The winter ploughing had commenced, and Jean, that cold grey February afternoon, had just arrived with his plough at his big patch of ground on the plain, where he still had a good couple of hours' work before him. It was a strip at the edge of the field that he was going to plough, intending to sow it with a new variety of Scotch wheat, a course which had been recommended by his old master, Hourdequin, who had moreover promised him several bushels of seed-corn.
Jean at once set to work, beginning at the spot where he had left off on the previous day; and, putting his plough into position and grasping hold of the arms, he started his horse, shouting in a gruff voice:
"Gee woh! Gee woh!"
Violent rains, coming after excessive heat, had so stiffened the clayey soil that it was with great difficulty that the plough-share and coulter broke off the strips of earth through which they cut. The heavy clods could be heard grating against the mould-board as the latter turned them over, burying the manure with which the field was covered. Every now and then a stone or some other obstacle gave the plough a sudden shock.
"Gee woh! Gee woh!" cried Jean, as grasping the handles with his outstretched arms he guided the plough so correctly that the furrows were as straight as if they had been traced out by rule and line. Meanwhile his horse, keeping its head down and burying its hoofs in the soil, drew the plough forward with a steady regular motion. Whenever the implement got clogged, Jean jerked off the earth and weeds, and then it glided on again, leaving the rich soil behind it upraised, quivering and trembling, as though alive, and with its very entrails exposed.
He reached the end of the furrow, and then turned round and commenced a new one. Presently he became affected by a sort of intoxication due to the strong odour exhaled by the disturbed soil, an odour suggestive of damp recesses where the seed would germinate. His slow monotonous gait and his fixed gaze completed his feeling of dazed abstraction. He would never succeed in becoming a genuine peasant, he thought. He was not a native of the soil, and he still retained the feelings of a town-bred workman, of a trooper who had served through the campaign in Italy; and things that the peasants could not see or feel were very visible and apparent to him—the great mournful peacefulness of the plain and the deep breathing of the soil beneath the sunshine and the showers. He had always had visions of retiring into the peace of the country, but how foolish he must have been to imagine that it was only necessary to lay down the gun and the plane and to grasp hold of the plough to satisfy his taste for tranquillity! Though the soil might be peaceful and kindly to those that loved it, the villages that clung to it like nests of vermin, full of human insects that preyed upon its flesh, sufficed to dishonour and pollute it. He could remember no sufferings in his previous life equal to those which he had endured since his arrival at La Borderie, now a long time ago.
Being obliged to raise the arms a little in order to ease the plough, a slight unevenness in the furrow annoyed him, and he began to display still greater care in guiding his horse.
"Gee woh! Gee woh!"
Yes, indeed, what troubles he had gone through during these last ten years! First, there was his long period of waiting for Françoise, and then his warfare with the Buteaus. Not a day had passed without some painful event or without some angry words. And now that he had got Françoise, now that they had been married for a couple of years, could he say that he was at last happy? Though he himself still loved her, he had divined that she did not love him, and that she never would love him as he wished to be loved, unreservedly, with her whole heart and soul. They lived together in peaceful harmony, indeed, and they were prospering in their work and saving money. But that was not everything. He could feel that she was cold and reserved, and occupied by other thoughts than of himself when he held her in his arms. She was now five months gone with child, but even this fact had not brought the husband and wife into closer sympathy; and Jean felt more and more the feeling which he had first experienced on the day they had taken possession of their house, the feeling that his wife still looked upon him as a stranger, a native of another country, born no one knew where; a man whose thoughts were not those of the villagers of Rognes; who seemed to her to be even differently made, and who could never be really united with her, even though he was the father of the child she bore within her.
