The old priest was sputtering out the last words of his sermon over the white caps of the peasant women, and the rough or pomatumed heads of the men. The large baskets of the farmer’s wives who had come from a distance to attend mass, were on the ground beside them, and the heavy heat of a July day caused them all to exhale a smell like that of cattle, or of a flock of sheep, and the cocks could be heard crowing through the large west door, which was wide open, as well as the lowing of the cows in a neighboring field. . . . “As God wishes. Amen!” the priest said. Then he ceased, opened a book, and, as he did every week, he began to give notice of all the small parish events for the following week. He was an old man with white hair who had been in the parish for over forty years, and from the pulpit he was in the habit of discoursing familiarly to them all, and so he went on: “I recommend Désiré Vallin, who is very ill, to your prayers, and also la Paumelle, who is not recovering from her confinement satisfactorily.”
He had forgotten the rest, and so he looked for the slips of paper which were put away in a breviary, and at last he found two and continued: “I will not have the lads and the girls come into the churchyard in the evening, as they do; otherwise I shall inform the rural policeman. Monsieur Césaire Omont would like to find a respectable girl servant.” He reflected for a few moments, and then added: “That is all, my brethren, and I wish that all of you may find the Divine mercy.”
And he came down from the pulpit, to finish mass.
When the Malandains had returned to their cottage, which was the last in the village of La Sablière, on the road to Fourville, the father, a thin, wrinkled old peasant, sat down at the table, while his wife took the saucepan off the fire, and Adelaide, the daughter, took the glasses and plates out of the sideboard, and he said: “I think that place at Maître Omont’s ought to be a good one, as he is a widower and his daughter-inlaw does not like him. He is all alone and has money. I think it would be a good thing to send Adelaide there.”
His wife put the black saucepan onto the table, took the lid off, and while the steam, which smelt strongly of cabbage, rose into the air she reflected, and he presently continued: “He has got some money, that is certain, but any one going there ought to be very sharp, and Adelaide is not that at all.” And his wife replied: “I might go and see, all the same,” and turning to her daughter, a strapping, silly looking girl with yellow hair and fat red cheeks like apples, she said: “Do you hear, you great silly? You are to go to Maître Omont’s and offer yourself as his servant, and you will do whatever he tells you.”
The girl began to laugh in a foolish manner, without replying, and then all the three began their dinner. In ten minutes, the father continued: “Listen to me, girl, and try not to make a mistake about what I am going to say to you . . . ” And slowly and minutely he laid down for her her line of conduct, anticipating the minutest details, and preparing her for the conquest of an old widower who was on unfriendly terms with his family. The mother ceased eating to listen to him, and she sat there, with her fork in her hand, looking at her husband and her daughter by turns, and following every word with concentrated and silent attention, while Adelaide remained listless, docile and stupid, with vague and wandering eyes.
As soon as their meal was over, her mother made her put her cap on, and they both started off to see Monsieur Césaire Omont. He lived in a small brick house adjoining his tenants’ cottages, for he had retired, and was living by subdividing and letting his land.
He was about fifty-five years old, and was stout, jovial and rough mannered, as rich men often are. He laughed and shouted loud enough to make the walls fall down, drank brandy and cider by the glassful, and was still said to be of an amorous disposition, in spite of his age. He liked to walk about his fields with his hands behind his back, digging his wooden shoes into the fat soil, looking at the sprouting corn or the flowering colza with the eye of an amateur at his ease, who likes to see it, but does not trouble himself about it too much any longer, and they used to say of him: “There is a Mr. Merry-man, who does not get up in a good temper every day.”
He received the two women, with his fat stomach against the table, as he was finishing his coffee, and turning round he said: “What do you want?”
The mother was spokeswoman. “This is our girl Adelaide, and I have come to ask you to take her as servant, as Monsieur le curé told us you wanted one.” Maître Omont looked at the girl, and then he said roughly: “How old is the great she-goat?” “Twenty last Michaelmas–Day, Monsieur Omont.” “That is settled, she will have fifteen francs a month and her food. I shall expect her tomorrow, to make my soup in the morning.” And he dismissed the two women.
