Early the next day, as Françoise's body was being placed in the coffin, which was resting upon two chairs in the middle of the bedroom, Jean was overcome with surprise and indignation at seeing Lise and Buteau enter the house, one behind the other. His first impulse was to summarily eject these stony-hearted relatives, who had not come to give Françoise a last kiss ere she died, but who lost no time in coming as soon as the coffin-lid had been screwed down over her, as though they now felt free from all fear of finding themselves face to face with her. However, the other members of the family who were present, Fanny and La Grande, restrained him. It would bring bad luck, they said, to begin quarrelling round a corpse. Besides, what good would it do? Lise could not be prevented from atoning for her previous vindictiveness by keeping watch over her sister's remains.
The Buteaus had reckoned upon the respect due to the presence of a dead body in the house, and they took advantage of it to install themselves in their old home once more. They made no actual profession of taking possession of the place, but still they did take possession of it, in a quiet easy way, and as though it were quite a matter of course that, as Françoise was no longer there, they themselves should return. True, her body was there, but it was packed ready for its final departure, and was really of no more account than a piece of furniture. Lise, after sitting down for some time with the others, so far forgot all sense of decency as to get up and examine the drawers and cupboards to satisfy herself that their contents had not been removed during her absence. Buteau had gone off to look at the stable and cow-house, as though he were already quite at home, and were just giving a glance round to see that everything was all right. By evening they both appeared quite settled again on the premises, and the only thing that caused them any inconvenience was the coffin, which still blocked up the bedroom. However, there was merely another night to wait; the room would be quite at their disposal early the next day.
Jean kept wandering restlessly up and down, looking dazed and confused, and seemingly quite at a loss as to what to do with himself. At first the house, and the furniture, and Françoise's body had seemed to belong to him; but, as the time glided by, they appeared to sever their connection with him and to pass away to others. By the time night closed in, every one had ceased to speak to him, and his presence in the place was merely just tolerated. Never before had he felt so painfully conscious of being a stranger in the village, of being quite alone, of not having a single kindred fellow-creature among all these folks, who were related to each other and fully agreed on the question of his own expulsion. Even his poor dead wife no longer seemed to belong to him; in fact, Fanny sent him away from the bedroom, where he wished to stay and watch over the body, saying that there were quite sufficient people for that purpose already. He had for some time refused to go, and finally, annoyed at Fanny's persistence, he had resolved to take possession of the money in the drawer—the hundred and twenty-seven francs—so as to make sure that they wouldn't fly away. Lise had seen them on opening the drawer, together with the sheet of stamped paper which had never been used, and the sight of the latter had led to her holding a whispered conversation with La Grande. The result of this chat had been to make her feel quite easy in mind, for she had definitely learnt that there was no will, and that the house was really her own again. Jean, however, had made up his mind that, at any rate, she should not have the money; amid his vague apprehensions as regards the morrow, he determined that he would at least keep that for himself; and after taking possession of it, he passed the night on a chair.
The funeral took place on the following morning, at nine o'clock. The Abbé Madeline, who was leaving Rognes that same evening, was just able to say the mass and accompany the body to the grave; but when he reached it he fainted, and they were obliged to carry him away. Monsieur and Madame Charles were present, together with Delhomme and Nénesse. It was a very respectable funeral, though nothing out of the way. Jean shed tears, and Buteau also wiped his eyes, but they were quite dry. At the last moment Lise had declared that her legs felt as though they were giving way beneath her, and that she was too weak to accompany her sister's body to the grave. She had consequently remained alone in the house, while La Grande, Fanny, La Frimat, Madame Bécu, and other female friends attended the funeral. On returning from the graveyard all the company lingered in the open square in front of the church, in anticipation of a scene which they had been expecting since the previous evening.
So far the two men, Jean and Buteau, had avoided even glancing at each other, fearing lest some violent outbreak might ensue in presence of the corpse ere it was barely cold. They, however, now both directed their steps towards the house with the same resolute gait; and they kept glancing aside at each other. Jean had at once understood why Lise had not come to the funeral. She had stayed away in order to get her effects into the house again—in a rough sort of fashion, at any rate. An hour had sufficed for the purpose, for she had been hard at work tossing her bundles over La Frimat's wall, and wheeling round anything that was breakable. Finally, she had dragged Laure and Jules into the yard, administering a cuff a-piece to them, and there they were already fighting, while old Fouan, whom she had also hustled inside, sat panting on the stone bench. The house was reconquered.
"Where are you going?" Buteau suddenly asked, stopping Jean in front of the gate.
"I'm going home."
"Home! home, indeed! Where is your home? It certainly isn't here! This is my house."
Lise had rushed up, and resting her hands upon her hips, she now began to yell, exhibiting even more offensive insolence than her husband.
"Eh? what? What does he want, the rotten blackguard? He's been poisoning my poor sister long enough; that's quite clear, or she would never have died of her accident. And she showed pretty plainly what she thought of him by not leaving him anything. Knock him over, Buteau! Don't let him come inside, or he'll give us all some beastly illness!"
Jean, although he was boiling over with indignation at this virulent attack, still attempted to reason with her.
"I know very well," he said, "that the house and land revert to you; but half of the furniture and live stock belong to me."
"Half, indeed! You've got a lot of cheek, you have!" cried Lise, interrupting him. "You foul stink-pot, how dare you claim half of anything, you who didn't even bring a broken comb into the place? You merely came here with the shirt on your back! So you want to fatten yourself and get rich by preying on women, eh? That's a dirty, swinish game."
Buteau backed her up, and, with a sweeping gesture across the threshold, he cried out:
"She's telling the truth! Look sharp! You came with your jacket and breeches, and you've got them on, so take yourself off with 'em! Nobody wants to deprive you of them!"
