The two cottages stood beside each other at the foot of a hill near a little seashore resort. The two peasants labored hard on the unproductive soil to rear their little ones, and each family had four.
Before the adjoining doors a whole troop of urchins played and tumbled about from morning till night. The two eldest were six years old, and the youngest were about fifteen months; the marriages, and afterward the births, having taken place nearly simultaneously in both families.
The two mothers could hardly distinguish their own offspring among the lot, and as for the fathers, they were altogether at sea. The eight names danced in their heads; they were always getting them mixed up; and when they wished to call one child, the men often called three names before getting the right one.
The first of the two cottages, as you came up from the bathing beach, Rolleport, was occupied by the Tuvaches, who had three girls and one boy; the other house sheltered the Vallins, who had one girl and three boys.
They all subsisted frugally on soup, potatoes and fresh air. At seven o’clock in the morning, then at noon, then at six o’clock in the evening, the housewives got their broods together to give them their food, as the gooseherds collect their charges. The children were seated, according to age, before the wooden table, varnished by fifty years of use; the mouths of the youngest hardly reaching the level of the table. Before them was placed a bowl filled with bread, soaked in the water in which the potatoes had been boiled, half a cabbage and three onions; and the whole line ate until their hunger was appeased. The mother herself fed the smallest.
A small pot roast on Sunday was a feast for all; and the father on this day sat longer over the meal, repeating: “I wish we could have this every day.”
One afternoon, in the month of August, a phaeton stopped suddenly in front of the cottages, and a young woman, who was driving the horses, said to the gentleman sitting at her side:
“Oh, look at all those children, Henri! How pretty they are, tumbling about in the dust, like that!”
The man did not answer, accustomed to these outbursts of admiration, which were a pain and almost a reproach to him. The young woman continued:
“I must hug them! Oh, how I should like to have one of them–that one there–the little tiny one!”
Springing down from the carriage, she ran toward the children, took one of the two youngest–a Tuvache child–and lifting it up in her arms, she kissed him passionately on his dirty cheeks, on his tousled hair daubed with earth, and on his little hands, with which he fought vigorously, to get away from the caresses which displeased him.
Then she got into the carriage again, and drove off at a lively trot. But she returned the following week, and seating herself on the ground, took the youngster in her arms, stuffed him with cakes; gave candies to all the others, and played with them like a young girl, while the husband waited patiently in the carriage.
She returned again; made the acquaintance of the parents, and reappeared every day with her pockets full of dainties and pennies.
Her name was Madame Henri d’Hubieres.
One morning, on arriving, her husband alighted with her, and without stopping to talk to the children, who now knew her well, she entered the farmer’s cottage.
They were busy chopping wood for the fire. They rose to their feet in surprise, brought forward chairs, and waited expectantly.
Then the woman, in a broken, trembling voice, began:
“My good people, I have come to see you, because I should like–I should like to take–your little boy with me–”
The country people, too bewildered to think, did not answer.
She recovered her breath, and continued: “We are alone, my husband and I. We would keep it. Are you willing?”
The peasant woman began to understand. She asked:
“You want to take Charlot from us? Oh, no, indeed!”
Then M. d’Hubieres intervened:
“My wife has not made her meaning clear. We wish to adopt him, but he will come back to see you. If he turns out well, as there is every reason to expect, he will be our heir. If we, perchance, should have children, he will share equally with them; but if he should not reward our care, we should give him, when he comes of age, a sum of twenty thousand francs, which shall be deposited immediately in his name, with a lawyer. As we have thought also of you, we should pay you, until your death, a pension of one hundred francs a month. Do you understand me?”
The woman had arisen, furious.
“You want me to sell you Charlot? Oh, no, that’s not the sort of thing to ask of a mother! Oh, no! That would be an abomination!”
The man, grave and deliberate, said nothing; but approved of what his wife said by a continued nodding of his head.
Madame d’Hubieres, in dismay, began to weep; turning to her husband, with a voice full of tears, the voice of a child used to having all its wishes gratified, she stammered:
“They will not do it, Henri, they will not do it.”
Then he made a last attempt: “But, my friends, think of the child’s future, of his happiness, of–”
The peasant woman, however, exasperated, cut him short:
“It’s all considered! It’s all understood! Get out of here, and don’t let me see you again–the idea of wanting to take away a child like that!”
Madame d’Hubieres remembered that there were two children, quite little, and she asked, through her tears, with the tenacity of a wilful and spoiled woman:
“But is the other little one not yours?”