After her marriage, Françoise, in her exasperation against the Buteaus, had brought a piece of stamped paper from Cloyes, one Saturday, with the intention of making a will and leaving everything that belonged to her to her husband, for she had been told that the house and the land would revert to her sister supposing she died without issue, and that her husband would not be able to claim anything save the furniture and cash. Subsequently, however, she seemed to have thought better of the matter, for the sheet of stamped paper still lay in a drawer quite white. This had been a source of much secret pain to Jean, not from any mercenary feeling, but because he looked upon his wife's remissness as implying a want of affection for himself. But, indeed, it mattered nothing, now that a youngster was coming into the world! What would be the use of making a will under those circumstances? And yet despite such reflections as these, his heart felt very heavy whenever he opened the drawer and saw the piece of stamped paper which had now become useless.
Jean stopped ploughing to give his horse a little breathing-time, and the sharp, frosty wind enabled him to shake off his abstraction. He slowly let his gaze wander to the blank horizon, over the immense plain, where, far away in the distance, other ploughs were at work, looking blurred and hazy in the dull grey atmosphere. He was now surprised to perceive old Fouan, who had come from Rognes along the new road, in compliance with one of those instinctive cravings which he still experienced at times, to look once more at some field or other. On catching sight of him, Jean lowered his head, and for a moment or two concentrated his gaze upon the gaping furrow and the eviscerated soil at his feet. It was firm and yellow beneath the surface, the upturned clods seemingly revealing young and healthy earth, while the manure was buried in a bed of rich fecundity. As Jean gazed downwards, his thoughts grew confused and strangely intermingled. How odd it seemed that one should have to grub up the soil in this way to get bread! What a source of worry it was that he was not loved by Françoise! Then came more vague reflections about other matters, about the growth of the crops, about his little one who would soon be born, and about all the toil which folks underwent, often without being any the happier for it.
Then he grasped the arms of the plough again, and shouted his deep-toned cry:
"Gee woh! Gee woh!"
He was just finishing his ploughing when Delhomme, who was returning on foot from a neighbouring farm, stopped to call to him from the edge of the field.
"Hallo! Corporal, have you heard the news? We're going to have war it seems."
Jean left go of his plough and drew himself up, surprised to feel such a shock at his heart.
"War! How's that?" he asked.
"With the Prussians, so they say. It is all in the newspapers."
With a fixed gaze Jean pictured Italy, the battles fought there, and all the carnage from which he had been fortunate enough to escape without a single wound. Then his most ardent wish had been to live a quiet life in some peaceful nook, but now these few words shouted from the roadway by a passer-by, this thought of war, had sufficed to send his blood surging hotly through his veins!
"Ah, well, if the Prussians are making game of us," said he, "we can't let ourselves be flouted by them!"
Delhomme, however, looked upon the matter differently. He shook his head gravely, and declared that it would be the ruination of the country districts if the Cossacks came back again, as in Napoleon's time. Fighting did no one any good. It would be much better to try to arrange affairs peaceably.
"I say this," he added, "in the interests of others, for I have just been depositing some money with Monsieur Baillehache, so that, whatever happens, Nénesse, who has to draw in the conscription to-morrow, won't have to join the ranks."
"Ah, yes, and it's the same with me," said Jean, who had now calmed down. "I've served my time, and owe them nothing further, and I'm married, too; so, whether they go to war or not, it won't make any difference to me. Ah! so it's to be with the Prussians this time! Well, we shall give them a good hiding, just as we did the Austrians, and then there'll be an end of the matter."
"Good evening, Corporal!"
Then Delhomme went on his way again. Presently he stopped to tell the news to some one else; and then, further on, he told it a third time, and so the report of the threatened approach of war quickly flew across La Beauce, through the mournful greyish atmosphere.
Jean having finished his ploughing, determined to go at once to La Borderie, to get the seed-corn which had been promised to him. He took the horse out of the plough, and sprang on to its back, leaving the plough in a corner of the field. As he was riding off, he again thought of Fouan and looked round for him, but could not see him. He thereupon concluded that the old man had taken shelter from the cold behind a rick of straw which was standing in Buteau's field.