The other members of the family, especially the women, Fanny and La Grande, who were standing in a group some thirty yards away, seemed by their silence to approve of Buteau's conduct. Jean, turning pale at the insults which were offered him, and stung to the quick by the accusation of mercenary scheming, now broke out into an angry retort:
"Very well, so you are bent upon making a disturbance, eh? I insist upon entering, for I have still the right of possession, as the formal partition has not yet been made. Then I shall at once go and fetch Monsieur Baillehache, who will put everything under seal, and appoint me guardian. The house is mine for the present, and it is for you to take yourselves off."
He now stepped up to Lise with such a threatening air that she retreated from the doorway. Buteau, however, rushed upon him, and a struggle ensued, the two men reeling into the middle of the kitchen. There another violent discussion followed as to which of the two parties should be ejected—the husband, or the sister and brother-in-law.
"Show me the document which makes the house yours!" cried Jean.
"Documents, indeed! It's quite sufficient that we have the right to it!"
"Very well, then, if you've the right to it, why don't you come and enforce your right with the bailiff and the gendarmes, as we did?"
"We want no bailiffs and gendarmes! It's only swindling scoundrels who have to go to them for help. An honest man can manage his affairs for himself."
Jean was bending over the table and clinging to it. He had resolved not to leave, bent on proving that he was the stronger of the two, and determined not to part with the house where his wife had just died, and where, it seemed to him, the only happy part of his life had been spent. Buteau, at the other side of the table, was also determined not to give up the house which he had just reconquered, and he resolved to bring the matter to a speedy issue.
"The long and the short of it," he cried, "is that we've had enough of you."
Then he rushed round the table at Jean, but the latter, catching hold of a chair and hurling it at his adversary's legs, tripped him up; then, as he was about to take refuge in the adjoining room, meaning to barricade himself inside it, Lise suddenly bethought herself of the money, the hundred and twenty-seven francs which she had observed in the drawer. Fancying that Jean was hastening to secure them, she rushed on before him and pulled the drawer open. At once she burst into a howl of angry disappointment.
"The money's gone! The cursed scamp has stolen the money during the night!"
It was all over with Jean now that the onslaught was directed against his pockets. He cried out that the money belonged to him, and that he would go into a full account of everything, and that they would owe him money in addition to this cash. But the Buteaus would not listen to him, and Lise rushed upon him, pummelling him even more violently than her husband. He was dislodged from the room by a furious onset, and hustled back into the kitchen, round which the three of them wildly revolved, writhing and struggling together in confusion, and dashing against the furniture in their gyrations. By dint of kicking, Jean managed to rid himself of Lise. She soon fell upon him again, however, and dug her nails into his neck, while Buteau, making a vigorous spring, threw him flat on the road outside. Then blocking up the door, the husband and wife bellowed out:
"You thief! you've stolen our money! You thief! you thief!"
Jean picked himself up, and stammering from pain and anger replied:
"All right, I shall go to the magistrate at Châteaudun, and he will see that I am reinstated in my home. And I shall bring an action against you for damages. You'll see me again soon!"
With a parting gesture of menace, he then took himself off, mounting the hill towards the plain. When the other members of the family had seen that matters were coming to blows, they had prudently retired, feeling a wholesome fear of possible legal proceedings.
The Buteaus now broke out into a wild yell of victory. At last they had succeeded in flinging the usurping alien into the street! And they had regained possession of the house! Ah, they had often said that they would have it back, and now they had got it again! The thought that they were once more in possession of the old patrimonial dwelling-place, built so long ago by an ancestor, filled them with such mad delight that they rushed wildly through the rooms, yelling for the mere pleasure of doing so. The children, Laure and Jules, rushed up, and began tapping an old frying-pan. Old Fouan alone remained quiet; he was still sitting on the stone bench, whence he gravely watched the others, with troubled, mournful eyes.
However, Buteau suddenly checked his display of delight and exclaimed:
"God in heaven! he's sloped off up the hill! He may have gone to wreak his spite on the land!"
It was an idiotic fear, but it quite upset him. The thought of the soil returned to him; a sensation of uneasiness mingling with the consciousness of ownership. The soil! Ah, his love for it was more deeply rooted in his vitals even than his love of the house! That strip of land on the hill would fill up the gap between his two mutilated plots; and he would again have his field of seven acres, that fine stretch of land, of which even Delhomme did not possess the equal! Buteau trembled with emotion from head to foot. It was as though he had just regained some dearly beloved mistress whom he had thought lost for ever. With a mad fear that Jean might somehow have carried the land off, wondering whether it might not have already disappeared, seized, too, with an eager desire to view it again, he lost his head and set off running, muttering that he could never feel easy till he knew for certain.
Jean had indeed gone up the hill in order to avoid passing through the village, and on reaching the plateau he had instinctively followed the road towards La Borderie. When Buteau caught sight of him, he was just passing the plot of plough-land, but he did not stop, he merely gave it a glance of mingled sadness and distrust, as though he were mentally accusing it of having brought him into misfortune; for a memory of the past, of the day when he had first spoken to Françoise, had just brought the tears to his eyes. Was it not here, while she was still a romping girl, that La Coliche had dragged her into the lucern? He strode on with downcast head and slackened steps, and Buteau, who was anxiously watching him, suspecting that he was bent upon some malicious piece of revenge, now walked up to the field. For a long time he stood gazing at it. Yes, it was still there, and it seemed just the same as usual, quite unharmed. His heart heaved wildly, and yearned towards it in the delight he felt at again possessing it—this time for ever. He squatted down on his knees, and took up a clod in his hands, crushing it, sniffing it, and then letting it filter through his fingers. Yes, it was his own now! Then he turned homewards again, singing, as though the scent of the soil had intoxicated him.
