Prior to the ploughing, La Beauce, stretched beneath the grey, damp, November sky, was hidden from sight by a covering of manure. Carts were lumbering along the country roads, piled up with old straw litter, which filled the air with a smoky vapour; it was as though the vehicles were bearing a supply of heat to the soil. Little piles of litter from cattle-sheds and stables rose up over certain fields like surging waves, while on other patches the manure had already been spread out, and soiled the land with a dingy flood. In this mass of fermenting dung the rich fertility of the coming spring lay brooding; the decomposed matter was returning to the universal womb, and life would once more spring from death. From end to end of the vast plain the air reeked with the strong odour of the dung, which by-and-bye would bring forth bread for men.
One afternoon Jean was taking a heavy load of manure to his plot of land on the plateau. It was a month since he and Françoise had taken up their abode in the old house, and they had now dropped into the monotonous, though busy, routine of country life. As Jean approached his field he espied Buteau in the adjoining plot, with a pitchfork in his hand, engaged in spreading out the manure which had been placed there in heaps the previous week. The two men cast side-long glances at each other. Being neighbouring owners, they frequently met and worked in close proximity to each other. Buteau greatly suffered; for the loss of Françoise's share, torn from his seven-acre plot, had left him with two detached parcels, one on the right and one on the left of Françoise's strip, and he constantly had to make circuits to get to one parcel from the other. The two men never said a word to each other. The chance was that some day a quarrel would break out between them, and then they would murder each other with their pitchforks.
Jean now commenced to discharge his load of manure. He had mounted on to the top of it; and, buried in it up to his hips, he was throwing it down with his pitchfork, when Hourdequin passed by, having been engaged in a round of inspection all the morning. He had retained a kindly recollection of his servant, and he stopped to speak to him. His form seemed to have aged, and his face was worn with the anxiety which his farm and other matters were causing him.
"Why have you never tried phosphates, Jean?" he asked.
Then, without waiting for a reply, he went on talking for a long time, as though he were trying to drown his thoughts. The true solution of successful agriculture, he said, was to be looked for in these various natural and artificial manures. He himself had tried everything, and had just passed through that craze for manures which sometimes seizes hold of farmers like a fever. He had tried all manner of things, one after another; grass, leaves, the refuse of pressed grapes, rape and colza oil-cake, crushed bones, flesh cooked and pounded, blood desiccated and reduced to a powder; and it was a source of vexation to him that the absence of any slaughterhouse in the neighbourhood prevented him from trying the effects of blood in a liquid state. He was now using road-scrapings, the scourings of ditches, the cinders and ashes from stoves, and especially scraps of waste wool, having purchased the sweepings of a woollen manufactory at Châteaudun. His theory was that everything that came from the soil was a proper material to return to it. He had great pits filled with compost at the rear of his farm, and in them he stowed all the refuse of the whole neighbourhood, whatever he could get hold of, even offal and putrifying carcasses picked out of stagnant ponds and elsewhere. It was all golden, he said.
"I have sometimes had very good results with phosphates," he remarked to Jean.
"But one gets so dreadfully cheated," Jean replied.
"Yes, certainly, if you buy from chance agents who are trying to do a small business in the country. At each market there ought to be a chemical expert who understands these artificial manures, which it is so difficult to get unadulterated. The future lies in them, I'm sure, but before that future comes I'm afraid we shall all be done up. We must have courage, however, and be content to suffer for the sake of others."
The stench of the dung which Jean was moving seemed to have somewhat revived the farmer's spirits. He revelled in it, and inhaled it with a sense of vigorous enjoyment, as though he smelt in it the procreative elements of the soil.
"No doubt," he resumed after a pause, "nothing has yet been discovered which equals farmyard manure; but one never can get a sufficient quantity of it. And then the men just toss it on to the ground. They don't know how to prepare it or how to manipulate it. See, now, that dung of yours has been burnt by the sun; you don't keep it covered."
