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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFruitfulness - Chapter 16
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Fruitfulness - Chapter 16 Post by :7thsound Category :Long Stories Author :Emile Zola Date :May 2012 Read :2368

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Fruitfulness - Chapter 16

CHAPTER XVI

AMID the general delight attending the double wedding which was to prove, so to say, a supreme celebration of the glory of Chantebled, it had occurred to Mathieu's daughter Rose to gather the whole family together one Sunday, ten days before the date appointed for the ceremony. She and her betrothed, followed by the whole family, were to repair to Janville station in the morning to meet the other affianced pair, Ambroise and Andree, who were to be conducted in triumph to the farm where they would all lunch together. It would be a kind of wedding rehearsal, she exclaimed with her hearty laugh; they would be able to arrange the programme for the great day. And her idea enraptured her to such a point, she seemed to anticipate so much delight from this preliminary festival, that Mathieu and Marianne consented to it.

Rose's marriage was like the supreme blossoming of years of prosperity, and brought a finishing touch to the happiness of the home. She was the prettiest of Mathieu's daughters, with dark brown hair, round gilded cheeks, merry eyes, and charming mouth. And she had the most equable of dispositions, her laughter ever rang out so heartily! She seemed indeed to be the very soul, the good fairy, of that farm teeming with busy life. But beneath the invariable good humor which kept her singing from morning till night there was much common sense and energy of affection, as her choice of a husband showed. Eight years previously Mathieu had engaged the services of one Frederic Berthaud, the son of a petty farmer of the neighborhood. This sturdy young fellow had taken a passionate interest in the creative work of Chantebled, learning and working there with rare activity and intelligence. He had no means of his own at all. Rose, who had grown up near him, knew however that he was her father's preferred assistant, and when he returned to the farm at the expiration of his military service she, divining that he loved her, forced him to acknowledge it. Thus she settled her own future life; she wished to remain near her parents, on that farm which had hitherto held all her happiness. Neither Mathieu nor Marianne was surprised at this. Deeply touched, they signified their approval of a choice in which affection for themselves had so large a part. The family ties seemed to be drawn yet closer, and increase of joy came to the home.

So everything was settled, and it was agreed that on the appointed Sunday Ambroise should bring his betrothed Andree and her mother, Madame Seguin, to Janville by the ten o'clock train. A couple of hours previously Rose had already begun a battle with the object of prevailing upon the whole family to repair to the railway station to meet the affianced pair.

"But come, my children, it is unreasonable," Marianne gently exclaimed. "It is necessary that somebody should stay at home. I shall keep Nicolas here, for there is no need to send children of five years old scouring the roads. I shall also keep Gervais and Claire. But you may take all the others if you like, and your father shall lead the way."

Rose, however, still merrily laughing, clung to her plan. "No, no, mamma, you must come as well; everybody must come; it was promised. Ambroise and Andree, you see, are like a royal couple from a neighboring kingdom. My brother Ambroise, having won the hand of a foreign princess, is going to present her to us. And so, to do them the honors of our own empire, we, Frederic and I, must go to meet them, attended by the whole Court. You form the Court and you cannot do otherwise than come. Ah what a fine sight it will be when we spread out through the country on our way home again!"

Marianne, amused by her daughter's overflowing gayety, ended by laughing and giving way.

"This will be the order of the march," resumed Rose. "Oh! I've planned everything, as you will see! As for Frederic and myself, we shall go on our bicycles--that is the most modern style. We will also take my maids of honor, my little sisters Louise, Madeleine, and Marguerite, eleven, nine, and seven years old, on their bicycles. They will look very well behind me. Then Gregoire can follow on his wheel; he is thirteen, and will do as a page, bringing up the rear of my personal escort. All the rest of the Court will have to pack itself into the chariot--I mean the big family wagon, in which there is room for eight. You, as Queen Mother, may keep your last little prince, Nicolas, on your knees. Papa will only have to carry himself proudly, as befits the head of a dynasty. And my brother Gervais, that young Hercules of seventeen, shall drive, with Claire, who at fifteen is so remarkable for common sense, beside him on the box-seat. As for the illustrious twins, those high and mighty lords, Denis and Blaise, we will call for them at Janville, since they are waiting for us there, at Madame Desvignes'."

Thus did Rose rattle on, exulting over the scheme she had devised. She danced, sang, clapped her hands, and finally exclaimed: "Ah! for a pretty cortege this will be fine indeed."

She was animated by such joyous haste that she made the party start much sooner than was necessary, and they reached Janville at half-past nine. It was true, however, that they had to call for the others there. The house in which Madame Desvignes had taken refuge after her husband's death, and which she had now occupied for some twelve years, living there in a very quiet retired way on the scanty income she had managed to save, was the first in the village, on the high road. For a week past her elder daughter Charlotte, Blaise's wife, had come to stay there with her children, Berthe and Christophe, who needed change of air; and on the previous evening they had been joined by Blaise, who was well pleased to spend Sunday with them.

