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p. 312Chapter 6locked

p. 312Chapter 6locked

  • Émile Zola

The week went by, but Françoise dug her heels in and refused to go back to her sister’s. There was a hideous scene in the street, when Buteau, who was dragging her by the hair, had to let go after she bit him savagely on the thumb. At that, Macqueron took fright and himself showed the girl the door, telling her that since he represented authority, he could not encourage her any further in her revolt.

But just then La Grande was passing by and she took Françoise with her. Eighty-eight years old, her only concern about her death was to leave her heirs both her fortune and the certainty of endless legal battles over it: an extraordinarily complicated will, made confusing for the sheer pleasure of it, meant that under the pretext of not doing wrong by anyone, she would force them to tear each other apart. Her idea, since she couldn’t take her goods and chattels with her, was to go off with the consolation at least of knowing that they would poison the rest of the family. She had no greater amusement than to see the family eat away at each other. So she hastened to get her niece to move in with her, hesitating for a moment because of her stinginess, but then immediately made up her mind at the thought of getting a lot of work out of the girl for very little bread. In fact, that very evening, she made the girl scrub the stairs and the kitchen. Then, when Buteau showed up, she stood firm, with her nasty old bird-of-prey beak; and the man who’d spoken of smashing Macqueron’s place to smithereens just stood there, shaking and stammering, paralysed by the hope of the inheritance, not daring to enter into battle with the terrible La Grande.

‘I need Françoise and I’m keeping her, since she doesn’t like it at your place. What’s more she’s of age now, and you’ve some accounts to settle with her. We’ll have to talk about that.’

Buteau left, furious, and horrified at the trouble he sensed coming.

A week later, in fact, towards the middle of August, Françoise turned twenty-one. She was her own mistress now. But she had hardly done more than swap one miserable situation for another, as she, too, trembled before her aunt and was wearing herself out working in the mean old woman’s cold house, where everything was supposed to shine by itself without money being spent on either soap or brush: clean water and elbow grease, that was enough. One day, having forgotten herself so far as to feed the hens a bit of seed, she almost p. 313had her head split open with a whack of the cane. People said that, anxious to spare the horses, La Grande would have her grandson, Hilarion, hitched up to the cart; and even if that story was invented, the truth was she treated him like an animal, hitting him, killing him with work, abusing his brute strength to the point of leaving him lying on his side, dead with fatigue, and so badly nourished on the same crusts and scraps as the pig, that he was always dying of hunger and cringing in terror. When Françoise realized that she was meant to become the second beast of burden, she had only one wish—to get away. And that was when the desire came to her, suddenly, to marry.

She wanted, simply, to have done with it. She’d rather have had herself killed than make up with Lise, unbending as she was with one of those ideas of justice that had taken hold of her as a child. Her cause was the only fair one and she despised herself for having waited so long; she kept quiet about Buteau, however, and spoke harshly only of her sister, without whom they could have continued living together under the same roof. Now that things had broken down, well and truly broken down, she lived with the sole thought of getting her property, her share of the inheritance. It obsessed her from morning till night, and she flew into a rage because there were endless formalities to go through. How could it be? This is mine, that’s yours, surely the whole thing could be settled in three minutes! Were they all in it together to rob her, then? She suspected the whole family and so reached the point where she told herself that only a man, a husband, would see her through. True, Jean didn’t own a square inch of land and he was fifteen years older than her. But there was no other young man around asking for her hand, not one of them would risk it possibly because of the goings-on at Buteau’s, no one wanted to cross him, he was so feared in Rognes. What else? She’d gone with Jean once; that was nothing, since nothing happened afterwards; only, he was really sweet, really decent. He would do since she didn’t love anyone else and she only needed one man, any man, it didn’t matter which one, to defend her and make Buteau wild with fury. She would have a man of her own.

Jean, for his part, still had strong feelings of friendship towards her. His desire to have her had subsided a lot, from wanting her so long. He nonetheless went back to her very sweetly, regarding himself as her man, as promises had been exchanged. He’d waited patiently p. 314till she came of age, respecting her wish not to be hurried, in fact preventing her from making things with Lise and Buteau even worse. Now she had more than enough reasons to have good people on her side. Also, while criticizing her for the abrupt way she’d left, he kept telling her she had the upper hand. And, well, when she felt like talking about the rest, he was ready.

The marriage was thereby settled, one evening when he had gone to meet her behind La Grande’s stable. There was a rotten old gate there that opened on to a dead end, and both of them stood leaning on it, him outside, her inside, with the stream of liquid manure running between their legs.

‘You know, Corporal,’ she said, looking into his eyes, ‘if you’re still willing, so am I now.’

He looked at her too and answered slowly:

‘I didn’t bring it up any more, because it would’ve looked as if I wanted your property. But you’re right, all the same, it’s time.’

