In front of the building, half farmhouse, half manor-house, one of those rural habitations of a mixed character which were all but seigneurial, and which are at the present time occupied by large cultivators, the dogs, lashed beside the apple-trees in the orchard near the house, kept barking and howling at the sight of the shooting-bags carried by the gamekeepers and the boys. In the spacious dining-room kitchen, Hautot Senior and Hautot Junior, M. Bermont, the tax-collector, and M. Mondaru, the notary, were taking a bite and drinking some wine before going out to shoot, for it was the opening day.
Hautot Senior, proud of all his possessions, talked boastfully beforehand of the game which his guests were going to find on his lands. He was a big Norman, one of those powerful, ruddy, bony men, who can lift wagonloads of apples on their shoulders. Half peasant, half gentleman, rich, respected, influential, invested with authority, he made his son César go as far as the third form at school, so that he might be an educated man, and there he had brought his studies to a stop for fear of his becoming a fine gentleman and paying no attention to the land.
César Hautot, almost as tall as his father, but thinner, was a good son, docile, content with everything, full of admiration, respect, and deference for the wishes and opinions of his sire.
M. Bermont, the tax-collector, a stout little man, who showed on his red cheeks a thin network of violet veins resembling the tributaries and the winding courses of rivers on maps, asked:
“And hares–are there any hares on it?”
Hautot Senior answered: “As many as you like, especially in the Puysatier lands.”
“Which direction shall we begin in?” asked the notary, a jolly notary, fat and pale, big-paunched too, and strapped up in an entirely new hunting costume bought at Rouen.
“Well, that way, through these grounds. We will drive the partridges into the plain, and we will beat there again.”
And Hautot Senior rose up. They all followed his example, took their guns out of the corners, examined the locks, stamped with their feet in order to feel themselves firmer in their boots which were rather hard, not having as yet been rendered flexible by the heat of the blood. Then they went out; and the dogs, standing erect at the ends of their leashes, gave vent to piercing howls while beating the air with their paws.
They set forth for the lands referred to. These consisted of a little glen, or rather a long undulating stretch of inferior soil, which had on that account remained uncultivated, furrowed with mountain-torrents, covered with ferns, an excellent preserve for game.
The sportsmen took up their positions at some distance from each other, Hautot Senior posting himself at the right, Hautot Junior at the left, and the two guests in the middle. The keeper and those who carried the game-bags followed. It was the anxious moment when the first shot is awaited, when the heart beats a little, while the nervous finger keeps feeling at the trigger every second.
Suddenly the shot went off. Hautot Senior had fired. They all stopped, and saw a partridge breaking off from a covey which was rushing along at great speed to fall down into a ravine under a thick growth of brushwood. The sportsman, becoming excited, rushed forward with rapid strides, thrusting aside the briers which stood in his path, and disappeared in his turn into the thicket in quest of his game.
Almost at the same instant, a second shot was heard.
“Ha! ha! the rascal!” exclaimed M. Bermont, “he will unearth a hare down there.”
They all waited, with their eyes riveted on the heap of branches through which their gaze failed to penetrate.
The notary, making a speaking-trumpet of his hands, shouted:
“Have you got them?”
Hautot Senior made no response.
Then César, turning toward the keeper, said to him:
“Just go and assist him, Joseph. We must keep walking in a straight line. We’ll wait.”
And Joseph, an old stump of a man, lean and knotty, all of whose joints formed protuberances, proceeded at an easy pace down the ravine, searching at every opening through which a passage could be effected with the cautiousness of a fox. Then, suddenly, he cried:
“Oh! come! come! an unfortunate thing has occurred.”
They all hurried forward, plunging through the briers.
The elder Hautot, who had fallen on his side, in a fainting condition, kept both his hands over his stomach, from which flowed down upon the grass through the linen vest torn by the lead, long streamlets of blood. As he was laying down his gun, in order to seize the partridge within reach of him, he had let the firearm fall, and the second discharge, going off with the shock, had torn open his entrails. They drew him out of the trench; they removed his clothes and they saw a frightful wound, through which the intestines came out. Then, after having bandaged him the best way they could, they brought him back to his own house, and awaited the doctor, who had been sent for, as well as a priest.
When the doctor arrived, he gravely shook his head, and, turning toward young Hautot, who was sobbing on a chair:
“My poor boy,” said he, “this does not look well.”
