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Title: Sons of the Soil
Author: Balzac, Honoré de
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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SONS OF THE SOIL


By Honore De Balzac


Translated by Katharine Prescott Wormeley



DEDICATION


                    To Monsieur P. S. B. Gavault.

  Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote these words at the beginning of his
  Nouvelle Heloise: “I have seen the morals of my time and I publish
  these letters.” May I not say to you, in imitation of that great
  writer, “I have studied the march of my epoch and I publish this
  work”?

  The object of this particular study--startling in its truth so
  long as society makes philanthropy a principle instead of
  regarding it as an accident--is to bring to sight the leading
  characters of a class too long unheeded by the pens of writers who
  seek novelty as their chief object. Perhaps this forgetfulness is
  only prudence in these days when the people are heirs of all the
  sycophants of royalty. We make criminals poetic, we commiserate
  the hangman, we have all but deified the proletary. Sects have
  risen, and cried by every pen, “Arise, working-men!” just as
  formerly they cried, “Arise!” to the “tiers etat.” None of these
  Erostrates, however, have dared to face the country solitudes and
  study the unceasing conspiracy of those whom we term weak against
  those others who fancy themselves strong,--that of the peasant
  against the proprietor. It is necessary to enlighten not only the
  legislator of to-day but him of to-morrow. In the midst of the
  present democratic ferment, into which so many of our writers
  blindly rush, it becomes an urgent duty to exhibit the peasant who
  renders Law inapplicable, and who has made the ownership of land
  to be a thing that is, and that is not.

  You are now to behold that indefatigable mole, that rodent which
  undermines and disintegrates the soil, parcels it out and divides
  an acre into a hundred fragments,--ever spurred on to his banquet
  by the lower middle classes who make him at once their auxiliary
  and their prey. This essentially unsocial element, created by the
  Revolution, will some day absorb the middle classes, just as the
  middle classes have destroyed the nobility. Lifted above the law
  by its own insignificance, this Robespierre, with one head and
  twenty million arms, is at work perpetually; crouching in country
  districts, intrenched in municipal councils, under arms in the
  national guard of every canton in France,--one result of the year
  1830, which failed to remember that Napoleon preferred the chances
  of defeat to the danger of arming the masses.

  If during the last eight years I have again and again given up the
  writing of this book (the most important of those I have
  undertaken to write), and as often returned to it, it was, as you
  and other friends can well imagine, because my courage shrank from
  the many difficulties, the many essential details of a drama so
  doubly dreadful and so cruelly bloody. Among the reasons which
  render me now almost, it may be thought, foolhardy, I count the
  desire to finish a work long designed to be to you a proof of my
  deep and lasting gratitude for a friendship that has ever been
  among my greatest consolations in misfortune.

                                                      De Balzac.



SONS OF THE SOIL



PART I

                 Whoso land hath, contention hath.



CHAPTER I. THE CHATEAU


Les Aigues, August 6, 1823.

To Monsieur Nathan,

My dear Nathan,--You, who provide the public with such delightful dreams
through the magic of your imagination, are now to follow me while I make
you dream a dream of truth. You shall then tell me whether the present
century is likely to bequeath such dreams to the Nathans and the
Blondets of the year 1923; you shall estimate the distance at which we
now are from the days when the Florines of the eighteenth century found,
on awaking, a chateau like Les Aigues in the terms of their bargain.

My dear fellow, if you receive this letter in the morning, let your
mind travel, as you lie in bed, fifty leagues or thereabouts from Paris,
along the great mail road which leads to the confines of Burgundy, and
behold two small lodges built of red brick, joined, or separated, by
a rail painted green. It was there that the diligence deposited your
friend and correspondent.

On either side of this double pavilion grows a quick-set hedge, from
which the brambles straggle like stray locks of hair. Here and there a
tree shoots boldly up; flowers bloom on the slopes of the wayside ditch,
bathing their feet in its green and sluggish water. The hedge at both
ends meets and joins two strips of woodland, and the double meadow thus
inclosed is doubtless the result of a clearing.

These dusty and deserted lodges give entrance to a magnificent avenue of
centennial elms, whose umbrageous heads lean toward each other and form
a long and most majestic arbor. The grass grows in this avenue, and only
a few wheel-tracks can be seen along its double width of way. The great
age of the trees, the breadth of the avenue, the venerable construction
of the lodges, the brown tints of their stone courses, all bespeak an
approach to some half-regal residence.

Before reaching this enclosure from the height of an eminence such as we
Frenchmen rather conceitedly call a mountain, at the foot of which lies
the village of Conches (the last post-house), I had seen the long valley
of Aigues, at the farther end of which the mail road turns to follow a
straight line into the little sub-prefecture of La Ville-aux-Fayes, over
which, as you know, the nephew of our friend des Lupeaulx lords it. Tall
forests lying on the horizon, along vast slopes which skirt a river,
command this rich valley, which is framed in the far distance by the
mountains of a lesser Switzerland, called the Morvan. These forests
belong to Les Aigues, and to the Marquis de Ronquerolles and the Comte
de Soulanges, whose castles and parks and villages, seen in the distance
from these heights, give the scene a strong resemblance to the imaginary
landscapes of Velvet Breughel.

If these details do not remind you of all the castles in the air you
have desired to possess in France you are not worthy to receive the
present narrative of an astounded Parisian. At last I have seen a
landscape where art is blended with nature in such a way that neither
of them spoils the other; the art is natural, and the nature artistic.
I have found the oasis that you and I have dreamed of when reading
novels,--nature luxuriant and adorned, rolling lines that are not
confused, something wild withal, unkempt, mysterious, not common. Jump
that green railing and come on!

When I tried to look up the avenue, which the sun never penetrates
except when it rises or when it sets, striping the road like a zebra
with its oblique rays, my view was obstructed by an outline of rising
ground; after that is passed, the long avenue is obstructed by a copse,
within which the roads meet at a cross-ways, in the centre of which
stands a stone obelisk, for all the world like an eternal exclamation
mark. From the crevices between the foundation stones of this erection,
which is topped by a spiked ball (what an idea!), hang flowering plants,
blue or yellow according to the season. Les Aigues must certainly have
been built by a woman, or for a woman; no man would have had such dainty
ideas; the architect no doubt had his cue.

Passing through the little wood placed there as sentinel, I came upon
a charming declivity, at the foot of which foamed and gurgled a little
brook, which I crossed on a culvert of mossy stones, superb in color,
the prettiest of all the mosaics which time manufactures. The avenue
continues by the brookside up a gentle rise. In the distance, the first
tableau is now seen,--a mill and its dam, a causeway and trees, linen
laid out to dry, the thatched cottage of the miller, his fishing-nets,
and the tank where the fish are kept,--not to speak of the miller’s boy,
who was already watching me. No matter where you are in the country,
however solitary you may think yourself, you are certain to be the focus
of the two eyes of a country bumpkin; a laborer rests on his hoe,
a vine-dresser straightens his bent back, a little goat-girl, or
shepherdess, or milkmaid climbs a willow to stare at you.

Presently the avenue merges into an alley of acacias, which leads to an
iron railing made in the days when iron-workers fashioned those slender
filagrees which are not unlike the copies set us by a writing-master. On
either side of the railing is a ha-ha, the edges of which bristle with
angry spikes,--regular porcupines in metal. The railing is closed
at both ends by two porter’s-lodges, like those of the palace at
Versailles, and the gateway is surmounted by colossal vases. The gold
of the arabesques is ruddy, for rust has added its tints, but this
entrance, called “the gate of the Avenue,” which plainly shows the hand
of the Great Dauphin (to whom, indeed, Les Aigues owes it), seems to me
none the less beautiful for that. At the end of each ha-ha the walls
of the park, built of rough-hewn stone, begin. These stones, set in a
mortar made of reddish earth, display their variegated colors, the
warm yellows of the silex, the white of the lime carbonates, the russet
browns of the sandstone, in many a fantastic shape. As you first enter
it, the park is gloomy, the walls are hidden by creeping plants and by
trees that for fifty years have heard no sound of axe. One might think
it a virgin forest, made primeval again through some phenomenon granted
exclusively to forests. The trunks of the trees are swathed with lichen
which hangs from one to another. Mistletoe, with its viscid leaves,
droops from every fork of the branches where moisture settles. I have
found gigantic ivies, wild arabesques which flourish only at fifty
leagues from Paris, here where land does not cost enough to make one
sparing of it. The landscape on such free lines covers a great deal of
ground. Nothing is smoothed off; rakes are unknown, ruts and ditches
are full of water, frogs are tranquilly delivered of their tadpoles, the
woodland flowers bloom, and the heather is as beautiful as that I have
seen on your mantle-shelf in January in the elegant beau-pot sent by
Florine. This mystery is intoxicating, it inspires vague desires. The
forest odors, beloved of souls that are epicures of poesy, who delight
in the tiny mosses, the noxious fungi, the moist mould, the willows, the
balsams, the wild thyme, the green waters of a pond, the golden star
of the yellow water-lily,--the breath of all such vigorous propagations
came to my nostrils and filled me with a single thought; was it their
soul? I seemed to see a rose-tinted gown floating along the winding
alley.

The path ended abruptly in another copse, where birches and poplars and
all the quivering trees palpitated,--an intelligent family with graceful
branches and elegant bearing, the trees of a love as free! It was from
this point, my dear fellow, that I saw a pond covered with the white
water-lily and other plants with broad flat leaves and narrow slender
ones, on which lay a boat painted white and black, as light as a
nut-shell and dainty as the wherry of a Seine boatman. Beyond rose
the chateau, built in 1560, of fine red brick, with stone courses and
copings, and window-frames in which the sashes were of small leaded
panes (O Versailles!). The stone is hewn in diamond points, but
hollowed, as in the Ducal Palace at Venice on the facade toward the
Bridge of Sighs. There are no regular lines about the castle except in
the centre building, from which projects a stately portico with double
flights of curving steps, and round balusters slender at their base
and broadening at the middle. The main building is surrounded by
clock-towers and sundry modern turrets, with galleries and vases more
or less Greek. No harmony there, my dear Nathan! These heterogeneous
erections are wrapped, so to speak, by various evergreen trees whose
branches shed their brown needles upon the roofs, nourishing the lichen
and giving tone to the cracks and crevices where the eye delights to
wander. Here you see the Italian pine, the stone pine, with its red bark
and its majestic parasol; here a cedar two hundred years old, weeping
willows, a Norway spruce, and a beech which overtops them all; and
there, in front of the main tower, some very singular shrubs,--a yew
trimmed in a way that recalls some long-decayed garden of old France,
and magnolias with hortensias at their feet. In short, the place is
the Invalides of the heroes of horticulture, once the fashion and now
forgotten, like all other heroes.

A chimney, with curious copings, which was sending forth great volumes
of smoke, assured me that this delightful scene was not an opera
setting. A kitchen reveals human beings. Now imagine _me_, Blondet, who
shiver as if in the polar regions at Saint-Cloud, in the midst of this
glowing Burgundian climate. The sun sends down its warmest rays, the
king-fisher watches on the shores of the pond, the cricket chirps, the
grain-pods burst, the poppy drops its morphia in glutinous tears, and
all are clearly defined on the dark-blue ether. Above the ruddy soil
of the terraces flames that joyous natural punch which intoxicates the
insects and the flowers and dazzles our eyes and browns our faces. The
grape is beading, its tendrils fall in a veil of threads whose
delicacy puts to shame the lace-makers. Beside the house blue larkspur,
nasturtium, and sweet-peas are blooming. From a distance orange-trees
and tuberoses scent the air. After the poetic exhalations of the woods
(a gradual preparation) came the delectable pastilles of this botanic
seraglio.

Standing on the portico, like the queen of flowers, behold a woman robed
in white, with hair unpowdered, holding a parasol lined with white silk,
but herself whiter than the silk, whiter than the lilies at her feet,
whiter than the starry jasmine that climbed the balustrade,--a woman, a
Frenchwoman born in Russia, who said as I approached her, “I had almost
given you up.” She had seen me as I left the copse. With what perfection
do all women, even the most guileless, understand the arrangement of
a scenic effect? The movements of the servants, who were preparing to
serve breakfast, showed me that the meal had been delayed until after
the arrival of the diligence. She had not ventured to come to meet me.

Is this not our dream,--the dream of all lovers of the beautiful, under
whatsoever form it comes; the seraphic beauty that Luini put into his
Marriage of the Virgin, that noble fresco at Sarono; the beauty that
Rubens grasped in the tumult of his “Battle of the Thermodon”; the
beauty that five centuries have elaborated in the cathedrals of Seville
and Milan; the beauty of the Saracens at Granada, the beauty of Louis
XIV. at Versailles, the beauty of the Alps, and that of this Limagne in
which I stand?

Belonging to the estate, about which there is nothing too princely,
nor yet too financial, where prince and farmer-general have both lived
(which fact serves to explain it), are four thousand acres of woodland,
a park of some nine hundred acres, the mill, three leased farms, another
immense farm at Conches, and vineyards,--the whole producing a revenue
of about seventy thousand francs a year. Now you know Les Aigues, my
dear fellow; where I have been expected for the last two weeks, and
where I am at this moment, in the chintz-lined chamber assigned to
dearest friends.

Above the park, towards Conches, a dozen little brooks, clear, limpid
streams coming from the Morvan, fall into the pond, after adorning
with their silvery ribbons the valleys of the park and the magnificent
gardens around the chateau. The name of the place, Les Aigues, comes
from these charming streams of water; the estate was originally called
in the old title-deeds “Les Aigues-Vives” to distinguish it from
“Aigues-Mortes”; but the word “Vives” has now been dropped. The pond
empties into the stream, which follows the course of the avenue, through
a wide and straight canal bordered on both sides and along its
whole length by weeping willows. This canal, thus arched, produces a
delightful effect. Gliding through it, seated on a thwart of the little
boat, one could fancy one’s self in the nave of some great cathedral,
the choir being formed of the main building of the house seen at the end
of it. When the setting sun casts its orange tones mingled with amber
upon the casements of the chateau, the effect is that of painted
windows. At the other end of the canal we see Blangy, the county-town,
containing about sixty houses, and the village church, which is nothing
more than a tumble-down building with a wooden clock-tower which
appears to hold up a roof of broken tiles. One comfortable house and the
parsonage are distinguishable; but the township is a large one,--about
two hundred scattered houses in all, those of the village forming as
it were the capital. The roads are lined with fruit-trees, and numerous
little gardens are strewn here and there,--true country gardens with
everything in them; flowers, onions, cabbages and grapevines, currants,
and a great deal of manure. The village has a primitive air; it is
rustic, and has that decorative simplicity which we artists are forever
seeking. In the far distance is the little town of Soulanges overhanging
a vast sheet of water, like the buildings on the lake of Thune.

When you stroll in the park, which has four gates, each superb in style,
you feel that our mythological Arcadias are flat and stale. Arcadia is
in Burgundy, not in Greece; Arcadia is at Les Aigues and nowhere else. A
river, made by scores of brooklets, crosses the park at its lower level
with a serpentine movement; giving a dewy freshness and tranquillity
to the scene,--an air of solitude, which reminds one of a convent of
Carthusians, and all the more because, on an artificial island in the
river, is a hermitage in ruins, the interior elegance of which is worthy
of the luxurious financier who constructed it. Les Aigues, my dear
Nathan, once belonged to that Bouret who spent two millions to receive
Louis XV. on a single occasion under his roof. How many ardent passions,
how many distinguished minds, how many fortunate circumstances have
contributed to make this beautiful place what it is! A mistress of Henri
IV. rebuilt the chateau where it now stands. The favorite of the Great
Dauphin, Mademoiselle Choin (to whom Les Aigues was given), added
a number of farms to it. Bouret furnished the house with all the
elegancies of Parisian homes for an Opera celebrity; and to him Les
Aigues owes the restoration of its ground floor in the style Louis XV.

I have often stood rapt in admiration at the beauty of the dining-room.
The eye is first attracted to the ceiling, painted in fresco in the
Italian manner, where lightsome arabesques are frolicking. Female forms,
in stucco ending in foliage, support at regular distances corbeils
of fruit, from which spring the garlands of the ceiling. Charming
paintings, the work of unknown artists, fill the panels between the
female figures, representing the luxuries of the table,--boar’s-heads,
salmon, rare shell-fish, and all edible things,--which fantastically
suggest men and women and children, and rival the whimsical imagination
of the Chinese,--the people who best understand, to my thinking
at least, the art of decoration. The mistress of the house finds a
bell-wire beneath her feet to summon servants, who enter only when
required, disturbing no interviews and overhearing no secrets. The
panels above the doorways represent gay scenes; all the embrasures, both
of doors and windows, are in marble mosaics. The room is heated from
below. Every window looks forth on some delightful view.

This room communicates with a bath-room on one side and on the other
with a boudoir which opens into the salon. The bath-room is lined with
Sevres tiles, painted in monochrome, the floor is mosaic, and the bath
marble. An alcove, hidden by a picture painted on copper, which turns
on a pivot, contains a couch in gilt wood of the truest Pompadour. The
ceiling is lapis-lazuli starred with gold. The tiles are painted from
designs by Boucher. Bath, table and love are therefore closely united.

After the salon, which, I should tell you, my dear fellow, exhibits the
magnificence of the Louis XIV. manner, you enter a fine billiard-room
unrivalled so far as I know in Paris itself. The entrance to this suite
of ground-floor apartments is through a semi-circular antechamber, at
the lower end of which is a fairy-like staircase, lighted from
above, which leads to other parts of the house, all built at various
epochs--and to think that they chopped off the heads of the wealthy in
1793! Good heavens! why can’t people understand that the marvels of art
are impossible in a land where there are no great fortunes, no secure,
luxurious lives? If the Left insists on killing kings why not leave us a
few little princelings with money in their pockets?

At the present moment these accumulated treasures belong to a charming
woman with an artistic soul, who is not content with merely restoring
them magnificently, but who keeps the place up with loving care. Sham
philosophers, studying themselves while they profess to be studying
humanity, call these glorious things extravagance. They grovel before
cotton prints and the tasteless designs of modern industry, as if we
were greater and happier in these days than in those of Henri IV., Louis
XIV., and Louis XVI., monarchs who have all left the stamp of their
reigns upon Les Aigues. What palace, what royal castle, what mansions,
what noble works of art, what gold brocaded stuffs are sacred now?
The petticoats of our grandmothers go to cover the chairs in these
degenerate days. Selfish and thieving interlopers that we are, we pull
down everything and plant cabbages where marvels once were rife. Only
yesterday the plough levelled Persan, that magnificent domain which
gave a title to one of the most opulent families of the old parliament;
hammers have demolished Montmorency, which cost an Italian follower
of Napoleon untold sums; Val, the creation of Regnault de Saint-Jean
d’Angely, Cassan, built by a mistress of the Prince de Conti; in all,
four royal houses have disappeared in the valley of the Oise alone. We
are getting a Roman campagna around Paris in advance of the days when a
tempest shall blow from the north and overturn our plaster palaces and
our pasteboard decorations.

Now see, my dear fellow, to what the habit of bombasticising in
newspapers brings you to. Here am I writing a downright article. Does
the mind have its ruts, like a road? I stop; for I rob the mail, and I
rob myself, and you may be yawning--to be continued in our next; I hear
the second bell, which summons me to one of those abundant breakfasts
the fashion of which has long passed away, in the dining-rooms of Paris,
be it understood.

Here’s the history of my Arcadia. In 1815, there died at Les Aigues one
of the famous wantons of the last century,--a singer, forgotten of
the guillotine and the nobility, after preying upon exchequers, upon
literature, upon aristocracy, and all but reaching the scaffold;
forgotten, like so many fascinating old women who expiate their
golden youth in country solitudes, and replace their lost loves by
another,--man by Nature. Such women live with the flowers, with the
woodland scents, with the sky, with the sunshine, with all that sings
and skips and shines and sprouts,--the birds, the squirrels, the
flowers, the grass; they know nothing about these things, they cannot
explain them, but they love them; they love them so well that they
forget dukes, marshals, rivalries, financiers, follies, luxuries, their
paste jewels and their real diamonds, their heeled slippers and their
rouge,--all, for the sweetness of country life.

I have gathered, my dear fellow, much precious information about the old
age of Mademoiselle Laguerre; for, to tell you the truth, the after life
of such women as Florine, Mariette, Suzanne de Val Noble, and Tullia has
made me, every now and then, extremely inquisitive, as though I were a
child inquiring what had become of the old moons.

In 1790 Mademoiselle Laguerre, alarmed at the turn of public affairs,
came to settle at Les Aigues, bought and given to her by Bouret, who
passed several summers with her at the chateau. Terrified at the fate
of Madame du Barry, she buried her diamonds. At that time she was only
fifty-three years of age, and according to her lady’s-maid, afterwards
married to a gendarme named Soudry, “Madame was more beautiful than
ever.” My dear Nathan, Nature has no doubt her private reasons for
treating women of this sort like spoiled children; excesses, instead
of killing them, fatten them, preserve them, renew their youth. Under
a lymphatic appearance they have nerves which maintain their marvellous
physique; they actually preserve their beauty for reasons which would
make a virtuous woman haggard. No, upon my word, Nature is not moral!

Mademoiselle Laguerre lived an irreproachable life at Les Aigues, one
might even call it a saintly one, after her famous adventure,--you
remember it? One evening in a paroxysm of despairing love, she fled from
the opera-house in her stage dress, rushed into the country, and passed
the night weeping by the wayside. (Ah! how they have calumniated the
love of Louis XV.’s time!) She was so unused to see the sunrise, that
she hailed it with one of her finest songs. Her attitude, quite as much
as her tinsel, drew the peasants about her; amazed at her gestures,
her voice, her beauty, they took her for an angel, and dropped on their
knees around her. If Voltaire had not existed we might have thought it
a new miracle. I don’t know if God gave her much credit for her tardy
virtue, for love after all must be a sickening thing to a woman as weary
of it as a wanton of the old Opera. Mademoiselle Laguerre was born in
1740, and her hey-day was in 1760, when Monsieur (I forget his name) was
called the “ministre de la guerre,” on account of his liaison with her.
She abandoned that name, which was quite unknown down here, and called
herself Madame des Aigues, as if to merge her identity in the estate,
which she delighted to improve with a taste that was profoundly
artistic. When Bonaparte became First Consul, she increased her property
by the purchase of church lands, for which she used the proceeds of
her diamonds. As an Opera divinity never knows how to take care of
her money, she intrusted the management of the estate to a steward,
occupying herself with her flowers and fruits and with the beautifying
of the park.

After Mademoiselle was dead and buried at Blangy, the notary of
Soulanges--that little town which lies between Ville-aux-Fayes and
Blangy, the capital of the township--made an elaborate inventory, and
sought out the heirs of the singer, who never knew she had any. Eleven
families of poor laborers living near Amiens, and sleeping in cotton
sheets, awoke one fine morning in golden ones. The property was sold
at auction. Les Aigues was bought by Montcornet, who had laid by enough
during his campaigns in Spain and Pomerania to make the purchase, which
cost about eleven hundred thousand francs, including the furniture. The
general, no doubt, felt the influence of these luxurious apartments; and
I was arguing with the countess only yesterday that her marriage was a
direct result of the purchase of Les Aigues.

To rightly understand the countess, my dear Nathan, you must know that
the general is a violent man, red as fire, five feet nine inches tall,
round as a tower, with a thick neck and the shoulders of a blacksmith,
which must have amply filled his cuirass. Montcornet commanded
the cuirassiers at the battle of Essling (called by the Austrians
Gross-Aspern), and came near perishing when that noble corps was driven
back on the Danube. He managed to cross the river astride a log of wood.
The cuirassiers, finding the bridge down, took the glorious resolution,
at Montcornet’s command, to turn and resist the entire Austrian army,
which carried off on the morrow over thirty wagon-loads of cuirasses.
The Germans invented a name for their enemies on this occasion which
means “men of iron.”[*] Montcornet has the outer man of a hero of
antiquity. His arms are stout and vigorous, his chest deep and broad;
his head has a leonine aspect, his voice is of those that can order a
charge in the thick of battle; but he has nothing more than the courage
of a daring man; he lacks mind and breadth of view. Like other generals
to whom military common-sense, the natural boldness of those who spend
their lives in danger, and the habit of command gives an appearance of
superiority, Montcornet has an imposing effect when you first meet him;
he seems a Titan, but he contains a dwarf, like the pasteboard giant
who saluted Queen Elizabeth at the gates of Kenilworth. Choleric though
kind, and full of imperial hauteur, he has the caustic tongue of a
soldier, and is quick at repartee, but quicker still with a blow. He
may have been superb on a battle-field; in a household he is simply
intolerable. He knows no love but barrack love,--the love which those
clever myth-makers, the ancients, placed under the patronage of Eros,
son of Mars and Venus. Those delightful chroniclers of the old religions
provided themselves with a dozen different Loves. Study the fathers and
the attributes of these Loves, and you will discover a complete social
nomenclature,--and yet we fancy that we originate things! When the world
turns upside down like an hour-glass, when the seas become continents,
Frenchmen will find canons, steamboats, newspapers, and maps wrapped up
in seaweed at the bottom of what is now our ocean.

     [*] I do not, on principle, like foot-notes, and this is the
     first I have ever allowed myself. Its historical interest
     must be my excuse; it will prove, moreover, that
     descriptions of battles should be something more than the
     dry particulars of technical writers, who for the last three
     thousand years have told us about left and right wings and
     centres being broken or driven in, but never a word about
     the soldier himself, his sufferings, and his heroism. The
     conscientious care with which I prepared myself to write the
     “Scenes from Military Life,” led me to many a battle-field
     once wet with the blood of France and her enemies. Among
     them I went to Wagram. When I reached the shores of the
     Danube, opposite Lobau, I noticed on the bank, which is
     covered with turf, certain undulations that reminded me of
     the furrows in a field of lucern. I asked the reason of it,
     thinking I should hear of some new method of agriculture:
     “There sleep the cavalry of the imperial guard,” said the
     peasant who served us as a guide; “those are their graves
     you see there.” The words made me shudder. Prince Frederic
     Schwartzenburg, who translated them, added that the man had
     himself driven one of the wagons laden with cuirasses. By
     one of the strange chances of war our guide had served a
     breakfast to Napoleon on the morning of the battle of
     Wagram. Though poor, he had kept the double napoleon which
     the Emperor gave him for his milk and his eggs. The curate
     of Gross-Aspern took us to the famous cemetery where French
     and Austrians struggled together knee-deep in blood, with a
     courage and obstinacy glorious to each. There, while
     explaining that a marble tablet (to which our attention had
     been attracted, and on which were inscribed the names of the
     owner of Gross-Aspern, who had been killed on the third day)
     was the sole compensation ever given to the family, he said,
     in a tone of deep sadness: “It was a time of great misery,
     and of great hopes; but now are the days of forgetfulness.”
      The saying seemed to me sublime in its simplicity; but when
     I came to reflect upon the matter, I felt there was some
     justification for the apparent ingratitude of the House of
     Austria. Neither nations nor kings are wealthy enough to
     reward all the devotions to which these tragic struggles
     give rise. Let those who serve a cause with a secret
     expectation of recompense, set a price upon their blood and
     become mercenaries. Those who wield either sword or pen for
     their country’s good ought to think of nothing but of _doing
     their best_, as our fathers used to say, and expect nothing,
     not even glory, except as a happy accident.

     It was in rushing to retake this famous cemetery for the
     third time that Massena, wounded and carried in the box of a
     cabriolet, made this splendid harangue to his soldiers:
     “What! you rascally curs, who have only five sous a day
     while I have forty thousand, do you let me go ahead of you?”
      All the world knows the order which the Emperor sent to his
     lieutenant by M. de Sainte-Croix, who swam the Danube three
     times: “Die or retake the village; it is a question of
     saving the army; the bridges are destroyed.”

     The Author.


Now, I must tell you that the Comtesse de Montcornet is a fragile,
timid, delicate little woman. What do you think of such a marriage
as that? To those who know society such things are common enough; a
well-assorted marriage is the exception. Nevertheless, I have come to
see how it is that this slender little creature handles her bobbins in
a way to lead this heavy, solid, stolid general precisely as he himself
used to lead his cuirassiers.

If Montcornet begins to bluster before his Virginie, Madame lays a
finger on her lips and he is silent. He smokes his pipes and his cigars
in a kiosk fifty feet from the chateau, and airs himself before he
returns to the house. Proud of his subjection, he turns to her, like a
bear drunk on grapes, and says, when anything is proposed, “If Madame
approves.” When he comes to his wife’s room, with that heavy step which
makes the tiles creak as though they were boards, and she, not wanting
him, calls out: “Don’t come in!” he performs a military volte-face and
says humbly: “You will let me know when I can see you?”--in the very
tones with which he shouted to his cuirassiers on the banks of the
Danube: “Men, we must die, and die well, since there’s nothing else we
can do!” I have heard him say, speaking of his wife, “Not only do I love
her, but I venerate her.” When he flies into a passion which defies all
restraint and bursts all bonds, the little woman retires into her own
room and leaves him to shout. But four or five hours later she will say:
“Don’t get into a passion, my dear, you might break a blood-vessel; and
besides, you hurt me.” Then the lion of Essling retreats out of sight
to wipe his eyes. Sometimes he comes into the salon when she and I are
talking, and if she says: “Don’t disturb us, he is reading to me,” he
leaves us without a word.

It is only strong men, choleric and powerful, thunder-bolts of war,
diplomats with olympian heads, or men of genius, who can show this
utter confidence, this generous devotion to weakness, this constant
protection, this love without jealousy, this easy good humor with a
woman. Good heavens! I place the science of the countess’s management
of her husband as far above the peevish, arid virtues as the satin of a
causeuse is superior to the Utrecht velvet of a dirty bourgeois sofa.

My dear fellow, I have spent six days in this delightful country-house,
and I never tire of admiring the beauties of the park, surrounded by
forests where pretty wood-paths lead beside the brooks. Nature and its
silence, these tranquil pleasures, this placid life to which she woos
me,--all attract. Ah! here is true literature; no fault of style among
the meadows. Happiness forgets all things here,--even the Debats! It has
rained all the morning; while the countess slept and Montcornet tramped
over his domain, I have compelled myself to keep my rash, imprudent
promise to write to you.

Until now, though I was born at Alencon, of an old judge and a prefect,
so they say, and though I know something of agriculture, I supposed the
tale of estates bringing in four or five thousand francs a month to be
a fable. Money, to me, meant a couple of dreadful things,--work and a
publisher, journalism and politics. When shall we poor fellows come upon
a land where gold springs up with the grass? That is what I desire for
you and for me and the rest of us in the name of the theatre, and of the
press, and of book-making! Amen!

Will Florine be jealous of the late Mademoiselle Laguerre? Our modern
Bourets have no French nobles now to show them how to live; they hire
one opera-box among three of them; they subscribe for their pleasures;
they no longer cut down magnificently bound quartos to match the octavos
in their library; in fact, they scarcely buy even stitched paper books.
What is to become of us?


                                      Adieu; continue to care for
                                      Your Blondet.