Madame Desvignes' younger daughter, Marthe, was delighted whenever her sister thus came to spend a few weeks in the old home, bringing her little ones with her, and once more occupying the room which had belonged to her in her girlish days. All the laughter and playfulness of the past came back again, and the one dream of worthy Madame Desvignes, amid her pride at being a grandmamma, was of completing her life-work, hitherto so prudently carried on, by marrying off Marthe in her turn. As a matter of fact it had seemed likely that there might be three instead of two weddings at Chantebled that spring. Denis, who, since leaving a scientific school had embarked in fresh technical studies, often slept at the farm and nearly every Sunday he saw Marthe, who was of the same age as Rose and her constant companion. The young girl, a pretty blonde like her sister Charlotte, but of a less impulsive and more practical nature, had indeed attracted Denis, and, dowerless though she was, he had made up his mind to marry her, since he had discovered that she possessed the sterling qualities that help one on to fortune. But in their chats together both evinced good sense and serene confidence, without sign of undue haste. Particularly was this the case with Denis, who was very methodical in his ways and unwilling to place a woman's happiness in question until he could offer her an assured position. Thus, of their own accord, they had postponed their marriage, quietly and smilingly resisting the passionate assaults of Rose, whom the idea of three weddings on the same day had greatly excited. At the same time, Denis continued visiting Madame Desvignes, who, on her side, equally prudent and confident, received him much as if he were her son. That morning he had even quitted the farm at seven o'clock, saying that he meant to surprise Blaise in bed; and thus he also was to be met at Janville.

As it happened, the fete of Janville fell on Sunday, the second in May. Encompassing the square in front of the railway station were roundabouts, booths, shooting galleries, and refreshment stalls. Stormy showers during the night had cleansed the sky, which was of a pure blue, with a flaming sun, whose heat in fact was excessive for the season. A good many people were already assembled on the square--all the idlers of the district, bands of children, and peasants of the surrounding country, eager to see the sights; and into the midst of this crowd fell the Froments--first the bicyclists, next the wagon, and then the others who had been met at the entry of the village.

"We are producing our little effect!" exclaimed Rose as she sprang from her wheel.

This was incontestable. During the earlier years the whole of Janville had looked harshly on those Froments, those bourgeois who had come nobody knew whence, and who, with overweening conceit, had talked of making corn grow in land where there had been nothing but crops of stones for centuries past. Then the miracle, Mathieu's extraordinary victory, had long hurt people's vanity and thereby increased their anger. But everything passes away; one cannot regard success with rancor, and folks who grow rich always end by being in the right. Thus, nowadays, Janville smiled complacently on that swarming family which had grown up beside it, forgetting that in former times each fresh birth at Chantebled had been regarded as quite scandalous by the gossips. Besides, how could one resist such a happy display of strength and power, such a merry invasion, when, as on that festive Sunday, the whole family came up at a gallop, conquering the roads, the streets, and the squares? What with the father and mother, the eleven children--six boys and five girls--and two grandchildren already, there were fifteen of them. The eldest boys, the twins, were now four-and twenty, and still so much alike that people occasionally mistook one for the other as in their cradle days, when Marianne had been obliged to open their eyes to identify them, those of Blaise being gray, and those of Denis black. Nicolas, the youngest boy, at the other end of the family scale, was as yet but five years old; a delightful little urchin was he, a precocious little man whose energy and courage were quite amusing. And between the twins and that youngster came the eight other children: Ambroise, the future husband, who was already on the road to every conquest; Rose, so brimful of life; who likewise was on the eve of marrying; Gervais, with his square brow and wrestler's limbs, who would soon be fighting the good fight of agriculture; Claire, who was silent and hardworking, and lacked beauty, but possessed a strong heart and a housewife's sensible head. Next Gregoire, the undisciplined, self-willed schoolboy, who was ever beating the hedges in search of adventures; and then the three last girls: Louise, plump and good natured; Madeleine, delicate and of dreamy mind; Marguerite, the least pretty but the most loving of the trio. And when, behind their father and their mother, the eleven came along one after the other, followed too by Berthe and Christophe, representing yet another generation, it was a real procession that one saw, as, for instance, on that fine Sunday on the Grand Place of Janville, already crowded with holiday-making folks. And the effect was irresistible; even those who were scarcely pleased with the prodigious success of Chantebled felt enlivened and amused at seeing the Froments galloping about and invading the place. So much health and mirth and strength accompanied them, as if earth with her overflowing gifts of life had thus profusely created them for to-morrow's everlasting hopes.

"Let those who think themselves more numerous come forward!" Rose resumed gayly. "And then we will count one another."

"Come, be quiet!" said her mother, who, after alighting from the wagon, had set Nicolas on the ground. "You will end by making people hoot us."

"Hoot us! Why, they admire us: just look at them! How funny it is, mamma, that you are not prouder of yourself and of us!"

"Why, I am so very proud that I fear to humiliate others."

