagerly pressed for the completion of the agreement. The moral to be drawn was, that it was preferable to take on with a wench rather than sign an agreement; for the payment of the daily fifteen sous had now been going on for five years, and the more Fouan paid, the more lustful he grew, and the more passionately he yearned for the land. What! after cutting himself free from all the weary bondage of the soil, when he had nothing more to do than to spend the remainder of his days in peaceful tranquillity, watching others wearing themselves out in tending the ungrateful earth, he had once more returned to her, so that she might finish him off. No, really, wisdom was seldom to be found among men, either young or old.
For a moment Hyacinthe felt inclined to appropriate both the scrip and the agreement, but his courage failed him. Such a deed would have necessitated flight. Then, full of angry disappointment, he placed the papers under the lentils again, at the bottom of the pan. His exasperation was so great that he could not hold his tongue. The next day all Rognes knew of the agreement with old Saucisse, and the daily payment of fifteen sous for an acre and a quarter of poor land that was not certainly worth three thousand francs. In five years nearly fourteen hundred francs had been paid, and if the old rascal lived for another five years, he would be pretty certain to keep both the field and its value. Old Fouan was plentifully chaffed about his bargain, as was natural. Since he had divested himself of all his property, he had been unceremoniously passed by on the roads, but now he was again saluted and addressed deferentially since it was known that he had an invested income, and might possibly come in for some landed estate.
His own family seemed especially revolutionised by the discovery. Fanny, who had previously been on very cold terms with her father, annoyed at his having gone to live with his disreputable elder son instead of returning to her house, now brought him some linen—some old shirts of her husband's. She was actuated less by motives of self-interest than by an unconscious respect for the head of the family, who once more acquired some importance, as he was in the possession of property. Her father, however, was very hard and unbending, and he could not refrain from alluding to that cutting speech of hers as to his begging on his knees to be taken back again. He had never forgotten it; and, on receiving Fanny, he exclaimed: "So it is you, then, who are coming on your knees to get me back?" The young woman took this rebuff very badly, and when she got home again she wept with shame and anger. She was touchy to an extreme; a look sometimes sufficed to wound her; and honest, hard-working, and well-to-do though she was, she had fallen out with almost all the country-side. After that, Delhomme undertook to pay the old man's allowance, for Fanny swore that she would never speak a word to him again.
As for Buteau, he quite astonished everybody one day by making his appearance at the Château, coming, so he said, to pay a little visit to his father. Hyacinthe sniggered, brought out the brandy bottle, and they had a glass together. But his sneering surprise turned into absolute amazement when he saw his brother produce two five-franc pieces and lay them down on the table.
"We must settle accounts, father," said Buteau. "Here is the last quarter's allowance."
Ah! the scamp! he had never paid his father a copper for years past, and now to do this he must have designs upon him. He was no doubt offering him this money in the hope of getting him to return to his house. The truth is, that as Fouan reached out his hand to take up the coins, Buteau pushed it aside and hastily picked up the money himself.
"What I mean is, that I want you to know I have the cash all ready. I will take care of it, and you will know where to find it whenever you want it."
Hyacinthe began to scent mischief and grow annoyed.
"I say," he began, "if you want to get father away from me——"
"What! you're not jealous, are you?" Buteau laughingly replied. "Don't you think, now, that it would be more natural if father stayed a week with me, and then a week with you, and so on? Eh? suppose you cut yourself in two, dad! Well, here's your health in the meantime!"
Before taking his leave, he invited them to come and assist at the vintaging the next day, and he promised that they should stuff their bellies full of grapes. Indeed, he made himself so pleasant and agreeable, that the other two confessed that although he was a great rascal he was nevertheless an agreeable fellow; of course, providing that one didn't let him take one in. Then they willingly accompanied him part of his way home.
Just as they reached the bottom of the hill they met Monsieur and Madame Charles, accompanied by Elodie, who were returning to Roseblanche, after a walk along the bank of the Aigre. They were all three of them in mourning for Madame Estelle, as the girl's mother was called. She had died in July, from over-exertion; indeed, every time that the grandmother had returned from Chartres she had always reported that her poor daughter was killing herself, such a deal of trouble did she take to maintain the reputation of the establishment in the Rue aux Juifs, with which her worthless husband occupied himself less and less. Keen, indeed, had been Monsieur Charles's emotion at the funeral, to which he had not dared to take the young girl, who had only been informed of her bereavement when her mother had already lain for three days in the grave. Great also had been Monsieur Charles's heart-pangs when, for the first time for many years, he had again gazed upon Number 19, that house at the corner of the Rue de la Planche-aux-Carpes, with its yellow-washed front and closed green shutters; that house which had been the work of his life, and which he now found hung with black drapery, the little door standing open, and the passage barred by the coffin, standing between four lighted tapers.
