The week passed away, and Françoise still persisted in her refusal to return to her sister's house. There was a terrible scene one day on the road. Buteau, who was dragging the girl away by the hair, was obliged to let go on having his thumb severely bitten. Macqueron then became so alarmed that he turned the girl out of his house, saying that as he was the representative of the law he could not encourage her in her rebellion.
La Grande happened to be passing at the time, and she took Françoise home with her. The old woman was now eighty-eight years of age, but she never thought about dying except as a means of bequeathing to her heirs the worry of endless litigation in reference to her fortune. She had made an extraordinarily complicated will, mixing everything up with absolute delight; and, under the pretext of wronging no one, she had left such directions as would compel the heirs to devour one another. She had done this quite deliberately, feeling a satisfaction in the thought that although she could not take her property with her to the grave, she would at any rate go off with the consolation of having done her very best to set all her relations by the ears. Nothing gave her more pleasure than to see them quarrelling with one another, and this it was that prompted her to take her niece into her own house. Her natural stinginess made her hesitate just for a moment, but she came to a decision at the thought that she would get a large amount of work out of the girl in return for a small amount of food. That very evening, in fact, she made her wash the whole house. When Buteau made his appearance, she stood up and confronted him with her wicked-looking old nose which resembled the beak of some aged bird of prey; and he who had talked of smashing everything at the Macquerons' here began to tremble and stammer, too much paralyzed by the fear of losing his share of La Grande's property to dare to engage in a struggle with her.
"I want Françoise here," she said, "and I mean to keep her, since she is not comfortable with you. Besides, she is of age now, and you have certain accounts to render her. We shall have to talk about them."
Buteau went off in a furious frame of mind, alarmed at the trouble and annoyance which he realised were in store for him.
Just a week afterwards, indeed, about the middle of August, Françoise at last came of age. She was now her own mistress. By her change of residence, however, she had done little more than change her troubles, for she, also, trembled before her aunt, and was nearly killed by over-work in this cold, parsimoniously-managed house, where everything had to be made shiny without any expenditure upon soap or brushes. Cold water and elbow-grease had to suffice for everything. One day the girl almost got her head cut open by a blow from her aunt's stick, merely for forgetting herself so far as to give the fowls some grain.
Several of the neighbours said that, in her anxiety to spare her horse, La Grande harnessed her grandson Hilarion to the plough; and, even if that was an exaggeration, there was no doubt but that she did treat the lad like a beast of burden, beating him and almost killing him with work, abusing of his great strength to such a degree that he sank down quite worn out with exhaustion, and feeding him so miserably, with mere crusts and leavings, just as though he were a pig, that he was always on the verge of starvation, as well as being stupefied with fear. When Françoise discovered that she was meant to make up the second horse in the pair, her one thought was of how she might get away from the house; and then it was that she suddenly determined to marry.
She was simply prompted by the wish to finish with it all. With her ingrained and obstinate ideas of justice, ideas which even in her childhood had caused her no little trouble, she would rather have killed herself than have gone back to her sister's. She wanted nothing but justice, she told herself, and she despised herself for having submitted so long. She now made no reference to the swinish Buteau; it was only of her sister that she spoke harshly, saying that if it had not been for her they could still have continued living all together. Now that this rupture had taken place between them, a rupture which could never be healed, she only lived to obtain her property, her share in the inheritance. The thought of this worried her from morning to night, and she went wild on account of the endless formalities that would have to be gone through. What was the good of them all? This is mine! that is yours! Why couldn't the whole thing be settled in a couple of minutes? It could only be, she declared, because every one was in league to rob her. She suspected the whole family, and came to the conclusion that her only means of extricating herself from this predicament was to take a husband.
Jean, certainly, had not got an inch of land, and he was fifteen years her senior. But then no one else had asked for her, and perhaps no one else would have dared to take her, from fear of Buteau, who was so generally dreaded in Rognes that no one cared to have him for an adversary. Then, too, she and Jean had had to do with each other once; though this fact was not of much importance, since it had had no consequences. On the other hand, he was gentle, and kindly, and straightforward. Why not take him, since there was no one else she cared about, and as her only object in marrying was to get some one to defend her interests and to do what she could to enrage Buteau? Yes, she, too, would have a man of her own!
Jean still retained a great affection for her, although with time his lustful desire to possess her had greatly quieted down. But he still adhered to her, and looked upon himself as engaged to her by reason of the promises they had exchanged. He had waited patiently till she was of age, without harassing her to depart from the waiting course she had determined upon, and he had even restrained her from acting in any way against her own interests while she remained at her sister's. As a result, there was now every reason why all honourable people should be on her side. And, although he blamed her for the tempestuous way in which she had left the Buteaus, he repeated that she now had the game in her hands. Whenever she chose to speak of the other matter he should be ready and willing to hear her.
Their marriage was agreed upon in this wise, one evening when he had come to meet her behind La Grande's cow-house. There was a rotten old gate there, opening into a court, and they were leaning against it, he outside and she inside, with the stream of liquid manure from the stable trickling between their feet.
The girl was the first to refer to the subject.
"If you're still of the same mind, Corporal, I'm willing to consent now," she said, looking him straight in the eyes.
He returned her look, and replied slowly:
"I've not said anything to you about it lately, because it would have seemed as if I wanted your property. But you are right all the same. Now's the time."