When Jean arrived at La Borderie, and had tethered his horse, he called without eliciting any response. Everybody appeared to be at work away from the house. However, he went into the kitchen and stamped on the floor with his feet, and presently heard Jacqueline's voice proceeding from the cellar where the dairy was. Access to it was obtained through a trap-door opening at the foot of the staircase, and so awkwardly placed that an accident was always being feared.
"Who's there?" she called.
Jean had squatted down on the top step of the steep little staircase, and she recognised him from below.
"Ah! so it's you, Corporal?"
He, too, could now see Jacqueline in the semi-darkness of the dairy, which was lighted merely by a grating in the wall. She was busily working among the bowls and the pans, from which the whey was dripping slowly into a stone trough. Her sleeves were rolled back as far as her arm-pits, and her arms were white with cream.
"Well, why don't you come down? You're not afraid of me, are you?"
She addressed him in the same familiar manner as of yore, and she laughed in her old enticing way. Jean, however, felt ill at ease, and did not move.
"I've come for the seed-corn," he said, "that the master promised me."
"Oh yes, I know. Wait a moment, and I'll come up."
When she emerged into the full light, Jean saw that she was looking very fresh and glowing; and her bare, white arms exhaled a pleasant odour of milk. She looked at him with her pretty, mischievous eyes, and ended by asking, in a bantering way:
"Well, aren't you going to kiss me? There's no reason that you should get stiff and unpleasant just because you're married."
Then he kissed her, trying to make the sounding salutes which he imprinted on both her cheeks seem mere marks of friendship. But her presence disturbed him, and recollections of the past sent his blood thrilling through his veins. He had never felt like this with his wife, although he loved her so much.
"Come along," now continued Jacqueline, "and I'll show you the seed-corn. Every one is out, even the servant-girl is away at market."
She crossed the yard, and then, entering the barn, stepped behind a pile of sacks. The seed was lying there in a heap on some boards. Jean had followed her, feeling somewhat disturbed at finding himself alone with her in this dim, out-of-the-way spot. He now suddenly began to affect a deep interest in the seed-corn, which was of a fine new Scotch variety.
"How big the grains are!" said he.
Jacqueline, however, began to speak in her cooing tones, and quickly brought him to a subject which had greater interest for her.
"Your wife is in the family-way, eh? Tell me, now, does she make herself as pleasant with you as I did?"
Jean turned very red, and Jacqueline took a malicious delight in seeing him thus disturbed. Presently some sudden reflection cast a gloom over her face.
"I've had a good many troubles, you know," she continued, "but, happily, they are all over now, and they have ended to my advantage."
The fact was that Hourdequin's son, Léon, the captain, who had not been seen at La Borderie for years past, had one day suddenly arrived there. He had observed, that same night, that Jacqueline occupied his mother's bedroom, and this had led him to make inquiries, whereupon he speedily learnt exactly how matters stood. For a little while Jacqueline trembled with uneasy alarm, for she had formed the ambitious design of marrying Hourdequin, and thus securing the reversion of the farm. The captain, however, played his cards too clumsily. He wanted to extricate his father from Jacqueline's meshes by letting himself be surprised in bed with the young woman. But he showed his hand too openly, and Jacqueline affected airs of the nicest virtue, screaming, weeping, and declaring to Hourdequin that she would leave the house at once, since she was no longer treated with respect in it. Then there was a terrible scene between the two men. The son tried to open his father's eyes, but this only made matters worse; and two hours later the captain left the house again, exclaiming, as he crossed the threshold, that he would rather lose everything than acquiesce in the present state of affairs, and that if he ever returned, it would only be to kick the hussy out of doors.