Then he launched out into invectives against routine, when Jean confessed that he still made use of Buteau's old dung-hole in front of the cow-house. For some years past he himself, he said, had introduced layers of soil and turf into his pits, and had set up a system of pipes to convey the slops of the kitchen, with the urine of the family and cattle, and indeed all the drainings of the farm, down to a reservoir; and twice a week the dung-hill was watered with this liquid-manure. Now-a-days he even carefully saved and utilised all the contents of the privies.
"It is downright folly," he exclaimed, "to waste the good things that God gives us! For a long time I had scruples of delicacy about it, just as the peasants have. But old Mother Caca converted me. You know old Mother Caca, don't you? She's a neighbour of yours. Well, it was she alone who went about matters in the right way; and the cabbage over whose roots she used to empty her slops was the king of cabbages, both in size and flavour, and it was so simply on account of what the old woman did."
Jean laughed as he jumped down from his cart, which was now empty, then he began to divide his manure into little heaps. Hourdequin walked on after him, amid the warm reek which floated round them.
"The yearly refuse of Paris alone would be sufficient to fertilise some seventy thousand acres," said the farmer. "It has all been properly calculated. And yet this is all wasted! There is only just a small quantity of dried night-soil utilised. Just think of it; seventy thousand acres! Ah, if we could only have it here, it would cover all La Beauce, and then you would see the wheat grow!"
He embraced the whole level extent of La Beauce in a sweeping gesture; and in his enthusiasm he mentally beheld all Paris pouring out its fertilising flood of human manure over the spreading tract. Streamlets were trickling along in all directions, overflowing the fields as the sea of sewage mounted higher and higher beneath the glowing sun, sped onward by a breeze which wafted the odour far and wide. The great city was restoring to the soil the life it had received from it. The earth slowly absorbed the fertilising tide, and from the glutted and fattened soil there burst forth great teeming harvests of white bread.
"We should want boats in that case," remarked Jean, who was at once amused and disgusted by the novel idea of submerging the land beneath a sea of sewage.
Just at that moment the sound of a voice made him turn his head, and he was astonished to see Lise in her light cart, which was drawn up at the side of the road. She was shouting to Buteau at the top of her voice:
"I'm just off to Cloyes to fetch Monsieur Finet. Your father has fallen down in a fit in his bedroom. I'm afraid he's dying. You'd better go home and see to him."
Then, without waiting for a reply, she whipped her horse forward, and rattled along the straight road, disappearing out of sight in the distance.
Buteau leisurely continued spreading out his last heaps of manure, growling to himself as he did so. His father ill; here was a nuisance! Very likely it was all a sham, just to get himself coddled and pampered! Then he put on his jacket again, as the thought struck him that after all something serious must be the matter with the old man, since his wife had of her own accord decided to go to the expense of a doctor.
"Now, there's a fellow who's stingy with his manure!" observed Hourdequin, looking with interest at the dung in the adjoining field. "A niggardly peasant has niggardly land. Ah, he's a wretched scamp, and you will do well to beware of him, especially after the worries you've had with him. How can you expect things to prosper when there are so many scoundrels and lewd hussies in the land? There are far too many, far too many!"
Then, saddened once more, he went off in the direction of La Borderie, just as Buteau, with his slouching gait, had got back to Rognes. Jean, left to himself, went on with his work, piling up at every ten yards or so a fresh heap of the manure, from which an ammoniacal vapour was rising in still greater force. Other heaps were smoking in the distance, blurring the line of the horizon with a fine bluish mist. All La Beauce would lie warm and odorous until the coming frosts.