Then there was a pause. Jean had laid his hand upon the girl's, which was resting upon the gate. Then he resumed: "You mustn't let any of the neighbours' gossip about La Cognette trouble you. It's three years and more since I even touched her."
"And you," she exclaimed, "you mustn't worry yourself about Buteau. The swine brags everywhere that he has had to do with me. Perhaps you believe it?"
"Everybody in the neighbourhood believes it," Jean murmured, evading a direct reply.
Then, seeing that she was still looking at him, he continued:
"Well, yes, I did believe it. I knew the scoundrel so well, that I didn't see how you could possibly have prevented him."
"Oh, he tried often enough, and I suffered dreadfully at his hands; but if I swear to you that he never gained his ends, will you believe me?"
"Yes, I believe you."
Then, in token of his pleasure, he closed his fingers round her hand, and kept it pressed in his own as he stood with his arm resting on the gate. Noticing that the dribbling stream from the stable was wetting his boots, he set his legs apart.
"You seemed to stick on there so persistently," he continued, "that it almost appeared as though you enjoyed his buffetings."
The girl felt ill at ease, and her frank, straightforward gaze was lowered.
"And the more so," he added, "as you wouldn't have anything more to do with me. Well, it's all the better now, isn't it? That baby I so wanted still remains to come. It's altogether more respectable, too."
He stopped to tell her that she was standing in the dirty stream.
"Take care; you are wetting your feet."
She took them out of the slush, and then observed:
"We are agreed about it, then?"
"Yes, we are agreed. Choose any time you like."
They did not even kiss each other, but just shook hands across the gate like a couple of friends. Then they went off in opposite directions.
When Françoise informed her aunt that same evening of her intention to marry Jean, explaining to her her need of a husband to assist her in recovering her property, La Grande at first made no reply. She sat stiffly in her chair with her eyes widely opened, calculating the loss and gain and pleasure which she was likely to derive from the marriage, and it was only the next day that she expressed her approval of it. She had been thinking the matter over all night long as she lay on her straw mattress, for she slept very little now, and would lie with open eyes till day dawned, plotting how she might make things disagreeable for the different members of her family. This marriage seemed to her to be so pregnant with unpleasant consequences for everybody, that she longed to see it come off with quite a youthful feverishness. She could already foresee even the smallest among the numerous vexations which would arise from it, and she was scheming how she might embitter them, and render them as fatal as possible. She was so pleased, indeed, that she told her niece that she would take the whole matter upon herself for affection's sake. She emphasised the word by a terrible shake of her stick. Since the others had cast the girl off, she would take the place of her mother, and folks would see how she managed matters.
As a first step, La Grande summoned her brother Fouan to talk to him about the accounts of the guardianship. The old man, however, could not give her any information. It wasn't his doing, he said, that he had been appointed guardian, and as Monsieur Baillehache had managed everything, he ought to be applied to. Moreover, when he discovered that the old woman was bent upon annoying the Buteaus, he affected still greater bewilderment. Age, and the consciousness of his weakness, filled him with uneasy alarm for himself; he felt that he was at everybody's mercy. Why should he quarrel with the Buteaus? He had twice almost made up his mind to return to them after nights of quaking fear, during which he had seen Hyacinthe and La Trouille ferreting about his room, and even thrusting their bare arms under his bolster, trying to rob him of his papers. He felt quite convinced that he would be murdered some night or other at the Château if he did not escape from it.
La Grande, being unable to glean anything from him, dismissed him in a state of great alarm, shouting out that he should be prosecuted if he had tampered with the girl's property. Then she attacked Delhomme, as a member of the family council, and gave him such a fright that he went home ill, Fanny coming at once to tell the old woman that they would prefer paying money down to being worried with law-suits. La Grande chuckled. The game was beginning to be very amusing!
The question she now set herself to solve was whether the division of the property should be pressed forward as the next step, or whether the marriage should take place first. She pondered over it for two nights, and pronounced in favour of an immediate marriage. Françoise, married to Jean and claiming her share of the property, assisted by her husband, would anger the Buteaus extremely. She then hurried things forward, seeming to regain the nimble activity of youth, and she busied herself about obtaining the necessary documents on behalf of Françoise, and made Jean give her his. Then she made all the arrangements both for the civil and religious weddings, and her eagerness even carried her so far that she advanced the necessary money, taking care, however, to obtain in exchange for it a receipt signed by both Jean and Françoise—a receipt in which the sum advanced was doubled by way of providing for the interest. The glasses of wine which she was forced to offer to the guests during the preparations wrenched her heart-strings more than anything else, but as she was provided with her vinegary liquid, her "gnat destroyer," folks were not pressing in this respect. She decided that there should be no wedding feast on account of the divided state of the family. After the mass they would merely just swallow a glass of the "gnat destroyer," by way of drinking the health of the newly-married pair.
Monsieur and Madame Charles, who were invited, excused themselves on the ground that they were greatly worried on account of their son-in-law, Vaucogne. Fouan, who was in a most uneasy state of mind, went off to bed, and sent a message saying that he was ill. The only relation present was Delhomme, who consented to act as one of Françoise's witnesses, to mark the esteem which he felt for that steady fellow, Jean. The latter, on his side, only brought his witnesses—his master, Hourdequin, and one of the farm-hands, a companion. Rognes was topsy-turvy, and at every doorway people watched for this wedding, which had been so energetically pushed forward, and which seemed likely to provoke so much quarrelling and fighting.
