Two years had passed in the busy yet monotonous life on the land; and with the inevitable return of the seasons, Rognes had gone through the eternal round of things, the same labouring, the same slumbering.
Down on the road, at the school corner, there was a fountain of running water where all the women went to get their table water, the houses having ponds only for the cattle and for watering. At six o’clock in the evening, that was where the latest local news was exchanged; the most trivial events found an echo there, they indulged in endless commentaries on who had eaten meat or which couple’s daughter had been pregnant since Candlemas. Over those two years, the same gossip had come and gone with the seasons, returning and being repeated, always babies made too early, drunken men, battered wives, a lot of work for a lot of misery. So many things had happened—and nothing at all!
The Fouans, whose relinquishment of their property had once fascinated them, were scraping by, so quietly that they were forgotten. The situation had not changed: Buteau was digging his heels in and still had not married the elder of the Mouche girls, who was bringing up his child. It was the same with Jean, whom people had accused of sleeping with Lise: perhaps he wasn’t sleeping with her, but then why did he keep hanging around the two sisters’ house? It seemed fishy. But the hour at the fountain would have been very dull, on some days, without the rivalry between Cœlina Macqueron and Flore Lengaigne, whom Bécu’s wife pitted against each other while pretending to reconcile them. Then, when everything was really calm, two major events burst upon them: the coming elections and the issue of the famous road from Rognes to Châteaudun, both of which events blew in a gale of gossip. The full pitchers sat lined up, the women simply could not leave. One Saturday evening, they almost came to blows.
As it happened, the very next day Monsieur de Chédeville, the outgoing deputy, was having lunch at La Borderie with Hourdequin. The deputy was on his electoral tour, and was showing Hourdequin great consideration, since he had a lot of influence over the peasants in the district; he was certain to be re-elected, though, thanks to his status as the official candidate. He had once been to Compiègne,* and was known by everyone as ‘the Emperor’s friend’, and that was enough: he had been appointed as though he slept every night at the Tuileries.* p. 119↵This Monsieur de Chédeville, a ladies’ man in his younger days and a leading light during the reign of Louis-Philippe, nurtured Orléanist sympathies in his heart of hearts. He had ruined himself with women, and now owned only his farm, La Chamade, near Orgères, but he never set foot there except at election time, dissatisfied as he was, what’s more, with the farm rents, which were going down, and seized as he was, rather belatedly, with the practical notion of remaking his fortune in business. Tall, still elegant, his chest tightly corseted and his hair dyed, he had settled down, in spite of the fact that his eyes smouldered whenever the latest bit of skirt went by. He was, he said, preparing important speeches on agricultural issues.
The day before, Hourdequin had had a violent quarrel with Jacqueline, who wanted to be at the lunch.
‘Your deputy! Your deputy! Do you think I’d eat him? You’re ashamed of me, aren’t you?’
But he held firm, only two places were set, and she was sulking, despite the gallant air of Monsieur de Chédeville who, having caught a glimpse of her, had understood and constantly turned his gaze towards the kitchen, where she had gone to shut herself away to preserve her dignity. Lunch was drawing to a close, an omelette followed by a trout from the Aigre, and roast pigeons.
‘What’s killing us,’ said Monsieur de Chédeville, ‘is this free trade the Emperor’s so keen on. No doubt things worked well after the treaties of 1861,* people hailed it as a miracle. But it’s now that the real effects are being felt. You can see how prices are plummeting everywhere. I’m for protection, we need to defend ourselves against foreigners.’
Hourdequin had stopped eating and was leaning back in his chair, with a vacant look in his eyes. He said slowly:
‘Wheat is selling at under two and a half francs a bushel and costs over two francs to produce.* If it goes down any further, we’ll be ruined. And every year, they say, America increases its cereal exports. We’re facing a real flooding of the market. What will become of us then? Look, I’ve always been for progress, for science and freedom. Well, now I’m not so sure, I can tell you! Yes, indeed, we can’t starve, we must be protected!’
He went back to his pigeon wing and continued:
‘You know that your rival, Monsieur Rochefontaine, the owner of the Châteaudun building yards, is a fervent free trader?’
p. 120↵They chatted for a moment about the industrialist, who employed twelve hundred workers, a tall, intelligent, dynamic young man, and very wealthy too, perfectly ready to serve the Empire, but so hurt at not getting the prefect’s support that he’d gone ahead and set himself up as an independent candidate. He had no chance, for the peasants viewed anyone who was not on the winning side as a public enemy.