But, when the dressing was finished, the wounded man moved his fingers, opened his mouth, then his eyes, cast around him troubled, haggard glances, then appeared to search about in his memory, to recollect, to understand, and he murmured:
“Ah! good God! this has done for me!”
The doctor held his hand.
“Why no, why no, some days of rest merely–it will be nothing.”
“It has done for me! My stomach is split open! I know it well.”
Then, all of a sudden:
“I want to talk to the son, if I have the time.”
Hautot Junior, in spite of himself, shed tears, and kept repeating like a little boy:
“P’pa, p’pa, poor p’pa!”
But the father, in a firmer tone:
“Come! stop crying–this is not the time for it. I have to talk to you. Sit down there quite close to me. It will be quickly done, and I shall be more calm. As for the rest of you, kindly give me one minute.”
They all went out, leaving the father and son face to face.
As soon as they were alone:
“Listen, son! you are twenty-four years; one can say things like this to you. And then there is not such mystery about these matters as we import into them. You know well that your mother has been seven years dead, isn’t that so? and that I am not more than forty-five years myself, seeing that I got married at nineteen? Is not that true?”
The son faltered:
“Yes, it is true.”
“So then your mother has been seven years dead, and I have remained a widower. Well! a man like me cannot remain without a wife at thirty-eight, isn’t that true?”
The son replied:
“Yes, it is true.”
The father, out of breath, quite pale, and his face contracted with suffering, went on:
“God! what pain I feel! Well, you understand. Man is not made to live alone, but I did not want to take a successor to your mother, since I promised her not to do so. Then–you understand?”
“So, I kept a young girl at Rouen, Rue d’Eperlan 18, in the third story, the second door,–I tell you all this, don’t forget,–but a young girl, who has been very nice to me, loving, devoted, a true woman, eh? You comprehend, my lad?”
“So then, if I am carried off, I owe something to her, something substantial, that will place her in a safe position. You understand?”
“I tell you that she is an honest girl, and that, but for you, and the remembrance of your mother, and again but for the house in which we three lived, I would have brought her here, and then married her, for certain–listen–listen, my lad. I might have made a will–I haven’t done so. I did not wish to do so–for it is not necessary to write down things–things of this sort–it is too hurtful to the legitimate children–and then it embroils everything–it ruins everyone! Look you, the stamped paper, there’s no need of it–never make use of it. If I am rich, it is because I have not made waste of what I have during my own life. You understand, my son?”
“Listen again–listen well to me! So then, I have made no will–I did not desire to do so–and then I knew what you were; you have a good heart; you are not niggardly, not too near, in any way; I said to myself that when my end approached I would tell you all about it, and that I would beg of you not to forget the girl. And then listen again! When I am gone, make your way to the place at once–and make such arrangements that she may not blame my memory. You have plenty of means. I leave it to you–I leave you enough. Listen! You won’t find her at home every day in the week. She works at Madame Moreau’s in the Rue Beauvoisine. Go there on a Thursday. That is the day she expects me. It has been my day for the past six years. Poor little thing! she will weep!–I say all this to you because I have known you so well, my son. One does not tell these things in public either to the notary or to the priest. They happen–everyone knows that–but they are not talked about, save in case of necessity. Then there is no outsider in the secret, nobody except the family, because the family consists of one person alone. You understand?”
“Do you promise?”
“Do you swear it?”
“I beg of you, I implore of you, so do not forget. I bind you to it.”
“You will go yourself. I want you to make sure of everything.”
“And, then, you will see–you will see what she will explain to you. As for me, I can say no more to you. You have vowed to do it.”
“That’s good, my son. Embrace me. Farewell. I am going to break up, I’m sure. Tell them they may come in.”
Young Hautot embraced his father, groaning while he did so; then, always docile, he opened the door, and the priest appeared in a white surplice, carrying the holy oils.
But the dying man had closed his eyes and he refused to open them again, he refused to answer, he refused to show, even by a sign, that he understood.
He had spoken enough, this man; he could speak no more. Besides he now felt his heart calm; he wanted to die in peace. What need had he to make a confession to the deputy of God, since he had just done so to his son, who constituted his own family?
He received the last rites, was purified and absolved, in the midst of his friends and his servants on their bended knees, without any movement of his face indicating that he still lived.
He expired about midnight, after four hours’ convulsive movements, which showed that he must have suffered dreadfully in his last moments.