He was deeply touched by the manner in which the whole neighbourhood shared in his grief. The ceremony passed off in the most satisfactory manner. When the coffin was brought out of the passage into the street, all the women of the neighbourhood crossed themselves, and the funeral procession made its way to the church amidst signs of general mourning. The five women of the house were there in dark dresses, and comported themselves with an air of decorum, as was generally remarked that evening in Chartres; and one of them even shed tears at the grave-side. In that matter, indeed, Monsieur Charles had every reason for satisfaction, but how he had suffered the next morning when he had a chat with his son-in-law, Hector Vaucogne, and visited the house. It had already lost all its brilliancy, and the many laxities which he noticed, laxities which would never have been tolerated in his own time, fully indicated the absence of masculine authority. He observed, however, with pleasure that the decorous behaviour of the five women at the funeral had created such a favourable impression in the town that the establishment remained full all the week. Upon leaving Number 19, full of uneasy thoughts, he gave Hector plainly to understand that, now poor Estelle was no longer there to look after affairs, it was his duty to reform and settle down seriously to the business of life, if he did not wish his daughter's fortune to be lost.
Buteau, on seeing the Charles family, at once invited them to come to the vintage, but they declined on account of their mourning. Their faces were very sad, and they spoke and moved about in a weary, heart-broken fashion; they could not be prevailed upon to promise anything further than just to go and taste the new wine.
"It will be a little change for this poor darling," said Madame Charles; "and she has so few amusements here, since we took her away from school. She's seventeen, you know, now, and we couldn't keep her there always."
Elodie listened with downcast eyes, blushing shyly. She had grown very tall and slim, as pale as a lily vegetating in the shade.
"And what are you going to do with this tall young lady?" Buteau asked.
The girl's blushes deepened; and her grandmother replied:
"Ah! that I can scarcely tell you. We shall leave her perfectly free to follow her own inclinations."
Meanwhile Fouan had taken Monsieur Charles aside.
"Is he looking after the business?" he asked with an air of interest.
Monsieur Charles shrugged his shoulders, and assumed an aggrieved air.
"Ah, that's just what is troubling us so much. I saw a person from Chartres this morning. It's very sad! The house is done for! The supervision is so wretched that fights go on in the passages, and fellows actually walk away without paying."
Then he crossed his arms and drew a long breath to ease himself of a new worry which had been stifling him, by reason of its enormity, ever since the morning. "And would you believe it," he resumed, "the reprobate goes to the café, now? Going to a café, indeed, when there is one in his own house!"
"He must be daft, then!" fiercely exclaimed Hyacinthe, who had been listening.
They now relapsed into silence, for Madame Charles and Elodie were drawing near with Buteau. They were speaking of the dear departed, and the young girl remarked how sad it made her that she had not been able to kiss her poor mother.
"But it seems she died so suddenly," she added, with her innocent air, "and they were so busy in the shop——"
"Yes, making confectionery for some christening parties," hastily interrupted Madame Charles, with a side-long glance, full of meaning, at the others.
Not one of them smiled. They all preserved a gravely sympathetic air. The girl had bent her gaze upon a ring she was wearing, and she kissed it, with her eyes full of tears.
"This is all I have that belonged to her," she said. "Grandmother took it from her finger and brought it and put it on mine. She wore it for twenty years, and I shall keep it all my life."
It was an old wedding-ring, of common make, that had once been engine-turned, but it was now so worn that nearly all the turning had disappeared. Its aspect seemed to tell that the hand on which it had grown so thin had never recoiled from any task or duty, but had been ever active and energetic, washing glasses and pots, making beds, rubbing, cleaning, dusting, and leaving no corner untouched. This ring, indeed, seemed to tell so much, and it had left particles of its gold in so many scenes of the past, that the men gazed at it with earnest eyes in silent emotion.
"When you have worn it away as much as your mother did," said Monsieur Charles, choking with a sudden spasm of grief, "you will have really deserved a rest. If it could speak, it could tell you that money is earned by hard work and orderly habits."
Elodie burst into tears, and pressed the ring to her lips again.
"I want you, you know, to be married with this ring when we find you a husband," said Madame Charles.
The mention of marriage, however, was too much for the sorrowing girl, and she was so overcome with confusion that she threw herself wildly on her grandmother's breast, and hid her face out of sight.
"Come, now, don't be so shy and nervous, my little pet," said Madame Charles, smiling, and trying to calm the girl. "You must get accustomed to the idea: there's nothing dreadful about it. You may be quite sure that I wouldn't say anything improper before you. Your cousin Buteau asked just now what we were going to do with you. Well, we shall begin by marrying you. Come, now, dear, look up, and don't rub your face against my shawl like that. It will make your skin quite red and inflamed."
Then she added in a low tone, speaking to the others, with an air of profound satisfaction:
"What an innocent darling she is! She is guilelessness itself!"
"Ah, if we hadn't this dear angel," said Monsieur Charles, "we should be quite overcome with trouble—on account of the matter I mentioned to you. By the way, with all this worry my roses and pinks have suffered this year; and I can't tell what has gone wrong with my aviary, but all my birds are ailing. I have only found a little consolation in fishing; yesterday I caught a trout weighing three pounds. One ought to do one's best to be happy when one is in the country, don't you think so?"