At the ceremony at the municipal offices Macqueron, inflated with self-importance, went through the formalities, in presence of the ex-mayor, in an exaggerated manner. At the church there was a painful incident. The Abbé Madeline fainted while he was saying mass. He was not feeling well. He regretted his native mountains since he had begun to live in flat La Beauce, and he was extremely distressed by the indifference of his new parishioners for religion, and so upset by the continued chattering and squabbling of the women, that he no longer dared even to threaten them with hell. They had realised that he was of a yielding disposition, and they took advantage of this to tyrannise over him even in religious matters. However, Cœlina, and Flore, and all the other women present at the ceremony, expressed extreme sorrow for his having fallen with his nose against the altar, and they declared that it was an omen of misfortune and approaching death for the bride and bridegroom.
It had been settled that Françoise should continue to live at La Grande's till she had received her share of the property; for, with her characteristic determination, she had quite made up her mind that she would have the house. So what was the good of taking one elsewhere just for a fortnight or so? Jean, who was to retain his post as waggoner at the farm, would in the meantime join her every evening. Their wedding night was a very sad and stupid one, though they were glad to be at last together. When Jean took his wife in his arms, she began to sob so violently that she almost choked: not that he used the least roughness towards her; on the contrary, he treated her with the utmost gentleness. In reply to his questions she told him, still sobbing bitterly, that she had no complaint to make against him, but that she could not help crying, though she did not know why she was doing so. Such a wedding night as this was not calculated to make a man very ardent. Though he embraced her and held her clasped in his arms, a feeling of troubled constraint seemed to have come between them. Apart from that they got on very well together, and being unable to sleep, they spent the remainder of the night in speculating as to how their affairs would progress, when they got hold of the house and land.
The next morning Françoise was anxious to demand her share of the property. But La Grande now showed no great hurry to have the matter settled. She wanted to make her spiteful enjoyment last as long as possible, bleeding her relations by slow degrees with pin-thrusts; and then, again, she profited too much by the services of Françoise and her husband, who paid the rent of the bedroom by two hours' work every evening, to be anxious to see them leave her and establish themselves in a house of their own.
It was necessary, however, to ask the Buteaus how they proposed to divide the property. La Grande, on behalf of her niece, claimed the house, half the arable land, and half the meadow, foregoing the half of the vineyard as a set-off against the house, estimating it as being of the same value. It was a very fair proposal, and if matters had been thus arranged in a friendly way, a recourse to the law, which always retains a good slice of everything it gets hold of, would have been avoided. Buteau, whom La Grande's arrival had revolutionised—he was forced to be respectful with her on account of her money—dared not listen any longer, but rushed out of the room, afraid lest he might so far forget his own interests as to strike the old woman.
Lise who was left alone with her, and whose ears were red with anger, stammered out:
"The house, indeed! She wants the house, does she? this heartless hussy, this good-for-nothing who has got married without even coming to see me! Well, aunt, you can tell her from me that if ever she gets this house it will only be because I'm dead!"
La Grande remained perfectly calm.
"All right, all right, my child. There's no occasion to get excited. You also want the house. Well, you have an equal right to it. We will see what is to be done."
For the next three days the old woman went backwards and forwards from one sister to the other, reporting to each of them all the abuse which the other had indulged in, and exasperating them to such a degree that both of them almost took to their beds. La Grande, unwearying in her embassies, impressed upon them how great her affection for them was, and what an amount of gratitude they owed her for undertaking this unpleasant task. It was finally settled that the land should be divided between the two sisters, but that the house, the furniture, and the live stock should be sold, since they could not agree about them. Both the sisters swore that they would buy the house, even if they had to part with their last chemise to do it.
So Grosbois came to survey the land and divide it into two lots. There were two and a half acres of meadow land, about the same amount of vineyard, and about five acres of plough land. It was this latter that Buteau, since his marriage, had been so determined to retain, for it adjoined a field of his own which he had obtained from his father, and the two plots together made up a parcel of between seven and eight acres, such as no other peasant in all Rognes possessed. He was, consequently, full of bitter wrath when he saw Grosbois setting up his square and sticking his poles into the ground. La Grande was there superintending, but Jean had thought it best not to be present, fearing that there might be a fight if he came. As it was, there was an angry discussion. Buteau wanted the line of division to be drawn parallel to the valley of the Aigre, so that his wife's share might still adjoin his own field; while La Grande, on the other hand, insisted that the line should be drawn perpendicularly, asserting that this was the way in which the family property had always been divided for centuries past. The old woman won the day, and Buteau clenched his fists and almost choked with suppressed rage.
"Curse it! Why, if the first lot falls to me," he blurted out, "my land will be cut up into two pieces. There will be this piece in one place, and my own field in another."
"Well, my lad," rejoined the old woman, "you must draw the lot that suits you best."