‘Yes, damn it!’ Monsieur de Chédeville went on, ‘he wants only one thing, and that’s for bread to be cheap so he can pay his workers less.’
The farmer, who was about to pour himself a glass of Bordeaux, put the bottle back on the table.
‘That’s what’s so terrible!’ he cried. ‘On the one hand, there’s the rest of us, the peasants, who need to sell our grain at a decent price. On the other, there’s industry, driving prices down to cut wages. It’s out-and-out war. How will it end? Tell me that!’
This was, indeed, the alarming problem of the day, the antagonism that was splitting the social body in two. The issue far exceeded the capabilities of the old rake, who contented himself with shaking his head while giving an evasive wave of the hand.
Hourdequin, having filled his glass, emptied it in one go.
‘It can’t end... If the peasant sells his wheat properly, the worker dies of hunger; if the worker eats, it’s the peasant who goes under. So, what then? I don’t know, why don’t we just gobble each other up and have done with it!’
With both elbows on the table, he launched into the subject, fiercely blowing off steam; and his secret contempt for this landowner who grew nothing, who knew nothing about the land he lived off, could be felt in a certain ironic vibration in his voice.
‘You asked me for facts to use for your speeches... Well, to begin with, it’s your fault if La Chamade is losing money. Robiquet, the farmer you’ve got there, is letting things slide because his lease is coming to an end and he suspects you intend to put the rent up. People never see you, they laugh at you and rob you, nothing could be more natural. Then, there’s a simpler reason why you’re going to rack and ruin: it’s because we’re all being ruined, it’s that the Beauce is being worked to death. Yes! The fertile Beauce, our Mother Earth!’
He wasn’t finished. In his youth, for instance, the Perche, on the other side of the Loir, had been a poor area, with little farming and almost no wheat, whose inhabitants came and hired themselves out p. 121↵for the harvest, in Cloyes, Châteaudun, and Bonneval. Today, thanks to the constant rise in labour costs, the Perche was prospering and would soon overtake the Beauce; without counting the fact that it was getting rich through stock breeding, the markets at Mondoubleau, Saint-Calais, and Courtelain providing the flat country with horses, bullocks, and pigs. The Beauce, on the other hand, lived solely off its sheep. Two years earlier, when they’d been decimated by the pest, it had gone through a terrible crisis, to the point where, if the disease had gone on, it would have been destroyed.
And he started on his own struggle, his own story, his thirty-year battle with the land which had left him poorer. He’d always lacked the capital, he hadn’t been able to fertilize certain fields the way he’d have liked, marling alone was relatively inexpensive but he was the only one who was interested in using it. It was the same story with manure; they used only the farm’s manure, which wasn’t enough: all the neighbours scoffed when they saw him trying chemical fertilizers, and they were of such bad quality, what’s more, that they often proved the scoffers right. Despite his ideas on crop rotation, he’d had to adopt the local, three-course system, without leaving land fallow, since artificial meadows and the growing of weed crops had spread. Just one machine, the threshing machine, was starting to be accepted. It was the deadly, inevitable sluggishness of habit; and if he, progressive and intelligent as he was, was held back in this way, what would it mean for all the thickheaded small landowners, so hostile to new ways? A peasant would die of hunger rather than pick up a handful of dirt from his field and take it to be analysed by a chemist, who would tell him what it had too much of or not enough of, the manuring it required, the crop that would be likely to succeed in it. For centuries, the peasant took from the earth without dreaming of giving anything back in return, knowing only the manure from his two cows and his horse, with which he was very sparing. The rest was left to chance, the seed was sown anywhere, germinating at random, and if it didn’t germinate it was God who was to blame. The day when the peasant farmer, educated at last, went in for rational, scientific farming, production would double. But until then, ignorant, pig-headed, without a sou of capital, he’d destroy the land. And that was how the Beauce, the age-old granary of France, flat and waterless, and which only had its wheat, was slowly dying of exhaustion, tired of being bled dry and feeding a population of idiots.