If this letter, dashed off by the idlest pen of the century, had not by
some lucky chance been preserved, it would have been almost impossible
to describe Les Aigues; and without this description the history of the
horrible events that occurred there would certainly be less interesting.

After that remark some persons will expect to see the flashing of the
cuirass of the former colonel of the guard, and the raging of his anger
as he falls like a waterspout upon his little wife; so that the end
of this present history may be like the end of all modern dramas,--a
tragedy of the bed-chamber. Perhaps the fatal scene will take place
in that charming room with the blue monochromes, where beautiful ideal
birds are painted on the ceilings and the shutters, where Chinese
monsters laugh with open jaws on the mantle-shelf, and dragons, green
and gold, twist their tails in curious convolutions around rich vases,
and Japanese fantasy embroiders its designs of many colors; where
sofas and reclining-chairs and consoles and what-nots invite to that
contemplative idleness which forbids all action.

No; the drama here to be developed is not one of private life; it
concerns things higher, or lower. Expect no scenes of passion; the truth
of this history is only too dramatic. And remember, the historian should
never forget that his mission is to do justice to all; the poor and the
prosperous are equals before his pen; to him the peasant appears in
the grandeur of his misery, and the rich in the pettiness of his folly.
Moreover, the rich man has passions, the peasant only wants. The peasant
is therefore doubly poor; and if, politically, his aggressions must be
pitilessly repressed, to the eyes of humanity and religion he is sacred.



CHAPTER II. A BUCOLIC OVERLOOKED BY VIRGIL


When a Parisian drops into the country he is cut off from all his usual
habits, and soon feels the dragging hours, no matter how attentive his
friends may be to him. Therefore, because it is so impossible to prolong
in a tete-a-tete conversations that are soon exhausted, the master
and mistress of a country-house are apt to say, calmly, “You will be
terribly bored here.” It is true that to understand the delights of
country life one must have something to do, some interests in it; one
must know the nature of the work to be done, and the alternating harmony
of toil and pleasure,--eternal symbol of human life.

When a Parisian has recovered his powers of sleeping, shaken off the
fatigues of his journey, and accustomed himself to country habits,
the hardest period of the day (if he wears thin boots and is neither
a sportsman nor an agriculturalist) is the early morning. Between the
hours of waking and breakfasting, the women of the family are sleeping
or dressing, and therefore unapproachable; the master of the house is
out and about on his own affairs; a Parisian is therefore compelled
to be alone from eight to eleven o’clock, the hour chosen in all
country-houses for breakfast. Now, having got what amusement he can
out of carefully dressing himself, he has soon exhausted that resource.
Then, perhaps, he has brought with him some work, which he finds it
impossible to do, and which goes back untouched, after he sees the
difficulties of doing it, into his valise; a writer is then obliged to
wander about the park and gape at nothing or count the big trees. The
easier the life, the more irksome such occupations are,--unless, indeed,
one belongs to the sect of shaking quakers or to the honorable guild
of carpenters or taxidermists. If one really had, like the owners of
estates, to live in the country, it would be well to supply one’s self
with a geological, mineralogical, entomological, or botanical hobby;
but a sensible man doesn’t give himself a vice merely to kill time for
a fortnight. The noblest estate, and the finest chateaux soon pall on
those who possess nothing but the sight of them. The beauties of nature
seem rather squalid compared to the representation of them at the
opera. Paris, by retrospection, shines from all its facets. Unless some
particular interest attaches us, as it did in Blondet’s case, to scenes
honored by the steps and lighted by the eyes of a certain person, one
would envy the birds their wings and long to get back to the endless,
exciting scenes of Paris and its harrowing strifes.

The long letter of the young journalist must make most intelligent minds
suppose that he had reached, morally and physically, that particular
phase of satisfied passions and comfortable happiness which certain
winged creatures fed in Strasbourg so perfectly represent when, with
their heads sunk behind their protruding gizzards, they neither see nor
wish to see the most appetizing food. So, when the formidable letter was
finished, the writer felt the need of getting away from the gardens of
Armida and doing something to enliven the deadly void of the morning
hours; for the hours between breakfast and dinner belonged to the
mistress of the house, who knew very well how to make them pass quickly.
To keep, as Madame de Montcornet did, a man of talent in the country
without ever seeing on his face the false smile of satiety, or detecting
the yawn of a weariness that cannot be concealed, is a great triumph for
a woman. The affection which is equal to such a test certainly ought to
be eternal. It is to be wondered at that women do not oftener employ
it to judge of their lovers; a fool, an egoist, or a petty nature
could never stand it. Philip the Second himself, the Alexander of
dissimulation, would have told his secrets if condemned to a month’s
tete-a-tete in the country. Perhaps this is why kings seek to live in
perpetual motion, and allow no one to see them more than fifteen minutes
at a time.

Notwithstanding that he had received the delicate attentions of one of
the most charming women in Paris, Emile Blondet was able to feel once
more the long forgotten delights of a truant schoolboy; and on the
morning of the day after his letter was written he had himself called
by Francois, the head valet, who was specially appointed to wait on him,
for the purpose of exploring the valley of the Avonne.

The Avonne is a little river which, being swollen above Conches
by numerous rivulets, some of which rise in Les Aigues, falls at
Ville-aux-Fayes into one of the large affluents of the Seine. The
geographical position of the Avonne, navigable for over twelve miles,
had, ever since Jean Bouvet invented rafts, given full money value to
the forests of Les Aigues, Soulanges, and Ronquerolles, standing on the
crest of the hills between which this charming river flows. The park
of Les Aigues covers the greater part of the valley, between the river
(bordered on both sides by the forest called des Aigues) and the royal
mail road, defined by a line of old elms in the distance along the
slopes of the Avonne mountains, which are in fact the foot-hills of that
magnificent amphitheater called the Morvan.

However vulgar the comparison may be, the park, lying thus at the bottom
of the valley, is like an enormous fish with its head at Conches and
its tail in the village of Blangy; for it widens in the middle to nearly
three hundred acres, while towards Conches it counts less than fifty,
and sixty at Blangy. The position of this estate, between three
villages, and only three miles from the little town of Soulanges, from
which the descent is rapid, may perhaps have led to the strife and
caused the excesses which are the chief interest attaching to the
place. If, when seen from the mail road or from the uplands beyond
Ville-aux-Fayes, the paradise of Les Aigues induces mere passing
travellers to commit the mortal sin of envy, why should the rich
burghers of Soulanges and Ville-aux-Fayes who had it before their eyes
and admired it every day of their lives, have been more virtuous?

This last topographical detail was needed to explain the site, also the
use of the four gates by which alone the park of Les Aigues was entered;
for it was completely surrounded by walls, except where nature had
provided a fine view, and at such points sunk fences or ha-has had been
placed. The four gates, called the gate of Conches, the gate of Avonne,
the gate of Blangy, and the gate of the Avenue, showed the styles of
the different periods at which they were constructed so admirably that a
brief description, in the interest of archaeologists, will presently be
given, as brief as the one Blondet has already written about the gate of
the Avenue.

After eight days of strolling about with the countess, the illustrious
editor of the “Journal des Debats” knew by heart the Chinese kiosk, the
bridges, the isles, the hermitage, the dairy, the ruined temple, the
Babylonian ice-house, and all the other delusions invented by landscape
architects which some nine hundred acres of land can be made to serve.
He now wished to find the sources of the Avonne, which the general and
the countess daily extolled in the evening, making plans to visit them
which were daily forgotten the next morning. Above Les Aigues the Avonne
really had the appearance of an alpine torrent. Sometimes it hollowed
a bed among the rocks, sometimes it went underground; on this side the
brooks came down in cascades, there they flowed like the Loire on sandy
shallows where rafts could not pass on account of the shifting channels.
Blondet took a short cut through the labyrinths of the park to reach the
gate of Conches. This gate demands a few words, which give, moreover,
certain historical details about the property.

The original founder of Les Aigues was a younger son of the Soulanges
family, enriched by marriage, whose chief ambition was to make his
elder brother jealous,--a sentiment, by the bye, to which we owe the
fairy-land of Isola Bella in the Lago Maggiore. In the middle ages
the castle of Les Aigues stood on the banks of the Avonne. Of this old
building nothing remains but the gateway, which has a porch like the
entrance to a fortified town, flanked by two round towers with conical
roofs. Above the arch of the porch are heavy stone courses, now draped
with vegetation, showing three large windows with cross-bar sashes.
A winding stairway in one of the towers leads to two chambers, and a
kitchen occupies the other tower. The roof of the porch, of pointed
shape like all old timber-work, is noticeable for two weathercocks
perched at each end of a ridge-pole ornamented with fantastic iron-work.
Many an important place cannot boast of so fine a town hall. On the
outside of this gateway, the keystone of the arch still bears the arms
of Soulanges, preserved by the hardness of the stone on which the chisel
of the artist carved them, as follows: Azure, on a pale, argent, three
pilgrim’s staff’s sable; a fess bronchant, gules, charged with four
grosses patee, fitched, or; with the heraldic form of a shield awarded
to younger sons. Blondet deciphered the motto, “Je soule agir,”--one of
those puns that crusaders delighted to make upon their names, and which
brings to mind a fine political maxim, which, as we shall see later, was
unfortunately forgotten by Montcornet. The gate, which was opened for
Blondet by a very pretty girl, was of time-worn wood clamped with iron.
The keeper, wakened by the creaking of the hinges, put his nose out of
the window and showed himself in his night-shirt.

“So our keepers sleep till this time of day!” thought the Parisian, who
thought himself very knowing in rural customs.

After a walk of about quarter of an hour, he reached the sources of
the river above Conches, where his ravished eyes beheld one of those
landscapes that ought to be described, like the history of France, in a
thousand volumes or in only one. We must here content ourselves with two
paragraphs.

A projecting rock, covered with dwarf trees and abraded at its base by
the Avonne, to which circumstance it owes a slight resemblance to an
enormous turtle lying across the river, forms an arch through which
the eye takes in a little sheet of water, clear as a mirror, where
the stream seems to sleep until it reaches in the distance a series of
cascades falling among huge rocks, where little weeping willows with
elastic motion sway back and forth to the flow of waters.

Beyond these cascades is the hillside, rising sheer, like a Rhine rock
clothed with moss and heather, gullied like it, again, by sharp ridges
of schist and mica sending down, here and there, white foaming rivulets
to which a little meadow, always watered and always green, serves as a
cup; farther on, beyond the picturesque chaos and in contrast to this
wild, solitary nature, the gardens of Conches are seen, with the village
roofs and the clock-tower and the outlying fields.

There are the two paragraphs, but the rising sun, the purity of the air,
the dewy sheen, the melody of woods and waters--imagine them!

“Almost as charming as at the Opera,” thought Blondet, making his way
along the banks of the unnavigable portion of the Avonne, whose caprices
contrast with the straight and deep and silent stream of the lower
river, flowing between the tall trees of the forest of Les Aigues.

Blondet did not proceed far on his morning walk, for he was presently
brought to a stand-still by the sight of a peasant,--one of those who,
in this drama, are supernumeraries so essential to its action that it
may be doubted whether they are not in fact its leading actors.

When the clever journalist reached a group of rocks where the main
stream is imprisoned, as it were, between two portals, he saw a man
standing so motionless as to excite his curiosity, while the clothes and
general air of this living statue greatly puzzled him.

The humble personage before him was a living presentment of the old
men dear to Charlet’s pencil; resembling the troopers of that Homer of
soldiery in a strong frame able to endure hardship, and his immortal
skirmishers in a fiery, crimson, knotted face, showing small capacity
for submission. A coarse felt hat, the brim of which was held to the
crown by stitches, protected a nearly bald head from the weather; below
it fell a quantity of white hair which a painter would gladly have paid
four francs an hour to copy,--a dazzling mass of snow, worn like that
in all the classical representations of Deity. It was easy to guess from
the way in which the cheeks sank in, continuing the lines of the mouth,
that the toothless old fellow was more given to the bottle than the
trencher. His thin white beard gave a threatening expression to his
profile by the stiffness of its short bristles. The eyes, too small for
his enormous face, and sloping like those of a pig, betrayed cunning and
also laziness; but at this particular moment they were gleaming with the
intent look he cast upon the river. The sole garments of this curious
figure were an old blouse, formerly blue, and trousers of the coarse
burlap used in Paris to wrap bales. All city people would have shuddered
at the sight of his broken sabots, without even a wisp of straw to stop
the cracks; and it is very certain that the blouse and the trousers had
no money value at all except to a paper-maker.

As Blondet examined this rural Diogenes, he admitted the possibility
of a type of peasantry he had seen in old tapestries, old pictures, old
sculptures, and which, up to this time, had seemed to him imaginary. He
resolved for the future not to utterly condemn the school of ugliness,
perceiving a possibility that in man beauty may be but the flattering
exception, a chimera in which the race struggles to believe.

“What can be the ideas, the morals, the habits, of such a being? What
is he thinking of?” thought Blondet, seized with curiosity. “Is he my
fellow-creature? We have nothing in common but shape, and even that!--”

He noticed in the old man’s limbs the peculiar rigidity of the tissues
of persons who live in the open air, accustomed to the inclemencies
of the weather and to the endurance of heat and cold,--hardened to
everything, in short,--which makes their leathern skin almost a hide,
and their nerves an apparatus against physical pain almost as powerful
as that of the Russians or the Arabs.

“Here’s one of Cooper’s Red-skins,” thought Blondet; “one needn’t go to
America to study savages.”

Though the Parisian was less than ten paces off, the old man did not
turn his head, but kept looking at the opposite bank with a fixity which
the fakirs of India give to their vitrified eyes and their stiffened
joints. Compelled by the power of a species of magnetism, more
contagious than people have any idea of, Blondet ended by gazing at the
water himself.

“Well, my good man, what do you see there?” he asked, after the lapse of
a quarter of an hour, during which time he saw nothing to justify this
intent contemplation.

“Hush!” whispered the old man, with a sign to Blondet not to ruffle the
air with his voice; “You will frighten it--”

“What?”

“An otter, my good gentleman. If it hears us it’ll go quick under water.
I’m certain it jumped there; see! see! there, where the water bubbles!
Ha! it sees a fish, it is after that! But my boy will grab it as it
comes back. The otter, don’t you know, is very rare; it is scientific
game, and good eating, too. I get ten francs for every one I carry to
Les Aigues, for the lady fasts Fridays, and to-morrow is Friday. Years
agone the deceased madame used to pay me twenty francs, and gave me the
skin to boot! Mouche,” he called, in a low voice, “watch it!”

Blondet now perceived on the other side of the river two bright eyes,
like those of a cat, beneath a tuft of alders; then he saw the tanned
forehead and tangled hair of a boy about ten years of age, who was lying
on his stomach and making signs towards the otter to let his master know
he kept it well in sight. Blondet, completely mastered by the eagerness
of the old man and boy, allowed the demon of the chase to get the better
of him,--that demon with the double claws of hope and curiosity, who
carries you whithersoever he will.

“The hat-makers buy the skin,” continued the old man; “it’s so soft, so
handsome! They cover caps with it.”

“Do you really think so, my old man?” said Blondet, smiling.

“Well truly, my good gentleman, you ought to know more than I, though
I am seventy years old,” replied the old fellow, very humbly and
respectfully, falling into the attitude of a giver of holy water;
“perhaps you can tell me why conductors and wine-merchants are so fond
of it?”

Blondet, a master of irony, already on his guard from the word
“scientific,” recollected the Marechal de Richelieu and began to suspect
some jest on the part of the old man; but he was reassured by his
artless attitude and the perfectly stupid expression of his face.

“In my young days we had lots of otters,” whispered the old fellow; “but
they’ve hunted ‘em so that if we see the tail of one in seven
years it is as much as ever we do. And the sub-prefect at
Ville-aux-Fayes,--doesn’t monsieur know him? though he be a Parisian,
he’s a fine young man like you, and he loves curiosities,--so, as I was
saying, hearing of my talent for catching otters, for I know ‘em as you
know your alphabet, he says to me like this: ‘Pere Fourchon,’ says he,
‘when you find an otter bring it to me, and I’ll pay you well; and if
it’s spotted white on the back,’ says he, ‘I’ll give you thirty francs.’
That’s just what he did say to me as true as I believe in God the
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And there’s a learned man at Soulanges,
Monsieur Gourdon, our doctor, who is making, so they tell me, a
collection of natural history which hasn’t its mate at Dijon even;
indeed he is first among the learned men in these parts, and he’ll pay
me a fine price, too; he stuffs men and beasts. Now my boy there stands
me out that that otter has got the white spots. ‘If that’s so,’ says I
to him, ‘then the good God wishes well to us this morning!’ Ha! didn’t
you see the water bubble? yes, there it is! there it is! Though it lives
in a kind of a burrow, it sometimes stays whole days under water. Ha,
there! it heard you, my good gentleman; it’s on its guard now; for
there’s not a more suspicious animal on earth; it’s worse than a woman.”

“So you call women suspicious, do you?” said Blondet.

“Faith, monsieur, if you come from Paris you ought to know about that
better than I. But you’d have done better for me if you had stayed
in your bed and slept all the morning; don’t you see that wake there?
that’s where she’s gone under. Get up, Mouche! the otter heard monsieur
talking, and now she’s scary enough to keep us at her heels till
midnight. Come, let’s be off! and good-bye to our thirty francs!”

Mouche got up reluctantly; he looked at the spot where the water
bubbled, pointed to it with his finger and seemed unable to give up all
hope. The child, with curly hair and a brown face, like the angels in
a fifteenth-century picture, seemed to be in breeches, for his trousers
ended at the knee in a ragged fringe of brambles and dead leaves. This
necessary garment was fastened upon him by cords of tarred oakum in
guise of braces. A shirt of the same burlap which made the old man’s
trousers, thickened, however, by many darns, open in front showed a
sun-burnt little breast. In short, the attire of the being called Mouche
was even more startlingly simple than that of Pere Fourchon.

“What a good-natured set of people they are here,” thought Blondet; “if
a man frightened away the game of the people of the suburbs of Paris,
how their tongues would maul him!”

As he had never seen an otter, even in a museum, he was delighted with
this episode of his early walk. “Come,” said he, quite touched when the
old man walked away without asking him for a compensation, “you say
you are a famous otter catcher. If you are sure there is an otter down
there--”

From the other side of the water Mouche pointed his finger to certain
air-bubbles coming up from the bottom of the Avonne and bursting on its
surface.

“It has come back!” said Pere Fourchon; “don’t you see it breathe, the
beggar? How do you suppose they manage to breathe at the bottom of the
water? Ah, the creature’s so clever it laughs at science.”

“Well,” said Blondet, who supposed the last word was a jest of the
peasantry in general rather than of this peasant in particular, “wait
and catch the otter.”

“And what are we to do about our day’s work, Mouche and I?”

“What is your day worth?”

“For the pair of us, my apprentice and me?--Five francs,” said the old
man, looking Blondet in the eye with a hesitation which betrayed an
enormous overcharge.

The journalist took ten francs from his pocket, saying, “There’s ten,
and I’ll give you ten more for the otter.”

“And it won’t cost you dear if there’s white on its back; for the
sub-prefect told me there wasn’t one o’ them museums that had the like;
but he knows everything, our sub-prefect,--no fool he! If I hunt the
otter, he, M’sieur des Lupeaulx, hunts Mademoiselle Gaubertin, who has a
fine white ‘dot’ on her back. Come now, my good gentleman, if I may make
so bold, plunge into the middle of the Avonne and get to that stone down
there. If we head the otter off, it will come down stream; for just see
their slyness, the beggars! they always go above their burrow to feed,
for, once full of fish, they know they can easily drift down, the sly
things! Ha! if I’d been trained in their school I should be living now
on an income; but I was a long time finding out that you must go up
stream very early in the morning if you want to bag the game before
others. Well, somebody threw a spell over me when I was born. However,
we three together ought to be slyer than the otter.”

“How so, my old necromancer?”

“Why, bless you! we are as stupid as the beasts, and so we come to
understand the beasts. Now, see, this is what we’ll do. When the otter
wants to get home Mouche and I’ll frighten it here, and you’ll frighten
it over there; frightened by us and frightened by you it will jump on
the bank, and when it takes to earth, it is lost! It can’t run; it has
web feet for swimming. Ho, ho! it will make you laugh, such floundering!
you don’t know whether you are fishing or hunting! The general up at Les
Aigues, I have known him to stay here three days running, he was so bent
on getting an otter.”

Blondet, armed with a branch cut for him by the old man, who requested
him to whip the water with it when he called to him, planted himself in
the middle of the river by jumping from stone to stone.

“There, that will do, my good gentleman.”

Blondet stood where he was told without remarking the lapse of time, for
every now and then the old fellow made him a sign as much as to say that
all was going well; and besides, nothing makes time go so fast as the
expectation that quick action is to succeed the perfect stillness of
watching.

“Pere Fourchon,” whispered the boy, finding himself alone with the old
man, “there’s _really_ an otter!”

“Do you see it?”

“There, see there!”

The old fellow was dumb-founded at beholding under water the
reddish-brown fur of an actual otter.

“It’s coming my way!” said the child.

“Hit him a sharp blow on the head and jump into the water and hold him
fast down, but don’t let him go!”

Mouche dove into the water like a frightened frog.

“Come, come, my good gentleman,” cried Pere Fourchon to Blondet, jumping
into the water and leaving his sabots on the bank, “frighten him!
frighten him! Don’t you see him? he is swimming fast your way!”

The old man dashed toward Blondet through the water, calling out with
the gravity that country people retain in the midst of their greatest
excitements:--

“Don’t you see him, there, along the rocks?”

Blondet, placed by direction of the old fellow in such a way that
the sun was in his eyes, thrashed the water with much satisfaction to
himself.

“Go on, go on!” cried Pere Fourchon; “on the rock side; the burrow is
there, to your left!”

Carried away by excitement and by his long waiting, Blondet slipped from
the stones into the water.

“Ha! brave you are, my good gentleman! Twenty good Gods! I see him
between your legs! you’ll have him!--Ah! there! he’s gone--he’s gone!”
 cried the old man, in despair.

Then, in the fury of the chase, the old fellow plunged into the deepest
part of the stream in front of Blondet.

“It’s your fault we’ve lost him!” he cried, as Blondet gave him a hand
to pull him out, dripping like a triton, and a vanquished triton. “The
rascal, I see him, under those rocks! He has let go his fish,” continued
Fourchon, pointing to something that floated on the surface. “We’ll have
that at any rate; it’s a tench, a real tench.”

Just then a groom in livery on horseback and leading another horse by
the bridle galloped up the road toward Conches.

“See! there’s the chateau people sending after you,” said the old man.
“If you want to cross back again I’ll give you a hand. I don’t mind
about getting wet; it saves washing!”

“How about rheumatism?”

“Rheumatism! don’t you see the sun has browned our legs, Mouche and me,
like tobacco-pipes. Here, lean on me, my good gentleman--you’re from
Paris; you don’t know, though you _do_ know so much, how to walk on our
rocks. If you stay here long enough, you’ll learn a deal that’s
written in the book o’ nature,--you who write, so they tell me, in the
newspapers.”

Blondet had reached the bank before Charles, the groom, perceived him.

“Ah, monsieur!” he cried; “you don’t know how anxious Madame has been
since she heard you had gone through the gate of Conches; she was
afraid you were drowned. They have rung the great bell three times, and
Monsieur le cure is hunting for you in the park.”

“What time is it, Charles?”

“A quarter to twelve.”

“Help me to mount.”

“Ha!” exclaimed the groom, noticing the water that dripped from
Blondet’s boots and trousers, “has monsieur been taken in by Pere
Fourchon’s otter?”

The words enlightened the journalist.

“Don’t say a word about it, Charles,” he cried, “and I’ll make it all
right with you.”

“Oh, as for that!” answered the man, “Monsieur le comte himself has been
taken in by that otter. Whenever a visitor comes to Les Aigues, Pere
Fourchon sets himself on the watch, and if the gentleman goes to see the
sources of the Avonne he sells him the otter; he plays the trick so well
that Monsieur le comte has been here three times and paid him for six
days’ work, just to stare at the water!”

“Heavens!” thought Blondet. “And I imagined I had seen the greatest
comedians of the present day!--Potier, the younger Baptiste, Michot, and
Monrose. What are they compared to that old beggar?”

“He is very knowing at the business, Pere Fourchon is,” continued
Charles; “and he has another string to his bow, besides. He calls
himself a rope-maker, and has a walk under the park wall by the gate of
Blangy. If you merely touch his rope he’ll entangle you so cleverly that
you will want to turn the wheel and make a bit of it yourself; and for
that you would have to pay a fee for apprenticeship. Madame herself was
taken in, and gave him twenty francs. Ah! he is the king of tricks, that
old fellow!”

The groom’s gossip set Blondet thinking of the extreme craftiness and
wiliness of the French peasant, of which he had heard a great deal
from his father, a judge at Alencon. Then the satirical meaning hidden
beneath Pere Fourchon’s apparent guilelessness came back to him, and he
owned himself “gulled” by the Burgundian beggar.

“You would never believe, monsieur,” said Charles, as they reached the
portico at Les Aigues, “how much one is forced to distrust everybody and
everything in the country,--especially here, where the general is not
much liked--”

“Why not?”

“That’s more than I know,” said Charles, with the stupid air servants
assume to shield themselves when they wish not to answer their
superiors, which nevertheless gave Blondet a good deal to think of.

“Here you are, truant!” cried the general, coming out on the terrace
when he heard the horses. “Here he is; don’t be uneasy!” he called back
to his wife, whose little footfalls were heard behind him. “Now the Abbe
Brossette is missing. Go and find him, Charles,” he said to the groom.



CHAPTER III. THE TAVERN


The gate of Blangy, built by Bouret, was formed of two wide pilasters
of projecting rough-hewn stone; each surmounted by a dog sitting on his
haunches and holding an escutcheon between his fore paws. The proximity
of a small house where the steward lived dispensed with the necessity
for a lodge. Between the two pilasters, a sumptuous iron gate, like
those made in Buffon’s time for the Jardin des Plantes, opened on a
short paved way which led to the country road (formerly kept in order
by Les Aigues and the Soulanges family) which unites Conches, Cerneux,
Blangy, and Soulanges to Ville-aux-Fayes, like a wreath, for the whole
road is lined with flowering hedges and little houses covered with roses
and honey-suckle and other climbing plants.

There, along a pretty wall which extends as far as a terrace from which
the land of Les Aigues falls rapidly to the valley till it meets that
of Soulanges, are the rotten posts, the old wheel, and the forked stakes
which constituted the manufactory of the village rope-maker.

Soon after midday, while Blondet was seating himself at table opposite
the Abbe Brossette and receiving the tender expostulations of the
countess, Pere Fourchon and Mouche arrived at this establishment. From
that vantage-ground Pere Fourchon, under pretence of rope-making, could
watch Les Aigues and see every one who went in and out. Nothing escaped
him, the opening of the blinds, tete-a-tete loiterings, or the least
little incidents of country life, were spied upon by the old fellow,
who had set up this business within the last three years,--a trifling
circumstance which neither the masters, nor the servants, nor the
keepers of Les Aigues had as yet remarked upon.

“Go round to the house by the gate of the Avonne while I put away the
tackle,” said Pere Fourchon to his attendant, “and when you have blabbed
about the thing, they’ll no doubt send after me to the Grand-I-Vert,
where I am going for a drop of drink,--for it makes one thirsty enough
to wade in the water that way. If you do just as I tell you, you’ll hook
a good breakfast out of them; try to meet the countess, and give a slap
at me, and that will put it into her head to come and preach morality or
something! There’s lots of good wine to get out of it.”

After these last instructions, which the sly look in Mouche’s face
rendered quite superfluous, the old peasant, hugging the otter under his
arm, disappeared along the country road.

Half-way between the gate and the village there stood, at the time when
Emile Blondet stayed at Les Aigues, one of those houses which are never
seen but in parts of France where stone is scarce. Bits of bricks picked
up anywhere, cobblestones set like diamonds in the clay mud, formed
very solid walls, though worn in places; the roof was supported by stout
branches and covered with rushes and straw, while the clumsy shutters
and the broken door--in short, everything about the cottage was the
product of lucky finds, or of gifts obtained by begging.

The peasant has an instinct for his habitation like that of an animal
for its nest or its burrow, and this instinct was very marked in all
the arrangements of this cottage. In the first place, the door and the
window looked to the north. The house, placed on a little rise in the
stoniest angle of a vineyard, was certainly healthful. It was reached by
three steps, carefully made with stakes and planks filled in with broken
stone and gravel, so that the water ran off rapidly; and as the rain
seldom comes from the northward in Burgundy, no dampness could rot the
foundations, slight as they were. Below the steps and along the path ran
a rustic paling, hidden beneath a hedge of hawthorn and sweet-brier.
An arbor, with a few clumsy tables and wooden benches, filled the space
between the cottage and the road, and invited the passers-by to rest
themselves. At the upper end of the bank by the house roses grew, and
wall-flowers, violets, and other flowers that cost nothing. Jessamine
and honey-suckle had fastened their tendrils on the roof, mossy already,
though the building was far from old.

To the right of the house, the owner had built a stable for two cows. In
front of this erection of old boards, a sunken piece of ground served as
a yard where, in a corner, was a huge manure-heap. On the other side of
the house and the arbor stood a thatched shed, supported on trunks of
trees, under which the various outdoor properties of the peasantry were
put away,--the utensils of the vine-dressers, their empty casks, logs
of wood piled about a mound which contained the oven, the mouth of
which opened, as was usual in the houses of the peasantry, under the
mantle-piece of the chimney in the kitchen.

About an acre of land adjoined the house, inclosed by an evergreen hedge
and planted with grape-vines; tended as peasants tend them,--that is to
say, well-manured, and dug round, and layered so that they usually set
their fruit before the vines of the large proprietors in a circuit of
ten miles round. A few trees, almond, plum, and apricot, showed their
slim heads here and there in this enclosure. Between the rows of vines
potatoes and beans were planted. In addition to all this, on the side
towards the village and beyond the yard was a bit of damp low ground,
favorable for the growth of cabbages and onions (favorite vegetables of
the working-classes), which was closed by a wooden gate, through which
the cows were driven, trampling the path into mud and covering it with
dung.

The house, which had two rooms on the ground-floor, opened upon the
vineyard. On this side an outer stairway, roofed with thatch and resting
against the wall of the house, led up to the garret, which was lighted
by one round window. Under this rustic stairway opened a cellar built of
Burgundy brick, containing several casks of wine.

Though the kitchen utensils of the peasantry are usually only two,
namely, a frying-pan and an iron pot, with which they manage to do all
their cooking, exceptions to this rule, in the shape of two enormous
saucepans hanging beneath the mantle-shelf and above a small portable
stove, were to be seen in this cottage. In spite, however, of this
indication of luxury, the furniture was in keeping with the external
appearance of the place. A jar held water, the spoons were of wood or
pewter, the dishes, of red clay without and white within, were scaling
off and had been mended with pewter rivets; the heavy table and chairs
were of pine wood, and for flooring there was nothing better than the
hardened earth. Every fifth year the walls received a coat of white-wash
and so did the narrow beams of the ceiling, from which hung bacon,
strings of onions, bundles of tallow candles, and the bags in which
a peasant keeps his seeds; near the bread-box stood an old-fashioned
wardrobe in walnut, where the scanty household linen, and the one change
of garments together with the holiday attire of the entire family were
kept.

