They rose quite early again the next morning with a vague hope, a greater desire to be able to proceed on their journey, and a dread of having to spend another day in this wretched little inn. Alas! the horses remained in the stable, the driver was invisible. Having nothing better to do, they went and wandered around the coach.
Luncheon was very gloomy, and there had developed a general coolness toward Boule de Suif, for night, which brings counsel, had somewhat modified their judgment. They almost bore a grudge against the girl for not having surreptitiously gone to the Prussian Officer to afford a pleasant surprise to her companions when they awoke. Nothing more simple! Beside, who would have suspected it? She might have saved appearances by having the Officer say that he had taken pity on their distress. To her it would have been of little consequence.
But nobody as yet gave expression to such thoughts.
In the afternoon, as they were bored to death, the Count proposed to take a walk around the village. Each one wrapped himself up carefully and the small company set off, with the exception of Cornudet, who preferred to remain by the fire, and the good Nuns who spent their days in Church or at the Parish house.
The cold, growing daily more and more intense, bit mercilessly the nose and ears of the strollers; their feet pained them so much that each step was a torture; and when the country opened up before them, it looked so frightfully dismal under the boundless sheet of white, that they all retraced their steps hastily, with souls frozen and hearts heavy.
The four women walked in front and the three men followed them a little behind.
Loiseau, who understood the situation very clearly, inquired suddenly whether that "wench" was going to keep them much longer in such a place. The Count, always courteous, realized that they could not expect such a painful sacrifice from a woman, and that the offer should originate from her. Monsieur Carr-Lamadon remarked that if the French undertook, as it was rumored, a counter-offensive by way of Dieppe, the battle would certainly be fought in Ttes. This remark made the other two quite anxious—"How about trying to escape on foot?" suggested Loiseau. The Count shrugged his shoulders:—"That is out of the question in this snow, and with our wives! And furthermore we would be pursued immediately, caught in ten minutes and brought back as prisoners, at the mercy of the soldiers"—That was true. There was silence again.
The ladies talked toilette, but a certain constraint seemed to separate them.
Suddenly the Officer appeared at the end of the street. On the snow that bound the horizon, his tall and wasp-like uniformed figure outlined itself; he walked, knees apart, with that motion particular to soldiers who are anxious not to soil their carefully polished boots.
He bowed as he passed the ladies, and looked scornfully at the men who, it must be said to their credit, had enough dignity not to raise their hats, although Loiseau made a move to take off his headgear.
Boule de Suif blushed red to her ears, and the three married women felt greatly humiliated to have been met by the Officer while they were in the company of this girl whom he had treated so unceremoniously.
Then they spoke of him, of his figure and his face. Madame Carr-Lamadon, who had known many officers and who judged them as a connoisseur, found that this one was not so bad looking after all; she even regretted that he was not French, because he would have made a very handsome husband with whom all the women would have fallen in love.
Once back in the inn, they did not know what to do with themselves. Even acrid words were exchanged about insignificant matters. The silent dinner did not last long and each went upstairs to bed, in the hope of sleeping the time away.
The next morning they came down with tired faces and exasperated tempers. The women hardly spoke to Boule de Suif.
A Church bell began to ring; it was for a baptism. Boule de Suif had a child being brought up by peasants in Yvetot. She did not see it even once a year and never gave it a thought; but the idea of the one that was going to be baptized developed a sudden and violent tenderness for her own and she insisted absolutely on going to the ceremony.
As soon as she was gone, those who remained looked at each other, and drew their chairs closer, for they felt that in the end they had to take some decision.—Loiseau had an inspiration: he suggested that they should propose to the officer to keep Boule de Suif only and let the others go.
Mr. Follenvie undertook again to convey the message, but he came down almost immediately. The German, who knew human nature, had kicked him out of his room. He meant to keep everybody as long as his wishes had not been complied with.
