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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesFruitfulness - Chapter 22
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Fruitfulness - Chapter 22 Post by :7thsound Category :Long Stories Author :Emile Zola Date :May 2012 Read :3531

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Fruitfulness - Chapter 22

CHAPTER XXII

STILL more years passed, and Mathieu was already sixty-eight and Marianne sixty-five, when amid the increasing good fortune which they owed to their faith in life, and their long courageous hopefulness, a last battle, the most dolorous of their existence, almost struck them down and sent them to the grave, despairing and inconsolable.

One evening Marianne went to bed, quivering, utterly distracted. Quite a rending was taking place in the family. A disastrous and hateful quarrel had set the mill, where Gregoire reigned supreme, against the farm which was managed by Gervais and Claire. And Ambroise, on being selected as arbiter, had fanned the flames by judging the affair in a purely business way from his Paris counting-house, without taking into account the various passions which were kindled.

It was on returning from a secret application to Ambroise, prompted by a maternal longing for peace, that Marianne had taken to her bed, wounded to the heart, and terrified by the thought of the future. Ambroise had received her roughly, almost brutally, and she had gone back home in a state of intense anguish, feeling as if her own flesh were lacerated by the quarrelling of her ungrateful sons. And she had kept her bed, begging Mathieu to say nothing, and explaining that a doctor's services would be useless, since she did not suffer from any malady. She was fading away, however, as he could well detect; she was day by day taking leave of him, carried off by her bitter grief. Was it possible that all those loving and well-loved children, who had grown up under their care and their caresses, who had become the joy and pride of their victory, all those children born of their love, united in their fidelity, a sacred brotherly, sisterly battalion gathered close around them, was it possible that they should now disband and desperately seek to destroy one another? If so, it was true, then, that the more a family increases, the greater is the harvest of ingratitude. And still more accurate became the saying, that to judge of any human being's happiness or unhappiness in life, one must wait until he be dead.

"Ah!" said Mathieu, as he sat near Marianne's bed, holding her feverish hand, "to think of it! To have struggled so much, and to have triumphed so much, and then to encounter this supreme grief, which will bring us more pain than all the others. Decidedly it is true that one must continue battling until one's last breath, and that happiness is only to be won by suffering and tears. We must still hope, still triumph, and conquer and live."

Marianne, however, had lost all courage, and seemed to be overwhelmed.

"No," said she, "I have no energy left me, I am vanquished. I was always able to heal the wounds which came from without, but this wound comes from my own blood; my blood pours forth within me and stifles me. All our work is destroyed. Our joy, our health, our strength, have at the last day become mere lies."

Then Mathieu, whom her grievous fears of a disaster gained, went off to weep in the adjoining room, already picturing his wife dead and himself in utter solitude.

It was with reference to Lepailleur's moorland, the plots intersecting the Chantebled estate, that the wretched quarrel had broken out between the mill and the farm. For many years already, the romantic, ivy-covered old mill, with its ancient mossy wheel, had ceased to exist. Gregoire, at last putting his father's ideas into execution, had thrown it down to replace it by a large steam mill, with spacious meal-stores which a light railway-line connected with Janville station. And he himself, since he had been making a big fortune--for all the wheat of the district was now sent to him--had greatly changed, with nothing of his youthful turbulence left save a quick temper, which his wife Therese with her brave, loving heart alone could somewhat calm. On a score of occasions he had almost broken off all relations with his father-in-law, Lepailleur, who certainly abused his seventy years. Though the old miller, in spite of all his prophecies of ruin, had been unable to prevent the building of the new establishment, he none the less sneered and jeered at it, exasperated as he was at having been in the wrong. He had, in fact, been beaten for the second time. Not only did the prodigious crops of Chantebled disprove his theory of the bankruptcy of the earth, that villainous earth in which, like an obstinate peasant weary of toil and eager for speedy fortune, he asserted nothing more would grow; but now that mill of his, which he had so disdained, was born as it were afresh, growing to a gigantic size, and becoming in his son-in-law's hands an instrument of great wealth.

The worst was that Lepailleur so stubbornly lived on, experiencing continual defeats, but never willing to acknowledge that he was beaten. One sole delight remained to him, the promise given and kept by Gregoire that he would not sell the moorland enclosure to the farm. The old man had even prevailed on him to leave it uncultivated, and the sight of that sterile tract intersecting the wavy greenery of the beautiful estate of Chantebled, like a spot of desolation, well pleased his spiteful nature. He was often to be seen strolling there, like an old king of the stones and the brambles, drawing up his tall, scraggy figure as if he were quite proud of the poverty of that soil. In going thither one of his objects doubtless was to find a pretext for a quarrel; for it was he who in the course of one of these promenades, when he displayed such provoking insolence, discovered an encroachment on the part of the farm--an encroachment which his comments magnified to such a degree that disastrous consequences seemed probable. As it was, all the happiness of the Froments was for a time destroyed.

