The humid gray sky seemed to weigh down on the vast brown plain. The odor of autumn, the sad odor of bare, moist lands, of fallen leaves, of dead grass made the stagnant evening air more thick and heavy. The peasants were still at work, scattered through the fields, waiting for the stroke of the Angelus to call them back to the farmhouses, whose thatched roofs were visible here and there through the branches of the leafless trees which protected the apple-gardens against the wind.
At the side of the road, on a heap of clothes, a very small boy seated with his legs apart was playing with a potato, which he now and then let fall on his dress, whilst five women were bending down planting slips of colza in the adjoining plain. With a slow, continuous movement, all along the mounds of earth which the plough had just turned up, they drove in sharp wooden stakes and in the hole thus formed placed the plant, already a little withered, which sank on one side; then they patted down the earth and went on with their work.
A man who was passing, with a whip in his hand, and wearing wooden shoes, stopped near the child, took it up and kissed it. Then one of the women rose up and came across to him. She was a big, red haired girl, with large hips, waist and shoulders, a tall Norman woman, with yellow hair in which there was a blood-red tint.
She said in a resolute voice:
“Why, here you are, Cesaire — well?”
The man, a thin young fellow with a melancholy air, murmured:
“Well, nothing at all — always the same thing.”
“He won’t have it?”
“He won’t have it.”
“What are you going to do?”
“What do you say I ought to do?”
“Go see the cure.”
“Go at once!”
And they stared at each other. He held the child in his arms all the time. He kissed it once more and then put it down again on the woman’s clothes.
In the distance, between two farm-houses, could be seen a plough drawn by a horse and driven by a man. They moved on very gently, the horse, the plough and the laborer, in the dim evening twilight.
The woman went on:
“What did your father say?”
“He said he would not have it.”
“Why wouldn’t he have it?”
The young man pointed toward the child whom he had just put back on the ground, then with a glance he drew her attention to the man drawing the plough yonder there.
And he said emphatically:
“Because ’tis his — this child of yours.”
The girl shrugged her shoulders and in an angry tone said:
“Faith, every one knows it well — that it is Victor’s. And what about it after all? I made a slip. Am I the only woman that did? My mother also made a slip before me, and then yours did the same before she married your dad! Who is it that hasn’t made a slip in the country? I made a slip with Victor because he took advantage of me while I was asleep in the barn, it’s true, and afterward it happened between us when I wasn’t asleep. I certainly would have married him if he weren’t a servant man. Am I a worse woman for that?”
The man said simply:
“As for me, I like you just as you are, with or without the child. It’s only my father that opposes me. All the same, I’ll see about settling the business.”
“Go to the cure at once.”
“I’m going to him.”
And he set forth with his heavy peasant’s tread, while the girl, with her hands on her hips, turned round to plant her colza.
In fact, the man who thus went off, Cesaire Houlbreque, the son of deaf old Amable Houlbreque, wanted to marry, in spite of his father, Celeste Levesque, who had a child by Victor Lecoq, a mere laborer on her parents’ farm, who had been turned out of doors for this act.
The hierarchy of caste, however, does not exist in the country, and if the laborer is thrifty, he becomes, by taking a farm in his turn, the equal of his former master.
So Cesaire Houlbieque went off, his whip under his arm, brooding over his own thoughts and lifting up one after the other his heavy wooden shoes daubed with clay. Certainly he desired to marry Celeste Levesque. He wanted her with her child because she was the wife he wanted. He could not say why, but he knew it, he was sure of it. He had only to look at her to be convinced of it, to feel quite queer, quite stirred up, simply stupid with happiness. He even found a pleasure in kissing the little boy, Victor’s little boy, because he belonged to her.
And he gazed, without hate, at the distant outline of the man who was driving his plough along the horizon.
But old Amable did not want this marriage. He opposed it with the obstinacy of a deaf man, with a violent obstinacy.
Cesaire in vain shouted in his ear, in that ear which still heard a few sounds:
“I’ll take good care of you, daddy. I tell you she’s a good girl and strong, too, and also thrifty.”
The old man repeated:
“As long as I live I won’t see her your wife.”
And nothing could get the better of him, nothing could make him waver. One hope only was left to Cesaire. Old Amable was afraid of the cure through the apprehension of death which he felt drawing nigh; he had not much fear of God, nor of the Devil, nor of Hell, nor of Purgatory, of which he had no conception, but he dreaded the priest, who represented to him burial, as one might fear the doctors through horror of diseases. For the last tight days Celeste, who knew this weakness of the old man, had been urging Cesaire to go and find the cure, but Cesaire always hesitated, because he had not much liking for the black robe, which represented to him hands always stretched out for collections or for blessed bread.