Then the vulgar temper of Madame Loiseau broke loose:—"And yet we are not going to die of old age here! Since it is that vixen's trade to carry it on with all men, I think that she has no right to refuse one rather than another. Imagine, she has taken all that she found in Rouen, even coachmen, yes, Madame, the coachman of the Prefecture; I know it for a fact, because he buys his wine of us. And now that it is a question of getting us out of trouble, she is putting on virtuous airs, the drab! I find that the Officer behaves very well. Possibly he may have abstained for a long time, and here we are three of us whom he certainly would have preferred. But no, he is satisfied with the girl who is public property. He respects married women. Think of it, he is the master here. All that he had to do was to say: 'I want' and he might have taken us by force, with the aid of his soldiers."
The two other women shuddered slightly. The eyes of pretty Madame Carr-Lamadon sparkled, and she grew a little pale as if she felt herself already taken by force by the officer.
The men who were arguing among themselves, came near them. Loiseau, excited, wanted to deliver up that "miserable woman," bound hand and foot, to the enemy. But the Count, descended from three generations of Ambassadors, and endowed with the physique of a diplomat, was advocating more tactfulness and persuasion—"We should persuade her"—said he.
Then they conspired.
The women drew close to each other; the tone of their voices was lowered, and the discussion became general, each giving her opinion. It was most correct, besides. The ladies specially found delicate euphemisms, charming subtleties of expression to say the most shocking things. A stranger would have understood nothing, so well were the precautions of language observed. But as the thin veneer of pudor[*], with which every Society woman is provided, covers only the surface, they showed their real selves in this wretched adventure, and were as a matter of fact enjoying themselves immensely, feeling themselves in their element, handling love with the sensuousness of a gourmand cook who prepares supper for somebody else.
[*][Note from Brett: I think this is an excellent, though unintentional, pun. "Pudor" is Spanish for "shame," but this meaning makes the sentence difficult to read (at best), although it does convey the intent. I think that the word intended is "powder," but left the original in case I am wrong]
Their gaiety came back of itself, so amusing after all did the whole incident seem to them. The Count found rather risky witticisms, but so cleverly told that they provoked smiles. In his turn Loiseau fired some broader jokes, which did not shock the listeners; and the thought brutally expressed by his wife preponderated in every one's mind: "Since it is her business, why should the girl refuse this man rather than another?"—The pretty Mme. Carr-Lamadon seemed even inclined to think that in her place she would refuse this one less than any other.
The blockade was carefully prepared, as if they were besieging a fortress. Each agreed to play the part assigned to him or her, the arguments to be used, the maneuvers to be executed. They decided on the plan of attack, the stratagems and the surprise assault to be attempted in order to compel this living citadel to receive the enemy.
Cornudet, however, remained apart, completely unwilling to participate in this plot.
The minds were so tensely absorbed in this scheme that nobody heard Boule de Suif coming in. But the Count whispered a gentle: "Hush!" which caused all eyes to look up. There she stood. There was a sudden silence and a certain embarrassment prevented them first from speaking to her. The Countess having more than the others the habit of drawing-room duplicities, questioned her:—"Was the baptism interesting?—"
The girl, still laboring under her emotion, told everything, described the faces, the attitudes, and even the appearance of the Church. She added:—"It does one so much good to pray sometimes!—"
However, until lunch time the ladies confined themselves to being nice to her with a view to make her feel more confident and amenable to their advances.
As soon as they sat down to luncheon, the preliminary attack was initiated. It was at first a vague discussion about self-sacrifice. They quoted instances from ancient History, such as Judith and Holophern, then, without any reason Lucretia with Sextus, Cleopatra who admitted to her intimacy all the enemy generals and reduced them to slavish servility. Then a fancy History was propounded, originating in the imagination of those ignorant millionaires, and according to which Roman matrons used to go to Capua and lull Hannibal in their arms, and with him, his lieutenants and the phalanxes of his mercenaries. They quoted all the women who had stopped conquerors, converted their bodies into battlefields, a means of conquest, a weapon, who by their heroic caresses had vanquished frightful and execrated beings, and had sacrificed their chastity to vengeance and patriotic devotion.
