Two days afterwards, on the very morning on which old Fouan was to be buried, Jean, tired from having remained in bed for hours without being able to sleep, woke up very late in the little room which he occupied at Lengaigne's. He had not yet been to Châteaudun to initiate proceedings against the Buteaus, though his intention to do so was the only thing that still kept him at Rognes. Each evening, however, he deferred the matter till the next day, feeling increasing hesitation about it, as his anger gradually calmed down. It was a prolonged mental struggle which had just kept him awake half the night, tossing feverishly about in his bed, and full of doubt as to what course he had best take.
Oh! those Buteaus, he thought, what murderous brutes, what abominable assassins they were! Some honest man ought to have their heads lopped off. As soon as he heard of old Fouan's death, he guessed how it had been brought about. The villains, he felt sure of it, had burnt the old man alive to prevent him from blabbing. Françoise! Fouan! the murder of the one had forced them to murder the other. Whose turn would it be next? Most likely his own, he thought; for they knew that he possessed their secret, and they would certainly send a bullet into him from some quiet corner of the road if he persisted in remaining in the neighbourhood. Had he not better denounce them at once? He made up his mind that he would. He would lay an information against them as soon as he got up. Then he began to hesitate again, feeling considerable timidity as to embarking upon a serious proceeding like this. He would be called as a witness, and he felt afraid lest he might be made to suffer as much as the very criminals themselves. Why should he create fresh troubles and anxieties for himself? This, as he acknowledged, was a cowardly way of looking at matters, but he found an excuse for his silence in the reflection that by holding his tongue he would be obeying Françoise's last wishes. A score of times that night he came to a decision, and then a score of times he cast that decision aside, till he felt quite ill from thinking of this duty from which he recoiled.
It was nearly nine o'clock when he sprang out of bed, and plunged his head into a basin of cold water. He now suddenly came to a resolution. He would neither lay an information, nor would he take any steps to initiate proceedings for the recovery of his share of the furniture. The game was not worth the candle. A feeling of proud independence had restored his mind to perfect calmness; he would claim nothing from those swindling wretches; henceforth he would have nothing to do with them. He had no further concern in them, and he would leave them to prey upon themselves. If they would only contrive to make an end of one another all round, it would be a good riddance for everybody. He flushed with anger as he thought of what he had suffered and endured during the ten years he had spent in Rognes; and yet he had been so happy in the thought of leaving the army, after the Italian war; so happy in ceasing to handle the sabre and slay his fellow-men! Still, ever since his discharge, he had been living amid filth, surrounded by savages. At the period of his marriage he had had troubles enough, but he had fallen upon even worse times now; the villains had taken to robbery and murder. Ah, they were savage wolves, let loose over that peaceful, far-reaching plain. For his own part, he had had quite enough of it! These devouring wild beasts had spoilt the country for him! What would be the good of hunting down just a couple of them—a male and his female—when the whole pack ought to be destroyed? No; he preferred to go away.
At that moment his eyes happened to light upon a newspaper which he had brought up with him from the public room on the previous evening. He had been interested in an article on the approaching war, for alarming rumours had been in circulation for several days past, and the martial feeling, which he thought extinct within him, had suddenly sprung up into fresh glowing life at the report of a coming call to arms. His last lingering hesitation to leave Rognes, his doubts as to where he should go, were all utterly and entirely swept away as by a rushing blast of wind. Yes, he would go and fight; he would enlist! He had certainly paid the debt he owed his country; but when a man has no occupation left, when life is full of wearisome cares, and when one is angered by the persecution of one's enemies, the best plan is still to fall upon them boldly. This determination eased his feelings and thrilled him with stern joy. As he dressed himself, he whistled the bugle-march that had resounded when they advanced to battle in Italy. Mankind was really too hateful and abominable, and he found a great consolation in the thought of demolishing some of the Prussians. Since he had not found peace in this country nook, where the peasant folk drank each other's blood, he might just as well return to the carnage of the battlefield. The more of the foe he slew, the redder would the soil be, and the more would he feel avenged for all the hardship and trouble with which men had visited him.
When he came downstairs he ate the two eggs and the rasher of bacon which Flore served him. Then he called Lengaigne and paid his score.
"Are you going to leave us, Corporal?" asked the landlord.
"But you'll be coming back again, won't you?"
Lengaigne looked at him in amazement, but he kept his reflections to himself. So the great booby was going to give up all his rights!
"What are you thinking of doing now? Do you mean to turn carpenter again?"
Upon hearing this, Lengaigne opened his eyes in still greater amazement, and could no longer restrain a smile of contempt. What a fool the man must be!
