Fouan made his way down the hill. His anger speedily evaporated, and when he reached the bottom and gained the high-road he stopped short, feeling dazed and confused at finding himself in the open with nowhere to go to. The church clock struck three, and the damp wind of the grey November afternoon blew piercingly cold. The old man shivered; it had all taken place so quickly that he had not even been able to pick up his hat. Fortunately, however, he had his stick with him. For a moment or two he began to walk on towards Cloyes. Then he asked himself where he was going to in that direction, and he turned round and made his way back towards Rognes, with his usual dragging gait. As he reached the Macquerons', he felt inclined to go in and have a glass. He searched his pockets, but he could not find a copper, and he felt ashamed to show himself, fearing that they might have already heard of what had happened. He fancied that Lengaigne, who was standing at his door, was watching him with that suspicious glance which is given to some disreputable tramp; and Lequeu, who was looking out of one of the school windows, did not even nod to him. It was easily understood; he was once more an object of contempt to every one, now that he was again without any means, now that he had been stripped anew, and this time to the very skin.
When he reached the Aigre, he leant his back for a moment or two against the parapet of the bridge. The thought of the night that was now closing in filled him with uneasiness. Where could he sleep? He had not the least shelter to turn to. The Bécus' dog passed by, and the old man looked at it with envy; that dog, at any rate, knew that its kennel and bed of straw were awaiting it. He tried to think of some refuge, but his brain was confused, and his outburst of anger had exhausted him and made him drowsy. His eyelids closed heavily, as he tried to recall some sheltered corner where he would be protected from the cold. Then his mind seemed to become the prey of a night-mare, and he saw all the country-side revolving before him, bare, and swept by the gusts of wind. However, with sudden energy, he shook himself, and tried to throw off his drowsiness. He must not lose heart in this way. Folks would never let a man of his age die with cold out-of-doors.
He now mechanically crossed the bridge, and found himself opposite the Delhommes' little farm. Immediately he caught sight of the house he turned aside and went round to the back, so that no one should see him. There he halted again, leaning against the wall of the cow-house, in which he heard his daughter Fanny's voice. Had he had any thought of returning to her? The old man himself could not have answered this question; his feet had mechanically carried him there. In his mind's eye he could see the inside of the house as plainly as if he had entered it: the kitchen on the left, and his old bedroom on the first floor, at the end of the hay-loft. His former spite was fading away; and his legs shook so with emotion that he would have fallen to the ground had he not had the support of the wall. For a long time he remained there like this, with his back resting against the house-side. Fanny was still talking inside the cow-house, but he could not distinguish what she was saying. Perhaps it was this muffled sound of his daughter's words that stirred up the old man's heart. She seemed to be scolding a servant, for her voice grew louder, and Fouan finally heard her addressing such cutting remarks, in a harsh, stern voice, to the unfortunate servant girl, that the latter burst out into tears. These words affected the old man painfully; all his feelings of emotion vanished, and he sternly braced himself up, feeling convinced that if he had pushed open the door, his daughter would have received him with the same harsh tones. He could again hear her saying: "Oh, my father will return and ask us, on his knees, to take him back again." That never-forgotten speech of hers had, like a knife, irretrievably severed every bond between them. No, no! Sooner die of hunger and sleep at the bottom of a ditch than see her triumphing over him with her haughty assumption of perfect irreproachableness! At this thought he removed his back from the wall, and painfully went on his way.
To avoid following the road, Fouan, who believed that every one was watching for him, went up the right bank of the Aigre, beyond the bridge, and soon found himself in the midst of the vineyards. His intention was to reach the plateau without having to go through the village. He was obliged, however, to pass near the Château, where his legs now seemed to carry him instinctively like those of some old horse going to the stable where he has been accustomed to eat his oats. The ascent up the hill made him pant, and he sat down to get his breath back, and began to think. Certainly if he were to go inside and say to Hyacinthe: "I am going to appeal to the law; help me against Buteau," the scamp would receive him with an explosion of welcome, and they would spend an evening of jovial riot together.