They even spoke, in veiled terms, of that English lady of noble family, who had allowed herself to be inoculated with a horrid and contagious disease, which she wanted to communicate to Bonaparte, and how the latter had been miraculously saved by a sudden faintness during the fatal appointment.
And all this was told without overstepping the bounds of propriety and moderation, with her and there a studied manifestation of enthusiasm intended to provoke emulation.
In the end one would have been led to believe that the only mission of woman on this earth was a perpetual sacrifice of her person, a continual offering of herself to the caprices of enemy soldiers.
The two nuns did not seem to hear this conversation, lost as they were in their own deep thoughts. Boule de Suif was silent.
The whole afternoon she was left to herself. But instead of calling her "Madame" as they had done so far, they addressed her as mademoiselle, nobody knew why, as if they wanted to lower her one step in their esteem, which she had escaladed, and make her feel her shameful situation.
While soup was being served, Mr. Follenvie reappeared and repeated his sentence of the day before:—"The Prussian Officer sends me to inquire whether Mademoiselle Elizabeth Rousset has not yet changed her mind?"
Boule de Suif replied curtly: "No, Sir."
But at dinner the coalition weakened. Loiseau spoke three unfortunate sentences. Each was racking his brains to find new examples and did not find any, when the Countess, possibly without premeditation, prompted by a vague desire to render homage to religion, questioned the elder of the two nuns about the most noteworthy deeds in the lives of the Saints.—Now, many Saints had committed acts which would be crimes in our estimation; but the Church absolves readily such transgressions when they are committed for the glory of God and the love of our neighbors. This was a powerful argument; the Countess made the most of it. Then, either by one of those tacit understandings, those veiled complaisances in which whoever wears the clerical garb excels, or through fortunate stupidity, serviable foolishness, the old nun brought a formidable support to the conspiracy. They thought she was timid; she showed herself bold, talkative, violent. This one was not trouble by the hesitations of casuistry; her doctrine seemed to be an iron bar; her faith never hesitated; her conscience had no scruples. She found quite natural Abraham's sacrifice, because she would immediately have killed her father and mother if she had received an order from heaven to do so; and in her opinion nothing could displease God if the motive were laudable. The Countess taking advantage of the sacred authority of her unexpected accomplice, led her on to make a kind of edifying paraphrase of this axiom of morality: "The end justifies the means."
She questioned her:
—"Then, Sister, you think that God accepts all methods and forgives the act when the motive is pure?"
—"Who could doubt it, Madame? An action condemnable in itself often becomes meritorious by the thought which inspires it."
And they continued in this way, unraveling God's intentions, forecasting his judgments, and making Him take interest in things that really did not concern Him at all.
All this was expounded in a veiled, clever, discreet and insinuating manner. But each word of the holy woman in cornet made a breach in the indignant resistance of the courtesan. Then the conversation drifting somewhat, the woman with the hanging rosary spoke of the Convents of her Order, of her Superior, of herself, and of her lovely neighbor, the dear Sister Saint-Nicephore. They had been called to Havre to nurse in the Hospitals hundreds of soldiers stricken with small-pox. She described them, those wretched victims, and gave details about their disease. And while they had been stopped on their way by the caprices of this Prussian Officer, a large number of Frenchmen, whom they would probably have saved, might die. It was her specialty to nurse soldiers; she had been in Crimea, in Italy, in Austria, and telling the story of her campaigns, she unexpectedly revealed herself one of those Nuns fond of drums and bugles, who seem to have been created to follow the armies in action, to pick soldiers during the vicissitudes of battles, and, better than a General, to tame with one word the rough and insubordinate troopers; a genuine martial and bellicose Nun, whose wrinkled and pitted face, looked like an image of the devastations of war.
No one uttered a word after she had concluded, so excellent seemed to be the effect of her discourse.
As soon as the meal was over, they went up quickly to their rooms and came down the next morning rather late.