For a month past Buteau had been in a state of the angriest excitement. In the first place, Françoise was escaping him. He had become quite ill with longing desire, now that he was no longer able to seize hold of the girl as he had been wont to do, and to obstinately hope on that he would succeed in effecting his purpose some day or other. And, now that she was married, the thought that another man could do as he pleased with her, ended by putting him in a perfect fever. And then this other man was now trying to get his land into his possession, too. He felt that he would as soon lose a limb. The girl he might, perhaps, have, but not the land; the land which he, Buteau, had always looked upon as his own, and with which he had sworn never to part! He began to indulge in the most bloodthirsty thoughts, and ransacked his brains for some method by which he might be able to keep the land, dreaming vaguely of murders and acts of violence, which only his terror of the gendarmes prevented him from committing.
At last a meeting was arranged at Monsieur Baillehache's office, at which Buteau and Lise, for the first time since the marriage, again found themselves in the presence of Françoise and Jean, whom La Grande had accompanied for the pleasure of the thing, and under the pretext of seeing that nothing wrong was done. The five of them went into the private office in silence, comporting themselves stiffly. The Buteaus seated themselves on the right. On the left, Jean remained standing behind Françoise's chair, as though to express that he was not of the meeting, but had simply come to support his wife. The aunt, tall and scrawny, sat down in the middle, turning her round eyes and her hawk-like beak first on one couple and then on the other with a satisfied air. The two sisters did not even appear to know each other. They sat there with a hard expression on their faces, without exchanging a single word or look. The men, however, had given one another a rapid glance, gleaming and penetrating like a dagger thrust.
"Now, my friends," said Monsieur Baillehache, who remained calm amid all these expressions of murderous hate, "we are first of all going to finish with the division of the land, upon which subject we are now quite agreed."
He then made them affix their signatures forthwith. The parchment was already engrossed, blanks being left after the names of the parties for the description of the various parcels, and they all had to sign before the lots were drawn, which ceremony was immediately proceeded with, in order to prevent any trouble.
Françoise, having drawn number two, number one was, of course, left for Lise, and Buteau's face turned quite purple from the angry surging of his blood. Luck was always against him! Here was his land cut atwain, and this hussy and her man had their share between his two parcels!
"The devil take and confound them all!" he growled from between his clenched teeth.
The notary requested him to restrain his feelings till he got into the street again.
"This will cut up our land," remarked Lise, without turning towards her sister. "Perhaps we might be able to make an exchange. It would suit us better, and be to no one's disadvantage."
"No!" said Françoise, drily.
La Grande nodded her approval. It would bring bad luck to interfere with the ruling of chance. The result of the drawing made the old woman gay. As for Jean, who was still standing behind his wife, he seemed so determined to hold himself aloof from the proceedings that he had not moved, and his face was a perfect blank.
"Come now, let us finish with it all," said the notary.
The two sisters had, by common consent, deputed him to arrange for the sale of the house and furniture and live stock. The sale was advertised to take place in his office on the second Sunday in the month, and the conditions of the sale stated that the purchaser could have the right of entering into possession on the same day. When the sale was over, the notary would at once proceed to balance accounts between the two co-heiresses. The different parties concerned signified their approval of all this by silently nodding their heads.
Just at this moment, however, Fouan, who had been summoned to attend the meeting as Françoise's guardian, was introduced by a clerk, who prevented Hyacinthe from coming in at the same time, on account of his intoxicated condition. Although more than a month had elapsed since Françoise had attained her majority, the accounts of the guardianship had not yet been rendered; and this fact tended to complicate matters. It was necessary for the accounts to be passed before the old man could be released from his responsibility. He looked first at one party, and then at the other, straining his little eyes, and trembling with increasing fear lest he should find himself compromised and given up to justice.
An abstract of the accounts had been prepared, and it was read by the notary. They all listened to it attentively, full of uneasy anxiety, since they could not completely understand, and fearing that if they let a word pass unheard that very word would somehow bring them into trouble.
"Have you any observations to make, any of you?" asked the notary when he had finished reading the abstract.
They all looked bewildered. What observations? Perhaps they had forgotten something, and were allowing themselves to be robbed.
"Excuse me," La Grande suddenly interposed, "but this by no means suits Françoise. My brother must be intentionally shutting his eyes if he can't see that the girl's being defrauded."
"I! what? eh?" stammered Fouan. "I haven't taken a copper of hers, so help me God!"
"I say that Françoise, since her sister's marriage, now nearly five years ago, has been employed as her servant, and that she is entitled to wages."
Buteau sprang up from his seat at this unexpected demand, and Lise almost choked with anger.
"Wages!" she cried; "wages to a sister! That is too ridiculous!"
Monsieur Baillehache hushed them, and declared that the girl was perfectly entitled to claim wages if she chose to do so.
"Yes, I do claim them," said Françoise; "I wish to have everything that is my due."
"But then you must take all her food into account!" cried Buteau, wild with excitement. "She makes short work with bread and meat! Just you feel her, and say if you think that she's got as fat as that on air!"
"And then there's her linen and dresses!" Lise added furiously; "and her washing! Why, she used to sweat so much that she'd soil a chemise in a couple of days."
"If I sweated like that," replied Françoise, with annoyance, "it was because I worked so hard."
"Sweat dries and doesn't soil," interposed La Grande, curtly.