However, he had made up his mind, and he proceeded toward the presbytery, thinking in what manner he would speak about his case.
The Abbe Raffin, a lively little priest, thin and never shaved, was awaiting his dinner-hour while warming his feet at his kitchen fire.
As soon as he saw the peasant entering he asked, merely turning his head:
“Well, Cesaire, what do you want?”
“I’d like to have a talk with you, M. le Cure.”
The man remained standing, intimidated, holding his cap in one hand and his whip in the other.
Cesaire looked at the housekeeper, an old woman who dragged her feet while putting on the cover for her master’s dinner at the corner of the table in front of the window.
“’Tis —’tis a sort of confession.”
Thereupon the Abbe Raffin carefully surveyed his peasant. He saw his confused countenance, his air of constraint, his wandering eyes, and he gave orders to the housekeeper in these words:
“Marie, go away for five minutes to your room, while I talk to Cesaire.”
The servant cast on the man an angry glance and went away grumbling.
The clergyman went on:
“Come, now, tell your story.”
The young fellow still hesitated, looked down at his wooden shoes, moved about his cap, then, all of a sudden, he made up his mind:
“Here it is: I want to marry Celeste Levesque.”
“Well, my boy, what’s there to prevent you?”
“The father won’t have it.”
“Yes, my father.”
“What does your father say?”
“He says she has a child.”
“She’s not the first to whom that happened, since our Mother Eve.”
“A child by Victor Lecoq, Anthime Loisel’s servant man.”
“Ha! ha! So he won’t have it?”
“He won’t have it.”
“What! not at all?”
“No, no more than an ass that won’t budge an inch, saving your presence.”
“What do you say to him yourself in order to make him decide?”
“I say to him that she’s a good girl, and strong, too, and thrifty also.”
“And this does not make him agree to it. So you want me to speak to him?”
“Exactly. You speak to him.”
“And what am I to tell your father?”
“Why, what you tell people in your sermons to make them give you sous.”
In the peasant’s mind every effort of religion consisted in loosening the purse strings, in emptying the pockets of men in order to fill the heavenly coffer. It was a kind of huge commercial establishment, of which the cures were the clerks; sly, crafty clerks, sharp as any one must be who does business for the good God at the expense of the country people.
He knew full well that the priests rendered services, great services to the poorest, to the sick and dying, that they assisted, consoled, counselled, sustained, but all this by means of money, in exchange for white pieces, for beautiful glittering coins, with which they paid for sacraments and masses, advice and protection, pardon of sins and indulgences, purgatory and paradise according to the yearly income and the generosity of the sinner.
The Abbe Raffin, who knew his man and who never lost his temper, burst out laughing.
“Well, yes, I’ll tell your father my little story; but you, my lad, you’ll come to church.”
Houlbreque extended his hand in order to give a solemn assurance:
“On the word of a poor man, if you do this for me, I promise that I will.”
“Come, that’s all right. When do you wish me to go and find your father?”
“Why, the sooner the better-to-night, if you can.”
“In half an hour, then, after supper.”
“In half an hour.”
“That’s understood. So long, my lad.”
“Good-by till we meet again, Monsieur le Cure; many thanks.”
“Not at all, my lad.”
And Cesaire Houlbreque returned home, his heart relieved of a great weight.
He held on lease a little farm, quite small, for they were not rich, his father and he. Alone with a female servant, a little girl of fifteen, who made the soup, looked after the fowls, milked the cows and churned the butter, they lived frugally, though Cesaire was a good cultivator. But they did not possess either sufficient lands or sufficient cattle to earn more than the indispensable.
The old man no longer worked. Sad, like all deaf people, crippled with pains, bent double, twisted, he went through the fields leaning on his stick, watching the animals and the men with a hard, distrustful eye. Sometimes he sat down on the side of the road and remained there without moving for hours, vaguely pondering over the things that had engrossed his whole life, the price of eggs, and corn, the sun and the rain which spoil the crops or make them grow. And, worn out with rheumatism, his old limbs still drank in the humidity of the soul, as they had drunk in for the past sixty years, the moisture of the walls of his low house thatched with damp straw.