They all began to laugh. And Mathieu, standing near Marianne, likewise felt proud at finding himself, as he put it, among "the sacred battalion" of his sons and daughters. To that battalion worthy Madame Desvignes herself belonged, since her daughter Charlotte was adding soldiers to it and helping it to become an army. Such as it was indeed, this was only the beginning; later on the battalion would be seen ever increasing and multiplying, becoming a swarming victorious race, great-grandchildren following grandchildren, till there were fifty of them, and a hundred, and two hundred, all tending to increase the happiness and beauty of the world. And in the mingled amazement and amusement of Janville gathered around that fruitful family there was certainly some of the instinctive admiration which is felt for the strength and the healthfulness which create great nations.

"Besides, we have only friends now," remarked Mathieu. "Everybody is cordial with us!"

"Oh, everybody!" muttered Rose. "Just look at the Lepailleurs yonder, in front of that booth."

The Lepailleurs were indeed there--the father, the mother, Antonin, and Therese. In order to avoid the Froments they were pretending to take great interest in a booth, where a number of crudely-colored china ornaments were displayed as prizes for the winners at a "lucky-wheel." They no longer even exchanged courtesies with the Chantebled folks; for in their impotent rage at such ceaseless prosperity they had availed themselves of a petty business dispute to break off all relations. Lepailleur regarded the creation of Chantebled as a personal insult, for he had not forgotten his jeers and challenges with respect to those moorlands, from which, in his opinion, one would never reap anything but stones. And thus, when he had well examined the china ornaments, it occurred to him to be insolent, with which object he turned round and stared at the Froments, who, as the train they were expecting would not arrive for another quarter of an hour, were gayly promenading through the fair.

The miller's bad temper had for the last two months been increased by the return of his son Antonin to Janville under very deplorable circumstances. This young fellow, who had set off one morning to conquer Paris, sent there by his parents, who had a blind confidence in his fine handwriting, had remained with Maitre Rousselet the attorney for four years as a petty clerk, dull-witted and extremely idle. He had not made the slightest progress in his profession, but had gradually sunk into debauchery, cafe-life, drunkenness, gambling, and facile amours. To him the conquest of Paris meant greedy indulgence in the coarsest pleasures such as he had dreamt of in his village. It consumed all his money, all the supplies which he extracted from his mother by continual promises of victory, in which she implicitly believed, so great was her faith in him. But he ended by grievously suffering in health, turned thin and yellow, and actually began to lose his hair at three-and-twenty, so that his mother, full of alarm, brought him home one day, declaring that he worked too hard, and that she would not allow him to kill himself in that fashion. It leaked out, however, later on, that Maitre Rousselet had summarily dismissed him. Even before this was known his return home did not fail to make his father growl. The miller partially guessed the truth, and if he did not openly vent his anger, it was solely from pride, in order that he might not have to confess his mistake with respect to the brilliant career which he had predicted for Antonin. At home, when the doors were closed, Lepailleur revenged himself on his wife, picking the most frightful quarrels with her since he had discovered her frequent remittances of money to their son. But she held her own against him, for even as she had formerly admired him, so at present she admired her boy. She sacrificed, as it were, the father to the son, now that the latter's greater learning brought her increased surprise. And so the household was all disagreement as a result of that foolish attempt, born of vanity, to make their heir a Monsieur, a Parisian. Antonin for his part sneered and shrugged his shoulders at it all, idling away his time pending the day when he might be able to resume a life of profligacy.

When the Froments passed by, it was a fine sight to see the Lepailleurs standing there stiffly and devouring them with their eyes. The father puckered his lips in an attempt to sneer, and the mother jerked her head with an air of bravado. The son, standing there with his hands in his pockets, presented a sorry sight with his bent back, his bald head, and pale face. All three were seeking to devise something disagreeable when an opportunity presented itself.

"Why, where is Therese?" exclaimed La Lepailleur. "She was here just now: what has become of her? I won't have her leave me when there are all these people about!"

It was quite true, for the last moment Therese had disappeared. She was now ten years old and very pretty, quite a plump little blonde, with wild hair and black eyes which shone brightly. But she had a terribly impulsive and wilful nature, and would run off and disappear for hours at a time, beating the hedges and scouring the countryside in search of birds'-nests and flowers and wild fruit. If her mother, however, made such a display of alarm, darting hither and thither to find her, just as the Froments passed by, it was because she had become aware of some scandalous proceedings during the previous week. Therese's ardent dream was to possess a bicycle, and she desired one the more since her parents stubbornly refused to content her, declaring in fact that those machines might do for bourgeois but were certainly not fit for well-behaved girls. Well, one afternoon, when she had gone as usual into the fields, her mother, returning from market, had perceived her on a deserted strip of road, in company with little Gregoire Froment, another young wanderer whom she often met in this wise, in spots known only to themselves. The two made a very suitable pair, and were ever larking and rambling along the paths, under the leaves, beside the ditches. But the abominable thing was that, on this occasion, Gregoire, having seated Therese on his own bicycle, was supporting her at the waist and running alongside, helping her to direct the machine. Briefly it was a real bicycle lesson which the little rascal was giving, and which the little hussy took with all the pleasure in the world. When Therese returned home that evening she had her ears soundly boxed for her pains.

"Where can that little gadabout have got to?" La Lepailleur continued shouting. "One can no sooner take one's eyes off her than she runs away."

