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."