Jean still tramped on with downcast eyes, without being conscious as to whether his feet were carrying him. His first impulse had been to run to Cloyes to see Monsieur Baillehache, and take steps for getting reinstated in the house. Then his feeling of anger had calmed down. Even if he went back to-day, he would have to leave again to-morrow; so why shouldn't he make up his mind to swallow his wrathful grief and acquiesce in the inevitable? Those wretches, too, had really spoken the truth. He had gone to the house as a poor man, and as a poor man he was leaving it. But what sent a pang through his heart more than aught else, and finally decided him to submit, was the reflection that Françoise's last wish must have been to let things follow this course, since she had not bequeathed her property to him. So he abandoned the idea of taking immediate steps; and by-and-bye as he walked on, whenever his anger rekindled afresh, he merely swore to himself that he would drag the Buteaus into court to recover his half-share of the personal property to which he was entitled as the dead woman's husband. They should see that he wouldn't let himself be fleeced like a sheep!
As he raised his eyes, he was surprised to find himself opposite La Borderie. Prompted by an instinct of which he had been scarcely conscious in his grief, he had made his way to the farm as to a place of refuge. Indeed, if he remained in the neighbourhood, this was the place to find work and food and lodging. Hourdequin had always held him in esteem, and he was sure of being well received.
However, the sight of La Cognette in the distance, flying wildly across the yard, thrilled him with an uneasy feeling of disquietude. Eleven o'clock was striking as he arrived, and some hours earlier a frightful catastrophe had happened. That morning, on coming down before the servant-girl, La Cognette had found the cellar trap-door—that trap-door situated so dangerously near the staircase—open, and Hourdequin lying below quite dead, with his back broken against the edge of a step. The young woman shrieked, the servants rushed up, and the whole place was overwhelmed with panic. The farmer's body was now lying on a mattress in the dining-room, while Jacqueline was in the kitchen fairly off her nut, with her face distorted but tearless.
As soon as Jean entered, she broke out, relieving herself in a choking voice:
"I said it would be so! and I tried to get the trap altered! But who could it be that left it open? I'm positive it was closed last night when I went upstairs to bed. I've been racking my head all the morning in trying to make it out."
"The master came down before you did, then?" asked Jean, quite stupefied by the accident.
"Yes, it was scarcely light, and I was asleep; I fancied I heard some one calling from downstairs, but I may have dreamt it. He frequently got up in this way and went downstairs without a light to see the servants as soon as they turned out. He could not see that the trap was open, and he fell. But who can have left it open? Oh, this will be the death of me, it will!"
Jean had felt a passing suspicion, but he at once thrust it away from him. Jacqueline could have no possible interest in Hourdequin's death, and her grief was evidently sincere.
"It is a terrible misfortune," he murmured.
"Yes, indeed; a terrible misfortune for me, a terrible one!"
Then she fell down on a chair, completely overcome, as though the very walls were toppling over upon her. The master, whose legitimate wife she had so confidently reckoned on becoming! The master, who had sworn to leave her everything in his will! And now he was dead, dead before he had had time to sign a single paper! She would not even get any wages; the son would come back and kick her out of the house as he had threatened to do! She would have nothing but the few ornaments and the clothes she wore! It was ruin, disastrous and complete!
But what Jacqueline omitted to mention, the matter, indeed, having entirely slipped from her mind in her present trouble, was the dismissal of Soulas, the shepherd, which she had succeeded in effecting on the previous evening. Exasperated at finding him always at her elbow, playing the spy upon her, she accused him of being too old, and no longer competent to perform his duties. The farmer, although he did not agree with this statement, yielded to her wishes; for he was now completely under her domination, content to purchase her goodwill by slave-like submission. Soulas looked his master keenly in the face with his pale eyes as he was dismissed with kindly words and promises for the future, and then he slowly began to relieve his mind anent the hussy who had brought about his discharge. He accused her of dissolute behaviour with Tron and a score of others. He gave full particulars, mentioning the places where she and Tron had met, and declaring that their shameless amours were matter of common notoriety—to such a degree, indeed, that folks said that the master was content to take the servant's leavings, as it was impossible he could be so blind as not to see what was going on. The farmer, overwhelmed with distress and consternation at what he heard, vainly attempted to stop the old man, preferring to remain in ignorance, and fearful of being compelled to turn the young woman out of the house; but Soulas persisted in finishing his indictment, and did not stop until he had specified each separate occasion upon which he had found the two together. Then he felt somewhat soothed and easier in his mind, having at last unburdened himself of his long pent up wrath and spite. Jacqueline knew nothing of this, for Hourdequin had at once rushed into the fields, fearing lest he should strangle her if he came across her in his present mood. When he returned to the house he quietly dismissed Tron, upon the pretext that the young fellow left the yard in a filthily dirty condition. Upon hearing of this, Jacqueline certainly had some suspicions; but she did not venture to plead in the cowherd's favour, contenting herself by obtaining permission that he should remain another night on the premises, and trusting that she would be able to arrange matters in the morning, so that he might stay on. At present the thought of all this had faded away in the presence of that stroke of fate which had shattered the castle in the air so laboriously erected during the last ten years.
Jean was quite alone with her in the kitchen when Tron came in. She had not seen the latter since the previous evening. The other servants, unoccupied and anxious, were wandering about the farm. When she now perceived the big, strapping fellow, with his pinky face, she broke out into a cry—occasioned by the suspicious sort of way in which he came in.
"It is you who opened the trap!" she screamed, and then she suddenly understood the whole matter; Tron meanwhile standing by, with pale face, staring eyes, and open, trembling lips.
"It was you who opened the trap, and then called to him to come down, so that he might break his neck!"
Jean started back, quite overcome by what he had just heard. In the violence of their passionate agitation neither of the others seemed to notice his presence. With his head lowered Tron sullenly confessed the crime.
"Yes," he said, "I did it. He had dismissed me, and I should never have seen you again, and that was more than I could bear. And then I thought that if he were to die we should be free."
Jacqueline listened to him, erect and rigid, her whole body in a state of acute nervous tension. He went on complacently, revealing the thoughts that had sprung up in his savage breast, the fierce jealousy of a servant against his master, and the treacherous plan which he had formed to secure unshared possession of the woman he loved.