Silence fell. He placed his hand on top of hers when she laid it on top of the gate. Then he went on:

‘And you mustn’t worry about La Cognette, because of the stories that went round. It’s three years now since I even laid a finger on her.’

‘Then, it’s like me,’ she declared. ‘I don’t want the idea of Buteau to bother you. The pig goes around telling everybody that he’s had me. You might even believe him?’

‘Everybody believes him,’ he murmured, avoiding the question.

But she kept looking at him, so he went on:

‘Yes, I did believe him. And, truthfully! I understood, because, knowing the bugger, there wasn’t much you could do to stop him.’

‘Oh! He tried, he’s felt me up enough! But if I swear he’s never gone all the way, do you believe me?’

‘I believe you.’

To show his pleasure, he managed to take hold of her hand, keeping it pressed in his, his arm propped on the gate. Seeing that the flow from the stable was wetting his shoes, he spread his legs apart.

‘You seemed happy enough to stay at his place, you might have enjoyed it, him grabbing hold of you...’

She became embarrassed, and her eyes, so frank and honest, looked down.

‘Especially as you didn’t want to do it any more with me, you remember? Never mind, that baby I was so angry about not making p. 315with you, it’s better that we’ve still got that to come. It’s much more decent.’

He broke off to point out that she was standing in the manure.

‘Look out, you’re getting wet.’

She spread her feet apart too, and said in conclusion:

‘So, we’re agreed.’

‘We’re agreed, any date you like, you decide.’

And they didn’t even kiss each other, they merely shook hands, like good friends, over the gate. Then they went their separate ways.

That evening, when Françoise told La Grande of her intention to marry Jean, explaining that she needed a man to help her recover her property, the old woman said nothing at first. She remained straight-backed, eyes round; she was calculating the loss, the gain, the pleasure she would get out of it; and only the next day did she approve the marriage. All night, on her straw bed, she’d turned the business over in her head, for she hardly slept at all any more, she would lie there with her eyes open till daybreak, dreaming up unpleasant things she could do to the family. This marriage seemed to her to be so heavy with consequences for everyone that she had burned over it with a truly youthful fever. Already she foresaw the smallest issues and intended to complicate them, make them deadly. She told her niece accordingly that she would take care of everything herself, out of friendship. She emphasized her words with a terrible brandishing of her stick: since she was being abandoned, she would be a mother to her; and that would show them!

First of all, La Grande summoned her brother, Fouan, and asked him to give an account of his guardianship. But the old man could not offer a word of explanation. It wasn’t his fault if he’d been named guardian; and, anyway, since Monsieur Baillehache had done everything, he was the man to talk to. What’s more, as soon as he realized they were working against the Buteaus, he exaggerated his confusion. Age and awareness of his vulnerability had left him distraught, cowardly, at everyone’s mercy. Why would he want to quarrel with the Buteaus? Twice already he’d nearly gone back to them, after nights spent quaking in his bed, terrified to see Jesus Christ and La Trouille prowling round his room, thrusting their bare arms right under the bolster, to steal his papers from him. It was clear they’d end up murdering him at the Chateau one night, if he didn’t make his escape. La Grande, unable to get anything out of him, sent him away terrified, p. 316shouting that he’d end up in court if they’d touched the girl’s share. She frightened Delhomme next, as a member of the family council, and he went back home feeling so ill that Fanny ran over behind his back to say they’d prefer to be out of pocket rather than have to deal with lawsuits. It was working, it was starting to be fun.

The question was whether to initiate the business of dividing the property first or to get on with the marriage without further ado. La Grande thought about it for two nights, then pronounced herself in favour of an immediate marriage: with Françoise married to Jean and claiming her share, assisted by her husband, Buteau’s troubles would only get worse. So she hurried things along, racing around like the young bitch she had been, took over her niece’s papers, got hold of Jean’s, settled the whole thing at the town hall and the church, and took her eagerness as far as lending the necessary money, against a paper they both signed in which the sum was doubled, to take care of the interest. What tore at her heart was the thought of the glasses of wine she’d have to offer as part of the preparations; but she had her special ‘family’ wine, so undrinkable that people hardly touched it. She decided there would be no meal, because of all the strife: the Mass and a glass of ‘family’ wine, that’s all, to toast the happiness of the bride and groom. The Charleses were invited but cried off, citing as an excuse the worries their son-in-law, Vaucogne, was causing them. Fouan, anxious, took to his bed, giving out that he was sick. And of the relatives, the only one who turned up was Delhomme, who was keen to be one of Françoise’s witnesses to mark the esteem in which he held Jean, who was a good sort. For his part, the latter brought only his witnesses, his master Hourdequin, and one of the labourers from the farm. Rognes was all agog, the wedding had been arranged in such a hurry and was fraught with so many battles that it was followed closely from every door. At the town hall, Macqueron, all puffed up with his own importance, spun out the formalities in the presence of his predecessor. At the church, there was a painful incident when the Abbé Madeline fainted as he was saying his Mass. He was not well, he’d been pining for his mountains ever since he’d begun living in the flat Beauce, distressed by the religious indifference of his new parishioners and so overwhelmed by the gossip and continual bickering between the women that he no longer even dared threaten them with hellfire. They had sensed that he was weak and took advantage of him to the point of bullying him over matters p. 317concerning the services. However, Cœlina and Flore, all the women, showed great compassion when he fell head first on the altar, and they declared that it was a sign of an early death for the wedding couple.