Monsieur Baillehache again intervened. He told them that a debtor and creditor account would have to be drawn up, the wages on one side and the board and lodging and other expenses on the other. Then he took a pen, and made an attempt to draw up a statement from the information they gave him. It was a terrible business. Françoise, backed up by La Grande, showed herself very exacting, setting a high price upon her services, and detailing at length all that she had done while she was with the Buteaus: her work in the household, and with the cows, and out in the fields, where her brother-in-law had made her labour like a man. The exasperated Buteaus, on the other hand, swelled out the list of expenses as much as possible, counting up every meal, telling lies about the girl's clothes, and claiming even the money which had been spent in presents for her on fête-days. But, despite all they could do, they found themselves with a balance of a hundred and eighty-six francs against them. Their hands trembled and their eyes blazed as they tried to think of something else that they might charge for.
The statement was about to be passed when Buteau suddenly cried out:
"Stop a moment. There's the doctor. He came twice when she was out of sorts; that makes another six francs."
La Grande was by no means inclined to let the others enjoy this victory undisturbed, and she stirred up old Fouan to make him recollect how many days' work the girl had done on the farm while he was living in the house. Was it five days or six, at a franc and a half the day? Françoise cried six, and Lise cried five, hurling the words at each other's heads as though they had been stones. The distracted old man now supported one and then the other, tapping his forehead with his fists. Françoise, however, carried the day, and there was now a balance to her credit of a hundred and eighty-nine francs.
"Well, is everything included now?" asked the notary.
Buteau seemed quite crushed and overwhelmed with this ever-increasing liability, and no longer struggling, he sat there hoping that affairs had now seen their worst.
"I'll take off my shirt if they want it," he groaned in a doleful voice.
La Grande, however, had kept a last terrible bolt in reserve. It was a very important and simple matter, which everybody seemed to have forgotten.
"And then there's the five hundred francs compensation for the road up yonder."
Buteau now sprang wildly to his feet, his eyes projecting out of his head, and his mouth wide open. He could say nothing, however; no discussion was possible. He had received the money, and was bound to hand half of it over. For a moment he ransacked his brains for something to say, but he could not think of anything at all; and in the wild anger that was rising and making his head throb, he suddenly rushed forward at Jean.
"You filthy blackguard!" he cried, "it is you who killed our friendship! If it hadn't been for you, we should still have all been living together in peace and quiet!"
Jean, who had very sensibly preserved silence, was now forced to assume an attitude of defence.
"Keep off!" he said, "or I'll strike."
Françoise and Lise had hastily sprung up and planted themselves in front of their respective husbands, their faces swollen by their gradually accumulating hatred, and their nails outstretched and ready to tear each other's faces. A general engagement, which neither Fouan nor La Grande seemed inclined to prevent, would certainly have taken place, and caps and hair would soon have been flying about, if the notary had not thrown off his professional calmness.
"Confound it all!" he cried, "wait till you've got outside. It's disgusting that you can't settle your accounts without fighting!"
Then as the quivering antagonists quieted down, he added: "You are now agreed, I think, eh? Well, I will have the accounts made out in proper form, and then, when they have been signed, we will proceed to the sale of the house, and get the whole matter done with. Now you can go, and mind you are careful. Folly sometimes turns out very expensive!"
This remark finished pacifying them. As they were leaving, however, Hyacinthe, who had been waiting outside for his father, attacked the whole family, and roared out that it was a foul shame to involve a poor old man in their dirty business for the sake of robbing him, no doubt; and then, as his drunkenness made him affectionate, he took his father away, as he had brought him, in a cart, bedded with straw, which he had borrowed from a neighbour. The Buteaus went off on one side, while La Grande pushed Jean and Françoise towards "The Jolly Ploughman," where she had herself treated to some black coffee. She was radiant.
"At any rate I've had a good laugh!" she exclaimed, as she put the remains of the sugar into her pocket.
La Grande had another idea that same day. When she got back to Rognes, she hurried off to make an arrangement with old Saucisse, who had once been a lover of hers, so folks declared. The Buteaus having threatened to bid against Françoise for the house, even though it cost them all they possessed, it had occurred to her that if Saucisse bid on Françoise's behalf the others might not have any suspicions, but let him secure the house; he was their neighbour and might very well wish to enlarge his premises. In consideration of a present the old man immediately consented to do as he was asked.
On the second Sunday of the month, when the sale came off, matters turned out just as La Grande had foreseen. Once more the Buteaus were seated on one side of Monsieur Baillehache's office, and Françoise and Jean and La Grande on the other. There were also various other people there, some peasants, who had come with a vague idea of bidding, if things went very cheaply. After four or five bids from Lise and Françoise, the house stood at three thousand five hundred francs, which was just about its value. When they got to three thousand eight hundred, Françoise stopped. Then old Saucisse came upon the scene, pushed the bidding up to four thousand francs, and then on to an additional five hundred. The Buteaus looked at each other in consternation. They felt as though they could really go no higher; the thought of such a large sum of money quite froze their blood. Lise, however, let herself be carried away as far as five thousand francs; but then the old man quite crushed her by immediately bidding five thousand two hundred. That settled the business, and the house was knocked down to him for the five thousand two hundred francs. The Buteaus sniggered. It would be very pleasant to handle their share of this big sum of money, now that Françoise and her filthy blackguard of a husband had failed to get the house.