Jean had already started on his way to Cloyes, when a last thrill of feeling made him check his steps and turn up the hill. He felt that he could not leave Rognes without saying good-bye to Françoise's grave. There was also another desire which he wished to satisfy: to gaze once more upon the mighty plain, that mournful La Beauce, which he had learned to love during his long solitary hours of toil.
The graveyard stretched behind the church, enclosed by a crumbling wall so low that, when one stood amid the tombs, a clear view could be obtained from horizon to horizon. A pale March sun was shining coldly in the sky, which was veiled by a soft, white, fleecy haze, scarcely showing a patch of blue. Beneath the softly smiling heavens, La Beauce, still torpid from the winter frosts, seemed to lie half-dozing and half-awake, basking in sweet indolence. The distant fields, bathed in a suffused light, were already green with the wheat, oats, and rye sown during the autumn. In those plough-lands that remained bare, the spring sowing had recently been commenced. All around men could be seen striding over the rich soil scattering their seed with the same uniform gesture. The grains could be distinctly perceived falling like a flashing gilded stream from the hands of the nearer sowers. Then with the increasing distance the figures of the sowers seemed to dwindle in size till they were altogether lost to sight, and as the seed streamed around them it looked like some mere vibration of light. For leagues around, in every direction, the life-germs of the coming summer were raining down amid the sunshine.
Jean stood in front of Françoise's grave. It was half-way along a row of other graves, and an open one beside it was waiting to receive old Fouan's body. The graveyard was over-run with a rank growth of weeds, for the municipal council had never consented to grant the rural constable fifty francs to make it neat and trim. Wooden crosses and railings were rotting away, and only a few mouldering stones still stood in position. The charm of this lonely nook, however, lay in its very condition of neglect, in its profound tranquillity, which was only broken by the croaking of the ancient crows which wheeled around the church steeple. Here the villagers slept their last sleep in perfect peace and oblivion. Jean, amid the death-like stillness, dropped into a reverie, gazing at the vast expanse of La Beauce and the seed grains which permeated it as with a thrill of life. But at last he was aroused, hearing the bell toll slowly, first three times, then twice more, and finally break into a continuous clanging. The bearers were lifting Fouan's coffin, and were bringing it towards the graveyard.
The bandy-legged gravedigger came limping along to see that the grave was all right.
"Isn't it too small?" asked Jean, who still tarried, his heart softening with a desire to see the last of the old man.
"Not it," replied the bandy-legged sexton. "They could get four like him into it. That roasting has brought down his size."
On the evening following upon Fouan's death, the Buteaus had awaited the arrival of Doctor Finet with great trepidation. But the surgeon had signed the burial certificate at once, his only thought being to get away again as soon as possible, he came, looked at the body, and then angrily railed at the stupidity of country-folks in leaving an addle-pated old man with a lighted candle. If he felt any suspicions, he wisely kept them to himself. This father had been so obstinate in living on, that maybe he had deserved to be roasted a bit. Besides, he (Finet) had seen so many strange things that a matter like this seemed of no great account. In his callous indifference, born of mingled contempt and bitterness, he merely shrugged his shoulders—a scampish, bad lot those peasants! thought he.
Relieved upon this point, the Buteaus then had to prepare themselves to meet their relatives and allay any possible suspicions. As soon as La Grande presented herself they burst into tears, thinking that this would have a good effect. The old woman looked at them with surprise, and thought to herself that they were really over-acting their part in crying so much. However, she had merely come for the sake of something to do, for she had no claim upon any of the old man's property. The real danger began when Fanny and Delhomme arrived. The latter had just been nominated mayor in place of Macqueron, and his wife was almost bursting with pride. She had kept her oath, and her father had died without any reconciliation on her part. Indeed, with her extreme susceptibility, she even yet felt hurt by his conduct, and she showed this by standing with dry eyes in front of the corpse. However, if she shed no tears, there was withal a sound of loud sobbing. This arose when Hyacinthe arrived, very drunk, and overflowing with the tender emotion which he found at the bottom of his bottle. He quite saturated the corpse with his tears, and bellowed out that he had received a blow from which he would never recover.