Jacqueline, in her triumph, now made the mistake of imagining that she merely had to ask for her own terms. She declared to Hourdequin that after such treatment, with which, indeed, the whole country-side was ringing, she would be compelled to leave him unless he made her his wife. She even began to pack her boxes. The farmer, however, upset by his quarrel with his son, rendered all the more angry by a secret consciousness that he was in the wrong, and a feeling of sorrowing regret for all that had occurred, gave her a couple of such vigorous cuffs as almost shook the life out of her. And then she said nothing more about going away, realising that she had been in too great a hurry. Still, she was now absolute mistress of the house, openly sleeping in the conjugal bedroom, taking her meals alone with Hourdequin, giving orders to the servants, regulating the expenses, keeping the keys of the safe, and behaving so despotically that the farmer always consulted her before taking any step. He was failing and ageing quickly, and Jacqueline trusted that she would be able to overcome his last scruples and induce him to marry her when she had quite exhausted his remaining manhood. In the meantime, as he had sworn to disinherit his son, she used all her wiles to induce him to make a will in her favour; and she already looked upon herself as the owner of the farm, for she had succeeded in wringing a promise from Hourdequin that he would leave it to her.
"If I've been knocking myself up for years past," she said to Jean, "it certainly hasn't been out of love for his good looks."
Jean could not restrain a laugh. While speaking Jacqueline had been plunging her bare arms again and again into the heap of corn, covering her skin with a soft floury powder. Jean looked at her, and suddenly gave utterance to a question which he speedily regretted.
"And are you as thick as ever with Tron?"
Jacqueline gave no sign of being offended. She spoke quite frankly, as to an old friend.
"Oh, I'm very fond of him, the great stupid fellow; but he's really very unreasonable. He's so dreadfully jealous, and we have terrible scenes together sometimes. The master's the only one he'll tolerate, and I really believe that he comes sometimes at nights and listens at the door, to find out whether we are sleeping or not."
Jean laughed again; but Jacqueline seemed to consider it no laughing matter. She felt a vague fear of that big fellow Tron, who was cunning and treacherous, like all the men of Le Perche, she said. He had threatened to strangle her if she proved unfaithful to him; and consequently she now consorted with him in fear and trembling, despite the charm that his huge limbs had for her. She herself was so slim that this big fellow could have crushed her between his thumb and fingers.
At last, shrugging her shoulders with a pretty air, as much as to say that she had conquered others quite as difficult to manage, she continued:
"We used to get on better with one another than that, eh, Corporal?"
Still keeping her merry eyes fixed upon him, she began to pound the corn again; while Jean fell a victim to her charms once more, forgetting all about his departure from La Borderie, his marriage, and the child that was soon to be born to him. He seized hold of her wrists under the corn, and then slipped his hands up her arms, all velvety with flour, till they reached her white child-like breast, to which her habits of debauchery seemed to have imparted a firmer plumpness. This was what she had been wishing to bring about ever since she had caught sight of him at the mouth of the trap-door; and she felt an additional malicious joy in taking him from another woman, and that woman his lawful wife, and proving that it was still herself that he loved best. He had already seized her in his arms and thrown her down, panting and cooing, upon the heap of corn, when the shepherd Soulas, with his tall fleshless figure, emerged from behind the sacks, coughing loudly and spitting. Jacqueline hastily sprang to her feet, while Jean panted and stammered out:
"Oh, this is it, is it? Well, I'll come back presently and take fifteen bushels of it. What splendid stuff it is, isn't it?"
Jacqueline, bursting with anger, fixed her eyes on the shepherd, who showed no signs of going away.
"It is really past all bearing!" she muttered between her clenched teeth. "Whenever I think I am alone, he always contrives to turn up and haunt me! But I'll have him sent off about his business!"
Jean, who had now recovered his calmness, hastily left the barn, and went to unfasten his horse, without paying any attention to the signs of Jacqueline, who would have concealed him in the conjugal bed-chamber itself rather than have foregone her desire. Anxious to make his escape, Jean said that he would return the next day, and he was setting off on foot, leading his horse by the bridle, when Soulas, who had gone outside to wait for him, intercepted him at the gate.
"So she's got even you back into her meshes again! Well, at any rate just tell her to keep her tongue quiet, if she doesn't want to set mine wagging. Ah, there will be a pretty business, by-and-bye, you'll see!"