He came back at the close of the day, took his place at the end of the table in the kitchen and when the earthen bowl containing the soup had been placed before him he placed round it his crooked fingers, which seemed to have kept the round form of the bowl and, winter and summer, he warmed his hands, before commencing to eat, so as to lose nothing, not even a particle of the heat that came from the fire, which costs a great deal, neither one drop of soup into which fat and salt have to be put, nor one morsel of bread, which comes from the wheat.
Then he climbed up a ladder into a loft, where he had his straw-bed, while his son slept below stairs at the end of a kind of niche near the chimneypiece and the servant shut herself up in a kind of cellar, a black hole which was formerly used to store the potatoes.
Cesaire and his father scarcely ever talked to each other. From time to time only, when there was a question of selling a crop or buying a calf, the young man would ask his father’s advice, and, making a speaking-trumpet of his two hands, he would bawl out his views into his ear, and old Amable either approved of them or opposed them in a slow, hollow voice that came from the depths of his stomach.
So one evening Cesaire, approaching him as if about to discuss the purchase of a horse or a heifer, communicated to him at the top of his voice his intention to marry Celeste Levesque.
Then the father got angry. Why? On the score of morality? No, certainly. The virtue of a girl is of slight importance in the country. But his avarice, his deep, fierce instinct for saving, revolted at the idea that his son should bring up a child which he had not begotten himself. He had thought suddenly, in one second, of the soup the little fellow would swallow before becoming useful on the farm. He had calculated all the pounds of bread, all the pints of cider that this brat would consume up to his fourteenth year, and a mad anger broke loose from him against Cesaire, who had not bestowed a thought on all this.
He replied in an unusually strong voice:
“Have you lost your senses?”
Thereupon Cesaire began to enumerate his reasons, to speak about Celeste’s good qualities, to prove that she would be worth a thousand times what the child would cost. But the old man doubted these advantages, while he could have no doubts as to the child’s existence; and he replied with emphatic repetition, without giving any further explanation:
“I will not have it! I will not have it! As long as I live, this won’t be done!” And at this point they had remained for the last three months without one or the other giving in, resuming at least once a week the same discussion, with the same arguments, the same words, the same gestures and the same fruitlessness.
It was then that Celeste had advised Cesaire to go and ask for the cure’s assistance.
On arriving home the peasant found his father already seated at table, for he came late through his visit to the presbytery.
They dined in silence, face to face, ate a little bread and butter after the soup and drank a glass of cider. Then they remained motionless in their chairs, with scarcely a glimmer of light, the little servant girl having carried off the candle in order to wash the spoons, wipe the glasses and cut the crusts of bread to be ready for next morning’s breakfast.
There was a knock, at the door, which was immediately opened, and the priest appeared. The old man raised toward him an anxious eye full of suspicion, and, foreseeing danger, he was getting ready to climb up his ladder when the Abbe Raffin laid his hand on his shoulder and shouted close to his temple:
“I want to have a talk with you, Father Amable.”
Cesaire had disappeared, taking advantage of the door being open. He did not want to listen, for he was afraid and did not want his hopes to crumble slowly with each obstinate refusal of his father. He preferred to learn the truth at once, good or bad, later on; and he went out into the night. It was a moonless, starless night, one of those misty nights when the air seems thick with humidity. A vague odor of apples floated through the farmyard, for it was the season when the earliest applies were gathered, the “early ripe,” as they are called in the cider country. As Cesaire passed along by the cattlesheds the warm smell of living beasts asleep on manure was exhaled through the narrow windows, and he heard the stamping of the horses, who were standing at the end of the stable, and the sound of their jaws tearing and munching the hay on the racks.
He went straight ahead, thinking about Celeste. In this simple nature, whose ideas were scarcely more than images generated directly by objects, thoughts of love only formulated themselves by calling up before the mind the picture of a big red-haired girl standing in a hollow road and laughing, with her hands on her hips.
It was thus he saw her on the day when he first took a fancy for her. He had, however, known her from infancy, but never had he been so struck by her as on that morning. They had stopped to talk for a few minutes and then he went away, and as he walked along he kept repeating:
“Faith, she’s a fine girl, all the same. ’Tis a pity she made a slip with Victor.”
Till evening he kept thinking of her and also on the following morning.
When he saw her again he felt something tickling the end of his throat, as if a cock’s feather had been driven through his mouth into his chest, and since then, every time he found himself near her, he was astonished at this nervous tickling which always commenced again.