The Buteaus were still quartered at La Frimat's, occupying the whole of her house, except the back room on the ground-floor, which she reserved for herself and her paralytic husband. As for a long time past she had had neither a horse in her stable nor any cows in her cow-house, her tenants had placed their own animals there. They found themselves rather cramped for room on the whole, and they chiefly regretted the loss of their kitchen-garden and orchard; for La Frimat naturally retained her acre or so of ground for her own use, especially as by desperately hard work she managed to get out of this strip of land just sufficient to support her old husband and provide him with a few luxuries. This want of a kitchen-garden would of itself have sufficed to make the Buteaus move to other quarters, had they not perceived that their proximity was a source of much annoyance to Françoise. There was only a wall between the grounds of the two houses, and the Buteaus used to declare, in loud tones, on purpose to be overheard, that they were only just staying at La Frimat's for a time, for they would certainly return to their old home very soon. As this was a matter of certainty, what was the use of troubling themselves with another removal? They never condescended to explain by what means their return to their old home was to be effected, and it was this calm assurance, this persistent expression of certainty on their part, based upon she knew not what, that sent Françoise almost wild, and quite spoilt her pleasure at finding herself mistress of the house. Then, too, Lise occasionally reared a ladder against the shed, and mounted it, to assail her sister with coarse abuse. Ever since the accounts had been balanced between them at Monsieur Baillehache's office, she had accused her sister of robbing her, and she was never weary of hurling the most abominable accusations from one yard to the other.
When Buteau at last reached the house, he found old Fouan lying on the bed in the little closet which he occupied behind the kitchen, under the staircase leading to the loft. The two children, Jules and Laure, the former of whom was now eight years of age, while the latter was three, had been left to watch him; and they were amusing themselves with making streams of water on the floor by pouring out the contents of their grandfather's jug.
"Well, what's the matter, eh?" asked Buteau, standing in front of the bed.
Fouan had recovered consciousness. His widely opened eyes slowly turned towards his son, and fixed their stare upon him, but his head remained quite motionless, and he looked as though he were petrified.
"Come, now, dad, none of your jokes! I'm too busy for them," said Buteau. "You mustn't go off the hooks to-day."
Then, as Jules and Laure had now managed to break the jug, he gave them a couple of cuffs which set them howling. The old man's eyes were still staring, widely open, with the pupils enlarged and rigid. If he could not express himself more intelligibly than that, thought Buteau, there was nothing more to be done at present. They must wait and see what the doctor said. He now regretted having come away from the field, and he began to chop some wood in front of the kitchen, for the sake of doing something.
Lise returned almost immediately with Monsieur Finet, who made a lengthy examination of the ailing man, the Buteaus awaiting the result with an uneasy air. The old man's death would have been a release to them, if he had been carried off at once; but, if he were to linger on for a long time they might incur heavy expenses, and then again, if he died before they had succeeded in possessing themselves of his hoard, Fanny and Hyacinthe, as they foresaw, would give them a deal of trouble. The doctor's silence served to increase their uneasiness, and when he took a seat in the kitchen to write out a prescription, they determined to question him.
"Is it anything serious, then? Will it last a week? Dear me, what a lot you are writing down for him? What can it all be?"
Monsieur Finet made no reply. He was accustomed to be questioned in this way by the peasantry, who lost their heads in the presence of illness, and he treated them like so many animals, refraining from entering into conversation with them. He had great experience with common-place complaints, and generally saved his patients, being perhaps more successful in dealing with them than a man of greater science would have been. However, the mediocrity to which he accused the peasants of having reduced him made him harsh and stern towards them. This only served to increase their deference, despite the doubts they continually entertained as to the efficacy of his draughts. Would it be worth the money it cost? That was the question always uppermost in their minds.
"Do you think, then," asked Buteau, alarmed by the sight of the page of writing, "that all that will make him better?"
The doctor merely shrugged his shoulders. Then he again returned to the sick man's bedside, feeling interested in the case, and surprised to notice symptoms of fever after this slight attack of cerebral congestion. Keeping his eyes fixed upon his watch, he again counted the beats of the old man's pulse, without trying to extract the slightest information from him. Meantime Fouan continued staring at him with his stupefied air.
"It will be a three weeks' business," said the doctor as he went away. "I will come again to-morrow. Don't be surprised if he's off his nut to-night."