Then they parted, Monsieur and Madame Charles renewing their promise to go and taste the new wine. Fouan, Buteau, and Hyacinthe walked on a few yards in silence, and then the old man gave utterance to what they were all three thinking.
"Well," he exclaimed, "the youngster who gets her with the house will be a lucky fellow!"
Bécu, who with the office of rural constable combined that of public drummer, had duly beaten his instrument by way of proclaiming the commencement of the vintage; and on the Monday morning the whole country-side was in a state of excitement, for every inhabitant had his vines, and not a single family would on any account have missed going to the slopes of the Aigre that day. The excitement of the village had, however, been brought to a climax by the fact that the new priest—for Rognes had at last allowed itself the luxury of a priest—had arrived on the previous evening at night-fall. Owing to the darkness he had only been indistinctly seen. The tongues of the villagers were consequently wagging most energetically, and the more so as the circumstances attending the priest's arrival were somewhat peculiar.
For some months after his quarrel with the inhabitants of Rognes, the Abbé Godard had persistently refused to set foot in the village. He only baptized, confessed, and married those who came to seek his services at Bazoches-le-Doyen. If any one had died at Rognes, they would doubtless have crumbled away waiting for him; though this point was never clearly settled, for no one took it into his head to die during this great quarrel. The priest had declared to his lordship the bishop that he would rather be dismissed than carry the blessed sacrament into such a region of abomination, where he was so badly treated by an utterly reprobate population of adulterers and drunkards, who, moreover, were sure of everlasting damnation, since they worshipped only the devil! And his lordship, apparently, agreed with the Abbé, for he allowed things to go on as they were till the rebellious flock showed signs of contrition.
Rognes was, consequently, without a priest; there was no mass, no anything, and the place was in a perfectly heathenish condition. At first some of the villagers felt a little surprise; but, then, things went on much as usual, in spite of all this. It neither rained more nor blew more than it had done before, and the village was saving a considerable sum of money, as it had no priest to pay. Then the villagers began to ask themselves whether it would not be as well to do without a priest altogether, as one did not really seem indispensable, and experience already proved that the crops did not suffer, and that they themselves did not die any faster owing to the absence of a pastor. Many of them professed themselves of this opinion—not only the wild scamps, like Lengaigne, but some steady, practical men of sound common-sense like Delhomme. Many others, however, on the other hand, were annoyed at not having a priest. It was not that they were more religious than the others, or more inclined to believe in the Divinity, but the fact of having no priest seemed to indicate that the village was either too poor or too miserly to pay for one. The villagers of Magnolles, only two hundred and eighty in number, ten fewer than the inhabitants of Rognes, supported a priest, and threw the fact at their neighbours' heads in such a provokingly scornful fashion that it led to blows. Then, too, the women clung to their old customs, and there was not one of them who would have consented to be married or buried without the services of a priest. The men themselves had occasionally gone to church, because every one went there. In short, there had always been a priest, and there must be one now, though they reserved to themselves perfect liberty of thought and action.
The municipal council was naturally called upon to deal with the question. Hourdequin, the mayor, who although he did not observe the practices of the faith still favoured religion as an instrument of government, made a political mistake in not taking any part in the contest, from a conciliatory desire not to show any bias in the official position which he held. The village was poor, said one party, so what was the use of burdening it with the expense—a considerable one for its small resources—which would be incurred in repairing the parsonage? Moreover, it was still hoped that the Abbé Godard would be induced to return. At last it came about that Macqueron, the assessor, who had formerly been a determined enemy of the cloth, placed himself at the head of the band of malcontents, who felt humiliated at not having a priest in the village. From that moment Macqueron must have entertained a desire to overthrow the mayor in view of taking his place. It was said, too, that he had become the agent of Monsieur Rochefontaine, the manufacturer of Châteaudun, who was again going to oppose Monsieur de Chédeville at the approaching elections. Hourdequin, whose farm demanded his close attention at that moment, and who was weary of his work, showed but little interest in the meetings of the council, letting his assessor take whatever steps he pleased; and the latter quickly won over the whole council to his views, and persuaded the members to vote the necessary funds for the establishment of a parish. Since Macqueron had contrived to get paid for that piece of land which had been required for the new road, and which he had formerly promised to give up gratuitously, he had been secretly called a sharper by the councillors, but in his presence they manifested great respect for him. Lengaigne alone protested against the vote, which, so he declared, would hand the village over to the Jesuits. Bécu, too, grumbled at it, for he had been turned out of the parsonage and garden, and had been housed in a tumble-down old cottage. For a month workmen had been employed renewing the plaster, putting in fresh panes of glass, and replacing the broken slates; and thus it came about that a priest had at last been able to install himself in the little house, which had been newly white-washed for his reception.
At early dawn the carts began to start for the vineyards, each of them carrying four or five large casks called gueulebées, and having one end knocked out. The girls and women sat in the carts among the baskets, while the men accompanied them on foot, whipping the horses forward. There was a perfect procession, and conversations were carried on from cart to cart amidst a general uproar of laughter and shouting.