In three months he made up his mind to marry her, so much did she please him. He could not have said whence came this power over him, but he explained it in these words:
“I am possessed by her,” as if the desire for this girl within him were as dominating as one of the powers of hell. He scarcely bothered himself about her transgression. It was a pity, but, after all, it did her no harm, and he bore no grudge against Victor Lecoq.
But if the cure should not succeed, what was he to do? He did not dare to think of it, the anxiety was such a torture to him.
He reached the presbytery and seated himself near the little gateway to wait for the priest’s return.
He was there perhaps half an hour when he heard steps on the road, and although the night was very dark, he presently distinguished the still darker shadow of the cassock.
He rose up, his legs giving way under him, not even venturing to speak, not daring to ask a question.
The clergyman perceived him and said gaily:
“Well, my lad, it’s all right.”
“All right, ’tisn’t possible.”
“Yes, my lad, but not without trouble. What an old ass your father is!”
The peasant repeated:
“Why, yes. Come and look me up to-morrow at midday in order to settle about the publication of the banns.”
The young man seized the cure’s hand. He pressed it, shook it, bruised it as he stammered:
“True-true-true, Monsieur le Cure, on the word of an honest man, you’ll see me to-morrow at your sermon.”
The wedding took place in the middle of December. It was simple, the bridal pair not being rich. Cesaire, attired in new clothes, was ready since eight o’clock in the morning to go and fetch his betrothed and bring her to the mayor’s office, but it was too early. He seated himself before the kitchen table and waited for the members of the family and the friends who were to accompany him.
For the last eight days it had been snowing, and the brown earth, the earth already fertilized by the autumn sowing, had become a dead white, sleeping under a great sheet of ice.
It was cold in the thatched houses adorned with white caps, and the round apples in the trees of the enclosures seemed to be flowering, covered with white as they had been in the pleasant month of their blossoming.
This day the big clouds to the north, the big great snow clouds, had disappeared and the blue sky showed itself above the white earth on which the rising sun cast silvery reflections.
Cesaire looked straight before him through the window, thinking of nothing, quite happy.
The door opened, two women entered, peasant women in their Sunday clothes, the aunt and the cousin of the bridegroom; then three men, his cousins; then a woman who was a neighbor. They sat down on chairs and remained, motionless and silent, the women on one side of the kitchen, the men on the other, suddenly seized with timidity, with that embarrassed sadness which takes possession of people assembled for a ceremony. One of the cousins soon asked:
“Is it not the hour?”
“I am much afraid it is.”
“Come on! Let us start,” said another.
Those rose up. Then Cesaire, whom a feeling of uneasiness had taken possession of, climbed up the ladder of the loft to see whether his father was ready. The old man, always as a rule an early riser, had not yet made his appearance. His son found him on his bed of straw, wrapped up in his blanket, with his eyes open and a malicious gleam in them.
He bawled into his ear: “Come, daddy, get up. It’s time for the wedding.”
The deaf man murmured in a doleful tone:
“I can’t get up. I have a sort of chill over me that freezes my back. I can’t stir.”
The young man, dumbfounded, stared at him, guessing that this was a dodge.
“Come, daddy; you must make an effort.”
“I can’t do it.”
“Look here! I’ll help you.”
And he stooped toward the old man, pulled off his blanket, caught him by the arm and lifted him up. But old Amable began to whine, “Ooh! ooh! ooh! What suffering! Ooh! I can’t. My back is stiffened up. The cold wind must have rushed in through this cursed roof.”
“Well, you’ll get no dinner, as I’m having a spread at Polyte’s inn. This will teach you what comes of acting mulishly.”
And he hurried down the ladder and started out, accompanied by his relatives and guests.
The men had turned up the bottoms of their trousers so as not to get them wet in the snow. The women held up their petticoats and showed their lean ankles with gray woollen stockings and their bony shanks resembling broomsticks. And they all moved forward with a swinging gait, one behind the other, without uttering a word, moving cautiously, for fear of losing the road which was-hidden beneath the flat, uniform, uninterrupted stretch of snow.
As they approached the farmhouses they saw one or two persons waiting to join them, and the procession went on without stopping and wound its way forward, following the invisible outlines of the road, so that it resembled a living chaplet of black beads undulating through the white countryside.
In front of the bride’s door a large group was stamping up and down the open space awaiting the bridegroom. When he appeared they gave him a loud greeting, and presently Celeste came forth from her room, clad in a blue dress, her shoulders covered with a small red shawl and her head adorned with orange flowers.