Antonin, however, having peeped behind the booth containing the china ornaments, lurched back again, still with his hands in his pockets, and said with his vicious sneer: "Just look there, you'll see something."

And indeed, behind the booth, his mother again found Therese and Gregoire together. The lad was holding his bicycle with one hand and explaining some of the mechanism of it, while the girl, full of admiration and covetousness, looked on with glowing eyes. Indeed she could not resist her inclination, but laughingly let Gregoire raise her in order to seat her for a moment on the saddle, when all at once her mother's terrible voice burst forth: "You wicked hussy! what are you up to there again? Just come back at once, or I'll settle your business for you."

Then Mathieu also, catching sight of the scene, sternly summoned Gregoire: "Please to place your wheel with the others. You know what I have already said to you, so don't begin again."

It was war. Lepailleur impudently growled ignoble threats, which fortunately were lost amid the strains of a barrel organ. And the two families separated, going off in different directions through the growing holiday-making crowd.

"Won't that train ever come, then?" resumed Rose, who with joyous impatience was at every moment turning to glance at the clock of the little railway station on the other side of the square. "We have still ten minutes to wait: whatever shall we do?"

As it happened she had stopped in front of a hawker who stood on the footway with a basketful of crawfish, crawling, pell-mell, at his feet. They had certainly come from the sources of the Yeuse, three leagues away. They were not large, but they were very tasty, for Rose herself had occasionally caught some in the stream. And thus a greedy but also playful fancy came to her.

"Oh, mamma!" she cried, "let us buy the whole basketful. It will be for the feast of welcome, you see; it will be our present to the royal couple we are awaiting. People won't say that Our Majesties neglect to do things properly when they are expecting other Majesties. And I will cook them when we get back, and you'll see how well I shall succeed."

At this the others began to poke fun at her, but her parents ended by doing as she asked, big child as she was, who in the fulness of her happiness hardly knew what amusement to seek. However, as by way of pastime she obstinately sought to count the crawfish, quite an affair ensued: some of them pinched her, and she dropped them with a little shriek; and, amid it all, the basket fell over and then the crawfish hurriedly crawled away. The boys and girls darted in pursuit of them, there was quite a hunt, in which even the serious members of the family at last took part. And what with the laughter and eagerness of one and all, the big as well as the little, the whole happy brood, the sight was so droll and gay that the folks of Janville again drew near and good-naturedly took their share of the amusement.

All at once, however, arose a distant rumble of wheels and an engine whistled.

"Ah, good Heavens! here they are!" cried Rose, quite scared; "quick, quick, or the reception will be missed."

A scramble ensued, the owner of the crawfish was paid, and there was just time to shut the basket and carry it to the wagon. The whole family was already running off, invading the little station, and ranging itself in good order along the arrival platform.

"No, no, not like that," Rose repeated. "You don't observe the right order of precedence. The queen mother must be with the king her husband, and then the princes according to their height. Frederic must place himself on my right. And it's for me, you know, to make the speech of welcome."

The train stopped. When Ambroise and Andree alighted they were at first much surprised to find that everybody had come to meet them, drawn up in a row with solemn mien. When Rose, however began to deliver a pompous little speech, treating her brother's betrothed like some foreign princess, whom she had orders to welcome in the name of the king, her father, the young couple began to laugh, and even prolonged the joke by responding in the same style. The railway men looked on and listened, gaping. It was a fine farce, and the Froments were delighted at showing themselves so playful on that warm May morning.

But Marianne suddenly raised an exclamation of surprise: "What! has not Madame Seguin come with you? She gave me so many promises that she would."

In the rear of Ambroise and Andree Celeste the maid had alone alighted from the train. And she undertook to explain things: "Madame charged me," said she, "to say that she was really most grieved. Yesterday she still hoped that she would be able to keep her promise. Only in the evening she received a visit from Monsieur de Navarede, who is presiding to-day, Sunday, at a meeting of his Society, and of course Madame could not do otherwise than attend it. So she requested me to accompany the young people, and everything is satisfactory, for here they are, you see."

As a matter of fact nobody regretted the absence of Valentine, who always moped when she came into the country. And Mathieu expressed the general opinion in a few words of polite regret: "Well, you must tell her how much we shall miss her. And now let us be off."

Celeste, however, intervened once more. "Excuse me, monsieur, but I cannot remain with you. No. Madame particularly told me to go back to her at once, as she will need me to dress her. And, besides, she is always bored when she is alone. There is a train for Paris at a quarter past ten, is there not? I will go back by it. Then I will be here at eight o'clock this evening to take Mademoiselle home. We settled all that in looking through a time-table. Till this evening, monsieur."

"Till this evening, then, it's understood."

Thereupon, leaving the maid in the deserted little station, all the others returned to the village square, where the wagon and the bicycles were waiting.

"Now we are all assembled," exclaimed Rose, "and the real fete is about to begin. Let me organize the procession for our triumphal return to the castle of our ancestors."

"I am very much afraid that your procession will be soaked," said Marianne. "Just look at the rain approaching!"