Father Tuvache answered: “No, it is our neighbors’. You can go to them if you wish.” And he went back into his house, whence resounded the indignant voice of his wife.
The Vallins were at table, slowly eating slices of bread which they parsimoniously spread with a little rancid butter on a plate between the two.
M. d’Hubieres recommenced his proposals, but with more insinuations, more oratorical precautions, more shrewdness.
The two country people shook their heads, in sign of refusal, but when they learned that they were to have a hundred francs a month, they considered the matter, consulting one another by glances, much disturbed. They kept silent for a long time, tortured, hesitating. At last the woman asked: “What do you say to it, man?” In a weighty tone he said: “I say that it’s not to be despised.”
Madame d’Hubieres, trembling with anguish, spoke of the future of their child, of his happiness, and of the money which he could give them later.
The peasant asked: “This pension of twelve hundred francs, will it be promised before a lawyer?”
M. d’Hubieres responded: “Why, certainly, beginning with to-morrow.”
The woman, who was thinking it over, continued:
“A hundred francs a month is not enough to pay for depriving us of the child. That child would be working in a few years; we must have a hundred and twenty francs.”
Tapping her foot with impatience, Madame d’Hubieres granted it at once, and, as she wished to carry off the child with her, she gave a hundred francs extra, as a present, while her husband drew up a paper. And the young woman, radiant, carried off the howling brat, as one carries away a wished-for knick-knack from a shop.
The Tuvaches, from their door, watched her departure, silent, serious, perhaps regretting their refusal.
Nothing more was heard of little Jean Vallin. The parents went to the lawyer every month to collect their hundred and twenty francs. They had quarrelled with their neighbors, because Mother Tuvache grossly insulted them, continually, repeating from door to door that one must be unnatural to sell one’s child; that it was horrible, disgusting, bribery. Sometimes she would take her Charlot in her arms, ostentatiously exclaiming, as if he understood:
“I didn’t sell you, I didn’t! I didn’t sell you, my little one! I’m not rich, but I don’t sell my children!”
The Vallins lived comfortably, thanks to the pension. That was the cause of the unappeasable fury of the Tuvaches, who had remained miserably poor. Their eldest went away to serve his time in the army; Charlot alone remained to labor with his old father, to support the mother and two younger sisters.
He had reached twenty-one years when, one morning, a brilliant carriage stopped before the two cottages. A young gentleman, with a gold watch- chain, got out, giving his hand to an aged, white-haired lady. The old lady said to him: “It is there, my child, at the second house.” And he entered the house of the Vallins as though at home.
The old mother was washing her aprons; the infirm father slumbered at the chimney-corner. Both raised their heads, and the young man said:
“Good-morning, papa; good-morning, mamma!”
They both stood up, frightened! In a flutter, the peasant woman dropped her soap into the water, and stammered:
“Is it you, my child? Is it you, my child?”
He took her in his arms and hugged her, repeating: “Good-morning, mamma,” while the old man, all a-tremble, said, in his calm tone which he never lost: “Here you are, back again, Jean,” as if he had just seen him a month ago.
When they had got to know one another again, the parents wished to take their boy out in the neighborhood, and show him. They took him to the mayor, to the deputy, to the cure, and to the schoolmaster.
Charlot, standing on the threshold of his cottage, watched him pass. In the evening, at supper, he said to the old people: “You must have been stupid to let the Vallins’ boy be taken.”
The mother answered, obstinately: “I wouldn’t sell my child.”
The father remained silent. The son continued:
“It is unfortunate to be sacrificed like that.”
Then Father Tuvache, in an angry tone, said:
“Are you going to reproach us for having kept you?” And the young man said, brutally:
“Yes, I reproach you for having been such fools. Parents like you make the misfortune of their children. You deserve that I should leave you.” The old woman wept over her plate. She moaned, as she swallowed the spoonfuls of soup, half of which she spilled: “One may kill one’s self to bring up children!”
Then the boy said, roughly: “I’d rather not have been born than be what I am. When I saw the other, my heart stood still. I said to myself: ‘See what I should have been now!'” He got up: “See here, I feel that I would do better not to stay here, because I would throw it up to you from morning till night, and I would make your life miserable. I’ll never forgive you for that!”
The two old people were silent, downcast, in tears.
He continued: “No, the thought of that would be too much. I’d rather look for a living somewhere else.”
He opened the door. A sound of voices came in at the door. The Vallins were celebrating the return of their child.