But every one asked Cesaire:
“Where’s your father?”
He replied with embarrassment:
“He couldn’t move on account of the pains.”
And the farmers tossed their heads with a sly, incredulous air.
They directed their steps toward the mayor’s office. Behind the pair about to be wedded a peasant woman carried Victor’s child, as if it were going to be baptized; and the risen, in pairs now, with arms linked, walked through the snow with the movements of a sloop at sea.
After having been united by the mayor in the little municipal house the pair were made one by the cure, in his turn, in the modest house of God. He blessed their union by promising them fruitfulness, then he preached to them on the matrimonial virtues, the simple and healthful virtues of the country, work, concord and fidelity, while the child, who was cold, began to fret behind the bride.
As soon as the couple reappeared on the threshold of the church shots were discharged from the ditch of the cemetery. Only the barrels of the guns could be seen whence came forth rapid jets of smoke; then a head could be seen gazing at the procession. It was Victor Lecoq celebrating the marriage of his old sweetheart, wishing her happiness and sending her his good wishes with explosions of powder. He had employed some friends of his, five or six laboring men, for these salvos of musketry. It was considered a nice attention.
The repast was given in Polyte Cacheprune’s inn. Twenty covers were laid in the great hall where people dined on market days, and the big leg of mutton turning before the spit, the fowls browned under their own gravy, the chitterlings sputtering over the bright, clear fire filled the house with a thick odor of live coal sprinkled with fat — the powerful, heavy odor of rustic fare.
They sat down to table at midday and the soup was poured at once into the plates. All faces had already brightened up; mouths opened to utter loud jokes and eyes were laughing with knowing winks. They were going to amuse themselves and no mistake.
The door opened, and old Amable appeared. He seemed in a bad humor and his face wore a scowl as he dragged himself forward on his sticks, whining at every step to indicate his suffering. As soon as they saw him they stopped talking, but suddenly his neighbor, Daddy Malivoire, a big joker, who knew all the little tricks and ways of people, began to yell, just as Cesaire used to do, by making a speaking-trumpet of his hands.
“Hallo, my cute old boy, you have a good nose on you to be able to smell Polyte’s cookery from your own house!”
A roar of laughter burst forth from the throats of those present. Malivoire, excited by his success, went on:
“There’s nothing for the rheumatics like a chitterling poultice! It keeps your belly warm, along with a glass of three-six!”
The men uttered shouts, banged the table with their fists, laughed, bending on one side and raising up their bodies again as if they were working a pump. The women clucked like hens, while the servants wriggled, standing against the walls. Old Amable was the only one that did not laugh, and, without making any reply, waited till they made room for him.
They found a place for him in the middle of the table, facing his daughter-in-law, and, as soon as he was seated, he began to eat. It was his son who was paying, after all; it was right he should take his share. With each ladleful of soup that went into his stomach, with each mouthful of bread or meat crushed between his gums, with each glass of cider or wine that flowed through his gullet he thought he was regaining something of his own property, getting back a little of his money which all those gluttons were devouring, saving in fact a portion of his own means. And he ate in silence with the obstinacy of a miser who hides his coppers, with the same gloomy persistence with which he formerly performed his daily labors.
But all of a sudden he noticed at the end of the table Celeste’s child on a woman’s lap, and his eye remained fixed on the little boy. He went on eating, with his glance riveted on the youngster, into whose mouth the woman who minded him every now and then put a little morsel which he nibbled at. And the old man suffered more from the few mouthfuls sucked by this little chap than from all that the others swallowed.
The meal lasted till evening. Then every one went back home.
Cesaire raised up old Amable.
“Come, daddy, we must go home,” said he.
And he put the old man’s two sticks in his hands.
Celeste took her child in her arms, and they went on slowly through the pale night whitened by the snow. The deaf old man, three-fourths tipsy, and even more malicious under the influence of drink, refused to go forward. Several times he even sat down with the object of making his daughter-in-law catch cold, and he kept whining, without uttering a word, giving vent to a sort of continuous groaning as if he were in pain.
When they reached home he at once climbed up to his loft, while Cesaire made a bed for the child near the deep niche where he was going to lie down with his wife. But as the newly wedded pair could not sleep immediately, they heard the old man for a long time moving about on his bed of straw, and he even talked aloud several times, whether it was that he was dreaming or that he let his thoughts escape through his mouth, in spite of himself, not being able to keep them back, under the obsession of a fixed idea.
When he came down his ladder next morning he saw his daughter-in-law looking after the housekeeping.