It was on the following Tuesday that they buried him; the shooting had opened on Sunday. On his return home, after having accompanied his father to the cemetery, César Hautot spent the rest of the day weeping. He scarcely slept at all on the following night, and he felt so sad on awakening that he asked himself how he could go on living.
However, he kept thinking until evening that, in order to obey the last wish of his father, he ought to repair to Rouen next day, and see this girl Catholine Donet, who resided in the Rue d’Eperlan in the third story, second door. He had repeated to himself in a whisper, just as a little boy repeats a prayer, this name and address a countless number of times, so that he might not forget them, and he ended by lisping them continually, without being able to stop or to think of what they were, so much were his tongue and his mind possessed by the commission.
Accordingly, on the following day, about eight o’clock, he ordered Graindorge to be yoked to the tilbury, and set forth at the quick trotting pace of the heavy Norman horse, along the highroad from Ainville to Rouen. He wore his black frock-coat, a tall silk hat on his head, and breeches with straps; and he did not, on account of the occasion, dispense with the handsome costume, the blue overalls which swelled in the wind, protecting the cloth from dust and from stains, and which was to be removed quickly the moment he jumped out of the coach.
He entered Rouen accordingly just as it was striking ten o’clock, drew up, as he had usually done, at the Hôtel des Bon-Enfants, in the Rue des Trois-Marcs, submitted to the hugs of the landlord and his wife and their five children, for they had heard the melancholy news. After that, he had to tell them all the particulars about the accident, which caused him to shed tears, to repel all the proffered attentions which they sought to thrust upon him merely because he was wealthy, and to decline even the breakfast they wanted him to partake of, thus wounding their sensibilities.
Then, having wiped the dust off his hat, brushed his coat and removed the mud stains from his boots, he set forth in search of the Rue d’Eperlan, without venturing to make inquiries from anyone, for fear of being recognized and arousing suspicions.
At length, being unable to find the place, he saw a priest passing by, and, trusting to the professional discretion which churchmen possess, he questioned the ecclesiastic.
He had only a hundred steps farther to go; it was exactly the second street to the right.
Then he hesitated. Up to that moment, he had obeyed, like a mere animal, the expressed wish of the deceased. Now he felt quite agitated, confused, humiliated, at the idea of finding himself–the son–in the presence of this woman who had been his father’s mistress. All the morality which lies buried in our breasts, heaped up at the bottom of our sensuous emotions by centuries of hereditary instruction, all that he had been taught, since he had learned his catechism, about creatures of evil life, the instinctive contempt which every man entertains for them, even though he may marry one of them, all the narrow honesty of the peasant in his character, was stirred up within him and held him back, making him grow red with shame.
But he said to himself:
“I promised the father, I must not break my promise.”
Then he gave a push to the door of the house bearing the number 18, which stood ajar, discovered a gloomy-looking staircase, ascended three flights, perceived a door, then a second door, came upon the string of a bell, and pulled it. The ringing, which resounded in the apartment before which he stood, sent a shiver through his frame. The door was opened, and he found himself facing a young lady very well dressed, a brunette with a fresh complexion, who gazed at him with eyes of astonishment.
He did not know what to say to her, and she, who suspected nothing, and who was waiting for him to speak, did not invite him to come in. They stood looking thus at one another for nearly half a minute, at the end of which she said in a questioning tone:
“You have something to tell me, Monsieur?”
He falteringly replied:
“I am M. Hautot’s son.”
She gave a start, turned pale, and stammered out as if she had known him for a long time:
“And what next?”
“I have come to speak to you on the part of my father.”
“Oh, my God!”
She then drew back so that he might enter. He shut the door and followed her into the interior. Then he saw a little boy of four or five years playing with a cat, seated on the floor in front of a stove, from which rose the steam of dishes which were being kept hot.
“Take a seat,” she said.
He sat down.
He no longer ventured to speak, keeping his eyes fixed on the table which stood in the center of the room, with three covers laid on it, one of which was for a child. He glanced at the chair which had its back turned to the fire. They had been expecting him. That was his bread which he saw, and which he recognized near the fork, for the crust had been removed on account of Hautot’s bad teeth. Then, raising his eyes, he noticed on the wall his father’s portrait, the large photograph taken at Paris the year of the exhibition, the same as that which hung above the bed in the sleeping apartment at Ainville.
The young woman again asked:
“Well, Monsieur César?”
He kept staring at her. Her face was livid with anguish; and she waited, her hands trembling with fear.
Then he took courage.
“Well, Mam’zelle, papa died on Sunday last just after he had opened the shooting.”