Luncheon went off quietly. They were giving the seed that had been sown time to germinate and come to fruition.
The Countess proposed to take a walk in the afternoon; then the Count, as previously agreed, offered his arm to Boule de Suif and walked with her at some distance behind.
He spoke to her in that familiar, paternal and slightly contemptuous tone which sedate men assume when talking with women of loose morals, calling her: "my dear child," treating her from the height of his social position, his unquestionable honesty. He went straight to the core of the matter:
—"So you prefer to leave us here exposed like yourself to all the violence which would result from a defeat of the Prussian Army, rather than consent to one of those complaisances which you have had so often in your life"—
Boule de Suif did not answer.
He tried kindness, reasoning, sentiment. He managed to remain "Monsieur le Comte" even while showing himself gallant, when necessary, flattering, amiable. He praised to exaltation the services she would render them, spoke of their gratitude, then suddenly, using the familiar "thou," gaily: "And thou knowest, my dear, he might be proud of having tasted the charms of a pretty girl such as he won't find often in his own country."
Boule de Suif did not reply and joined the rest of the party.
As soon as they returned to the inn, she went up to her room and was not seen again. There was extreme anxiety. What was she going to do? If she resisted, what an embarrassment for them all?
The dinner hour struck; they waited for her in vain. Then Mr. Follenvie came in and announced that Mademoiselle Rousset did not feel well and that they might sit down to dinner. They all pricked their ears. The Count came near the inn-keeper and whispered: "Is it all right?"—"Yes."
For the sake of propriety, he did not say anything to his companions, but nodded to them slightly. Immediately a great sigh of relief went up from all breasts; joy brightened every face. Loiseau exclaimed: "By Jove, I'll treat to champagne if any is left in this house!"—And Madame Loiseau felt a pang when the inn-keeper returned with four bottles in his hand. Every one had suddenly become communicative and merry; a lively joy filled the hearts. The Count seemed to notice that Madame Carr-Lamadon was charming; the manufacturer paid compliments to the Countess; the conversation was lively, gay and full of witticisms.
Suddenly Loiseau, with an alarmed face, raised his arms and shouted: "Silence!" They all stopped talking, were surprised nay even frightened. Then he listened, said "Hush!" signaling with his two hands, raised his eyes to the ceiling, listened again and, in his natural voice, he resumed: "Don't be afraid, everything is all right!"
They hesitated to understand what he meant, but soon a smile lighted up all the faces.
After a quarter of an hour, he started again the same farce and repeated it often during the evening; he mimicked as if he were calling a person on the second floor and giving her equivocal advices drawn from his imagination of a commercial traveler. At times he assumed a dismal air and sighed:—"Poor girl!"—or he muttered in his teeth, with a peevish air:—"Rascal of a Prussian!"—Several times, when the others did not think of it, he called out repeatedly in a vibrating voice: "Enough! Enough!" and he added as if soliloquizing:—"Provided that we see her again and that the wretch does not kill her!"
Although such jokes were in very bad taste, they amused more than they shocked the company, for indignation like everything else depends on environment, and the atmosphere that had gradually developed around them was laden with naughty thoughts.
At dessert, even the women indulged in witty and discreet allusions. Their eyes were bright and gleaming; they had drunk considerably. The Count who, even in his moments of relaxation, preserved a dignified appearance, found a comparison with the end of winter in the polar regions and the joy of the ship-wrecked mariners when they see a way open to the South; and this comparison was greatly appreciated.
Loiseau, warmed up, rose to his feet with a glass of champagne in his hands:—"I drink to our deliverance!"—Everybody stood up; he was acclaimed. Even the two good sisters, urged by the ladies, consented to moisten their lips with the sparkling wine, which they had never tasted. They declared that it tasted like sparkling lemonade, but that it was finer.