"I felt sure that you would be pleased when it was over," said he; "I didn't mention it to you beforehand, because I didn't want to cause you any worry. But now that he's out of the way, I've come to take you off. We'll go away together and get married."
Jacqueline, wild with anger, now broke out in a harsh voice:
"Marry you! But I don't love you! I won't have you! Ah! so you killed him to get me? You must be even a greater fool than I thought you were! To act so stupidly before he had married me, before he had made his will! You have ruined me! You have taken the bread out of my mouth. It is my back, mine, that you have broken! Can you understand that much, now, you idiotic brute? And you imagine that I will go away with you? Why, you must take me for an arrant fool!"
Tron heard her in gaping amazement, quite stupefied by this unexpected reception.
"Just because I've joked with you," she continued, "and we've had a little amusement, you imagine that I'm going to let myself be bored by you all the days of my life? Marry you, indeed! No, no, if ever I take a husband, I'll choose a sharper fellow than you are! Come, get out of my sight! It makes me ill to look at you! I detest you, and I won't have you! Be off!"
Tron quivered with rage. What! So he had committed murder for nothing? No, no, she belonged to him, and he would seize her by the throat and carry her off.
"You are a stuck-up, conceited drab!" he growled; "but you'll come with me all the same. If you don't, I shall settle your hash as I settled his!"
La Cognette stepped towards him, clenching her fists.
"Try it on, you murderer!"
Tron was very strong and broad and tall, while Jacqueline was weak and slight and delicately made. However, it was he who started back, so threatening did she look, with her teeth ready to bite and her eyes gleaming like daggers.
"It's all over," she resumed; "take yourself off! I would rather never see a man again than allow you to touch me now. Be off—be off—be off!"
Then Tron went out, stepping backwards like some wild beast giving way to fear, and deferring vengeance.
"Dead or alive, I'll have you!" he blurted out threateningly.
Jacqueline watched him leave the farm, heaving a sigh of relief. Then as she turned round, quivering all over, she did not seem at all surprised to see Jean; but, in an outburst of frankness, exclaimed:
"Ah, the villain! I would have him marched off by the gendarmes, if I weren't afraid that they would lock me up with him."
Jean was frozen with horror by what he had just heard, and could not find a word to say. The young woman, too, now underwent a nervous reaction. She seemed to be suffocating, and fell into Jean's arms, sobbing and wailing that she was very wretched—oh, so very wretched and miserable! Her tears continued to flow in streams down her face; she seemed craving for sympathy and love, and clung to Jean as though she were yearning for him to take her away and protect her. The young man was beginning to feel very uncomfortable, when the dead farmer's brother-in-law, Monsieur Baillehache, who had been fetched by one of the farm-servants, sprang out of his gig in the yard. Jacqueline at once rushed off to him and paraded her despair.
Jean, making his escape from the kitchen, presently found himself again on the bare plain beneath a rainy March sky. But he scarcely knew where he was, being completely upset by the tragedy of Hourdequin's death, which added another pang to all his troubles. However, he had his own load of worry to bear, and, despite his sorrow for his old master's fate, he quickened his steps, thinking of his own interests. It was no business of his to hand La Cognette and her lover over to justice. The authorities ought to open their eyes. Twice he turned round, fancying he heard some one shouting after him, and vaguely feeling as though he were an accomplice in the murder. It was only when he reached the outskirts of Rognes that he again breathed freely; he said to himself that the farmer's death was the result of his own sin; and he pondered anent that great truth that men would be much happier if there were no women in the world. His mind reverted to Françoise, and a big lump seemed to rise in his throat and nearly choke him.
When he found himself in the village again he recollected that he had gone to the farm to seek work. He now began to feel very uneasy, and racked his brains as to whom he could next apply to. Then it struck him that Monsieur Charles had been looking out for a gardener recently. Why should he not go and offer his services? He was still, in a way, somewhat of the family, and perhaps that might be a recommendation. So he hastened off in the direction of Roseblanche.
It was one o'clock, and Monsieur and Madame Charles were just finishing their late breakfast as the servant introduced him. Elodie was pouring out the black coffee, and Monsieur Charles, making his cousin sit down, asked him to take a cup. Jean accepted it; he had eaten nothing since the previous evening, and his stomach felt very drawn. The coffee would do him good. Now that he found himself sitting at table with this well-to-do family, he could not bring himself to ask point-blank for the gardener's place. He must wait for an opportunity. As Madame Charles began to sympathise with him and to bewail poor Françoise's death, he felt very melancholy and depressed again. The family evidently believed that he had come to say good-bye to them.
The servant soon came into the room again to say that the Delhommes, father and son, had called; and Jean was quite forgotten.
"Show them in here, and bring two more cups," said Monsieur Charles.
It had been a somewhat exciting morning altogether for the Charleses. Nénesse had accompanied them to Roseblanche after the funeral, and, while Madame Charles and Elodie went into the house, he had detained the husband and openly proposed to purchase Number 19, providing they could agree as to terms. According to his account, the house, which he knew very well, would only fetch a miserable price if it went into the market. Vaucogne, he said, would not get five thousand francs for it, so greatly had it depreciated in value under his management. A complete change would have to be made in every particular. The furniture was shabby and rickety, and the staff had been so badly chosen and was so unsatisfactory that even the soldiers were deserting the place. He went on for a whole hour running down the house in this fashion, quite bewildering his uncle, and amazing him by his acute shrewdness and bargaining powers, and by the extraordinary business talent he showed for one so young. Ah, here was a capital young fellow! thought Monsieur Charles; one with a sharp eye and a ready hand. Nénesse concluded by saying that he would come again after breakfast with his father, so that they might talk the matter over seriously.