Lengaigne's cart followed immediately behind the Macquerons', and, thanks to this, Flore and Cœlina, who had not spoken to each other for six months past, made friends again. Flore was accompanied by Bécu's wife, and Cœlina by her daughter Berthe. Their conversation immediately turned upon the subject of the new priest, and, amid the tramp of the horses, a flow of words rose up into the sharp air of the early morning.
"I caught a glimpse of him as he was getting his luggage down."
"Indeed! and what sort of a man is he?"
"Well, it was so dark I could scarcely see, but he seemed very tall and thin, and not strong; with a face as though he kept Lent perpetually. He seemed about thirty, with a very gentle expression."
"I hear that he comes from Auvergne, from the mountains where the folks are buried in snow for two-thirds of the year."
"How awful! Well, it will be a pleasant change for him to come here."
"Yes, indeed! You know, I suppose, that he is called Madeleine?"
"Madeline, Madeleine. Well, at all events, it isn't a man's name."
"I daresay he'll come and see us in the vineyards. Macqueron promised that he would bring him."
"Ah! Well, we must watch for him."
The carts drew up at the foot of the hill-side, along the road that skirted the Aigre. Presently in every little vineyard the women were busily at work amid the lines of stakes, bending down and cutting off the grapes with which they filled their baskets. The men had enough to do in emptying the women's baskets into their own, which they carried on their backs and emptied into the open casks. When all the casks of a cart were full, the vehicle was driven off; its load was discharged into the vat, and then the casks were brought back to be filled again.
There was such a heavy dew that morning that the dresses of the women were speedily soaked through. Fortunately, however, the weather was very fine, and the sun soon dried them again. There had been no rain for three weeks, and the grapes, about which the greatest fears had been entertained, had suddenly ripened and sweetened. Thus they were all in high spirits that fine morning, grinning and bawling, and indulging in most indelicate jokes which made the girls wriggle.
"How conceited that Cœlina used to be about her Berthe's delicate complexion!" said Flore to Madame Bécu, standing up and looking at Madame Macqueron in the adjoining vineyard; "why, the girl's face is now getting dreadfully yellow and shrunken."
"Yes," replied Madame Bécu, "that comes of not marrying the girl! They were wrong not to give her to the wheelwright's son. And they tell me, indeed, that she has done herself harm by bad habits."
Then bending double she went on cutting off the bunches.
"All that, however," she presently continued, "does not prevent the schoolmaster from being constantly about the place."
"Oh, that Lequeu," cried Flore; "he would grope with his nose in the mud if he thought he could pick up a copper or two! See, there he is coming to help them, the stupid fool!"
Then they relapsed into silence. Victor, who had returned from his regiment barely a fortnight before, was taking their baskets and emptying them into the one which Delphin carried on his back. That cunning snake, Lengaigne, had hired Delphin for the vintage, pretending that his own presence was necessary at the shop. The youngster, who had never left Rognes, gaped with amazement at sight of Victor, who had assumed a swaggering, rollicking manner; being, moreover, wonderfully altered in appearance, with his moustache and his little tuft of beard, his bumptious ways, and his forage-cap, which he still made a point of wearing. However, he was sorely mistaken if he thought that he was an object of envy to his companion; all his stories of barrack-life, and his exaggerated lying tales of merry-making, and girls, and drinking bouts, were quite thrown away. The young peasant shook his head in dazed stupefaction, and without feeling in the least attracted. To leave his nook would be paying too high a price for all those fine pleasures, he thought. He had already twice refused to go and make his fortune in a restaurant at Chartres with Nénesse.
"But when are you going to be a soldier, you whipper-snapper?" Victor asked.
"What? I a soldier! No, no! I shall draw a lucky number!"
The contemptuous Victor could not get any other answer from him. What a coward, he thought, was this big hulking fellow with the build of a Cossack! As he talked he went on emptying the women's baskets into the one which Delphin carried, and the young peasant did not so much as bend under the load. Then Victor pointed to Berthe, and joked about her in such a way that Delphin burst out into a fit of laughter, the basket on his back being almost capsized. As he went down the hill and emptied the grapes into one of the casks, he could still be heard almost choking with merriment.
In the Macquerons' vineyard, Berthe still continued to play the fine lady, using little scissors, instead of a bill-hook, to cut off the bunches, showing herself also nervously afraid of thorns and wasps, and expressing great alarm because her thin shoes, quite saturated with dew, did not dry again. Although she detested Lequeu, she tolerated his attentions, feeling flattered by the courtship of the only educated man present. Presently he took out his handkerchief to wipe the girl's shoes; but just then an unexpected apparition attracted their attention.
"Good gracious!" exclaimed Berthe, "did you ever see such a dress? I heard that she had arrived yesterday evening, at the same time as the priest."