During the last few moments there had appeared in the hitherto spotless sky a huge, livid cloud, rising from the west and urged along by a sudden squall. It presaged a return of the violent stormy showers of the previous night.

"Rain! Oh, we don't care about that," the girl responded with an air of superb defiance. "It will never dare to come down before we get home."

Then, with a comical semblance of authority, she disposed her people in the order which she had planned in her mind a week previously. And the procession set off through the admiring village, amid the smiles of all the good women hastening to their doorsteps, and then spread out along the white road between the fertile fields, where bands of startled larks took wing, carrying their clear song to the heavens. It was really magnificent.

At the head of the party were Rose and Frederic, side by side on their bicycles, opening the nuptial march with majestic amplitude. Behind them followed the three maids of honor, the younger sisters, Louise, Madeleine, and Marguerite, the tallest first, the shortest last, and each on a wheel proportioned to her growth. And with berets* on their heads, and their hair down their backs, waving in the breeze, they looked adorable, suggesting a flight of messenger swallows skimming over the ground and bearing good tidings onward. As for Gregoire the page, restive and always ready to bolt, he did not behave very well; for he actually tried to pass the royal couple at the head of the procession, a proceeding which brought him various severe admonitions until he fell back, as duty demanded, to his deferential and modest post. On the other hand, as the three maids of honor began to sing the ballad of Cinderella on her way to the palace of Prince Charming, the royal couple condescendingly declared that the song was appropriate and of pleasing effect, whatever might be the requirements of etiquette. Indeed, Rose, Frederic, and Gregoire also ended by singing the ballad, which rang out amid the serene, far-spreading countryside like the finest music in the world.

* The beret is the Pyreneean tam-o'-shanter.

Then, at a short distance in the rear, came the chariot, the good old family wagon, which was now crowded. According to the prearranged programme it was Gervais who held the ribbons, with Claire beside him. The two strong horses trotted on in their usual leisurely fashion, in spite of all the gay whip-cracking of their driver, who also wished to contribute to the music. Inside there were now seven people for six places, for if the three children were small, they were at the same time so restless that they fully took up their share of room. First, face to face, there were Ambroise and Andree, the betrothed couple who were being honored by this glorious welcome. Then, also face to face, there were the high and mighty rulers of the region, Mathieu and Marianne, the latter of whom kept little Nicolas, the last prince of the line, on her knees, he braying the while like a little donkey, because he felt so pleased. Then the last places were occupied by the rulers' granddaughter and grandson, Mademoiselle Berthe and Monsieur Christophe, who were as yet unable to walk long distances. And the chariot rolled on with much majesty, albeit that for fear of the rain the curtains of stout white linen had already been half-drawn, thus giving the vehicle, at a distance, somewhat of the aspect of a miller's van.

Further back yet, as a sort of rear-guard, was a group on foot, composed of Blaise, Denis, Madame Desvignes, and her daughters Charlotte and Marthe. They had absolutely refused to take a fly, finding it more pleasant to walk the mile and a half which separated Chantebled from Janville. If the rain should fall, they would manage to find shelter somewhere. Besides, Rose had declared that a suite on foot was absolutely necessary to give the procession its full significance. Those five last comers would represent the multitude, the great concourse of people which follows sovereigns and acclaims them. Or else they might be the necessary guard, the men-at-arms, who watched for the purpose of foiling a possible attack from some felon neighbor. At the same time it unfortunately happened that worthy Madame Desvignes could not walk very fast, so that the rear-guard was soon distanced, to such a degree indeed that it became merely a little lost group, far away.

Still this did not disconcert Rose, but rather made her laugh the more. At the first bend of the road she turned her head, and when she saw her rear-guard more than three hundred yards away she raised cries of admiration. "Oh! just look, Frederic! What an interminable procession! What a deal of room we take up! The cortege is becoming longer and longer, and the road won't be long enough for it very soon."

Then, as the three maids of honor and the page began to jeer impertinently, "just try to be respectful," she said. "Count a little. There are six of us forming the vanguard. In the chariot there are nine, and six and nine make fifteen. Add to them the five of the rear-guard, and we have twenty. Wherever else is such a family seen? Why, the rabbits who watch us pass are mute with stupor and humiliation."

Then came another laugh, and once more they all took up the song of Cinderella on her way to the palace of Prince Charming.

It was at the bridge over the Yeuse that the first drops of rain, big drops they were, began to fall. The big livid cloud, urged on by a terrible wind, was galloping across the sky, filling it with the clamor of a tempest. And almost immediately afterwards the rain-drops increased in volume and in number, lashed by so violent a squall that the water poured down as if by the bucketful, or as if some huge sluice-gate had suddenly burst asunder overhead. One could no longer see twenty yards before one. In two minutes the road was running with water like the bed of a torrent.