p. 122↵‘Everything’s going to the dogs!’ he cried bitterly. ‘Yes, our sons will see the land go bankrupt... Do you know that our peasants, who once saved up sou by sou to buy a pocket handkerchief of land, coveted for years, now invest in stocks and shares, from the Spaniards, the Portuguese, even the Mexicans? Yet they wouldn’t risk a five-franc piece to fertilize a couple of acres! They’ve lost all confidence, the fathers go round and round in their routine like foundering animals, and the young men and girls dream only of getting away from looking after the cows and getting their hands dirty with farm work, in order to race off to town... But the worst of it is that education—you know! good old education that ought to save the whole thing—stokes this emigration, this depopulation of the countryside, by making children stupidly conceited and giving them a false taste for creature comforts... You know, in Rognes they’ve got a teacher, called Lequeu, a country lad who’s escaped the plough and is full of bitterness towards the land he was nearly forced to work on. Well, how can you expect him to get his pupils to be happy about their situation when every day he calls them savages and brutes and sends them back to the family dungheap with the contempt of someone who can read and write? The remedy, my God! The remedy would clearly be to have different kinds of schools, practical teaching, graded courses in agriculture... There, Monsieur le Député, is a fact I point out to you. Insist on it, salvation may well lie in the schools, if there’s still time.’
Monsieur de Chédeville, distracted, most uneasy under this violent barrage of information, hastened to respond.
‘No doubt, no doubt.’
As the maid had brought dessert, a fatty cheese and some fruit, leaving the door to the kitchen wide open, he spotted Jacqueline’s pretty profile, leaned forward, winked and moved about to attract the attention of this rather attractive creature, then went on in the fluted voice of a former ladykiller:
‘But you haven’t said anything about the smallholder?’
He mouthed the current standard ideas: the smallholder was born in 1789, protected by the code civil,* and called on to regenerate agriculture; in a word, everyone was a landowner, each man putting his intelligence and energy into cultivating his plot of land.
‘Don’t make me laugh!’ Hourdequin declared. ‘In the first place, smallholdings existed before ’89, and in almost as big a ratio. p. 123↵Secondly, there’s a lot to be said about dividing up the land, both for and against.’
Elbows on the table once again, eating cherries and spitting out the pips, he went into details. In the Beauce, the smallholding, the property of less than fifty acres handed down as a legacy, used to make up eighty per cent. For some time now, nearly all the day labourers, the ones that used to hire themselves out on the farms, had been buying parcels of land, plots from big estates which had been carved up and which they farmed in their spare time. That, certainly, was excellent, since the worker found himself attached to the land that way. And it might be added, in favour of the smallholding, that it made men more dignified, prouder, better educated. Lastly, it yielded more proportionally, and of better quality, since the landowner gave it his all. But, otherwise, what a lot of drawbacks! First, the superior production was due to excessive work; father, mother, and children killed themselves on the job, toiling away. In addition, by multiplying the need for transport, division damaged the roads and increased the costs of production, to say nothing of the time wasted. As for the use of machines, it seemed out of the question for plots that were too small, which also had the defect of necessitating the three-course system, a system science would certainly ban, as it wasn’t logical to demand two cereals in a row—oats and wheat. In short, wholesale division seemed to have become such a danger that after promoting it as law, just after the Revolution, for fear that the great estates would be restored, they’d now gone as far as encouraging exchanges of land by providing tax relief on them.
‘Listen,’ he continued, ‘the fight has set in between large-scale and small-scale farming, and it’s getting worse. Some, like me, are for big farms, because that seems to be in line with scientific progress, with greater use of machines and the circulation of a lot of capital. The others, on the contrary, believe only in individual effort and favour smallholdings; they dream of I don’t know what kind of miniature farming, with everyone producing his own manure and looking after his quarter-acre, sorting his seeds one by one, giving them the soil they require, then growing each plant separately, under a bell glass... Which of the two will carry the day? Devil if I know! What I do know, as I was saying, is that every year big ruined farms are carved up around me into little black strips, and the smallholding is definitely gaining ground. I know of a very curious example, p. 124↵in Rognes, of an old woman who manages to make a good living, with even a few luxuries, out of less than an acre, for herself and her husband—Old Mother Poo, as they call her, because she doesn’t mind emptying her chamber pot and her old man’s on her vegetables, according to the Chinese method apparently. But that’s hardly anything more than gardening, and I can’t see cereals growing on little garden plots like turnips; and if the peasant has got to produce a bit of everything to be self-sufficient, what will become of our Beaucerons, who can only produce one kind of wheat, once our Beauce is carved up into a draughtboard? Well, only time will tell whether the future belongs to large-scale or small-scale farming...’