In business matters Gregoire invariably showed the rough impulsiveness of a man of sanguine temperament, obstinately determined to part with no fraction of his rights. When his father-in-law told him that the farm had impudently cleared some seven acres of his moorland, with the intention no doubt of carrying this fine robbery even further, if it were not promptly stopped, Gregoire at once decided to inquire into the matter, declaring that he would not tolerate any invasion of that sort. The misfortune then was that no boundary stones could be found. Thus, the people of the farm might assert that they had made a mistake in all good faith, or even that they had remained within their limits. But Lepailleur ragefully maintained the contrary, entered into particulars, and traced what he declared to be the proper frontier line with his stick, swearing that within a few inches it was absolutely correct. However, matters went altogether from bad to worse after an interview between the brothers, Gervais and Gregoire, in the course of which the latter lost his temper and indulged in unpardonable language. On the morrow, too, he began an action-at-law, to which Gervais replied by threatening that he would not send another grain of corn to be ground at the mill. And this rupture of business relations meant serious consequences for the mill, which really owed its prosperity to the custom of Chantebled.

From that moment matters grew worse each day, and conciliation soon seemed to be out of the question; for Ambroise, on being solicited to find a basis of agreement, became in his turn impassioned, and even ended by enraging both parties. Thus the hateful ravages of that fratricidal war were increased: there were now three brothers up in arms against one another. And did not this forebode the end of everything; might not this destructive fury gain the whole family, overwhelming it as with a blast of folly and hatred after so many years of sterling good sense and strong and healthy affection?

Mathieu naturally tried to intervene. But at the very outset he felt that if he should fail, if his paternal authority should be disregarded, the disaster would become irreparable. Without renouncing the struggle, he therefore waited for some opportunity which he might turn to good account. At the same time, each successive day of discord increased his anxiety. It was really all his own life-work, the little people which had sprung from him, the little kingdom which he had founded under the benevolent sun, that was threatened with sudden ruin. A work such as this can only live by force of love. The love which created it can alone perpetuate it; it crumbles as soon as the bond of fraternal solidarity is broken. Thus it seemed to Mathieu that instead of leaving his work behind him in full florescence of kindliness, joy, and vigor, he would see it cast to the ground in fragments, soiled, and dead even before he were dead himself. Yet what a fruitful and prosperous work had hitherto been that estate of Chantebled, whose overflowing fertility increased at each successive harvest; and that mill too, so enlarged and so flourishing, which was the outcome of his own inspiring suggestions, to say nothing of the prodigious fortunes which his conquering sons had acquired in Paris! Yet it was all this admirable work, which faith in life had created, that a fratricidal onslaught upon life was about to destroy!

One evening, in the mournful gloaming of one of the last days of September, the couch on which Marianne lay dying of silent grief was, by her desire, rolled to the window. Charlotte alone nursed her, and of all her sons she had but the last one, Benjamin, beside her in the now over-spacious house which had replaced the old shooting-box. Since the family had been at war she had kept the doors closed, intent on opening them only to her children when they became reconciled, if they should then seek to make her happy by coming to embrace one another beneath her roof. But she virtually despaired of that sole cure for her grief, the only joy that would make her live again.

That evening, as Mathieu came to sit beside her, and they lingered there hand in hand according to their wont, they did not at first speak, but gazed straight before them at the spreading plain; at the estate, whose interminable fields blended with the mist far away; at the mill yonder on the banks of the Yeuse, with its tall, smoking chimney; and at Paris itself on the horizon, where a tawny cloud was rising as from the huge furnace of some forge.

The minutes slowly passed away. During the afternoon Mathieu had taken a long walk in the direction of the farms of Mareuil and Lillebonne, in the hope of quieting his torment by physical fatigue. And in a low voice, as if speaking to himself, he at last said:

"The ploughing could not take place under better conditions. Yonder on the plateau the quality of the soil has been much improved by the recent methods of cultivation; and here, too, on the slopes, the sandy soil has been greatly enriched by the new distribution of the springs which Gervais devised. The estate has almost doubled in value since it has been in his hands and Claire's. There is no break in the prosperity; labor yields unlimited victory."

"What is the good of it if there is no more love?" murmured Marianne.

"Then, too," continued Mathieu, after a pause, "I went down to the Yeuse, and from a distance I saw that Gregoire had received the new machine which Denis has just built for him. It was being unloaded in the yard. It seems that it imparts a certain movement to the mill-stones, which saves a good third of the power needed. With such appliances the earth may produce seas of corn for innumerable nations, they will all have bread. And that mill-engine, with its regular breath and motion, will produce fresh wealth also."

"What use is it if people hate one another?" Marianne exclaimed.

At this Mathieu dropped the subject. But, in accordance with a resolution which he had formed during his walk, he told his wife that he meant to go to Paris on the morrow. And on noticing her surprise, he pretended that he wished to see to a certain business matter, the settlement of an old account. But the truth was, that he could no longer endure the spectacle of his wife's lingering agony, which brought him so much suffering. He wished to act, to make a supreme effort at reconciliation.