Above the mantel of the chimney gleamed a poacher’s old gun, not worth
five francs,--the wood scorched, the barrel to all appearances never
cleaned. An observer might reflect that the protection of a hovel with
only a latch, and an outer gate that was only a paling and never closed,
needed no better weapon; but still the wonder was to what use it was
put. In the first place, though the wood was of the commonest kind, the
barrel was carefully selected, and came from a valuable gun, given in
all probability to a game-keeper. Moreover, the owner of this weapon
never missed his aim; there was between him and his gun the same
intimate acquaintance that there is between a workman and his tool. If
the muzzle must be raised or lowered the merest fraction in its aim,
because it carries just an atom above or below the range, the poacher
knows it; he obeys the rule and never misses. An officer of artillery
would have found the essential parts of this weapon in good condition
notwithstanding its uncleanly appearance. In all that the peasant
appropriates to his use, in all that serves him, he displays just the
amount of force that is needed, neither more nor less; he attends to
the essential and to nothing beyond. External perfection he has no
conception of. An unerring judge of the necessary in all things, he
thoroughly understands degrees of strength, and knows very well when
working for an employer how to give the least possible for the most he
can get. This contemptible-looking gun will be found to play a serious
part in the life of the family inhabiting this cottage, and you will
presently learn how and why.

Have you now taken in all the many details of this hovel, planted about
five hundred feet away from the pretty gate of Les Aigues? Do you see it
crouching there, like a beggar beside a palace? Well, its roof covered
with velvet mosses, its clacking hens, its grunting pig, its straying
heifer, all its rural graces have a horrible meaning.

Fastened to a pole, which was stuck in the ground beside the entrance
through the fence, was a withered bunch of three pine branches and some
old oak-leaves tied together with a rag. Above the door of the house a
roving artist had painted, probably in return for his breakfast, a huge
capital “I” in green on a white ground two feet square; and for the
benefit of those who could read, this witty joke in twelve letters:
“Au Grand-I-Vert” (hiver). On the left of the door was a vulgar sign
bearing, in colored letters, “Good March beer,” and the picture of
a foaming pot of the same, with a woman, in a dress excessively
low-necked, on one side, and an hussar on the other,--both coarsely
colored. Consequently, in spite of the blooming flowers and the fresh
country air, this cottage exhaled the same strong and nauseous odor of
wine and food which assails you in Paris as you pass the door of the
cheap cook-shops of the faubourg.

Now you know the surroundings. Behold the inhabitants and hear their
history, which contains more than one lesson for philanthropists.

The proprietor of the Grand-I-Vert, named Francois Tonsard, commends
himself to the attention of philosophers by the manner in which he had
solved the problem of an idle life and a busy life, so as to make the
idleness profitable, and occupation nil.

A jack-of-all-trades, he knew how to cultivate the ground, but for
himself only. For others, he dug ditches, gathered fagots, barked the
trees, or cut them down. In all such work the employer is at the mercy
of the workman. Tonsard owned his plot of ground to the generosity of
Mademoiselle Laguerre. In his early youth he had worked by the day for
the gardener at Les Aigues; and he really had not his equal in
trimming the shrubbery-trees, the hedges, the horn-beams, and the
horse-chestnuts. His very name shows hereditary talent. In remote
country-places privileges exist which are obtained and preserved with
as much care as the merchants of a city display in getting theirs.
Mademoiselle Laguerre was one day walking in the garden, when she
overheard Tonsard, then a strapping fellow, say, “All I need to live on,
and live happily, is an acre of land.” The kind creature, accustomed
to make others happy, gave him the acre of vineyard near the gate of
Blangy, in return for one hundred days’ work (a delicate regard for his
feelings which was little understood), and allowed him to stay at Les
Aigues, where he lived with her servants, who thought him one of the
best fellows in Burgundy.

Poor Tonsard (that is what everybody called him) worked about thirty
days out of the hundred that he owed; the rest of the time he idled
about, talking and laughing with Mademoiselle’s women, particularly
with Mademoiselle Cochet, the lady’s maid, though she was ugly, like
all confidential maids of handsome actresses. Laughing with Mademoiselle
Cochet signified so many things that Soudry, the fortunate gendarme
mentioned in Blondet’s letter, still looked askance at Tonsard after
the lapse of nearly twenty-five years. The walnut wardrobe, the bedstead
with the tester and curtains, and the ornaments about the bedroom were
doubtless the result of the said laughter.

Once in possession of his care, Tonsard replied to the first person
who happened to mention that Mademoiselle Laguerre had given it to him,
“I’ve bought it deuced hard, and paid well for it. Do rich folks ever
give us anything? Are one hundred days’ work nothing? It has cost me
three hundred francs, and the land is all stones.” But that speech never
got beyond the regions of his own class.

Tonsard built his house himself, picking up the materials here and
there as he could,--getting a day’s work out of this one and that one,
gleaning in the rubbish that was thrown away, often asking for things
and always obtaining them. A discarded door cut in two for convenience
in carrying away became the door of the stable; the window was the sash
of a green-house. In short, the rubbish of the chateau, served to build
the fatal cottage.

Saved from the draft by Gaubertin, the steward of Les Aigues, whose
father was prosecuting-attorney of the department, and who, moreover,
could refuse nothing to Mademoiselle Cochet, Tonsard married as soon
as his house was finished and his vines had begun to bear. A well-grown
fellow of twenty-three, in everybody’s good graces at Les Aigues, on
whom Mademoiselle had bestowed an acre of her land, and who appeared
to be a good worker, he had the art to ring the praises of his negative
merits, and so obtained the daughter of a farmer on the Ronquerolles
estate, which lies beyond the forest of Les Aigues.

This farmer held the lease of half a farm, which was going to ruin in
his hands for want of a helpmate. A widower, and inconsolable for the
loss of his wife, he tried to drown his troubles, like the English, in
wine, and then, when he had put the poor deceased out of his mind, he
found himself married, so the village maliciously declared, to a woman
named Boisson. From being a farmer he became once more a laborer, but
an idle and drunken laborer, quarrelsome and vindictive, capable of any
ill-deed, like most of his class when they fall from a well-to-do
state of life into poverty. This man, whose practical information
and knowledge of reading and writing placed him far above his
fellow-workmen, while his vices kept him at the level of pauperism, you
have already seen on the banks of the Avonne, measuring his cleverness
with that of one of the cleverest men in Paris, in a bucolic overlooked
by Virgil.

Pere Fourchon, formerly a schoolmaster at Blangy, lost that place
through misconduct and his singular ideas as to public education.
He helped the children to make paper boats with their alphabets
much oftener than he taught them how to spell; he scolded them in so
remarkable a manner for pilfering fruit that his lectures might really
have passed for lessons on the best way of scaling the walls. From
teacher he became a postman. In this capacity, which serves as a refuge
to many an old soldier, Pere Fourchon was daily reprimanded. Sometimes
he forgot the letters in a tavern, at other times he kept them in his
pocket. When he was drunk he left those for one village in another
village; when he was sober he read them. Consequently, he was soon
dismissed. No longer able to serve the State, Pere Fourchon ended
by becoming a manufacturer. In the country a poor man can always get
something to do, and make at least a pretence of gaining an honest
livelihood. At sixty-eight years of age the old man started his
rope-walk, a manufactory which requires the very smallest capital. The
workshop is, as we have seen, any convenient wall; the machinery costs
about ten francs. The apprentice slept, like his master, in a hay-loft,
and lived on whatever he could pick up. The rapacity of the law in the
matter of doors and windows expires “sub dio.” The tow to make the first
rope can be borrowed. But the principal revenue of Pere Fourchon and his
satellite Mouche, the natural son of one of his natural daughters, came
from the otters; and then there were breakfasts and dinners given them
by peasants who could neither read nor write, and were glad to use the
old fellow’s talents when they had a bill to make out, or a letter to
dispatch. Besides all this, he knew how to play the clarionet, and
he went about with his friend Vermichel, the miller of Soulanges, to
village weddings and the grand balls given at the Tivoli of Soulanges.

Vermichel’s name was Michel Vert, but the transposition was so generally
used that Brunet, the clerk of the municipal court of Soulanges, was
in the habit of writing Michel-Jean-Jerome Vert, called Vermichel,
practitioner. Vermichel, a famous violin in the Burgundian regiment of
former days, had procured for Pere Fourchon, in recognition of certain
services, a situation as practitioner, which in remote country-places
usually devolves on those who are able to sign their name. Pere Fourchon
therefore added to his other avocations that of witness, or practitioner
of legal papers, whenever the Sieur Brunet came to draw them in the
districts of Cerneux, Conches, and Blangy. Vermichel and Fourchon,
allied by a friendship of twenty years’ tippling, might really be
considered a business firm.

Mouche and Fourchon, bound together by vice as Mentor and Telemachus
by virtue, travelled like the latter, in search of their father, “panis
angelorum,”--the only Latin words which the old fellow’s memory had
retained. They went about scraping up the pickings of the Grand-I-Vert,
and those of the adjacent chateaux; for between them, in their busiest
and most prosperous years, they had never contrived to make as much as
three hundred and sixty fathoms of rope. In the first place, no dealer
within a radius of fifty miles would have trusted his tow to either
Mouche or Fourchon. The old man, surpassing the miracles of modern
chemistry, knew too well how to resolve the tow into the all-benignant
juice of the grape. Moreover, his triple functions of public writer for
three townships, legal practitioner for one, and clarionet-player at
large, hindered, so he said, the development of his business.

Thus it happened that Tonsard was disappointed from the start in
the hope he had indulged of increasing his comfort by an increase of
property in marriage. The idle son-in-law had chanced, by a very common
accident, on an idler father-in-law. Matters went all the worse because
Tonsard’s wife, gifted with a sort of rustic beauty, being tall and
well-made, was not fond of work in the open air. Tonsard blamed his wife
for her father’s short-comings, and ill-treated her, with the customary
revenge of the common people, whose minds take in only an effect and
rarely look back to causes.

Finding her fetters heavy, the woman lightened them. She used Tonsard’s
vices to get the better of him. Loving comfort and good eating herself,
she encouraged his idleness and gluttony. In the first place, she
managed to procure the good-will of the servants of the chateau, and
Tonsard, in view of the results, made no complaint as to the means. He
cared very little what his wife did, so long as she did all he wanted
of her. That is the secret agreement of many a household. Madame Tonsard
established the wine-shop of the Grand-I-Vert, her first customers being
the servants of Les Aigues and the keepers and huntsmen.

Gaubertin, formerly steward to Mademoiselle Laguerre, one of La
Tonsard’s chief patrons, gave her several puncheons of excellent wine
to attract custom. The effect of these gifts (continued as long as
Gaubertin remained a bachelor) and the fame of her rather lawless beauty
commended this beauty to the Don Juans of the valley, and filled the
wine-shop of the Grand-I-Vert. Being a lover of good eating, La Tonsard
was naturally an excellent cook; and though her talents were only
exercised on the common dishes of the country, jugged hare, game sauce,
stewed fish and omelets, she was considered in all the country round to
be an admirable cook of the sort of food which is eaten at a counter and
spiced in a way to excite a desire for drink. By the end of two years,
she had managed to rule Tonsard, and turn him to evil courses, which,
indeed, he asked no better than to indulge in.

The rascal was continually poaching, and with nothing to fear from it.
The intimacies of his wife with Gaubertin and the keepers and the
rural authorities, together with the laxity of the times, secured
him impunity. As soon as his children were large enough he made them
serviceable to his comfort, caring no more for their morality than for
that of his wife. He had two sons and two daughters. Tonsard, who lived,
as did his wife, from hand to mouth, might have come to an end of
this easy life if he had not maintained a sort of martial law over his
family, which compelled them to work for the preservation of it. When he
had brought up his children, at the cost of those from whom his wife was
able to extort gifts, the following charter and budget were the law at
the Grand-I-Vert.

Tonsard’s old mother and his two daughters, Catherine and Marie, went
into the woods at certain seasons twice a-day, and came back laden with
fagots which overhung the crutch of their poles at least two feet beyond
their heads. Though dried sticks were placed on the outside of the heap,
the inside was made of live wood cut from young trees. In plain words,
Tonsard helped himself to his winter’s fuel in the woods of Les Aigues.
Besides this, father and sons were constantly poaching. From September
to March, hares, rabbits, partridges, deer, in short, all the game that
was not eaten at the chateau, was sold at Blangy and at Soulanges, where
Tonsard’s two daughters peddled milk in the early mornings,--coming back
with the news of the day, in return for the gossip they carried about
Les Aigues, and Cerneux, and Conches. In the months when the three
Tonsards were unable to hunt with a gun, they set traps. If the traps
caught more game than they could eat, La Tonsard made pies of it and
sent them to Ville-aux-Fayes. In harvest-time seven Tonsards--the old
mother, the two sons (until they were seventeen years of age), the two
daughters, together with old Fourchon and Mouche--gleaned, and generally
brought in about sixteen bushels a day of all grains, rye, barley,
wheat, all good to grind.

The two cows, led to the roadside by the youngest girl, always managed
to stray into the meadows of Les Aigues; but as, if it ever chanced that
some too flagrant trespass compelled the keepers to take notice of it,
the children were either whipped or deprived of a coveted dainty, they
had acquired such extraordinary aptitude in hearing the enemy’s footfall
that the bailiff or the park-keeper of Les Aigues was very seldom able
to detect them. Besides, the relations of those estimable functionaries
with Tonsard and his wife tied a bandage over their eyes. The cows, held
by long ropes, obeyed a mere twitch or a special low call back to the
roadside, knowing very well that, the danger once past, they could
finish their browsing in the next field. Old mother Tonsard, who was
getting more and more infirm, succeeded Mouche in his duties, after
Fourchon, under pretence of caring for his natural grandson’s education,
kept him to himself; while Marie and Catherine made hay in the woods.
These girls knew the exact spots where the fine forest-grass abounded,
and there they cut and spread and cocked and garnered it, supplying two
thirds, at least, of the winter fodder, and leading the cows on all fine
days to sheltered nooks where they could still find pasture. In certain
parts of the valley of Les Aigues, as in all places protected by a chain
of mountains, in Piedmont and in Lombardy for instance, there are spots
where the grass keeps green all the year. Such fields, called in Italy
“marciti,” are of great value; though in France they are often in danger
of being injured by snow and ice. This phenomenon is due, no doubt, to
some favorable exposure, and to the infiltration of water which keeps
the ground at a warmer temperature.

The calves were sold for about eighty francs. The milk, deducting the
time when the cows calved or went dry, brought in about one hundred and
sixty francs a year besides supplying the wants of the family. Tonsard
himself managed to earn another hundred and sixty by doing odd jobs of
one kind or another.

The sale of food and wine in the tavern, after all costs were paid,
returned a profit of about three hundred francs, for the great
drinking-bouts happened only at certain times and in certain seasons;
and as the topers who indulged in them gave Tonsard and his wife due
notice, the latter bought in the neighboring town the exact quantity of
provisions needed and no more. The wine produced by Tonsard’s vineyard
was sold in ordinary years for twenty francs a cask to a wine-dealer at
Soulanges with whom Tonsard was intimate. In very prolific years he got
as much as twelve casks from his vines; but eight was the average; and
Tonsard kept half for his own traffic. In all wine-growing districts the
gleaning of the large vineyards gives a good perquisite, and out of
it the Tonsard family usually managed to obtain three casks more. But
being, as we have seen, sheltered and protected by the keepers, they
showed no conscience in their proceedings,--entering vineyards
before the harvesters were out of them, just as they swarmed into the
wheat-fields before the sheaves were made. So, the seven or eight casks
of wine, as much gleaned as harvested, were sold for a good price.
However, out of these various proceeds the Grand-I-Vert was mulcted in
a good sum for the personal consumption of Tonsard and his wife,
who wanted the best of everything to eat, and better wine than they
sold,--which they obtained from their friend at Soulanges in payment for
their own. In short, the money scraped together by this family amounted
to about nine hundred francs, for they fattened two pigs a year, one for
themselves and the other to sell.

The idlers and scapegraces and also the laborers took a fancy to the
tavern of the Grand-I-Vert, partly because of La Tonsard’s merits, and
partly on account of the hail-fellow-well-met relation existing between
this family and the lower classes of the valley. The two daughters, both
remarkably handsome, followed the example of their mother as to morals.
Moreover, the long established fame of the Grand-I-Vert, dating from
1795, made it a venerable spot in the eyes of the common people. From
Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes, workmen came there to meet and make their
bargains and hear the news collected by the Tonsard women and by Mouche
and old Fourchon, or supplied by Vermichel and Brunet, that renowned
official, when he came to the tavern in search of his practitioner.
There the price of hay and of wine was settled; also that of a day’s
work and of piece-work. Tonsard, a sovereign judge in such matters,
gave his advice and opinion while drinking with his guests. Soulanges,
according to a saying in these parts, was a town for society and
amusement only, while Blangy was a business borough; crushed, however,
by the great commercial centre of Ville-aux-Fayes, which had become in
the last twenty-five years the capital of this flourishing valley. The
cattle and grain market was held at Blangy, in the public square,
and the prices there obtained served as a tariff for the whole
arrondissement.

By staying in the house and doing no out-door work, La Tonsard continued
fresh and fair and dimpled, in comparison with the women who worked in
the fields and faded as rapidly as the flowers, becoming old and haggard
before they were thirty. She liked to be well-dressed. In point of
fact, she was only clean, but in a village cleanliness is a luxury. The
daughters, better dressed than their means warranted, followed their
mother’s example. Beneath their outer garment, which was relatively
handsome, they wore linen much finer than that of the richest peasant
women. On fete-days they appeared in dresses that were really pretty,
obtained, Heaven knows how! For one thing, the men-servants at Les
Aigues sold to them, at prices that were easily paid, the cast-off
clothing of the lady’s-maids, which, after sweeping the streets of Paris
and being made over to fit Marie and Catherine, appeared triumphantly in
the precincts of the Grand-I-Vert. These girls, bohemians of the valley,
received not one penny in money from their parents, who gave them
food only, and the wretched pallets on which they slept with their
grandmother in the barn, where their brothers also slept, curled up in
the hay like animals. Neither father nor mother paid any heed to this
propinquity.

The iron age and the age of gold are more alike than we think for. In
the one nothing aroused vigilance; in the other, everything rouses it;
the result to society is, perhaps, very much the same. The presence of
old Mother Tonsard, which was more a necessity than a precaution, was
simply one immorality the more. And thus it was that the Abbe Brossette,
after studying the morals of his parishioners, made this pregnant remark
to his bishop:--

“Monseigneur, when I observe the stress that the peasantry lay on
their poverty, I realize how they fear to lose that excuse for their
immorality.”

Though everybody knew that the family had no principles and no scruples,
nothing was ever said against the morals of the Grand-I-Vert. At the
beginning of this book it is necessary to explain, once for all, to
persons accustomed to the decencies of middle-class life, that the
peasants have no decency in their domestic habits and customs. They
make no appeal to morality when their daughters are seduced, unless the
seducer is rich and timid. Children, until the State takes possession
of them, are used either as capital or as instruments of convenience.
Self-interest has become, specially since 1789, the sole motive of the
masses; they never ask if an action is legal or immoral, but only if it
is profitable. Morality, which is not to be confounded with religion,
begins only at a certain competence,--just as one sees, in a higher
sphere, how delicacy blossoms in the soul when fortune decorates
the furniture. A positively moral and upright man is rare among the
peasantry. Do you ask why? Among the many reasons that may be given for
this state of things, the principal one is this: Through the nature of
their social functions, the peasants live a purely material life which
approximates to that of savages, and their constant union with nature
tends to foster it. When toil exhausts the body it takes from the mind
its purifying action, especially among the ignorant. The Abbe Brossette
was right in saying that the state policy of the peasant is his poverty.

Meddling in everybody’s interests, Tonsard heard everybody’s complaints,
and often instigated frauds to benefit the needy. His wife, a kindly
appearing woman, had a good word for evil-doers, and never withheld
either approval or personal help from her customers in anything they
undertook against the rich. This inn, a nest of vipers, brisk and
venomous, seething and active, was a hot-bed for the hatred of the
peasants and the workingmen against the masters and the wealthy.

The prosperous life of the Tonsards was, therefore, an evil example.
Others asked themselves why they should not take their wood, as the
Tonsards did, from the forest; why not pasture their cows and have game
to eat and to sell as well as they; why not harvest without sowing the
grapes and the grain. Accordingly, the pilfering thefts which thin the
woods and tithe the ploughed lands and meadows and vineyards became
habitual in this valley, and soon existed as a right throughout the
districts of Blangy, Conches, and Cerneux, all adjacent to the domain
of Les Aigues. This sore, for certain reasons which will be given in
due time, did far greater injury to Les Aigues than to the estates of
Ronquerolles or Soulanges. You must not, however, fancy that Tonsard,
his wife and children, and his old mother ever deliberately said to
themselves, “We will live by theft, and commit it as cleverly as we
can.” Such habits grow slowly. To the dried sticks they added, in the
first instance, a single bit of good wood; then, emboldened by habit
and a carefully prepared immunity (necessary to plans which this history
will unfold), they ended at last in cutting “their wood,” and stealing
almost their entire livelihood. Pasturage for the cows and the abuses of
gleaning were established as customs little by little. When the Tonsards
and the do-nothings of the valley had tasted the sweets of these four
rights (thus captured by rural paupers, and amounting to actual robbery)
we can easily imagine they would never give them up unless compelled by
a power greater than their own audacity.

At the time when this history begins Tonsard, then about fifty years
of age, tall and strong, rather stout than thin, with curly black hair,
skin highly colored and marbled like a brick with purple blotches,
yellow whites to the eyes, large ears with broad flaps, a muscular
frame, encased, however, in flabby flesh, a retreating forehead, and a
hanging lip,--Tonsard, such as you see him, hid his real character under
an external stupidity, lightened at times by a show of experience, which
seemed all the more intelligent because he had acquired in the company
of his father-in-law a sort of bantering talk, much affected by old
Fourchon and Vermichel. His nose, flattened at the end as if the finger
of God intended to mark him, gave him a voice which came from his
palate, like that of all persons disfigured by a disease which thickens
the nasal passages, through which the air then passes with difficulty.
His upper teeth overlapped each other, and this defect (which Lavater
calls terrible) was all the more apparent because they were as white as
those of a dog. But for a certain lawless and slothful good humor, and
the free-and-easy ways of a rustic tippler, the man would have alarmed
the least observing of spectators.

If the portraits of Tonsard, his inn, and his father-in-law take a
prominent place in this history, it is because that place belongs to him
and to the inn and to the family. In the first place, their existence,
so minutely described, is the type of a hundred other households in the
valley of Les Aigues. Secondly, Tonsard, without being other than the
instrument of deep and active hatreds, had an immense influence on the
struggle that was about to take place, being the friend and counsellor
of all the complainants of the lower classes. His inn, as we shall
presently see, was the rendezvous for the aggressors; in fact, he became
their chief, partly on account of the fear he inspired throughout the
valley--less, however, by his actual deeds than by those that were
constantly expected of him. The threat of this man was as much dreaded
as the thing threatened, so that he never had occasion to execute it.

Every revolt, open or concealed, has its banner. The banner of the
marauders, the drunkards, the idlers, the sluggards of the valley des
Aigues was the terrible tavern of the Grand-I-Vert. Its frequenters
found amusement there,--as rare and much-desired a thing in the country
as in a city. Moreover, there was no other inn along the country-road
for over twelve miles, a distance which conveyances (even when laden)
could easily do in three hours; so that those who went from Conches to
Ville-aux-Fayes always stopped at the Grand-I-Vert, if only to refresh
themselves. The miller of Les Aigues, who was also assistant-mayor, and
his men came there. The grooms and valets of the general were not averse
to Tonsard’s wine, rendered attractive by Tonsard’s daughters; so the
Grand-I-Vert held subterraneous communication with the chateau through
the servants, and knew immediately everything that they knew. It is
impossible either by benefits or through their own self-interests, to
break up the perpetual understanding that exists between the servants of
a household and the people from whom they come. Domestic service is of
the masses, and to the masses it will ever remain attached. This fatal
comradeship explains the reticence of the last words of Charles the
groom, as he and Blondet reached the portico of the chateau.



CHAPTER IV. ANOTHER IDYLL


“Ha! by my pipe, papa!” exclaimed Tonsard, seeing his father-in-law as
the old man entered and supposing him in quest of food, “your stomach
is lively this morning! We haven’t anything to give you. How about that
rope,--the rope, you know, you were to make for us? It is amazing how
much you make over night and how little there is made in the morning!
You ought long ago to have twisted the one that is to twist you out of
existence; you are getting too costly for us.”

The wit of a peasant or laborer is very Attic; it consists in speaking
out his mind and giving it a grotesque expression. We find the same
thing in a drawing-room. Delicacy of wit takes the place of picturesque
vulgarity, and that is really all the difference there is.

“That’s enough for the father-in-law!” said the old man. “Talk business;
I want a bottle of the best.”

So saying, Fourchon rapped a five-franc piece that gleamed in his hand
on the old table at which he was seated,--which, with its coating of
grease, its scorched black marks, its wine stains, and its gashes, was
singular to behold. At the sound of coin Marie Tonsard, as trig as a
sloop about to start on a cruise, glanced at her grandfather with a
covetous look that shot from her eyes like a spark. La Tonsard came out
of her bedroom, attracted by the music of metal.

“You are always rough to my poor father,” she said to her husband, “and
yet he has earned a deal of money this year; God grant he came by
it honestly. Let me see that,” she added, springing at the coin and
snatching it from Fourchon’s fingers.

“Marie,” said Tonsard, gravely, “above the board you’ll find some
bottled wine. Go and get a bottle.”

Wine is of only one quality in the country, but it is sold as of two
kinds,--cask wine and bottled wine.

“Where did you get this, papa” demanded La Tonsard, slipping the coin
into her pocket.

“Philippine! you’ll come to a bad end,” said the old man, shaking his
head but not attempting to recover his money. Doubtless he had long
realized the futility of a struggle between his daughter, his terrible
son-in-law, and himself.

“Another bottle of wine for which you get five francs out of me,” he
added, in a peevish tone. “But it shall be the last. I shall give my
custom to the Cafe de la Paix.”

“Hold your tongue, papa!” remarked his fair and fat daughter, who bore
some resemblance to a Roman matron. “You need a shirt, and a pair of
clean trousers, and a hat; and I want to see you with a waistcoat.
That’s what I take the money for.”

“I have told you again and again that such things would ruin me,” said
the old man. “People would think me rich and stop giving me anything.”

The bottle brought by Marie put an end to the loquacity of the old man,
who was not without that trait, characteristic of those whose tongues
are ready to tell out everything, and who shrink from no expression of
their thought, no matter how atrocious it may be.

“Then you don’t want to tell where you filched that money?” said
Tonsard. “We might go and get more where that came from,--the rest of
us.”

He was making a snare, and as he finished it the ferocious innkeeper
happened to glance at his father-in-law’s trousers, and there he spied a
raised round spot which clearly defined a second five-franc piece.

“Having become a capitalist I drink your health,” said Pere Fourchon.

“If you choose to be a capitalist you can be,” said Tonsard; “you have
the means, you have! But the devil has bored a hole in the back of your
head through which everything runs out.”

“Hey! I only played the otter trick on that young fellow they have got
at Les Aigues. He’s from Paris. That’s all there is to it.”

“If crowds of people would come to see the sources of the Avonne, you’d
be rich, Grandpa Fourchon,” said Marie.

“Yes,” he said, drinking the last glassful the bottle contained, “and
I’ve played the sham otter so long, the live otters have got angry, and
one of them came right between my legs to-day; Mouche caught it, and I
am to get twenty francs for it.”

“I’ll bet your otter is made of tow,” said Tonsard, looking slyly at his
father-in-law.

“If you will give me a pair of trousers, a waistcoat, and some list
braces, so as not to disgrace Vermichel on the music stand at Tivoli
(for old Socquard is always scolding about my clothes), I’ll let you
keep that money, my daughter; your idea is a good one. I can squeeze
that rich young fellow at Les Aigues; may be he’ll take to otters.”

“Go and get another bottle,” said Tonsard to his daughter. “If your
father really had an otter, he would show it to us,” he added, speaking
to his wife and trying to touch up Fourchon.

“I’m too afraid it would get into your frying-pan,” said the old man,
winking one of his little green eyes at his daughter. “Philippine has
already hooked my five-franc piece; and how many more haven’t you bagged
under pretence of clothing me and feeding me? and now you say that my
stomach is too lively, and that I go half-naked.”

“You sold your last clothes to drink boiled wine at the Cafe de la Paix,
papa,” said his daughter, “though Vermichel tried to prevent it.”

“Vermichel! the man I treated! Vermichel is incapable of betraying my
friendship. It must have been that lump of old lard on two legs that he
is not ashamed to call his wife!”

“He or she,” replied Tonsard, “or Bonnebault.”

“If it was Bonnebault,” cried Fourchon, “he who is one of the pillars of
the place, I’ll--I’ll--Enough!”

“You old sot, what has all that got to do with having sold your clothes?
You sold them because you did sell them; you’re of age!” said Tonsard,
slapping the old man’s knee. “Come, do honor to my drink and redden up
your throat! The father of Mam Tonsard has a right to do so; and isn’t
that better than spending your silver at Socquard’s?”

“What a shame it is that you have been fifteen years playing for people
to dance at Tivoli and you have never yet found out how Socquard cooks
his wine,--you who are so shrewd!” said his daughter; “and yet you
know very well that if we had the secret we should soon get as rich as
Rigou.”

Throughout the Morvan, and in that region of Burgundy which lies at its
feet on the side toward Paris, this boiled wine with which Mam Tonsard
reproached her father is a rather costly beverage which plays a great
part in the life of the peasantry, and is made by all grocers and
wine-dealers, and wherever a drinking-shop exists. This precious liquor,
made of choice wine, sugar, and cinnamon and other spices, is
preferable to all those disguises or mixtures of brandy called ratafia,
one-hundred-and-seven, brave man’s cordial, black currant wine,
vespetro, spirit-of-sun, etc. Boiled wine is found throughout France and
Switzerland. Among the Jura, and in the wild districts trodden only by a
few special tourists, the innkeepers call it, on the word of commercial
travellers, the wine of Syracuse. Excellent it is, however, and their
guests, hungry as hounds after ascending the surrounding peaks, very
gladly pay three and four francs a bottle for it. In the homes of the
Morvan and in Burgundy the least illness or the slightest agitation of
the nerves is an excuse for boiled wine. Before and after childbirth the
women take it with the addition of burnt sugar. Boiled wine has soaked
up the property of many a peasant, and more than once the seductive
liquid has been the cause of marital chastisement.

“Ha! there’s no chance of grabbing that secret,” replied Fourchon,
“Socquard always locks himself in when he boils his wine; he never told
how he does it to his late wife. He sends to Paris for his materials.”

“Don’t plague your father,” cried Tonsard; “doesn’t he know? well, then,
he doesn’t know! People can’t know everything!”