Then there was a _sauve-qui-peut among the procession. It was learnt later on that the people of the rear-guard had luckily been surprised near a peasant's cottage, in which they had quietly sought refuge. Then the folks in the wagon simply drew their curtains, and halted beneath the shelter of a wayside tree for fear lest the horses should take fright under such a downpour. They called to the bicyclists ahead of them to stop also, instead of obstinately remaining in such a deluge. But their words were lost amid the rush of water. However, the little girls and the page took a proper course in crouching beside a thick hedge, though the betrothed couple wildly continued on their way.

Frederic, the more reasonable of the two, certainly had sense enough to say: "This isn't prudent on our part. Let us stop like the others, I beg you."

But from Rose, all excitement, transported by her blissful fever, and insensible, so it seemed, to the pelting of the rain, he only drew this answer: "Pooh! what does it matter, now that we are soaking? It is by stopping that we might do ourselves harm. Let us make haste, all haste. In three minutes we shall be at home and able to make fine sport of those laggards when they arrive in another quarter of an hour."

They had just crossed the Yeuse bridge, and they swept on side by side, although the road was far from easy, being a continual ascent for a thousand yards or so between rows of lofty poplars.

"I assure you that we are doing wrong," the young man repeated. "They will blame me, and they will be right."

"Oh! well," cried she, "I'm amusing myself. This bicycle bath is quite funny. Leave me, then, if you don't love me enough to follow me."

He followed her, however, pressed close beside her, and sought to shelter her a little from the slanting rain. And it was a wild, mad race on the part of that young couple, almost linked together, their elbows touching as they sped on and on, as if lifted from the ground, carried off by all that rushing, howling water which poured down so ragefully. It was as though a thunder-blast bore them along. But at the very moment when they sprang from their bicycles in the yard of the farm the rain ceased, and the sky became blue once more.

Rose was laughing like a lunatic, and looked very flushed, but she was soaked to such a point that water streamed from her clothes, her hair, her hands. You might have taken her for some fairy of the springs who had overturned her urn on herself.

"Well, the fete is complete," she exclaimed breathlessly. "All the same, we are the first home."

She then darted upstairs to comb her hair and change her gown. But to gain just a few minutes, eager as she was to cook the crawfish, she did not take the trouble to put on dry linen. She wished the pot to be on the fire with the water, the white wine, the carrots and spices, before the family arrived. And she came and went, attending to the fire and filling the whole kitchen with her gay activity, like a good housewife who was glad to display her accomplishments, while her betrothed, who had also come downstairs again after changing his clothes, watched her with a kind of religious admiration.

At last, when the whole family had arrived, the folks of the brake and the pedestrians also, there came a rather sharp explanation. Mathieu and Marianne were angry, so greatly had they been alarmed by that rush through the storm.

"There was no sense in it, my girl," Marianne repeated. "Did you at least change your linen?"

"Why yes, why yes!" replied Rose. "Where are the crawfish?"

Mathieu meantime was lecturing Frederic. "You might have broken your necks," said he; "and, besides, it is by no means good to get soaked with cold water when one is hot. You ought to have stopped her."

"Well, she insisted on going on, and whenever she insists on anything, you know, I haven't the strength to prevent her."

At last Rose, in her pretty way, put an end to the reproaches. "Come, that's enough scolding; I did wrong, no doubt. But won't anybody compliment me on my _court-bouillon_? Have you ever known crawfish to smell as nice as that?"

The lunch was wonderfully gay. As they were twenty, and wished to have a real rehearsal of the wedding feast, the table had been set in a large gallery adjoining the ordinary dining-room. This gallery was still bare, but throughout the meal they talked incessantly of how they would embellish it with shrubs, garlands of foliage, and clumps of flowers. During the dessert they even sent for a ladder with the view of indicating on the walls the main lines of the decorations.

For a moment or so Rose, previously so talkative, had lapsed into silence. She had eaten heartily, but all the color had left her face, which had assumed a waxy pallor under her heavy hair, which was still damp. And when she wished to ascend the ladder herself to indicate how some ornament should be placed, her legs suddenly failed her, she staggered, and then fainted away.

Everybody was in consternation, but she was promptly placed in a chair, where for a few minutes longer she remained unconscious. Then, on coming to her senses, she remained for a moment silent, oppressed as by a feeling of pain, and apparently failing to understand what had taken place. Mathieu and Marianne, terribly upset, pressed her with questions, anxious as they were to know if she felt better. She had evidently caught cold, and this was the fine result of her foolish ride.

By degrees the girl recovered her composure, and again smiled. She then explained that she now felt no pain, but that it had suddenly seemed to her as if a heavy paving-stone were lying on her chest; then this weight had melted away, leaving her better able to breathe. And, indeed, she was soon on her feet once more, and finished giving her views respecting the decoration of the gallery, in such wise that the others ended by feeling reassured, and the afternoon passed away joyously in the making of all sorts of splendid plans. Little was eaten at dinner, for they had done too much honor to the crawfish at noon. And at nine o'clock, as soon as Celeste arrived for Andree, the gathering broke up. Ambroise was returning to Paris that same evening. Blaise and Denis were to take the seven o'clock train the following morning. And Rose, after accompanying Madame Desvignes and her daughters to the road, called to them through the darkness: "Au revoir, come back soon." She was again full of gayety at the thought of the general rendezvous which the family had arranged for the approaching weddings.