Loiseau summed up the situation:
—"What a pity that there is no piano! We might have danced a quadrille!"—
Cornudet had not said a single word, nor made a single gesture; he even seemed to be plunged in very serious thoughts, and from time to time tugged furiously at his long beard as if he wanted to make it longer. Finally, toward midnight, as they were going to separate, Loiseau, who was unsteady on his feet slapped him suddenly on the stomach and spluttered:—"You are not in a gay mood to-night, you don't talk much, citoyen?"—But Cornudet raised briskly his head and casting a swift and terrible look at the company, fairly shouted:—"I tell you all, that you have behaved infamously!"—He got up, walked to the door and repeated once more: "Infamous!" and he disappeared.
This threw a chill at first. Loiseau nonplused, stood looking foolish; but he recovered his countenance and then suddenly began to laugh and repeat:—"Sour grapes! my dear Sir, sour grapes!"—The company did not understand what he meant; he explained the "mysteries of the hall"—Then there was a resumption of formidable gayety. The ladies were immensely amused. The Count and Mr. Carr-Lamadon laughed to tears. They could hardly believe their ears.
—"Why! are you sure? He wanted"—"I tell you that I saw it with my own eyes."
—"And she refused?"
—"Because the Prussian was in the next room."
—"Is it possible?"
—"I swear it is true!"—
The Count was choking with laughter. The manufacturer was compressing his stomach with his hands.
—"And you understand, to-night he does not think it is funny at all."—
And all three began to laugh again, choking, out of breath.
Thereupon they retired. But Madame Loiseau, who had the prickly disposition of a nettle remarked to her husband, at the moment they were going to bed:—"That stuck-up little Madame Carr-Lamadon laughed deceitfully all evening."
"You know, for women, when they chase uniforms, it does not make any difference whether the uniforms are French or Prussian. What a pity, oh Lord!"—
And all night, in the darkness of the hall there were light sounds like tremors, hardly audible, similar to murmurs, contacts of bare feet, imperceptible crackings. And they fell asleep quite late, certainly, because rays of light could be seen for a long time under the doors. Champagne has such effects; I understand it disturbs the sleep.
The next morning a bright winter sunshine made the snow dazzling. The coach, finally harnessed, was waiting at the door, while an army of white pigeons, ensconced in their white feathers, with their pink eyes spotted in the middle with small black dots, were walking leisurely between the legs of the six horses and picking their food from the steaming manure which they were scattering.
The driver, wrapped up in his sheepskin cloak, was up on his seat, smoking a pipe, and all the travelers, looking radiant, were having provisions packed up for the rest of the trip.
Boule de Suif only had not come down. She appeared.
She seemed to be rather confused, bashful; shyly, she walked up to her companions who, all with the same movement, turned away from her as if they had not seen her. The Count, dignified, took his wife by the arm and removed her from this impure contact.
The girl stood still, stupefied; then picking up all her courage she accosted the manufacturer's wife with a—"Good morning, Madame!"—humbly muttered. The other answered only with a short and impertinent nod accompanied by a look of outraged virtue. Everybody seemed to be busy and kept away from her as if she were carrying some infectious germs in her skirt. Then they rushed up to the coach, in which she entered last, without being helped by anyone, and silently she took the seat she had occupied during the final part of the journey.
They feigned not to see her, not to know her; but Mme. Loiseau, looking at her indignantly from a distance, told her husband half aloud:—"Fortunately I am not sitting next to her."—
The heavy coach started and the journey was resumed.
First nobody spoke. Boule de Suif did not dare raise her eyes. At the same time she felt indignant at all her companions, and humiliated for having yielded to the Prussian Officer into whose arms she had been hypocritically forced by them.
But the Countess, turning to Madame Carr-Lamadon, broke soon this painful silence.
—"I think you knew Madame d'Estrelles."
—"Yes, she is one of my friends."
—"What a charming woman!"
—"Fascinating! Really a select nature, besides highly educated, and an artist to the tips of her fingers. She sings delightfully and paints to perfection."