The next day Adelaide entered upon her duties, and began to work hard, without saying a word, as she was in the habit of doing at home, and at about nine o’clock, as she was scrubbing the kitchen floor, Monsieur Omont called her: “Adelaide!” She came immediately, saying: “Here I am, master.” As soon as she was opposite him, with her red and neglected hands, and her troubled looks, he said: “Now just listen to me, so that there may be no mistake between us. You are my servant, but nothing else; you understand what I mean. We shall keep our shoes apart.” “Yes, master.” “Each in our own place, my girl, you in your kitchen; I in my dining room, and with that exception, everything will be for you just as it is for me. Is that settled?” “Yes, master.” “Very well; that is all right, and now go to your work.”
And she went out to attend to her duties and at midday she served up her master’s dinner in the little drawing-room with the flowered paper on the walls, and then, when the soup was on the table, she went to tell him. “Dinner is ready, master.”
He went in, and sat down, looked round, unfolded his table napkin, hesitated for a moment and then in a voice of thunder he shouted: “Adelaide!” She rushed in terribly frightened, for he had shouted as if he meant to murder her. “Well, in heaven’s name, where is your place?” “But, . . . master . . . ” “I do not like to eat alone,” he roared; “you will sit there, or go to the devil, if you don’t choose to do so. Go and get your plate and glass.”
She brought them in, feeling very frightened, and stammered: “Here I am, master,” and then sat down opposite to him, and he grew jovial; clinked glasses with her, rapped the table, and told her stories to which she listened with downcast eyes, without daring to say a word, and from time to time she got up to fetch some bread, cider or plates. When she brought in the coffee she only put one cup before him, and then he grew angry again, and growled: “Well, what about yourself?” “I never take any, master.” “Why not?” “Because I do not like it.”
Then he burst out afresh: “I am not fond of having my coffee by myself, confound it! If you will not take it here, you can go to the devil. Go and get a cup, and make haste about it.”
So she went and fetched a cup, sat down again, tasted the black liquor and made faces over it, but swallowed it to the last drop, under her master’s furious looks. Then he made her also drink her first glass of brandy as an extra drop, the second as a livener and the third as a kick behind, and then he told her to go and wash up her plates and dishes, adding, that she was “a good sort of a girl.”
It was the same at dinner, and then she had to play dominoes with him, after which he sent her to bed, saying that he should come upstairs soon. And she went to her room, a garret under the roof, and after saying her prayers, she undressed and got into bed, but very soon she sprung up in a fright, for a furious shout had shaken the house. “Adelaide!” She opened her door, and replied from her attic: “Here I am, master.” “Where are you?” “In bed, of course, master.” Then he roared out: “Will you come downstairs, in heaven’s name? I do not like to sleep alone, and by G—— and if you object, you can just go at once.”
Then in her terror, she replied from upstairs: “I will come, master,” as she looked for her candle, and he heard her small clogs pattering down the stairs, and when she had got to the bottom steps, he seized her by the arm, and as soon as she had left her light wooden shoes by the side of her master’s heavy boots, he pushed her into his room, growling out: “Quicker than that, confound it!”
And she repeated continually, without knowing what she was saying: “Here I am, here I am, master.”
Six months later, when she went to see her parents one Sunday, her father looked at her curiously, and then said: “Are you not in the family way?” She remained thunderstruck, and looked at her waist, and then said: “No, I do not think so.”
Then he asked her, for he wanted to know everything: “Just tell me, didn’t you mix your clogs together, one night?” “Yes, I mixed them the first night, and then every other night.” “Well, then you are full, you great tub!”
On hearing that, she began to sob, and stammered: “How could I know? How was I to know?” Old Malandain looked at her knowingly, and appeared very pleased, and then he asked: “What did you not know?” And amid tears she replied: “How was I to know that children were made in that way?” And when her mother came back, the man said, without any anger: “There, she is in the family way, now.”
But the woman was furious, her woman’s instinct revolted, and she called her daughter, who was in tears, every name she could think of, “a trollop” and “a strumpet.” Then, however, the old man made her hold her tongue, and as he took up his cap to go and talk the matter over with Master Césaire Omont, he remarked: “She is actually more stupid than I thought she was; she did not even know what he was doing, the fool!”
On the next Sunday, after the sermon, the old Curé published the banns between Monsieur Onufre-Césaire Omont and Celesté-Adelaide Malandain.
Last updated Saturday, January 23, 2016 at 13:40