Fourchon grew very uneasy on seeing how his son-in-law’s countenance
softened as well as his words.

“What do you want to rob me of now?” he asked, candidly.

“I?” said Tonsard, “I take none but my legitimate dues; if I get
anything from you it is in payment of your daughter’s portion, which you
promised me and never paid.”

Fourchon, reassured by the harshness of this remark, dropped his head on
his breast as though vanquished and convinced.

“Look at that pretty snare,” resumed Tonsard, coming up to his
father-in-law and laying the trap upon his knee. “Some of these days
they’ll want game at Les Aigues, and we shall sell them their own, or
there will be no good God for the poor folks.”

“A fine piece of work,” said the old man, examining the mischievous
machine.

“It is very well to pick up the sous now, papa,” said Mam Tonsard, “but
you know we are to have our share in the cake of Les Aigues.”

“Oh, what chatterers women are!” cried Tonsard. “If I am hanged it won’t
be for a shot from my gun, but for the gabble of your tongue.”

“And do you really suppose that Les Aigues will be cut up and sold in
lots for your pitiful benefit?” asked Fourchon. “Pshaw! haven’t you
discovered in the last thirty years that old Rigou has been sucking the
marrow out of your bones that the middle-class folks are worse than
the lords? Mark my words, when that affair happens, my children, the
Soudrys, the Gaubertins, the Rigous, will make you kick your heels in
the air. ‘I’ve the good tobacco, it never shall be thine,’ that’s
the national air of the rich man, hey? The peasant will always be
the peasant. Don’t you see (but you never did understand anything of
politics!) that government puts such heavy taxes on wine only to hinder
our profits and keep us poor? The middle classes and the government,
they are all one. What would become of them if everybody was rich? Could
they till their fields? Would they gather the harvest? No, they
_want_ the poor! I was rich for ten years and I know what I thought of
paupers.”

“Must hunt with them, though,” replied Tonsard, “because they mean to
cut up the great estates; after that’s done, we can turn against them.
If I’d been Courtecuisse, whom that scoundrel Rigou is ruining, I’d have
long ago paid his bill with other balls than the poor fellow gives him.”

“Right enough, too,” replied Fourchon. “As Pere Niseron says (and he
stayed republican long after everybody else), ‘The people are tough;
they don’t die; they have time before them.’”

Fourchon fell into a sort of reverie; Tonsard profited by his
inattention to take back the trap, and as he took it up he cut a slip
below the coin in his father-in-law’s pocket at the moment when the old
man raised his glass to his lips; then he set his foot on the five-franc
piece as it dropped on the earthen floor just where it was always kept
damp by the heel-taps which the customers flung from their glasses.
Though quickly and lightly done, the old man might, perhaps, have felt
the theft, if Vermichel had not happened to appear at that moment.

“Tonsard, do you know where you father is?” called that functionary from
the foot of the steps.

Vermichel’s shout, the theft of the money, and the emptying of old
Fourchon’s glass, were simultaneous.

“Present, captain!” cried Fourchon, holding out a hand to Vermichel to
help him up the steps.

Of all Burgundian figures, Vermichel would have seemed to you the most
Burgundian. The practitioner was not red, he was scarlet. His face, like
certain tropical portions of the globe, was fissured, here and there,
with small extinct volcanoes, defined by flat and greenish patches which
Fourchon called, not unpoetically, the “flowers of wine.” This fiery
face, the features of which were swelled out of shape by continual
drunkenness, looked cyclopic; for it was lighted on the right side by a
gleaming eye, and darkened on the other by a yellow patch over the left
orb. Red hair, always tousled, and a beard like that of Judas, made
Vermichel as formidable in appearance as he was meek in reality. His
prominent nose looked like an interrogation-mark, to which the wide-slit
mouth seemed to be always answering, even when it did not open.
Vermichel, a short man, wore hob-nail shoes, bottle-green velveteen
trousers, an old waistcoat patched with diverse stuffs which seemed
to have been originally made of a counterpane, a jacket of coarse blue
cloth and a gray hat with a broad brim. All this luxury, required by the
town of Soulanges where Vermichel fulfilled the combined functions of
porter at the town-hall, drummer, jailer, musician, and practitioner,
was taken care of by Madame Vermichel, an alarming antagonist of
Rabelaisian philosophy. This virago with moustachios, about one yard in
width and one hundred and twenty kilograms in weight (but very active),
ruled Vermichel with a rod of iron. Thrashed by her when drunk, he
allowed her to thrash him still when sober; which caused Pere Fourchon
to say, with a sniff at Vermichel’s clothes, “It is the livery of a
slave.”

“Talk of the sun and you’ll see its beams,” cried Fourchon, repeating a
well-worn allusion to the rutilant face of Vermichel, which really did
resemble those copper suns painted on tavern signs in the provinces.
“Has Mam Vermichel spied too much dust on your back, that you’re running
away from your four-fifths,--for I can’t call her your better half, that
woman! What brings you here at this hour, drum-major?”

“Politics, always politics,” replied Vermichel, who seemed accustomed to
such pleasantries.

“Ah! business is bad in Blangy, and there’ll be notes to protest, and
writs to issue,” remarked Pere Fourchon, filling a glass for his friend.

“That APE of ours is right behind me,” replied Vermichel, with a
backward gesture.

In workmen’s slang “ape” meant master. The word belonged to the
dictionary of the worthy pair.

“What’s Monsieur Brunet coming bothering about here?” asked Tonsard.

“Hey, by the powers, you folks!” said Vermichel, “you’ve brought him in
for the last three years more than you are worth. Ha! that master at Les
Aigues, he has his eye upon you; he’ll punch you in the ribs; he’s after
you, the Shopman! Brunet says, if there were three such landlords in the
valley his fortune would be made.”

“What new harm are they going to do to the poor?” asked Marie.

“A pretty wise thing for themselves,” replied Vermichel. “Faith! you’ll
have to give in, in the end. How can you help it? They’ve got the
power. For the last two years haven’t they had three foresters and a
horse-patrol, all as active as ants, and a field-keeper who is a terror?
Besides, the gendarmerie is ready to do their dirty work at any time.
They’ll crush you--”

“Bah!” said Tonsard, “we are too flat. That which can’t be crushed isn’t
the trees, it’s ground.”

“Don’t you trust to that,” said Fourchon to his son-in-law; “you own
property.”

“Those rich folks must love you,” continued Vermichel, “for they think
of nothing else from morning till night! They are saying to themselves
now like this: ‘Their cattle eat up our pastures; we’ll seize their
cattle; they can’t eat grass themselves.’ You’ve all been condemned, the
warrants are out, and they have told our ape to take your cows. We are
to begin this morning at Conches by seizing old mother Bonnebault’s cow
and Godin’s cow and Mitant’s cow.”

The moment the name of Bonnebault was mentioned, Marie, who was in love
with the old woman’s grandson, sprang into the vineyard with a nod to
her father and mother. She slipped like an eel through a break in the
hedge, and was off on the way to Conches with the speed of a hunted
hare.

“They’ll do so much,” remarked Tonsard, tranquilly, “that they’ll get
their bones broken; and that will be a pity, for their mothers can’t
make them any new ones.”

“Well, perhaps so,” said old Fourchon, “but see here, Vermichel, I can’t
go with you for an hour or more, for I have important business at the
chateau.”

“More important than serving three warrants at five sous each? ‘You
shouldn’t spit into the vintage,’ as Father Noah says.”

“I tell you, Vermichel, that my business requires me to go to the
chateau des Aigues,” repeated the old man, with an air of laughable
self-importance.

“And anyhow,” said Mam Tonsard, “my father had better keep out of the
way. Do you really mean to find the cows?”

“Monsieur Brunet, who is a very good fellow, would much rather find
nothing but their dung,” answered Vermichel. “A man who is obliged to be
out and about day and night had better be careful.”

“If he is, he has good reason to be,” said Tonsard, sententiously.

“So,” continued Vermichel, “he said to Monsieur Michaud, ‘I’ll go as
soon as the court is up.’ If he had wanted to find the cows he’d have
gone at seven o’clock in the morning. But that didn’t suit Michaud,
and Brunet has had to be off. You can’t take in Michaud, he’s a trained
hound! Ha, the brigand!”

“Ought to have stayed in the army, a swaggerer like that,” said Tonsard;
“he is only fit to deal with enemies. I wish he would come and ask me my
name. He may call himself a veteran of the young guard, but I know
very well that if I measured spurs with him, I’d keep my feathers up
longest.”

“Look here!” said Mam Tonsard to Vermichel, “when are the notices for
the ball at Soulanges coming out? Here it is the eighth of August.”

“I took them yesterday to Monsieur Bournier at Ville-aux-Fayes, to be
printed,” replied Vermichel; “they do talk of fireworks on the lake.”

“What crowds of people we shall have!” cried Fourchon.

“Profits for Socquard!” said Tonsard, spitefully.

“If it doesn’t rain,” said his wife, by way of comfort.

At this moment the trot of a horse coming from the direction of
Soulanges was heard, and five minutes later the sheriff’s officer
fastened his horse to a post placed for the purpose near the wicket gate
through which the cows were driven. Then he showed his head at the door
of the Grand-I-Vert.

“Come, my boys, let’s lose no time,” he said, pretending to be in a
hurry.

“Hey!” said Vermichel. “Here’s a refractory, Monsieur Brunet; Pere
Fourchon wants to drop off.”

“He has had too many drops already,” said the sheriff; “but the law in
this case does not require that he shall be sober.”

“Please excuse me, Monsieur Brunet,” said Fourchon, “I am expected at
Les Aigues on business; they are in treaty for an otter.”

Brunet, a withered little man dressed from head to foot in black cloth,
with a bilious skin, a furtive eye, curly hair, lips tight-drawn,
pinched nose, anxious expression, and gruff in speech, exhibited the
phenomenon of a character and bearing in perfect harmony with his
profession. He was so well-informed as to the law, or, to speak more
correctly, the quibbles of the law, that he had come to be both the
terror and the counsellor of the whole canton. He was not without a
certain popularity among the peasantry, from whom he usually took his
pay in kind. The compound of his active and negative qualities and his
knowledge of how to manage matters got him the custom of the canton,
to the exclusion of his coadjutor Plissoud, about whom we shall have
something to say later. This chance combination of a sheriff’s officer
who does everything and a sheriff’s officer who does nothing is not at
all uncommon in the country justice courts.

“So matters are getting warm, are they?” said Tonsard to little Brunet.

“What can you expect? you pilfer the man too much, and he’s going to
protect himself,” replied the officer. “It will be a bad business for
you in the end; government will interfere.”

“Then we, poor unfortunates, must give up the ghost!” said Mam Tonsard,
offering him a glass of brandy on a saucer.

“The unfortunate may all die, yet they’ll never be lacking in the land,”
 said Fourchon, sententiously.

“You do great damage to the woods,” retorted the sheriff.

“Now don’t believe that, Monsieur Brunet,” said Mam Tonsard; “they make
such a fuss about a few miserable fagots!”

“We didn’t crush the rich low enough during the Revolution, that’s
what’s the trouble,” said Tonsard.

Just then a horrible, and quite incomprehensible noise was heard. It
seemed to be a rush of hurried feet, accompanied with a rattle of arms,
half-drowned by the rustling of leaves, the dragging of branches, and
the sound of still more hasty feet. Two voices, as different as the two
footsteps, were venting noisy exclamations. Everybody inside the
inn guessed at once that a man was pursuing a woman; but why? The
uncertainty did not last long.

“It is mother!” said Tonsard, jumping up; “I know her shriek.”

Then suddenly, rushing up the broken steps of the Grand-I-Vert by a
last effort that can be made only by the sinews of smugglers, old Mother
Tonsard fell flat on the floor in the middle of the room. The immense
mass of wood she carried on her head made a terrible noise as it crashed
against the top of the door and then upon the ground. Every one had
jumped out of the way. The table, the bottles, the chairs were knocked
over and scattered. The noise was as great as if the cottage itself had
come tumbling down.

“I’m dead! The scoundrel has killed me!”

The words and the flight of the old woman were explained by the
apparition on the threshold of a keeper, dressed in green livery,
wearing a hat edged with silver cord, a sabre at his side, a leathern
shoulder-belt bearing the arms of Montcornet charged with those of the
Troisvilles, the regulation red waistcoat, and buckskin gaiters which
came above the knee.

After a moment’s hesitation the keeper said, looking at Brunet and
Vermichel, “Here are witnesses.”

“Witnesses of what?” said Tonsard.

“That woman has a ten-year-old oak, cut into logs, inside those fagots;
it is a regular crime!”

The moment the word “witness” was uttered Vermichel thought best to
breathe the fresh air of the vineyard.

“Of what? witnesses of what?” cried Tonsard, standing in front of the
keeper while his wife helped up the old woman. “Do you mean to show
your claws, Vatel? Accuse persons and arrest them on the highway,
brigand,--that’s your domain; but get out of here! A man’s house is his
castle.”

“I caught her in the act, and your mother must come with me.”

“Arrest my mother in my house? You have no right to do it. My house is
inviolable,--all the world knows that, at least. Have you got a warrant
from Monsieur Guerbet, the magistrate? Ha! you must have the law behind
you before you come in here. You are not the law, though you have sworn
an oath to starve us to death, you miserable forest-gauger, you!”

The fury of the keeper waxed so hot that he was on the point of seizing
hold of the wood, when the old woman, a frightful bit of black parchment
endowed with motion, the like of which can be seen only in David’s
picture of “The Sabines,” screamed at him, “Don’t touch it, or I’ll fly
at your eyes!”

“Well, then, undo that pile in presence of Monsieur Brunet,” said the
keeper.

Though the sheriff’s officer had assumed the indifference that the
routine of business does really give to officials of his class, he threw
a glance at Tonsard and his wife which said plainly, “A bad business!”
 Old Fourchon looked at his daughter, and slyly pointed at a pile of
ashes in the chimney. Mam Tonsard, who understood in a moment from that
significant gesture both the danger of her mother-in-law and the advice
of her father, seized a handful of ashes and flung them in the keeper’s
eyes. Vatel roared with pain; Tonsard pushed him roughly upon the broken
door-steps where the blinded man stumbled and fell, and then rolled
nearly down to the gate, dropping his gun on the way. In an instant the
load of sticks was unfastened, and the oak logs pulled out and hidden
with a rapidity no words can describe. Brunet, anxious not to witness
this manoeuvre, which he readily foresaw, rushed after the keeper to
help him up; then he placed him on the bank and wet his handkerchief in
water to wash the eyes of the poor fellow, who, in spite of his agony,
was trying to reach the brook.

“You are in the wrong, Vatel,” said Brunet; “you have no right to enter
houses, don’t you see?”

The old woman, a little hump-backed creature, stood on the sill of the
door, with her hands on her hips, darting flashes from her eyes and
curses from her foaming lips shrill enough to be heard at Blangy.

“Ha! the villain, ‘twas well done! May hell get you! To suspect me of
cutting trees!--_me_, the most honest woman in the village. To hunt me
like vermin! I’d like to see you lose your cursed eyes, for then we’d
have peace. You are birds of ill-omen, the whole of you; you invent
shameful stories to stir up strife between your master and us.”

The keeper allowed the sheriff to bathe his eyes and all the while the
latter kept telling him that he was legally wrong.

“The old thief! she has tired us out,” said Vatel at last. “She has been
at work in the woods all night.”

As the whole family had taken an active hand in hiding the live wood and
putting things straight in the cottage, Tonsard presently appeared at
the door with an insolent air. “Vatel, my man, if you ever again dare
to force your way into my domain, my gun shall answer you,” he said.
“To-day you have had the ashes; the next time you shall have the fire.
You don’t know your own business. That’s enough. Now if you feel hot
after this affair take some wine, I offer it to you; and you may come
in and see that my old mother’s bundle of fagots hadn’t a scrap of live
wood in it; it is every bit brushwood.”

“Scoundrel!” said the keeper to the sheriff, in a low voice, more
enraged by this speech than by the smart of his eyes.

Just then Charles, the groom, appeared at the gate of the Grand-I-Vert.

“What is the matter, Vatel?” he said.

“Ah!” said the keeper, wiping his eyes, which he had plunged wide open
into the rivulet to give them a final cleansing. “I have some debtors in
there that I’ll cause to rue the day they saw the light.”

“If you take it that way, Monsieur Vatel,” said Tonsard, coldly, “you
will find we don’t want for courage in Burgundy.”

Vatel departed. Not feeling much curiosity to know what the trouble was,
Charles went up the steps and looked into the house.

“Come to the chateau, you and your otter,--if you really have one,” he
said to Pere Fourchon.

The old man rose hurriedly and followed him.

“Well, where is it,--that otter of yours?” said Charles, smiling
doubtfully.

“This way,” said the old fellow, going toward the Thune.

The name is that of a brook formed by the overflow of the mill-race and
of certain springs in the park of Les Aigues. It runs by the side of the
county road as far as the lakelet of Soulanges, which it crosses, and
then falls into the Avonne, after feeding the mills and ponds on the
Soulanges estate.

“Here it is; I hid it in the brook, with a stone around its neck.”

As he stooped and rose again the old man missed the coin out of his
pocket, where metal was so uncommon that he was likely to notice its
presence or its absence immediately.

“Ah, the sharks!” he cried. “If I hunt otters they hunt fathers-in-law!
They get out of me all I earn, and tell me it is for my good! If it
were not for my poor Mouche, who is the comfort of my old age, I’d
drown myself. Children! they are the ruin of their fathers. You haven’t
married, have you, Monsieur Charles? Then don’t; never get married,
and then you can’t reproach yourself for spreading bad blood. I, who
expected to buy my tow with that money, and there it is filched, stolen!
That monsieur up at Les Aigues, a fine young fellow, gave me ten francs;
ha! well! it’ll put up the price of my otter now.”

Charles distrusted the old man so profoundly that he took his grievances
(this time very sincere) for the preliminary of what he called, in
servant’s slang, “varnish,” and he made the great mistake of letting
his opinion appear in a satirical grin, which the spiteful old fellow
detected.

“Come, come! Pere Fourchon, now behave yourself; you are going to see
Madame,” said Charles, noticing how the rubies flashed on the nose and
cheeks of the old drunkard.

“I know how to attend to business, Charles; and the proof is that if you
will get me out of the kitchen the remains of the breakfast and a bottle
or two of Spanish wine, I’ll tell you something which will save you from
a ‘foul.’”

“Tell me, and Francois shall get Monsieur’s own order to give you a
glass of wine,” said the groom.

“Promise?”

“I promise.”

“Well then, I know you meet my granddaughter Catherine under the bridge
of the Avonne. Godain is in love with her; he saw you, and he is fool
enough to be jealous,--I say fool, for a peasant oughtn’t to have
feelings which belong only to rich folks. If you go to the ball of
Soulanges at Tivoli and dance with her, you’ll dance higher than you’ll
like. Godain is rich and dangerous; he is capable of breaking your arm
without your getting a chance to arrest him.”

“That would be too dear; Catherine is a fine girl, but she is not worth
all that,” replied Charles. “Why should Godain be so angry? others are
not.”

“He loves her enough to marry her.”

“If he does, he’ll beat her,” said Charles.

“I don’t know about that,” said the old man. “She takes after her
mother, against whom Tonsard never raised a finger,--he’s too afraid
she’ll be off, hot foot. A woman who knows how to hold her own is mighty
useful. Besides, if it came to fisticuffs with Catherine, Godain, though
he’s pretty strong, wouldn’t give the last blow.”

“Well, thank you, Pere Fourchon; here’s forty sous to drink my health in
case I can’t get you the sherry.”

Pere Fourchon turned his head aside as he pocketed the money lest
Charles should see the expression of amusement and sarcasm which he was
unable to repress.

“Catherine,” he resumed, “is a proud minx; she likes sherry. You had
better tell her to go and get it at Les Aigues.”

Charles looked at Pere Fourchon with naive admiration, not suspecting
the eager interest the general’s enemies took in slipping one more spy
into the chateau.

“The general ought to feel happy now,” continued Fourchon; “the peasants
are all quiet. What does he say? Is he satisfied with Sibilet?”

“It is only Monsieur Michaud who finds fault with Sibilet. They say
he’ll get him sent away.”

“Professional jealousy!” exclaimed Fourchon. “I’ll bet you would like to
get rid of Francois and take his place.”

“Hang it! he has twelve hundred francs wages,” said Charles; “but they
can’t send him off,--he knows the general’s secrets.”

“Just as Madame Michaud knows the countess’s,” remarked Fourchon,
watching the other carefully. “Look here, my boy, do you know whether
Monsieur and Madame have separate rooms?”

“Of course; if they didn’t, Monsieur wouldn’t be so fond of Madame.”

“Is that all you know?” said Fourchon.

As they were now before the kitchen windows nothing more was said.



CHAPTER V. ENEMIES FACE TO FACE


While breakfast was in progress at the chateau, Francois, the head
footman, whispered to Blondet, but loud enough for the general to
overhear him,--

“Monsieur, Pere Fourchon’s boy is here; he says they have caught the
otter, and wants to know if you would like it, or whether they shall
take it to the sub-prefect at Ville-aux-Fayes.”

Emile Blondet, though himself a past-master of hoaxing, could not keep
his cheeks from blushing like those of a virgin who hears an indecorous
story of which she knows the meaning.

“Ha! ha! so you have hunted the otter this morning with Pere Fourchon?”
 cried the general, with a roar of laughter.

“What is it?” asked the countess, uneasy at her husband’s laugh.

“When a man of wit and intelligence is taken in by old Fourchon,”
 continued the general, “a retired cuirassier need not blush for having
hunted that otter; which bears an enormous resemblance to the third
posthorse we are made to pay for and never see.” With that he went off
into further explosions of laughter, in the midst of which he contrived
to say: “I am not surprised you had to change your boots--and your
trousers; I have no doubt you have been wading! The joke didn’t go as
far as that with me,--I stayed on the bank; but then, you know, you are
so much more intelligent than I--”

“But you forget,” interrupted Madame de Montcornet, “that I do not know
what you are talking of.”

At these words, said with some pique, the general grew serious, and
Blondet told the story of his fishing for the otter.

“But if they really have an otter,” said the countess, “those poor
people are not to blame.”

“Oh, but it is ten years since an otter has been seen about here,” said
the pitiless general.

“Monsieur le comte,” said Francois, “the boy swears by all that’s sacred
that he has got one.”

“If they have one I’ll buy it,” said the general.

“I don’t suppose,” remarked the Abbe Brossette, “that God has condemned
Les Aigues to never have otters.”

“Ah, Monsieur le cure!” cried Blondet, “if you bring the Almighty
against me--”

“But what is all this? Who is here?” said the countess, hastily.

“Mouche, madame,--the boy who goes about with old Fourchon,” said the
footman.

“Bring him in--that is, if Madame will allow it?” said the general; “he
may amuse you.”

Mouche presently appeared, in his usual state of comparative nudity.
Beholding this personification of poverty in the middle of this
luxurious dining-room, the cost of one panel of which would have been a
fortune to the bare-legged, bare-breasted, and bare-headed child, it
was impossible not to be moved by an impulse of charity. The boy’s eyes,
like blazing coals, gazed first at the luxuries of the room, and then at
those on the table.

“Have you no mother?” asked Madame de Montcornet, unable otherwise to
explain the child’s nakedness.

“No, ma’am; m’ma died of grief for losing p’pa, who went to the army
in 1812 without marrying her with papers, and got frozen, saving your
presence. But I’ve my Grandpa Fourchon, who is a good man,--though he
does beat me bad sometimes.”

“How is it, my dear, that such wretched people can be found on your
estate?” said the countess, looking at the general.

“Madame la comtesse,” said the abbe, “in this district we have none but
voluntary paupers. Monsieur le comte does all he can; but we have to do
with a class of persons who are without religion and who have but one
idea, that of living at your expense.”

“But, my dear abbe,” said Blondet, “you are here to improve their
morals.”

“Monsieur,” replied the abbe, “my bishop sent me here as if on a mission
to savages; but, as I had the honor of telling him, the savages of
France cannot be reached. They make it a law unto themselves not to
listen to us; whereas the church does get some hold on the savages of
America.”

“M’sieur le cure, they do help me a bit now,” remarked Mouche; “but if I
went to your church they _wouldn’t_, and the other folks would make game
of my breeches.”

“Religion ought to begin by giving him trousers, my dear abbe,” said
Blondet. “In your foreign missions don’t you begin by coaxing the
savages?”

“He would soon sell them,” answered the abbe, in a low tone; “besides,
my salary does not enable me to begin on that line.”

“Monsieur le cure is right,” said the general, looking at Mouche.

The policy of the little scamp was to appear not to hear what they were
saying when it was against himself.

“The boy is intelligent enough to know good from evil,” continued the
count, “and he is old enough to work; yet he thinks of nothing but how
to commit evil without being found out. All the keepers know him. He is
very well aware that the master of an estate may witness a trespass
on his property and yet have no right to arrest the trespasser. I have
known him keep his cows boldly in my meadows, though he knew I saw him;
but now, ever since I have been mayor, he runs away fast enough.”

“Oh, that is very wrong,” said the countess; “you should not take other
people’s things, my little man.”

“Madame, we must eat. My grandpa gives me more slaps than food, and they
don’t fill my stomach, slaps don’t. When the cows come in I milk ‘em
just a little and I live on that. Monseigneur isn’t so poor but what
he’ll let me drink a drop o’ milk the cows get from his grass?”

“Perhaps he hasn’t eaten anything to-day,” said the countess, touched by
his misery. “Give him some bread and the rest of that chicken; let him
have his breakfast,” she added, looking at the footman. “Where do you
sleep, my child?”

“Anywhere, madame; under the stars in summer, and wherever they’ll let
us in winter.”

“How old are you?”

“Twelve.”

“There is still time to bring him up to better ways,” said the countess
to her husband.

“He will make a good soldier,” said the general, gruffly; “he is well
toughened. I went through that kind of thing myself, and here I am.”

“Excuse me, general, I don’t belong to nobody,” said the boy. “I can’t
be drafted. My poor mother wasn’t married, and I was born in a field.
I’m a son of the ‘airth,’ as grandpa says. M’ma saved me from the army,
that she did! My name ain’t no more Mouche than nothing at all. Grandpa
keeps telling me all my advantages. I’m not on the register, and when
I’m old enough to be drafted I can go all over France and they can’t
take me.”

“Are you fond of your grandfather?” said the countess, trying to look
into the child’s heart.

“My! doesn’t he box my ears when he feels like it! but then, after all,
he’s such fun; he’s such good company! He says he pays himself that way
for having taught me to read and write.”

“Can you read?” asked the count.

“Yah, I should think so, Monsieur le comte, and fine writing too--just
as true as we’ve got that otter.”

“Read that,” said the count, giving him a newspaper.

“The Qu-o-ti-dienne,” read Mouche, hesitating only three times.

Every one, even the abbe, laughed.

“Why do you make me read that newspaper?” cried Mouche, angrily. “My
grandpa says it is made up to please the rich, and everybody knows later
just what’s in it.”

“The child is right, general,” said Blondet; “and he makes me long to
see my hoaxing friend again.”

Mouche understood perfectly that he was posing for the amusement of the
company; the pupil of Pere Fourchon was worthy of his master, and he
forthwith began to cry.

“How can you tease a child with bare feet?” said the countess.

“And who thinks it quite natural that his grandfather should recoup
himself for his education by boxing his ears,” said Blondet.

“Tell me, my poor little fellow, have you really caught an otter?”

“Yes, madame; as true as that you are the prettiest lady I have seen, or
ever shall see,” said the child, wiping his eyes.

“Then show me the otter,” said the general.

“Oh M’sieur le comte, my grandpa has hidden it; but it was kicking still
when we were at work at the rope-walk. Send for my grandpa, please; he
wants to sell it to you himself.”

“Take him into the kitchen,” said the countess to Francois, “and give
him his breakfast, and send Charles to fetch Pere Fourchon. Find some
shoes, and a pair of trousers and a waistcoat for the poor child; those
who come here naked must go away clothed.”

“May God bless you, my beautiful lady,” said Mouche, departing. “M’sieur
le cure may feel quite sure that I’ll keep the things and wear ‘em
fete-days, because you give ‘em to me.”

Emile and Madame Montcornet looked at each other with some surprise, and
seemed to say to the abbe, “The boy is not a fool!”

“It is quite true, madame,” said the abbe after the child had gone,
“that we cannot reckon with Poverty. I believe it has hidden excuses of
which God alone can judge,--physical excuses, often congenital; moral
excuses, born in the character, produced by an order of things that
are often the result of qualities which, unhappily for society, have no
vent. Deeds of heroism performed upon the battle-field ought to teach us
that the worst scoundrels may become heroes. But here in this place you
are living under exceptional circumstances; and if your benevolence is
not controlled by reflection and judgment you run the risk of supporting
your enemies.”

“Our enemies?” exclaimed the countess.

“Cruel enemies,” said the general, gravely.

“Pere Fourchon and his son-in-law Tonsard,” said the abbe, “are the
strength and the intelligence of the lower classes of this valley,
who consult them on all occasions. The Machiavelism of these people is
beyond belief. Ten peasants meeting in a tavern are the small change of
great political questions.”

Just then Francois announced Monsieur Sibilet.

“He is my minister of finance,” said the general, smiling; “ask him in.
He will explain to you the gravity of the situation,” he added, looking
at his wife and Blondet.

“Because he has reasons of his own for not concealing it,” said the
cure, in a low tone.

Blondet then beheld a personage of whom he had heard much ever since his
arrival, and whom he desired to know, the land-steward of Les Aigues. He
saw a man of medium height, about thirty years of age, with a sulky look
and a discontented face, on which a smile sat ill. Beneath an anxious
brow a pair of greenish eyes evaded the eyes of others, and so disguised
their thought. Sibilet was dressed in a brown surtout coat, black
trousers and waistcoat, and wore his hair long and flat to the head,
which gave him a clerical look. His trousers barely concealed that he
was knock-kneed. Though his pallid complexion and flabby flesh gave the
impression of an unhealthy constitution, Sibilet was really robust.
The tones of his voice, which were a little thick, harmonized with this
unflattering exterior.

Blondet gave a hasty look at the abbe, and the glance with which the
young priest answered it showed the journalist that his own suspicions
about the steward were certainties to the curate.

“Did you not tell me, my dear Sibilet,” said the general, “that you
estimate the value of what the peasants steal from us at a quarter of
the whole revenue?”

“Much more than that, Monsieur le comte,” replied the steward. “The poor
about here get more from your property than the State exacts in taxes.
A little scamp like Mouche can glean his two bushels a day. Old women,
whom you would really think at their last gasp, become at the harvest
and vintage times as active and healthy as girls. You can witness
that phenomenon very soon,” said Sibilet, addressing Blondet, “for the
harvest, which was put back by the rains in July will begin next week,
when they cut the rye. The gleaners must have a certificate of pauperism
from the mayor of the district, and no district should allow any one to
glean except the paupers; but the districts of one canton do glean in
those of another without certificate. If we have sixty real paupers
in our district, there are at least forty others who could support
themselves if they were not so idle. Even persons who have a business
leave it to glean in the fields and in the vineyards. All these people,
taken together, gather in this neighborhood something like three hundred
bushels a day; the harvest lasts two weeks, and that makes four thousand
five hundred bushels in this district alone. The gleaning takes more
from an estate than the taxes. As to the abuse of pasturage, it robs
us of fully one-sixth the produce of the meadows; and as to that of
the woods, it is incalculable,--they have actually come to cutting down
six-year-old trees. The loss to you, Monsieur le comte, amounts to fully
twenty-odd thousand francs a year.”