From where he was sitting he could hear the sound of merriment; proceeding, no doubt, from some tipsy debauch which would be prolonged till morning. Attracted by the sound, and already feeling a void in his stomach, he approached nearer, and recognised Canon's voice, together with the smell of some stewed beans, those beans which La Trouille knew so well how to cook whenever her father wanted to celebrate the arrival of his friend. Why shouldn't he, Fouan, go in and join the two scamps in their merry-making? He could hear them warmly disputing amid the clouds of smoke from their pipes, and apparently so gorged with wine that he positively envied them. A sharp explosion from Hyacinthe stirred the old man with emotion, and he had already reached out his hand towards the door when La Trouille's shrill laughter paralysed him. She was now the object of his fear, and in his mind's eye he could still see her, scrawny and clad in her chemise, stealthily approaching him like a snake, and warily feeling him and making him her prey. What good would it do even if the father did assist him to recover his money? The daughter would be there to strip him of it again.
Suddenly the door of the Château was thrown open, and the girl appeared and cast a glance outside, having fancied she could hear something. The old man just had time to throw himself behind the bushes; and, as he made his escape, he could see La Trouille's green eyes glistening in the gloaming.
When Fouan gained the open plain he experienced a sort of relief in finding himself quite alone, able to die without interference and observation. For a long time he walked on at random, now going straight before him, and then turning aside, without any reason or plan whatever. The night had now fully fallen, and the icy wind scourged him bitterly. Every now and then, as some fierce gust swept past him, he was obliged to turn his back to it, his breath quite failing him, and his few white hairs bristling upright on his head. Six o'clock struck; all Rognes must now be at table. His stomach and his legs began to feel faint, and he was obliged to slacken his pace. At last he set off in the direction of La Borderie, and then, after making a sudden turn, he was surprised to find himself again on the edge of the valley of the Aigre.
Between a couple of squalls, a violent lashing shower poured down. The old man was soaked to the skin, but he still walked on, encountering two other downfalls, and at last he shivered with cold and weariness. Presently, without knowing how he got there, he found himself in the open square by the church, in front of the old family house of the Fouans, where Françoise and Jean now dwelt. But no, he could not seek a refuge there! They had driven him away! The rain now began to pour down again in such heavy torrents that he began to lose all heart. He stepped up to the Buteaus' door and peeped into the kitchen, whence streamed the odour of cabbage soup. All his poor trembling body was longing to submit and return: a physical craving for food and warmth was urging him to enter. But amid the noise of people eating, he could distinguish some words.
"Well, what if father doesn't come back?" Lise was asking.
"Oh, don't bother about him," replied Buteau; "he's too fond of his belly not to come back when he feels hungry."
Treading as silently as possible, Fouan now glided away, fearing lest he should be seen stealing back like a beaten dog for a bone. He was nearly choked with shame and humiliation, and fiercely resolved that he would go away and die in some corner. They should see if he was so fond of his belly! He made his way down the hill again, and then let himself sink upon the trunk of one of the felled elm-trees on the grass in front of Clou's farriery. His legs could carry him no further, and he lost all hope in the black loneliness of the road. Every one was indoors, and the houses were all so closely shuttered on account of the bad weather that it seemed as though there were not a living soul in all the neighbourhood. The heavy shower had had the effect of laying the wind, and the rain soon streamed down perpendicularly in ceaseless torrents. The old man felt too weak even to get up and look about for a shed or stack to shelter him. Utterly stupefied by misery and exhaustion he continued to sit perfectly motionless, his stick between his legs, and his bare head washed by the rain. He had resigned himself to his fate. When a man has neither children nor home nor anything, he must tighten his trouser strap and sleep out of doors. Nine o'clock struck, and then ten. The rain came down still more violently, soaking the old man's bones through and through. Then some lanterns gleamed through the darkness, flitting hastily away; the evening gatherings were breaking up. Fouan started on recognising La Grande, who was probably returning from the Delhommes', where she had been spending the evening for the sake of saving her own candle. Then he got up with a painful effort that made his limbs crack and followed her; but she had entered her house before he could overtake her. When he stood before the closed door, he hesitated and his courage fell. At last, however, he ventured to knock, impelled by his utter wretchedness.