She was so much overwhelmed that she did not move. After a silence of a few seconds, she faltered in an almost inaudible tone:
“Oh! it is not possible!”
Then, on a sudden, tears showed themselves in her eyes, and covering her face with her hands, she burst out sobbing.
At that point the little boy turned round, and, seeing his mother weeping, began to howl. Then, realizing that this sudden trouble was brought about by the stranger, he rushed at César, caught hold of his breeches with one hand and with the other hit him with all his strength on the thigh. And César remained agitated, deeply affected, with this woman mourning for his father at one side of him, and the little boy defending his mother at the other. He felt their emotion taking possession of himself, and his eyes were beginning to brim over with the same sorrow; so, to recover his self-command, he began to talk:
“Yes,” he said, “the accident occurred on Sunday, at eight o’clock–”
And he told, as if she were listening to him, all the facts without forgetting a single detail, mentioning the most trivial matters with the minuteness of a countryman. And the child still kept assailing him, making kicks at his ankles.
When he came to the time at which his father had spoken about her, her attention was caught by hearing her own name, and, uncovering her face, she said:
“Pardon me! I was not following you; I would like to know–if you do not mind beginning over again.”
He related everything at great length, with stoppages, breaks, and reflections of his own from time to time. She listened to him eagerly now perceiving with a woman’s keen sensibility all the sudden changes of fortune which his narrative indicated, and trembling with horror, every now and then, exclaiming:
“Oh, my God!”
The little fellow, believing that she had calmed down, ceased beating César, in order to catch his mother’s hand, and he listened, too, as if he understood.
When the narrative was finished, young Hautot continued:
“Now, we will settle matters together in accordance with his wishes. Listen: I am well off, he has left me plenty of means. I don’t want you to have anything to complain about–”
But she quickly interrupted him:
“Oh! Monsieur César, Monsieur César, not today. I am cut to the heart–another time–another day. No, not to-day. If I accept, listen! ‘Tis not for myself–no, no, no, I swear to you. ‘Tis for the child. Besides this provision will be put to his account.”
Thereupon César scared, divined the truth, and stammering:
“So then–’tis his–the child?”
“Why, yes,” she said.
And Hautot Junior gazed at his brother with a confused emotion, intense and painful.
After a lengthened silence, for she had begun to weep afresh, César, quite embarrassed, went on:
“Well, then, Mam’zelle Donet, I am going. When would you wish to talk this over with me?”
“Oh! no, don’t go! don’t go! Don’t leave me all alone with Emile. I would die of grief. I have no longer anyone, anyone but my child. Oh! what wretchedness, what wretchedness. Monsieur César! Stop! Sit down again. You will say something more to me. You will tell me what he was doing over there all the week.”
And César resumed his seat, accustomed to obey.
She drew over another chair for herself in front of the stove, where the dishes had all this time been simmering, took Emile upon her knees, and asked César a thousand questions about his father with reference to matters of an intimate nature, which made him feel, without reasoning on the subject, that she had loved Hautot with all the strength of her frail woman’s heart.
And, by the natural concatenation of his ideas–which were rather limited in number–he recurred once more to the accident, and set about telling the story over again with all the same details.
When he said: “He had a hole in his stomach–you could put your two fists into it,” she gave vent to a sort of shriek, and the tears gushed forth again from her eyes.
Then, seized by the contagion of her grief, César began to weep, too, and as tears always soften the fibers of the heart, he bent over Emile whose forehead was close to his own mouth and kissed him.
The mother, recovering her breath, murmured:
“Poor lad, he is an orphan now!”
“And so am I,” said César.
And they ceased to talk.
But suddenly the practical instinct of the housewife, accustomed to be thoughtful about many things, revived in the young woman’s breast.
“You have perhaps taken nothing all the morning, Monsieur César.”
“Oh! you must be hungry. You will eat a morsel.”
“Thanks,” he said, “I am not hungry; I have had too much trouble.”
“In spite of sorrow, we must live. You will not refuse to let me get something for you! And then you will remain a little longer. When you are gone I don’t know what will become of me.”
He yielded after some further resistance, and, sitting down with his back to the fire, facing her, he ate a plateful of tripe, which had been bubbling in the stove, and drank a glass of red wine. But he would not allow her to uncork the bottle of white wine. He several times wiped the mouth of the little boy, who had smeared all his chin with sauce.
