IT was the season when the days are longest. The men rushed from one task to another: the beets had to be planted, the hay taken in, the fields prepared for the winter cabbage. They would never be done with all this in time for the harvest. The oat fields were ripening fast, too fast,—fairly roasted by a hot week in June.
For the women, it was the season for looking after the young poultry with particular vigilance; the critical period when the year's first broods of chicks and goslings were making up their minds whether to drop out or grow up. Things must be made ready, too, for the late broods, and the little pigs born in the spring had to be weaned—all of which demanded care and attention. Especially for the cooks was this a dreaded time, preparing four meals a day, four copious meals on account of the hard out-door work, with nothing but a few vegetables and a little salt pork.
Madeleine got up early. On the stroke of three her wooden shoes began to clatter about on the brick floor of the kitchen: click-clack! Time to get up! Quickly she lighted the fire, picked the vegetables, hurried to the pork barrel. Four o'clock: prayers, which Madeleine conducted, with old man Corbier giving the responses and the others listening, even the farm hands, one of whom was a Catholic and the other a Protestant.
Half-past four: the table has to be set, the cows milked, the cream separated, the dishes washed—the chicks, the ducklings, the babies—a thousand things!
By nine o'clock at night she was done, sometimes not till ten, when the men were fast asleep.
She knew everything that ought to be done in a house for the comfort of man and beast, but she lacked the experience for proper co-ordination.
Nor was she particularly quick and clever about doing things. For instance, she didn't know how to make the goslings eat from her hand, coax them to swallow their feed prepared of bran and chopped nettles. When showers threatened she ran to the threshing floor to call in her chickens, waving her handkerchief in one hand and her apron in the other:
"Come in out of the rain, little chicks!"
But she went after them too directly and too fast. The chicks gave frightened peeps and scattered around the haystacks; the mother hens puffed out their feathers angrily. Madeleine grew angry, too, and then the rain was on them.
Just then Lalie appeared in the doorway.
"Jo is crying!" Madeleine wouldn't listen.
"Jo is crying, so there! Lalie didn't hit him!"
"You just wait!" And she said:
"Let him cry, it's good for his voice."
The little girl went back into the house, but in a minute she reappeared.
"Jo is crying, there's a pin sticking in his tummy."
Madeleine came back quickly, abandoning her chickens. She knew well enough that Jo had no pin sticking in his tummy, but this familiar complaint always quite upset her.
One evening, while hurriedly changing the baby, she had pricked him with her clumsy fingers. Not seriously, but enough to draw the smallest bead of blood. The child had uttered a quick cry, quite different from his cries of temper, and Madeleine had started, gasping—truly shaken to the depths of her being. For nearly an hour she had rocked the little fellow in her arms. Gladly would she have inflicted some torture on herself, in expiation. When night came, she had taken the baby with her to the bed she shared with Lalie, and held him close, close.
"Jo has a pin sticking in his tummy!" Ten times a day, since then, Lalie made cold shivers run down her back.
Already she had begun to love the children. They occupied her thoughts more than anything else. They made more work for her, too. Lalie poked her little fingers into everything, and Jo wanted to follow her example. He was beginning to walk and took a tumble every few minutes. Being quick tempered, he yelled and stamped his foot all day long.
Madeleine ventured to think: "If I were their mother, I would hire a girl who'd take some of the outside work off my hands, and I'd give more care to the children. As it is, I never have time for them. They are the losers; they play without me, and I haven't had a chance to make them love me, even if they've made me love them."
Old man Corbier, who was to have helped her so much about the house, just now was made young again by the sunny weather and was never indoors. So she was kept very busy and always seemed to be in a hurry.
"Our hired girl," said the old man, "doesn't keep her two feet in the same shoe."
Indeed not; and it was a good thing she didn't.
When she had come to the Moulinettes, she had asked herself anxiously if she ever would get used to things there. Two months had gone by and she had never since had the time to ask herself this question again.
At the other farms where she had been hired, she often thought, while working, of her mother, her sisters, or of her home village, or of her old friends, or of the things one or other young man had said to her. Now, she was always worrying about the animals or the household, and her thoughts no longer strayed afield and lost themselves in the distance, like wisps of smoke. She had hardly seen anything of the farm beyond her own workaday domain. She who had been so glad in advance that there was such a fine pond at the Moulinettes, with great pines and oaks all round it, had never taken time to go near it. She had merely said to herself:
"If only the children don't take to going down there!"
As for the house, she had grown familiar with every nook and corner of it. She liked it because it was comfortable, and because all the appointments were to her taste. There were two large rooms, divided by a corridor, with a place for keeping the wine and a dairy at the rear. All the floors were neatly bricked in the old-fashioned way.
One of the rooms was furnished with two prettily speckled ash-wood wardrobes and two tall and beautiful four-post beds, in which Michael Corbier and his father slept. The other room, the one they liked to show off to their visitors, held a mixture of furniture. Side by side with an old brown sideboard, a big brown chest and a grandfather's clock in a black case, there were a modern bed and a clothes press of bright, beautifully finished cherry-wood. This bed and the clothes press had been bought by the young couple. They took on an air of extreme youthfulness in this old house, but as they were good pieces of furniture, simply and carefully fashioned, their newness was attractive rather than disturbing.
To Madeleine the old chimney place was the most interesting thing of all at the Corbiers'. She wasn't surprised at the images of Saints nor at the rosary of enormous boxwood beads, which undoubtedly had never been used for prayers: these were common enough in the Dissenters' homes. But nowhere had she seen firearms like these, nor such a queer old document so nicely framed.
The weapons were two long pistols. A hundred and twenty years ago, the youngest chief of the Catholic Army had given them as a token of friendship to one of the Corbiers, who had been his closest companion.
The framed document was a piece of parchment, on which had been inscribed an event of the war: an adventurous scion of the Corbier family had forced an entrance into a vigorously defended town, along with his Commander. At the bottom, a fat signature—that of the Commander. To the left, the writer, who must have been an expert with his pen, had drawn the picture of a towering wall, with two ladders against it, at the top of which stood two men with drawn swords.
To tell the truth, the picture was slightly blurred, but the Corbiers could explain all the details minutely when asked about them; they took great pride in it.
The old man had told Madeleine on her first day at the farm not to touch the pistols nor the framed document. This prohibition had vexed her, for she considered herself a careful and capable housewife.
Sometimes, of an evening, when the men were in bed, she was tempted to take down and burnish those old pieces. With the turn of her hand she could have made them as bright and shiny as the candlesticks and the snuffers. She never dared, though, held back from touching these ancient things by a vague dread of committing a sin.
When she was thus alone, with no one around to bother her, she worked quickly and noiselessly. Feeling free to move about as she chose, she was at her best. She put things to rights and made everything ready for the next day's work. Every other day she took her dust cloths and polished the furniture. It was her pride to thus uphold her reputation as an exceptionally able servant.
When she had finished, she drew up the baby's cradle close to her bed and slipped in gently beside little Lalie. The first few nights she had not slept well. Lalie cuddled up close, with her head against Madeleine's neck, like a forlorn little chick. Accustomed to sleeping alone, Madeleine had not rested well with the tickling, disturbing little breath right on her. But now she was used to it. When the child slipped down, Madeleine never failed to waken enough to raise the little head and cuddle it against her breast.