They decided that Françoise would continue to live at La Grande’s until the property had been divided, for she had made up her mind, in her stubborn way, that she would have the house. What was the point of being in lodgings for a fortnight? Jean, who in the meantime was to stay on at the farm as a carter, would simply come and spend the night with her. Their wedding night was quite stupid and sad, even though they weren’t sorry to be together at last. As he was taking her, she began to sob so hard that she choked; and yet he hadn’t hurt her, he’d gone about it very gently. The worst of it was that, in the middle of her sobbing, she replied that it wasn’t that she had anything against him, she just couldn’t stop crying, without even knowing why. Naturally, such an event was hardly the kind to fan a man’s ardour. Although he took her again and held her in his arms, they didn’t feel any pleasure, even less than in the mill, the first time. As he explained to her, if the thing didn’t happen straight away, it lost its savour. Besides, despite the uneasiness, the sort of embarrassment that made them both feel sick at heart, there was no ill feeling, and, not being able to sleep, they spent the rest of the night deciding how things would go when they had the house and the land.

The very next day, Françoise demanded the division. But La Grande was in no such haste: in the first place, she wanted to drag out the pleasure by drawing the family’s blood one pinprick at a time; in addition, she had taken such advantage of the girl and her husband, who each night paid his rent on the room with two hours’ work, that she was in no hurry to see them leave her and move into their own home. Still, she had to go and ask the Buteaus how they understood the division. She herself, in Françoise’s name, demanded the house, half the ploughed field and half the meadow, and gave up half the vineyard, a patch of land she estimated to be worth the same as the house, more or less. This was fair and reasonable, all in all, since such an amicable settlement would avoid bringing in the law, which always creams off too much for itself. Buteau, who had been completely taken aback on seeing La Grande come in, forced as he was to show her respect because of her money, could not bear to hear any more. He promptly walked out, afraid he’d forget his interests to p. 318the point where he would hit her. Lise, left on her own, red as a turkey cock, stammered with rage:

‘The house! She wants the house! That hussy, that nobody, who got married without even coming to see me! Well, Aunty, tell her she’ll get the house over my dead body!’

La Grande remained calm.

‘All right, my girl! All right! No need to have a fit. You want the house too, that’s your due. We’ll see.’

For three days, she shuttled like this between the two sisters, bearing from one to the other the silly things they aimed at each other, exasperating them to such an extent that they both nearly took to their beds. She never stopped stressing how much she loved them and what gratitude her nieces owed her for stooping to this task. In the end, it was agreed they would divide the land, but that the house and furniture, as well as the animals, would be auctioned, since they could not agree. Each of the sisters swore she’d buy back the house at any cost, even if it meant she had nothing left but the clothes she stood up in.

Grosbois thus came to survey the properties and divide them into two lots. There were the two and a half acres of pasture, another two and a half of vine, and five of arable; and it was especially these latter, in the spot known as Les Cornailles, that Buteau had been determined not to let go of ever since his marriage, for they bordered on the field he had inherited from his father, which constituted a patch of nearly seven and a half acres, such as no peasant in Rognes possessed. What fury, then, when he saw Grosbois set up his set square and plant his markers! La Grande was there, watching, since Jean preferred to stay away for fear of a battle. Indeed, an argument began at once, for Buteau wanted the line to be drawn parallel to the little valley of the Aigre, in such a way that his field would remain bound to his lot, whichever it was; while the aunt demanded that the division be made perpendicularly, with the sole aim of opposing him. She won the day, and he clenched his fists, choking back his fury.

‘So—Christ Almighty!—if I draw the first lot, I’ll be cut in two, I’ll have one bit on one side and my field on the other?’

‘Well, son, it’s up to you to pick the right lot.’

Buteau had been fuming for a month. For a start, the girl was getting away from him; he was sick with repressed desire, since he hadn’t been able to grab a handful of that flesh under her skirt, with p. 319the persistent thought of having all of it one day; and, after the wedding, the idea that the other man had her in his bed, and could take his pleasure as often as he liked, had sent him into a frenzy. Now the other man was taking the land off his hands too. That was like having a limb cut off. The girl, well, there were other fish in the sea; but the land, land he regarded as his, that he’d sworn never to give up! He saw red, looked for ways and means, dreaming vaguely of violent acts, murders, that only his terror of the police stopped him committing.