At ten o'clock on the following morning, when Mathieu alighted from the train at the Paris terminus, he drove direct to the factory at Grenelle. Before everything else he wished to see Denis, who had hitherto taken no part in the quarrel. For a long time now, indeed ever since Constance's death, Denis had been installed in the house on the quay with his wife Marthe and their three children. This occupation of the luxurious dwelling set apart for the master had been like a final entry into possession, with respect to the whole works. True, Beauchene had lived several years longer, but his name no longer figured in that of the firm. He had surrendered his last shred of interest in the business for an annuity; and at last one evening it was learnt that he had died that day, struck down by an attack of apoplexy after an over-copious lunch, at the residence of his lady-friends, the aunt and the niece. He had previously been sinking into a state of second childhood, the outcome of his life of fast and furious pleasure. And this, then, was the end of the egotistical debauchee, ever going from bad to worse, and finally swept into the gutter.

"Why! what good wind has blown you here?" cried Denis gayly, when he perceived his father. "Have you come to lunch? I'm still a bachelor, you know; for it is only next Monday that I shall go to fetch Marthe and the children from Dieppe, where they have spent a delightful September."

Then, on hearing that his mother was ailing, even in danger, he become serious and anxious.

"Mamma ill, and in danger! You amaze me. I thought she was simply troubled with some little indisposition. But come, father, what is really the matter? Are you hiding something? Is something worrying you?"

Thereupon he listened to the plain and detailed statement which Mathieu felt obliged to make to him. And he was deeply moved by it, as if the dread of the catastrophe which it foreshadowed would henceforth upset his life. "What!" he angrily exclaimed, "my brothers are up to these fine pranks with their idiotic quarrel! I knew that they did not get on well together. I had heard of things which saddened me, but I never imagined that matters had gone so far, and that you and mamma were so affected that you had shut yourselves up and were dying of it all! But things must be set to rights! One must see Ambroise at once. Let us go and lunch with him, and finish the whole business."

Before starting he had a few orders to give, so Mathieu went down to wait for him in the factory yard. And there, during the ten minutes which he spent walking about dreamily, all the distant past arose before his eyes. He could see himself a mere clerk, crossing that courtyard every morning on his arrival from Janville, with thirty sous for his lunch in his pocket. The spot had remained much the same; there was the central building, with its big clock, the workshops and the sheds, quite a little town of gray structures, surmounted by two lofty chimneys, which were ever smoking. True, his son had enlarged this city of toil; the stretch of ground bordered by the Rue de la Federation and the Boulevard de Grenelle had been utilized for the erection of other buildings. And facing the quay there still stood the large brick house with dressings of white stone, of which Constance had been so proud, and where, with the mien of some queen of industry, she had received her friends in her little salon hung with yellow silk. Eight hundred men now worked in the place; the ground quivered with the ceaseless trepidation of machinery; the establishment had grown to be the most important of its kind in Paris, the one whence came the finest agricultural appliances, the most powerful mechanical workers of the soil. And it was his, Mathieu's, son whom fortune had made prince of that branch of industry, and it was his daughter-in-law who, with her three strong, healthy children near her, received her friends in the little salon hung with yellow silk.

As Mathieu, moved by his recollections, glanced towards the right, towards the pavilion where he had dwelt with Marianne, and where Gervais had been born, an old workman who passed, lifted his cap to him, saying, "Good day, Monsieur Froment."

Mathieu thereupon recognized Victor Moineaud, now five-and-fifty years old, and aged, and wrecked by labor to even a greater degree than his father had been at the time when mother Moineaud had come to offer the Monster her children's immature flesh. Entering the works at sixteen years of age, Victor, like his father, had spent forty years between the forge and the anvil. It was iniquitous destiny beginning afresh: the most crushing toil falling upon a beast of burden, the son hebetated after the father, ground to death under the millstones of wretchedness and injustice.

"Good day, Victor," said Mathieu, "are you well?"

"Oh, I'm no longer young, Monsieur Froment," the other replied. "I shall soon have to look somewhere for a hole to lie in. Still, I hope it won't be under an omnibus."

He alluded to the death of his father, who had finally been picked up under an omnibus in the Rue de Grenelle, with his skull split and both legs broken.

"But after all," resumed Victor, "one may as well die that way as any other! It's even quicker. The old man was lucky in having Norine and Cecile to look after him. If it hadn't been for them, it's starvation that would have killed him, not an omnibus."

Mathieu interrupted. "Are Norine and Cecile well?" he asked.

"Yes, Monsieur Froment. Leastways, as far as I know, for, as you can understand, we don't often see one another. Them and me, that's about all that's left out of our lot; for Irma won't have anything more to do with us since she's become one of the toffs. Euphrasie was lucky enough to die, and that brigand Alfred disappeared, which was real relief, I assure you; for I feared that I should be seeing him at the galleys. And I was really pleased when I had some news of Norine and Cecile lately. Norine is older than I am, you know; she will soon be sixty. But she was always strong, and her boy, it seems, looks after her. Both she and Cecile still work; yes, Cecile still lives on, though one used to think that a fillip would have killed her. It's a pretty home, that one of theirs; two mothers for a big lad of whom they've made a decent fellow."