In the kitchen Lise had set out a row of glasses and bottles of wine; and a general discussion ensued. It was at once agreed that the hundred and fifty francs a year arising from the sale of the house were outside the debate, for it had always been understood that this sum should be retained by those who looked after the old man during his last days. But then there was the secret hoard, the three hundred francs a year that were derived from the scrip of which they had all now heard. Buteau thereupon related his story, stating how his father had discovered the papers underneath the marble slab on the top of the chest of drawers, and how, while examining them at night, he must have set his hair on fire. The ashes of the papers had been found lying on the floor, as La Frimat and La Bécu could testify. As he told his story the others scrutinised him keenly, but this in no way confused him, and he smote his breast with his hands and swore by the light of day that he was speaking the truth. He could see that the family had their suspicions, but he cared nothing about that so long as they did not worry him, and he kept the money. Fanny, however, with her impetuous outspokenness, unbosomed herself of her surmises, and angrily assailed Buteau and Lise as thieves and murderers. Yes, they had burned her father and robbed him! That was plain to everybody's eyes! The Buteaus replied with a flood of abuse and equally abominable accusations against herself. She and her husband, they cried, had plotted to destroy the old man, who had nearly perished from taking some poisoned soup that had been given him in his daughter's house. They, the Buteaus, would be able to tell a great deal if anything was said about them!
Hyacinthe had again begun to cry and bellow lugubriously on hearing that such awful crimes were possible. God in heaven! his poor father! Could it be possible that there were sons wicked enough to roast their father? La Grande, whose eyes were glistening brightly, let a few words drop whenever the contending parties seemed getting out of breath, and her remarks at once set them going at each other again. Delhomme, feeling uneasy at the aspect of affairs, at last went and closed the doors and windows. He had his official position to think of; and, besides, he was always in favour of settling matters quietly. He now protested that such accusations were most unseemly. A pretty reputation the family would get if the neighbours should hear what was going on! The law would poke its nose into the matter, and possibly the good ones would lose more than the bad ones. No, when there were scamps in a family, the best plan was to leave them to their villany, in the hope that it would end by destroying them. All the others sat in silence. Delhomme was right. There was nothing to be got by washing their dirty linen before the magistrates. Moreover, Buteau terrified the others. This scoundrel was quite capable of ruining them. At the bottom of their silent acquiescence in the murder and robbery there lay that feeling which makes the peasantry the accomplices of poachers, of the men who kill gamekeepers; in fact, of all that class of lawless rustics who are saved from being given up to justice by the fear they inspire in those who are fully cognisant of their crimes.
La Grande remained to have some coffee and to spend the evening with the Buteaus, while the others trooped off in a blunt, unceremonious fashion, expressive of their contempt. The Buteaus, however, did not care a straw about that, so long as they kept the money and had the certainty of not being worried any further. Lise raised her voice again to its wonted pitch, and Buteau, resolving to do things properly, ordered the coffin, and went to the churchyard to examine the place where the grave was to be dug.
The peasants of Rognes felt a great dislike to resting after their death by the side of those whom they had hated while alive; but, as the graves were dug in regular rows, it was altogether a matter of luck where each one was buried; and whenever, as chance had it, two enemies died immediately one after the other, the authorities experienced great embarrassment, for the family of the one who had died the latest often talked quite seriously of keeping his body above ground rather than let it lie by the side of a person whom he had detested. Now, it happened that when Macqueron was mayor he had abused his official position to purchase for his grave a plot of ground which would certainly not have been assigned to him in the regular course of affairs. Unfortunately, too, this strip of ground adjoined the grave in which Lengaigne's father was buried, and in which Lengaigne had reserved room for himself. Ever since Macqueron had purchased his plot, his rival's indignation had known no end, his long-standing enmity becoming more rancorous than ever. The thought that his body would lie rotting beside that scoundrel's would embitter the rest of his existence.
Buteau was filled with the same angry feeling when he went to inspect the grave which chance had allotted to his father. Françoise would lie on old Fouan's left-hand, which was right and proper enough; but, as ill-luck would have it, in the adjoining row of graves, and just in front of the one where Fouan was to be buried, there was the grave of old Saucisse's deceased wife, in which Saucisse had reserved room for himself also. The result was that, whenever the old scamp died, he would lie with his feet close to Fouan's skull. Could this idea be tolerated for a moment? Here were two old men, who had detested each other ever since that dishonourable business about the daily payments of fifteen sous for the reversion of an acre of ground, and the greater rascal of the two—the one who had tricked the other—was to go dancing on his head through all eternity! Why, if the family were so unfeeling as to submit to such an arrangement, old Fouan's bones would turn in their coffin and struggle with those of old Saucisse! Boiling over with rebellious indignation, Buteau now angrily rushed off to the municipal offices and attacked Delhomme, trying to force him to take advantage of his official position to assign another grave to old Fouan. But his brother-in-law refused to depart from the established usage, dwelling upon the deplorable example of Macqueron and Lengaigne. Buteau then called him a coward, accused him of being bribed, and finally roared out in the middle of the road that he himself was the only dutiful and affectionate son, since the rest of the family didn't care a straw whether the old man rested peacefully in his grave or not. Drawing the whole village to the door-steps in his progress, he went off home in a state of furious indignation.