He had come at an unfortunate time, for La Grande was in a frightfully bad temper, the result of an unfortunate affair which had upset her during the previous week. One evening, when she was alone with her grandson Hilarion, it had occurred to her that she might as well employ his strong arms in chopping some wood before he went off to sleep; and, as the lad set about the work somewhat languidly, she remained in the wood-house, abusing him. So far, this brutish, distorted fellow, as strong as a bull, had, in his abject fear of his grandmother, allowed her to abuse his brawny muscles without even a glance of rebellion. For some, few days past, however, he had been looking rather dangerous, and had begun to quiver beneath the weight of his excessive tasks, flushing hotly with surging blood. To excite him, La Grande unwisely struck him across the back of his neck with her stick. As she did so, he let the cleaver fall, and glared at her. This seeming rebellion drove the old woman almost wild, and she rained a shower of blows upon the lad's flanks and hips. Then Hilarion suddenly rushed at her, and she expected, in fear and trembling, that he was going to strangle her or kick her to death.
But this was not his intention. He had, perforce, practised too much abstinence since the death of Palmyre, and his anger turned into sexual rage. Brute-like, he recognised neither relationship nor age, nothing but her sex, in this old grandmother of eighty-nine, whose body was as dry as a stick, and who had barely anything of the woman about her. However, she was still strong and vigorous, and able to defend herself, and she scratched and fought, till at last managing to lay hold of the cleaver, she split her grandson's skull open with a heavy blow. The neighbours ran up on hearing her cries, and she related to them all that had happened. She was all but overcome, she said; little more, and the villain would have succeeded in violating her. Hilarion did not die till the next morning. The magistrate came to make an investigation; then there was the funeral, and all sorts of other worries, from which the old woman had now outwardly recovered, though at heart the ingratitude of the world had deeply wounded her, and she had firmly resolved never to help any member of her family.
Fouan knocked at the door timorously, and it was not till he had done so a third time that La Grande heard him. Then coming to the door, she asked:
"I, your brother!"
She had, doubtless, recognised his voice at once, but she delayed matters, and questioned him just for the sake of making him speak. After a pause, she asked him again:
"What do you want?"
The old man trembled, but made no reply. Then La Grande roughly threw the door open; and as the old man was about to enter, she barred the way with her scrawny arms, and forced him to remain outside in the pouring rain which was still relentlessly streaming down.
"I know very well what you want," she exclaimed. "I heard all about you to-night. You have been idiot enough to let them strip you again; you haven't even had wit enough to keep the money you had hidden away! And now you want me to take you in, eh?"
Then, seeing the old man trying to excuse himself, and stammering explanations, she burst out violently:
"Didn't I warn you over and over again? Times and times I told you what a fool you were making of yourself by giving up your land! But now you are finding out the truth of my words, turned out of doors by those scamps your children, and wandering about in the night like a tramp, like a beggar that hasn't even got a stone to lay his head upon!"
Stretching out his hands he burst into tears, and tried to push La Grande's arms aside, and force his way into the house, despite her. But she firmly held her ground, and finished saying what she had upon her mind.
"No, no, indeed! Go and beg a shelter from those who have stripped you! I owe you nothing! The rest of the family would only accuse me of interfering in their affairs again. But apart from all that, you have given up your property, and I will never forgive you for it!"
Then, bracing herself up and exposing her withered neck, she glared fiercely at him with her round, hawk-like eyes, and slammed the door violently in his face.