Finally, an appointment was made at Monsieur Baillehache’s, where Buteau and Lise found themselves for the first time face to face with Françoise and Jean, whom La Grande had accompanied for the sheer pleasure of it, on the pretext of preventing things from getting ugly. They stepped, all five of them, stiff and silent, into the office. The Buteaus sat on the right, Jean on the left, standing behind Françoise as though to say he wasn’t part of it, that he had simply come to give his wife his authorization. The aunt took her place in the middle, tall and thin, turning her round eyes and her vicious beak on one lot, then the other, satisfied. The two sisters did not even seem to recognize each other, did not exchange a word or a look, their faces hard. The men exchanged but one glance, quick, glinting, and piercing, like the thrust of a knife.

‘Friends,’ said Monsieur Baillehache, calmly ignoring the tense atmosphere, ‘we’re here to finalize the division of the land, first of all, since you’re all agreed on that.’

This time he asked for their signatures first. The deed happened to be ready, the designation of lots alone remained blank, right after the names; and everyone had to sign before the drawing of lots, to which he made them proceed forthwith, to avoid any trouble.

Françoise having drawn the number 2, Lise had to take number 1, and Buteau’s face went black with a surge of blood that caused his veins to bulge. Never any luck! Now his land was cut in two! That bitch of a little sister and her man would be planted right in the middle, between his two fields!

‘Christ Almighty!’ he swore through clenched teeth. ‘Christ Almighty!’

The notary implored him to restrain himself until he was in the street.

‘It’s just that that cuts us off, up there on the plain,’ Lise pointed out, p. 320without looking at her sister. ‘Maybe we can agree to do a swap. That would suit us, and it wouldn’t hurt anybody.’

‘No!’ said Françoise sharply.

La Grande nodded her approval: it was bad luck to undo what fate had decreed. This cunning twist of fate cheered her up, whereas Jean had not moved a muscle, standing behind his wife, so determined to keep out of it that his face showed nothing.

‘Come, come,’ the notary resumed, ‘let’s try and get it over with, let’s not waste time.’

The two sisters, of a common accord, had chosen him to proceed to the auction of the house, the furniture, and the animals. The sale was advertised for the second Sunday of the month: it would take place in the notary’s office, and the terms and conditions specified that the successful bidder would be entitled to enter into possession the very day of the auction. Lastly, after the sale, the notary would proceed to the various settlements between the co-heirs. All that was accepted, without discussion.

But at that moment, Fouan, whom they were waiting for as guardian, was let in by a clerk, though Jesus Christ was prevented from coming in, he was so drunk. Although Françoise had come of age a month before, the guardianship accounts had not yet been rendered and that complicated things; it had become necessary to clear them up so as to remove responsibility from the old man. He looked at them all with his little wide-open eyes; he was shaking, in his growing fear of being compromised and seeing himself dragged before the court.

The notary gave a reading of the statement of account. They all listened, blinking madly, still worried they wouldn’t understand everything and dreading they might say something that backfired badly on them.

‘Are there any further claims?’ Monsieur Baillehache asked when he’d finished.

They looked startled. What claims? Maybe they were forgetting something, maybe they were losing out.

‘Pardon me,’ La Grande suddenly burst out, ‘but that doesn’t come to the right amount for Françoise at all! My brother must be turning a blind eye not to see she’s being robbed!’

Fouan stammered.

‘Eh? What? I haven’t taken a sou from her, I swear to God!’

p. 321‘I’m saying that Françoise stayed on in the house as a servant after her sister’s marriage, which is nearly five years ago, and that she’s owed wages.’

Buteau, at this unexpected blow, jumped up from his chair. Lise choked.

‘Wages! What! For a sister! Oh, no, you’re not pulling that one on us!’

Monsieur Baillehache had to shut them up by confirming that a minor had a perfect right to claim wages, if she wanted to.

‘Yes, I do want to,’ said Françoise. ‘I want everything that’s owed to me.’

‘What about her food, then?’ Buteau shouted, beside himself. ‘She was very keen on her bread and meat. Look at her, she didn’t get fat licking the walls, the useless thing!’

‘And what about the linen and clothes?’ Lise continued furiously. ‘And the washing? She’d dirtied her shift in two days, she sweated so much!’

Françoise, vexed, snapped back:

‘If I sweated that much, it’s because I was working.’

‘Sweat dries, it doesn’t dirty,’ added La Grande.