However, when Lise, upon her return to Rognes, once more entered the old house where she had been born and where she had hitherto lived, she burst into tears. Buteau, also, was dreadfully cut up and down-hearted, and he relieved his feelings by falling foul of his wife; swearing that if he had had his own way he would have parted with the last hair on his head rather than have let the house go. But your heartless women, he cried, refused to open their purses, except it were for self-indulgence. In this, however, he was lying, for it was he himself who had held Lise back. Then they got to blows. Ah! The poor old patrimonial abode of the Fouans, built by an ancestor three hundred years previously, and now crazy and cracked, mended and patched in every part, sunken and thrown forward by the sweeping winds of La Beauce! To think that the family had lived in it for three hundred years, that they had grown to love it and honour it as a holy relic, and that it was counted as a leading item in the inheritances! Buteau, at the thought of losing it, knocked his wife down with a back-hander, and when she struggled up again she kicked him so violently that she nearly broke his leg.
On the evening of the next day matters were even worse—the thunderbolt fell. Old Saucisse had gone in the morning to complete the sale, and by noon all Rognes knew that he had bought the house on behalf of Françoise, with her husband's authorisation; and not only the house, but the furniture also, and Gédéon and La Coliche. There was a howl of anguish and distress at the Buteaus', as though lightning had stricken them. Husband and wife threw themselves upon the ground, and roared and wept in their wild despair at finding themselves defeated, outwitted, by that hussy of a girl. What maddened them, perhaps, more than anything else, was the knowledge that the whole village was laughing at them for their lack of penetration. To be fooled in this way, and turned out of their own house by such a trick! No, indeed, it was too much! They would not submit to it!
When La Grande presented herself the same evening on Françoise's behalf, and politely inquired of Buteau when it would be convenient for him to give up possession, he thrust her out of the house, casting all prudence to the winds and only making use of a foul expression.
The old woman went off chuckling, simply remarking that she would send the bailiff. The next day, indeed, Vimeux, with a pale, uneasy face, and looking more pitiable than usual, came up the street and gently knocked at the door, anxiously watched by all the gossips in the neighbouring houses. No notice was taken of his knock, and he gave a louder one, and even summoned up enough courage to call out and explain that he had come to serve a notice to quit. Then the window of the garret was opened, and a voice roared out the same foul word as had been addressed to La Grande; while the contents of a chamber utensil were flung upon Vimeux, who, soaked from head to foot, had to go off without serving the notice. For a whole month Rognes roared over his adventure.
La Grande, however, now immediately went off to Châteaudun with Jean, to consult a lawyer. The latter explained to her that at least five days would be necessary before the Buteaus could be ejected. Complaint would have to be formally laid; then an order would have to be obtained from the presiding judge; this order would then have to be registered, and then the ejectment would take place, the bailiff being assisted by the gendarmes, if necessary. La Grande tried hard to get matters settled a day sooner, and when she returned to Rognes—it was then Tuesday—she told every one that on the Saturday evening the Buteaus would be turned into the street at the point of the sword like thieves, if they did not voluntarily take themselves off in the meantime.
When this was repeated to Buteau, he made a threatening gesture and told every one he met that he would never leave the house alive, and that the soldiers would have to break down the walls before they dragged him out. His fury acquired such an extravagant character that the whole neighbourhood was at a loss to know whether he was pretending to be mad, or really was so. He passed wildly along the roads, standing in the front of his cart, and keeping his horse at the gallop, without replying when he was spoken to or warning the foot passengers. He was met at nights, too, how in one part of the neighbourhood, now in another, returning from nobody knew where, possibly from seeing the fiend. One man who had ventured up to him had received a heavy cut from his whip. He spread terror abroad, and the whole village was soon constantly on the look-out. One morning it was seen that he had barricaded the house, and terrible cries were heard from behind the closed doors, piteous howls in which the neighbours fancied they could distinguish the voices of Lise and her two children, Laure and Jules. The whole neighbourhood was revolutionised, and took counsel together as to what should be done; with the result that an old peasant risked his life by raising a ladder to one of the windows, in view of climbing up to see what was going on inside. Buteau, however, opened the window, and overturned both the ladder and the old man, the latter almost having his legs broken. Couldn't a chap be left alone in his own house? Buteau roared as he shook his fists, and he threatened to murder everybody if they made any further attempt to interfere with him. Lise also appeared with her two children, and gave utterance to a flood of virulent language, abusing her neighbours for poking their noses into what did not concern them. After that no one dared to make any further attempt at interference; but the general alarm increased at every fresh outburst, and people shuddered as they listened to the dreadful uproar. The more cynical fellows thought that Buteau was only acting, but others swore that he had gone off his nut, and that some terrible result would ensue. The truth, however, was never known.
On the Friday, the day before the Buteaus were to be ejected, another scene caused great emotion. Buteau, having met his father near the church, began to cry like a calf, kneeling down on the ground in front of the old man, and asking pardon of him for all his previous misconduct. It was probably owing to that, he said, that his present troubles had come upon him. He besought his father to return to live with him, seeming to think that this alone could put fortune again on his side. Fouan, worried by all this braying, and amazed by his son's seeming repentance, promised to entertain the proposal some day, when all the family worries were over.