Three weeks! The Buteaus had had ears for those words only, and they were full of consternation. What a pile of money it would cost them if there would be a pageful of medicine every night! And what made matters worse was that Buteau now had to get into the cart and drive off to the druggist's at Cloyes. It was a Saturday, and when La Frimat returned from selling her vegetables she found Lise sitting alone, and feeling so miserable that she could do nothing. The old woman expressed the bitterest grief when she heard what had happened. She never had any luck! she cried. If it had happened some other day, when she had been at home, she might at least have profited by the doctor's presence to consult him about her husband.
The news had already spread through Rognes, for the impudent La Trouille had called at the house, which she would not leave without touching her grandfather's hand, so that she might return and tell Hyacinthe that the old man was not dead. Then, after this shameless slut, La Grande made her appearance, evidently sent by Fanny. She planted herself by the side of her brother's bed, and formed her opinion of his condition by the appearance of his eyes, just as she judged the eels from the Aigre; and she went away with a perk of her nose, as though to say that he would certainly get over it this time. The family now took matters easily. What was the good of troubling themselves, as the old man would in all probability recover?
The house was topsy-turvy up to midnight. Buteau had returned in an execrable temper. There were mustard-plasters for the old man's legs, a draught to be taken every hour, and a purgative, in case he seemed better, for the morning. La Frimat proffered her assistance, but, at ten o'clock, growing drowsy, and not feeling much interested in the matter, she went to bed. Buteau, who wanted to do the same, tried to hustle Lise off. What was the good of their staying there? he cried. They couldn't do the old man any good by just looking at him!
Fouan was now rambling in his talk, speaking inconsequentially in loud tones. He appeared to imagine that he was out in the fields, hard at work, as in the far-off days of his youthful vigour. Lise, whom these reminiscences of the past affected with an uneasy disquietude, as though her uncle were already buried and was now restlessly wandering on the earth again, was about to follow her husband, who was undressing himself, when she stopped to put away the old man's clothes which were still lying on a chair. She carefully shook them, after having made a lengthy examination of the pockets, in which she found nothing but some string and a damaged knife. As she next proceeded to hang them up in the cupboard, she suddenly caught sight of a little bundle of papers in the middle of a shelf, right in front of her eyes. Her heart gave a great leap. Here was the secret treasure! the treasure which had been so anxiously sought for during the last month in all sorts of extraordinary places, and which was now openly presented to her sight as if to invite her to take it! It was evident that the old man had just been going to transfer it to some fresh hiding-place when he was seized by the fit.
"Buteau! Buteau!" she called in so stifled a voice that her husband at once ran to her in his shirt, imagining that his father was dying.
For a moment he, too, remained choking with amazement. Then a wild delight took possession of them both, and taking hold of each other's hands they jumped about opposite each other like a couple of goats, forgetting all about the sick man, who was now lying with his eyes shut and his head seemingly riveted to the pillow. He was still rambling on, spasmodically, in his delirium. Just now he fancied that he was ploughing.
"Come, now, get along, you brute! Confound it all, there's a great piece of flint, and it won't yield! The handles are getting broken, and I shall have to buy new ones. Get along, you brute, get along!"
"Hush!" murmured Lise, turning round with a startled air.
"Stuff!" retorted Buteau. "You don't suppose he understands, do you? Can't you hear him drivelling?"
They now both seated themselves near the bed, for their sudden shock of delight left their legs quite weak and tremulous.
"No one can ever say that we hunted about for it," Lise observed, "for, as God is my witness, I wasn't thinking about his money at all! It tumbled into my hand. Let us see what there is."
Buteau had already unfolded the papers, and was reckoning them up aloud.
"Two hundred and thirty, and seventy; that's just three hundred altogether. That's exactly what I reckoned it at before, when I saw him draw fifteen five-franc pieces for the quarter's interest at the tax-collector's. Doesn't it seem funny, now, that these shabby bits of paper are just as good as real money?"
Lise again hushed him, alarmed by a sudden snigger from the old man, who now seemed to be imagining that he was engaged in reaping the famous harvest in Charles X.'s time, which was so plentiful that there was not room enough in which to garner it all.
"What a lot! what a lot! Did ever any one see such a harvest? What a lot! what a lot!"