“Do you hear that, madame?” said the general to his wife.

“Is it not exaggerated?” asked Madame de Montcornet.

“No, madame, unfortunately not,” said the abbe. “Poor Niseron, that old
fellow with the white head, who combines the functions of bell-ringer,
beadle, grave-digger, sexton, and clerk, in defiance of his republican
opinions,--I mean the grandfather of the little Genevieve whom you
placed with Madame Michaud--”

“La Pechina,” said Sibilet, interrupting the abbe.

“Pechina!” said the countess, “whom do you mean?”

“Madame la comtesse, when you met little Genevieve on the road in a
miserable condition, you cried out in Italian, ‘Piccina!’ The word
became a nickname, and is now corrupted all through the district into
Pechina,” said the abbe. “The poor girl comes to church with Madame
Michaud and Madame Sibilet.”

“And she is none the better for it,” said Sibilet, “for the others
ill-treat her on account of her religion.”

“Well, that poor old man of seventy gleans, honestly, about a bushel
and a half a day,” continued the priest; “but his natural uprightness
prevents him from selling his gleanings as others do,--he keeps them for
his own consumption. Monsieur Langlume, your miller, grinds his flour
gratis at my request, and my servant bakes his bread with mine.”

“I had quite forgotten my little protegee,” said the countess, troubled
at Sibilet’s remark. “Your arrival,” she added to Blondet, “has quite
turned my head. But after breakfast I will take you to the gate of the
Avonne and show you the living image of those women whom the painters of
the fifteenth century delighted to perpetuate.”

The sound of Pere Fourchon’s broken sabots was now heard; after
depositing them in the antechamber, he was brought to the door of the
dining-room by Francois. At a sign from the countess, Francois allowed
him to pass in, followed by Mouche with his mouth full and carrying the
otter, hanging by a string tied to its yellow paws, webbed like those of
a palmiped. He cast upon his four superiors sitting at table, and also
upon Sibilet, that look of mingled distrust and servility which serves
as a veil to the thoughts of the peasantry; then he brandished his
amphibian with a triumphant air.

“Here it is!” he cried, addressing Blondet.

“My otter!” returned the Parisian, “and well paid for.”

“Oh, my dear gentleman,” replied Pere Fourchon, “yours got away; she is
now in her burrow, and she won’t come out, for she’s a female,--this
is a male; Mouche saw him coming just as you went away. As true as
you live, as true as that Monsieur le comte covered himself and his
cuirassiers with glory at Waterloo, the otter is mine, just as much as
Les Aigues belongs to Monseigneur the general. But the otter is _yours_
for twenty francs; if not I’ll take it to the sub-prefect. If Monsieur
Gourdon thinks it too dear, then I’ll give you the preference; that’s
only fair, as we hunted together this morning!”

“Twenty francs!” said Blondet. “In good French you can’t call that
_giving_ the preference.”

“Hey, my dear gentleman,” cried the old fellow. “Perhaps I don’t know
French, and I’ll ask it in good Burgundian; as long as I get the money,
I don’t care, I’ll talk Latin: ‘latinus, latina, latinum’! Besides,
twenty francs is what you promised me this morning. My children
have already stolen the silver you gave me; I wept about it, coming
along,--ask Charles if I didn’t. Not that I’d arrest ‘em for the value
of ten francs and have ‘em up before the judge, no! But just as soon as
I earn a few pennies, they make me drink and get ‘em out of me. Ah! it
is hard, hard to be reduced to go and get my wine elsewhere. But just
see what children are these days! That’s what we got by the Revolution;
it is all for the children now-a-days, and parents are suppressed.
I’m bringing up Mouche on another tack; he loves me, the little
scamp,”--giving his grandson a poke.

“It seems to me you are making him a little thief, like all the rest,”
 said Sibilet; “he never lies down at night without some sin on his
conscience.”

“Ha! Monsieur Sibilet, his conscience is as clean as yours any day! Poor
child! what can he steal? A little grass! that’s better than throttling
a man! He don’t know mathematics like you, nor subtraction, nor
addition, nor multiplication,--you are very unjust to us, that you
are! You call us a nest of brigands, but you are the cause of the
misunderstandings between our good landlord here, who is a worthy man,
and the rest of us, who are all worthy men,--there ain’t an honester
part of the country than this. Come, what do you mean? do I own
property? don’t I go half-naked, and Mouche too? Fine sheets we slept
in, washed by the dew every morning! and unless you want the air we
breathe and the sunshine we drink, I should like to know what we have
that you can take away from us! The rich folks rob as they sit in their
chimney-corners,--and more profitably, too, than by picking up a few
sticks in the woods. I don’t see no game-keepers or patrols after
Monsieur Gaubertin, who came here as naked as a worm and is now worth
his millions. It’s easy said, ‘Robbers!’ Here’s fifteen years that old
Guerbet, the tax-gatherer at Soulanges, carries his money along the
roads by the dead of night, and nobody ever took a farthing from him; is
that like a land of robbers? has robbery made us rich? Show me which of
us two, your class or mine, live the idlest lives and have the most to
live on without earning it.”

“If you were to work,” said the abbe, “you would have property. God
blesses labor.”

“I don’t want to contradict you, M’sieur l’abbe, for you are wiser than
I, and perhaps you’ll know how to explain something that puzzles me. Now
see, here I am, ain’t I?--that drunken, lazy, idle, good-for-nothing old
Fourchon, who had an education and was a farmer, and got down in the mud
and never got up again,--well, what difference is there between me and
that honest and worthy old Niseron, seventy years old (and that’s my
age) who has dug the soil for sixty years and got up every day before
it was light to go to his work, and has made himself an iron body and a
fine soul? Well, isn’t he as bad off as I am? His little granddaughter,
Pechina, is at service with Madame Michaud, whereas my little Mouche is
as free as air. So that poor good man gets rewarded for his virtues in
exactly the same way that I get punished for my vices. He don’t know
what a glass of good wine is, he’s as sober as an apostle, he buries the
dead, and I--I play for the living to dance. He is always in a peck o’
troubles, while I slip along in a devil-may-care way. We have come along
about even in life; we’ve got the same snow on our heads, the same funds
in our pockets, and I supply him with rope to ring his bell. He’s a
republican and I’m not even a publican,--that’s all the difference as
far as I can see. A peasant may do good or do evil (according to your
ideas) and he’ll go out of the world just as he came into it, in rags;
while you wear the fine clothes.”

No one interrupted Pere Fourchon, who seemed to owe his eloquence to his
potations. At first Sibilet tried to cut him short, but desisted at
a sign from Blondet. The abbe, the general, and the countess, all
understood from the expression of the writer’s eye that he wanted to
study the question of pauperism from life, and perhaps take his revenge
on Pere Fourchon.

“What sort of education are you giving Mouche?” asked Blondet. “Do you
expect to make him any better than your daughters?”

“Does he ever speak to him of God?” said the priest.

“Oh, no, no! Monsieur le cure, I don’t tell him to fear God, but men.
God is good; he has promised us poor folks, so you say, the kingdom of
heaven, because the rich people keep the earth to themselves. I tell
him: ‘Mouche! fear the prison, and keep out of it,--for that’s the way
to the scaffold. Don’t steal anything, make people give it to you. Theft
leads to murder, and murder brings down the justice of men. The razor of
justice,--_that’s_ what you’ve got to fear; it lets the rich sleep easy
and keeps the poor awake. Learn to read. Education will teach you ways
to grab money under cover of the law, like that fine Monsieur Gaubertin;
why, you can even be a land-steward like Monsieur Sibilet here, who gets
his rations out of Monsieur le comte. The thing to do is to keep well
with the rich, and pick up the crumbs that fall from their tables.’
That’s what I call giving him a good, solid education; and you’ll always
find the little rascal on the side of the law,--he’ll be a good citizen
and take care of me.”

“What do you mean to make of him?” asked Blondet.

“A servant, to begin with,” returned Fourchon, “because then he’ll see
his masters close by, and learn something; he’ll complete his education,
I’ll warrant you. Good example will be a fortune to him, with the law on
his side like the rest of you. If M’sieur le comte would only take him
in his stables and let him learn to groom the horses, the boy will be
mighty pleased, for though I’ve taught him to fear men, he don’t fear
animals.”

“You are a clever fellow, Pere Fourchon,” said Blondet; “you know what
you are talking about, and there’s sense in what you say.”

“Oh, sense? no; I left my sense at the Grand-I-Vert when I lost those
silver pieces.”

“How is it that a man of your capacity should have dropped so low? As
things are now, a peasant can only blame himself for his poverty; he is
a free man, and he can become a rich one. It is not as it used to be. If
a peasant lays by his money, he can always buy a bit of land and become
his own master.”

“I’ve seen the olden time and I’ve seen the new, my dear wise
gentleman,” said Fourchon; “the sign over the door has changed, that’s
true, but the wine is the same,--to-day is the younger brother of
yesterday, that’s all. Put that in your newspaper! Are we poor folks
free? We still belong to the same parish, and its lord is always
there,--I call him Toil. The hoe, our sole property, has never left our
hands. Let it be the old lords or the present taxes which take the best
of our earnings, the fact remains that we sweat our lives out in toil.”

“But you could undertake a business, and try to make your fortune,” said
Blondet.

“Try to make my fortune! And where shall I try? If I wish to leave my
own province, I must get a passport, and that costs forty sous. Here’s
forty years that I’ve never had a slut of a forty-sous piece jingling
against another in my pocket. If you want to travel you need as many
crowns as there are villages, and there are mighty few Fourchons who
have enough to get to six of ‘em. It is only the draft that gives us a
chance to get away. And what good does the army do us? The colonels live
by the solider, just as the rich folks live by the peasant; and out of
every hundred of ‘em you won’t find more than one of our breed. It is
just as it is the world over, one rolling in riches, for a hundred down
in the mud. Why are we in the mud? Ask God and the usurers. The best we
can do is to stay in our own parts, where we are penned like sheep
by the force of circumstances, as our fathers were by the rule of the
lords. As for me, what do I care what shackles they are that keep me
here? let it be the law of public necessity or the tyranny of the old
lords, it is all the same; we are condemned to dig the soil forever.
There, where we are born, there we dig it, that earth! and spade it,
and manure it, and delve in it, for you who are born rich just as we are
born poor. The masses will always be what they are, and stay what they
are. The number of us who manage to rise is nothing like the number of
you who topple down! We know that well enough, if we have no education!
You mustn’t be after us with your sheriff all the time,--not if you’re
wise. We let you alone, and you must let us alone. If not, and things
get worse, you’ll have to feed us in your prisons, where we’d be much
better off than in our homes. You want to remain our masters, and we
shall always be enemies, just as we were thirty years ago. You have
everything, we have nothing; you can’t expect we should ever be
friends.”

“That’s what I call a declaration of war,” said the general.

“Monseigneur,” retorted Fourchon, “when Les Aigues belonged to that poor
Madame (God keep her soul and forgive her the sins of her youth!) we
were happy. _She_ let us get our food from the fields and our fuel from
the forest; and was she any the poorer for it? And you, who are at least
as rich as she, you hunt us like wild beasts, neither more nor less, and
drag the poor before the courts. Well, evil will come of it! you’ll be
the cause of some great calamity. Haven’t I just seen your keeper, that
shuffling Vatel, half kill a poor old woman for a stick of wood? It is
such fellows as that who make you an enemy to the poor; and the talk is
very bitter against you. They curse you every bit as hard as they used
to bless the late Madame. The curse of the poor, monseigneur, is a seed
that grows,--grows taller than your tall oaks, and oak-wood builds the
scaffold. Nobody here tells you the truth; and here it is, yes, the
truth! I expect to die before long, and I risk very little in telling it
to you, the _truth_! I, who play for the peasants to dance at the
great fetes at Soulanges, I heed what the people say. Well, they’re all
against you; and they’ll make it impossible for you to stay here. If
that damned Michaud of yours doesn’t change, they’ll force you to change
him. There! that information _and_ the otter are worth twenty francs,
and more too.”

As the old fellow uttered the last words a man’s step was heard, and the
individual just threatened by Fourchon entered unannounced. It was
easy to see from the glance he threw at the old man that the threat had
reached his ears, and all Fourchon’s insolence sank in a moment. The
look produced precisely the same effect upon him that the eye of a
policeman produces on a thief. Fourchon knew he was wrong, and that
Michaud might very well accuse him of saying these things merely to
terrify the inhabitants of Les Aigues.

“This is the minister of war,” said the general to Blondet, nodding at
Michaud.

“Pardon me, madame, for having entered without asking if you were
willing to receive me,” said the newcomer to the countess; “but I have
urgent reasons for speaking to the general at once.”

Michaud, as he said this, took notice of Sibilet, whose expression of
keen delight in Fourchon’s daring words was not seen by the four persons
seated at the table, because they were so preoccupied by the old man;
whereas Michaud, who for secret reasons watched Sibilet constantly, was
struck with his air and manner.

“He has earned his twenty francs, Monsieur le comte,” said Sibilet; “the
otter is fully worth it.”

“Give him twenty francs,” said the general to the footman.

“Do you mean to take my otter away from me?” said Blondet to the
general.

“I shall have it stuffed,” replied the latter.

“Ah! but that good gentleman said I might keep the skin,” cried
Fourchon.

“Well, then,” exclaimed the countess, hastily, “you shall have five
francs more for the skin; but go away now.”

The powerful odor emitted by the pair made the dining-room so horribly
offensive that Madame de Montcornet, whose senses were very delicate,
would have been forced to leave the room if Fourchon and Mouche
had remained. To this circumstance the old man was indebted for his
twenty-five francs. He left the room with a timid glance at Michaud,
making him an interminable series of bows.

“What I was saying to monseigneur, Monsieur Michaud,” he added, “was
really for your good.”

“Or for that of those who pay you,” replied Michaud, with a searching
look.

“When you have served the coffee, leave the room,” said the general to
the servants, “and see that the doors are shut.”

Blondet, who had not yet seen the bailiff of Les Aigues, was conscious,
as he now saw him, of a totally different impression from that conveyed
by Sibilet. Just as the steward inspired distrust and repulsion, so
Michaud commanded respect and confidence. The first attraction of his
presence was a happy face, of a fine oval, pure in outline, in which the
nose bore part,--a regularity which is lacking in the majority of
French faces. Though the features were correct in drawing, they were not
without expression, due, perhaps, to the harmonious coloring of the warm
brown and ochre tints, indicative of physical health and strength. The
clear brown eyes, which were bright and piercing, kept no reserves in
the expression of his thought; they looked straight into the eyes of
others. The broad white forehead was thrown still further into relief by
his abundant black hair. Honesty, decision, and a saintly serenity were
the animating points of this noble face, where a few deep lines upon the
brow were the result of the man’s military career. Doubt and suspicion
could there be read the moment they had entered his mind. His figure,
like that of all men selected for the elite of the cavalry service,
though shapely and elegant, was vigorously built. Michaud, who wore
moustachios, whiskers, and a chin beard, recalled that martial type of
face which a deluge of patriotic paintings and engravings came very near
to making ridiculous. This type had the defect of being common in the
French army; perhaps the continuance of the same emotions, the same camp
sufferings from which none were exempt, neither high nor low, and more
especially the same efforts of officers and men upon the battle-fields,
may have contributed to produce this uniformity of countenance. Michaud,
who was dressed in dark blue cloth, still wore the black satin stock
and high boots of a soldier, which increased the slight stiffness and
rigidity of his bearing. The shoulders sloped, the chest expanded, as
though the man were still under arms. The red ribbon of the Legion of
honor was in his buttonhole. In short, to give a last touch in one word
about the moral qualities beneath this purely physical presentment, it
may be said that while the steward, from the time he first entered upon
his functions, never failed to call his master “Monsieur le comte,”
 Michaud never addressed him otherwise than as “General.”

Blondet exchanged another look with the Abbe Brossette, which meant,
“What a contrast!” as he signed to him to observe the two men. Then,
as if to know whether the character and mind and speech of the bailiff
harmonized with his form and countenance, he turned to Michaud and
said:--

“I was out early this morning, and found your under-keepers still
sleeping.”

“At what hour?” said the late soldier, anxiously.

“Half-past seven.”

Michaud gave a half-roguish glance at the general.

“By what gate did monsieur leave the park?” he asked.

“By the gate of Conches. The keeper, in his night-shirt, looked at me
through the window,” replied Blondet.

“Gaillard had probably just gone to bed,” answered Michaud. “You said
you were out early, and I thought you meant day-break. If my man were at
home at that time, he must have been ill; but at half-past seven he was
sure to be in bed. We are up all night,” added Michaud, after a slight
pause, replying to a surprised look on the countess’s face, “but our
watchfulness is often wasted. You have just given twenty-five francs to
a man who, not an hour ago, was quietly helping to hide the traces of
a robbery committed upon you this very morning. I came to speak to you
about it, general, when you have finished breakfast; for something will
have to be done.”

“You are always for maintaining the right, my dear Michaud, and ‘summum
jus, summum injuria.’ If you are not more tolerant, you will get into
trouble, so Sibilet here tells me. I wish you could have heard Pere
Fourchon just now; the wine he had been drinking made him speak out.”

“He frightened me,” said the countess.

“He said nothing I did not know long ago,” replied the general.

“Oh! the rascal wasn’t drunk; he was playing a part; for whose benefit
I leave you to guess. Perhaps you know?” returned Michaud, fixing an eye
on Sibilet which caused the latter to turn red.

“O rus!” cried Blondet, with another look at the abbe.

“But these poor creatures suffer,” said the countess, “and there is a
great deal of truth in what old Fourchon has just screamed at us,--for I
cannot call it speaking.”

“Madame,” replied Michaud, “do you suppose that for fourteen years the
soldiers of the Emperor slept on a bed of roses? My general is a count,
he is a grand officer of the Legion of honor, he has had perquisites and
endowments given to him; am I jealous of him, I who fought as he did? Do
I wish to cheat him of his glory, to steal his perquisites, to deny him
the honor due to his rank? The peasant should obey as the soldier
obeys; he should feel the loyalty of a soldier, his respect for acquired
rights, and strive to become an officer himself, honorably, by labor and
not by theft. The sabre and the plough are twins; though the soldier has
something more than the peasant,--he has death hanging over him at any
minute.”

“I want to say that from the pulpit,” cried the abbe.

“Tolerant!” continued the keeper, replying to the general’s remark about
Sibilet, “I would tolerate a loss of ten per cent upon the gross returns
of Les Aigues; but as things are now thirty per cent is what you lose,
general; and, if Monsieur Sibilet’s accounts show it, I don’t understand
his tolerance, for he benevolently gives up a thousand or twelve hundred
francs a year.”

“My dear Monsieur Michaud,” replied Sibilet, in a snappish tone, “I have
told Monsieur le comte that I would rather lose twelve hundred francs
a year than my life. Think of it seriously; I have warned you often
enough.”

“Life!” exclaimed the countess; “you can’t mean that anybody’s life is
in danger?”

“Don’t let us argue about state affairs here,” said the general,
laughing. “All this, my dear, merely means that Sibilet, in his capacity
of financier, is timid and cowardly, while the minister of war is brave
and, like his general, fears nothing.”

“Call me prudent, Monsieur le comte,” interposed Sibilet.

“Well, well!” cried Blondet, laughing, “so here we are, like Cooper’s
heroes in the forests of America, in the midst of sieges and savages.”

“Come, gentlemen, it is your business to govern without letting me hear
the wheels of the administration,” said Madame de Montcornet.

“Ah! madame,” said the cure, “but it may be right that you should know
the toil from which those pretty caps you wear are derived.”

“Well, then, I can go without them,” replied the countess, laughing. “I
will be very respectful to a twenty-franc piece, and grow as miserly
as the country people themselves. Come, my dear abbe, give me your arm.
Leave the general with his two ministers, and let us go to the gate
of the Avonne to see Madame Michaud, for I have not had time since
my arrival to pay her a visit, and I want to inquire about my little
protegee.”

And the pretty woman, already forgetting the rags and tatters of Mouche
and Fourchon, and their eyes full of hatred, and Sibilet’s warnings,
went to have herself made ready for the walk.

The abbe and Blondet obeyed the behest of the mistress of the house and
followed her from the dining-room, waiting till she was ready on the
terrace before the chateau.

“What do you think of all this?” said Blondet to the abbe.

“I am a pariah; they dog me as they would a common enemy. I am forced
to keep my eyes and ears perpetually open to escape the traps they are
constantly laying to get me out of the place,” replied the abbe. “I am
even doubtful, between ourselves, as to whether they will not shoot me.”

“Why do you stay?” said Blondet.

“We can’t desert God’s cause any more than that of an emperor,” replied
the priest, with a simplicity that affected Blondet. He took the abbe’s
hand and shook it cordially.

“You see how it is, therefore, that I know very little of the plots that
are going on,” continued the abbe. “Still, I know enough to feel sure
that the general is under what in Artois and in Belgium is called an
‘evil grudge.’”

A few words are here necessary about the curate of Blangy.

This priest, the fourth son of a worthy middle-class family of Autun,
was an intelligent man carrying his head high in his collar. Small
and slight, he redeemed his rather puny appearance by the precise and
carefully dressed air that belongs to Burgundians. He accepted the
second-rate post of Blangy out of pure devotion, for his religious
convictions were joined to political opinions that were equally strong.
There was something of the priest of the olden time about him; he
held to the Church and to the clergy passionately; saw the bearings
of things, and no selfishness marred his one ambition, which was _to
serve_. That was his motto,--to serve the Church and the monarchy
wherever it was most threatened; to serve in the lowest rank like
a soldier who feels that he is destined, sooner or later, to attain
command through courage and the resolve to do his duty. He made no
compromises with his vows of chastity, and poverty, and obedience; he
fulfilled them, as he did the other duties of his position, with that
simplicity and cheerful good-humor which are the sure indications of an
honest heart, constrained to do right by natural impulses as much as by
the power and consistency of religious convictions.

The priest had seen at first sight Blondet’s attachment to the countess;
he saw that between a Troisville and a monarchical journalist he could
safely show himself to be a man of broad intelligence, because his
calling was certain to be respected. He usually came to the chateau very
evening to make the fourth at a game of whist. The journalist, able to
recognize the abbe’s real merits, showed him so much deference that the
pair grew into sympathy with each other; as usually happens when men of
intelligence meet their equals, or, if you prefer it, the ears that are
able to hear them. Swords are fond of their scabbards.

“But to what do you attribute this state of things, Monsieur l’abbe, you
who are able, through your disinterestedness, to look over the heads of
things?”

“I shall not talk platitudes after such a flattering speech as that,”
 said the abbe, smiling. “What is going on in this valley is spreading
more or less throughout France; it is the outcome of the hopes which the
upheaval of 1789 caused to infiltrate, if I may use that expression, the
minds of the peasantry, the sons of the soil. The Revolution affected
certain localities more than others. This side of Burgundy, nearest to
Paris, is one of those places where the revolutionary ideas spread like
the overrunning of the Franks by the Gauls. Historically, the peasants
are still on the morrow of the Jacquerie; that defeat is burnt in upon
their brain. They have long forgotten the facts which have now passed
into the condition of an instinctive idea. That idea is bred in the
peasant blood, just as the idea of superiority was once bred in noble
blood. The revolution of 1789 was the retaliation of the vanquished. The
peasants then set foot in possession of the soil which the feudal law
had denied them for over twelve hundred years. Hence their desire for
land, which they now cut up among themselves until actually they divide
a furrow into two parts; which, by the bye, often hinders or prevents
the collection of taxes, for the value of such fractions of property is
not sufficient to pay the legal costs of recovering them.”

“Very true, for the obstinacy of the small owners--their aggressiveness,
if you choose--on this point is so great that in at least one thousand
cantons of the three thousand of French territory, it is impossible
for a rich man to buy an inch of land from a peasant,” said Blondet,
interrupting the abbe. “The peasants who are willing to divide up
their scraps of land among themselves would not sell a fraction on any
condition or at any price to the middle classes. The more money the
rich man offers, the more the vague uneasiness of the peasant increases.
Legal dispossession alone is able to bring the landed property of the
peasant into the market. Many persons have noticed this fact without
being able to find a reason for it.”

“This is the reason,” said the abbe, rightly believing that a pause
with Blondet was equivalent to a question: “twelve centuries have done
nothing for a caste whom the historic spectacle of civilization has
never yet diverted from its one predominating thought,--a caste which
still wears proudly the broad-brimmed hat of its masters, ever since
an abandoned fashion placed it upon their heads. That all-pervading
thought, the roots of which are in the bowels of the people, and which
attached them so vehemently to Napoleon (who was personally less to them
than he thought he was) and which explains the miracle of his return in
1815,--that desire for land is the sole motive power of the peasant’s
being. In the eyes of the masses Napoleon, ever one with them through
his million of soldiers, is still the king born of the Revolution; the
man who gave them possession of the soil and sold to them the national
domains. His anointing was saturated with that idea.”

“An idea to which 1814 dealt a blow, an idea which monarchy should hold
sacred,” said Blondet, quickly; “for the people may some day find on the
steps of the throne a prince whose father bequeathed to him the head of
Louis XVI. as an heirloom.”

“Here is madame; don’t say any more,” said the abbe, in a low voice.
“Fourchon has frightened her; and it is very desirable to keep her here
in the interests of religion and of the throne, and, indeed, in those of
the people themselves.”

Michaud, the bailiff of Les Aigues, had come to the chateau in
consequence of the assault on Vatel’s eyes. But before we relate the
consultation which then and there took place, the chain of events
requires a succinct account of the circumstances under which the general
purchased Les Aigues, the serious causes which led to the appointment
of Sibilet as steward of that magnificent property, and the reasons why
Michaud was made bailiff, with all the other antecedents to which were
due the tension of the minds of all, and the fears expressed by Sibilet.

This rapid summary will have the merit of introducing some of the
principal actors in this drama, and of exhibiting their individual
interests; we shall thus be enabled to show the dangers which surrounded
the General comte de Montcornet at the moment when this history opens.



CHAPTER VI. A TALE OF THIEVES


When Mademoiselle Laguerre first visited her estate, in 1791, she took
as steward the son of the ex-bailiff of Soulanges, named Gaubertin. The
little town of Soulanges, at present nothing more than the chief town
of a canton, was once the capital of a considerable county, in the days
when the House of Burgundy made war upon France. Ville-aux-Fayes, now
the seat of the sub-prefecture, then a mere fief, was a dependency of
Soulanges, like Les Aigues, Ronquerolles, Cerneux, Conches, and a score
of other parishes. The Soulanges have remained counts, whereas the
Ronquerolles are now marquises by the will of that power, called the
Court, which made the son of Captain du Plessis duke over the heads of
the first families of the Conquest. All of which serves to prove that
towns, like families, are variable in their destiny.

Gaubertin, a young man without property of any kind, succeeded a steward
enriched by a management of thirty years, who preferred to become a
partner in the famous firm of Minoret rather than continue to administer
Les Aigues. In his own interests he introduced into his place as
land-steward Francois Gaubertin, his accountant for five years, whom he
now relied on to cover his retreat, and who, out of gratitude for his
instructions, promised to obtain for him a release in full of all claims
from Madame Laguerre, who by this time was terrified at the Revolution.
Gaubertin’s father, the attorney-general of the department, henceforth
protected the timid woman. This provincial Fouquier-Tinville raised a
false alarm of danger in the mind of the opera-divinity on the ground
of her former relations to the aristocracy, so as to give his son
the equally false credit of saving her life; on the strength of
which Gaubertin the younger obtained very easily the release of his
predecessor. Mademoiselle Laguerre then made Francois Gaubertin her
prime minister, as much through policy as from gratitude. The late
steward had not spoiled her. He sent her, every year, about thirty
thousand francs, though Les Aigues brought in at that time at least
forty thousand. The unsuspecting opera-singer was therefore much
delighted when the new steward Gaubertin promised her thirty-six
thousand.

To explain the present fortune of the land-steward of Les Aigues
before the judgment-seat of probability, it is necessary to state its
beginnings. Pushed by his father’s influence, he became mayor of Blangy.
Thus he was able, contrary to law, to make the debtors pay in coin,
by “terrorizing” (a phrase of the day) such of them as might, in his
opinion, be subjected to the crushing demands of the Republic. He
himself paid the citizens in assignats as long as the system of paper
money lasted,--a system which, if it did not make the nation prosperous,
at least made the fortunes of private individuals. From 1793 to 1795,
that is, for three years, Francois Gaubertin wrung one hundred and
fifty thousand francs out of Les Aigues, with which he speculated on the
stock-market in Paris. With her purse full of assignats Mademoiselle was
actually obliged to obtain ready money from her diamonds, now useless to
her. She gave them to Gaubertin, who sold them, and faithfully returned
to her their full price. This proof of honesty touched her heart;
henceforth she believed in Gaubertin as she did in Piccini.

In 1796, at the time of his marriage with the citoyenne Isaure Mouchon,
daughter of an old “conventional,” a friend of his father, Gaubertin
possessed about three hundred and fifty thousand francs in money. As the
Directory seemed to him likely to last, he determined, before marrying,
to have the accounts of his five years’ stewardship ratified by
Mademoiselle, under pretext of a new departure.

“I am to be the head of a family,” he said to her; “you know the
reputation of land-stewards; my father-in-law is a republican of Roman
austerity, and a man of influence as well; I want to prove to him that I
am as upright as he.”

Mademoiselle Laguerre accepted his accounts at once in very flattering
terms.

In those earlier days the steward had endeavored, in order to win the
confidence of Madame des Aigues (as Mademoiselle was then called) to
repress the depredations of the peasantry; fearing, and not without
reason, that the revenues would suffer too severely, and that his
private bonus from the buyers of the timber would sensibly diminish.
But in those days the sovereign people felt the soil was their own
everywhere; Madame was afraid of the surrounding kings and told her
Richelieu that the first desire of her soul was to die in peace. The
revenues of the late singer were so far in excess of her expenses that
she allowed all the worst, and, as it proved, fatal precedents to be
established. To avoid a lawsuit, she allowed the neighbors to encroach
upon her land. Knowing that the park walls were sufficient protection,
she did not fear any interruption of her personal comfort, and cared for
nothing but her peaceful existence, true philosopher that she was! A
few thousand a year more or less, the indemnities exacted by the
wood-merchants for the damages committed by the peasants,--what were
they to a careless and extravagant Opera-girl, who had gained her
hundred thousand francs a year at the cost of pleasure only, and who had
just submitted, without a word of remonstrance, to a reduction of two
thirds of an income of sixty thousand francs?

“Dear me!” she said, in the easy tone of the wantons of the old time,
“people must live, even if they are republicans.”