"It serves you right—go and die on the road."
Fouan remained standing stiffly outside the pitiless door. The rain was still streaming down with monotonous persistence. Presently he turned away and stepped once more into the inky darkness which the slow, icy downpour from the heavens was flooding.
Where did he go? He could never quite recollect. His feet stumbled in the puddles, and he groped about with his hands to avoid running against the trees and walls. He no longer reflected, he no longer recognised anything: this little village, every stone of which he knew so well, seemed like some unknown and far-off terrible spot, where he was a stranger, lost, unable to find his way. He turned to the left, but, fearing lest he should fall into some hole or other, he turned round again to the right; then he stopped altogether, trembling all over, finding danger at every turn. Presently he discovered a railing, and he followed it till it brought him to a little door, which opened at his touch. Then the ground seemed to slip away beneath his feet, and he rolled down into some sort of a hole. Here, at any rate, he felt more comfortable, for he was sheltered from the rain and the place was warm. A grunt soon warned him, however, that he had a pig for a neighbour, and the disturbed animal, thinking that some food had arrived, was already poking its snout into his ribs. Fouan began to struggle with it, but he felt so weak that he made all haste to escape, for fear he might be devoured. Still he could go no further, and he let himself drop down outside the door, huddling himself up closely against it so that the projecting roof might shelter him from the rain. Heavy drops, however, still continued to soak his legs, and icy gusts of wind seemed to freeze his saturated clothes to his body. He envied the pig, and would have returned to it, if he had not heard it gnawing at the door behind his back and snorting ravenously.
In the early dawn Fouan awoke from the painful somnolence into which he had sunk. A feeling of shame again took possession of him, as he told himself that his story must be the common talk of the neighbourhood, and that every one knew he was a pauper tramping the roads. A man stripped of everything could not hope for either justice or pity. He kept himself well under the hedges as he walked along, in the constant fear of seeing some window open and being recognised by some early-rising woman in his miserable condition as a poor old outcast. The rain was still falling, and when he reached the plain he concealed himself in a rick. He spent the whole day in gliding from one place of concealment to another, in such a state of alarm, indeed, that, when he had lain in any one hiding-place for a couple of hours, he felt sure that he was about to be discovered, and crept out and concealed himself somewhere else. The one thought that now racked his brain was whether it would take him a long time to die in this way. He was now not suffering so much from cold, but he was tortured with hunger, and he said to himself that it was from hunger that he would die. He might perhaps have to live through another night and another day! Still he did not waver; he would rather stay and perish where he was than return to the Buteaus.
But as the darkness again began to close in, he was seized with an agonising terror at the thought of having to spend another night out in the ceaseless deluge of rain. His bones were beginning to shiver with cold again, and an intolerable aching hunger was gnawing at his stomach. When the sky grew black and dark, he felt as though he were being drowned and swept away into the streaming gloom. His mind grew confused and blank, and his feet carried him along mechanically. A purely animal instinct was shaping his course, and thus it happened that, without any conscious intention of doing so, he found himself once more in the kitchen of the Buteaus' house, the door of which he had opened.
Buteau and Lise were just finishing the remains of the previous day's cabbage-soup. Upon hearing the door open the husband turned his head and looked at Fouan, who stood in silence, wrapped in the steam from his saturated clothes. For a long time the son thus looked at his father without saying anything. Then he broke out into a snigger:
"Ah, I knew quite well that you'd show you'd got no spirit!"
The old man, standing bolt upright, and seeming as though rooted to the ground, answered not a word.
"Well, all the same, give him some grub, wife, since it's hunger that has brought him back!"
Lise had already risen and brought a plateful of the soup. Fouan took it and sat down apart from the others on a stool, as though he declined to join his children at table. He began to swallow the soup ravenously, his whole body trembling with the violence of his hunger. Buteau now leisurely finished his meal, and then began to sway about on his chair, making darts with his knife at scraps of cheese, and then putting them into his mouth. He was watching the old man's ravenous appetite with interest, and followed the movements of his spoon with a mocking leer.
