ON Monday, Michael started the offensive.
From early morning on, he tried to pick quarrels with Madeleine. At night he returned to the charge without the shadow of a reason, not even waiting until the farm-hands had gone away.
The following days it was the same song over again. A mortal apprehension began to gnaw at Madeleine's heart. From time to time she tried to buoy herself up:
"He wouldn't dare; he'd have to find a good reason for sending me away.—Besides, it seems to me he's beginning to calm down."
Then Violette passed by the farm, or wrote a letter, and right away the bad weather was on her again.
Madeleine never answered Michael back. Most of the time she did not even hear what he said. The blood rushed to her cheeks and as quickly back again; her heart felt cold; sometimes it pounded against her chest like the strokes of a hammer, stopped still, and went on with a mad flutter. At odd moments, her legs went suddenly weak, her vision blurred, and all her faculties melted in a strange pang that was like a death pang.
When the men had gone to bed she solaced her ache with tears.
She didn't do her work as well as she used to. Being now particularly anxious not to give Michael any cause for complaint, she spent more time than necessary over those things that usually caught his attention; for the rest, the days weren't long enough. She still dusted very carefully all the old keepsakes on the mantelpiece, those rather ugly old things that had come under her special guardianship after the death of old man Corbier; but she now ran her cloth but rarely, and then hurriedly, over the chairs, the beds, the chests with the fine old iron-work.
Sometimes she sat down with Jo on her lap and stayed like that a long while. When the baby let her rock him in her arms, when he dropped off to sleep against her shoulder, when the warm little breath caressed her cheek, a gentle languor came over her and, forgetful of everything, she still had moments of deep happiness.
Michael took every opportunity to annoy her and harshly show himself the master. One morning he ordered Madeleine, in a tone that did not admit of discussion, to get all of Lalie's clothes ready so she could start going to school right after All-Saints day.
Indeed it was high time; Lalie was past seven; but as there was no one but herself to take her to Saint-Ambroise, Madeleine had managed until now to keep her at home. She had taught her to read and count, and she had even bought her some copy-books with handwriting models at the top of the pages, for Lalie to learn to use her pen. And Madeleine was delighted because Lalie was already showing the promise of a fine hand.
When school had opened in October, Michael had spoken of sending the little girl to attend classes, but Madeleine had opposed the plan because it was such a long way to go and the bad weather would be coming soon. Michael had given in. And here he was going back on his word, without a single new argument.
"Lalie will go to school, beginning the first Monday of November. Get her things ready."
"And where will I be, the first Monday of November?" thought Madeleine. "All-Saints day will come round in a fortnight, and my contract will be up, and he hasn't yet said a word about renewing it."
Michael was indeed quite silent on the subject, which only increased Madeleine's fears.
One day, however, at table, as he was making plans for the coming year, Michael spoke up bluntly:
"As for you, Madeleine, what have you decided?"
She did not answer but drew away from him, turning her back to poke the fire.
"What are your plans? You haven't told me, so far, whether you want to stay on here or not.—It's time I knew; I want to have all this business settled at once.—Here's what I have to say: if you decide to stay on, it won't be at the same wages. I mean to cut them down."
He had purposely struck a loud, lordly, disagreeable tone to make it quite clear that he no longer wanted his housekeeper and that he had made his new offer merely to save her face, to let the break come from her instead of him. The men listened in astonishment; Gideon had to make an effort to keep quiet, but his eyes showed anger.
Michael went on: "You are no doubt capable of making a lot of money, but it isn't convenient for me to pay you such high wages."
Madeleine kept her back turned and asked in a dead voice:
"What's your offer?"
He paused, for he had not expected such a direct question. At last he said:
"The girl I hire—will get two hundred francs for the year, no more."
Madeleine turned round at once; facing the three of them, she said:
Michael started, opened his mouth to say something; but, meeting the farm-hands' stare, he grew red in the face and replied superciliously:
"All right! My word stands. That's settled, then."
That day Madeleine ate her food with a good appetite, did all her work with the old thoroughness and, when night came, she slept eight hours at a stretch.
But on the morrow the man's attitude was such that all her fears were revived, only the sharper and more pressing for the brief moment's respite.
It seemed to her that she could not possibly stay on at the Moulinettes; no agreement in the world could bind her. No matter how deaf and dumb, how humble and cowardly she might be, she would not be able to escape this insensate enmity.
She who had never been ill in her life, felt herself on the way to illness. She could not eat; she could not sleep; a strange weariness was breaking all her limbs.
One morning, Gideon, who had got up very early, found the hall door open. It puzzled him, and as he went out to investigate, he stumbled over Madeleine sitting on the ground, fighting off a fainting spell.