He broke off and shouted:
‘What about that coffee, any chance of getting it today?’
Then he lit his pipe and concluded:
‘Unless we kill them both off straight away—and that’s what we’re in the process of doing... You must realize, Monsieur le Député, that agriculture is on its deathbed, and will certainly die, if we don’t come to its aid. Everything is dragging it down, taxes, foreign competition, the constant rise in the cost of labour, the movement of capital into industry and stocks and shares. Oh, of course, there are plenty of promises, every man and his dog is full of them, the prefects, the ministers, the Emperor... And then the dust settles and nothing happens... Do you want the real truth? Nowadays, any farmer who manages to keep his head above water is doing it by spending his own money or somebody else’s. I’ve got a few sous tucked away, I’m all right. But I know some who borrow at six per cent when their land doesn’t even yield three! They’re bound to go under very soon. A peasant who borrows is finished, he won’t even be left with the shirt on his back. Just the other week, they evicted one of my neighbours, the father, mother, and four children thrown onto the street, after the lawyers had gobbled up his cattle, his land, and his house. And yet we’ve been promised for years that an agricultural credit system would be set up at reasonable rates. Yes! But has anything happened?... It puts off even good workers, they’re actually in two minds before giving their wives a baby. No thanks! One more mouth to feed, another poor little sod who’d have been better off not being born than dying of hunger! When there isn’t enough bread to go round, you stop having children and the nation goes down the drain!’
‘You can’t be accused of looking on the bright side.’
‘That’s true, there are days when I’d chuck it all in,’ Hourdequin cheerfully replied. ‘And it’s been like this for thirty years! I don’t know why I’ve kept at it, I ought to have got rid of the farm and done something else. Habit, no doubt, and the hope that things will change, and also the passion involved, I might as well admit it. When the bloody land gets its claws into you, it never lets go... Look! See on the sideboard over there? It may well be ridiculous, but I feel consoled when I see that.’
He pointed to a silver cup, protected from flies by a piece of muslin, the first prize in an agricultural show. These shows, where he always won a prize, spurred his vanity, one of the reasons why he kept going.
Despite his guest’s evident weariness, he took his time drinking his coffee; and he was pouring cognac into his cup for the third time when, having pulled out his watch, he leapt to his feet.
‘Bugger! Two o’clock, and I’ve got a meeting of the local council... Yes, it’s about a road. We agree all right to pay half, but we’d like to get a government subsidy for the rest.’
Monsieur de Chédeville had risen from his chair, happy to be released.
‘Well, I can help you there, I’ll get your subsidy for you... Would you like me to take you to Rognes in my cabriolet, since you’re in a hurry?’
And Hourdequin went out to see that the carriage, which had remained in the yard, was hitched up. When he came back, the deputy was no longer there; he spun round and spotted him in the kitchen. He had pushed open the door and was standing there, smiling, before a beaming Jacqueline, and was complimenting her at such close range that their faces were practically touching: both had caught each other’s scent, had understood each other, and were telling each other so, in one unambiguous glance.
When Monsieur de Chédeville had climbed into the cabriolet, La Cognette held Hourdequin back for a moment, to whisper in his ear.
‘See? He’s nicer than you, he obviously doesn’t think I should be hidden away.’
p. 126↵En route, while the carriage was rolling along between the patches of wheat, the farmer started on the land again, his eternal concern. He now offered written notes and figures, since he had been keeping accounts for the last few years. Throughout the Beauce hardly anyone did so, and the smallholders, the peasant farmers, would shrug their shoulders without even understanding. Yet only accounts established the situation, indicating clearly the products that made a profit and those that made a loss; on top of that, they gave the cost price and consequently the sale price. In Hourdequin’s reckoning, each labourer, each animal, each crop, each tool even, had its page, its two columns, Debits and Credits, so that he was constantly up to date with his operations, good or bad.
‘At least’, he said with his coarse laugh, ‘I know how I’m going bankrupt.’
But he broke off with a muttered curse. For a few minutes now, as the cabriolet was rolling along, he’d been trying to make sense of a scene in the distance, by the side of the road. Although it was Sunday, he’d sent a mechanical haymaker he’d recently bought over there to toss a section of lucerne that needed doing urgently. The farmhand, not being on his guard, failed to recognize his master in the unfamiliar carriage and kept on joking about the machine with three peasants he’d stopped on the way.