Mathieu nodded approvingly, and then remarked: "But you yourself, Victor, had boys and girls who must now in their turn be fathers and mothers."

The old workman waved his hand vaguely.

"Yes," said he, "I had eight, one more than my father. They've all gone off, and they are fathers and mothers in their turn, as you say, Monsieur Froment. It's all chance, you know; one has to live. There are some of them who certainly don't eat white bread, ah! that they don't. And the question is whether, when my arms fail me, I shall find one to take me in, as Norine and Cecile took my father. But when everything's said, what can you expect? It's all seed of poverty, it can't grow well, or yield anything good."

For a moment he remained silent; then resuming his walk towards the works, with bent, weary back and hanging hands, dented by toil, he said: "Au revoir, Monsieur Froment."

"Au revoir, Victor," Mathieu answered in a kindly tone.

Having given his orders, Denis now came to join his father, and proposed to him that they should go on foot to the Avenue d'Antin. On the way he warned him that they would certainly find Ambroise alone, for his wife and four children were still at Dieppe, where, indeed, the two sisters-in-law, Andree and Marthe, had spent the season together.

In a period of ten years, Ambroise's fortune had increased tenfold. Though he was barely five-and-forty, he reigned over the Paris market. With his spirit of enterprise, he had greatly enlarged the business left him by old Du Hordel, transforming it into a really universal _comptoir_, through which passed merchandise from all parts of the world. Frontiers did not exist for Ambroise, he enriched himself with the spoils of the earth, particularly striving to extract from the colonies all the wealth they were able to yield, and carrying on his operations with such triumphant audacity, such keen perception, that the most hazardous of his campaigns ended victoriously.

A man of this stamp, whose fruitful activity was ever winning battles, was certain to devour the idle, impotent Seguins. In the downfall of their fortune, the dispersal of the home and family, he had carved a share for himself by securing possession of the house in the Avenue d'Antin. Seguin himself had not resided there for years, he had thought it original to live at his club, where he secured accommodation after he and his wife had separated by consent. Two of the children had also gone off; Gaston, now a major in the army, was on duty in a distant garrison town, and Lucie was cloistered in an Ursuline convent. Thus, Valentine, left to herself and feeling very dreary, no longer able, moreover, to keep up the establishment on a proper footing, in her turn quitted the mansion for a cheerful and elegant little flat on the Boulevard Malesherbes, where she finished her life as a very devout old lady, presiding over a society for providing poor mothers with baby-linen, and thus devoting herself to the children of others--she who had not known how to bring up her own. And, in this wise, Ambroise had simply had to take possession of the empty mansion, which was heavily mortgaged, to such an extent, indeed, that when the Seguins died their heirs would certainly be owing him money.

Many were the recollections which awoke when Mathieu, accompanied by Denis, entered that princely mansion of the Avenue d'Antin! There, as at the factory, he could see himself arriving in poverty, as a needy tenant begging his landlord to repair a roof, in order that the rain might no longer pour down on the four children, whom, with culpable improvidence, he already had to provide for. There, facing the avenue, was the sumptuous Renaissance facade with eight lofty windows on each of its upper floors; there, inside, was the hall, all bronze and marble, conducting to the spacious ground-floor reception-rooms which a winter garden prolonged; and there, up above, occupying all the central part of the first floor, was Seguin's former "cabinet," the vast apartment with lofty windows of old stained glass. Mathieu could well remember that room with its profuse and amusing display of "antiquities," old brocades, old goldsmith's ware and old pottery, and its richly bound books, and its famous modern pewters. And he remembered it also at a later date, in the abandonment to which it had fallen, the aspect of ruin which it had assumed, covered, as it was, with gray dust which bespoke the slow crumbling of the home. And now he found it once more superb and cheerful, renovated with healthier and more substantial luxury by Ambroise, who had put masons and joiners and upholsterers into it for a period of three months. The whole mansion now lived afresh, more luxurious than ever, filled at winter-time with sounds of festivity, enlivened by the laughter of four happy children, and the blaze of a living fortune which effort and conquest ever renewed. And it was no longer Seguin, the idler, the artisan of nothingness, whom Mathieu came to see there, it was his own son Ambroise, a man of creative energy, whose victory had been sought by the very forces of life, which had made him triumph there, installed him as the master in the home of the vanquished.

When Mathieu and Denis arrived Ambroise was absent, but was expected home for lunch. They waited for him, and as the former again crossed the ante-room the better to judge of some new arrangements that had been made, he was surprised at being stopped by a lady who was sitting there patiently, and whom he had not previously noticed.

"I see that Monsieur Froment does not recognize me," she said.