She cried out to him:
“Come, daddy, hurry on! Here’s some good soup.”
And she placed at the end of the table the round black earthen bowl filled with steaming liquid. He sat down without giving any answer, seized the hot bowl, warmed his hands with it in his customary fashion, and, as it was very cold, even pressed it against his breast to try to make a little of the living heat of the boiling liquid enter into him, into his old body stiffened by so many winters.
Then he took his sticks and went out into the fields, covered with ice, till it was time for dinner, for he had seen Celeste’s youngster still asleep in a big soap-box.
He did not take his place in the household. He lived in the thatched house, as in bygone days, but he seemed not to belong to it any longer, to be no longer interested in anything, to look upon those people, his son, the wife and the child as strangers whom he did not know, to whom he never spoke.
The winter glided by. It was long and severe.
Then the early spring made the seeds sprout forth again, and the peasants once more, like laborious ants, passed their days in the fields, toiling from morning till night, under the wind and under the rain, along the furrows of brown earth which brought forth the bread of men.
The year promised well for the newly married pair. The crops grew thick and strong. There were no late frosts, and the apples bursting into bloom scattered on the grass their rosy white snow which promised a hail of fruit for the autumn.
Cesaire toiled hard, rose early and left off work late, in order to save the expense of a hired man.
His wife said to him sometimes:
“You’ll make yourself ill in the long run.”
“Certainly not. I’m a good judge.”
Nevertheless one evening he came home so fatigued that he had to get to bed without supper. He rose up next morning at the usual hour, but he could not eat, in spite of his fast on the previous night, and he had to come back to the house in the middle of the afternoon in order to go to bed again. In the course of the night he began to cough; he turned round on his straw couch, feverish, with his forehead burning, his tongue dry and his throat parched by a burning thirst.
However, at daybreak he went toward his grounds, but next morning the doctor had to be sent for and pronounced him very ill with inflammation of the lungs.
And he no longer left the dark recess in which he slept. He could be heard coughing, gasping and tossing about in this hole. In order to see him, to give his medicine and to apply cupping-glasses they had to bring a candle to the entrance. Then one could see his narrow head with his long matted beard underneath a thick lacework of spiders’ webs, which hung and floated when stirred by the air. And the hands of the sick man seemed dead under the dingy sheets.
Celeste watched him with restless activity, made him take physic, applied blisters to him, went back and forth in the house, while old Amable remained at the edge of his loft, watching at a distance the gloomy cavern where his son lay dying. He did not come near him, through hatred of the wife, sulking like an ill-tempered dog.
Six more days passed, then one morning, as Celeste, who now slept on the ground on two loose bundles of straw, was going to see whether her man was better, she no longer heard his rapid breathing from the interior of his recess. Terror stricken, she asked:
“Well Cesaire, what sort of a night had you?”
He did not answer. She put out her hand to touch him, and the flesh on his face felt cold as ice. She uttered a great cry, the long cry of a woman overpowered with fright. He was dead.
At this cry the deaf old man appeared at the top of his ladder, and when he saw Celeste rushing to call for help, he quickly descended, placed his hand on his son’s face, and suddenly realizing what had happened, went to shut the door from the inside, to prevent the wife from re-entering and resuming possession of the dwelling, since his son was no longer living.
Then he sat down on a chair by the dead man’s side.
Some of the neighbors arrived, called out and knocked. He did not hear them. One of them broke the glass of the window and jumped into the room. Others followed. The door was opened again and Celeste reappeared, all in tears, with swollen face and bloodshot eyes. Then old Amable, vanquished, without uttering a word, climbed back to his loft.
The funeral took place next morning. Then, after the ceremony, the father-in-law and the daughter-in-law found themselves alone in the farmhouse with the child.
It was the usual dinner hour. She lighted the fire, made some soup and placed the plates on the table, while the old man sat on the chair waiting without appearing to look at her. When the meal was ready she bawled in his ear
“Come, daddy, you must eat.” He rose up, took his seat at the end of the table, emptied his soup bowl, masticated his bread and butter, drank his two glasses of cider and then took himself off.
It was one of those warm days, one of those enjoyable days when life ferments, pulsates, blooms all over the surface of the soil.
Old Amable pursued a little path across the fields. He looked at the young wheat and the young oats, thinking that his son was now under the earth, his poor boy! He walked along wearily, dragging his legs after him in a limping fashion. And, as he was all alone in the plain, all alone under the blue sky, in the midst of the growing crops, all alone with the larks which he saw hovering above his head, without hearing their light song, he began to weep as he proceeded on his way.