Another matter, and one of more importance than this question of the grave, had just been causing Delhomme great embarrassment. The Abbé Madeline had gone away a couple of days previously, and Rognes was once more without a priest. The experiment of keeping one of their own within the village had, on the whole, turned out so unsatisfactorily that the municipal council had voted in favour of withdrawing the grant, and returning to the previous state of affairs, the services being performed by the priest of Bazoches-le-Doyen. The Abbé Godard, however, despite the bishop's remonstrances, had sworn that he would never celebrate the blessed sacrament in the place, and, in his exasperation at the departure of his colleague, he accused the villagers of having half-murdered the poor fellow for the sole purpose of forcing him—Godard—to return among them. He had already declared that, although Bécu might ring the bell for mass from morning till night, he would not come, when Fouan's sudden death complicated matters, and brought the situation to a crisis. A funeral is not like a mass, and cannot be indefinitely postponed. With some little mischievous satisfaction at the turn affairs had taken, Delhomme now went to see the priest at Bazoches. As soon as the Abbé Godard perceived him his face assumed a wrathful expression, and, without giving the mayor time to open his mouth, he cried out that nothing would make him come, he would rather lose his place! When he learnt that his presence was required for a funeral, he lost the power of articulation through very rage. Those pagans died on purpose. They fancied that by doing so they would force him to come to them! Well, they might bury themselves, for he didn't mean to help them up to heaven!
Delhomme quietly waited till the priest's first ebullition of anger was exhausted, and then began to argue with him. The Church, he said, did not refuse the last sprinkling of holy water to any one; and a corpse could not be kept indefinitely in the house. Then he tried more personal arguments; the dead man was his father-in-law, the father-in-law of the mayor of Rognes. Come, now, shouldn't they say to-morrow at ten o'clock? No! no! no! cried the Abbé Godard, blustering and almost choking in his wrath, and Delhomme had to go away without being able to make him yield, though he hoped that he would think better of it before morning.
"I tell you that I won't come," the priest shouted at him for the last time from his door. "Don't ring the bell, for I tell you I won't come; no, a thousand times no!"
The next morning, however, Bécu received the mayor's orders to ring the bell at ten o'clock. They would see what would happen. Everything was ready at the Buteaus' for the funeral; the body had been placed in the coffin on the previous evening under the experienced eyes of La Grande. The room, too, had been washed, and the only trace left of the fire was the old man's corpse screwed down ready for interment.
The bell was tolling, and the family had met together in front of the house, waiting for the removal of the body, when the Abbé Godard was seen hurrying along up the street, quite out of breath from running, and so flushed and furious that he held his hat in his hand, half afraid lest he should fall down in a fit. Without looking at any one he dashed into the church, immediately re-appearing again in his surplice, followed by two choir-boys, one of whom carried the cross, and the other the vessel of holy water. Then he rapidly proceeded to mutter over the corpse, and, without troubling himself as to whether the bearers were following him with the coffin, he returned to the church, where he began to say mass at a furious pace. Clou and his trombone and the two choristers quite lost their breath in their attempts to keep up with him. In the front row were the members of the family, Buteau and Lise, Fanny and Delhomme, Hyacinthe and La Grande. Monsieur Charles also honoured the funeral with his presence, but Madame Charles had been at Chartres for the last two days with Elodie and Nénesse. As for La Trouille, just as she was on the point of starting for the ceremony, she discovered that three of her geese were missing, and she rushed off to search for them. Behind Lise stood the two children, Laure and Jules, comporting themselves very decorously, with their arms crossed, and an expression of deep gravity on their widely-opened eyes. The other seats were crowded with acquaintances, women for the most part, including La Frimat, La Bécu, Cœlina, Flore, and many others, making up such a gathering as the family might well be proud of. As the priest turned to the congregation, he threw his arms open with such a terribly threatening expression that it looked as though he were going to cuff them all. Bécu, who was very drunk, was still tugging at the bell.
Altogether it was a very satisfactory mass, though solemnised somewhat hurriedly. The congregation, however, showed no signs of vexation, and they even smiled secretly at the Abbé's anger, which they quite excused, for it was only natural that he should be a little sulky over his defeat, just as they themselves felt elated at the victory of their village. An expression of sly satisfaction beamed on all their countenances. They had forced him to celebrate the blessed sacrament amongst them, though in reality they cared nothing at all about it.