At last the Saturday arrived. Buteau's excitement had gone on increasing, and from morn to night he was ever harnessing and unharnessing his horse again without the slightest reason. Folks fled out of the way when they saw him driving furiously along, full of consternation at the sight of all this aimless rushing about. At about eight o'clock on the Saturday morning Buteau once more put his horse between the shafts, but did not leave his premises. He took up his stand at the door, calling out to every one who passed by, sniggering and sobbing and yelling out his troubles in coarse language. Oh, it was a nice thing, wasn't it? to be made a fool of by a young hussy who'd been his keep for the last five years! Yes, she was a strumpet, and so was his wife! Yes, a couple of fine strumpets, who fought together as to which of them he should belong. He continued harping upon this lie, inventing all kinds of nasty details out of spite and revengeful bitterness. Lise having come to the door, there was another atrocious scene between them. Buteau thrashed her in sight of everybody, and then sent her back again, limp and subdued, while he himself felt relieved by the hiding he had given her. He still remained at the door on the look-out for the agents of the law, which he jeered at and reviled. Had the law stopped on the way to make a beast of herself? he cried. At last, no longer expecting the bailiff, he became triumphant.
It was not till four o'clock that Vimeux made his appearance, accompanied by a couple of gendarmes. Buteau turned pale, and hastily closed the yard door. Possibly he had believed that matters would never be pushed to an extremity. A death-like silence fell upon the house. Protected by armed men, Vimeux was now quite insolent, and knocked at the door with his two fists. No answer was vouchsafed. Then the gendarmes came forward and made the old door shake with the butts of their guns. A crowd of men, women, and children had followed them; all Rognes was there, waiting to see the siege. Then suddenly the door was thrown open again, and Buteau was seen, standing in the front of his cart, and lashing his horse forward. He came out at a gallop, right into the midst of the assembled crowd.
"I'm going to drown myself! I'm going to drown myself!" he bellowed out amid the cries of alarm.
It was all up, and he was going to make an end of it by hurling himself and his horse and cart into the Aigre!
"Look out, there," he shouted; "I'm going to drown myself!"
Fright dispersed the inquisitive folks, as Buteau lashed his whip and the cart rushed wildly out. However, just as he was going to dash down the slope, at the risk of smashing the wheels of the vehicle, several men ran forward to arrest his course. The obstinate fool was quite capable of making the plunge, they cried, just for the sake of annoying people! They caught him up, but there was a struggle; while some sprang to the horse's head others had to climb into the cart. When they led him back to the house again, he clenched his teeth and stiffened his whole body, but said not a single word, letting fate take its course, with no other protest save the silence of impotent anger.
La Grande now made her appearance with Françoise and Jean, whom she was bringing to take possession of the house. Buteau contented himself with staring at them with the sombre gaze with which he now watched the completion of his misfortune. Lise, however, began to cry out and struggle, as though she were mad. The gendarmes had ordered her to take what belonged to her and quit the premises. There was nothing left for her but to obey, since her husband was poltroon enough, she cried, to stand by without striking a blow in her defence. With her arms a-kimbo, she began to abuse him.
"You craven! to stand by and allow us to be turned into the street in this way! You haven't got any pluck, eh? Why don't you hit the swine! Get out of my sight, you coward! You're no man!"
As she went on yelling all this in his face, exasperated by his quiescent demeanour, he at last gave her such a violent shove that she moaned. However, he still persisted in his silence, and merely glowered at her with his sombre eyes.
"Come now, look sharp," cried Vimeux, triumphantly, "We sha'n't go away till you have given up the keys to the new owners."
Lise thereupon began to remove her goods in a wild paroxysm of rage. During the last three days she and Buteau had already transferred a great many things, tools and implements, and the larger domestic utensils, to the house of their neighbour, La Frimat. It was indeed evident that they had really anticipated the ejection, for they had made arrangements with the old woman to have the use of her house till they had time to settle down again. The place was too big for La Frimat, who merely retained the bedroom to which her paralysed husband was confined.
As the furniture and live-stock had been sold together with the house, Lise merely had to remove her linen, her mattresses, and a few other trifling articles. Everything was tossed out of the door and windows into the middle of the yard, while the two little ones yelled as though they thought that their last day had come, Laure clinging to her mother's skirts, while Jules, who had tumbled down, was wallowing in the midst of the ejected property. As Buteau made no attempt to assist his wife, the gendarmes, like good fellows, began to place the bundles in the cart, which was still standing in front of the door.
However, the row commenced all over again when Lise caught sight of Françoise and Jean, standing beside La Grande. She rushed forward and gave free flow to all her accumulated wrath and spite.
"Ah, you filthy cat, you've come to look on with your tom, have you? Yes, feast your eyes on our trouble! It's just as though you were drinking our blood! You thief! you thief! you thief!"
She almost choked as she shouted this last word, which she hurled again at her sister every time she came out into the yard with some fresh burden. Françoise did not reply. She was very pale, her lips were closely pressed together, and her eyes seemed to be on fire. But soon she assumed an air of suspicious watchfulness, and gazed at everything that was brought out, as though she wished to make sure that nothing belonging to herself was taken away. Presently her eye fell upon a kitchen-stool which had been included in the sale.
"That belongs to me," she exclaimed in a rough voice.
"Belongs to you, does it?" replied her sister; "go and fetch it, then!" and she hurled the stool into the pond.