"Your walk in the fresh air seems to have given you a rare appetite," said he. "But you mustn't take these strolls every day you know; it would come in much too expensive!"
The old man still went on gulping down the soup, with a hoarse sound in his throat as he swallowed it; however, he did not say a word.
"A nice old gentleman you are, to stay out all night in this way," his son continued. "You've been after the girls, I bet; and it's they who've emptied you so, eh?"
Still there came no reply. Fouan persisted in his dogged silence, making no sound except such as resulted from his greedy gulping.
"Don't you hear that I'm talking to you?" Buteau at last shouted in irritation. "You might at any rate have the politeness to answer me?"
Fouan, however, still kept his blank gaze fixed on the soup. It seemed as though he neither heard nor saw, but was miles away in his isolation. It was as if he wished to imply that he had merely returned to eat, and that, although his belly was in the kitchen, his heart was there no longer. He now energetically began to scrape the bottom of his plate with his spoon, so as to lose nothing of the soup.
At last, Lise, affected by the sight of such keen hunger, interposed.
"Let him alone," she said, "since it pleases him to play the dummy."
"I'm not going to have him playing the fool with me again!" retorted Buteau angrily. "I've had quite sufficient of that already. Let to-day be a lesson to you, you pig-headed old fool! If you give me any more of your nonsense, I shall leave you to starve out on the road!"
Fouan, having now quite finished his soup, rose painfully from his seat, and, still maintaining his unbroken silence—a sepulchral silence that seemed to grow ever more oppressive—turned his back and dragged himself under the staircase to his bed, on which he threw himself without undressing. Somnolence seemed to descend on him like a thunderbolt. He was sound asleep in a moment, wrapped in a leaden slumber. Lise, who stepped up to look at him, came back and told her husband that he looked as though he were dead. Buteau, however, after going to see him, shrugged his shoulders. Dead, indeed! did fellows like him die like that? Only he must have knocked about to be in such a state. When they came to look at him the next morning, he did not appear to have moved, and he slept on throughout the day and the following night, and only awoke once more the second morning, after remaining annihilated, as it were, for thirty-six hours.
"Ah, there you are again at last!" cried Buteau with a snigger. "I was beginning to think that you meant to go on sleeping for ever, and would never want anything more to eat."
The old man neither looked at him nor spoke to him, but went out and sat down on the road to breathe the fresh air.
From this time forth Fouan isolated himself in moody silence. He seemed to have forgotten all about the papers which Buteau had refused to restore to him. At any rate, he never spoke about them and never attempted to discover where they were; perhaps feeling indifferent about them, but certainly resigned. His rupture with the Buteaus seemed complete, and he persisted in maintaining his dogged silence, as though he were a creature cut off from all others, and entombed. Nowhere, under no circumstances, no matter what might be his need, did he ever speak a word to the Buteaus. He shared in the common existence of the household; he slept there, ate there, saw his son and daughter-in-law, and elbowed them from morning till night, but he never gave them a look or a word; it was as if he had been blind and dumb, as if he were a ghost abiding amongst living beings. Buteau and Lise soon grew tired of worrying him without getting even a sigh in answer, and they left him alone in his obstinate silence. They both ceased to speak to him and to look at him. They began to consider him merely as a piece of peripatetic furniture, and at last they grew perfectly unconscious of his presence. The horse and the two cows were of more account than he was.