When the mass was over, the aspersorium was passed from hand to hand, and then the procession reformed. First came the cross and the chanters, then Clou and his trombone, then the priest, choking from his breathless haste, next the body carried by four peasants, then the family, and finally the crowd of acquaintances. Bécu had now commenced to tug so energetically at the bell that the crows flew off from the steeple, croaking in distress. The funeral party reached the graveyard at once; they had only to turn the corner of the church. The chants and music broke out into fuller sound amid the hushed silence, beneath the vapoury sun which imparted warmth to the quivering peacefulness of the weeds and grass. When the coffin appeared in the open air, it seemed so small that every one looked at it in surprise. Jean, who was still standing by the grave, was painfully affected by the sight. Ah, poor old man! to be so emaciated by age, so shrunken owing to the wretchedness of his life, that he had room enough to lie completely in that mere toy-box! that mere pretence of a coffin! But little room would he want for his grave, and but a very slight incumbrance would he be to the soil, that mighty mother earth, whom he had so passionately loved.
As the coffin was laid down by the edge of the yawning grave, Jean's eyes followed it, and then strayed further away, over the little wall, sweeping La Beauce from end to end. Again he beheld the sowers stretching away into the far distance ceaselessly swinging their arms, while the seed streamed over the gaping furrows.
When the Buteaus caught sight of Jean, they exchanged an uneasy glance. Could the scoundrel be waiting there with the intention of creating some disturbance? They would never be able to sleep at ease as long as he remained in Rognes! The boy who carried the cross had just planted it at the foot of the grave, and now the Abbé Godard, standing in front of the coffin which was lying on the grass, hurriedly repeated the last prayers. The spectators' attention was, however, diverted on noticing that Macqueron and Lengaigne, who had arrived late, were gazing intently towards the plain. Every one now turned to look in the same direction, and noticed a thick cloud of smoke rolling up into the sky. It seemed to come from La Borderie; probably some stacks behind the farm had caught fire.
"Ego sum—" exclaimed the priest in a tone of fury: and then the funeral-party again turned towards him, fixing their eyes once more upon the coffin; Monsieur Charles alone was inattentive, continuing a whispered conversation with Delhomme. He had that morning received from Madame Charles a letter which filled him with delight. During the four-and-twenty hours she had been in Chartres, Elodie had shown herself in the most surprising light, displaying as much energy and shrewdness as even Nénesse himself. She had got the better of her father, and was already in possession of the house. Ah, she had the proper gifts, a ready hand and a sharp eye! Monsieur Charles was quite overcome with emotion as he thought of the happy old age that was now in store for him at Roseblanche, where his rose-trees and his carnations had never looked better than they were doing now; and it seemed to him, too, that his birds had quite recovered their health during the last few days, for they sang again so sweetly as to stir his very soul.
"Amen!" now cried the boy who was carrying the vessel of holy water.
Then the Abbé Godard, in his angry voice, immediately commenced the psalm:
"De profundis clamavi ad te, Domine——"
And as he continued, Hyacinthe, who had taken Fanny aside, began to abuse the Buteaus again.
"If only I hadn't been so drunk the other day," he began. "But really it isn't possible, you know; we can't submit to be robbed in this way."
"Yes, there's no doubt but what we are being robbed," murmured Fanny.
"Those two wretches have got the scrip, that's quite certain," her brother continued. "They've been enjoying the dividends for a long time past; they settled it all with old Saucisse, I know that for a fact. God in heaven! aren't we going to take proceedings against them?"
On hearing this Fanny started back, and shook her head energetically.
"No, no," she said; "I certainly sha'n't. I've got quite enough on my hands as it is. But you can, if you like."
Hyacinthe, in his turn, now made a gesture of alarm and refusal. As he couldn't get his sister to interfere, he didn't care to come into close contact with the law; his own antecedents worried him.
"Oh, no, no! I can't do anything," said he. "People have a spite against me. Never mind, even if we don't send them to gaol, we at least have the satisfaction of knowing that we can carry our heads erect."
La Grande, who was listening, watched him as he drew himself up with an air of unsullied integrity. She had always considered him a simpleton, blackguard though he was, and she felt quite vexed that such a great big fellow didn't go and smash everything in his brother's house to compel him to give him his share. Then, with a desire to make game of the brother and sister, she abruptly launched out into her customary statement, without any preliminaries.
"Ah, well, you'll never find me wronging any one. My will's been made a long time past, and every one will get a fair share. I couldn't die with an easy mind if I had shown an unfair preference for any one. Hyacinthe is down in it, and you, too, Fanny. I'm ninety years old now, and the day will soon come. Yes, it will come indeed."
However, she did not believe a word of it; she had made up her mind that she would never die, such was her obstinate determination to stick to her property. She would see all her relations buried. Here was another one, her brother, whom she was seeing being put away. The whole affair, the carrying of the corpse, the open grave, the final ceremony, all seemed matters which concerned her neighbours, and not herself. Tall and fleshless, with her stick under her arm, she stood firmly erect amid the graves, without showing the slightest sign of emotion, merely exhibiting a feeling of curiosity in her neighbours' shrinking from death.