Jean, however, passed on his way with a rough gesture, refusing to mix himself up any further in the matter. He was full of shame; annoyed at the thought of what he had so nearly done. He had believed that he really loved Françoise, and yet he had never felt one of these impetuous thrills of desire for her! Could it be that he really loved Jacqueline more than his wife? Had a passion for the hussy been smouldering within him all this time? All the past woke up within him into fresh life, and he was angered at himself to feel that he would certainly return to Jacqueline in spite of all his desire to the contrary. Then he excitedly sprang on to his horse and galloped off, so as to get back to Rognes as soon as possible.
That same afternoon it happened that Françoise had gone to cut a bundle of lucern for her cows. It was generally her task to do this, and she settled to do it on that particular afternoon as she relied on finding her husband in the field, ploughing. She did not care to trust herself there alone, for fear she might come across the Buteaus, who, in their anger at no longer having the whole field to themselves, were perpetually seeking any excuse for a violent quarrel. She took a scythe with her, and counted upon the horse for bringing back the bundle of lucern. As she neared the field, she was surprised not to see her husband there, though she had not warned him of her intention to come. The plough was still there, but where could Jean have gone? She felt still more nervous when she observed Buteau and Lise standing at the edge of the field, shaking their arms with a show of anger. She fancied that they had just stopped for a moment on their way back from some neighbouring village, for they were wearing their Sunday clothes, and had no appearance of being engaged in work. For a moment she felt inclined to turn back and make her escape. Then she felt indignant at her own alarm; surely she was not going to be afraid of cutting lucern on her own land! So she continued to walk forward at the same pace, and carrying the scythe on her shoulder.
As a matter of fact, whenever Françoise met Buteau, and especially when he was alone, she was always overcome with nervous confusion. For two years she had not spoken a single word to him, but she never could see him without her whole body being thrilled with emotion. This emotion might be caused by anger, or it might be the result of some very different feeling. Several times she had seen him in front of her on this same road when she had been going up to her plot of lucern; and he would turn his head round two or three times and glance at her with his yellow-streaked grey eyes. Then she would feel a slight thrill pass through her body, and would quicken her steps in spite of all her efforts not to do so; while Buteau, on the other hand, would slacken his pace, and so she would find herself compelled to pass him, and, as she did so, their eyes would meet just for a second. Then she was troubled with the disturbing but pleasant consciousness that he was just behind her; and she felt enervated and scarcely able to continue walking. The last time they had met in this way, she had been so overcome that she had fallen down at full length in an attempt to jump from the road into her patch of lucern; and Buteau had nearly burst with laughter at the sight.
That evening, when Buteau maliciously told his wife of her sister's tumble, they glanced at each other with gleaming eyes in which the same thought was expressed. If the hussy had killed herself and her unborn child her husband would take nothing, and the land and house would return to themselves! They had learnt from La Grande the story of the postponed will, which had now become unnecessary on account of Françoise's condition. But they never had any luck! There was no chance of fortune putting both mother and child out of their way at a single stroke! They returned to the subject as they went to bed, and talked about the death of Françoise and her unborn baby merely for the sake of talking. Talking of folks' death doesn't kill them; still, if Françoise, now, really died without an heir, what a stroke of luck it would be! What a heavenly retribution! In the bitterness of her hate, Lise actually swore that her sister was no longer her sister, and that she would willingly hold her head on the block if that was all that was wanted to enable them to return to their own house, from which the wicked drab had so treacherously evicted them.
Buteau was not quite so vindictive, and he declared, that he would be sufficiently pleased for the present if the youngster were to perish before it was born. Françoise's condition was a source of much irritation to him, for the birth of a child would destroy all his obstinately entertained hopes, and definitely deprive him of the property. As the husband and wife got into bed together, and Lise blew out the candle, she broke out into a peculiar little laugh, and said that, so long as a youngster had not actually come into the world, it could easily be prevented from making its appearance. After lying silent for some time in the darkness, Buteau asked his wife what she meant. Then cuddling close up to his side, and holding her mouth to his ear, she made a very singular confession. Last month, she said, she had been troubled to find herself in the family way again, and so, without saying anything about it to him, she had gone off to consult La Sapin, an old woman living at Magnolles, who had the reputation of being a witch. A pretty reception he'd have given her if she had told him how matters stood. La Sapin, however, had quickly put everything right. It was a very simple affair.