The terrible Mademoiselle Cochet, her maid and female vizier, had tried
to enlighten her mistress when she saw the ascendency Gaubertin was
obtaining over one whom he began by calling “Madame” in defiance of
the revolutionary laws about equality; but Gaubertin, in his turn,
enlightened Mademoiselle Cochet by showing her a so-called denunciation
sent to his father, the prosecuting attorney, in which she was
vehemently accused of corresponding with Pitt and Coburg. From that time
forward the two powers went on shares--shares a la Montgomery.
Cochet praised Gaubertin to Madame, and Gaubertin praised Cochet. The
waiting-maid had already made her own bed, and knew she was down for
sixty thousand francs in the will. Madame could not do without
Cochet, to whom she was accustomed. The woman knew the secrets of dear
mistress’s toilet; she alone could put dear mistress to sleep at night
with her gossip, and get her up in the morning with her flattery; to
the day of dear mistress’s death the maid never could see the slightest
change in her, and when dear mistress lay in her coffin, she doubtless
thought she had never seen her looking so well.

The annual pickings of Gaubertin and Mademoiselle Cochet, their wages
and perquisites, became so large that the most affectionate relative
could not possibly have been more devoted than they to their kindly
mistress. There is really no describing how a swindler cossets his dupe.
A mother is not so tender nor so solicitous for a beloved daughter as
the practitioner of tartuferie for his milch cow. What brilliant success
attends the performance of Tartufe behind the closed doors of a home! It
is worth more than friendship. Moliere died too soon; he would otherwise
have shown us the misery of Orgon, wearied by his family, harassed by
his children, regretting the blandishments of Tartufe, and thinking to
himself, “Ah, those were the good times!”

During the last eight years of her life the mistress of Les Aigues
received only thirty thousand francs of the fifty thousand really
yielded by the estate. Gaubertin had reached the same administrative
results as his predecessor, though farm rents and territorial products
were notably increased between 1791 and 1815,--not to speak of Madame’s
continual purchases. But Gaubertin’s fixed idea of acquiring Les
Aigues at the old lady’s death led him to depreciate the value of
the magnificent estate in the matter of its ostensible revenues.
Mademoiselle Cochet, a sharer in the scheme, was also to share the
profits. As the ex-divinity in her declining years received an income of
twenty thousand francs from the Funds called consolidated (how readily
the tongue of politics can jest!), and with difficulty spent the said
sum yearly, she was much surprised at the annual purchases made by her
steward to use up the accumulating revenues, remembering how in former
times she had always drawn them in advance. The result of having few
wants in her old age seemed, to her mind, a proof of the honesty and
uprightness of Gaubertin and Mademoiselle Cochet.

“Two pearls!” she said to the persons who came to see her.

Gaubertin kept his accounts with apparent honesty. He entered all
rentals duly. Everything that could strike the feeble mind of the late
singer, so far as arithmetic went, was clear and precise. The steward
took his commission on all disbursements,--on the costs of working the
estate, on rentals made, on suits brought, on work done, on repairs of
every kind,--details which Madame never dreamed of verifying, and for
which he sometimes charged twice over by collusion with the contractors,
whose silence was bought by permission to charge the highest prices.
These methods of dealing conciliated public opinion in favor of
Gaubertin, while Madame’s praise was on every lip; for besides the
payments she disbursed for work, she gave away large sums of money in
alms.

“May God preserve her, the dear lady!” was heard on all sides.

The truth was, everybody got something out of her, either indirectly
or as a downright gift. In reprisals, as it were, of her youth the old
actress was pillaged; so discreetly pillaged, however, that those who
throve upon her kept their depredations within certain limits lest even
her eyes might be opened and she should sell Les Aigues and return to
Paris.

This system of “pickings” was, alas! the cause of Paul-Louis Carter’s
assassination; he committed the mistake of advertising the sale of his
estate and allowing it to be known that he should take away his wife,
on whom a number of the Tonsards of Lorraine were battening. Fearing to
lose Madame des Aigues, the marauders on the estate forbore to cut the
young trees, unless pushed to extremities by finding no branches within
reach of shears fastened to long poles. In the interests of robbery,
they did as little harm as they could; although, during the last
years of Madame’s life, the habit of cutting wood became more and more
barefaced. On certain clear nights not less than two hundred bundles
were taken. As to the gleaning of fields and vineyards, Les Aigues lost,
as Sibilet had pointed out, not less than one quarter of its products.

Madame des Aigues had forbidden Cochet to marry during her lifetime,
with the selfishness often shown in all countries by a mistress to
a maid; which is not more irrational than the mania for keeping
possession, until our last gasp, of property that is utterly useless to
our material comfort, at the risk of being poisoned by impatient heirs.
Twenty days after the old lady’s burial Mademoiselle Cochet married the
brigadier of the gendarmerie of Soulanges, named Soudry, a handsome
man, forty-two years of age, who, ever since 1800 (in which year the
gendarmerie was formed) had come every day to Les Aigues to see the
waiting-maid, and dined with her at least three times a week at the
Gaubertins’.

During Madame’s lifetime dinner was served to her and to her company
by themselves. Neither Cochet nor Gaubertin, in spite of their great
familiarity with the mistress, was ever admitted to her table; the
leading lady of the Academie Royale retained, to her last hour, her
sense of etiquette, her style of dress, her rouge and her heeled
slippers, her carriage, her servants, and the majesty of her deportment.
A divinity at the Opera, a divinity within her range of Parisian social
life, she continued a divinity in the country solitudes, where her
memory is still worshipped, and still holds its own against that of the
old monarchy in the minds of the “best society” of Soulanges.

Soudry, who had paid his addresses to Mademoiselle Cochet from the
time he first came into the neighborhood, owned the finest house in
Soulanges, an income of six thousand francs, and the prospect of a
retiring pension whenever he should quit the service. As soon as Cochet
became Madame Soudry she was treated with great consideration in the
town. Though she kept the strictest secrecy as to the amount of
her savings,--which were intrusted, like those of Gaubertin, to the
commissary of wine-merchants of the department in Paris, a certain
Leclercq, a native of Soulanges, to whom Gaubertin supplied funds as
sleeping partner in his business,--public opinion credited the former
waiting-maid with one of the largest fortunes in the little town of
twelve hundred inhabitants.

To the great astonishment of every one, Monsieur and Madame Soudry
acknowledged as legitimate, in their marriage contract, a natural son
of the gendarme, to whom, in future, Madame Soudry’s fortune was to
descend. At the time when this son was legally supplied with a mother,
he had just ended his law studies in Paris and was about to enter into
practice, with the intention of fitting himself for the magistracy.

It is scarcely necessary to remark that a mutual understanding of
twenty years had produced the closest intimacy between the families of
Gaubertin and Soudry. Both reciprocally declared themselves, to the
end of their days, “urbi et orbi,” to be the most upright and honorable
persons in all France. Such community of interests, based on the mutual
knowledge of the secret spots on the white garment of conscience, is one
of the ties least recognized and hardest to untie in this low world. You
who read this social drama, have you never felt a conviction as to two
persons which has led you to say to yourself, in order to explain the
continuance of a faithful devotion which made your own egotism blush,
“They must surely have committed some crime together”?

After an administration of twenty-five years, Gaubertin, the
land-steward, found himself in possession of six hundred thousand
francs in money, and Cochet had accumulated nearly two hundred and fifty
thousand. The rapid and constant turning over and over of their funds in
the hands of Leclercq and Company (on the quai Bethume, Ile Saint Louis,
rivals of the famous house of Grandet) was a great assistance to the
fortunes of all parties. On the death of Mademoiselle Laguerre, Jenny,
the steward’s eldest daughter was asked in marriage by Leclercq.
Gaubertin expected at that time to become owner of Les Aigues by means
of a plot laid in the private office of Lupin, the notary, whom the
steward had set up and maintained in business within the last twelve
years.

Lupin, a son of the former steward of the estate of Soulanges, had lent
himself to various slight peculations,--investments at fifty per
cent below par, notices published surreptitiously, and all the other
manoeuvres, unhappily common in the provinces, to wrap a mantle, as
the saying is, over the clandestine manipulations of property. Lately
a company has been formed in Paris, so they say, to levy contributions
upon such plotters under a threat of outbidding them. But in 1816 France
was not, as it is now, lighted by a flaming publicity; the accomplices
might safely count on dividing Les Aigues among them, that is, between
Cochet, the notary, and Gaubertin, the latter of whom reserved to
himself, “in petto,” the intention of buying the others out for a sum
down, as soon as the property fairly stood in his own name. The lawyer
employed by the notary to manage the sale of the estate was under
personal obligations to Gaubertin, so that he favored the spoliation of
the heirs, unless any of the eleven farmers of Picardy should take it
into their heads to think they were cheated, and inquire into the real
value of the property.

Just as those interested expected to find their fortunes made, a lawyer
came from Paris on the evening before the final settlement, and employed
a notary at Ville-aux-Fayes, who happened to be one of his former
clerks, to buy the estate of Les Aigues, which he did for eleven hundred
thousand francs. None of the conspirators dared outbid an offer of
eleven hundred thousand francs. Gaubertin suspected some treachery
on Soudry’s part, and Soudry and Lupin thought they were tricked by
Gaubertin. But a statement on the part of the purchasing agent, the
notary of Ville-aux-Fayes, disabused them of these suspicions. The
latter, though suspecting the plan formed by Gaubertin, Lupin, and
Soudry, refrained from informing the lawyer in Paris, for the reason
that if the new owners indiscreetly repeated his words, he would have
too many enemies at his heels to be able to stay where he was. This
reticence, peculiar to provincials, was in this particular case amply
justified by succeeding events. If the dwellers in the provinces are
dissemblers, they are forced to be so; their excuse lies in the danger
expressed in the old proverb, “We must howl with the wolves,” a meaning
which underlies the character of Phillinte.

When General Montcornet took possession of Les Aigues, Gaubertin was no
longer rich enough to give up his place. In order to marry his daughter
to a rich banker he was obliged to give her a dowry of two hundred
thousand francs; he had to pay thirty thousand for his son’s practice;
and all that remained of his accumulations was three hundred and seventy
thousand, out of which he would be forced, sooner or later, to pay the
dowry of his remaining daughter, Elise, for whom he hoped to arrange a
marriage at least as good as that of her sister. The steward determined
to study the general, in order to find out if he could disgust him with
the place,--hoping still to be able to carry out his defeated plan in
his own interests.

With the peculiar instinct which characterizes those who make their
fortunes by craft, Gaubertin believed in a resemblance of nature (which
was not improbable) between an old soldier and an Opera-singer. An
actress, and a general of the Empire,--surely they would have the same
extravagant habits, the same careless prodigality? To the one as to the
other, riches came capriciously and by lucky chances. If some soldiers
are wily and astute and clever politicians, they are exceptions; a
soldier is, usually, especially an accomplished cavalry officer like
Montcornet, guileless, confident, a novice in business, and little
fitted to understand details in the management of an estate. Gaubertin
flattered himself that he could catch and hold the general with the
same net in which Mademoiselle Laguerre had finished her days. But it so
happened that the Emperor had once, intentionally, allowed Montcornet
to play the same game in Pomerania that Gaubertin was playing at
Les Aigues; consequently, the general fully understood a system of
plundering.

In planting cabbages, to use the expression of the first Duc de Biron,
the old cuirassier sought to divert his mind, by occupation, from
dwelling on his fall. Though he had yielded his “corps d’armee” to
the Bourbons, that duty (performed by other generals and termed the
disbanding of the army of the Loire) could not atone for the crime of
having followed the man of the Hundred-Days to his last battle-field.
In presence of the allied army it was impossible for the peer of 1815
to remain in the service, still less at the Luxembourg. Accordingly,
Montcornet betook himself to the country by advice of a dismissed
marshal, to plunder Nature herself. The general was not deficient in
the special cunning of an old military fox; and after he had spent a few
days in examining his new property, he saw that Gaubertin was a steward
of the old system,--a swindler, such as the dukes and marshals of the
Empire, those mushrooms bred from the common earth, were well acquainted
with.

The wily general, soon aware of Gaubertin’s great experience in rural
administration, felt it was politic to keep well with him until he had
himself learned the secrets of it; accordingly, he passed himself off
as another Mademoiselle Laguerre, a course which lulled the steward into
false security. This apparent simple-mindedness lasted all the time it
took the general to learn the strength and weakness of Les Aigues, to
master the details of its revenues and the manner of collecting them,
and to ascertain how and where the robberies occurred, together with the
betterments and economies which ought to be undertaken. Then, one fine
morning, having caught Gaubertin with his hand in the bag, as the saying
is, the general flew into one of those rages peculiar to the
imperial conquerors of many lands. In doing so he committed a capital
blunder,--one that would have ruined the whole life of a man of less
wealth and less consistency than himself, and from which came the evils,
both small and great, with which the present history teems. Brought up
in the imperial school, accustomed to deal with men as a dictator, and
full of contempt for “civilians,” Montcornet did not trouble himself to
wear gloves when it came to putting a rascal of a land-steward out of
doors. Civil life and its precautions were things unknown to the
soldier already embittered by his loss of rank. He humiliated Gaubertin
ruthlessly, though the latter drew the harsh treatment upon himself by a
cynical reply which roused Montcornet’s anger.

“You are living off my land,” said the general, with jesting severity.

“Do you think I can live off the sky?” returned Gaubertin, with a sneer.

“Out of my sight, blackguard! I dismiss you!” cried the general,
striking him with his whip,--blows which the steward always denied
having received, for they were given behind closed doors.

“I shall not go without my release in full,” said Gaubertin, coldly,
keeping at a distance from the enraged soldier.

“We will see what is thought of you in a police court,” replied
Montcornet, shrugging his shoulders.

Hearing the threat, Gaubertin looked at the general and smiled. The
smile had the effect of relaxing Montcornet’s arms as though the sinews
had been cut. We must explain that smile.

For the last two years, Gaubertin’s brother-in-law, a man named Gendrin,
long a justice of the municipal court of Ville-aux-Fayes, had become the
president of that court through the influence of the Comte de Soulanges.
The latter was made peer of France in 1814, and remained faithful to
the Bourbons during the Hundred-Days, therefore the Keeper of the Seals
readily granted an appointment at his request. This relationship gave
Gaubertin a certain importance in the country. The president of the
court of a little town is, relatively, a greater personage than the
president of one of the royal courts of a great city, who has various
equals, such as generals, bishops, and prefects; whereas the judge
of the court of a small town has none,--the attorney-general and the
sub-prefect being removable at will. Young Soudry, a companion of
Gaubertin’s son in Paris as well as at Les Aigues, had just been
appointed assistant attorney in the capital of the department. Before
the elder Soudry, a quartermaster in the artillery, became a brigadier
of gendarmes, he had been wounded in a skirmish while defending Monsieur
de Soulanges, then adjutant-general. At the time of the creation of
the gendarmerie, the Comte de Soulanges, who by that time had become a
colonel, asked for a brigade for his former protector, and later still
he solicited the post we have named for the younger Soudry. Besides all
these influences, the marriage of Mademoiselle Gaubertin with a wealthy
banker of the quai Bethume made the unjust steward feel that he was
far stronger in the community than a lieutenant-general driven into
retirement.

If this history provided no other instruction that that offered by the
quarrel between the general and his steward, it would still be useful
to many persons as a lesson for their conduct in life. He who reads
Machiavelli profitably, knows that human prudence consists in never
threatening; in doing but not saying; in promoting the retreat of an
enemy and never stepping, as the saying is, on the tail of the serpent;
and in avoiding, as one would murder, the infliction of a blow to the
self-love of any one lower than one’s self. An injury done to a person’s
interest, no matter how great it may be at the time, is forgiven or
explained in the long run; but self-love, vanity, never ceases to bleed
from a wound given, and never forgives it. The moral being is actually
more sensitive, more living as it were, than the physical being. The
heart and the blood are less impressible than the nerves. In short,
our inward being rules us, no matter what we do. You may reconcile
two families who have half-killed each other, as in Brittany and in
La Vendee during the civil wars, but you can no more reconcile the
calumniators and the calumniated than you can the spoilers and the
despoiled. It is only in epic poems that men curse each other before
they kill. The savage, and the peasant who is much like a savage, seldom
speak unless to deceive an enemy. Ever since 1789 France has been trying
to make man believe, against all evidence, that they are equal. To say
to a man, “You are a swindler,” may be taken as a joke; but to catch him
in the act and prove it to him with a cane on his back, to threaten him
with a police-court and not follow up the threat, is to remind him of
the inequality of conditions. If the masses will not brook any species
of superiority, is it likely that a swindler will forgive that of an
honest man?

Montcornet might have dismissed his steward under pretext of paying
off a military obligation by putting some old soldier in his place;
Gaubertin and the general would have understood the matter, and the
latter, by sparing the steward’s self-love would have given him a chance
to withdraw quietly. Gaubertin, in that case, would have left his late
employer in peace, and possibly he might have taken himself and his
savings to Paris for investment. But being, as he was, ignominiously
dismissed, the man conceived against his late master one of those bitter
hatreds which are literally a part of existence in provincial life, the
persistency, duration, and plots of which would astonish diplomatists
who are trained to let nothing astonish them. A burning desire for
vengeance led him to settle at Ville-aux-Fayes, and to take a position
where he could injure Montcornet and stir up sufficient enmity against
to force him to sell Les Aigues.

The general was deceived by appearances; for Gaubertin’s external
behavior was not of a nature to warn or to alarm him. The late steward
followed his old custom of pretending, not exactly poverty, but limited
means. For years he had talked of his wife and three children, and the
heavy expenses of a large family. Mademoiselle Laguerre, to whom he had
declared himself too poor to educate his son in Paris, paid the costs
herself, and allowed her dear godson (for she was Claude Gaubertin’s
sponsor) two thousand francs a year.

The day after the quarrel, Gaubertin came, with a keeper named
Courtecuisse, and demanded with much insolence his release in full of
all claims, showing the general the one he had obtained from his late
mistress in such flattering terms, and asking, ironically, that a
search should be made for the property, real and otherwise, which he was
supposed to have stolen. If he had received fees from the wood-merchants
on their purchases and from the farmers on their leases, Mademoiselle
Laguerre, he said, had always allowed it; not only did she gain by the
bargains he made, but everything went on smoothly without troubling
her. The country-people would have died, he remarked, for Mademoiselle,
whereas the general was laying up for himself a store of difficulties.

Gaubertin--and this trait is frequently to be seen in the majority of
those professions in which the property of others can be taken by means
not foreseen by the Code--considered himself a perfectly honest man.
In the first place, he had so long had possession of the money
extorted from Mademoiselle Laguerre’s farmers through fear, and paid in
assignats, that he regarded it as legitimately acquired. It was a mere
matter of exchange. He thought that in the end he should have quite as
much risk with coin as with paper. Besides, legally, Mademoiselle had no
right to receive any payment except in assignats. “Legally” is a fine,
robust adverb, which bolsters up many a fortune! Moreover, he reflected
that ever since great estates and land-agents had existed, that is, ever
since the origin of society, the said agents had set up, for their own
use, an argument such as we find our cooks using in this present day.
Here it is, in its simplicity:--

“If my mistress,” says the cook, “went to market herself, she would have
to pay more for her provisions than I charge her; she is the gainer,
and the profits I make do more good in my hands than in those of the
dealers.”

“If Mademoiselle,” thought Gaubertin, “were to manage Les Aigues
herself, she would never get thirty thousand francs a year out of it;
the peasants, the dealers, the workmen would rob her of the rest. It is
much better that I should have it, and so enable her to live in peace.”

The Catholic religion, and it alone, is able to prevent these
capitulations of conscience. But, ever since 1789 religion has no
influence on two thirds of the French people. The peasants, whose
minds are keen and whose poverty drives them to imitation, had
reached, specially in the valley of Les Aigues, a frightful state of
demoralization. They went to mass on Sundays, but only at the outside of
the church, where it was their custom to meet and transact business and
make their weekly bargains.

We can now estimate the extent of the evil done by the careless
indifference of the great singer to the management of her property.
Mademoiselle Laguerre betrayed, through mere selfishness, the interests
of those who owned property, who are held in perpetual hatred by
those who own none. Since 1792 the land-owners of Paris have become of
necessity a combined body. If, alas, the feudal families, less numerous
than the middle-class families, did not perceive the necessity of
combining in 1400 under Louis XI., nor in 1600 under Richelieu, can we
expect that in this nineteenth century of progress the middle classes
will prove to be more permanently and solidly combined that the old
nobility? An oligarchy of a hundred thousand rich men presents all the
dangers of a democracy with none of its advantages. The principle of
“every man for himself and for his own,” the selfishness of individual
interests, will kill the oligarchical selfishness so necessary to the
existence of modern society, and which England has practised with such
success for the last three centuries. Whatever may be said or done,
land-owners will never understand the necessity of the sort of internal
discipline which made the Church such an admirable model of government,
until, too late, they find themselves in danger from one another.
The audacity with which communism, that living and acting logic of
democracy, attacks society from the moral side, shows plainly that the
Samson of to-day, grown prudent, is undermining the foundations of the
cellar, instead of shaking the pillars of the hall.



CHAPTER VII. CERTAIN LOST SOCIAL SPECIES


The estate of Les Aigues could not do without a steward; for the general
had no intention of renouncing his winter pleasures in Paris, where he
owned a fine house in the rue Neuve-des-Mathurines. He therefore looked
about for a successor to Gaubertin; but it is very certain that his
search was not as eager as that of Gaubertin himself, who was seeking
for the right person to put in his way.

Of all confidential positions there is none that requires more trained
knowledge of its kind, or more activity, than that of land-steward to
a great estate. The difficulty of finding the right man is only fully
known to those wealthy landlords whose property lies beyond a certain
circle around Paris, beginning at a distance of about one hundred and
fifty miles. At that point agricultural productions for the markets of
Paris, which warrant rentals on long leases (collected often by other
tenants who are rich themselves), cease to be cultivated. The farmers
who raise them drive to the city in their own cabriolets to pay their
rents in good bank-bills, unless they send the money through their
agents in the markets. For this reason, the farms of the Seine-et-Oise,
Seine-et-Marne, the Oise, the Eure-et-Loir, the Lower Seine, and the
Loiret are so desirable that capital cannot always be invested there at
one and a half per cent. Compared to the returns on estates in Holland,
England, and Belgium, this result is enormous. But at one hundred miles
from Paris an estate requires such variety of working, its products are
so different in kind, that it becomes a business, with all the risks
attendant on manufacturing. The wealthy owner is really a merchant,
forced to look for a market for his products, like the owner of
ironworks or cotton factories. He does not even escape competition; the
peasant, the small proprietor, is at his heels with an avidity which
leads to transactions to which well-bred persons cannot condescend.

A land-steward must understand surveying, the customs of the locality,
the methods of sale and of labor, together with a little quibbling in
the interests of those he serves; he must also understand book-keeping
and commercial matters, and be in perfect health, with a liking for
active life and horse exercise. His duty being to represent his master
and to be always in communication with him, the steward ought not to be
a man of the people. As the salary of his office seldom exceeds three
thousand francs, the problem seems insoluble. How is it possible to
obtain so many qualifications for such a very moderate price,--in
a region, moreover, where the men who are provided with them are
admissible to all other employments? Bring down a stranger to fill the
place, and you will pay dear for the experience he must acquire. Train
a young man on the spot, and you are more than likely to get a thorn
of ingratitude in your side. It therefore becomes necessary to choose
between incompetent honesty, which injures your property through its
blindness and inertia, and the cleverness which looks out for itself.
Hence the social nomenclature and natural history of land-stewards as
defined by a great Polish noble.

“There are,” he said, “two kinds of stewards: he who thinks only of
himself, and he who thinks of himself and of us; happy the land-owner
who lays his hands on the latter! As for the steward who would think
only of us, he is not to be met with.”

Elsewhere can be found a steward who thought of this master’s interests
as well as of his own. (“Un Debut dans la vie,” “Scenes de la vie
privee.”) Gaubertin is the steward who thinks of himself only. To
represent the third figure of the problem would be to hold up to public
admiration a very unlikely personage, yet one that was not unknown to
the old nobility, though he has, alas! disappeared with them. (See “Le
Cabinet des Antiques,” “Scenes de la vie de province.”) Through the
endless subdivision of fortunes aristocratic habits and customs are
inevitably changed. If there be not now in France twenty great fortunes
managed by intendants, in fifty years from now there will not be a
hundred estates in the hands of stewards, unless a great change is made
in the law. Every land-owner will be brought by that time to look after
his own interests.

This transformation, already begun, suggested the following answer of a
clever woman when asked why, since 1830, she stayed in Paris during the
summer. “Because,” she said, “I do not care to visit chateaux which
are now turned into farms.” What is to be the future of this question,
getting daily more and more imperative,--that of man to man, the poor
man and the rich man? This book is written to throw some light upon that
terrible social question.

It is easy to understand the perplexities which assailed the general
after he had dismissed Gaubertin. While saying to himself, vaguely,
like other persons free to do or not to do a thing, “I’ll dismiss that
scamp”; he had overlooked the risk and forgotten the explosion of his
boiling anger,--the anger of a choleric fire-eater at the moment when a
flagrant imposition forced him to raise the lids of his wilfully blind
eyes.

Montcornet, a land-owner for the first time and a denizen of Paris, had
not provided himself with a steward before coming to Les Aigues; but
after studying the neighborhood carefully he saw it was indispensable to
a man like himself to have an intermediary to manage so many persons of
low degree.

Gaubertin, who discovered during the excitement of the scene (which
lasted more than two hours) the difficulties in which the general would
soon be involved, jumped on his pony after leaving the room where the
quarrel took place, and galloped to Soulanges to consult the Soudrys. At
his first words, “The general and I have parted; whom can we put in my
place without his suspecting it?” the Soudrys understood their friend’s
wishes. Do not forget that Soudry, for the last seventeen years chief
of police of the canton, was doubly shrewd through his wife, an adept in
the particular wiliness of a waiting-maid of an Opera divinity.

“We may go far,” said Madame Soudry, “before we find any one to suit the
place as well as our poor Sibilet.”

“Made to order!” exclaimed Gaubertin, still scarlet with mortification.
“Lupin,” he added, turning to the notary, who was present, “go to
Ville-aux-Fayes and whisper it to Marechal, in case that big fire-eater
asks his advice.”

Marechal was the lawyer whom his former patron, when buying Les Aigues
for the general, had recommended to Monsieur de Montcornet as legal
adviser.

Sibilet, eldest son of the clerk of the court at Ville-aux-Fayes, a
notary’s clerk, without a penny of his own, and twenty-five years
old, had fallen in love with the daughter of the chief-magistrate of
Soulanges. The latter, named Sarcus, had a salary of fifteen hundred
francs, and was married to a woman without fortune, the eldest sister of
Monsieur Vermut, the apothecary of Soulanges. Though an only daughter,
Mademoiselle Sarcus, whose beauty was her only dowry, could scarcely
have lived on the salary paid to a notary’s clerk in the provinces.
Young Sibilet, a relative of Gaubertin, by a connection rather difficult
to trace through family ramifications which make members of the middle
classes in all the smaller towns cousins to each other, owed a modest
position in a government office to the assistance of his father and
Gaubertin. The unlucky fellow had the terrible happiness of being the
father of two children in three years. His own father, blessed with
five, was unable to assist him. His wife’s father owned nothing beside
his house at Soulanges and an income of two thousand francs. Madame
Sibilet the younger spent most of her time at her father’s home with her
two children, where Adolphe Sibilet, whose official duty obliged him to
travel through the department, came to see her from time to time.

Gaubertin’s exclamation, though easy to understand from this summary of
young Sibilet’s life, needs a few more explanatory details.

Adolphe Sibilet, supremely unlucky, as we have shown by the foregoing
sketch of him, was one of those men who cannot reach the heart of a
woman except by way of the altar and the mayor’s office. Endowed with
the suppleness of a steel-spring, he yielded to pressure, certain to
revert to his first thought. This treacherous habit is prompted by
cowardice; but the business training which Sibilet underwent in the
office of a provincial notary had taught him the art of concealing
this defect under a gruff manner which simulated a strength he did not
possess. Many false natures mask their hollowness in this way; be
rough with them in return and the effect produced is that of a balloon
collapsed by a prick. Such was Sibilet. But as most men are not
observers, and as among observers three fourths observe only after a
thing has taken place, Adolphe Sibilet’s grumbling manner was considered
the result of an honest frankness, of a capacity much praised by his
master, and of a stubborn uprightness which no temptation could shake.
Some men are as much benefited by their defects as others by their good
qualities.

Adeline Sarcus, a pretty young woman, brought up by a mother (who died
three years before her marriage) as well as a mother can educate an only
daughter in a remote country town, was in love with the handsome son
of Lupin, the Soulanges notary. At the first signs of this romance, old
Lupin, who intended to marry his son to Mademoiselle Elise Gaubertin,
lost no time in sending young Amaury Lupin to Paris, to the care of his
friend and correspondent Crottat, the notary, where, under pretext of
drawing deeds and contracts, Amaury committed a variety of foolish acts,
and made debts, being led thereto by a certain Georges Marest, a clerk
in the same office, but a rich young man, who revealed to him the
mysteries of Parisian life. By the time Lupin the elder went to Paris to
bring back his son, Adeline Sarcus had become Madame Sibilet. In
fact, when the adoring Adolphe offered himself, her father, the old
magistrate, prompted by young Lupin’s father, hastened the marriage, to
which Adeline yielded in sheer despair.

The situation of clerk in a government registration office is not a
career. It is, like other such places which admit of no rise, one of
the many holes of the government sieve. Those who start in life in
these holes (the topographical, the professorial, the highway-and-canal
departments) are apt to discover, invariably too late, that cleverer men
then they, seated beside them, are fed, as the Opposition writers say,
on the sweat of the people, every time the sieve dips down into the
taxation-pot by means of a machine called the budget. Adolphe, working
early and late and earning little, soon found out the barren depths
of his hole; and his thoughts busied themselves, as he trotted from
township to township, spending his salary in shoe-leather and costs of
travelling, with how to find a permanent and more profitable place.

No one can imagine, unless he happens to squint and to have two
legitimate children, what ambitions three years of misery and love had
developed in this young man, who squinted both in mind and vision,
and whose happiness halted, as it were, on one leg. The chief cause
of secret evil deeds and hidden meanness is, perhaps, an incompleted
happiness. Man can better bear a state of hopeless misery than those
terrible alternations of love and sunshine with continual rain. If the
body contracts disease, the mind contracts the leprosy of envy. In petty
minds that leprosy becomes a base and brutal cupidity, both insolent and
shrinking; in cultivated minds it fosters anti-social doctrines, which
serve a man as footholds by which to rise above his superiors. May we
not dignify with the title of proverb the pregnant saying, “Tell me what
thou hast, and I will tell thee of what thou art thinking”?

Though Adolphe loved his wife, his hourly thought was: “I have made
a mistake; I have three balls and chains, but I have only two legs. I
ought to have made my fortune before I married. I could have found an
Adeline any day; but Adeline stands in the way of my getting a fortune
now.”