Neither Mathieu nor Marianne went to bed at once, however. Though they did not even speak of it together, they thought that Rose looked very strange, as if, indeed, she were intoxicated. She had again staggered on returning to the house, and though she only complained of some slight oppression, they prevailed on her to go to bed. After she had retired to her room, which adjoined their own, Marianne went several times to see if she were well wrapped up and were sleeping peacefully, while Mathieu remained anxiously thoughtful beside the lamp. At last the girl fell asleep, and the parents, leaving the door of communication open, then exchanged a few words in an undertone, in their desire to tranquillize each other. It would surely be nothing; a good night's rest would suffice to restore Rose to her wonted health. Then in their turn they went to bed, the whole farm lapsed into silence, surrendering itself to slumber until the first cockcrow. But all at once, about four o'clock, shortly before daybreak, a stifled call, "Mamma! mamma!" awoke both Mathieu and Marianne, and they sprang out of bed, barefooted, shivering, and groping for the candle. Rose was again stifling, struggling against another attack of extreme violence. For the second time, however, she soon regained consciousness and appeared relieved, and thus the parents, great as was their distress, preferred to summon nobody but to wait till daylight. Their alarm was caused particularly by the great change they noticed in their daughter's appearance; her face was swollen and distorted, as if some evil power had transformed her in the night. But she fell asleep again, in a state of great prostration; and they no longer stirred for fear of disturbing her slumber. They remained there watching and waiting, listening to the revival of life in the farm around them as the daylight gradually increased. Time went by; five and then six o'clock struck. And at about twenty minutes to seven Mathieu, on looking into the yard, and there catching sight of Denis, who was to return to Paris by the seven o'clock train, hastened down to tell him to call upon Boutan and beg the doctor to come at once. Then, as soon as his son had started, he rejoined Marianne upstairs, still unwilling to call or warn anybody. But a third attack followed, and this time it was the thunderbolt.

Rose had half risen in bed, her arms thrown out, her mouth distended as she gasped "Mamma! mamma!"

Then in a sudden fit of revolt, a last flash of life, she sprang from her bed and stepped towards the window, whose panes were all aglow with the rising sun. And for a moment she leant there, her legs bare, her shoulders bare, and her heavy hair falling over her like a royal mantle. Never had she looked more beautiful, more dazzling, full of strength and love.

But she murmured: "Oh! how I suffer! It is all over, I am going to die."

Her father darted towards her; her mother sustained her, throwing her arms around her like invincible armor which would shield her from all harm.

"Don't talk like that, you unhappy girl! It is nothing; it is only another attack which will pass away. Get into bed again, for mercy's sake. Your old friend Boutan is on his way here. You will be up and well again to-morrow."

"No, no, I am going to die; it is all over."

She fell back in their arms; they only had time to lay her on her bed. And the thunderbolt fell: without a word, without a glance, in a few minutes she died of congestion of the lungs.

Ah! the imbecile thunderbolt! Ah! the scythe, which with a single stroke blindly cuts down a whole springtide! It was all so brutally sudden, so utterly unexpected, that at first the stupefaction of Marianne and Mathieu was greater than their despair. In response to their cries the whole farm hastened up, the fearful news filled the place, and then all sank into the deep silence of death--all work, all life ceasing. And the other children were there, scared and overcome: little Nicolas, who did not yet understand things; Gregoire, the page of the previous day; Louise, Madeleine, and Marguerite, the three maids of honor, and their elders, Claire and Gervais, who felt the blow more deeply. And there were yet the others journeying away, Blaise, Denis, and Ambroise, travelling to Paris at that very moment, in ignorance of the unforeseen, frightful hatchet-stroke which had fallen on the family. Where would the terrible tidings reach them? In what cruel distress would they return! And the doctor who would soon arrive too! But all at once, amid the terror and confusion, there rang out the cries of Frederic, the poor dead girl's affianced lover. He shrieked his despair aloud, he was half mad, he wished to kill himself, saying that he was the murderer and that he ought to have prevented Rose from so rashly riding home through the storm! He had to be led away and watched for fear of some fresh misfortune. His sudden frenzy had gone to every heart; sobs burst forth and lamentations arose from the woful parents, from the brothers, the sisters, from the whole of stricken Chantebled, which death thus visited for the first time.

Ah, God! Rose on that bed of mourning, white, cold, and dead! She, the fairest, the gayest, the most loved! She, before whom all the others were ever in admiration--she of whom they were so proud, so fond! And to think that this blow should fall in the midst of hope, bright hope in long life and sterling happiness, but ten days before her wedding, and on the morrow of that day of wild gayety, all jests and laughter! They could again see her, full of life and so adorable with her happy youthful fancies--that princely reception and that royal procession. It had seemed as if those two coming weddings, celebrated the same day, would be like the supreme florescence of the family's long happiness and prosperity. Doubtless they had often experienced trouble and had even wept at times, but they had drawn closer together and consoled one another on such occasions; none had ever been cut off from the good-night embraces which healed every sore. And now the best was gone, death had come to say that absolute joy existed for none, that the most valiant, the happiest; never reaped the fulness of their hopes. There was no life without death. And they paid their share of the debt of human wretchedness, paid it the more dearly since they had made for themselves a larger sum of life. When everything germinates and grows around one, when one has determined on unreserved fruitfulness; on continuous creation and increase, how awful is the recall to the ever-present dim abyss in which the world is fashioned, on the day when misfortune falls, digs its first pit, and carries off a loved one! It is like a sudden snapping, a rending of the hopes which seemed to be endless, and a feeling of stupefaction comes at the discovery that one cannot live and love forever!