Once again, Monsieur Baillehache intervened. He explained that all this had to be added up, the wages on one side, food and upkeep on the other. He had taken a quill and tried to draw up an account based on their figures. But it was a terrible task. Françoise, supported by La Grande, made heavy demands, put a high price on her work, listed everything she had done about the house, the cows, the housework, the washing-up, and the fields, where her brother-in-law used her like a man. For their part, the Buteaus, in their exasperation, exaggerated the expenses, counted meals, lied about clothes, even claimed the money for presents they had given her at Christmas and so on. All the same, despite their efforts, it turned out they owed one hundred and eighty-six francs. They sat there with their hands shaking, their eyes bloodshot, racking their brains for other things they could charge.

They were about to accept the figure when Buteau cried out:

‘Wait a minute! What about the doctor, when she missed her period. He came twice. That makes six francs.’

La Grande didn’t like them agreeing to this victory of the other side, and she goaded Fouan, demanding that he remember the number of working days the little one had put in on the farm, in the past, p. 322when he was staying at the house. Was it five days or six, at one and a half francs a day? Françoise shouted six, Lise five, violently, as if they were throwing stones at each other. And the old man, quite dazed, agreed first with one, then with the other, banging his forehead with both fists. Françoise won the day, the total sum was one hundred and eighty-nine francs.

‘So, that really is everything?’ the notary asked.

Buteau, sitting in his chair, looked exhausted, crushed by this sum, which seemed to get bigger and bigger; he had given up, believing the situation could not get any worse. He muttered mournfully:

‘If you want my shirt, too, I’ll take it off.’

But La Grande had been holding back one last, terrible blow, something enormous yet very simple, which everyone had forgotten about.

‘But what about the five hundred francs’ compensation for the roadway, up the top there?’

In one bound, Buteau was on his feet, his eyes bulging out of his head, his mouth hanging open. Nothing to say, no possible discussion: he’d had the money, he had to give half of it back. He thought for a moment, then, finding no way out, in the madness that was rising and thrumming in his head, he suddenly hurled himself at Jean.

‘You bastard, you’ve killed our friendship! Without you, we’d still be a family, all nice and close!’

Jean, who had sensibly remained silent, was forced to defend himself:

‘Don’t touch me or I’ll hit you!’

Briskly Françoise and Lise stood up, and each one planted herself in front of her man, faces full of all their accumulated hatred and nails out, ready to tear at each other’s skin. A free-for-all, which neither La Grande nor Fouan seemed disposed to prevent, would surely have sent bonnets and hair flying, if the notary hadn’t stepped out of his professional composure.

‘For God’s sake! Wait until you’re out in the street! It’s ridiculous that you can’t reach an agreement without fighting.’

When they had all calmed down, quivering, he added:

‘So you’re agreed? Well then, I’ll draw up the statement of account of the guardianship for you to sign, then we’ll proceed with the sale of the house and have done with it... You can go now, but behave, stupid actions can cost a lot of money sometimes!’

That phrase finally calmed them down. But as they were leaving, p. 323Jesus Christ, who had been waiting for his father, insulted the whole family, bawling that it was truly shameful, getting an old man mixed up in this dirty business, so as to rob him, of course; and, mellowed by drunkenness, he took the old man away as he had brought him, on the straw at the bottom of a cart he had borrowed from a neighbour. The Buteaus went off, while La Grande pushed Jean and Françoise into the Bon Laboureur, where she got herself treated to a coffee. She was beaming.

‘I had a good laugh there!’ she concluded, pocketing the rest of the sugar.

That very same day, La Grande had an idea. On returning to Rognes, she ran to make up with old Saucisse, who, they said, had been one of her former suitors. Since the Buteaus had sworn they’d send the bidding for the house sky-high, even if it cost them their lives, she told herself that, if the old peasant sent it sky-high too, the others might not suspect and would let him have it; for he was now their neighbour, as it turned out, and he might well want to expand. He accepted immediately, in exchange for a gift. And so, the second Sunday of the month, at the auction, things came to pass just as she had foreseen. Once again, in Monsieur Baillehache’s office, the Buteaus were on one side, Françoise and Jean on the other with La Grande; and there was a crowd in attendance, some peasants who’d come with the vague idea of buying, if they could get it for nothing. But in five or six bids, tossed off in a curt voice by Lise and Françoise, the house went up to three thousand five hundred francs—what it was actually worth. Françoise stopped at three thousand and eight. That was when old Saucisse stepped in, got to four thousand, then put in another five hundred. Alarmed, the Buteaus looked at each other: this was impossible, the idea of all that money froze them. Lise, however, let herself get carried away up to five thousand. And she was crushed when the old peasant, all of a sudden, jumped to five thousand two hundred. It was over, the house was knocked down at five thousand two hundred francs. The Buteaus sniggered, that fat sum would be nice to have, and at least Françoise and her bastard of a husband had been beaten, too.

