THERE came a morning when Madeleine's heart was heavy. The day before she had been to Saint-Ambroise and had brought the children nothing but a pound of shortbread; and they had sniffed at the dainty that used to content them.
Lalie, especially, had shown bad temper, but that was because she had asked Madeleine to buy her a doll, a big doll that stood in Mme. Blanchevirain's show-window in the village. And she had framed her demand in exactly the right way for effect, saying:
"Germaine of the Little Pasture has three dolls,—yes, she has! Her mother buys her all the dolls she wants.— And I haven't got a single one, since Zine's head is broken."
Madeleine's heart was very heavy and very troubled. Still, she knew she had done the right thing. All she had left was five francs, and the doll—for of course she had priced it!—cost three francs. It would have been folly to buy it, for All-Saints day was still far away, and how far would two miserable francs take her!
But just think of this girl, Germaine! Three dolls of her own! Why not ten? What could she be doing with her three dolls? Her mother had simply bought them for her to show off with!
Madeleine worked herself into a temper.
"That woman, I know her! She's just a braggart! She makes me tired, she does! Every chance she sees me, she gives me a dig! … Three dolls! The idea of throwing money away like that!— All right, let her! Let her buy all she wants! … it won't make her big Germaine any the cleverer nor any the prettier, either! … Just let her try and compare her with Lalie! … As soon as All-Saints day comes around, if I don't buy a doll that costs all of five francs, I'll lose my name. Just you wait! I'll show you!——"
She was grumbling away like this while stirring up the fire and wielding the tongs with noisy energy.
A big voice rang out behind her:
"Well, well! Why all this racket?"
She rose from her knees, blushing; but as she recognised her brother she burst out laughing.
He had come up the path without her hearing him and now he stood on the threshold.
"It's you," she said; "come in."
He came up to her to give her a kiss and laughed as he said:
"What a fine morning! The sun's shining like a benediction."
At the back of his blue eyes, however, some sort of uneasiness was prowling. Madeleine did not notice it and was honestly glad to see him in such a pleasant mood.
"Where are you bound for, passing this way, big brother?"
"Down valley, to Rivard's place. He sent for me, and I thought I'd pass round this way to see how you are getting along; you're making yourself so scarce at Le Coudray."
"I've got my hands full, you see; and with the children it's hard to get away."
Trooper had taken a seat. For a while he talked about his affairs. He had been quite busy for some time past, and this week too he expected to have work every day.
Madeleine stopped working; an idea was trotting through her head.
"No doubt he's got some money—he'd be glad to let me have some, I'm sure—I'd only need to ask."
Then the thought came to her that it would be wrong of her to ask;—that she wouldn't dare, young and strong as she was, to take money from this poor brother who had so much trouble earning his bread.
"Still, I've been giving him money, even before he was crippled.— Besides, after All-Saints day, I'd return it.— I could go right away to Mme. Blanchevirain and get the doll with the eyes that close, the one that costs three francs.— Wouldn't Lalie be glad, though!"
She dwelled on the thought of it, hands idle and eyes shining. She wasn't listening to her brother any more; temptation was upon her like a thundercloud.
Suddenly she made her decision:
"Well, now, big brother, if you're working every day, you ought to be pretty well off, at present?"
He gave a little start and his thoughts followed hers in this new direction.
"Well off? Goodness, no!— It's all I can do to earn a living!"
He lowered his eyes, repeating:
"It's all I can do—all I can do!—I never have a penny in my pocket."
Usually he didn't need to say even as much as that; Madeleine hardly waited for a hint before slipping him a coin. To-day she made no move.
"I'm dressed like a tramp; see, my shoes are falling off my feet—I'm crazy for a smoke."
Still she said nothing. Pale and with tears in his eyes he stammered:
"Madeleine, listen to me.— It's hard for me to say this—Madeleine, you don't happen to have a little money?"
"Well, now—of all things!"
She threw this at him in an angry tone, standing quite motionless, baffled by the unexpected shock.
Surprise at her attitude made him speechless for a moment; then he got up.
"Well, sister, I'll say good-bye, then."
But he had not gone three steps before Madeleine threw herself at his neck.