‘Look!’ he was saying. ‘There’s a pile of junk for you! It tears the grass up and poisons it. I’m telling you! Three sheep have already died because of it.’
The peasants sniggered and studied the haymaker as if it were a strange, vicious animal. One of them declared:
‘This is all the devil’s invention against us poor folk... What will our women do if we don’t need them for the haymaking?’
‘Ah well, a lot the masters care!’ the farmhand went on, directing a kick at the machine. ‘Giddy up, then, you bag of bones!’
Hourdequin had heard all this. He leaned out of the carriage and cried:
‘Go back to the farm, Zéphyrin, and pick up your pay!’
The farmhand stood there, stunned, and the three peasants went off, letting out loud, insulting jeers.
‘There you go!’ said Hourdequin, letting himself fall back on the seat. ‘You saw that. You’d think our sophisticated machinery burnt their hands. They call me bourgeois, and they put less work in on my p. 127↵farm than on the others, just because they reckon I’ve got enough to pay dear. And they’re backed by my neighbours, the other farmers, who accuse me of teaching them to do substandard work around the place, furious because, they say, they soon won’t be able to find anyone to work for them like in the good old days.’
The cabriolet was coming into Rognes via the Bazoches-le-Doyen road when the deputy spotted the Abbé Godard coming out of Macqueron’s place, where he had had lunch that Sunday, after his Mass. His concern for re-election took hold of him again and he asked:
‘And what about the religious spirit in the country round about?’
‘Oh! They go to Mass, but basically it means nothing!’ answered Hourdequin casually.
He had the coachman pull up outside the tavern owned by Macqueron, who stood at the door with the priest; and he introduced the deputy mayor, who was dressed in an old greasy grey jacket. But Cœlina, who was very proper in her Indian cotton dress, ran up, pushing her daughter Berthe in front of her. Berthe, the pride of the family, was decked out like a lady in a silk gown with thin mauve stripes. During this time, the village, which had seemed dead, as though made lazy by such a lovely Sunday, woke up with a start at this extraordinary visit. Peasants emerged from their houses one after the other and children ventured out from behind their mothers’ skirts. At Lengaigne’s especially, there was a stir, with Lengaigne sticking his head out, razor in hand, and his wife Flore stopping the weighing of four sous’ worth of tobacco to plaster her face against the window, both of them rankling, enraged to see that these gentlemen were getting out at their rival’s door. Little by little, people approached, groups began to form; Rognes knew already, from one end to the other, about this momentous event.
‘Monsieur le Député,’ Macqueron repeated, very red in the face and awkward, ‘this is truly an honour...’
But Monsieur de Chédeville wasn’t listening, ravished as he was at Berthe’s pretty looks, her pale eyes, with their faint bluish circles, boldly watching him. Her mother gave her age and talked about where she’d gone to school, while the girl herself smiled and bowed and invited Monsieur to step inside, if he would be so good.
‘But of course, my dear child!’ he cried.
During this time, the Abbé Godard had grabbed hold of Hourdequin, and begged him yet again to persuade the local council p. 128↵to vote for the funds so that Rognes could finally have a resident priest. Every six months he turned up and laid out his reasons: the effort involved for him and his constant quarrels with the village, to say nothing of the interests of religion.
‘Don’t say no!’ he added vehemently, seeing the farmer make an evasive wave of the hand. ‘Bring it up anyway, I’ll be expecting an answer.’
And just as Monsieur de Chédeville was about to follow Berthe, he rushed over and stopped him, in his good-natured but stubborn manner.
‘Forgive me, Monsieur le Député. The poor church here is in such a state! I’d like to show you, you must arrange repairs. They won’t listen to me... Please come.’
Most annoyed, the old rake was resisting when Hourdequin, learning from Macqueron that several councillors were at the town hall and had been waiting for him for half an hour, stepped in with characteristic insensitivity.
‘That’s right, go and have a look at the church, then... That’ll kill time until I’ve finished, and then you can take me home.’
Monsieur de Chédeville was forced to follow the priest. The groups had grown and several villagers set off behind him. They were getting bolder, everyone was thinking of asking him for something.