On getting indoors, Monsieur Charles informed his wife of what had occurred, and she expressed great astonishment at the young man's ability. If only their son-in-law, Vaucogne, had had but half his capacity! They would have to be careful as to what they were about, if they wished to avoid getting the worst of the bargain with this young fellow. It was Elodie's dowry that was at stake. Mingled, however, with the fear they felt, there was a strong sympathy with Nénesse, and a keen desire to see Number 19 in the hands of a clever, energetic master, who would restore it to its old position, even although this entailed a loss upon themselves. And so, when the Delhommes made their appearance, both Monsieur and Madame Charles greeted them in the most cordial fashion.
"You'll have some coffee won't you? Elodie, pass the sugar."
Jean had pushed his chair back, and they were now all seated round the table. Delhomme, with his expressionless, freshly-shaven, tanned face, sat perfectly silent, maintaining a diplomatic reserve; while Nénesse in his smartest clothes, his patent leather boots, gold-flowered waistcoat and mauve neckerchief, seemed quite at his ease, and smiled in his most winning way. As the blushing Elodie handed him the sugar-basin, he looked into her eyes and sought for some pretty compliment to pay her.
"Your lumps of sugar are very large, cousin," he said.
The girl's blushes deepened, and she could not find anything to reply, being utterly confused by the amiable young fellow's words.
Nénesse, like the artful scamp he was, had only disclosed one-half of his scheme in the morning. Since he had seen Elodie at the funeral, he had suddenly widened his plans. He would not only obtain Number 19, he wanted the girl as well; that would simplify matters. In the first place, he would get the business for nothing, for he would only take Elodie with the house as her dowry; and, then, even allowing that this declining business was the only dowry he got with her in the immediate present, she would later on inherit all Monsieur and Madame Charles's property, a fortune in itself. It was for these reasons that he had brought his father with him, resolved to make his proposal without delay.
For a moment or two they talked about the weather, which was very mild for that time of year. The pear-trees were looking well, but would the bloom set? As they finished their coffee, the conversation began to flag.
"My dear," Monsieur Charles now said abruptly to Elodie, "suppose you go and take a turn in the garden."
He was anxious to get her out of the room, so that he might make his bargain with the Delhommes.
However Nénesse interposed: "Excuse me, uncle," said he, "but I should be much obliged if you would kindly allow my cousin to remain. There is a matter which interests me deeply that I want to speak to you about; and it's always better—don't you think so?—to settle matters at once than to return to them two or three times."
Then rising from his seat, he proceeded to make his proposal like a well-mannered young man.
"I wish to tell you that it would make me very happy to have my cousin for my wife, if you would consent to it, and if she would also."
This declaration caused great surprise. Elodie was so overwhelmed with confusion that she sprang up from her seat and threw herself on Madame Charles's breast, in such a thrill of speechless bashfulness that she blushed to her very ears. Her grandmother exerted herself to calm her.
"Come, come, my little puss, this is really foolish of you!" said she. "Be reasonable, my dear. Your cousin won't eat you because he wants to marry you. I'm sure he said nothing that wasn't very nice and proper. Come, look at him, and don't be foolish."
Nothing, however, that her grandmother said could induce Elodie to show her face again.
"Upon my word, my lad," Monsieur Charles now said, "your proposal has taken me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it would have been better if you had spoken to me privately about it, for you see how very sensitive our darling is. But, whatever happens, you may satisfy yourself that you possess my esteem and respect, for you seem to me a good and industrious young fellow."
Delhomme, whose face had hitherto remained a perfect blank, now allowed three words to escape him:
"That he is!"
Then Jean felt called upon to say something polite, and so he added:
"Ah! yes, indeed!"
Monsieur Charles was recovering his composure, and he had already come to the conclusion that Nénesse would be no bad match for his grand-daughter. He was young, well mannered, active, and the only son of comfortably-situated parents. Thus Elodie could hardly do better. And so, after exchanging a glance with Madame Charles, he continued:
"You will understand, of course, that my wife and I say neither yes nor no. We shall leave it entirely with Elodie. We shall not in any way constrain her. We shall leave her perfectly at liberty to please herself."
Then Nénesse gallantly renewed his proposal to his cousin.
"My dear cousin," he began, "will you confer upon me the happiness and the honour——"
The girl's face was still buried in her grandmother's bosom, but she did not allow her cousin to complete his sentence; she accepted him at once by an energetic nod of her head, which she repeated three times, burying her face still more deeply out of sight. She seemed to gain courage by not looking at anything. The company sat in silence, quite astonished by the girl's hurry to consent. Could she be in love with this young man whom she had so seldom seen? Or was it that she was anxious for a husband, no matter whom, so long as he was a good-looking fellow?
Madame Charles smiled, and kissed the girl's hair.
"My poor little darling!" she said; "my poor little darling!"
"Very well," exclaimed Monsieur Charles, "since she is satisfied, we are."
Then a sudden reflection saddened him. His heavy eyelids drooped, and an expression of regret passed over his countenance.
"Of course, my good lad," he said, "we shall now abandon the other scheme which you proposed to me this morning."
Nénesse seemed overcome with astonishment.
"Why?" said he.
"What? Why? Why, because—because—well, you surely know why! You may be sure that we didn't leave the child with the Sisters of the Visitation till twenty years of age to—well, in short, it is quite impossible!"
He winked his eyes and twisted his mouth in his attempts to make himself understood without saying too much. To think of the girl being in the Rue aux Juifs! a young lady who had received such an education! a maiden of such absolute purity, brought up in complete ignorance of evil, and carefully screened from its slightest breath!
"Excuse me," exclaimed Nénesse, bluntly, "but that won't suit me at all. I am taking a wife because I wish to settle down to work, and I want both my cousin and the business——"
"The confectionery business!" exclaimed Madame Charles.
She then began to discuss the question more openly, though they continued to call the establishment the confectionery shop. For instance, was it reasonable that the confectionery business should be given up? The young man and his father persisted in claiming it as Elodie's dowry. They could not allow it to be relinquished, they said; it would certainly prove a handsome fortune in the future; and they called upon Jean to support them in their assertions, which he did by wagging his chin. At last they all spoke at once, and they were quickly forgetting all their previous caution, going into details and calling things by their real names, then suddenly an unexpected incident reduced them to silence.