Adolphe had been to see his relation Gaubertin three times in three
years. A few words exchanged between them let Gaubertin see the muck of
a soul ready to ferment under the hot temptations of legal robbery. He
warily sounded a nature that could be warped to the exigencies of any
plan, provided it was profitable. At each of the three visits Sibilet
grumbled at his fate.

“Employ me, cousin,” he said; “take me as a clerk and make me your
successor. You shall see how I work. I am capable of overthrowing
mountains to give my Adeline, I won’t say luxury, but a modest
competence. You made Monsieur Leclercq’s fortune; why won’t you put me
in a bank in Paris?”

“Some day, later on, I’ll find you a place,” Gaubertin would say;
“meantime make friends and acquaintance; such things help.”

Under these circumstances the letter which Madame Soudry hastily
dispatched brought Sibilet to Soulanges through a region of castles in
the air. His father-in-law, Sarcus, whom the Soudrys advised to take
steps in the interest of his daughter, had gone in the morning to see
the general and to propose Adolphe for the vacant post. By advice of
Madame Soudry, who was the oracle of the little town, the worthy man had
taken his daughter with him; and the sight of her had had a favorable
effect upon the Comte de Montcornet.

“I shall not decide,” he answered, “without thoroughly informing
myself about all applicants; but I will not look elsewhere until I have
examined whether or not your son-in-law possesses the requirements for
the place.” Then, turning to Madame Sibilet he added, “The satisfaction
of settling so charming a person at Les Aigues--”

“The mother of two children, general,” said Adeline, adroitly, to evade
the gallantry of the old cuirassier.

All the general’s inquiries were cleverly anticipated by the Soudrys,
Gaubertin, and Lupin, who quietly obtained for their candidate the
influence of the leading lawyers in the capital of the department, where
a royal court held sessions,--such as Counsellor Gendrin, a
distant relative of the judge at Ville-aux-Fayes; Baron Bourlac,
attorney-general; and another counsellor named Sarcus, a cousin thrice
removed of the candidate. The verdict of every one to whom the general
applies was favorable to the poor clerk,--“so interesting,” as they
called him. His marriage had made Sibilet as irreproachable as a novel
of Miss Edgeworth’s, and presented him, moreover, in the light of a
disinterested man.

The time which the dismissed steward remained at Les Aigues until his
successor could be appointed was employed in creating troubles and
annoyances for his late master; one of the little scenes which he thus
played off will give an idea of several others.

The morning of his final departure he contrived to meet, as it were
accidentally, Courtecuisse, the only keeper then employed at Les Aigues,
the great extent of which really needed at least three.

“Well, Monsieur Gaubertin,” said Courtecuisse, “so you have had trouble
with the count?”

“Who told you that?” answered Gaubertin. “Well, yes; the general
expected to order us about as he did his cavalry; he didn’t know
Burgundians. The count is not satisfied with my services, and as I am
not satisfied with his ways, we have dismissed each other, almost
with fisticuffs, for he raged like a whirlwind. Take care of yourself,
Courtecuisse! Ah! my dear fellow, I expected to give you a better
master.”

“I know that,” said the keeper, “and I’d have served you well. Hang it,
when friends have known each other for twenty years, you know! You put
me here in the days of the poor dear sainted Madame. Ah, what a good
woman she was! none like her now! The place has lost a mother.”

“Look here, Courtecuisse, if you are willing, you might help us to a
fine stroke.”

“Then you are going to stay here? I heard you were off to Paris.”

“No; I shall wait to see how things turn out; meantime I shall do
business at Ville-aux-Fayes. The general doesn’t know what he is dealing
with in these parts; he’ll make himself hated, don’t you see? I shall
wait for what turns up. Do your work here gently; he’ll tell you to
manage the people with a high hand, for he begins to see where his crops
and his woods are running to; but you’ll not be such a fool as to
let the country-folk maul you, and perhaps worse, for the sake of his
timber.”

“But he would send me away, dear Monsieur Gaubertin, he would get rid of
me! and you know how happy I am living there at the gate of the Avonne.”

“The general will soon get sick of the whole place,” replied Gaubertin;
“you wouldn’t be long out even if he did happen to send you away.
Besides, you know those woods,” he added, waving his hand at the
landscape; “I am stronger there than the masters.”

This conversation took place in an open field.

“Those ‘Arminac’ Parisian fellows ought to stay in their own mud,” said
the keeper.

Ever since the quarrels of the fifteenth century the word ‘Arminac’
(Armagnacs, Parisians, enemies of the Dukes of Burgundy) has continued
to be an insulting term along the borders of Upper Burgundy, where it is
differently corrupted according to locality.

“He’ll go back to it when beaten,” said Gaubertin, “and we’ll plough
up the park; for it is robbing the people to allow a man to keep nine
hundred acres of the best land in the valley for his own pleasure.”

“Four hundred families could get their living from it,” said
Courtecuisse.

“If you want two acres for yourself you must help us to drive that cur
out,” remarked Gaubertin.

At the very moment that Gaubertin was fulminating this sentence of
excommunication, the worthy Sarcus was presenting his son-in-law Sibilet
to the Comte de Montcornet. They had come with Adeline and the children
in a wicker carryall, lent by Sarcus’s clerk, a Monsieur Gourdon,
brother of the Soulanges doctor, who was richer than the magistrate
himself. The general, pleased with the candor and dignity of the justice
of the peace, and with the graceful bearing of Adeline (both giving
pledges in good faith, for they were totally ignorant of the plans of
Gaubertin), at once granted all requests and gave such advantages to the
family of the new land-steward as to make the position equal to that of
a sub-prefect of the first class.

A lodge, built by Bouret as an object in the landscape and also as a
home for the steward, an elegant little building, the architecture of
which was sufficiently shown in the description of the gate of Blangy,
was promised to the Sibilets for their residence. The general also
conceded the horse which Mademoiselle Laguerre had provided for
Gaubertin, in consideration of the size of the estate and the distance
he had to go to the markets where the business of the property was
transacted. He allowed two hundred bushels of wheat, three hogsheads
of wine, wood in sufficient quantity, oats and barley in abundance,
and three per cent on all receipts of income. Where the latter in
Mademoiselle Laguerre’s time had amounted to forty thousand francs, the
general now, in 1818, in view of the purchases of land which Gaubertin
had made for her, expected to receive at least sixty thousand. The
new land-steward might therefore receive before long some two thousand
francs in money. Lodged, fed, warmed, relieved of taxes, the costs of
a horse and a poultry-yard defrayed for him, and allowed to plant a
kitchen-garden, with no questions asked as to the day’s work of the
gardener, certainly such advantages represented much more than another
two thousand francs; for a man who was earning a miserable salary
of twelve hundred francs in a government office to step into the
stewardship of Les Aigues was a change from poverty to opulence.

“Be faithful to my interests,” said the general, “and I shall have more
to say to you. Doubtless I could get the collection of the rents of
Conches, Blangy, and Cerneux taken away from the collection of those of
Soulanges and given to you. In short, when you bring me in a clear sixty
thousand a year from Les Aigues you shall be still further rewarded.”

Unfortunately, the worthy justice and his daughter, in the flush of
their joy, told Madame Soudry the promise the general had made about
these collections, without reflecting that the present collector of
Soulanges, a man named Guerbet, brother of the postmaster of Conches,
was closely allied, as we shall see later, with Gaubertin and the
Gendrins.

“It won’t be so easy to do it, my dear,” said Madame Soudry; “but don’t
prevent the general from making the attempt; it is wonderful how easily
difficult things are done in Paris. I have seen the Chevalier Gluck at
dear Madame’s feet to get her to sing his music, and she did,--she who
so adored Piccini, one of the finest men of his day; never did _he_ come
into Madame’s room without catching me round the waist and calling me a
dear rogue.”

“Ha!” cried Soudry, when his wife reported this news, “does he think he
is going to lead the notary by the nose, and upset everything to
please himself and make the whole valley march in line, as he did his
cuirassiers? These military fellows have a habit of command!--but let’s
have patience; Monsieur de Soulanges and Monsieur de Ronquerolles will
be on our side. Poor Guerbet! he little suspects who is trying to pluck
the best roses out of his garland!”

Pere Guerbet, the collector of Soulanges, was the wit, that is to say,
the jovial companion of the little town, and a hero in Madame Soudry’s
salon. Soudry’s speech gives a fair idea of the opinion which now grew
up against the master of Les Aigues from Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes,
and wherever else the public mind could be reached and poisoned by
Gaubertin.

The installation of Sibilet took place in the autumn of 1817. The year
1818 went by without the general being able to set foot at Les Aigues,
for his approaching marriage with Mademoiselle de Troisville, which was
celebrated in January, 1819, kept him the greater part of the summer
near Alencon, in the country-house of his prospective father-in-law.
General Montcornet possessed, besides Les Aigues and a magnificent house
in Paris, some sixty thousand francs a year in the Funds and the salary
of a retired lieutenant-general. Though Napoleon had made him a count
of the Empire and given him the following arms, a field quarterly, the
first, azure, bordure or, three pyramids argent; the second, vert, three
hunting horns argent; the third, gules, a cannon or on a gun-carriage
sable, and, in chief, a crescent or; the fourth, or, a crown vert,
with the motto (eminently of the middle ages!), “Sound the
charge,”--Montcornet knew very well that he was the son of a
cabinet-maker in the faubourg Saint-Antoine, though he was quite ready
to forget it. He was eaten up with the desire to be a peer of France,
and dreamed of his grand cordon of the Legion of honor, his Saint-Louis
cross, and his income of one hundred and forty thousand francs. Bitten
by the demon of aristocracy, the sight of the blue ribbon put him beside
himself. The gallant cuirassier of Essling would have licked up the
mud on the Pont-Royal to be invited to the house of a Navarreins, a
Lenoncourt, a Grandlieu, a Maufrigneuse, a d’Espard, a Vandenesse, a
Verneuil, a Herouville, or a Chaulieu.

From 1818, when the impossibility of a change in favor of the Bonaparte
family was made clear to him, Montcornet had himself trumpeted in the
faubourg Saint-Germain by the wives of some of his friends, who offered
his hand and heart, his mansion and his fortune in return for an
alliance with some great family.

After several attempts, the Duchesse de Carigliano found a match for the
general in one of the three branches of the Troisville family,--that of
the viscount in the service of Russia ever since 1789, who had returned
to France in 1815. The viscount, poor as a younger son, had married a
Princess Scherbellof, worth about a million, but the arrival of two
sons and three daughters kept him poor. His family, ancient and formerly
powerful, now consisted of the Marquis de Troisville, peer of France,
head of the house and scutcheon, and two deputies, with numerous
offspring, who were busy, for their part, with the budget and the
ministries and the court, like fishes round bits of bread. Therefore,
when Montcornet was presented by Madame de Carigliano,--the Napoleonic
duchess, who was now a most devoted adherent of the Bourbons, he was
favorably received. The general asked, in return for his fortune and
tender indulgence to his wife, to be appointed to the Royal Guard,
with the rank of marquis and peer of France; but the branches of the
Troisville family would do no more than promise him their support.

“You know what that means,” said the duchess to her old friend, who
complained of the vagueness of the promise. “They cannot oblige the king
to do as they wish; they can only influence him.”

Montcornet made Virginie de Troisville his heir in the marriage
settlements. Completely under the control of his wife, as Blondet’s
letter has already shown, he was still without children, but Louis
XVIII. had received him, and given him the cordon of Saint-Louis,
allowing him to quarter his ridiculous arms with those of the
Troisvilles, and promising him the title of marquis as soon as he had
deserved the peerage by his services.

A few days after the audience at which this promise had been given, the
Duc de Barry was assassinated; the Marsan clique carried the day;
the Villele ministry came into power, and all the wires laid by the
Troisvilles were snapped; it became necessary to find new ways of
fastening them upon the ministry.

“We must bide our time,” said the Troisvilles to Montcornet, who was
always overwhelmed with politeness in the faubourg Saint-Germain.

This will explain how it was that the general did not return to Les
Aigues until May, 1820.

The ineffable happiness of the son of a shop-keeper of the faubourg
Saint-Antoine in possessing a young, elegant, intelligent, and gentle
wife, a Troisville, who had given him an entrance into all the salons
of the faubourg Saint-Germain, and the delight of making her enjoy the
pleasures of Paris, had kept him from Les Aigues and made him forget
about Gaubertin, even to his very name. In 1820 he took the countess to
Burgundy to show her the estate, and he accepted Sibilet’s accounts and
leases without looking closely into them; happiness never cavils. The
countess, well pleased to find the steward’s wife a charming young
woman, made presents to her and to the children, with whom she
occasionally amused herself. She ordered a few changes at Les Aigues,
having sent to Paris for an architect; proposing, to the general’s great
delight, to spend six months of every year on this magnificent estate.
Montcornet’s savings were soon spent on the architectural work and the
exquisite new furniture sent from Paris. Les Aigues thus received the
last touch which made it a choice example of all the diverse elegancies
of four centuries.

In 1821 the general was almost peremptorily urged by Sibilet to be at
Les Aigues before the month of May. Important matters had to be decided.
A lease of nine years, to the amount of thirty thousand francs, granted
by Gaubertin in 1812 to a wood-merchant, fell in on the 15th of May of
the current year. Sibilet, anxious to prove his rectitude, was unwilling
to be responsible for the renewal of the lease. “You know, Monsieur le
comte,” he wrote, “that I do not choose to profit by such matters.”
 The wood-merchant claimed an indemnity, extorted from Madame Laguerre,
through her hatred of litigation, and shared by him with Gaubertin. This
indemnity was based on the injury done to the woods by the peasants,
who treated the forest of Les Aigues as if they had a right to cut the
timber. Messrs. Gravelot Brothers, wood-merchants in Paris, refused to
pay their last quarter dues, offering to prove by an expert that the
woods were reduced one-fifth in value, through, they said, the injurious
precedent established by Madame Laguerre.

“I have already,” wrote Sibilet, “sued these men in the courts at
Ville-aux-Fayes, for they have taken legal residence there, on account
of this lease, with my old employer, Maitre Corbinet. I fear we shall
lose the suit.”

“It is a question of income, my dear,” said the general, showing the
letter to his wife. “Will you go down to Les Aigues a little earlier
this year than last?”

“Go yourself, and I will follow you when the weather is warmer,” said
the countess, not sorry to remain in Paris alone.

The general, who knew very well the canker that was eating into his
revenues, departed without his wife, resolved to take vigorous measures.
In so doing he reckoned, as we shall see, without his Gaubertin.



CHAPTER VIII. THE GREAT REVOLUTIONS OF A LITTLE VALLEY


“Well, Maitre Sibilet,” said the general to his steward, the morning
after his arrival, giving him a familiar title which showed how much he
appreciated his services, “so we are, to use a ministerial phrase, at a
crisis?”

“Yes, Monsieur le comte,” said Sibilet, following the general.

The fortunate possessor of Les Aigues was walking up and down in front
of the steward’s house, along a little terrace where Madame Sibilet grew
flowers, at the end of which was a wide stretch of meadow-land watered
by the canal which Blondet has described. From this point the chateau of
Les Aigues was seen in the distance, and in like manner the profile, as
it were, of the steward’s lodge was seen from Les Aigues.

“But,” resumed the general, “what’s the difficulty? If I do lose the
suit against the Gravelots, a money wound is not mortal, and I’ll
have the leasing of my forest so well advertised that there will be
competition, and I shall sell the timber at its true value.”

“Business is not done in that way, Monsieur le comte,” said Sibilet.
“Suppose you get no lessees, what will you do?”

“Cut the timber myself and sell it--”

“You, a wood merchant?” said Sibilet. “Well, without looking at matters
here, how would it be in Paris? You would have to hire a wood-yard,
pay for a license and the taxes, also for the right of navigation, and
duties, and the costs of unloading; besides the salary of a trustworthy
agent--”

“Yes, it is impracticable,” said the general hastily, alarmed at the
prospect. “But why can’t I find persons to lease the right of cutting
timber as before?”

“Monsieur le comte has enemies.”

“Who are they?”

“Well, in the first place, Monsieur Gaubertin.”

“Do you mean the scoundrel whose place you took?”

“Not so loud, Monsieur le comte,” said Sibilet, showing fear; “I beg of
you, not so loud,--my cook might hear us.”

“Do you mean to tell me that I am not to speak on my own estate of a
villain who robbed me?” cried the general.

“For the sake of your own peace and comfort, come further away, Monsieur
le comte. Monsieur Gaubertin is mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes.”

“Ha! I congratulate Ville-aux-Fayes. Thunder! what a nobly governed
town!--”

“Do me the honor to listen, Monsieur le comte, and to believe that I
am talking of serious matters which may affect your future life in this
place.”

“I am listening; let us sit down on this bench here.”

“Monsieur le comte, when you dismissed Gaubertin, he had to find some
employment, for he was not rich--”

“Not rich! when he stole twenty thousand francs a year from this
estate?”

“Monsieur le comte, I don’t pretend to excuse him,” replied Sibilet. “I
want to see Les Aigues prosperous, if it were only to prove Gaubertin’s
dishonest; but we ought not to abuse him openly for he is one of the
most dangerous scoundrels to be found in all Burgundy, and he is now in
a position to injure you.”

“In what way?” asked the general, sobering down.

“Gaubertin has control of nearly one third of the supplies sent to
Paris. As general agent of the timber business, he orders all the work
of the forests,--the felling, chopping, floating, and sending to market.
Being in close relations with the workmen, he is the arbiter of prices.
It has taken him three years to create this position, but he holds it
now like a fortress. He is essential to all dealers, never favoring one
more than another; he regulates the whole business in their interests,
and their affairs are better and more cheaply looked after by him
than they were in the old time by separate agents for each firm. For
instance, he has so completely put a stop to competition that he has
absolute control of the auction sales; the crown and the State are
both dependent on him. Their timber is sold under the hammer and falls
invariably to Gaubertin’s dealers; in fact, no others attempt now to
bid against them. Last year Monsieur Mariotte, of Auxerre, urged by
the commissioner of domains, did attempt to compete with Gaubertin. At
first, Gaubertin let him buy the standing wood at the usual prices; but
when it came to cutting it, the Avonnais workmen asked such enormous
prices that Monsieur Mariotte was obliged to bring laborers from
Auxerre, whom the Ville-aux-Fayes workmen attacked and drove away. The
head of the coalition, and the ringleader of the brawl were brought
before the police court, and the suits cost Monsieur Mariotte a great
deal of money; for, besides the odium of having convicted and punished
poor men, he was forced to pay all costs, because the losing side had
not a farthing to do it with. A suit against laboring men is sure to
result in hatred to those who live among them. Let me warn you of this;
for if you follow the course you propose, you will have to fight against
the poor of this district at least. But that’s not all. Counting it
over, Monsieur Mariotte, a worthy man, found he was the loser by his
original lease. Forced to pay ready money, he was nevertheless obliged
to sell on time; Gaubertin delivered his timber at long credits for the
purpose of ruining his competitor. He undersold him by at least five per
cent, and the end of it is that poor Mariotte’s credit is badly shaken.
Gaubertin is now pressing and harassing the poor man so that he is
driven, they tell me, to leave not only Auxerre, but even Burgundy
itself; and he is right. In this way land-owners have long been
sacrificed to dealers who now set the market-prices, just as the
furniture-dealers in Paris dictate values to appraisers. But Gaubertin
saves the owners so much trouble and worry that they are really
gainers.”

“How so?” asked the general.

“In the first place, because the less complicated a business is, the
greater the profits to the owners,” answered Sibilet. “Besides which,
their income is more secure; and in all matters of rural improvement
and development that is the main thing, as you will find out. Then, too,
Monsieur Gaubertin is the friend and patron of working-men; he pays them
well and keeps them always at work; therefore, though their families
live on the estates, the woods leased to dealers and belonging to the
land-owners who trust the care of their property to Gaubertin (such as
MM. de Soulanges and de Ronquerolles) are not devastated. The dead wood
is gathered up, but that is all--”

“That rascal Gaubertin has lost no time!” cried the general.

“He is a bold man,” said Sibilet. “He really is, as he calls himself,
the steward of the best half of the department, instead of being merely
the steward of Les Aigues. He makes a little out of everybody, and
that little on every two millions brings him in forty to fifty thousand
francs a year. He says himself, ‘The fires on the Parisian hearths pay
it all.’ He is your enemy, Monsieur le comte. My advice to you is to
capitulate and be reconciled with him. He is intimate, as you know, with
Soudry, the head of the gendarmerie at Soulanges; with Monsieur Rigou,
our mayor at Blangy; the patrols are under his influence; therefore you
will find it impossible to repress the pilferings which are eating into
your estate. During the last two years your woods have been devastated.
Consequently the Gravelots are more than likely to win their suit. They
say, very truly: ‘According to the terms of the lease, the care of
the woods is left to the owner; he does not protect them, and we are
injured; the owner is bound to pay us damages.’ That’s fair enough; but
it doesn’t follow that they should win their case.”

“We must be ready to defend this suit at all costs,” said the general,
“and then we shall have no more of them.”

“You shall gratify Gaubertin,” remarked Sibilet.

“How so?”

“Suing the Gravelots is the same as a hand to hand fight with Gaubertin,
who is their agent,” answered Sibilet. “He asks nothing better than
such a suit. He declares, so I hear, that he will bring you if necessary
before the Court of Appeals.”

“The rascal! the--”

“If you attempt to work your own woods,” continued Sibilet, turning the
knife in the wound, “you will find yourself at the mercy of workmen who
will force you to pay rich men’s prices instead of market-prices. In
short, they’ll put you, as they did that poor Mariotte, in a position
where you must sell at a loss. If you then try to lease the woods you
will get no tenants, for you cannot expect that any one should take
risks for himself which Mariotte only took for the crown and the State.
Suppose a man talks of his losses to the government! The government is a
gentleman who is, like your obedient servant when he was in its employ,
a worthy man with a frayed overcoat, who reads the newspapers at a
desk. Let his salary be twelve hundred or twelve thousand francs, his
disposition is the same, it is not a whit softer. Talk of reductions
and releases from the public treasury represented by the said gentleman!
He’ll only pooh-pooh you as he mends his pen. No, the law is the wrong
road for you, Monsieur le comte.”

“Then what’s to be done?” cried the general, his blood boiling as he
tramped up and down before the bench.

“Monsieur le comte,” said Sibilet, abruptly, “what I say to you is not
for my own interests, certainly; but I advise you to sell Les Aigues and
leave the neighborhood.”

On hearing these words the general sprang back as if a cannon-ball had
struck him; then he looked at Sibilet with a shrewd, diplomatic eye.

“A general of the Imperial Guard running away from the rascals, when
Madame la comtesse likes Les Aigues!” he said. “No, I’ll sooner box
Gaubertin’s ears on the market-place of Ville-aux-Fayes, and force him
to fight me that I may shoot him like a dog.”

“Monsieur le comte, Gaubertin is not such a fool as to let himself be
brought into collision with you. Besides, you could not openly insult
the mayor of so important a place as Ville-aux-Fayes.”

“I’ll have him turned out; the Troisvilles can do that for me; it is a
question of income.”

“You won’t succeed, Monsieur le comte; Gaubertin’s arms are long; you
will get yourself into difficulties from which you cannot escape.”

“Let us think of the present,” interrupted the general. “About that
suit?”

“That, Monsieur le comte, I can manage to win for you,” replied Sibilet,
with a knowing glance.

“Bravo, Sibilet!” said the general, shaking his steward’s hand; “how are
you going to do it?”

“You will win it on a writ of error,” replied Sibilet. “In my opinion
the Gravelots have the right of it. But it is not enough to be in the
right, they must also be in order as to legal forms, and that they have
neglected. The Gravelots ought to have summoned you to have the woods
better watched. They can’t ask for indemnity, at the close of a lease,
for damages which they know have been going on for nine years; there
is a clause in the lease as to this, on which we can file a bill of
exceptions. You will lose the suit at Ville-aux-Fayes, possibly in the
upper court as well, but we will carry it to Paris and you will win at
the Court of Appeals. The costs will be heavy and the expenses ruinous.
You will have to spend from twelve to fifteen thousand francs merely to
win the suit,--but you will win it, if you care to. The suit will only
increase the enmity of the Gravelots, for the expenses will be even
heavier on them. You will be their bugbear; you will be called litigious
and calumniated in every way; still, you can win--”

“Then, what’s to be done?” repeated the general, on whom Sibilet’s
arguments were beginning to produce the effect of a violent poison.

Just then the remembrance of the blows he had given Gaubertin with
his cane crossed his mind, and made him wish he had bestowed them on
himself. His flushed face was enough to show Sibilet the irritation that
he felt.

“You ask me what can be done, Monsieur le comte? Why, only one thing,
compromise; but of course you can’t negotiate that yourself. I must be
thought to cheat you! We, poor devils, whose only fortune and comfort
is in our good name, it is hard on us to even seem to do a questionable
thing. We are always judged by appearances. Gaubertin himself saved
Mademoiselle Laguerre’s life during the Revolution, but it seemed to
others that he was robbing her. She rewarded him in her will with a
diamond worth ten thousand francs, which Madame Gaubertin now wears on
her head.”

The general gave Sibilet another glance still more diplomatic than the
first; but the steward seemed to take no notice of the challenge it
expressed.

“If I were to appear dishonest, Monsieur Gaubertin would be so overjoyed
that I could instantly obtain his help,” continued Sibilet. “He would
listen with all his ears if I said to him: ‘Suppose I were to extort
twenty thousand francs from Monsieur le comte for Messrs. Gravelot, on
condition that they shared them with me?’ If your adversaries consented
to that, Monsieur le comte, I should return you ten thousand francs; you
lose only the other ten, you save appearances, and the suit is quashed.”

“You are a fine fellow, Sibilet,” said the general, taking his hand and
shaking it. “If you can manage the future as well as you do the present,
I’ll call you the prince of stewards.”

“As to the future,” said Sibilet, “you won’t die of hunger if no timber
is cut for two or three years. Let us begin by putting proper keepers
in the woods. Between now and then things will flow as the water does
in the Avonne. Gaubertin may die, or get rich enough to retire from
business; at any rate, you will have sufficient time to find him a
competitor. The cake is too rich not to be shared. Look for another
Gaubertin to oppose the original.”

“Sibilet,” said the old soldier, delighted with this variety of
solutions. “I’ll give you three thousand francs if you’ll settle the
matter as you propose. For the rest, we’ll think about it.”

“Monsieur le comte,” said Sibilet, “first and foremost have the forest
properly watched. See for yourself the condition in which the peasantry
have put it during your two years’ absence. What could I do? I am
steward; I am not a bailiff. To guard Les Aigues properly you need a
mounted patrol and three keepers.”

“I certainly shall have the estate properly guarded. So it is to be war,
is it? Very good, then we shall make war. That doesn’t frighten me,”
 said Montcornet, rubbing his hands.

“A war of francs,” said Sibilet; “and you may find that more difficult
than the other kind; men can be killed but you can’t kill self-interest.
You will fight your enemy on the battle-field where all landlords are
compelled to fight,--I mean cash results. It is not enough to produce,
you must sell; and in order to sell, you must be on good terms with
everybody.”

“I shall have the country people on my side.”

“By what means?”

“By doing good among them.”

“Doing good to the valley peasants! to the petty shopkeepers of
Soulanges!” exclaimed Sibilet, squinting horribly, by reason of the
irony which flamed brighter in one eye than in the other. “Monsieur le
comte doesn’t know what he undertakes. Our Lord Jesus Christ would die
again upon the cross in this valley! If you wish an easy life, follow
the example of the late Mademoiselle Laguerre; let yourself be robbed,
or else make people afraid of you. Women, children, and the masses are
all governed by fear. That was the great secret of the Convention, and
of the Emperor, too.”

“Good heavens! is this the forest of Bondy?” cried the general.

“My dear,” said Sibilet’s wife, appearing at this moment, “your
breakfast is ready. Pray excuse him, Monsieur le comte; he has eaten
nothing since morning for he was obliged to go to Ronquerolles to
deliver some barley.”

“Go, go, Sibilet,” said the general.

The next morning the count rose early, before daylight, and went to
the gate of the Avonne, intending to talk with the one forester whom he
employed and find out what the man’s sentiments really were.

Some seven or eight hundred acres of the forest of Les Aigues lie along
the banks of the Avonne; and to preserve the majestic beauty of the
river the large trees that border it have been left untouched for a
distance of three leagues on both sides in an almost straight line. The
mistress of Henri IV., to whom Les Aigues formerly belonged, was as fond
of hunting as the king himself. In 1593 she ordered a bridge to be built
of a single arch with shelving roadway by which to ride from the lower
side of the forest to a much larger portion of it, purchased by her,
which lay upon the slopes of the hills. The gate of the Avonne was built
as a place of meeting for the huntsmen; and we know the magnificence
bestowed by the architects of that day upon all buildings intended for
the delight of the crown and the nobility. Six avenues branched away
from it, their place of meeting forming a half-moon. In the centre of
the semi-circular space stood an obelisk surmounted by a round shield,
formerly gilded, bearing on one side the arms of Navarre and on the
other those of the Countess de Moret. Another half-moon, on the side
toward the river, communicated with the first by a straight avenue, at
the opposite end of which the steep rise of the Venetian-shaped bridge
could be seen. Between two elegant iron railings of the same character
as that of the magnificent railing which formerly surrounded the garden
of the Place Royale in Paris, now so unfortunately destroyed, stood
a brick pavilion, with stone courses hewn in facets like those of the
chateau, with a very pointed roof and window-casings of stone cut in
the same manner. This old style, which gave the building a regal air, is
suitable only to prisons when used in cities; but standing in the heart
of forests it derives from its surroundings a splendor of its own.
A group of trees formed a screen, behind which the kennels, an old
falconry, a pheasantry, and the quarters of the huntsmen were falling
into ruins, after being in their day the wonder and admiration of
Burgundy.

In 1595, the royal hunting-parties set forth from this magnificent
pavilion, preceded by those fine dogs so dear to Rubens and to Paul
Veronese; the huntsmen mounted on high-steeping steeds with stout and
blue-white satiny haunches, seen no longer except in Wouverman’s amazing
work, followed by footmen in livery; the scene enlivened by whippers-in,
wearing the high top-boots with facings and the yellow leathern breeches
which have come down to the present day on the canvas of Van der Meulen.
The obelisk was erected in commemoration of the visit of the Bearnais,
and his hunt with the beautiful Comtesse de Moret; the date is given
below the arms of Navarre. That jealous woman, whose son was afterwards
legitimatized, would not allow the arms of France to figure on the
obelisk, regarding them as a rebuke.

At the time of which we write, when the general’s eyes rested on this
splendid ruin, moss had gathered for centuries on the four faces of
the roof; the hewn-stone courses, mangled by time, seemed to cry with
yawning mouths against the profanation; disjointed leaden settings let
fall their octagonal panes, so that the windows seemed blind of an eye
here and there. Yellow wallflowers bloomed about the copings; ivy slid
its white rootlets into every crevice.

All things bespoke a shameful want of care,--the seal set by mere
life-possessors on the ancient glories that they possess. Two windows
on the first floor were stuffed with hay. Through another, on the
ground-floor, was seen a room filled with tools and logs of wood; while
a cow pushed her muzzle through a fourth, proving that Courtecuisse, to
avoid having to walk from the pavilion to the pheasantry, had turned the
large hall of the central building into a stable,--a hall with panelled
ceiling, and in the centre of each panel the arms of all the various
possessors of Les Aigues!