The priest was now sputtering out the last verse of the psalm.
"Et ipse redimet Israel ex omnibus iniquitatibus ejus."
Then he took the sprinkler out of the holy water vessel and shook it over the coffin, exclaiming in a louder tone:
"Requiescat in pace."
"Amen," responded the two boys.
Then the coffin was let down into the grave. The gravedigger had already slipped the ropes under it, and a couple of men amply sufficed to lower it, for the old man's corpse didn't weigh more that that of a little child. The funeral party now passed in procession in front of the grave, and the sprinkler again passed from hand to hand, every one shaking it crossways over the coffin.
Jean, who now stepped up, received the aspersorium from the hands of Monsieur Charles, and his eyes sought the bottom of the grave. He was rather dazzled, as he had gazed so long upon the far-stretching plain of La Beauce, watching the sowers as they sowed the bread of the future, from one end of the expanse to the other, and dwindled away in the suffused light of the vaporous horizon. However, down in the depths of the soil Jean could distinguish the coffin, looking still smaller than before, with its narrow lid of pale corn-yellow pinewood. The clods of rich earth were falling over it and gradually concealing it from view; and now there was only a pale glimmering patch to be seen, looking like a handful of the corn which the sowers were scattering in the furrows over yonder. He shook the sprinkler, and then handed it to Hyacinthe.
"Your reverence! your reverence!" Delhomme now called, running after the priest, who, as the service was over, was striding off with a furious gait, forgetting all about the boys.
"Well, what is it now?" asked the priest.
"I only wanted to thank you for your kindness in coming. I suppose we may have the bell rung for mass at ten o'clock on Sunday, as usual, eh?"
The priest looked at him keenly without making any reply, and Delhomme hastily added:
"By the way, there's a poor old woman who is very ill, and absolutely alone, and she hasn't got a farthing either—Rosalie, the chair-mender; you know her, don't you? I have sent her some food, but I can't do everything."
The Abbé Godard's features lost their stern expression, and a thrill of charity swept away his wrath. He began fumbling in his pockets, but could only find seven coppers.
"Lend me ten francs," said he. "I'll give you them back on Sunday. Good-bye till Sunday, then."
Then he rushed on again, in a fresh burst of haste. Although it was quite certain that the good God whom they had forced him to bring amongst them would send all these cursed villagers to roast in hell, still, that was no reason why they should be left in too great suffering and tribulation in this life.
When Delhomme joined the others, he found himself in the midst of a violent quarrel. For some time the funeral party had stood quietly watching the sexton shovelling the soil on to the coffin. Presently, however, chance having brought Macqueron and Lengaigne close together beside the grave, the latter began to abuse the former on the subject of the plots. The family group, which had just been going away, thereupon remained to listen, and soon took an excited interest in the war of words, to which the sound of the falling soil furnished a muffled, regular accompaniment.
"You had no right to do it!" cried Lengaigne. "Your being mayor made no difference at all! You ought to have followed the row! You only shove yourself close up to my father to annoy me. Confound it all! You haven't gained your ends yet, I can tell you!"
"Aren't you going to shut up!" replied Macqueron. "I have paid for the plot, and it's my own property. And when my time comes, it won't be a foul swine like you who will prevent me from being laid there."
The two men had stepped apart, and each was now standing by his own plot, the few feet of earth where they would some day sleep their long sleep.
"But, you confounded villain, can you stomach the thought that we shall be lying there, shoulder to shoulder, like a couple of bosom friends? As for me, it makes my blood boil to think of it! To think that, after being enemies all our lives, we shall patch up a peace down there, and lie quietly side by side! No, no, indeed! No patching up, no forgetting for me!"
"Ah, well, I don't care a curse! You can blow yourself out with rage till you burst, if you like, but I've too much contempt for you to trouble myself about knowing whether your carcass will rot near mine or not!"
This scornful reply capped Lengaigne's exasperation; and he blurted out that if he lived the longer, he'd come in the night and dig up Macqueron's bones and toss them outside the graveyard, rather than submit to lie beside them. Macqueron sniggered, and said he should like to see him do it; and then the women joined in the fray, that dark, skinny wench, Cœlina, making an angry attack upon her husband.
"You are acting shamefully!" she cried. "I told you so before. You don't seem to have any feelings! However, I can tell you this, unless you make a change, you may lie in your hole by yourself. I shall have myself taken somewhere else, for I'll never consent to let my bones be poisoned by that drab there!"
As she spoke she jerked her chin in the direction of Flore; but the latter was not going to submit to this abuse.