His choking laugh sounded like a death-rattle; and his delight must have been altogether internal, for not a trace of it appeared on his rigid face.
"Oh, it's only some of his crazy thoughts that he's sniggering about," Buteau remarked, shrugging his shoulders.
There was now an interval of silence, during which the husband and wife looked at the papers, absorbed in thought.
"Well, what are we to do with them?" Lise murmured, presently. "Oughtn't we to put them back again?"
Buteau made an energetic gesture of refusal.
"Oh, yes, indeed, we must put them back again," his wife protested. "He will look for them, and he will make an outcry if he doesn't find them, and then we shall have a fine row with our swinish relatives."
She now checked herself for the third time, startled by hearing her father sobbing. He seemed to be a prey to some bitter, hopeless grief, for his sobs sounded as though they came from the very depths of his soul. It was impossible to guess what was troubling him, for he only moaned out in a voice that gradually grew more hollow:
"It's all over—all over—all over."
"And do you suppose," Buteau now exclaimed violently, "that I am going to leave these papers in the possession of that old chap who's off his nut, for him to burn them or tear them up? No, indeed."
"Yes, that is perhaps true," murmured Lise.
"Come, now, we've had quite enough of the matter; let's go to bed. If he asks for the papers, I'll make it my business to reply to him; and the others had better not try to worry me!"
They now went off to bed, after concealing the papers under the marble top of an old chest of drawers, which seemed to them to be a safer hiding-place than one of the drawers themselves, even if they were kept locked. The old man was left alone, without a candle, for fear of fire, and he continued sobbing and talking deliriously all through the night.
On the morrow Monsieur Finet found him calmer, and altogether better than he had expected. Ah, those old plough horses had their souls well riveted to their bodies! he exclaimed. The fever which he had feared did not seem likely now. He prescribed steel, quinine, and other expensive drugs, filling the Buteaus with renewed consternation; and, as he was leaving, he had a struggle with La Frimat, who had been on the watch for him.
"My good woman," he said, "I have already told you that there is really no difference between your husband and this block of stone. I can't put life into stones, can I? You must know very well what the end will be; and the sooner the better both for him and for you."
He then whipped up his horse, and the old woman sank down on to the block of stone in a flood of tears. It was already a weary long time, a dozen years and more, that she had been burdened with the support of her husband, and her strength was failing her with advancing age. She was afraid, indeed, that ere long she would be too weak to cultivate her patch of ground: but all the same, it upset her to think that she might soon lose the infirm old man, who had become like her child, whom she lifted and dressed and undressed and pampered with dainties. Even the unparalysed arm which he had hitherto been able to use was now growing so stiff that she herself was obliged to put his pipe into his mouth.
At the end of a week Monsieur Finet was astonished to find Fouan on his legs again. He was still very feeble, but he was obstinately bent on getting about, saying that the best way to keep from dying was to be determined not to die. Buteau sniggered behind the doctor's back with a contemptuous grin, for he had tossed all the prescriptions, after the second one, aside, declaring that the best way was to let the complaint feed on itself till it was exhausted. On market-day, however, Lise had been weak enough to bring back with her from the town a draught, which had been prescribed on the previous evening; and when the doctor paid his last visit on the Monday Buteau told him that the old man had nearly had a relapse.
"I don't know what it was they put into the bottle you ordered, but it made him dreadfully sick," he said.
That day, in the evening, Fouan at last spoke on the subject nearest his heart. Ever since he had left his bed he had been prowling about the house with an air of anxiety, with his mind quite blank as to where he had deposited his papers. He ferreted and searched everywhere, and made desperate efforts to remember where he had put them. Then, at last, a vague recollection dawned upon him. Perhaps he had not hidden them away anywhere, but had left them lying on the shelf. But, then again, supposing he was mistaken in his fears, supposing no one had taken the papers, was it advisable to give the alarm, and confess to the existence of this money, which it had cost him such a struggle in the past to get together, and concerning which he had ever since maintained the most determined silence? For two days he struggled on against contending emotions—the despair with which the sudden disappearance of his money filled him, and the fear of the consequences of indiscreetly opening his mouth. Gradually, however, a clear recollection of matters returned to him, and he remembered having placed the packet of papers on the shelf on the morning of his attack, pending an opportunity to slip them into a chink in the rafters of the ceiling, which he had just discovered as he lay on his bed gazing into the air. Plundered and desperate, he now unbosomed himself.