Elodie had at last gradually raised her head from her grandmother's bosom; and she was now standing up, looking like some tall lily that had grown in a shady corner, with her chlorotic white face, her pale eyes and colourless hair. She gazed at the others for a moment, and then said very quietly:
"My cousin is right; the business ought not to be given up."
"Oh! my darling, if you only knew——" Madame Charles began to stammer in confusion.
"I do know," Elodie interrupted. "Victorine, the maid whom you sent away on account of the men, told me all about it long ago. Yes, I know all about it, and I have thought it well over, and I am quite convinced that it must not be given up."
Monsieur and Madame Charles were perfectly stupefied They opened their eyes, and sat staring at the girl in a state of amazement. What! She knew all about Number 19, what was done there, and what was sold there; she knew all about it, and yet spoke of it in this calm, placid fashion! Ah, blessed innocence! it is too pure to see harm in anything!
"It must certainly not be given up," she repeated with increasing decision. "It is too good and profitable a business for that. And then, too, a house which you established yourselves, and where you worked so hard, could you think of allowing it to go out of the family?"
Monsieur Charles was completely bewildered. An indescribable thrill shot up from his heart and seemed to choke him. He rose up from his seat, reeled and tottered, and then supported himself upon Madame Charles, who was also standing trembling and feeling suffocated. They both of them seemed to look upon the girl's offer as a sacrifice, and called, out in distracted tones:
"Oh darling, darling, it cannot be; it really cannot be."
Elodie's eyes were growing moist, and she kissed her mother's old wedding-ring which she wore upon her finger, that wedding-ring which had grown so thin owing to hard work.
"Yes, yes," she resumed, "let me follow my own inclination. I want to follow in my mother's steps. What she did, I can do. There is no dishonour in it, for you did it yourselves. The idea affords me great pleasure, I assure you. And you will see how I'll help my cousin, and how we will raise the house between us. Ah! you don't know me, but I will show you what I can do!"
This outburst carried the day. Monsieur and Madame Charles, overwhelmed with deep emotion, burst into tears, and sobbed like a couple of children. Although they had certainly brought Elodie up with very different intentions, still what was to be done when the instinct of her blood spoke out like that? They recognised in it the accents of a genuine vocation. It had been the same with Estelle. She, too, had led a secluded life with the Sisters of the Visitation, had been kept in perfect ignorance of the world, and instructed in the principles of the most rigid morality; but in spite of everything she had become an excellent woman of business. It was clear that education went for naught; it was natural sentiment which settled everything. However, the Charles's emotion deepened, and the tears which fell from their eyes streamed yet more copiously at the glorious thought that Number 19, their own creation, their very flesh, so to say, was about to be saved from ruin. Their work would still be continued there by Elodie and Nénesse with all the fresh energy of youth. They already saw the house restored to its former glory, established once more in public favour, with the same brilliant reputation as it had possessed in the palmiest days of their own reign.
As soon as Monsieur Charles was able to speak, he clasped his grand-daughter in his arms. "Your father has been the cause of much anxiety to us," he said, "but you, my angel, will console us for everything!"
Madame Charles also strained the girl to her breast, and they all three of them stood in one another's arms, mingling their tears.
"Then we may consider everything settled now?" asked Nénesse, who was anxious to have matters definitely decided.
"Yes, quite settled."
Delhomme was now radiant, like a father delighted at having set his son up in life in an unhoped-for manner. He began to shuffle about as though he felt called upon to make some observation, and, indeed, at last he delivered himself in these words:
"Well, if there's never any regret on your side, I'm sure there'll never be any on ours. There's no need to wish the young people good luck. That always attends honest hard work."
Then they all sat down again in view of quietly talking over details.
Jean now felt conscious that he was in the way. He had been greatly embarrassed at finding himself amid the previous emotional, tearful outbursts, and he would have made his escape much sooner had he known how to do so. He now summoned up his courage to take Monsieur Charles aside, and speak to him about the gardener's place. But Monsieur Charles's dignified face assumed a severe expression. A relation of his own holding a situation in his service! No, no, that would never do! A relation was never a profitable servant; it was impossible to treat him with necessary severity. Besides, the situation had been promised to another person on the previous day. Jean, therefore, took his leave, while Elodie was saying, in her soft voice, that if her father made himself disagreeable she would undertake to bring him to reason.
When Jean got outside the house he walked on slowly, quite at a loss as to where he should now turn in search of work. Out of the hundred and twenty-seven francs he had already paid for his wife's funeral, for the cross at the head of the grave, and for the railings round it, barely half of the money was left, but this would still keep him some time, and then he would see what happened. He was not afraid of poverty and hard work; his only anxiety arose from his unwillingness to leave Rognes on account of the legal proceedings he was contemplating. Three o'clock struck, then four, and then five. For a long time he continued wandering about the country, his brain full of confused ideas, his thoughts now dwelling upon La Borderie, and now upon the Charles family. Everywhere it was the same story, money and women; they seemed to over-ride everything else. Consequently there was little to wonder at in the fact that his own misfortunes arose from the same sources. At last he began to feel weak and faint, and bethought himself that as yet he had not had anything to eat; so he set off in the direction of the village, resolving to take up his quarters with the Lengaignes, who let lodgings. However, as he crossed the open square in front of the church, the sight of the house from which he had been expelled in the morning rekindled an angry glow in his veins. Why should he let those knavish wretches keep his frock-coat and two pairs of trousers? They were his own, and he would have them, even at the risk of coming to blows again.
It was growing dark when Jean entered the yard, and he was scarcely able to distinguish old Fouan, who was sitting on the stone bench. However, as he reached the door leading to the kitchen, in which a candle was burning, Buteau caught sight of him and sprang forward to bar his passage.
"God in heaven! you here again! What do you want?"
"I want my two pairs of trousers and my frock-coat."