In the whole house Fouan had but one friend, little Jules, who was now completing his ninth year. Laure, who was four years old, looked at him with the same harsh gaze as her parents did, and wriggled out of his arms, conducting herself, indeed, as though she were full of bitter indignation against one who ate but did no work. Jules, however, delighted in being with the old man, and got on wonderfully well with him. He was, as it were, the last link uniting Fouan to the others, and he became his messenger and mouthpiece. Whenever a definite yes or no became absolutely necessary Lise sent the lad to the old man, who, for him alone, consented to break his silence. Fouan being neglected, the lad played the part of a little servant-maid, helped him to make his bed of a morning, and carried him his allowance of soup, which the old man ate near the window, resting the plate upon his knees, for he had refused to resume his place at the table. Then the two played together, and the old man, delighted when he met the lad out-of-doors, took hold of his hand and went off with him for a long ramble. Upon occasions like these Fouan made up for his long silences, and poured forth so much chatter that he almost dazed his little companion, though he could no longer speak without difficulty. He seemed to be losing the use of his tongue, now that he had ceased to employ it. But the aged grandfather who stammered, and the lad who had no ideas beyond birds' nests and blackberries, got on remarkably well together. The old man taught his grandson how to lime twigs, and made him a little cage to keep crickets in. The lad's frail hand was now his only support along the roads of La Beauce, where he no longer had either land or relatives left him; and thanks to Jules he felt some pleasure in living a little longer.
In point of fact, however, it was as if Fouan had been struck out of the list of the living. Buteau took his place and acted in his name, received his money and gave receipts for it, upon the pretext that his father no longer possessed his wits. The interest on the money derived from the sale of the old man's house, amounting to a hundred and fifty francs a year, was paid by Monsieur Baillehache direct to Buteau, whose only difficulty had been with Delhomme, the latter refusing to pay the annuity of two hundred francs to any one excepting his father-in-law, and insisting upon the old man's presence to receive it. As soon, however, as Delhomme's back was turned, Buteau took possession of the cash. He thus received three hundred and fifty francs a year, but he used to say in a whining voice that he had to add as much more to it, and even more than that, to defray the expense of his father's keep. He never referred to the scrip he had appropriated. That was quite safe, and they could all settle about it later on. He alleged that the dividends were exhausted in keeping up the payments to old Saucisse, fifteen sous every day, for the purchase of the acre and a quarter of land. He protested that it would never do to let this agreement break through, now that so much money had been paid under it. There was a report, however, that old Saucisse, under the pressure of some violent threat, had consented to annul the agreement, and to hand Buteau half the money he had received under it, a thousand francs out of two thousand; and the fact that the old scamp held his tongue was accounted for by his fear of letting his neighbours know too much of his affairs, and by his unwillingness to confess that he, also, had been worsted in his turn. Buteau had, indeed, realised that Fouan would die the first, for he was now so infirm that he could scarcely stand upright; had he received a cuffing he would probably have fallen to the ground powerless ever to rise again.
A year passed away, and yet Fouan was still alive, although he was growing weaker every day. He was no longer the neat old peasant of yore, with a clean-shaven face, and dressed in a clean new blouse and black trousers. His big bony nose, which appeared to be stretching forward towards the ground, seemed to be the only feature left in his withered, fleshless face. His stoop had increased slightly every year, and by this time he was almost bent double; he now only had to take the final somersault which would land him in his grave. He dragged himself along by the aid of two thick sticks, his face half covered by a long, dirty white beard, his body clad in the soiled and ragged cast-off clothes of his son; and he was in such an unpleasantly neglected condition that he looked quite repugnant in the full light of day, resembling one of those tattered old tramps to whom passers-by give a wide berth. In the wreck only the animal part of his nature survived, with the mere instinct of living. A feeling of ravenous hunger always made him fall keenly on his soup, and he was never satisfied; he stuffed himself with bread when he happened to be alone in the house, and he even stole Jules's bread and butter from him, unless the lad resisted. In consequence of his predatory habits, the Buteaus reduced his quantity of food at meal-times, and they even took advantage of the situation to under-feed him, pretending that he stuffed himself till he nearly burst.