Mathieu made a vague gesture. The woman had a tall, plump figure, and was certainly more than sixty years of age; but she evidently took care of her person, and had a smiling mien, with a long, full face and almost venerable white hair. One might have taken her for some worthy, well-to-do provincial bourgeoise in full dress.

"Celeste," said she. "Celeste, Madame Seguin's former maid."

Thereupon he fully recognized her, but hid his stupefaction at finding her so fortunately circumstanced at the close of her career. He had imagined that she was buried in some sewer.

In a gay, placid way she proceeded to recount her happiness: "Oh! I am very pleased," she said; "I had retired to Rougemont, my birth-place, and I ended by there marrying a retired naval officer, who has a very comfortable pension, not to speak of a little fortune which his first wife left him. As he has two big sons, I ventured to recommend the younger one to Monsieur Ambroise, who was kind enough to take him into his counting-house. And so I have profited by my first journey to Paris since then, to come and give Monsieur Ambroise my best thanks."

She did not say how she had managed to marry the retired naval officer; how she had originally been a servant in his household, and how she had hastened his first wife's death in order to marry him. All things considered, however, she rendered him very happy, and even rid him of his sons, who were in his way, thanks to the relations she had kept up in Paris.

She continued smiling like a worthy woman, whose feelings softened at the recollection of the past. "You can have no idea how pleased I felt when I saw you pass just now, Monsieur Froment," she resumed. "Ah! it was a long time ago that I first had the honor of seeing you here! You remember La Couteau, don't you? She was always complaining, was she not? But she is very well pleased now; she and her husband have retired to a pretty little house of their own, with some little savings which they live on very quietly. She is no longer young, but she has buried a good many in her time, and she'll bury more before she has finished! For instance, Madame Menoux--you must surely remember Madame Menoux, the little haberdasher close by--well, there was a woman now who never had any luck! She lost her second child, and she lost that big fellow, her husband, whom she was so fond of, and she herself died of grief six months afterwards. I did at one time think of taking her to Rougemont, where the air is so good for one's health. There are old folks of ninety living there. Take La Couteau, for instance, she will live as long as she likes! Oh! yes, it is a very pleasant part indeed, a perfect paradise."

At these words the abominable Rougemont, the bloody Rougemont, arose before Mathieu's eyes, rearing its peaceful steeple above the low plain, with its cemetery paved with little Parisians, where wild flowers bloomed and hid the victims of so many murders.

But Celeste was rattling on again, saying: "You remember Madame Bourdieu whom you used to know in the Rue de Miromesnil; she died very near our village on some property where she went to live when she gave up business, a good many years ago. She was luckier than her colleague La Rouche, who was far too good-natured with people. You must have read about her case in the newspapers, she was sent to prison with a medical man named Sarraille."

"La Rouche! Sarraille!" Yes, Mathieu had certainly read the trial of those two social pests, who were fated to meet at last in their work of iniquity. And what an echo did those names awaken in the past: Valerie Morange! Reine Morange! Already in the factory yard Mathieu had fancied that he could see the shadow of Morange gliding past him--the punctual, timid, soft-hearted accountant, whom misfortune and insanity had carried off into the darkness. And suddenly the unhappy man here again appeared to Mathieu, like a wandering phantom, the restless victim of all the imbecile ambition, all the desperate craving for pleasure which animated the period; a poor, weak, mediocre being, so cruelly punished for the crimes of others, that he was doubtless unable to sleep in the tomb into which he had flung himself, bleeding, with broken limbs. And before Mathieu's eyes there likewise passed the spectre of Seraphine, with the fierce and pain-fraught face of one who is racked and killed by insatiate desire.

"Well, excuse me for having ventured to stop you, Monsieur Froment," Celeste concluded; "but I am very, very pleased at having met you again."

He was still looking at her; and as he quitted her he said, with the indulgence born of his optimism: "May you keep happy since you are happy. Happiness must know what it does."

Nevertheless, Mathieu remained disturbed, as he thought of the apparent injustice of impassive nature. The memory of his Marianne, struck down by such deep grief, pining away through the impious quarrels of her sons, returned to him. And as Ambroise at last came in and gayly embraced him, after receiving Celeste's thanks, he felt a thrill of anguish, for the decisive moment which would save or wreck the family was now at hand.

Indeed, Denis, after inviting himself and Mathieu to lunch, promptly plunged into the subject.

"We are not here for the mere pleasure of lunching with you," said he; "mamma is ill, did you know it?"

"Ill?" said Ambroise. "Not seriously ill?"

"Yes, very ill, in danger. And are you aware that she has been ill like this ever since she came to speak to you about the quarrel between Gregoire and Gervais, when it seems that you treated her very roughly."

"I treated her roughly? We simply talked business, and perhaps I spoke to her like a business man, a little bluntly."

Then Ambroise turned towards Mathieu, who was waiting, pale and silent: "Is it true, father, that mamma is ill and causes you anxiety?"