As he was rising up to go, he asked:
“When would you like me to come back to speak about this business to you, Mam’zelle Donet?”
“If it is all the same to you, say next Thursday, Monsieur César. In that way I would lose none of my time, as I always have my Thursdays free.”
“That will suit me–next Thursday.”
“You will come to lunch. Won’t you?”
“Oh! On that point I can’t give you a promise.”
“The reason I suggested it is that people can chat better when they are eating. One has more time, too.”
“Well, be it so. About twelve o’clock, then.” And he took his departure, after he had again kissed little Emile, and pressed Mademoiselle Donet’s hand.
The week appeared long to César Hautot. He had never before found himself alone, and the isolation seemed to him insupportable. Till now, he had lived at his father’s side, just like his shadow, followed him into the fields, superintended the execution of his orders, and, when they had been a short time separated, again met him at dinner. They had spent the evenings smoking their pipes, face to face with one another, chatting about horses, cows, or sheep, and the grip of their hands when they rose up in the morning might have been regarded as a manifestation of deep family affection on both sides.
Now César was alone, he went vacantly through the process of dressing the soil in autumn, every moment expecting to see the tall gesticulating silhouette of his father rising up at the end of a plain. To kill time, he entered the houses of his neighbors, told about the accident to all who had not heard of it, and sometimes repeated it to the others. Then, after he had finished his occupations and his reflections, he would sit down at the side of the road, asking himself whether this kind of life was going to last forever.
He frequently thought of Mademoiselle Donet. He liked her. He considered her thoroughly respectable, a gentle and honest young woman, as his father had said. Yes, undoubtedly she was an honest girl. He resolved to act handsomely toward her, and to give her two thousand francs a year, settling the capital on the child. He even experienced a certain pleasure in thinking that he was going to see her on the following Thursday and arrange this matter with her. And then the notion of this brother, this little chap of five, who was his father’s son, plagued him, annoyed him a little, and at the same time, excited him. He had, as it were, a family in this brat, sprung from a clandestine alliance, who would never bear the name of Hautot, a family which he might take or leave, just as he pleased, but which would recall his father.
And so, when he saw himself on the road to Rouen on Thursday morning, carried along by Graindorge trotting with clattering foot-beats, he felt his heart lighter, more at peace than he had hitherto felt it since his bereavement.
On entering Mademoiselle Donet’s apartment, he saw the table laid as on the previous Thursday, with the sole difference that the crust had not been removed from the bread. He pressed the young woman’s hand, kissed Emile on the cheeks, and sat down, more or less as if he were in his own house, his heart swelling in the same way. Mademoiselle Donet seemed to him a little thinner and paler. She must have grieved sorely. She wore now an air of constraint in his presence, as if she understood what she had not felt the week before under the first blow of her misfortune, and she exhibited an excessive deference toward him, a mournful humility, and made touching efforts to please him, as if to pay him back by her attentions for the kindness he had manifested toward her. They were a long time at lunch talking over the business which had brought him there. She did not want so much money. It was too much. She earned enough to live on herself, but she only wished that Emile might find a few sous awaiting him when he grew big. César held out, however, and even added a gift of a thousand francs for herself for the expense of mourning.
When he had taken his coffee, she asked:
“Do you smoke?”
“Yes–I have my pipe.”
He felt in his pocket. Good God! He had forgotten it! He was becoming quite woe-begone about it when she offered him a pipe of his father’s that had been shut up in a cupboard. He accepted it, took it up in his hand, recognized it, smelled it, spoke of its quality in a tone of emotion, filled it with tobacco, and lighted it. Then he set Emile astride on his knee, and made him play the cavalier, while she removed the tablecloth and put the soiled plates at one end of the sideboard in order to wash them as soon as he was gone.
About three o’clock, he rose up with regret, quite annoyed at the thought of having to go.
“Well! Mademoiselle Donet,” he said, “I wish you good evening, and am delighted to have found you like this.”
She remained standing before him, blushing, much affected, and gazed at him while she thought of the other.
“Shall we not see one another again?” she said.
He replied simply:
“Why, yes, Mam’zelle, if it gives you pleasure.”
“Certainly, Monsieur César. Will next Thursday suit you then?”
“Yes, Mademoiselle Donet.”
“You will come to lunch, of course?”
“Well–if you are so kind as to invite me, I can’t refuse.”
“It is understood, then, Monsieur César–next Thursday, at twelve, the same as to-day.”
“Thursday at twelve, Mam’zelle Donet!”