Buteau accused him of having ruined himself during his stay at the Château with Hyacinthe, and this accusation was well founded, for this whilom sober, self-stinting peasant, who had once lived upon bread and water, had there fallen into ways of dissipation, contracting a taste for meat and brandy, so that he now suffered at being deprived of them. Vicious habits quickly take hold of a man, even when it is a son who debauches his father. The wine disappeared so rapidly that Lise was obliged to lock it up; and, on the days when any meat soup was being cooked, little Laure was set to mount guard over it. Since the old man had run into debt with Lengaigne for a cup of coffee, both Lengaigne and the Macquerons had been warned by Buteau that he would not pay them if they supplied his father on credit. The old man still maintained his tragic silence, but sometimes when his plate was not quite full, or when the wine was removed without any being given to him, he fixed his bleared eyes upon his son in a prolonged stare, in the impotent rage of his ravenous craving. Did they want him to die of starvation? he seemed to be asking.
"Oh, you may stare at me as hard as you like!" Buteau used to say, "but do you imagine I'm going to pamper brutes that do nothing? Those who like meat ought to earn it, you miserable old greedy-guts! You ought to be ashamed of yourself for going in for dissipation at your time of life!"
Though Fouan's obstinate pride had prevented him returning to the Delhommes', for he brooded unforgetfully over his daughter's stinging remark, he tolerated every indignity from the Buteaus, their cutting speeches, and even their blows. He no longer thought about his other children, but surrendered himself in utter weariness, without any idea of making his escape from it all. He would be no better off anywhere else, so what was the good of troubling himself to move? When Fanny met him she passed by stiffly, having sworn that she would not be the first to speak. Hyacinthe, who was more good-natured, though he had borne his father a grudge for some time on account of the shabby fashion in which he had left the Château, amused himself one evening by making the old man abominably drunk at Macqueron's, and then leaving him in this condition outside Buteau's door. There was a dreadful scene; the house was upset; Lise was obliged to wash the kitchen out, and Buteau swore that if such a thing occurred again he would make his father sleep on the dung-heap, so that the old man got afraid, and became so suspicious of his elder son that he no longer dared to accept his offers of refreshments. He often saw La Trouille with her geese while he was sitting out of doors at the road side. The girl would stop and examine him with her little eyes, and even talk to him for a moment or two, while her geese waited behind her, standing on one leg and poking out their necks. One morning, however, the old man discovered that she had stolen his handkerchief, and from that time forth whenever he caught sight of her in the distance he shook his sticks at her threateningly, as if to drive her away. She made sport of him and amused herself by setting her geese at him, only going off when some passer-by threatened to cuff her if she did not leave her grandfather in peace.
So far Fouan had been able to walk, and this had been a source of much consolation to him, for he still took an interest in the soil, and constantly re-visited his old property, just as some worn-out old rakes haunt the presence of their former mistresses. He wandered slowly along the roads with his crazy old gait, and remained standing for hours at the edge of a field, supporting himself on his two sticks. Then he would drag himself to another field, and again become absorbed in motionless contemplation, looking like some gnarled old tree growing there, and withered by age. His dim eyes were no longer capable of distinguishing clearly between oats and wheat and rye. Everything seemed blurred and fogged to him, and even his recollections of the past were dim and confused. This field, he fancied, had yielded so many bushels in such a year, but he kept confounding dates and figures. He was constantly possessed by one bitter, haunting thought. The soil which he had so yearned for, and which he had won and possessed, the soil to which for sixty long years he had devoted everything—his limbs, his heart, his very life—this ungrateful soil had passed into the arms of another lover, for whom it now brought forth plentifully without reserving aught for him. A deep sadness overwhelmed him at the thought that it knew him no longer, that he retained not a particle of it, nothing even of what it had produced, neither a copper nor a mouthful of bread. And now he would soon have to die and rot away beneath it, beneath that fickle indifferent soil which would drain fresh youth from his old bones! It had really not been worth his while to wear himself out with hard toil and labour when this was the end of it all—utter penury and infirmity! Whenever he had thus made the round of his old fields, he returned home and threw himself on his bed, so overwhelmed that he could not even be heard breathing.