But when Lise, back home in Rognes, stepped back inside the old homestead, where she had been born, where she had lived, she began to sob. Buteau was similarly choked up and swallowed hard, so overcome that he relieved his feelings by pitching into her, swearing that p. 324he would have given the last hair on his body; but these heartless women, they never opened their purses for you, unlike their legs, except for a blowout. He was lying, he was the one who had stopped her; and they fought. Ah! The poor old family home of the Fouans, built three centuries earlier by a forebear, now rickety, full of cracks, subsiding and patched up all over the place, tipping forward head first under the fierce Beauce winds! To think the family had lived there for three hundred years, that they’d ended up loving it and honouring it as a true relic, so much so that it was worth a fortune in their inheritances! Buteau knocked Lise to the ground, but she got back up and gave him a swift kick that nearly broke his leg.

The following evening was a different story, the storm broke. Old Saucisse had gone that morning to declare who the real buyer was and Rognes found out, by midday, that he had bought the house on behalf of Françoise, authorized by Jean; and not just the house, but also the furniture as well as Gideon and Coliche. At the Buteaus’ there was a howl of pain and distress, as if a thunderbolt had fallen on the house. They both lay on the ground, weeping and wailing in wild despair at not being the smartest, at having been played for fools by that bitch of a kid. What drove them mad especially was hearing that people were laughing at them all over the village for having shown so little nous. God Almighty! To get conned like that, to let themselves get kicked out of their own home, in the twinkling of an eye! Oh no, not on your life! They’d see about that!

When La Grande turned up, that very evening, in Françoise’s name, to talk politely to Buteau about when he counted on moving, he threw her out, losing all caution, answering with a single word:

‘Shit!’

She went off very content, she just shouted at him that they’d send the bailiff. As early as the next day, in fact, Vimeux, pale and anxious and even shabbier than usual, came up the street and knocked cautiously, watched by all the busybodies round about. No one answered, he had to knock again more loudly, he even dared to call out, explaining that he had the summons requiring them to leave. At that, the attic window opened and a voice yelled the word, the one and only word:

‘Shit!’

And a chamber pot full of the stuff was emptied. Drenched from top to bottom, Vimeux had to depart without having delivered the summons. Rognes once again held its sides.

p. 325La Grande immediately took Jean to Châteaudun to see a lawyer. He told them it would take at least five days before they could proceed to an eviction, what with the introduction of the temporary injunction, the handing down of the order by the magistrate, the authorization from the clerk’s office and, finally, the eviction, for which the bailiff would be assisted by gendarmes, if need be. La Grande urged him to speed up the process by a day, and when she was back in Rognes, as it was a Tuesday, she told everyone that that Saturday night the Buteaus would be thrown out on the street at the point of a sword, like thieves, if they hadn’t left the house with good grace in the meantime.

When the news came to Buteau’s ears, he shook his fist in a most threatening manner. He shouted to anyone who would listen that he would not leave while he still drew breath, that the soldiers would have to knock down the walls before they could drag him away. And, in all the surrounding countryside, they didn’t know if he was acting the madman or if he really had gone mad, his rage was so extreme. He’d drive along the roads at a gallop, standing at the front of his cart without acknowledging anyone, without a word of warning to stand back; he’d even been encountered at night, now here, now there, coming back from who knows where, from the Devil at least. One man, who’d approached him, had received a great lash of the whip. He was sowing terror, the village was soon on continual alert. One morning, they saw that he’d barricaded himself inside his house; and blood-curdling cries rose behind the closed doors, screams in which they thought they recognized the voices of Lise and her two children. The neighbourhood was deeply disturbed, meetings were held, an old peasant ended up bravely volunteering to put a ladder up a window, to climb up and see. But the window opened, Buteau knocked the ladder over and the old man with it, and the man almost broke his legs. Weren’t you free in your own home? He shook his fists and yelled that he’d have all their hides if they disturbed him again. The worst of it was that Lise showed herself, too, with the two little mites, swearing, and accusing everyone of sticking their noses in where they had no business. No one dared get mixed up in it any further. But fears grew with every new racket, and people came to listen, shuddering, to the appalling things they could hear from out in the street. The bright sparks thought he was up to something. Others swore he was losing his marbles and that it would end badly. They never did find out for certain.

p. 326On the Friday, the day before the day they were expecting the eviction, one scene especially caused a stir. Buteau had run into his father by the church and began to cry his eyes out, kneeling on the ground before him, begging his forgiveness for having been such a handful in the past. Maybe that was what was bringing him bad luck. He begged the old man to come back and live with them, he seemed to think that only his father’s return could restore his luck. Fouan, disturbed by his blubbering, astounded by his apparent remorse, promised he’d accept one day, when all the family squabbles were over.