Ah! how terrible were the two days that followed: the farm itself lifeless, without sound save that of the breathing of the cattle, the whole family gathered together, overcome by the cruel spell of waiting, ever in tears while the poor corpse remained there under a harvest of flowers. And there was this cruel aggravation, that on the eve of the funeral, when the body had been laid in the coffin, it was brought down into that gallery where they had lunched so merrily while discussing how magnificently they might decorate it for the two weddings. It was there that the last funeral watch, the last wake, took place, and there were no evergreen shrubs, no garlands of foliage, merely four tapers which burnt there amid a wealth of white roses gathered in the morning, but already fading. Neither the mother nor the father was willing to go to bed that night. They remained, side by side, near the child whom mother-earth was taking back from them. They could see her quite little again, but sixteen months old, at the time of their first sojourn at Chantebled in the old tumbledown shooting-box, when she had just been weaned and they were wont to go and cover her up at nighttime. They saw her also, later on, in Paris, hastening to them in the morning, climbing up and pulling their bed to pieces with triumphant laughter. And they saw her yet more clearly, growing and becoming more beautiful even as Chantebled did, as if, indeed, she herself bloomed with all the health and beauty of that now fruitful land. Yet she was no more, and whenever the thought returned to them that they would never see her again, their hands sought one another, met in a woful clasp, while from their crushed and mingling hearts it seemed as if all life, all future, were flowing away to nihility. Now that a breach had been made, would not every other happiness be carried off in turn? And though the ten other children were there, from the little one five years old to the twins who were four-and-twenty, all clad in black, all gathered in tears around their sleeping sister, like a sorrow-stricken battalion rendering funeral honors, neither the father nor the mother saw or counted them: their hearts were rent by the loss of the daughter who had departed, carrying away with her some of their own flesh. And in that long bare gallery which the four candles scarcely lighted, the dawn at last arose upon that death watch, that last leave-taking.

Then grief again came with the funeral procession, which spread out along the white road between the lofty poplars and the green corn, that road over which Rose had galloped so madly through the storm. All the relations of the Froments, all their friends, all the district, had come to pay a tribute of emotion at so sudden and swift a death. Thus, this time, the cortege did stretch far away behind the hearse, draped with white and blooming with white roses in the bright sunshine. The whole family was present; the mother and the sisters had declared that they would only quit their loved one when she had been lowered into her last resting-place. And after the family came the friends, the Beauchenes, the Seguins, and others. But Mathieu and Marianne, worn out, overcome by suffering, no longer recognized people amid their tears. They only remembered on the morrow that they must have seen Morange, if indeed it were really Morange--that silent, unobtrusive, almost shadowy gentleman, who had wept while pressing their hands. And in like fashion Mathieu fancied that, in some horrible dream, he had seen Constance's spare figure and bony profile drawing near to him in the cemetery after the coffin had been lowered into the grave, and addressing vague words of consolation to him, though he fancied that her eyes flashed the while as if with abominable exultation.

What was it that she had said? He no longer knew. Of course her words must have been appropriate, even as her demeanor was that of a mourning relative. But a memory returned to him, that of other words which she had spoken when promising to attend the two weddings. She had then in bitter fashion expressed a wish that the good fortune of Chantebled might continue. But they, the Froments, so fruitful and so prosperous, were now stricken in their turn, and their good fortune had perhaps departed forever! Mathieu shuddered; his faith in the future was shaken; he was haunted by a fear of seeing prosperity and fruitfulness vanish, now that there was that open breach.

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CHAPTER XXDURING the ten years which followed, the vigorous sprouting of the Froments, suggestive of some healthy vegetation of joy and strength, continued in and around the ever and ever richer domain of Chantebled. As the sons and the daughters grew up there came fresh marriages, and more and more children, all the promised crop, all the promised swarming of a race of conquerors. First it was Gervais who married Caroline Boucher, daughter of a big farmer of the region, a fair, fine-featured, gay, strong girl, one of those superior women born to rule over a little army of servants. On
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CHAPTER XVAMID the deep mourning life slowly resumed its course at the Beauchene works. One effect of the terrible blow which had fallen on Beauchene was that for some weeks he remained quietly at home. Indeed, he seemed to have profited by the terrible lesson, for he no longer coined lies, no longer invented pressing business journeys as a pretext for dissipation. He even set to work once more, and busied himself about the factory, coming down every morning as in his younger days. And in Blaise he found an active and devoted lieutenant, on whom he each day cast more
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