It was Suzanne, the Lengaignes' daughter, who had unexpectedly ventured to visit her native village, after leading a wild life in Paris for three years. She had reached home the previous evening, and had lingered late in bed, letting her mother and brother set out for the vineyard, and resolving to join them there later on, and appear in the midst of the peasants in such a showy toilet as would quite overwhelm them with admiration. And she certainly did create an immense sensation; for she had donned a blue silk dress of so bright a hue that the blue of the sky looked quite pale and faded. As she stood in full relief amid the dark green of the vines, bathed in a flood of sunshine, she looked a real swell—something wonderful. She immediately began to talk and laugh loudly, nibbling at the grapes, which she held up in the air and then dropped into her mouth. She joked with Delphin and her brother Victor, who seemed very proud of her, and she excited the wondering admiration of her mother and Madame Bécu, who, leaving off their work, gazed at her with damp, straining eyes. The vintagers in the more distant vineyards joined in the general admiration; work was stopped, and every eye was turned upon the girl, who had grown and improved out of all recognition. People had once thought her plain, but now she looked really appetising, no doubt on account of the way in which she brought her little fair locks of hair over her phiz. The result of this inquisitive examination was a great feeling of deference for this plump girl attired in such costly raiment, and with such a smiling face, betokening prosperity.
Cœlina, turning quite yellow with bile, and biting her lips, burst out angrily before her daughter Berthe and Lequeu.
"My gracious, what a swell! Flore tells every one she meets that her daughter has servants and a carriage in Paris. And I daresay it's true, too, for she must be making a deal of money to be able to deck her body out in that way!"
"Oh, those ne'er-do-wells!" said Lequeu, who wanted to make himself agreeable. "Every one knows how they get their money!"
"What does it matter how they get it," retorted Cœlina bitterly, "so long as they do get it?"
Just at this moment Suzanne, who had caught sight of Berthe, and had recognised in her one of her old companions among the Handmaidens of the Virgin, came up to her.
"Good morning. How are you?" she said very politely.
She scanned her with a scrutinising glance, and noticed her faded complexion. Then, rejoicing in the soft richness of her own milky flesh, she suddenly exclaimed, breaking out into a laugh:
"Everything's going on all right, I hope?"
"Quite so, thank you," replied Berthe, annoyed, and feeling quite crushed.
The Lengaignes were the heroes of the day, and the Macquerons felt that their noses were put out of joint. Cœlina angrily compared the sallow scrawniness of her daughter, whose face was already wrinkled, with the sleek and rosy beauty of the other girl. Was it just that that hussy, who gave herself up to men from morning till night, should look so fresh and bright, when a virtuous maiden grew as faded and wan in her lonely bed as if she had had three confinements? No, indeed, virtue went unrewarded, and it wasn't worth while for a girl to remain living an honest life with her parents! All the vintage parties greeted Suzanne enthusiastically. She kissed the children who had grown taller, and she stirred the old folks' hearts by reminding them of the past. What does it matter what one may be, as long as one has succeeded and is independent of other people's patronage? And Suzanne, said the peasants, showed that she had a good heart by not despising her family, and by coming back to see her old friends now that she had grown rich.
At the first stroke of noon they all sat down to eat their bread and cheese. On a line with the tops of the stakes you saw rows of women's heads covered with blue kerchiefs. None of them had any appetite, however, for they had been stuffing themselves with grapes ever since daybreak. Their throats were sticky with the sugary juice; their bellies, as round and swollen as barrels, rumbled with the purgative effects of what they had swallowed. Already at every minute some girl or other was obliged to retire behind a hedge. The others naturally laughed, and the men got up and guffawed jocosely as the girls went past them. It was a scene of general merriment, quite free from all constraint.
They were just finishing their bread and cheese when Macqueron came in sight on the road at the foot of the hill-side, accompanied by the Abbé Madeline. Then Suzanne was abruptly forgotten, and all eyes were turned upon the priest. To tell the truth, he did not create a very favourable impression. He was as lank as a pike-staff, and gloomy and ascetic-looking. However, he bowed in front of each vineyard, and said a pleasant word or two to every one, so that the peasants ended by finding him very polite and gentle. He evidently hadn't got any will of his own; they meant to make him do as they pleased. It would be easier to deal with him than with that cross-grained, cantankerous Abbé Godard! As he passed on, they joked and grew merry again behind his back. Soon he reached the top of the hill, and then, a prey to vague fear and gloomy melancholy, he stood motionless, gazing upon the vast grey plain of La Beauce. The big bright eyes of this mountain-born priest filled with tears as he thought of the narrow hill-bound landscapes of the gorges of Auvergne.
Buteau's vines were close to him. Lise and Françoise were gathering the grapes, while Hyacinthe, who had not failed to bring his father with him, had already got tipsy with the grape juice which he had swallowed while pretending to empty the small baskets into the large ones. The grapes were fermenting inside him, puffing him out with such a volume of gas that it sought escape from every aperture. The presence of the priest, too, seemed to excite him.
"You dirty brute!" Buteau cried to him, "can't you at least wait till his reverence has gone away?"
Hyacinthe, however, would not submit to the reprimand; assuming the air of a man who could be as refined as he chose, he replied:
"I'm not doing it on his account; I'm doing it to please myself."
Old Fouan had sat down on the ground, tired, but rejoicing in the lovely weather and the fine vintage. He was grinning maliciously at the thought that La Grande, whose vines were on the adjoining plot, had come to wish him good-day. She, like the others, had begun to treat him with respect, now that she had learnt that he still had some money of his own. However, she had turned away from him abruptly, having caught sight of her grandson, Hilarion, greedily taking advantage of her absence to stuff himself with grapes. She promptly administered a hiding to him with her stick. The gluttonous pig! he ate more than he put in the basket!