Finally, the Saturday arrived. Buteau’s agitation had only grown, he hitched up and unhitched from morning to night, for no reason, and people ran away whenever they saw him furiously racing around in his cart, bemused by the pointlessness of it all. That Saturday, as early as eight o’clock in the morning, he hitched up once more; but he didn’t go anywhere, merely planted himself in front of the door, calling out to neighbours as they passed, jeering, sobbing, screaming about his plight in the crudest terms. It really was funny, wasn’t it, to be screwed by a little bitch that you’d had as a tart for five years! Yes, a whore! And so was his wife! Two great whores, the two sisters, they fought over who’d go first! He reverted to that lie, offering unspeakable details, to get his own back. Then Lise emerged and an atrocious fight ensued, he thrashed her in front of everyone, sent her back inside, relaxed and relieved, and happy himself to have hit hard. And he stood waiting on his doorstep, looking out for the law, taunting and insulting it all the while: had it buggered itself on the way, the law? He began to gloat, no longer expecting it to turn up.

It was not until four o’clock that Vimeux appeared with two gendarmes. Buteau went white and swiftly shut the door to the yard. Perhaps he never thought they’d go through with it. The house fell into a deathly silence. Insolent this time, under the protection of armed force, Vimeux knocked with both fists. No answer. The gendarmes had to get involved, and rattled the old door with the butts of their rifles. A long queue of men, women, and children trailed behind them. All Rognes was there, waiting for the expected siege. Suddenly, the door opened again and they saw Buteau standing at the front of his cart, whipping his horse as he galloped out, heading straight at the crowd. Amidst the cries of alarm, he yelled:

‘I’m going to drown myself! I’m going to drown myself!’

p. 327There was nothing left for him to do but put an end to it all by throwing himself into the Aigre, with his cart and his horse, the lot!

‘Look out! I’m going to drown myself!’

At the sight of the lashing whip and the wild gallop of the horse, the frightened spectators dispersed. But as he launched the cart at the slope, fit to smash the wheels, men ran after him to stop him. That pig-headed bastard was quite capable of diving in, just to annoy the others. They caught him, they had to struggle, grab the horse’s head, climb up onto the cart. When they brought him back, he didn’t breathe another word, his teeth clenched, his whole body rigid, ready to let fate take its course, mutely protesting in his impotent rage.

At that moment, La Grande turned up with Françoise and Jean, so they could take possession of the house. And Buteau restrained himself, merely looking them in the face with the dark look with which he now contemplated the culmination of his misfortune. But now it was Lise’s turn to shout and thrash about like a madwoman. The gendarmes were there, telling her over and over to pack her bags and be off. So she had to comply, since her man was too cowardly to defend her by belting them. Her fists on her hips, she tore into him:

‘Useless layabout, letting us get chucked out on the street! You’ve got no guts, have you? Fancy not beating up those pigs there. Coward! Bloody coward! Call yourself a man?!’

As she was shouting this in his face, exasperated at his passivity, he finally shoved her so hard that she screamed. But he remained grimly silent, his black gaze fixed upon her.

‘Come on, old girl, let’s get a move on,’ said Vimeux, triumphant. ‘We won’t leave until you’ve handed the keys to the new owners.’

Lise then started packing up in a fit of fury. Over the past three days, she and Buteau had already taken a lot of things, the tools, the big utensils, to the neighbour, Frimat’s wife; and it became clear that they’d been expecting the eviction after all, as they had reached an agreement with the old woman who, to give them time to sort things out, had rented them her house, which was too big for her, reserving for herself just her paralytic husband’s bedroom. Since the furniture had been sold with the house, and the animals too, all that was left to Lise to do was to carry off her linen, her mattresses, and other small items. It all came flying out of the door and windows, landing in the middle of the yard, while her two little ones cried, thinking their last day had come, Laure clinging to her skirts, Jules p. 328sprawled on the floor in the middle of unpacking. As Buteau didn’t even help her, the gendarmes, who were good fellows, set to loading the bundles onto the cart.

But trouble erupted again when Lise spotted Françoise and Jean, who were standing behind La Grande, waiting. She rushed forward and unleashed the welling torrent of her spite.

‘You bitch, you’ve come to watch with that bastard bloke of yours. Well, you can see our suffering, it’s as if you’re drinking our blood. Thief, thief, thief!’

She choked on the word, and returned to hurl it at her sister, each time she brought some new object into the yard. Her sister didn’t reply, just stood there very pale and tight-lipped, her eyes burning; and she put on a show of watching the move very carefully, insultingly following the things with her eyes to make sure they weren’t taking anything of hers. As it happened, she recognized a kitchen stool which had been included in the sale.

‘That’s mine!’ she said in a harsh voice.

‘Yours? Well, go and fetch it!’ her sister replied, sending the stool flying into the pond.

The house was free. Buteau took the horse by the reins, Lise collected her two children, her last two bundles, Jules on her right arm, Laure on her left; and then, as she was finally leaving the old homestead, she went over to Françoise and spat in her face.