"My dear! Don't go away!— Wait till I tell you how it is.— We mustn't quarrel, you and me!— Money! All right, I'll give you some.— Sometimes a person talks before thinking, don't you see!"
She held him tightly in her strong arms and forced him to sit down again.
"Money—for your tobacco—of course, I'll give you some, you poor old dear!"
She had fetched her purse and was counting out some coppers, one by one, lingeringly.
"There! Fifteen sous—will that be enough?"
He replied bitterly:
"A pack of tobacco doesn't cost as much as that."
"That's so," she said.
The coppers were lined up on the table. She took away five of them, blushed—and put them back.
She laid away her purse immediately, and then, in order to forget the incident as quickly as possible, she began to talk about her mother, about Fridoline, and she laughed at Tiennette who was being seen walking out with Gideon. But he stuck to his theme:
"Madeleine, you didn't understand—and it is my fault. I didn't explain myself right; I didn't tell you the truth—I'm not craving for any tobacco.— As for money, I'm making a little every day—I've got some, but not enough for what I want it for. Lend me twenty francs—lend me ten francs—lend me just five francs, will you?"
"Five francs! Why, that's all I have!" exclaimed Madeleine.
"I'll give it back to you when I get a job,—as I'll give you back all you've given me before."
"You won't do any such thing! I share my little bit with you, big brother, and that's as it should be. If you want to pay me back for what I've given you, pay me back in affection."
It upset her to see him shaking there before her, and she came to him and said, very gently and very low:
"John, tell me all about it! Something is tormenting you. Tell me your trouble and I'll comfort you.— If it's money you want, I've got a-plenty hi the savings bank; I'll go and draw out some for you."
He took her hand and kissed it. His words came heavily, brokenly:
"Yes!—poor sister! Work! Work your hands off, work your eyes out!—I'm there,—waiting to take your money and throw it to the winds; and when you are old, you'll live on charity!"
"John, don't talk like that! You're hurting me!"
"Poor sister!—do you want to know where goes the money you give me? Go to Chantepie and ask Violette, the dressmaker. When you lay eyes on her, look her over from head to foot; look at her belt with the silver buckle, look at her fingers and her ears and her neck … On her right hand she wears a gold ring set with brilliants; I bought it for her. On her left hand she has two more rings, and who gave her those? And who's given her the earrings and the necklaces? It wasn't her mother, nor was it me! And yet, I love her, I love her."
"But you're stark mad, you poor dear!"
"I love her! Yes, I'm mad, I know! Yes, open your eyes wide! Look at me!— I'm bringing shame on the family.— One of these days I'll end like a dangerous animal."
Madeleine was appalled and tried to raise his head.
"Don't talk like this, for God's sake! What is it you need? You asked for money:—you'll have it. I'll give you all you want;—only don't talk like that don't!"
"Money! yes, give me some. Give me five francs—It's the last time I'll ask you—I'm short of just five francs to buy the watch she wants."
And he added, utterly crushed:
"And then, someone else will give her a chain.—I'm a coward; I'm not a man; just as you said once."
Madeleine emptied her purse and, without a word, slipped the money into his pocket.
"Thank you," he said, "and now I must be on my way. And this evening, if I've finished early enough at Rivard's, I'll go and buy the watch; she'll have it to-morrow, because she's working at Saint-Ambroise this week. Didn't you see her pass by this morning? Your master's sure to have seen her!—Good-bye, then—no, don't kiss me,—no, don't! I don't deserve it."
He went away and Madeleine returned to her work, with tears running down her cheeks. After a minute or two, Lalie ran in and stood up before her:
"You're crying, I see! It's your turn! I cried my eyes out yesterday, I did! The Lord has punished you:— that'll teach you! Now are you going to get me the big doll at Mme. Blanchevirain's shop?"
Madeleine leaned down to the little girl and hugged her passionately.
"Yes, darling, I'll go and get it, never you fear! Let them all do their darndest; you'll have your doll."
On the spur of the moment she had reached this decision.
At noon, she told Michael:
"I'll have to go to market to-morrow. We've got some twenty pullets ready to sell, and a basketful of butter, and some eggs."
"All right. I'll tell the carter to come and fetch the lot."