And as his father replied with a long affirmative nod, he gave vent to his emotion, even as Denis had done at the works immediately on learning the truth.

"But dash it all," he said; "this affair is becoming quite idiotic! In my opinion Gregoire is right and Gervais wrong. Only I don't care a fig about that; they must make it up at once, so that poor mamma may not have another moment's suffering. But then, why did you shut yourselves up? Why did you not let us know how grieved you were? Every one would have reflected and understood things."

Then, all at once, Ambroise embraced his father with that promptness of decision which he displayed to such happy effect in business as soon as ever a ray of light illumined his mind.

"After all, father," said he; "you are the cleverest; you understand things and foresee them. Even if Gregoire were within his rights in bringing an action against Gervais, it would be idiotic for him to do so, because far above any petty private interest, there is the interest of all of us, the interest of the family, which is to remain, united, compact, and unattackable, if it desires to continue invincible. Our sovereign strength lies in our union--And so it's simple enough. We will lunch as quickly as possible and take the first train. We shall go, Denis and I, to Chantebled with you. Peace must be concluded this evening. I will see to it."

Laughing, and well pleased to find his own feelings shared by his two sons, Mathieu returned Ambroise's embrace. And while waiting for lunch to be served, they went down to see the winter garden, which was being enlarged for some fetes which Ambroise wished to give. He took pleasure in adding to the magnificence of the mansion, and in reigning there with princely pomp. At lunch he apologized for only offering his father and brother a bachelor's pot-luck, though, truth to tell, the fare was excellent. Indeed, whenever Andree and the children absented themselves, Ambroise still kept a good cook to minister to his needs, for he held the cuisine of restaurants in horror.

"Well, for my part," said Denis, "I go to a restaurant for my meals; for since Marthe and all the others have been at Dieppe, I have virtually shut up the house."

"You are a wise man, you see," Ambroise answered, with quiet frankness. "For my part, as you are aware, I am an enjoyer. Now, make haste and drink your coffee, and we will start."

They reached Janville by the two o'clock train. Their plan was to repair to Chantebled in the first instance, in order that Ambroise and Denis might begin by talking to Gervais, who was of a gentler nature than Gregoire, and with whom they thought they might devise some means of conciliation. Then they intended to betake themselves to the mill, lecture Gregoire, and impose on him such peace conditions as they might have agreed upon. As they drew nearer and nearer to the farm, however, the difficulties of their undertaking appeared to them, and seemed to increase in magnitude. An arrangement would not be arrived at so easily as they had at first imagined. So they girded their loins in readiness for a hard battle.

"Suppose we begin by going to see mamma," Denis suggested. "We should see and embrace her, and that would give us some courage."

Ambroise deemed the idea an excellent one. "Yes, let us go by all means, particularly as mamma has always been a good counsellor. She must have some idea."

They climbed to the first floor of the house, to the spacious room where Marianne spent her days on a couch beside the window. And to their stupefaction they found her seated on that couch with Gregoire standing by her and holding both her hands, while on the other side were Gervais and Claire, laughing softly.

"Why! what is this?" exclaimed Ambroise in amazement. "The work is done!"

"And we who despaired of being able to accomplish it!" declared Denis, with a gesture of bewilderment.

Mathieu was equally stupefied and delighted, and on noticing the surprise occasioned by the arrival of the two big brothers from Paris, he proceeded to explain the position.

"I went to Paris this morning to fetch them," he said, "and I've brought them here to reconcile us all!"

A joyous peal of laughter resounded. The big brothers were too late! Neither their wisdom nor their diplomacy had been needed. They themselves made merry over it, feeling the while greatly relieved that the victory should have been won without any battle.

Marianne, whose eyes were moist, and who felt divinely happy, so happy that she seemed already well again, simply replied to Mathieu: "You see, my friend, it's done. But as yet I know nothing further. Gregoire came here and kissed me, and wished me to send for Gervais and Claire at once. Then, of his own accord, he told them that they were all three mad in causing me such grief, and that they ought to come to an understanding together. Thereupon they kissed one another. And now it's done; it's all over."

But Gregoire gayly intervened. "Wait a moment; just listen; I cut too fine a figure in the story as mamma relates it, and I must tell you the truth. I wasn't the first to desire the reconciliation; the first was my wife, Therese. She has a good sterling heart and the very brains of a mule, in such wise that whenever she is determined on anything I always have to do it in the end. Well, yesterday evening we had a bit of a quarrel, for she had heard, I don't know how, that mamma was ill with grief. And this pained her, and she tried to prove to me how stupid the quarrel was, for we should all of us lose by it. This morning she began again, and of course she convinced me, more particularly as, with the thought of poor mamma lying ill through our fault, I had hardly slept all night. But father Lepailleur still had to be convinced, and Therese undertook to do that also. She even hit upon something extraordinary, so that the old man might imagine that he was the conqueror of conquerors. She persuaded him at last to sell you that terrible enclosure at such an insane price that he will be able to shout 'victory!' over all the house-tops."