The manufacturer was talking with the Count, and in the middle of the clatter of the window-panes, one could catch here and there a word:—"Coupon—maturity—premium—term—"
Loiseau, who had stolen from the inn the old pack of cards, greasy after five years friction on dirty tables, started a game of "bezigue" with his wife.
The good sisters took from their belts the long rosaries, made simultaneously the sign of the cross and suddenly their lips began to move rapidly, becoming more and more accelerated, precipitating their vague murmur as if in a race of "orisons;" and now and then they kissed a medal, crossed themselves again, and resumed their swift and continuous mutterings.
Cornudet sat still and deep in thoughts. After they had traveled for three hours, Loiseau picked up his cards and said:—"I am hungry." Then his wife reached out for a package from which she drew a piece of cold veal. She cut it carefully in thin and neat slices and both began to eat.
—"Why shouldn't we do the same?"—said the Countess. Upon general consent, she unpacked the provisions prepared for the two couples. In one of those oval dishes, the cover of which bears a china hare, to show that a hare pie lies inside, there were exquisite delicatessen, the white streams of lard crossing the brown meat of the game, mixed with other fine chopped meats. A handsome piece of Swiss-cheese, wrapped in a newspaper, had taken on its fat surface the imprint:—"Sundry items."
The two sisters opened a hunk of sausage which smelled of garlic; and Cornudet plunging at the same time both his hands in the large pockets of his baggy overcoat, drew from one four hard-boiled eggs and from the other the crust of a loaf of bread. He removed the shells threw them under his feet, on the straw, and began to bite the eggs voraciously, dropping on his large beard small pieces of yellowish yolk which looked like stars.
Boule de Suif, in the haste and confusion of her departure, had not thought of taking provisions; and exasperated, suffocating with rage, she was looking on all those people who ate heartily. At first a tumultuous anger shook her, and she opened her mouth to tell them what she thought of them in a wave of insults that surged to her lips; but she could not speak, so exasperated was she with indignation.
Nobody looked at her, took notice of her. She felt drowned in the scorn of those honest rascals who had first sacrificed her and then cast her away like something unclean and of no further use. Then she thought of her large basket full of good things, which they had devoured greedily, of her two chickens shining in jelly, her pastry, her pears, her four bottles of claret; and suddenly, her furor having died out, like an over strung cord, she felt like crying. She made terrible efforts; stiffened herself up, swallowed her sobs like children, but the tears were surging, shining at the border of her eyelids, and soon two big tears breaking away from her eyes coursed slowly down her cheeks. Others followed them more swiftly, running like drops of water filtering through rocks and fell regularly on the rounded curve of her bosom. She remained upright, her eyes motionless, her face rigid and pale, hoping that the others would not notice her.
But the Countess noticed it and called her husband's attention with a sign. He shrugged his shoulders, as if to say:—"What can I do? It is not my fault!"—Madame Loiseau had a silent laugh of triumph and muttered: "She is weeping for shame!"—
The two good sisters had resumed their prayers after having rolled up in a paper the rest of their sausage.
Then Cornudet, who was digesting the eggs, stretched his long legs under the seat, sat back, crossed his arms, smiled like a man who has thought of a good joke and began to whistle the Marseillaise.
The faces of all the others darkened. Decidedly the popular song did not please his neighbors. They became nervous, fidgety, and seemed ready to howl like dogs that hear a barrel-organ. He noticed it, did not stop. At times he even pronounced the words:
Amour sacr del la patrie, Conduis, soutiens, nos bras vengeurs, Libert, libert chrie, Combats avec tes dfenseurs.
The snow being harder, the coach traveled more quickly, and as far as Dieppe, during the long dreary hours of the trip, through the jostles of the road, during the twilight, and later in the thick darkness of the coach, he kept on with a fierce obstinacy his monotonous and revengeful whistling, compelling the fagged and exasperated hearers to follow the anthem from one end to the other, to remember every word that went with each measure.
And Boule de Suif was still weeping; and at times a sob, which she could not restrain, passed between two verses in the night.