They had just finished their evening meal. Lise was putting the plates away, and Buteau, who had been watching his father with leering eyes ever since the day he had left his bed, expected the outbreak, and was swinging himself on his chair, thinking that the explosion was now really coming off, for the old fellow seemed so very wretched and excited. He was not mistaken, for Fouan, who had been persistently tottering about the room on his shaky legs, now suddenly halted in front of his son.
"Where are the papers?" he demanded of him in a hoarse voice, and the words almost seemed to choke him.
Buteau opened his eyes widely, with an expression of profound surprise, as though he failed to understand.
"Eh? what? What do you say? Papers! what papers?"
"My money!" roared the old man, bracing himself to his full height, and assuming a threatening expression.
"Your money! What, have you still got some money left? Why, you swore that we had cost you so much that you hadn't a copper to call your own. Oh, you cunning old chap, so you really have some money."
He was still swinging about on his chair, sniggering and highly amused, triumphant at having had such a good scent, for he had been the first to suspect the existence of the treasure.
Fouan trembled in every limb.
"Give it back to me!"
"Give it back to you? I haven't got your money! Why, I don't even know where it is!"
"You have robbed me of it. Give it back to me, or I swear that I will make you give it up by force."
And, in spite of his great age, he seized Buteau by the shoulders and shook him. The son now sprang up from his chair and seized hold of his father in turn. But it was not to shake him, but simply to roar out in his face:
"Yes, I've got it, and I mean to keep it. I'm going to take care of it for you, you crazy old stupid, with your rambling wits. It was high time, too, that I did take the papers, for you were going to tear them up. He wanted to tear them, didn't he, Lise?"
"Oh, yes, as sure as I'm here! He didn't know a bit what he was doing."
Fouan was overwhelmed with consternation upon hearing this. Could it really be true that he was going mad, since he could recollect nothing of what had taken place? Supposing he had really wanted to destroy the papers, just like a child playing with pictures, in that case he could no longer be good for anything, and was only fit to be killed! He was now quite broken down, and all his courage and strength left him; he could merely stammer out tearfully:
"Give them back to me!"
"Give them me, since I'm all right again now."
"No, no, indeed! you'd only wipe yourself with them, or use them to light your pipe!"
After that the Buteaus obstinately persisted in their refusal to surrender the papers. They spoke, about them quite openly to their neighbours, and they gave an exciting account of how they had arrived just in time to snatch them from the old man's hands when he was about to tear them up. One evening they even showed La Frimat a rent in one of the documents. Surely no one, they protested, could blame them for preventing such a misfortune, for the money would have been destroyed and lost to everybody. The neighbours publicly expressed their approval of the Buteaus' conduct, though they privately suspected them of lying. Hyacinthe was in a terrible rage. To think that the treasure which it had been impossible for him to find in his own house should have been so speedily discovered by the others! One day, indeed, he had actually held it in his hands, and had been fool enough not to stick to it! He swore to himself that he would call his brother to account when the old man died. Fanny, too, said that the money would have to be divided. The Buteaus did not say the contrary, but, of course, the old man might recover possession, or give the bonds away by deed.
As for Fouan, he poured the story of his wrongs into the ears of everybody he came across, waylaying every one he could, and bemoaning his piteous lot to them. In this way, one morning, he went into his niece's yard to pour out his troubles to Françoise and Jean.
Françoise was helping her husband to load a cart with manure. While the latter stood in the dung-hole and threw the manure into the vehicle with his pitchfork, Françoise, standing aloft, trampled it down with her feet to compress it.
The old man stood leaning on his stick in front of them, and began bewailing his sad fate.