Buteau listened to his wife without showing either approval or disapproval, and his satisfaction at what had occurred could only be gathered from the joking way in which he observed that Lise should have brought the prescription away with her for Françoise's advantage. Lise, too, seemed merry, and, grasping her husband closely in her arms, she whispered to him that La Sapin had taught her something else, oh, such a funny trick! What was it? asked Buteau. Well, a man could undo what a man had done, replied Lise. He had only got to make the sign of the cross on a woman three times and say an Ave backwards, and if there were a little one, it would disappear immediately. Buteau began to laugh, and they both affected incredulity, but they still retained so much of the ancient superstition of their race, that they were privately inclined to believe what they pretended to disbelieve. Indeed, everybody knew that the old witch of Magnolles had turned a cow into a weasel, and had brought a dead man to life again. Surely it must be true if she said it was! The idea made Buteau grin. Would it really be effectual? Stay, now, why shouldn't he really try it on Françoise, suggested Lise, he and she knew all about each other? Buteau, however, now protested against this allegation, as his wife, showing signs of jealousy, began to pinch and thump him; and they presently fell asleep in one another's arms.
Ever since that night they had been haunted by the thought of the child that was coming into the world to deprive them of the house and land for ever; and they never met the younger sister without immediately glancing at her condition. Thus as they now saw her coming up the road, on this afternoon when she wanted to cut some lucern, they took her measure with their eyes, and were quite startled to notice how swiftly matters were advancing, and how little time there was left in which to take any steps.
"The devil take him," cried Buteau, going forward to examine the furrows; "the blackguard has filched off a good foot of our land! It's as plain as possible; see, there's the boundary-stone!"
Françoise had continued to approach with leisurely, easy steps, concealing her feeling of uneasy alarm. She now understood the cause of the Buteaus' angry gestures. Jean's plough must have sliced off a strip of their land. Disputes were continually arising on this score, and not a month passed without some quarrel taking place as to the boundary-line. Blows and litigation seemed likely to be the inevitable result.
"You are trespassing on our land," cried Buteau, raising his voice, "and I shall prosecute you!"
The young woman, however, stepped up to her patch of lucern, without even turning her head.
"Don't you hear us?" now screamed Lise, in a towering rage. "Come and look at the boundary-stone for yourself, if you think we're liars! You'll have to make good the damage!"
Her sister's persistent silence and contemptuous air now so thoroughly enraged her that she lost all control over herself, and rushed up to her, clenching her fists.
"So you think you can flout us as you please, do you, hussy? I am your elder sister, and I'll teach you to treat me with proper respect; and I'll make you go down on your knees and beg my pardon for all your impertinence to me!"
She was now standing in front of Françoise, mad with hate and anger, hesitating whether she should kill her sister with her fists, or whether she should kick her to death or knock out her brains with a stone.
"Down on your knees, hussy, down on your knees!"
Still persisting in her silence, Françoise now spat in her sister's face, just as she had done on the evening of the ejectment. Lise then broke out into a roar, but Buteau immediately interposed, and thrust her violently aside.
"Get away!" he said; "this is my business."
Ah, yes, she would gladly get away, and leave him to settle the matter. He was at perfect liberty to wring her sister's neck or break her back; he might cut her up and give her flesh to the dogs, or he might make her his drab; and, so far from trying to prevent him, she would do all she could to help him. She now braced herself up and glanced round her, keeping watch so that no one should come and interfere with whatever her husband chose to do. The vast grey plain stretched out beneath the gloomy sky, and not a single human being was in view.
"Now's the time! There's no one in sight!"