"Ah, that aunt. What a lot of people will be pleased when she's under ground," exclaimed Buteau, as he came and sat down for a moment by his father's side by way of paying court to him. "It's a crying shame that she should abuse the poor innocent in that way, for if he's as strong as a donkey, he's also quite as stupid."
Then he began to fall foul of the Delhommes, whose vines were down below, skirting the road. They had the finest vineyard in the neighbourhood, some seven acres all in one plot, and it took a good half-score hands to get in the crop. The carefully tended vines produced larger bunches than any of the neighbours' vineyards, a fact of which they were so proud that they affected to keep their own party quite distinct from the others, even disdaining to smile at the sudden colics which sent the girls in the adjoining plots scuttling behind the hedges. They were too much afraid of their legs, Buteau hinted, to care to climb up the hill to greet their old father, and so they pretended not to be aware of his presence there. Then he began to abuse Delhomme as a clumsy, cross-grained ass, who put on all sorts of airs, pretending to be industrious and just; and Fanny, too, was a shrew, losing her temper over the merest trifles, and demanding worship as though she were a saint. She remained quite unconscious of all the wrong she did to others!
"The truth is, father," Buteau continued, "that I've always been fond of you, whereas my brother and sister—Ah! I've always regretted that we parted for a mere nothing."
He then began to throw the blame of what had taken place upon Françoise, whose head, he said, had been turned by Jean. However, she had become steady now, he continued. If she showed any nonsense, he would cool her blood by ducking her in the horse-pond.
"Come, now, father, let bye-gones be forgotten. Why shouldn't you come back to us? Will you?"
Old Fouan remained discreetly silent. He had been expecting the offer which his younger son now made; but he was unwilling to give a definite reply either one way or the other, not feeling at all certain as to his best course.
Buteau assured himself that his brother was at the other end of the vineyard, and then resumed:
"It's hardly fit for you to stay with that scamp Hyacinthe. You'll probably be found there murdered one of these days. Now, if you'll come back to me, I'll board and lodge you, and pay you the allowance as well."
The old man raised his eyes in amazement; and as he still remained silent, his son determined to overwhelm him with his lavish offers.
"And I will take care that you have all your little luxuries, your coffee, and your glass, and your four sous' worth of tobacco; everything you wish for, in fact."
It was too tempting, and the old man began to feel alarmed. Certainly, things were getting bad at Hyacinthe's, but what if there should be a repetition of the old goings-on when he got back to the Buteaus' again?
"Well, we must see," was all he said; and then he got up, anxious to bring the conversation to a close.
The vintaging lasted until night-fall; the carts incessantly carrying off the grape-laden casks, and bringing them back empty. Under the wide expanse of rosy sky, among the vines gilded by the setting sun, the flitting of the baskets, large and small, became brisker, each worker being excited by the intoxicating effects of all these grapes that were carried to and fro. Berthe now had a misfortune. She was seized with such a sharp and sudden attack of colic that she was not able to run off, and her mother and Lequeu were obliged to form a rampart round her with their bodies, while she relieved herself amongst the stakes. The vintagers in the adjoining plot observed what was happening, and Victor and Delphin wanted to take her some paper. But Flore and Madame Bécu restrained them, saying that there were limits which only ill-bred persons would out-step.
At last they all set off home again. The Delhommes led the way; La Grande forced Hilarion to help the horse in pulling the cart along; and the Lengaignes and the Macquerons fraternised together in a maudlin, tipsy tenderness which made them forget their rivalry. What attracted most attention on the return home was the mutual politeness of the Abbé Madeline and Suzanne. The priest, seeing how well the girl was dressed, took her for a lady, and they walked along side by side, the Abbé showing her every attention, while she put on her sweetest manners, and inquired at what time mass was celebrated on Sunday. Behind them came Hyacinthe, who, in his hatred of priests, recommenced his disgusting tricks, determined in his tipsy obstinacy to have a spree. At every five yards he lifted up his leg and let fly. That hussy Suzanne bit her lips to keep from laughing, while the priest pretended not to hear; and gravely exchanging pious remarks they walked on behind the file of vintage carts, escorted by this disgusting music.
At last, as they were nearing Rognes, Buteau and Fouan, who felt quite ashamed of Hyacinthe, made an attempt to silence him. But he still persisted in continuing his tricks, and protested that his reverence was quite under a mistake if he felt in any way hurt.
"Don't I tell you that I mean no offence to any one, and that I am simply doing it for my own amusement?" he repeated.