Then he sat down beside a pond and remained there till evening, gazing at the little birds that came there to drink. Then, as the night was falling, he returned to the house, supped without saying a word and climbed up to his loft. And his life went on as in the past. Nothing was changed, except that his son Cesaire slept in the cemetery.
What could he, an old man, do? He could work no longer; he was now good for nothing except to swallow the soup prepared by his daughter-in-law. And he ate it in silence, morning and evening, watching with an eye of rage the little boy also taking soup, right opposite him, at the other side of the table. Then he would go out, prowl about the fields after the fashion of a vagabond, hiding behind the barns where he would sleep for an hour or two as if he were afraid of being seen and then come back at the approach of night.
But Celeste’s mind began to be occupied by graver anxieties. The farm needed a man to look after it and cultivate it. Somebody should be there always to go through the fields, not a mere hired laborer, but a regular farmer, a master who understood the business and would take an interest in the farm. A lone woman could not manage the farming, watch the price of corn and direct the sale and purchase of cattle. Then ideas came into her head, simple practical ideas, which she had turned over in her head at night. She could not marry again before the end of the year, and it was necessary at once to take care of pressing interests, immediate interests.
Only one man could help her out of her difficulties, Victor Lecoq, the father of her child. He was strong and understood farming; with a little money in his pocket he would make an excellent cultivator. She was aware of his skill, having known him while he was working on her parents’ farm.
So one morning, seeing him passing along the road with a cart of manure, she went out to meet him. When he perceived her, he drew up his horses and she said to him as if she had met him the night before:
“Good-morrow, Victor — are you quite well, the same as ever?”
“I’m quite well, the same as ever — and how are you?”
“Oh, I’d be all right, only that I’m alone in the house, which bothers me on account of the farm.”
Then they remained chatting for a long time, leaning against the wheel of the heavy cart. The man every now and then lifted up his cap to scratch his forehead and began thinking, while she, with flushed cheeks, went on talking warmly, told him about her views, her plans; her projects for the future. At last he said in a low tone:
“Yes, it can be done.”
She opened her hand like a countryman clinching a bargain and asked:
“Is it agreed?”
He pressed her outstretched hand.
“It’s settled, then, for next Sunday?”
“It’s settled for next Sunday”
“Well, good-morning, Victor.”
“Good-morning, Madame Houlbreque.”
This particular Sunday was the day of the village festival, the annual festival in honor of the patron saint, which in Normandy is called the assembly.
For the last eight days quaint-looking vehicles in which live the families of strolling fair exhibitors, lottery managers, keepers of shooting galleries and other forms of amusement or exhibitors of curiosities whom the peasants call “wonder-makers” could be seen coming along the roads drawn slowly by gray or sorrel horses.
The dirty wagons with their floating curtains, accompanied by a melancholy-looking dog, who trotted, with his head down, between the wheels, drew up one after the other on the green in front of the town hall. Then a tent was erected in front of each ambulant abode, and inside this tent could be seen, through the holes in the canvas, glittering things which excited the envy or the curiosity of the village youngsters.
As soon as the morning of the fete arrived all the booths were opened, displaying their splendors of glass or porcelain, and the peasants on their way to mass looked with genuine satisfaction at these modest shops which they saw again, nevertheless, each succeeding year.
Early in the afternoon there was a crowd on the green. From every neighboring village the farmers arrived, shaken along with their wives and children in the two-wheeled open chars-a-bancs, which rattled along, swaying like cradles. They unharnessed at their friends’ houses and the farmyards were filled with strange-looking traps, gray, high, lean, crooked, like long-clawed creatures from the depths of the sea. And each family, with the youngsters in front and the grown-up ones behind, came to the assembly with tranquil steps, smiling countenances and open hands, big hands, red and bony, accustomed to work and apparently tired of their temporary rest.
A clown was blowing a trumpet. The barrel-organ accompanying the carrousel sent through the air its shrill jerky notes. The lottery-wheel made a whirring sound like that of cloth tearing, and every moment the crack of the rifle could be heard. And the slow-moving throng passed on quietly in front of the booths resembling paste in a fluid condition, with the motions of a flock of sheep and the awkwardness of heavy animals who had escaped by chance.
The girls, holding one another’s arms in groups of six or eight, were singing; the youths followed them, making jokes, with their caps over their ears and their blouses stiffened with starch, swollen out like blue balloons.