"I'm dreadfully harassed about this money of mine, you know, which they have taken from me and won't give me back. What should you do if you were in my place?"
Françoise let him repeat the question three times before she said anything in reply. She was annoyed at his coming to talk to her in this way, and received him coldly, being anxious to avoid all cause of quarrel with the Buteaus.
"Well, uncle," she answered at last, "it's really no business of ours, you know. We are only too glad to have finished with our own troubles."
Then turning her back upon him, she continued treading down the dung which rose around her up to her thighs. As her husband went on tossing up forkful after forkful, she all but vanished amid the steamy smoke from the disturbed manure, and yet she felt at ease, with her heart in the right place, amid the asphyxiating fumes.
"I'm not mad; that can be seen, can't it?" Fouan continued, not seeming to have heard Françoise. "They ought to give me back my money. Do you and Jean, now, think me capable of destroying it?"
Neither Françoise nor Jean said a word.
"I should, indeed, have to be mad to do that, and I'm not mad—you and your husband could bear witness to that, couldn't you?"
Françoise now suddenly braced herself up, standing on the top of the loaded cart. She looked very tall and sturdy and vigorous, almost as if she had sprung into life and grown up there where she was standing, and as if that scent of rich fecundity had emanated from herself. As she stood there with her hands resting on her hips, and her bosom swelling roundly, she looked a real woman.
"There, there, uncle, that's enough!" she said. "I've told you already that we don't want to have anything to do with all that squabbling. And, while we are on the subject, perhaps you would do as well not to come here again."
"Do you mean to cast me off, then?" asked the old man, trembling as he spoke.
Jean now thought it time to interpose.
"No; but we don't want to be mixed up in any quarrels. There would be a three days' row if they were to see you here. Every one has his own peace and quietness to look after, you know."
Fouan stood motionless, gazing at them one after the other out of his poor dim eyes. Then he went away.
"If ever I want any help," he said, "it is clear I shall have to look somewhere else for it."
They allowed him to go away, though they felt uneasy and troubled. They were not yet evil-hearted. But what could they do? They could not have helped him by interfering in the matter, and their own peace and quietness would have been ruined to no purpose. While Jean went off to get his whip, Françoise carefully collected the fallen straws with a shovel and threw them on to the cart.
The next day there was a violent scene between Fouan and Buteau. Every day, indeed, there were bitter passages between them about the papers, the old man doggedly repeating his "Give me them back again!" and the son refusing to do so, with his "Hold your row, and let me alone!" But matters had gradually grown more serious, especially since the old man had set about trying to discover where his son had hidden the bonds. He now, in his turn, prowled inquisitively about the whole house, examining drawers and closets, and tapping against the walls to see if he could discover any hollow place. His eyes were continually straying from one spot to another, in the one fixed idea that had seized hold of him; and as soon as ever he found himself free from observation, he got rid of the children and recommenced his search, with all the eagerness of some young scapegrace who flies off to make love to the servant-maid as soon as his parents are out of the way. That day, however, Buteau returned home unexpectedly, and found Fouan stretched on the floor on his stomach, with his nose under the chest of drawers, trying to ascertain if there were any possible hiding-place there. The sight almost put Buteau beside himself, for his father was unpleasantly warm in his scent now. What he was seeking below was hidden away above, sealed down, as it were, by the heavy weight of the marble slab.
"You confounded old addle-pate; so you are playing the snake now? Get up at once!"
He dragged his father by the legs, and then set him on his feet again with a vigorous pull.
"Haven't you got tired of thrusting your eye into every little hole and cranny? I'm getting quite weary of seeing you poking about in every chink and crevice in the house."
Fouan, annoyed at having been discovered, looked his son in the eyes, and cried in a sudden burst of anger:
"Give them back to me!"
"Hold your jaw!" roared Buteau in his face.
"Well, I'm made too wretched here. I shall go away."
"All right! Off you go, then, and a pleasant journey to you! And if ever you come back here you'll show that you've got no spirit!"
As he spoke, he seized his father by the arm, and thrust him out of the house.