When Hourdequin and Macqueron had gone up into the council chambers, in the town hall opposite, they found only three councillors there, Delhomme and two others. The limewashed room was vast and furnished only with a long whitewood table and a dozen straw-bottomed chairs; fastened to the wall between the two windows, which looked on to the road, was a cupboard in which the archives were kept, along with assorted administrative documents; and on wooden shelves round the walls were piles of tin fire buckets, a donation from a burgher for which they had been unable to find a storage place, and so they remained in the way and quite useless, since there was no pump.
‘Gentlemen,’ Hourdequin said politely, ‘my apologies, I had to have lunch with Monsieur de Chédeville.’
No one reacted, it wasn’t clear whether they accepted this excuse. They’d looked out of the window and seen the deputy arrive, and they all had strong views about the coming election; but none of them wanted to talk about it straight away.
Luckily Lengaigne came in. Initially he’d resolved not to go to the council meeting, because the issue of the road didn’t interest him; he was even hoping his absence would prevent a vote. Then Monsieur de Chédeville had turned up and, bitten by curiosity, he decided to come just to see.
‘Right! There are six of us, we can take a vote,’ declared the mayor.
Lequeu, who acted as secretary, now made his appearance, looking haughty and glum, with the minute book under his arm, and so nothing further held up the opening of the sitting. But Delhomme had started chatting in a low voice with his neighbour, Clou, the blacksmith, a tall man, lean and dark. As everyone else was listening to them, they shut up. But they had all overheard a name, that of the independent candidate, Monsieur Rochefontaine, and although they’d all been in two minds beforehand, they now sounded each other out—with a word, a snigger, a simple grimace—and then began to attack this candidate, whom they didn’t even know. They were for law and order, for maintaining the status quo, the obedience to authority that ensured a strong market. Did this gentleman think he was stronger than the government? Would he see to it that wheat climbed back up to three and a half francs a bushel? He had a nerve, sending out pamphlets, promising more butter than bread when he had no commitments to anything or anybody. They went so far as to call him an adventurer and a crook, combing the villages just to steal their votes just as he would have stolen their money. Hourdequin could have explained to them that as a free trader Monsieur Rochefontaine was, at bottom, of the same mind as the Emperor, but he was happy to let Macqueron display his Bonapartist zeal and for Delhomme to hold forth in his simple, blinkered way; while Lengaigne, whose position as the holder of a tobacco licence kept his mouth shut, grumbled in a corner, choking back his vague republican ideas. Although Monsieur de Chédeville was not named once, everything said was directed towards him, as if grovelling before his status as an official candidate.
‘Come, gentlemen,’ the mayor resumed, ‘why don’t we make a start?’
He had sat down at the head of the table, in his special chair with its broader back and its armrests. Only his deputy sat down next to p. 130↵him. Two of the four councillors remained standing, two leant on a windowsill.
But Lequeu handed the mayor a slip of paper and whispered something in his ear before leaving the room in a dignified fashion.
‘Gentlemen,’ said Hourdequin, ‘here’s a letter the schoolmaster has submitted to us.’
A reading was given. It was a request for a salary rise of thirty francs a year in light of the amount of work he had to undertake. Every countenance darkened, they showed themselves to be miserly with the municipality’s money, especially in relation to the school, as though the money came out of their own pockets. There wasn’t even a discussion, the request was rejected outright.
‘Good! We’ll tell him he must wait. He’s in too much of a hurry, that young man... And now let’s tackle the business of the road...’
‘Excuse me, Monsieur le Maire,’ Macqueron interrupted, ‘I’d like to say a word about the presbytery...’
Hourdequin, taken aback, realized why the Abbé Godard had had lunch with the innkeeper. What ambition was driving Macqueron, for him to put himself forward like that? Anyway, his proposal suffered the same fate as the schoolmaster’s request. He could stress all he liked that they were rich enough to pay for their own priest, that it was hardly reputable to make do with the leavings of Bazoches-le-Doyen: they all shrugged their shoulders, asked if Mass would be any better. No, it would not! The presbytery would have to be repaired, having their own priest would cost too much; and half an hour of the other one, every Sunday, was enough.
Hurt by his deputy’s initiative, the mayor concluded:
‘There is no case, the council has already made a decision. And now to our roadway, we must wind this business up. Delhomme, please be good enough to call Monsieur Lequeu. Does the wretched man think we’re going to spend the whole day discussing his letter?’