Buteau then stepped up to Françoise; and, as the young woman saw him advancing with stern-set face and stiff-braced arms, she thought he was going to thrash her. She still held her scythe, but she began to tremble, and Buteau seizing hold of the implement by the handle, tore it from her and tossed it into the lucern. Her only means of escaping him was by stepping backwards. She continued doing so till she reached the adjoining field, making for the rick which stood there, as though she hoped to use it in some way as a protecting rampart. Buteau followed her up quite leisurely; and he, on his part, seemed to be wishing to drive her towards the rick. His arms were slightly extended, and his face was broadened by a silent grin which disclosed his gums. Suddenly it flashed upon Françoise that he did not mean to thrash her. No, it was something very different that he meant; that something which she had so long refused him. She now began to tremble still more violently, and she felt as though all her strength were failing her; she who had always so valiantly resisted and belaboured him, and sworn that he should never gain his ends! But she was no longer the high-spirited girl she had been; she had just completed her twenty-third year, on Saint Martin's Day, and she was now a woman, with the fresh bloom already taken off her by hard work, though her lips were still red and her eyes as big as crown-pieces. She felt such a sensation of flushed languor that her limbs seemed quite enervated and lifeless.
Buteau, still continuing to force her backwards, at last spoke in a deep, excited voice.
"You know very well that all is not over between us. This time I mean to succeed!"
He had now managed to bring her to a stand against the rick; and he abruptly took her by the shoulders and threw her upon her back. Dazed and enervated though she was, for a moment or two she began to struggle and fight, instinctively prompted thereto by her old habits of resistance. Buteau, however, dodged her kicks.
"What difference can it make to you, you silly idiot?" said he. "You needn't be afraid!"
Françoise now burst into tears, and seemed taken with a sort of fit. Though she made no further effort to defend herself, she was so violently shaken by nervous contortions that Buteau could not succeed in his purpose. His anger at being thus foiled maddened him, and, turning towards his wife, he cried out:
"You damned helpless idiot, what are you standing staring there for. Come and help me!"
Lise had remained standing bolt upright some ten yards away, without ever stirring; now scanning the distance to see if any one was coming, and now glancing at Françoise and Buteau, without any sign of feeling on her face. When her husband called her, she did not evince the slightest hesitation, but strode up to him, and seizing hold of her sister, she sat down upon her as heavily as if she wanted to crush her. Finally Buteau proved victorious. He was just rising when old Fouan popped out his head from behind the rick, where he had sought shelter from the cold. The old man had seen all, and it evidently frightened him, for he at once concealed himself behind the straw again.
Buteau having risen to his feet, Lise looked at him keenly. In his eagerness he had forgotten all about the three signs of the cross, and the Ave repeated backwards. His wife stood frenzied with wild indignation. It was merely for his own pleasure that he done the deed!
Françoise, however, left him no time for explanations. For a moment she had remained lying motionless on the ground, as though she had fainted beneath a sensation such as she had never before experienced. The truth had suddenly dawned upon her. She loved Buteau! She never had, and never would, love any other. This discovery filled her with shame, and she was angered against herself at finding how false she was to her own ingrained ideas of justice. A man who did not belong to her! A man who belonged to that sister whom she now so hated! The only man in the world whom she could not possess without being false to her own oath!
Springing wildly to her feet, with her hair dishevelled and her clothes all disarranged, she spat out the anger that was raging within her in spasmodic bursts of abuse.
"You filthy swine! Yes, both of you! you're both filthy swine! You have ruined and destroyed me! People have been guillotined for doing less than you've done! I will tell Jean, you filthy swine, and he'll settle your accounts for you!"
Buteau shrugged his shoulders, and smiled his leering smile. He felt immensely satisfied, now that he had at last succeeded in gaining his ends.
"Nonsense, my dear! You were dying for it!"
This bantering speech had the effect of completing Lise's exasperation, and she vented all her rising anger against her husband upon her sister.
"It's quite true, you drab; I saw you!" she shouted. "I always said that all my troubles came from you! Will you dare to say now that you didn't debauch my husband, yes, debauch him directly after we were married, when you were only a child whom I still whipped?"