A frightful quarrel now ensued. Jean doggedly insisted on getting his things out of the drawer; while Buteau, who had seized a bill-hook, swore that he would cut his throat if he crossed the threshold. At last Lise's voice sounded from inside.
"Let him have his rags!" she cried. "You'd never think of touching the rotten fellow's clothes yourself."
The two men now relapsed into silence, and Jean was standing waiting, when all at once old Fouan, who was still sitting on the stone bench behind his back, gave utterance to the alarm which was troubling his dazed brain.
"Make your escape," he stammered in his husky voice, "or they'll bleed you as they bled the little one."
This was a terrible revelation. Jean understood everything now—both the cause of Françoise's death and that of her obstinate silence. He had had his suspicions before, but now he no longer doubted but what she had remained silent in order to save her relatives from the guillotine. An icy chill froze him; he felt terrified, and he was incapable of either speech or motion when Lise, through the open doorway, hurled his trousers and coat in his face.
"There, take your filthy things! They stink so vilely that they'd have given us all some disease if they'd stayed any longer in the house!"
Jean picked them up and went off. However, when he got out of the yard, and once more found himself on the high-road, he turned round and shook his fists at the house, shouting out a single word which reverberated in the surrounding silence: "Murderers!"
Then he disappeared in the black darkness.
Buteau was standing in a state of terrified consternation, for he had heard what old Fouan had growled out, and Jean's word had penetrated his heart like a bullet. What was in store for him? Would the gendarmes be down upon him, now when he had just fancied that the secret of Françoise's death would be buried for ever with her in her coffin? When he had seen her lowered into her grave in the morning he had begun to breathe freely again, and yet now it was evident that the old fellow knew everything! Was it possible that he had been shamming idiocy for the sake of playing the spy upon them? This last thought completed Buteau's terrified alarm, and he was so completely upset when he went back into the house that he left half of his plateful of soup untouched. Lise, to whom he had told what had happened, shivered and trembled, and could eat no more than he did.
They had looked forward to keeping high festival upon this their first night in the reconquered house, but it was a night of abominable unhappiness. They had put Laure and Jules to bed on a mattress in front of the chest of drawers, pending an opportunity to arrange other accommodation; and the children were still wide awake when they themselves got into bed, after blowing out the candle. But they could not sleep, they tossed about as though they were on a red-hot gridiron. At last they began to talk to each other in muttered tones. Oh, what a burden the old man had become, now that he had fallen into his dotage! It was really more than they could bear, such an expense he was! No one could believe the quantity of bread he swallowed! And then, too, he was so greedy, seizing the meat in his fingers, and spilling the wine on his beard, and making such a dirty mess of himself that one felt ill merely on looking at him. Besides all that, he was constantly going about with his trousers disarranged; a sad ending for a man who had once been as cleanly and as respectable as any of his fellows. Really, since he seemed determined not to go off of his own accord, it made one feel inclined to make an end of him with a pick-axe.
"When one thinks that a breath would blow him over!" muttered Buteau. "Ah! I really believe that he sticks on just for the sake of annoying us! Those gibbering old idiots, the less good they are the more closely they hug on to life! I don't believe he will ever die, ever!"
Then Lise, lying on her back, replied:
"It's a pity he came here. He'll feel too comfortable, and be inclined to take a fresh lease of life. If I had been a praying woman I should have prayed that he might not be allowed to pass a single night in the house."
Neither of them spoke of the real source of their anxiety, of the old man's knowledge of their secret, and the possibility of his betraying them, even without meaning to do so. That was the bother. Although he was an expense and a nuisance, and prevented them from enjoying the dividends of the stolen scrip at their ease, they had still put up with his presence for a long time. But now that a word from him might endanger their necks, all limits of toleration were past. Something definite would have to de done.
"I'll go and see if he's asleep," said Lise abruptly.
She lighted the candle, and then, making sure that Laure and Jules were soundly slumbering, she glided in her night-dress into the room where the beet-root was stored, and where the old man's iron bed had again been placed. When she came back she was shivering with cold, her feet half frozen by passing over the tiled floor. She buried herself beneath the bed-clothes, and pressed closely against her husband, who clasped her in his arms to warm her.
"Yes, he's asleep; but his breath's very faint, and his mouth is gaping open like a fish's."
They now both remained quiet for a time, but, in spite of their silence, they could read each other's thoughts. The old man seemed constantly on the point of choking, so it would be an easy matter to suffocate him altogether. A handkerchief, or even a hand, held over his mouth, and then they would be freed from him. And really it would be a kindness to the old man himself. He would be better off quietly asleep in the graveyard, than living on, a source of pain and discomfort to himself as well as others.
Buteau's and Lise's blood was flowing hotly, as though some burning desire had just thrilled them. Suddenly the former sprang out of the bed on to the tiled floor.
"I'll go and have a look at him, too," he said.
He then went off with the candle, which had been left standing on the edge of the chest of drawers, while Lise held her breath and listened, her eyes staring widely open in the dark. The minutes glided by, and no sound came from the adjoining room. After a time, however, she heard Buteau's feet pattering gently back again; he had left the light in the old man's room, and was so overcome with excitement that he could not prevent himself from panting. He stepped up to the bed, felt about in the dark for his wife, and then whispered in her ear:
"You come too! I daren't do it alone!"
Lise got up and followed her husband; both of them groping their way forwards with their hands to avoid coming into collision with anything. They no longer felt cold; even their night-dresses were too hot for them. The candle was standing on the floor, in a corner of the old man's room, but it afforded sufficient light for them to see him lying on his back. His head had fallen off the pillow, and he was lying there so rigidly, and looked so emaciated with age, that one might have thought he was already dead, had it not been for the struggling, painful breathing from his gaping mouth. His teeth had all gone, and his lips were turned inwards, round what merely looked like a black hole, a hole over which the husband and wife now stooped, as though they were trying to ascertain how much life still remained at the bottom of it. For a long time they stood looking at it, side by side, with their hips touching one another. Their arms felt limp and nerveless. It was such an easy and yet such a perilous matter to take something and stop up that black hole with it. They went away and then came back again. Their parched tongues could not have pronounced a single word; it was only their eyes that spoke. Lise pointed out the pillow to her husband with a glance. That would do. What was he waiting for? But Buteau's eyes blinked nervously, and he thrust his wife into his place. Then Lise, in her impatient irritation, suddenly seized the pillow, and clapped it down on the old man's face.