Lequeu, who had been waiting on the stairs, stepped in looking grave; and since he wasn’t informed of the fate of his request, he remained pinched, anxious, heaving with mute insults: ah, these peasants! What a foul race! They asked him to fetch the plan of the road out of the cupboard and place it on the table.
The council was very familiar with this plan. For years it had been lying around there. But that didn’t prevent them all from gathering round and pondering over it once more, elbows on the table. The p. 131↵mayor rattled off the advantages for Rognes: a gentle slope allowing carriages to climb up to the church; five miles shaved off the current road to Châteaudun which went through Cloyes; and the municipality would only be responsible for two miles of it, their Blanville neighbours having already voted for the other section, up to the junction with the main road from Châteaudun to Orléans. They heard him out, eyes glued to the paper, without one of them uttering a word. What had stopped the project from going ahead was above all the question of compensation. Each of them saw a fortune to be made and was anxious to know whether one of his own patches of land was affected and whether he could sell his land at a hundred francs a throw to the municipality. And if one of his fields wasn’t eaten into, why would he go and vote for the enrichment of others? And who cared about the more gentle slope and the shorter road! The horses would have to pull harder, that’s all!
So Hourdequin didn’t need to invite discussion to know their views. He himself was keen on the road only because it passed in front of the farm and gave access to several of his plots. Similarly, Macqueron and Delhomme, whose turf would border on the road, were pushing for a vote. That made three, but neither Clou nor the other councillor had any interest in the question; and as for Lengaigne, he was violently opposed to the project, firstly having nothing to gain by it, and then despairing lest his rival, the deputy mayor, profited in some way. If Clou and the other councillor were undecided and voted the wrong way, they would be three against three. Hourdequin was getting anxious. At last the discussion began.
‘What’s the point? What the point?’ Lengaigne kept saying. ‘We’ve already got a road! It’s just for the fun of spending money, robbing Peter to pay Paul. And you, you promised to make a gift of your land.’
That was a sly dig at Macqueron. But the latter, now bitterly regretting his fit of liberality, lied through his teeth.
‘I never promised any such thing. Who told you that?’
‘Who? You did, for God’s sake! And in front of everybody! Monsieur Lequeu was there, he can say... Can’t you, Monsieur Lequeu?’
The schoolmaster, who was enraged by being made to wait to hear his fate, made a brutally dismissive gesture. What business was it of his, their stupid bloody nonsense!
Seeing that things were going badly, the mayor hastened to intervene.
‘That’s all just blather. There’s no need to get into personal bickering. It’s the public interest, the common interest, that should guide us.’
‘Of course,’ Delhomme declared sagely. ‘The public road will do the whole municipality a great service. Only, we need to know. The prefect always tells us: Vote a sum of money, and we’ll see later on what the government can do for you. But if the government does nothing, what’s the point of wasting our time voting?’
Hourdequin thought it was now time he dropped his big news, which he was holding in reserve.
‘Speaking of that, gentlemen, I must tell you that Monsieur de Chédeville has promised he’ll get a subsidy from the government to cover half the cost. You know he’s a friend of the Emperor’s. He only has to talk to him about us. Over dessert.’
Even Lengaigne was floored by this and every face took on a blissfully stunned expression, as if the holy sacrament was passing. The deputy’s re-election was now assured: the Emperor’s friend was the right man, the one who was at the source of jobs and money, the man who was known, honourable, powerful, the master! Everyone simply nodded as the only possible response. These things went without saying, so why say them?
And yet, Hourdequin remained concerned by Clou’s silence. He got up and cast a glance outside; seeing the gamekeeper, he ordered him to go and find old Loiseau and bring him over, dead or alive. This Loiseau was a deaf old peasant, an uncle of Macqueron’s, who had had him elected to the council, but he never turned up to the meetings because, he said, it was too much bother. His son worked at La Borderie and he was completely devoted to the mayor. And so, as soon as he appeared, looking alarmed, the mayor contented himself with shouting, deep into his ear, that it was about the road. Already each councillor was clumsily writing on his ballot form, nose to paper, elbows out, so that no one could read. They then proceeded to cast their votes for half of the costs in a little whitewood box, similar to a church offertory box. The majority was overwhelming, there were six votes for and a single vote against—Lengaigne’s. p. 133↵That oaf Clou had voted the right way. The meeting closed after each man had signed the minute-book, which the schoolmaster had prepared in advance, leaving blank the result of the vote. They all lumbered off, without goodbyes, without handshakes, separating on the stairs.