"You'd be no very pleasant neighbour yourself!" she retorted, in a drawling, whining tone. "Make yourself quite easy, my dear; I don't intend to let your bones give the disease to mine."
"Eh, what? What disease?"
"Oh, you know what disease very well!"
La Bécu and La Frimat were now obliged to interpose and separate the two women.
"Come, come," urged the former, "you won't lie together since you are both of the same way of thinking. Every one is at liberty to choose her own company."
La Frimat expressed her acquiescence in this.
"It's only natural," she said. "I'm sure that when my old man's time comes I'd rather keep him in the house with me than let him lie alongside of old Couillot, with whom he had differences once on a time."
The tears welled to her eyes as she thought that her paralytic husband would probably pass away before the week was over. She had fallen with him on the previous evening as she was trying to put him to bed, and whenever he departed she wouldn't be long in following him.
It was at this moment that Delhomme came up, and Lengaigne at once appealed to him.
"Now, then," said he, "folks say you are a just man; well, will you allow such injustice? Now that you are mayor, you can make this scamp turn out of here and take his place in the regular order."
Macqueron shrugged his shoulders, and Delhomme proceeded to explain that as he had paid his money the plot belonged to him. The matter was settled now, and there was an end of it. Buteau, who had hitherto quieted himself by force, then lost his head and rushed into the fray. All the members of the family should have maintained a decorous bearing as the clods of soil were still falling with heavy thuds upon the old man's coffin; however, Buteau's indignation was too great to be restrained.
"Ah! curse it, you're mightily mistaken if you expect to find any proper feeling in that fellow!" he cried to Lengaigne, as he pointed to Delhomme. "He let his own father be buried by the side of a thief!"
This remark caused a general explosion, the different members of the family taking part in the row. Fanny supported her husband, saying that the real mistake lay in not having purchased a plot for their father at the time when their mother Rose died; he might have laid close to her. Thereupon Hyacinthe and La Grande assailed Delhomme with abuse, also expressing their disgust at old Fouan's proximity to Saucisse, a most inhuman proceeding admitting of no excuse whatever. Monsieur Charles was of the same opinion, but expressed himself more moderately.
They were now all wrangling and shouting at once. Buteau, however, managed to make himself heard above the others, as he roared out: "Yes, their very bones will struggle under the ground to attack each other again!"
The whole company, relatives, friends, and acquaintances, eagerly seized hold of this phrase. Yes, that was the truth! Their very bones would continue the fight underground. When they were buried, the Fouans would still pursue each other with that savage animosity which they had mutually manifested during life. Lengaigne and Macqueron would go on bickering and quarrelling till they had quite rotted; and the women, Cœlina, Flore, and La Bécu, would still attack each other with their tongues and claws. It was the universal opinion in Rognes that foes in life could never rest peacefully together when they were buried. The hatred between them never perished; it lasted beyond life right away to the end of time. In this sunny graveyard, beneath the rank growth of grass and weeds, a savage, timeless warfare was waging between coffin and coffin, just such a warfare as was now being waged by these living mortals who were grouped together amid the graves, clenching their fists and reviling one another. However, a shout from Jean separated the adversaries, and made them turn their heads: "La Borderie is on fire!"
Doubt was no longer possible. The flames were leaping up from the roof, quivering and paling in the light of day. A dense cloud of ruddy smoke was gently rolling away towards the north. Then La Trouille came into sight, running hastily from the direction of the farm. While hunting for her geese she had noticed the first sparks, and she had stood gloating over the spectacle till the idea of telling the others of the sight occurred to her, whereupon she set off at a run. Jumping astride the low wall, she cried out in her childish voice:
"Oh, isn't it just blazing? That big beast Tron came back and set it on fire in three different places—in the barn, in the stables, and in the kitchen. They caught him just as he was setting the straw alight, and the waggoners nearly killed him. The horses and the cows and the sheep are all roasting! Oh, you should hear the noise they're making! You never heard such a row!"
Her green eyes glistened, and she laughed as she continued:
"Oh, and there's La Cognette! She's been ill, you know, ever since the master died, and they had forgotten her in her bed. She was already getting singed, and she'd only just time to cut and run in her shift. Oh, it was a rare sight to see her prancing about in the open fields with her bare legs. She hopped and skipped along, and the folks shouted out, 'hou! hou!' as she passed them. They're not very fond of her, you know, and one old man said: 'She's come out just as she went in, with only a shift on her back!'"
At this point a fresh thrill of merriment made the girl wriggle with laughter.
"Do come! it's such a lark! I'm off back again."
Then she sprang down from the wall, and ran as fast as her legs could carry her in the direction of the blazing farm.