He was deprived of this last interest he took in life when he lost the use of his legs. It soon became so painful to him to walk about that he scarcely went beyond the village. There were three favourite spots where he was fond of sitting on fine days—the logs in front of Clou's farriery, the bridge over the Aigre, and a stone bench near the school. He tottered slowly from one to another of these halting-places, taking nearly an hour to go a couple of hundred yards, and dragging his wooden shoes after him as though they were heavy carts, as he shambled painfully along in the crazy wreck of his frame. Wrapt in oblivious abstraction, he frequently sat on the end of a log for a whole afternoon, huddled up, and feasting on the sunshine. His eyes were open, but he remained motionless in a kind of drowsy stupefaction. Passers-by no longer took any notice of him, for he had ceased to be a living creature, he was merely a thing. Even his pipe had become a burden to him, and he had almost ceased to smoke. The pressure of the stem upon his gums pained him, and the labour of filling and lighting quite exhausted him. His one desire was to sit perfectly motionless, for as soon as he stirred, even in the full warmth of the noon-day sun, he felt frozen and began to shiver. His power of will and his authority had already perished, and he was now in the last stage of decrepitude, leading a mere animal life, like some old brute suffering amid abandonment from the fact of having once led the life of a human being. However, he made no complaints, realising that a foundered horse, though it may once have worked well, is sent to the knacker's as soon as it makes no return for the oats it consumes. Old folk, in a like way, are good for nothing, and are only a source of expense, so the sooner they are out of the way the better. He himself had wished for his father's death; and now if his children, in their turn, impatiently awaited his own, it neither surprised nor hurt him. It was natural that this should be the case.
If ever a neighbour cried out to him: "Well, Fouan, you still manage to keep alive!" he would mumble out: "Ah, yes, dying is a wearily long business, but it isn't the want of the will that keeps me from it."
He only spoke the truth, with the stoicism of the peasant, who accepts death without a murmur, and even desires it when he is stripped of everything, and the soil calls him back to her.
But there was still another grief in store for him. Jules cast him off, instigated thereto by Laure. Whenever the girl saw her brother with their grandfather she seemed jealous, and with her eyes fiercely glistening she would call him angrily away. The old man was a nuisance, she said; it was much more amusing for them to play together. If her brother did not at once go off with her, she hung on to his shoulder and pulled him away. Then she made herself so agreeable that the lad forgot the little household services which he had hitherto rendered his grandfather. And by degrees Laure completely won Jules over to her side, like a real woman who has set her mind upon a conquest.
One evening Fouan had gone to wait for Jules in front of the school, feeling so tired that he wished for the lad's hand to help him up the hill. Laure, however, came out with her brother, and when the old man's trembling fingers sought the lad's, she burst out into a sneering laugh.
"There he is boring you again!" said she. "Leave him to see after himself." Then, turning to the other children, she added: "Isn't he a sawny to let himself be plagued in this way?"
Jules blushed at the sound of his schoolfellows' jeers, and, wishing to show what a man he was, he jumped aside, repeating his sister's expression to the old companion of his walks:
"You plague me!"
Dismayed, and with tears filling his troubled eyes, Fouan stumbled as though the ground failed him, like the little hand that had been withdrawn. The jeering laughter increased, and Laure made Jules dance with her round the old man, singing the childish rhyme:
"He shall fall on the ground, and there he shall lie, And whoever shall help him, shall eat his bread dry!"
Fouan, half fainting, was nearly two hours in getting home, so feebly did he drag his feet along. This was the last blow. The lad ceased bringing him his soup and making his bed, the palliasse of which was now not turned once a month. Without even this urchin to talk to, the old man buried himself in absolute silence, and his isolation became complete. Never did he speak a word about anything to any one.