‘Oh! I forgot,’ Hourdequin said to Lequeu, who was still waiting. ‘Your request for a rise has been turned down. The council feels that we already spend too much on the school.’
‘Bunch of brutes!’ the young man cried, green with bile, once he was on his own. ‘Go and live with your pigs, then!’
The meeting had lasted two hours and Hourdequin found Monsieur de Chédeville outside the town hall, only just back from his stroll around the village. At first, the priest hadn’t spared him even the smallest detail of the church’s decrepitude: the hole in the roof, the broken windows, the bare walls. Then, as he was finally escaping from the sacristy, which needed repainting, the locals, now quite emboldened, had fought over him and carted him off, wanting to present him with an urgent request or to obtain a favour. One of them had dragged him to the communal pond, which no longer got cleaned due to lack of money; another wanted a covered wash house on the banks of the Aigre, at a spot he pointed out; a third called for the widening of the road outside his door, so that he could turn his cart round; and finally an old woman who had dragged the deputy into her house showed him her swollen legs and asked if he knew of a cure for that in Paris. Agitated and out of breath, he smiled, put on a good-natured air, and made promises at every turn. Ah yes, a decent sort, not stuck-up when it came to poor folk!
‘So, shall we go?’ asked Hourdequin. ‘They’re expecting me at the farm.’
But just then, Cœlina and her daughter Berthe ran to their door again and begged Monsieur de Chédeville to step inside for a moment; he couldn’t have asked for anything more, breathing again at last, relieved once more to see the young girl’s pretty, pale, hurt-looking eyes.
‘No, no!’ the farmer said. ‘We’re in a hurry; some other time!’
And he forced the deputy, whose head was spinning, up into the cabriolet, while, in answer to a question from the priest, who was still there, he said that the council had taken no decision. The coachman whipped his horse and the carriage drove off, surrounded by p. 134↵delighted, beaming villagers. Left alone, the furious priest retraced his steps, trudging the two miles from Rognes to Bazoches-le-Doyen.
Two weeks later, Monsieur de Chédeville was elected with a big majority; and as early as the end of August, he kept his promise, the subsidy was granted to the commune for the opening of the new road. Work began immediately.
The evening of the day the first pick broke the earth, thin dark Cœlina was at the fountain listening to lanky Madame Bécu, who was sitting there with her hands folded under her apron, going on and on. For a week the fountain had been abuzz with the major business of the roadway: all anyone could talk about was the money granted to some and of the slanderous rage of others. And every day Bécu’s wife kept Cœlina abreast of what Flore Lengaigne was saying—not to annoy either of them, of course, but, quite the opposite, to get them to explain themselves, as that was the best way to get along. Women forgot the time completely as they stood there, their arms dangling, their water pitchers at their feet.
‘So, you see, just like that, she said it had all been arranged between the deputy and the mayor—so they would get a good rake-off on their land. And she also said your man wasn’t to be trusted...’
At that moment Flore came out of her house, pitcher in hand. When she reached them, fat and flabby, Cœlina immediately burst into foul language, fists on hips, and in her crude forthrightness let her have it, rubbing her slut of a daughter in her face and accusing Flore herself of sleeping with her customers. The latter, standing there like a fool and on the verge of tears, simply kept repeating:
‘What a bitch! What a bitch!’
Bécu’s wife threw herself between them and tried to get them to kiss and make up, which nearly made them grab each other’s hair. Then she delivered a piece of news.
‘By the way, you know the Mouche girls are going to get five hundred francs.’
As a result, the fight was forgotten, they all drew closer, abandoning their pitchers. Oh, yes! Up at Les Cornailles, the road ran alongside the Mouche girls’ field and was going to trim two hundred and fifty yards off it. At two francs a yard, that did indeed make five hundred francs; and, to cap it off, access to the road would make the land increase in value. It was a great stroke of luck.
‘Unless’, Cœlina added, ‘Buteau comes back... His share will also gain nicely, with the road.’
Bécu’s wife turned round and nudged them with her elbow.
Lise had turned up, gaily swinging her pitcher. And the line at the fountain began to form again.