The following week the Buteaus invited their friends to come and taste the new wine. Monsieur and Madame Charles, Fouan, Hyacinthe, and some four or five others were to meet at seven o'clock and partake of some leg of mutton, nuts, and cheese—a real repast, in fact. During the day Buteau had barrelled his wine. There were six casks of it, full to the bung. Some of his neighbours, however, were not so far advanced in their operations. One of them, who was still vintaging, had been hard at work all the morning treading his grapes in a state of complete nudity; another, armed with a bar, was watching the fermentation, and beating down the stalks and skins that rose to the surface of the bubbling must; a third, who had a press, squeezed the grape skins in it, and then threw them into his yard in a reeking heap. Scenes like these were going on in every house; and from the burning vats, the streaming presses, the overflowing casks, indeed from all Rognes there arose the fumes of the wine, which were so strong as to suffice to make every one intoxicated.
Just before leaving the Château that day, Fouan was seized with a vague presentiment, which induced him to remove his papers from their hiding-place beneath the lentils in the pan. He thought it as well to conceal them about his person, for he fancied he had detected Hyacinthe and La Trouille looking up into the air with a meaning expression. They all three set out, and arrived at the Buteaus' house at the same time as Monsieur and Madame Charles.
The full moon was so large and bright that it gave almost as much light as the sun; and as Fouan entered the yard, where one could have seen well enough to pick up a pin, he observed that Gédéon, the donkey, was in the outhouse, with his head inside a bucket. Fouan was not much surprised to see him at liberty, for he was a very cunning fellow, and frequently raised the latch with his mouth. The bucket, however, excited the old man's curiosity, and, going up to it, he recognised it as one of the buckets used in the cellar, which had contained some wine from the press, left after Buteau had finished filling the casks. That cursed Gédéon was emptying it.
"Look sharp here, Buteau!" called the old man. "Here's this donkey of yours up to fine tricks!"
Buteau appeared at the kitchen door.
"What's the matter?" he asked.
"Gédéon's swilled all the wine up!"
Amid this shouting, the donkey quietly finished sucking up the liquor. He had probably been at work for the last quarter of an hour, for the bucket held some four or five gallons. Every drop of the wine had been drunk, and Gédéon's belly was as round as a bottle, and seemed on the point of bursting. When at last he raised his head, his tipsy nose was dripping with wine, and there was a red line across it, just under his eyes, showing how far he had dipped his phiz into the liquor.
"Oh, the brute!" roared Buteau, rushing up; "it's just like his tricks. There never was a creature so full of vice."
Generally, when Gédéon heard himself reproached for his vices, he assumed an air of contemptuous indifference, and leisurely spread out his broad ears; but to-day he seemed completely intoxicated, and lost to all sense of respect, for he positively sniggered as he wagged his head about, thus shamelessly expressing the enjoyment he had derived from his debauchery. He stumbled when his master gave him a violent shove, and would have fallen if Fouan had not propped him up with his shoulder.
"The damned pig is dead drunk!" cried Buteau.
"'Drunk as an ass!' This is the moment to apply the proverb," remarked Hyacinthe, who grinned merrily as he gazed at the animal with sympathetic admiration. "A bucketful at a draught! What a magnificent swallow!"
Buteau, however, saw nothing to laugh about; neither did Lise nor Françoise, who had now hurried up, attracted by the noise. To begin with, there was the loss of the wine; and more than that, there was the confusion into which the disgraceful conduct of the donkey threw them in presence of Monsieur and Madame Charles. These latter were already biting their lips on account of Elodie. To make matters worse, chance would have it that Suzanne and Berthe, who had been taking a stroll together, had met the Abbé Madeline just by the door, and the three of them had stopped there, and were looking on waiting for the finish. A pretty business this, under the eyes of all these fine folks!
"Shove him along, father!" whispered Buteau. "We must get him back into the stable as quickly as possible!"
Fouan shoved, but Gédéon, finding himself very happy and comfortable where he was, declined to stir. He showed no malice, only a good-humoured tipsy perversity. There was a merry jocular glance in his eye, and his dripping mouth seemed twisted into a smile. He made himself as heavy as he could, and reeled about on his outstretched legs, pulling himself together again after every shove, as though he looked upon the whole business as some merry game. Buteau, however, intervened, and shoved the donkey in his turn, whereupon Gédéon turned a summersault, with his four feet in the air; rolling about on his back and braying so loudly that he seemed not to care a curse for all the people looking at him.
"Ah, you foul, good-for-nothing brute!" roared Buteau, assailing the animal with a shower of kicks. "I'll teach you to put yourself into this condition!"
Hyacinthe, full of indulgence for the intoxicated donkey, now interposed.
"Come, come," he exclaimed, "since the brute is drunk, it's no use lecturing him, for he can't understand you. You had much better help him back to his stable."
Monsieur and Madame Charles had drawn on one side, quite shocked by the shameless conduct of the donkey; while Elodie, blushing as deeply as though she had been forced to look upon some indecent spectacle, turned her head away. The group at the door, the priest, Suzanne, and Berthe assumed an attitude of silent protestation. Several neighbours now came up and began to sneer noisily. Lise and Françoise almost wept from shame.
