There were two long hours that we were walking in the fields under the sun that fell from the sky like a rain of fire; the sweat dripped on my body and the thirst, a burning thirst, devoured me. In vain had I sought a brook, whose fresh water sings beneath the leaves, or a spring, as there are many in the country, a small spring that sleeps in its niche of mossy soil, similar to the niches where nest the country saints. And I was desperate, the tongue dried up and the throat burning.
– Let us go to Heurtaudiere, the farm you see there, says my companion; Father Nicholas will give us good milk.
We crossed a large creek, the clods of which burst under our feet in red dust; then, having passed along a field of oats, sprinkled with bluets and poppies, we arrived at an orchard where cows, in the brindle-colored robe, slept lying in the shade of the apple trees. At the end of the orchard was the farm. In the courtyard, formed by four poor buildings, there were no living beings, except the chickens pecking at the midden, which, near the sheepfold, bathed in a filthy bed of manure. After having uselessly tried to open the closed and barricaded doors, my companion said:
– No doubt the people is in the fields!
Yet he hailed:
– Father Nicholas! Hey ! Father Nicholas?
No voice replied.
– Hey ! Father Nicholas!
The second call resulted only in frightening the chickens, which stumbled, chuckling and flapping their wings.
– Father Nicholas!
Very disappointed, I thought seriously of going to milk the cows of the orchard myself, when an old woman’s head, rough, wrinkled and red, appeared at the half-open door of an attic.
– Who? cried the peasant woman, is that you, Monsieur Joseph? I didn’t hear you, well, right now. Make excuses and the company.
She showed herself altogether. A cotton cap, whose wick was brought back to the forehead, clasped his head; a part of the shoulders and the neck that had been said to have been made of brick, so much had they been baked and annealed by the sun, came out gaunt and gorged, floating folds of the big linen shirt attaching, to the hips, a short child skirt with black and gray stripes. Clogs roughly cut right from the trunk of a birch, served as shoes for his bare, purple and chapped feet like an old piece of leather.
The peasant woman closed the door of the attic, fixed the ladder by which they descended; but before she set foot on the first step she asked my companion:
– Is that you who hailed Father Nicholas, man?
– Yes, mother, it’s me.
– What do you want from Father Nicholas?
– It is hot, we are thirsty, and we wanted to ask him for a jug of milk.
– Wait for me, Monsieur Joseph; I go to you.
She walked down the ladder slowly, clacking her hooves.
– Is not Father Nicholas here then?” asked my companion.
– Make excuses, replied the old woman, he is there. Ah! Parted so! There is, the poor man not ready to start, for sure! He was put into coffin this morning.
She had quite descended. After wiping her forehead, where the sweat ran in large drops, she added:
– Yes, Monsieur Joseph, he is dead, Father Nicolas. That happened yesterday in the evening.
As we took a sad face:
– That makes no difference, she said, you are going to refresh yourself a little, and put yourself at ease, wait for me to cry out what you need.
She opened the door of the house, double-locked.
– Come in, gentlemen, and do not be embarrassed. Do as you do. Look, here it is Father Nicholas.
Under the smoky beams, at the end of the great dark room, between the two beds draped of indienne, on two chairs was placed a coffin of white wood, half covered with a sheet of unbleached canvas adorned only by the crucifix of copper and the twig of blessed boxwood. At the foot of the coffin a small table had been brought, upon which there was a candlestick with a a cadle that had finished sadly burning, and in which lay a pot of brown earth, full of holy water, with a thin brush of broom serving as an asperger. Having made the sign of the cross, we threw a little water on the coffin, and, without saying a word, we sat down at the big table, looking at ourselves bewildered.
Mother Nicholas was not long in returning. She cautiously brought a large jug of milk, which she placed on the table, saying:
– You can drink all your drink, come on! There is no other better and fresher.
While she arranged the bowls and she took the good loaf of bread from the hutch, my companion asked her:
– Was he long ill, Father Nicolas?
– Not at all, Monsieur Joseph, replied the old woman. To say, for some time, there was not valiant, valiant. It bothered him in the lungs; the blood, to what I creeped. Two blows, he was white, then purple, then black, then he was almost dead.
– So you were not looking for the doctor?
– Of course not, Monsieur Joseph, that I did not call the doctor. For the sick he was not ill to say. It did not prevent him from going to the right, to the left, to turn everywhere with the boys. Yesterday I went to the market; when I come back, I do not you see that Father Nicholas was seated, his head resting on the table, his arms dangling and not bugging more than a stone. “My man!” I say. Nothimg. “Father Nicolas, my man!” I say it in the ear. Nothing, nothing, absolutely nothing. So I move him like that. But it is not there that he start to wobble, and that falls on the floor, and that remains there without merely a paw, and black, black almost like coal. “Good sense,” that I say, “Father Nicolas that is dead!” And he was dead, Monsieur Joseph, quite dead. But you do not drink. Do not bother. I have enough, drink… And then I do not make butter right now…
– It is a great misfortune, I said.
– This is it! replied the peasant. It is the good God who wish him, of course.
– You have no one to watch him? interrupted my companion. And your children?
– Oh ! There’s no danger of him going, poor man. And the guys are in the fields, taking in the hay. It must not idle the work for that … It will not revive him, you see, now that he is dead!
We had finished drinking our milk. After some thanks, we left mother Nicolas, disturbed, not knowing whether we ought to admire or curse the insensibility of the peasant, in death, which, nevertheless, makes the dogs gently bark in the empty kennel, Sobbing and that put something like a sob or a moan in the song of the birds near the devastated nests.