Monsieur Charles, Delhomme, Macqueron, and nearly all the peasants followed her; while the women, with La Grande at their head, also left the graveyard for the road, so as to get a better view. Buteau and Lise had stayed behind, and the latter detained Lengaigne, being anxious to question him about Jean, without appearing to show too much interest in him. Had he found some work, she asked, as he was lodging in the neighbourhood? When the innkeeper replied that he was going away to re-enlist, both Buteau and Lise, feeling vastly relieved, broke out into the same exclamation:
"What a fool he must be!"
So this troublesome bother was at an end, and they would be able to live happily again! They cast a last glance at Fouan's grave, which the sexton had now almost filled up; and as the two children lingered behind to watch, their mother called them.
"Come along, Jules and Laure, come along! Mind you're good children, now, and do what you're told, or the man will come and put you in the earth too."
The Buteaus then went off, pushing Laure and Jules in front of them. The children, who knew the truth, looked very grave and earnest with their big solemn black eyes.
Jean and Hyacinthe were now the only ones left in the graveyard. The latter just watched the fire from a distance, disdaining to hurry off like the others. As he stood, quite motionless between two graves, he seemed to be absorbed in some visionary dream, and his sad, dissipated face expressed the mournful melancholy that lies at the end of every system of philosophy. Perhaps he was thinking that existence glides away and vanishes like smoke! And as serious meditation always had an exciting effect on him, he ended by giving vent to three detonations.
"God in heaven!" exclaimed the drunken Bécu, as he passed through the graveyard on his way to the fire, "if this wind continues, we may expect a downfall of dung!"
"Yes, indeed," replied Hyacinthe; and hurrying off he disappeared round the wall.
Jean was now alone. Away in the distance some huge whirling clouds of black smoke were rising from the ruins of La Borderie, casting shadows over the fields and the scattered sowers, who were still plodding backwards and forwards, making the same monotonous gestures. Then Jean's eyes slowly wandered back to the ground at his feet, and he gazed at the mounds of fresh soil beneath which Françoise and old Fouan were sleeping. His anger of the morning and his disgust for people and circumstances had vanished in a feeling of profound calm. In spite of himself he felt full of restfulness and hope; maybe it was owing to the warm sunshine.
Ah, yes, his master Hourdequin had had any amount of worry with all those new inventions; he had never reaped much advantage from his machines and artificial manures, and other scientific devices. And then La Cognette had come to finish him off; he was now asleep in the graveyard, and nothing remained of the farm, the very ashes of which the wind was now sweeping away. But what did it matter after all? Walls might be burned down, but the soil could not be burned. Earth, Mother earth, would always be there ready to nourish all who cast their seed upon her bosom. She had time enough before her, and space in plenty, and even now she yielded corn, and would yield still more when men knew how to treat her.
It was the same with the stories of the revolutionists—those political cataclysms which were predicted. The soil, it was said, would pass into other hands, and the harvests of other countries would swamp our own, till our land was over-run with brambles. Well, and what then? Is it within any one's power to harm the soil? It will always be there for any one who may be obliged to till it to escape dying from hunger. And even if weeds were to cover its surface for years together, that would be a rest for it, and it would grow young and fertile again. The soil cares nothing about our quarrels; this mighty toiler, ever absorbed in her workings, troubles herself no more about man than about a swarm of ants.
Jean had had his share of grief and trouble, pain and rebellion. And now Françoise was slain, Fouan was slain, the wicked seemed triumphant, the foul and sanguinary vermin of the villages were able to pollute and prey upon the soil. Ah, but who can tell? The frost which sears the crops, the hail which breaks them, the deluge which beats them down, are all perhaps necessary, and so it may be that blood and tears are equally essential to the world's progress. What does our unhappiness weigh in the great system of the stars and the sun? We only gain our bread by dint of a terrible daily struggle The soil alone remains fixed and imperishable, the mother from whom we all spring, and to whom we must all return; she whom her children love so keenly that they sin for her sake; she who utilises everything, even our crimes and our wretchedness, for purposes of creation, in view of attaining her own secret, mysterious ends.
For a long time some such confused, ill-formulated reverie as this rolled vaguely through Jean's mind as he lingered in the graveyard; but suddenly a trumpet sounded in the distance, the trumpet of the firemen of Bazoches-le-Doyen, who were arriving too late at the double-quick. Then, hearing the clarion-call, Jean drew himself up. It was like warfare passing by amid smoke; warfare with its horses, its cannons, and its clamorous carnage! Ah! confound it, since he no longer had the heart to till the old soil of France, he would defend it from invaders!
He was going off, when for a last time he turned his eyes from the two grassless graves to the endless plough-lands of La Beauce filled with sowers, all making the same ceaseless gesture. Mid corpses and seeds, sustenance was springing from the soil.