‘There! That’s for you!’

Her sister spat right back.

‘And that’s for you!’

And Lise and Françoise, in that poisonous farewell, slowly wiped their faces without taking their eyes off each other, separate now forever more, having no ties left other than the bitter enmity of their Fouan blood.

Finally, Buteau opened his mouth again and shouted his parting words, shaking his fist at the house.

‘See you soon, we’ll be back!’

La Grande followed them, to see it through to the end, determined, now that that lot were done for, to turn on the other pair, since they seemed to be dropping her so swiftly and who she thought were already too happy. For a long time, the groups of onlookers stayed where they were, chatting in low voices. Françoise and Jean had gone inside the empty house.

p. 329As the Buteaus were unpacking their things at Frimat’s place, they were amazed to see old Fouan appear, and ask, in a frightened, choking voice, looking behind him as if some evildoer were in pursuit:

‘Is there a corner here for me? I’ve come to stay the night.’

A strong dose of dread had made him gallop over, to get away from the Chateau. He couldn’t go on waking up at night, only to find La Trouille in her nightdress wandering around his room practically naked, looking like a young boy, searching for his papers, which he’d wound up hiding outside, at the back of a hole in the rock, walled off with dirt. Jesus Christ sent the bitch, because she was so light, so supple, barefoot, slithering around everywhere, between the chairs, under the bed, like a garter snake; and she had a real passion for the hunt, persuaded that the old man took the papers with him whenever he got dressed, furious she hadn’t found out where he put them before going to bed; for there was certainly nothing in the bed, she stuck her skinny arm in there, probing it with such a deft hand that her grandfather could barely feel it brushing him. But the problem was that, after lunch that particular day, he’d had a bout of weakness, a dizzy spell, and toppled over near the table. And as he was coming to, still so knocked out he couldn’t open his eyes, he’d found himself on the floor, in the same spot, and had had the shock of feeling Jesus Christ and La Trouille taking his clothes off. Instead of coming to his aid, the buggers had had only one thought, to take immediate advantage of the opportunity to search him. She especially went at it with an angry brutality, no longer going at it gently, but tugging at his jacket, at his underpants, and—God above!—even prying into his bare flesh, into all the holes, making sure he hadn’t stuffed his pile up there. She turned him over with both hands, spread his legs, went through him as if he was an old empty pocket. Nothing! So where in hell was his hidey-hole? They’d have to open him up and look inside! Such a terror of being murdered if he moved had seized him that he went on pretending to be unconscious, keeping his eyelids closed, and his arms and legs limp. Released in the end, free, he had run away, quite determined not to sleep at the Chateau.

‘So, d’you have a corner for me?’ he asked again.

Buteau seemed perked up by this unexpected return of his father’s. It was the return of money.

‘But of course, old man! We can all squeeze in together! It’ll bring us luck. Lord knows how rich I’d be if all you needed was a bit of heart!’

p. 330Françoise and Jean had slowly entered the empty house. Night was falling, one last glimmer of mournful light lit up the silent rooms. It was all very old, this ancestral roof that had shielded three centuries of misery and toil; so much so that the place had the same solemn atmosphere that you find in the shadow of old village churches. The doors had been left open, a sudden storm seemed to have blown in under the eaves, and chairs were lying in disorder on the floor, the result of the chaos of the move. You would have said the house was dead.

Françoise wandered round, circled the place, looked everywhere. Confused sensations and vague memories stirred inside her. In this spot, she’d played as a child. It was in the kitchen, near the table, that her father had died. In the bedroom, in front of the bed without a straw mattress, she remembered Lise and Buteau, the nights when they made love so vigorously that she could hear them panting through the ceiling. Were they going to torment her still, even now? She felt only too intensely that Buteau was still there. Here, he’d grabbed her one evening and she’d bitten him. And there as well, and over there. In every nook and cranny, she stumbled across disturbing thoughts.

Then, turning round, Françoise was surprised to see Jean. What was he doing here, this stranger? He looked embarrassed, he seemed a mere visitor, not daring to touch anything. A feeling of loneliness saddened her, she felt despair at not being more jubilant over her victory. She would have thought she’d come in shouting for joy, gloating behind her sister’s back. But the house gave her no pleasure, her stomach churned with foreboding. Perhaps it was because of the mournful, fading light. She and her man wound up finding themselves in pitch darkness, prowling from room to room, without even having the courage to light a candle.

But a noise brought them back to the kitchen and they cheered up when they saw Gideon, who had come in as was his habit, and was going through the sideboard which no one had shut. Old Coliche mooed, next door, at the back of the stable.

Then Jean took Françoise in his arms and kissed her gently as though to say that, in spite of everything, they were going to be happy.