The house was at last evacuated. Buteau took hold of the horse's bridle, while Lise picked up her two children, her two last bundles, Jules in her right arm and Laure in the left. Then, as she finally left her home, she stepped up to Françoise and spat in her face.
"There! take that for yourself!"
Her sister immediately spat back at her.
"And you take that!"
After these farewell words, the offspring of their bitter hatred, Lise and Françoise slowly wiped their faces, without taking their eyes off one another. They were sundered for ever now; there was henceforth nothing in common between them save their kindred blood, which surged with such hot hate.
Finally, Buteau opened his mouth again to roar out the order to start, which he coupled with a threatening gesture in the direction of the house.
"It won't be long before we come back again!"
La Grande followed them to see the end of it all; and, indeed, now that the Buteaus were completely overthrown, she resolved to turn against Françoise and Jean, who had left her so speedily, and whom she already found much too happy together. For a long time the villagers continued standing about in groups, talking to each other in undertones. Françoise and Jean had entered the empty house.
While the Buteaus were unloading their bundles at La Frimat's they were amazed to see old Fouan appear. With a frightened look, and glancing behind him as though he was afraid of being pursued, he asked: "Is there a corner here for me? I have come to sleep here."
He had just fled in terror from Hyacinthe's. For a long time past whenever he awoke during the night he always saw that bony creature La Trouille prowling in her chemise about his room, searching for the papers, which he had now taken the precaution to conceal out-of-doors in a hole in a rock, which he had stopped up with earth. The girl was sent on this errand by her father on account of her light suppleness, and she glided about with bare feet just like a snake, insinuating herself everywhere, between the chairs and under the bed. She evinced the greatest enthusiasm in the search, feeling certain that the old man placed the papers somewhere about his person when he dressed himself, and exasperated that she could not discover where he hid them on going to bed. She had convinced herself that he did not put them in the bed itself, for she had felt everywhere with her slender arm, with such skilful dexterity that Fouan had scarcely known that she had touched him. On that particular day, however, soon after breakfast, he had had a fainting fit, falling against the table in a state of unconsciousness; and, as he came to himself again, still so overcome that he kept his eyes closed, he realised that he was lying on the ground near where he had fallen, and he could feel that Hyacinthe and La Trouille were undressing him. Instead of doing what they could to bring him round, the wretches had had but one idea, that of at once profiting by the fit to search him. La Trouille manifested an angry roughness in her search, not going about it in her wonted gentle manner, but pulling roughly at his jacket and trousers, and even examining every corner of his flesh to make sure that he had not concealed his treasure there. She turned him round, and then, stretching out his limbs, she searched him as though she were ransacking some old bag. Nothing! Where could he have hidden the papers? It was enough to make one cut him open and look inside!
The old man was in such terror lest he should be murdered if he moved that he still feigned unconsciousness, and kept his eyes closed and his legs and arms rigid. But as soon as he found himself free again he fled, firmly resolved never to spend another night at the Château.
"Tell me, can you give me a corner?" he asked again.
Buteau's spirits seemed to revive at his father's unexpected return. It was money that was coming back.
"Certainly I can, dad! We'll squeeze together to find a corner for you. It will bring us luck, too. Ah, I should be a rich man, if merely a good heart were needed to make one so!"
Françoise and Jean had slowly entered the empty house. The night was closing in, and the rooms lay silent in the mournful, fading light. Everything there was very old. This patrimonial roof had sheltered the toil and wretchedness of three centuries, and there was an air of solemnity about the place such as dwells in the gloom of an ancient village church. The doors were still standing open. It seemed as though a storm of wind had blown through the house; the chairs lay overturned on the ground amid the general chaos of the removal. The place looked as though it were dead.
Françoise slowly went over it, examining every corner. Vague recollections and confused sensations awoke in her as she proceeded. In that spot she had played as a child. It was in the kitchen, near that table, that her father had died. As she stood in the bedroom, in front of the bed stripped of its mattress, she thought of Lise and Buteau, and of the nights when they had embraced each other so vigorously that she could hear the sound of their panting breath through the ceiling. Was she even now to be tormented by them? She felt as though Buteau were still there. Here he had seized hold of her one night, and she had bitten him. And here again, too, and here. There was not a corner in the whole house that did not suggest some painful recollection.
Then as Françoise turned round, she started at seeing Jean. What was this stranger doing in the house? There was an air of constraint about him, as though he were on a visit, and did not like to take the liberty of touching anything. She felt overwhelmed with a feeling of solitude, and grew sick at heart to find that her victory had not made her more joyful. She had fancied she would enter the house, full of happiness, triumphant in the thought of having ejected her sister; but now the house afforded her no pleasure, and her heart was heavy and ill at ease. Perhaps it was the dying day that was filling her with melancholy!
When the night had quite fallen, she and her husband were still wandering from one room to another in the darkness, without having had the courage even to light a candle.
Presently, however, a noise brought them back into the kitchen, and they became merry on recognising Gédéon, who had effected an entrance after his usual custom, and had his head inside the side-board, which had been left open. Close by, inside the stable, they could hear old La Coliche lowing.
Then Jean, taking Françoise in his arms, kissed her tenderly, as though to say that, despite everything, they would be happy.