Then turning to his brother and sister, Gregoire added, in a jocular tone; "My dear Gervais, my dear Claire, let yourselves be robbed, I beg of you. The peace of my home is at stake. Give my father-in-law the last joy of believing that he alone has always been in the right, and that we have never been anything but fools."

"Oh! as much money as he likes," replied Gervais, laughing. "Besides, that enclosure has always been a dishonor for the estate, streaking it with stones and brambles, like a nasty sore. We have long dreamt of seeing the property spotless, with its crops waving without a break under the sun. And Chantebled is rich enough to pay for its glory."

Thus the affair was settled. The wheat of the farm would return to the mill to be ground, and the mother would get well again. It was the force of life, the need of love, the union necessary for the whole family if it were to continue victorious, that had imposed true brotherliness on the sons, who for a moment had been foolish enough to destroy their power by assailing one another.

The delight of finding themselves once more together there, Denis, Ambroise, Gervais, Gregoire, the four big brothers, and Claire, the big sister, all reconciled and again invincible, increased when Charlotte arrived, bringing with her the other three daughters, Louise, Madeleine, and Marthe, who had married and settled in the district. Louise, having heard that her mother was ill, had gone to fetch her sisters, in order that they might repair to Chantebled together. And what a hearty laugh there was when the procession entered!

"Let them all come!" cried Ambroise, in a jocular way. "Let's have the family complete, a real meeting of the great privy council. You see, mamma, you must get well at once; the whole of your court is at your knees, and unanimously decides that it can no longer allow you to have even a headache."

Then, as Benjamin put in an appearance the very last, behind the three sisters, the laughter broke out afresh.

"And to think that we were forgetting Benjamin!" Mathieu exclaimed.

"Come, little one, come and kiss me in your turn," said Marianne affectionately, in a low voice. "The others jest because you are the last of the brood. But if I spoil you that only concerns ourselves, does it not? Tell them that you spent the morning with me, and that if you went out for a walk it was because I wished you to do so."

Benjamin smiled with a gentle and rather sad expression. "But I was downstairs, mamma; I saw them go up one after the other. I waited for them all to kiss, before coming up in my turn."

He was already one-and-twenty and extremely handsome, with a bright face, large brown eyes, long curly hair, and a frizzy, downy beard. Though he had never been ill, his mother would have it that he was weak, and insisted on coddling him. All of them, moreover, were very fond of him, both for his grace of person and the gentle charm of his disposition. He had grown up in a kind of dream, full of a desire which he could not put into words, ever seeking the unknown, something which he knew not, did not possess. And when his parents saw that he had no taste for any profession, and that even the idea of marrying did not appeal to him, they evinced no anger, but, on the contrary, they secretly plotted to keep this son, their last-born, life's final gift, to themselves. Had they not surrendered all the others? Would they not be forgiven for yielding to the egotism of love by reserving one for themselves, one who would be theirs entirely, who would never marry, or toil and moil, but would merely live beside them and love them, and be loved in return? This was the dream of their old age, the share which, in return for long fruitfulness, they would have liked to snatch from devouring life, which, though it gives one everything, yet takes everything away.

"Oh! just listen, Benjamin," Ambroise suddenly resumed, "you are interested in our brave Nicolas, I know. Would you like to have some news of him? I heard from him only the day before yesterday. And it's right that I should speak of him, since he's the only one of the brood, as mamma puts it, who cannot be here."

Benjamin at once became quite excited, asking, "Is it true? Has he written to you? What does he say? What is he doing?"

He could never think without emotion of Nicolas's departure for Senegal. He was twelve years old at that time, and nearly nine years had gone by since then, yet the scene, with that eternal farewell, that flight, as it were, into the infinite of time and hope, was ever present in his mind.

"You know that I have business relations with Nicolas," resumed Ambroise. "Oh! if we had but a few fellows as intelligent and courageous as he is in our colonies, we should soon rake in all the scattered wealth of those virgin lands. Well, Nicolas, as you are aware, went to Senegal with Lisbeth, who was the very companion and helpmate he needed. Thanks to the few thousand francs which they possessed between them, they soon established a prosperous business; but I divined that the field was still too small for them, and that they dreamt of clearing and conquering a larger expanse. And now, all at once, Nicolas writes to me that he is starting for the Soudan, the valley of the Niger, which has only lately been opened. He is taking his wife and his four children with him, and they are all going off to conquer as fortune may will it, like valiant pioneers beset by the idea of founding a new world. I confess that it amazes me, for it is a very hazardous enterprise. But all the same one must admit that our Nicolas is a very plucky fellow, and one can't help admiring his great energy and faith in thus setting out for an almost unknown region, fully convinced that he will subject and populate it."

Silence fell. A great gust seemed to have swept by, the gust of the infinite coming from the far away mysterious virgin plains. And the family could picture that young fellow, one of themselves, going off through the deserts, carrying the good seed of humanity under the spreading sky into unknown climes.