Buteau, however, screwing down his rage, endeavoured with the help of Fouan and Hyacinthe, to get Gédéon on his legs again. This was no easy matter, for the tipsy brute, with the bucketful of wine in his belly, seemed to weigh as much as five hundred thousand devils. As soon as they had raised him on one side he fell down again on the other; and at last the three men got quite exhausted by trying to shove him up, and supporting him with their knees and elbows. Finally they had managed to get him on to his feet again, and even succeeded in forcing him a few steps forward, when he suddenly stumbled and fell over backwards. The whole yard had to be crossed to reach the stable. What was to be done?
"Ten thousand devils take him!" cried the three men, as they examined him from every point of view, quite at a loss as to how they should next proceed.
It then occurred to Hyacinthe to prop the animal up against the side of the shed, and then push him along, keeping him propped up against the wall of the house, till the stable was reached. This plan succeeded very well at first, although the animal got sadly scratched and grazed by the rough wall plaster. The misfortune was that presently this scratching and grazing became more than the brute could bear, and, suddenly wrenching himself free from the hands that were holding him to the wall, he reared up and pranced about.
Old Fouan was almost knocked down.
"Stop him! stop him!" yelled the two brothers.
Then in the dazzling brightness of the moonlight Gédéon was to be seen galloping about the yard in frantic zig-zags, with his two huge ears swaying wildly. The men had shaken his belly too violently, and the poor brute now felt very ill. A tremendous preliminary retch brought him to a standstill, and he almost toppled over. Then he tried to set off again, but his legs stiffened and he stood rooted to the ground. He stretched out his neck, and his flanks were shaken by violent spasms. Finally, reeling about like a drunken man striving to relieve himself, and reaching his head forward at every effort, he vomited a perfect river of red fluid, a furious torrent that flowed on as far as the pond.
A ringing chorus of laughter resounded from the door, where some peasants were clustering together; while the Abbé Madeline, who had a weak stomach, turned very pale between Suzanne and Berthe, who led him away with indignant protestations. The offended demeanour of Monsieur and Madame Charles plainly proclaimed that the exhibition of a donkey in such a condition as this was a breach of all decorum, and even of the simple politeness due to passers-by. Elodie, in weeping consternation, threw her arms round her grandmother's neck, asking if the animal were going to die. It was in vain that Monsieur Charles cried out: "Stop! stop!" in the old imperious tone of a master accustomed to be obeyed, the wretched brute went on bringing up this ruddy stream till the whole yard was full of it. Then he slipped down and began to wallow about in the mess, with his legs widely separated, and in such an indecent posture that no tipsy man, lying across a footway, could ever have presented a more disgusting sight to passing spectators. It really seemed as though the brute were purposely doing all he could to disgrace his master. The spectacle was really too dreadful, and Lise and Françoise, covering their eyes with their hands, fled for refuge into the house.
"There! there! we've had enough of this! Carry him away!"
Indeed, nothing else could be done, for Gédéon, who had become as limp as a wet rag, and very drowsy, was fast falling asleep. Buteau went off to get a stretcher, and six men helped him to lift the ass on to it. Then they carried the animal away; his legs hanging down, his head dangling about, and already snoring so noisily that it seemed as though he were braying, and still jeering contemptuously at everybody.
This adventure naturally threw a cloud over the commencement of the feast; but the party quickly recovered their spirits, and they ended by partaking so freely of the new wine that, towards eleven o'clock, they were all in much the same condition as the donkey. Every moment or so one of them found it necessary to retire into the yard.
Old Fouan was very merry; and he reflected that it might really be advisable for him to come and reside again with his younger son, for the wine promised to be excellent that year. He was obliged to leave the room in his turn, and was thinking the matter over, outside in the dark night, when he was startled to hear Buteau and Lise, who had come out immediately after him, quarrelling as they squatted down, side by side, against the wall. The husband was reproaching his wife for not showing herself sufficiently affectionate towards his father. The fool she was, said he, why she ought to wheedle and coax the old chap so as to get him back into the house again; and then they could lay their hands on his hoard. The old man, suddenly sobered and quite cold, felt at his pockets to make sure that he had not been robbed of his bonds; and when, after the parting embraces all round he again reached the Château, he had firmly resolved not to change his quarters.
That very night, however, he beheld a sight which froze his blood. He saw La Trouille in her chemise steal into his room, which was lighted up by the bright moon, and prowl about, carefully searching his blouse and his trousers, and even looking under his chamber-vase. It was evident that Hyacinthe, having missed the papers which had been removed from their hiding-place under the lentils, had sent his daughter to try and find them.
After that Fouan felt unable to remain any longer in bed; his brain was too excited. So he got up and opened the window. The night was now dark, and an odour of wine streamed up from Rognes, mingled with the stench of all the filth beside the walls, over which folks had stridden for a week past. What should he do? Where should he go? As for his bonds, he would never again let them leave his own possession. He would sew them to his skin. Then, as the wind swept the strong odour into his face, he thought of Gédéon. A donkey had a splendid constitution and no mistake, he said to himself; it could get ten times as drunk as a man without coming to any great harm. But what was he to do himself? Robbed in his younger son's house, robbed in his elder son's house; there really seemed no choice. The best thing seemed to be to remain at the Château, and keep his eyes open, and wait. Every bone in his old body was shaking.