"You miserable coward! Must you always leave everything for your wife to do?" she gasped.
Buteau now sprang forward and pressed upon the pillow with the whole weight of his body, while Lise, mounting on to the bed, sat on it, forcing down her huge swollen buttocks. They were both pressing and sprawling over Fouan's body, crushing it beneath their fists and shoulders and legs. At first the old man had started violently, and when his legs were flattened down there came a sound like that of the snapping of springs. Now he was wriggling about like a fish on dry land; but all this was soon over. As they pressed him down they could feel his struggles ceasing and his life ebbing away. Eventually there came a prolonged quiver, then the last spasm, and finally it was all over; he lay there as inert as a log, as limp as an old rag.
"There, I think we've done it now," muttered Buteau, quite out of breath.
Lise, who was still squatting all of a heap on the bed, ceased pressing, and remained quite still to ascertain if the old man stirred.
"Yes, it's done," she soon said. "There isn't a sign of life about him."
Then she slipped off the bed and removed the pillow. But at the sight presented to their view they both broke out into a groan of terror.
"God in heaven! he's quite black! We shall be found out!"
It would, indeed, be impossible to assert that the old man had put himself into such a condition. In their impetuosity the Buteaus had pressed so violently that his nose was jammed into his mouth, and his face was as black as a negro's. At this sight it seemed to them as if the ground were giving way beneath them, and they already fancied they could hear the foot-falls of the gendarmes, the clanking of manacles, and the descent of the blade of the guillotine. They were filled with terrible regret as they gazed upon their clumsy piece of work. What could be done? It was of no use washing the old man's face; that would not whiten it. Presently the terror with which his sooty appearance inspired them gave them an idea.
"Suppose we set him alight," murmured Lise.
Buteau felt relieved at this suggestion, and drew a heavy breath.
"Capital! and we'll say he did it himself."
Then, as the thought of the scrip flashed through his mind, he clapped his hands, and his face brightened up with a triumphant smile.
"God in heaven!" he cried, "we'll make them believe that he burnt the papers as well as himself, and then we sha'n't have to give any account of them."
He now turned to take up the candle; but Lise, who was afraid of incurring too much danger, would not let him set the bed on fire with it. There were some straw-bands behind some beet-root in a corner of the room, and she took one of these, lighted it, and then applied it to the old man's long white hair and beard. There was a strong smell and sputtering like that of burning grease. Suddenly Lise and Buteau recoiled in terrified stupefaction, as though some cold, ghostly hand had seized them by the hair. Tortured into life by the frightful agony of burning, the old man, who had not been effectually suffocated, had just opened his eyes; and now, as he lay there with his hideous blackened face, his great nose battered and broken, and his hair and beard burnt away, he gazed at them with a fearful look of mingled pain and hatred. Then all his face seemed to fall into utter blankness, and he died.
Quite wild with terror, Buteau had just burst out into an awful groan when he heard some screams at the door. They came from the two children, Laure and Jules, who had been awakened by the noise. Attracted by the light of the burning straw, they had hurried along in their night-dresses to the open door, whence they had seen all. They shrieked with terror.
"You cursed little vermin!" roared Buteau, dashing at them; "if you say a word to anybody, I'll murder you! Take that to remind you of what I say."
With these words he gave them each such a violent cuff that they rolled over on the floor. They picked themselves up, however, without shedding a tear, and rushed off to their mattress, where they remained without daring to move.
Buteau, who was determined to make an end of the matter, now set fire to the palliasse in spite of his wife's protestations. Fortunately the room was so damp that the straw burnt very slowly, giving out, however, such a dense and copious smoke, that they were nearly suffocated, and had to open the window. Then the flames shot up higher and licked the ceiling. The old man's body began to crackle amid the blaze, and the room was filled with an intolerable stench of burning flesh. The old house would certainly have taken fire, and burnt away like a stack, if the straw had not begun to smoke again owing to the melting of the body. Nothing now remained on the cross-ribs of the iron bedstead save the half-calcined, disfigured, unrecognisable corpse. Only a small corner of the palliasse had remained unburnt, and a mere scrap of sheeting hung over the edge of the bed.
"Let us be off!" said Lise, who had begun to shiver again, despite the excessive heat.
"Wait a moment," replied Buteau; "we must arrange things properly."
He then placed a chair by the bedside, and upset the old man's candlestick at the foot of it, to make it appear as though it had fallen upon the palliasse. Then he was crafty enough to throw some scraps of lighted paper on the floor. When the ashes were discovered, he intended to say that the old man had found his papers again on the previous evening, and had secured possession of them.
"There, that will do!" repeated Lise. "Now let us go to bed."
They then hurried away, jostling each other in their haste, and plunged into their bed, which was now quite cold. Daylight began to dawn, but still they lay awake, unable to get to sleep. They did not speak to each other, but kept starting and quivering, and could hear their hearts beating wildly. They had left the door of the adjoining room open, and the thought of it disturbed them greatly; however, the idea of getting up and shutting it was still more distasteful and disquieting. At last they dozed off, still clinging closely to each other.
A few hours later the neighbours rushed up on hearing Buteau's wild calls. La Frimat and the other woman noticed the fallen candle, the charred remains of the palliasse, and the ashes of the scraps of paper. Then they all exclaimed that they had always felt sure that this would happen some day or other. They declared they had prophesied a score of times that the old man would do it in his dotage! The Buteaus might be very thankful that the whole house hadn't been burnt down at the same time!