"Ah!" said Benjamin softly, his eyes dilating and gazing far, far away as if to the world's end; "ah! he's happy, for he sees other rivers, and other forests, and other suns than ours!"

But Marianne shuddered. "No, no, my boy," said she; "there are no other rivers than the Yeuse, no other forests but our woods of Lillebonne, no other sun but that of Chantebled. Come and kiss me again--let us all kiss once more, and I shall get well, and we shall never be parted again."

The laughter began afresh with the embraces. It was a great day, a day of victory, the most decisive victory which the family had ever won by refusing to let discord destroy it. Henceforth it would be invincible.

At twilight, on the evening of that day, Mathieu and Marianne again found themselves, as on the previous evening, hand in hand near the window whence they could see the estate stretching to the horizon; that horizon behind which arose the breath of Paris, the tawny cloud of its gigantic forge. But how little did that serene evening resemble the other, and how great was their present felicity, their trust in the goodness of their work.

"Do you feel better?" Mathieu asked his wife; "do you feel your strength returning; does your heart beat more freely?"

"Oh! my friend, I feel cured; I was only pining with grief. To-morrow I shall be strong."

Then Mathieu sank into a deep reverie, as he sat there face to face with his conquest--that estate which spread out under the setting sun. And again, as in the morning, did recollections crowd upon him; he remembered a morning more than forty years previously when he had left Marianne, with thirty sous in her purse, in the little tumbledown shooting-box on the verge of the woods. They lived there on next to nothing; they owed money, they typified gay improvidence with the four little mouths which they already had to feed, those children who had sprung from their love, their faith in life.

Then he recalled his return home at night time, the three hundred francs, a month's salary, which he had carried in his pocket, the calculations which he had made, the cowardly anxiety which he had felt, disturbed as he was by the poisonous egotism which he had encountered in Paris. There were the Beauchenes, with their factory, and their only son, Maurice, whom they were bringing up to be a future prince, the Beauchenes, who had prophesied to him that he and his wife and their troop of children could only expect a life of black misery, and death in a garret. There were also the Seguins, then his landlords, who had shown him their millions, and their magnificent mansion, full of treasures, crushing him the while, treating him with derisive pity because he did not behave sensibly like themselves, who were content with having but two children, a boy and a girl. And even those poor Moranges had talked to him of giving a royal dowry to their one daughter Reine, dreaming at that time of an appointment that would bring in twelve thousand francs a year, and full of contempt for the misery which a numerous family entails. And then the very Lepailleurs, the people of the mill, had evinced distrust because there were twelve francs owing to them for milk and eggs; for it had seemed to them doubtful whether a bourgeois, insane enough to have so many children, could possibly pay his debts. Ah! the views of the others had then appeared to be correct; he had repeated to himself that he would never have a factory, nor a mansion, nor even a mill, and that in all probability he would never earn twelve thousand francs a year. The others had everything and he nothing. The others, the rich, behaved sensibly, and did not burden themselves with offspring; whereas, he, the poor man, already had more children than he could provide for. What madness it had seemed to be!

But forty years had rolled away, and behold his madness was wisdom! He had conquered by his divine improvidence; the poor man had vanquished the wealthy. He had placed his trust in the future, and now the whole harvest was garnered. The Beauchene factory was his through his son Denis; the Seguins' mansion was his through his son Ambroise; the Lepailleurs' mill was his through his son Gregoire. Tragical, even excessive punishment, had blown those sorry Moranges away in a tempest of blood and insanity. And other social wastage had swept by and rolled into the gutter; Seraphine, the useless creature, had succumbed to her passions; the Moineauds had been dispersed, annihilated by their poisonous environment. And he, Mathieu, and Marianne alone remained erect, face to face with that estate of Chantebled, which they had conquered from the Seguins, and where their children, Gervais and Claire, at present reigned, prolonging the dynasty of their race. This was their kingdom; as far as the eye could see the fields spread out with wondrous fertility under the sun's farewell, proclaiming the battles, the heroic creative labor of their lives. There was their work, there was what they had produced, whether in the realm of animate or inanimate nature, thanks to the power of love within them, and their energy of will. By love, and resolution, and action, they had created a world.

"Look, look!" murmured Mathieu, waving his arm, "all that has sprung from us, and we must continue to love, we must continue to be happy, in order that it may all live."

"Ah!" Marianne gayly replied, "it will live forever now, since we have all become reconciled and united amid our victory."

Victory! yes, it was the natural, necessary victory that is reaped by the numerous family! Thanks to numbers they had ended by invading every sphere and possessing everything. Fruitfulness was the invincible, sovereign conqueress. Yet their conquest had not been meditated and planned; ever serenely loyal in their dealings with others, they owed it simply to the fulfilment of duty throughout their long years of toil. And they now stood before it hand in hand, like heroic figures, glorious because they had ever been good and strong, because they had created abundantly, because they had given abundance of joy, and health, and hope to the world amid all the everlasting struggles and the everlasting tears.

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