She now manifested the most violent jealousy, a jealousy which appeared somewhat singular after all the complacence she had recently shown. If Françoise had never been born, she thought, she herself would never have had to share either property or husband! She hated her sister for being younger and fresher and more attractive than herself.
"You're a liar!" cried Françoise, wild with anger. "You know that you are lying!"
"A liar, am I? You'll tell me, I suppose, that you didn't pursue him even into the cellar?"
"I! indeed! I'd a deal to do with it, hadn't I? You cow! you helped him! Yes, and you'd have broken my back, if you could! You must either be a filthy pimp, or else you wanted to murder me, you dirty drab!"
Lise replied by a violent blow, which so maddened Françoise that she threw herself wildly upon her sister. Buteau stood sniggering with his hands in his pockets, and made no attempt to interfere, like a self-satisfied cock watching a couple of hens quarrelling for him. The two women continued fighting savagely, tearing each other's caps off, their faces clawed and bleeding, and their hands eagerly seeking any spot where they might tear and rend. In scuffling and wrestling they returned to the patch of lucern, and Lise suddenly broke out into a loud roar, for Françoise had driven her nails deeply into her neck Then, losing all self-control, the idea of murdering her sister occurred to her. She had caught sight of the scythe lying on her left hand. The handle had fallen across a clump of thistles, and the blade was sticking point upwards in the air. Like a flash of lightning she hurled Françoise on to the gleaming steel with all her force. The unfortunate young woman tottered and fell, uttering a terrible shriek. The blade of the scythe had pierced her side.
"Good God! good God!" stammered Buteau.
It was all over. A single second had settled it all; the irreparable had been accomplished. Lise, dazed at seeing her wish so quickly realised, stood watching her sister's severed dress as it reddened with a stream of blood. Had the blade penetrated deeply enough to cut the little one, that the blood flowed so plentifully? she wondered.
Old Fouan's pale face again peeped forth from behind the rick. He had seen everything, and was perfectly stupefied.
Françoise lay quite still, and Buteau, who had stepped up to her, dared not touch her. A gust of wind now darted over the field, and filled him with a wild terror.
"She is dead! In God's name, let us bolt!"
He seized hold of Lise's hand, and they flew along the deserted road as though they were possessed. The low, gloomy sky seemed as though it was about to fall down upon their heads, and behind them the sound of their galloping feet raised echoes which sounded as though a crowd of people were in hot pursuit of them. They both ran wildly on over the cropped and naked plain; Buteau, with his blouse swelling about him in the wind, and Lise, with her hair all loose and dishevelled, carrying her cap in her hand. And as they ran they both kept repeating the same words, panting like hunted animals:
"She is dead! In God's name, let us bolt!"
Their strides grew longer, and soon they could not articulate distinctly; still, as they fled wildly on, they gave vent to panting exclamations which kept time, as it were, with their bounds:
"Dead! good God! Dead! good God! Dead! good God!"
Then they disappeared from sight.
Some minutes later, when Jean trotted up on his horse, he was filled with terrible consternation.
"What—what has happened?" he cried.
Françoise had opened her eyes, but still lay rigidly motionless. She gazed at Jean for a long time with her great troubled eyes, but she said nothing. Her mind seemed to be far away, absorbed in thought.
"You are wounded! You are bleeding! Speak to me, I beseech you!"
Then he turned to old Fouan, who had at length ventured to approach.
"You were here? Tell me what has happened!"
Then Françoise spoke, but very slowly, as though she were thinking of what she should say.
"I came to cut some grass—I fell on to my scythe—it went into me here. Oh, it's all over with me!"
Her eyes sought those of Fouan, telling him, and him alone, other things—things that only her own family should know. Dazed as was the old man, he seemed to comprehend her meaning.
"Yes, that is what happened," he said; "she fell and wounded herself. I was there, and saw it."
Jean galloped off to Rognes for a stretcher to carry his wife home. She lost consciousness again on the journey, and they never expected to get her to the house alive.