The whole countryside was there — masters, laboring men and women servants.
Old Amable himself, wearing his old-fashioned green frock coat, had wished to see the assembly, for he never failed to attend on such an occasion.
He looked at the lotteries, stopped in front of the shooting galleries to criticize the shots and interested himself specially in a very simple game which consisted in throwing a big wooden ball into the open mouth of a mannikin carved and painted on a board.
Suddenly he felt a tap on his shoulder. It was Daddy Malivoire, who exclaimed:
“Ha, daddy! Come and have a glass of brandy.”
And they sat down at the table of an open-air restaurant.
They drank one glass of brandy, then two, then three, and old Amable once more began wandering through the assembly. His thoughts became slightly confused, he smiled without knowing why, he smiled in front of the lotteries, in front of the wooden horses and especially in front of the killing game. He remained there a long time, filled with delight, when he saw a holiday-maker knocking down the gendarme or the cure, two authorities whom he instinctively distrusted. Then he went back to the inn and drank a glass of cider to cool himself. It was late, night came on. A neighbor came to warn him:
“You’ll get back home late for the stew, daddy.”
Then he set out on his way to the farmhouse. A soft shadow, the warm shadow of a spring night, was slowly descending on the earth.
When he reached the front door he thought he saw through the window which was lighted up two persons in the house. He stopped, much surprised, then he went in, and he saw Victor Lecoq seated at the table, with a plate filled with potatoes before him, taking his supper in the very same place where his son had sat.
And he turned round suddenly as if he wanted to go away. The night was very dark now. Celeste started up and shouted at him:
“Come quick, daddy! Here’s some good stew to finish off the assembly with.”
He complied through inertia and sat down, watching in turn the man, the woman and the child. Then he began to eat quietly as on ordinary days.
Victor Lecoq seemed quite at home, talked from time to time to Celeste, took up the child in his lap and kissed him. And Celeste again served him with food, poured out drink for him and appeared happy while speaking to him. Old Amable’s eyes followed them attentively, though he could not hear what they were saying.
When he had finished supper (and he had scarcely eaten anything, there was such a weight at his heart) he rose up, and instead of ascending to his loft as he did every night he opened the gate of the yard and went out into the open air.
When he had gone, Celeste, a little uneasy, asked:
“What is he going to do?”
Victor replied in an indifferent tone:
“Don’t bother yourself. He’ll come back when he’s tired.”
Then she saw after the house, washed the plates and wiped the table, while the man quietly took off his clothes. Then he slipped into the dark and hollow bed in which she had slept with Cesaire.
The yard gate opened and old Amable again appeared. As soon as he entered the house he looked round on every side with the air of an old dog on the scent. He was in search of Victor Lecoq. As he did not see him, he took the candle off the table and approached the dark niche in which his son had died. In the interior of it he perceived the man lying under the bed clothes and already asleep. Then the deaf man noiselessly turned round, put back the candle and went out into the yard.
Celeste had finished her work. She put her son into his bed, arranged everything and waited for her father-in-law’s return before lying down herself.
She remained sitting on a chair, without moving her hands and with her eyes fixed on vacancy.
As he did not come back, she murmured in a tone of impatience and annoyance:
“This good-for-nothing old man will make us burn four sous’ worth of candles.”
Victor answered from under the bed clothes:
“It’s over an hour since he went out. We ought to see whether he fell asleep on the bench outside the door.”
“I’ll go and see,” she said.
She rose up, took the light and went out, shading the light with her hand in order to see through the darkness.
She saw nothing in front of the door, nothing on the bench, nothing on the dung heap, where the old man used sometimes to sit in hot weather.
But, just as she was on the point of going in again, she chanced to raise her eyes toward the big apple tree, which sheltered the entrance to the farmyard, and suddenly she saw two feet — two feet at the height of her face belonging to a man who was hanging.
She uttered terrible cries:
“Victor! Victor! Victor!”
He ran out in his shirt. She could not utter another word, and turning aside her head so as not to see, she pointed toward the tree with her outstretched arm.
Not understanding what she meant, he took the candle in order to find out, and in the midst of the foliage lit up from below he saw old Amable hanging high up with a stable-halter round his neck.
A ladder was leaning against the trunk of the apple tree.
Victor ran to fetch a bill-hook, climbed up the tree and cut the halter. But the old man was already cold and his tongue protruded horribly with a frightful grimace.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:53