Black and dirty palings disgraced the approach to the pavilion, making
square inclosures with plank roofs for pigs, ducks, and hens, the manure
of which was taken away every six months. A few ragged garments were
hung to dry on the brambles which boldly grew unchecked here and
there. As the general came along the avenue from the bridge, Madame
Courtecuisse was scouring a saucepan in which she had just made her
coffee. The forester, sitting on a chair in the sun, considered his
wife as a savage considers his. When he heard a horse’s hoofs he turned
round, saw the count, and seemed taken aback.

“Well, Courtecuisse, my man,” said the general, “I’m not surprised that
the peasants cut my woods before Messrs. Gravelot can do so. So you
consider your place a sinecure?”

“Indeed, Monsieur le comte, I have watched the woods so many nights that
I’m ill from it. I’ve got a chill, and I suffer such pain this morning
that my wife has just made me a poultice in that saucepan.”

“My good fellow,” said the count, “I don’t know of any pain that a
coffee poultice cures except that of hunger. Listen to me, you rascal! I
rode through my forest yesterday, and then through those of Monsieur de
Soulanges and Monsieur de Ronquerolles. Theirs are carefully watched and
preserved, while mine is in a shameful state.”

“Ah, monsieur! but they are the old lords of the neighborhood; everybody
respects their property. How can you expect me to fight against six
districts? I care for my life more than for your woods. A man who would
undertake to watch your woods as they ought to be watched would get a
ball in his head for wages in some dark corner of the forest--”

“Coward!” cried the general, trying to control the anger the man’s
insolent reply provoked in him. “Last night was as clear as day, yet it
cost me three hundred francs in actual robbery and over a thousand in
future damages. You will leave my service unless you do better. All
wrong-doing deserves some mercy; therefore these are my conditions: You
may have the fines, and I will pay you three francs for every indictment
you bring against these depredators. If I don’t get what I expect, you
know what you have to expect, and no pension either. Whereas, if you
serve me faithfully and contrive to stop these depredations, I’ll give
you an annuity of three hundred francs for life. You can think it over.
Here are six ways,” continued the count, pointing to the branching
roads; “there’s only one for you to take,--as for me also, who am not
afraid of balls; try and find the right one.”

Courtecuisse, a small man about forty-six years of age, with a full-moon
face, found his greatest happiness in doing nothing. He expected to live
and die in that pavilion, now considered by him _his_ pavilion. His two
cows were pastured in the forest, from which he got his wood; and
he spent his time in looking after his garden instead of after the
delinquents. Such neglect of duty suited Gaubertin, and Courtecuisse
knew it did. The keeper chased only those depredators who were the
objects of his personal dislike,--young women who would not yield to his
wishes, or persons against whom he held a grudge; though for some time
past he had really felt no dislikes, for every one yielded to him on
account of his easy-going ways with them.

Courtecuisse had a place always kept for him at the table of the
Grand-I-Vert; the wood-pickers feared him no longer; indeed, his wife
and he received many gifts in kind from them; his wood was brought in;
his vineyard dug; in short, all delinquents at whom he blinked did him
service.

Counting on Gaubertin for the future, and feeling sure of two acres
whenever Les Aigues should be brought to the hammer, he was roughly
awakened by the curt speech of the general, who, after four quiescent
years, was now revealing his true character,--that of a bourgeois rich
man who was determined to be no longer deceived. Courtecuisse took his
cap, his game-bag, and his gun, put on his gaiters and his belt
(which bore the very recent arms of Montcornet), and started for
Ville-aux-Fayes, with the careless, indifferent air and manner under
which country-people often conceal very deep reflections, while he gazed
at the woods and whistled to the dogs to follow him.

“What! you complain of the Shopman when he proposes to make your
fortune?” said Gaubertin. “Doesn’t the fool offer to give you three
francs for every arrest you make, and the fines to boot? Have an
understanding with your friends and you can bring as many indictments as
you please,--hundreds if you like! With one thousand francs you can
buy La Bachelerie from Rigou, become a property owner, live in your own
house, and work for yourself, or rather, make others work for you, and
take your ease. Only--now listen to me--you must manage to arrest only
such as haven’t a penny in the world. You can’t shear sheep unless
the wool is on their backs. Take the Shopman’s offer and leave him to
collect the costs,--if he wants them; tastes differ. Didn’t old Mariotte
prefer losses to profits, in spite of my advice?”

Courtecuisse, filled with admiration for these words of wisdom, returned
home burning with the desire to be a land-owner and a bourgeois like the
rest.

When the general reached Les Aigues he related his expedition to
Sibilet.

“Monsieur le comte did very right,” said the steward, rubbing his hands;
“but he must not stop short half-way. The field-keeper of the district
who allows the country-people to prey upon the meadows and rob the
harvests ought to be changed. Monsieur le comte should have himself
chosen mayor, and appoint one of his old soldiers, who would have
the courage to carry out his orders, in place of Vaudoyer. A great
land-owner should be master in his own district. Just see what
difficulties we have with the present mayor!”

The mayor of the district of Blangy, formerly a Benedictine, named
Rigou, had married, in the first year of the Republic, the servant-woman
of the late priest of Blangy. In spite of the repugnance which a married
monk excited at the Prefecture, he had continued to be mayor after 1815,
for the reason that there was no-one else at Blangy who was capable of
filling the post. But in 1817, when the bishop sent the Abbe Brossette
to the parish of Blangy (which had then been vacant over twenty-five
years), a violent opposition not unnaturally broke out between the old
apostate and the young ecclesiastic, whose character is already known to
us. The war which was then and there declared between the mayor’s office
and the parsonage increased the popularity of the magistrate, who
had hitherto been more or less despised. Rigou, whom the peasants had
disliked for usurious dealings, now suddenly represented their political
and financial interests, supposed to be threatened by the Restoration,
and more especially by the clergy.

A copy of the “Constitutionnel,” that great organ of liberalism, after
making the rounds of the Cafe de la Paix, came back to Rigou on the
seventh day,--the subscription, standing in the name of old Socquard the
keeper of the coffee-house, being shared by twenty persons. Rigou passed
the paper on to Langlume the miller, who, in turn, gave it in shreds to
any one who knew how to read. The “Paris items,” and the anti-religion
jokes of the liberal sheet formed the public opinion of the valley des
Aigues. Rigou, like the _venerable_ Abbe Gregoire, became a hero.
For him, as for certain Parisian bankers, politics spread a mantle of
popularity over his shameful dishonesty.

At this particular time the perjured monk, like Francois Keller the
great orator, was looked upon as a defender of the rights of the
people,--he who, not so very long before, dared not walk in the fields
after dark, lest he should stumble into pitfalls where he would seem to
have been killed by accident! Persecute a man politically and you not
only magnify him, but you redeem his past and make it innocent. The
liberal party was a great worker of miracles in this respect. Its
dangerous journal, which had the wit to make itself as commonplace, as
calumniating, as credulous, and as sillily perfidious as every audience
made up the general masses, did in all probability as much injury to
private interests as it did to those of the Church.

Rigou flattered himself that he should find in a Bonapartist general
now laid on the shelf, in a son of the people raised from nothing by
the Revolution, a sound enemy to the Bourbons and the priests. But the
general, bearing in mind his private ambitions, so arranged matters as
to evade the visit of Monsieur and Madame Rigou when he first came to
Les Aigues.

When you have become better acquainted with the terrible character of
Rigou, the lynx of the valley, you will understand the full extent of
the second capital blunder which the general’s aristocratic ambitions
led him to commit, and which the countess made all the greater by an
offence which will be described in the further history of Rigou.

If Montcornet had courted the mayor’s good-will, if he had sought his
friendship, perhaps the influence of the renegade might have neutralized
that of Gaubertin. Far from that, three suits were now pending in the
courts of Ville-aux-Fayes between the general and the ex-monk. Until the
present time the general had been so absorbed in his personal interests
and in his marriage that he had never remembered Rigou, but when
Sibilet advised him to get himself made mayor in Rigou’s place, he took
post-horses and went to see the prefect.

The prefect, Comte Martial de la Roche-Hugon, had been a friend of the
general since 1804; and it was a word from him said to Montcornet in a
conversation in Paris, which brought about the purchase of Les Aigues.
Comte Martial, a prefect under Napoleon, remained a prefect under the
Bourbons, and courted the bishop to retain his place. Now it happened
that Monseigneur had several times requested him to get rid of Rigou.
Martial, to whom the condition of the district was perfectly well known,
was delighted with the general’s request; so that in less than a month
the Comte de Montcornet was mayor of Blangy.

By one of those accidents which come about naturally, the general met,
while at the prefecture where his friend put him up, a non-commissioned
officer of the ex-Imperial guard, who had been cheated out of his
retiring pension. The general had already, under other circumstances,
done a service to the brave cavalryman, whose name was Groison; the
man, remembering it, now told him his troubles, admitting that he was
penniless. The general promised to get him his pension, and proposed
that he should take the place of field-keeper to the district of Blangy,
as a way of paying off his score of gratitude by devotion to the
new mayor’s interests. The appointments of master and man were made
simultaneously, and the general gave, as may be supposed, very firm
instructions to his subordinate.

Vaudoyer, the displaced keeper, a peasant on the Ronquerolles estate,
was only fit, like most field-keepers, to stalk about, and gossip, and
let himself be petted by the poor of the district, who asked nothing
better than to corrupt at subaltern authority,--the advanced guard, as
it were, of the land-owners. He knew Soudry, the brigadier at
Soulanges, for brigadiers of gendarmerie, performing functions that are
semi-judicial in drawing up criminal indictments, have much to do with
the rural keepers, who are, in fact, their natural spies. Soudry,
being appealed to, sent Vaudoyer to Gaubertin, who received his old
acquaintance very cordially, and invited him to drink while listening to
the recital of his troubles.

“My dear friend,” said the mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes, who could talk to
every man in his own language, “what has happened to you is likely
to happen to us all. The nobles are back upon us. The men to whom the
Emperor gave titles make common cause with the old nobility. They all
want to crush the people, re-establish their former rights and take
our property from us. But we are Burgundians; we must resist, and drive
those Arminacs back to Paris. Return to Blangy; you shall be agent for
Monsieur Polissard, the wood-merchant, who is contractor for the forest
of Ronquerolles. Don’t be uneasy, my lad; I’ll find you enough to do for
the whole of the coming year. But remember one thing; the wood is for
ourselves! Not a single depredation, or the thing is at an end. Send
all interlopers to Les Aigues. If there’s brush or fagots to sell make
people buy ours; don’t let them buy of Les Aigues. You’ll get back
to your place as field-keeper before long; this thing can’t last. The
general will get sick of living among thieves. Did you know that
that Shopman called me a thief, me!--son of the stanchest and most
incorruptible of republicans; me!--the son in law of Mouchon, that
famous representative of the people, who died without leaving me enough
to bury him?”

The general raised the salary of the new field-keeper to three hundred
francs; and built a town-hall, in which he gave him a residence. Then he
married him to a daughter of one of his tenant-farmers, who had lately
died, leaving her an orphan with three acres of vineyard. Groison
attached himself to the general as a dog to his master. This legitimate
fidelity was admitted by the whole community. The keeper was feared and
respected, but like the captain of a vessel whose ship’s company hate
him; the peasantry shunned him as they would a leper. Met either in
silence or with sarcasms veiled under a show of good-humor, the new
keeper was a sentinel watched by other sentinels. He could do nothing
against such numbers. The delinquents took delight in plotting
depredations which it was impossible for him to prove, and the old
soldier grew furious at his helplessness. Groison found the excitement
of a war of factions in his duties, and all the pleasures of the
chase,--a chase after petty delinquents. Trained in real war to a
loyalty which consists in part of playing a fair game, this enemy of
traitors came at last to hate these people, so treacherous in their
conspiracies, and so clever in their thefts that they mortified his
self-esteem. He soon observed that the depredations were committed
only at Les Aigues; all the other estates were respected. At first
he despised a peasantry ungrateful enough to pillage a general of the
Empire, an essentially kind and generous man; presently, however, he
added hatred to contempt. But multiply himself as he would, he could
not be everywhere, and the enemy pillaged everywhere that he was not.
Groison made the general understand that it was necessary to organize
the defence on a war footing, and proved to him the insufficiency of his
own devoted efforts and the evil disposition of the inhabitants of the
valley.

“There is something behind it all, general,” he said; “these people are
so bold they fear nothing; they seem to rely on the favor of the good
God.”

“We shall see,” replied the count.

Fatal word! The verb “to see” has no future tense for politicians.

At the moment, Montcornet was considering another difficulty, which
seemed to him more pressing. He needed an alter ego to do his work in
the mayor’s office during the months he lived in Paris. Obliged to find
some man who knew how to read and write for the position of assistant
mayor, he knew of none and could hear of none throughout the district
but Langlume, the tenant of his own flour-mill. The choice was
disastrous. Not only were the interests of mayor and miller
diametrically opposed, but Langlume had long hatched swindling projects
with Rigou, who lent him money to carry on his business, or to acquire
property. The miller had bought the right to the hay of certain fields
for his horses, and Sibilet could not sell it except to him. The hay of
all the fields in the district was sold at better prices than that of
Les Aigues, though the yield of the latter was the best.

Langlume, then, became the provisional mayor; but in France the
provisional is eternal,--though Frenchmen are suspected of loving
change. Acting by Rigou’s advice, he played a part of great devotion to
the general; and he was still assistant-mayor at the moment when, by the
omnipotence of the historian, this drama begins.

In the absence of the mayor, Rigou, necessarily a member of the
district council, reigned supreme, and brought forward resolutions all
injuriously affecting the general. At one time he caused money to be
spent for purposes that were profitable to the peasants only,--the
greater part of the expenses falling upon Les Aigues, which, by reason
of its great extent, paid two thirds of the taxes; at other times the
council refused, under his influence, certain useful and necessary
allowances, such as an increase in salary for the abbe, repairs or
improvements to the parsonage, or “wages” to the school-master.

“If the peasants once know how to read and write, what will become of
us?” said Langlume, naively, to the general, to excuse this anti-liberal
action taken against a brother of the Christian Doctrine whom the Abbe
Brossette wished to establish as a public school-master in Blangy.

The general, delighted with his old Groison, returned to Paris and
immediately looked about him for other old soldiers of the late imperial
guard, with whom to organize the defence of Les Aigues on a formidable
footing. By dint of searching out and questioning his friends and many
officers on half-pay, he unearthed Michaud, a former quartermaster at
headquarters of the cuirassiers of the guard; one of those men whom
troopers call “hard-to-cook,” a nickname derived from the mess kitchen
where refractory beans are not uncommon. Michaud picked out from among
his friends and acquaintances, three other men fit to be his helpers,
and able to guard the estate without fear and without reproach.

The first, named Steingel, a pure-blooded Alsacian, was a natural son of
the general of that name, who fell in one of Bonaparte’s first victories
with the army of Italy. Tall and strong, he belonged to the class
of soldiers accustomed, like the Russians, to obey, passively and
absolutely. Nothing hindered him in the performance of his duty; he
would have collared an emperor or a pope if such were his orders. He
ignored danger. Perfectly fearless, he had never received the smallest
scratch during his sixteen years’ campaigning. He slept in the open
air or in his bed with stoical indifference. At any increased labor or
discomfort, he merely remarked, “It seems to be the order of the day.”

The second man, Vatel, son of the regiment, corporal of voltigeurs,
gay as a lark, rather free and easy with the fair sex, brave to
foolhardiness, was capable of shooting a comrade with a laugh if ordered
to execute him. With no future before him and not knowing how to employ
himself, the prospect of finding an amusing little war in the functions
of keeper, attracted him; and as the grand army and the Emperor had
hitherto stood him in place of a religion, so now he swore to serve the
brave Montcornet against and through all and everything. His nature was
of that essentially wrangling quality to which a life without enemies
seems dull and objectless,--the nature, in short, of a litigant, or a
policeman. If it had not been for the presence of the sheriff’s officer,
he would have seized Tonsard and the bundle of wood at the Grand-I-Vert,
snapping his fingers at the law on the inviolability of a man’s
domicile.

The third man, Gaillard, also an old soldier, risen to the rank of
sub-lieutenant, and covered with wounds, belonged to the class of
mechanical soldiers. The fate of the Emperor never left his mind and
he became indifferent to everything else. With the care of a natural
daughter on his hands, he accepted the place that was now offered to him
as a means of subsistence, taking it as he would have taken service in a
regiment.

When the general reached Les Aigues, whither he had gone in advance
of his troopers, intending to send away Courtecuisse, he was amazed at
discovering the impudent audacity with which the keeper had fulfilled
his commands. There is a method of obeying which makes the obedience of
the servant a cutting sarcasm on the master’s order. But all things
in this world can be reduced to absurdity, and Courtecuisse in this
instance went beyond its limits.

One hundred and twenty-six indictments against depredators (most of whom
were in collusion with Courtecuisse) and sworn to before the justice
court of Soulanges, had resulted in sixty-nine commitments for trial,
in virtue of which Brunet, the sheriff’s officer, delighted at such a
windfall of fees, had rigorously enforced the warrants in such a way
as to bring about what is called, in legal language, a declaration of
insolvency; a condition of pauperism where the law becomes of course
powerless. By this declaration the sheriff proves that the defendant
possesses no property of any kind, and is therefore a pauper. Where
there is absolutely nothing, the creditor, like the king, loses
his right to sue. The paupers in this case, carefully selected by
Courtecuisse, were scattered through five neighboring districts, whither
Brunet betook himself duly attended by his satellites, Vermichel and
Fourchon, to serve the writs. Later he transmitted the papers to Sibilet
with a bill of costs for five thousand francs, requesting him to obtain
the further orders of Monsieur le comte de Montcornet.

Just as Sibilet, armed with these papers, was calmly explaining to the
count the result of the rash orders he had given to Courtecuisse, and
witnessing, as calmly, a burst of the most violent anger a general of
the French cavalry was ever known to indulge in, Courtecuisse entered
to pay his respects to his master and to bring his own account of eleven
hundred francs, the sum to which his promised commission now amounted.
The natural man took the bit in his teeth and ran off with the general,
who totally forgot his coronet and his field rank; he was a trooper once
more, vomiting curses of which he probably was ashamed when he thought
of them later.

“Ha! eleven hundred francs!” he shouted, “eleven hundred slaps in your
face! eleven hundred kicks!--Do you think I can’t see straight through
your lies? Out of my sight, or I’ll strike you flat!”

At the mere look of the general’s purple face and before that warrior
could get out the last words, Courtecuisse was off like a swallow.

“Monsieur le comte,” said Sibilet, gently, “you are wrong.”

“Wrong! I, wrong?”

“Yes, Monsieur le comte, take care, you will have trouble with that
rascal; he will sue you.”

“What do I care for that? Tell the scoundrel to leave the place
instantly! See that he takes nothing of mine, and pay him his wages.”

Four hours later the whole country-side was gossiping about this scene.
The general, they said, had assaulted the unfortunate Courtecuisse, and
refused to pay his wages and two thousand francs besides, which he owed
him. Extraordinary stories went the rounds, and the master of Les
Aigues was declared insane. The next day Brunet, who had served all the
warrants for the general, now brought him on behalf of Courtecuisse a
summon to appear before the police court. The lion was stung by gnats;
but his misery was only just beginning.

The installation of a keeper is not done without a few formalities; he
must, for instance, file an oath in the civil court. Some days therefore
elapsed before the three keepers really entered upon their functions.
Though the general had written to Michaud to bring his wife without
waiting until the lodge at the gate of the Avonne was ready for them,
the future head-keeper, or rather bailiff, was detained in Paris by his
marriage and his wife’s family, and did not reach Les Aigues until
a fortnight later. During those two weeks, and during the time still
further required for certain formalities which were carried out with
very ill grace by the authorities at Ville-aux-Fayes, the forest of Les
Aigues was shamefully devastated by the peasantry, who took advantage of
the fact that there was practically no watch over it.

The appearance of three keepers handsomely dressed in green cloth,
the Emperor’s color, with faces denoting firmness, and each of them
well-made, active, and capable of spending their nights in the woods,
was a great event in the valley, from Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes.

Throughout the district Groison was the only man who welcomed these
veterans. Delighted to be thus reinforced, he let fall a few threats
against thieves, who before long, he said, would be watched so closely
that they could do no damage. Thus the usual proclamation of all great
commanders was not lacking to the present war; in this case it was said
aloud and also whispered in secret.

Sibilet called the general’s attention to the fact that the gendarmerie
of Soulanges, and especially its brigadier, Soudry, were thoroughly and
hypocritically hostile to Les Aigues. He made him see the importance of
substituting another brigade, which might show a better spirit.

“With a good brigadier and a company of gendarmes devoted to your
interests, you could manage the country,” he said to him.

The general went to the Prefecture and obtained from the general in
command of the division the retirement of Soudry and the substitution of
a man named Viallet, an excellent gendarme at headquarters, who was
much praised by his general and the prefect. The company of gendarmes
at Soulanges were dispersed to other places in the department by the
colonel of the gendarmerie, an old friend of Montcornet, and chosen
men were put in their places with secret orders to keep watch over the
estate of the Comte de Montcornet, and prevent all future attempts to
injure it; they were also particularly enjoined not to allow themselves
to be gained over by the inhabitants of Soulanges.

This last revolutionary measure, carried out with such rapidity that
there was no possibility of countermining it created much astonishment
in Soulanges and in Ville-aux-Fayes. Soudry, who felt himself dismissed,
complained bitterly, and Gaubertin managed to get him appointed mayor,
which put the gendarmerie under his orders. An outcry was made about
tyranny. Montcornet became an object of general hatred. Not only were
five or six lives radically changed by him, but many personal vanities
were wounded. The peasants, taking their cue from words dropped by
the small tradesmen of Ville-aux-Fayes and Soulanges, and by Rigou,
Langlume, Guerbet, and the postmaster at Conches, thought they were on
the eve of losing what they called their rights.

The general stopped the suit brought by Courtecuisse by paying him all
he demanded. The man then purchased, nominally for two thousand francs,
a little property surrounded on all sides but one by the estate of Les
Aigues,--a sort of cover into which the game escaped. Rigou, the owner,
had never been willing to part with La Bachelerie, as it was called,
to the possessors of the estate, but he now took malicious pleasure in
selling it, at fifty per cent discount, to Courtecuisse; which made the
ex-keeper one of Rigou’s numerous henchmen, for all he actually paid for
the property was one thousand francs.

The three keepers, with Michaud the bailiff, and Groison the
field-keeper of Blangy, led henceforth the life of guerrillas. Living
night and day in the forest, they soon acquired that deep knowledge of
woodland things which becomes a science among foresters, saving them
much loss of time; they studied the tracks of animals, the species of
the trees, and their habits of growth, training their ears to every
sound and to every murmur of the woods. Still further, they observed
faces, watched and understood the different families in the various
villages of the district, and knew the individuals in each family, their
habits, characters, and means of living,--a far more difficult matter
than most persons suppose. When the peasants who obtained their living
from Les Aigues saw these well-planned measures of defence, they met
them with dumb resistance or sneering submission.

From the first, Michaud and Sibilet mutually disliked each other. The
frank and loyal soldier, with the sense of honor of a subaltern of the
young “garde,” hated the servile brutality and the discontented spirit
of the steward. He soon took note of the objections with which Sibilet
opposed all measures that were really judicious, and the reasons he
gave for those that were questionable. Instead of calming the general,
Sibilet, as the reader has already seen, constantly excited him and
drove him to harsh measures, all the while trying to daunt him by
drawing his attention to countless annoyances, petty vexations, and
ever-recurring and unconquerable difficulties. Without suspecting the
role of spy and exasperator undertaken by Sibilet (who secretly intended
to eventually make choice in his own interests between Gaubertin and the
general) Michaud felt that the steward’s nature was bad and grasping,
and he was unable to explain to himself its apparent honesty. The enmity
which separated the two functionaries was satisfactory to the general.
Michaud’s hatred led him to watch the steward, though he would not have
condescended to play the part of spy if the general had not required it.
Sibilet fawned upon the bailiff and flattered him, without being able
to get anything from him beyond an extreme politeness which the loyal
soldier established between them as a barrier.

Now, all preliminary details having been made known, the reader will
understand the conduct of the general’s enemies and the meaning of the
conversation which he had with what he called his two ministers, after
Madame de Montcornet, the abbe, and Blondet left the breakfast-table.



CHAPTER IX. CONCERNING THE MEDIOCRACY


“Well, Michaud, what’s the news?” asked the general as soon as his wife
had left the room.

“General, if you will permit me to say so, it would be better not to
talk over matters in this room. Walls have ears, and I should like to be
certain that what we say reaches none but our own.”

“Very good,” said the general, “then let us walk towards the steward’s
lodge by the path through the fields; no one can overhear us there.”

A few moments later the general, with Michaud and Sibilet, was crossing
the meadows, while Madame de Montcornet, with the abbe and Blondet, was
on her way to the gate of the Avonne.

Michaud related the scene that had just taken place at the Grand-I-Vert.

“Vatel did wrong,” said Sibilet.

“They made that plain to him at once,” replied Michaud, “by blinding
him; but that’s nothing. General, you remember the plan we agreed
upon,--to seize the cattle of those depredators against whom judgment
was given? Well, we can’t do it. Brunet, like his colleague Plissoud, is
not loyal in his support. They both warn the delinquents when they are
about to make a seizure. Vermichel, Brunet’s assistant, went to the
Grand-I-Vert this morning, ostensibly after Pere Fourchon; and Marie
Tonsard, who is intimate with Bonnebault, ran off at once to give the
alarm at Conches. The depredations have begun again.”

“A strong show of authority is becoming daily more and more necessary,”
 said Sibilet.

“What did I tell you?” cried the general. “We must demand the
enforcement of the judgment of the court, which carried with it
imprisonment; we must arrest for debt all those who do not pay the
damages I have won and the costs of the suits.”

“These fellows imagine the law is powerless, and tell each other that
you dare not arrest them,” said Sibilet. “They think they frighten you!
They have confederates at Ville-aux-Fayes; for even the prosecuting
attorney seems to have ignored the verdicts against them.”

“I think,” said Michaud, seeing that the general looked thoughtful,
“that if you are willing to spend a good deal of money you can still
protect the property.”

“It is better to spend money than to act harshly,” remarked Sibilet.

“What is your plan?” asked the general of his bailiff.

“It is very simple,” said Michaud. “Inclose the whole forest with walls,
like those of the park, and you will be safe; the slightest depredation
then becomes a criminal offence and is taken to the assizes.”

“At a franc and a half the square foot for the material only, Monsieur
le comte would find his wall would cost him a third of the whole value
of Les Aigues,” said Sibilet, with a laugh.

“Well, well,” said Montcornet, “I shall go and see the attorney-general
at once.”

“The attorney-general,” remarked Sibilet, gently, “may perhaps share the
opinion of his subordinate; for the negligence shown by the latter is
probably the result of an agreement between them.”

“Then I wish to know it!” cried Montcornet. “If I have to get the whole
of them turned out, judges, civil authorities, and the attorney-general
to boot, I’ll do it; I’ll go the Keeper of the Seals, or to the king
himself.”

At a vehement sign made by Michaud the general stopped short and said
to Sibilet, as he turned to retrace his steps, “Good day, my dear
fellow,”--words which the steward understood.

“Does Monsieur le comte intend, as mayor, to enforce the necessary
measures to repress the abuse of gleaning?” he said, respectfully.
“The harvest is coming on, and if we are to publish the statutes about
certificates of pauperism and the prevention of paupers from other
districts gleaning our land, there is no time to be lost.”

“Do it at once, and arrange with Groison,” said the count. “With such a
class of people,” he added, “we must follow out the law.”

So, without a moment’s reflection, Montcornet gave in to a measure that
Sibilet had been proposing to him for more than a fortnight, to which
he had hitherto refused to consent; but now, in the violence of anger
caused by Vatel’s mishap, he instantly adopted it as the right thing to
do.

When Sibilet was at some distance the general said in a low voice to his
bailiff:--

“Well, my dear Michaud, what is it; why did you make me that sign?”

“You have an enemy within the walls, general, yet you tell him plans
which you ought not to confide even to the secret police.”

“I share your suspicions, my dear friend,” replied Montcornet, “but I
don’t intend to commit the same fault twice over. I shall not part with
another steward till I’m sure of a better. I am waiting to get rid of
Sibilet, till you understand the business of steward well enough to
take his place, and till Vatel is fit to succeed you. And yet, I have
no ground of complaint against Sibilet. He is honest and punctual in
all his dealings; he hasn’t kept back a hundred francs in all these five
years. He has a perfectly detestable nature, and that’s all one can say
against him. If it were otherwise, what would be his plan in acting as
he does?”

“General,” said Michaud, gravely, “I will find out, for undoubtedly
he has one; and if you would only allow it, a good bribe to that old
scoundrel Fourchon will enable me to get at the truth; though after what
he said just now I suspect the old fellow of having more secrets than
one in his pouch. That swindling old cordwainer told me himself they
want to drive you from Les Aigues. And let me tell you, for you ought to
know it, that from Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes there is not a peasant, a
petty tradesman, a farmer, a tavern-keeper who isn’t laying by his money
to buy a bit of the estate. Fourchon confided to me that Tonsard has
already put in his claim. The idea that you can be forced to sell Les
Aigues has gone from end to end of the valley like an infection in the
air. It may be that the steward’s present house, with some adjoining
land, will be the price paid for Sibilet’s spying. Nothing is ever said
among us that is not immediately known at Ville-aux-Fayes. Sibilet is
a relative of your enemy Gaubertin. What you have just said about the
attorney-general and the others will probably be reported before you
have reached the Prefecture. You don’t know what the inhabitants of this
district are.”

“Don’t I know them? I know they are the scum of the earth! Do you
suppose I am going to yield to such blackguards?” cried the general.
“Good heavens, I’d rather burn Les Aigues myself!”

“No need to burn it; let us adopt a line of conduct which will baffle
the schemes of these Lilliputians. Judging by threats, general, they
are resolved on war to the knife against you; and therefore since you
mention incendiarism, let me beg of you to insure all your buildings,
and all your farmhouses.”

“Michaud, do you know whom they mean by ‘Shopman’? Yesterday, as I was
riding along by the Thune, I heard some little rascals cry out, ‘The
Shopman! here’s the Shopman!’ and then they ran away.”

“Ask Sibilet; the answer is in his line, he likes to make you
angry,” said Michaud, with a pained look. “But--if you will have an
answer--well, that’s a nickname these brigands have given you, general.”

“What does it mean?”

“It means, general--well, it refers to your father.”

“Ha! the curs!” cried the count, turning livid. “Yes, Michaud, my father
was a shopkeeper, an upholsterer; the countess doesn’t know it. Oh!
that I should ever--well! after all, I have waltzed with queens and
empresses. I’ll tell her this very night,” he cried, after a pause.

“They also call you a coward,” continued Michaud.

“Ha!”

“They ask how you managed to save yourself at Essling when nearly all
your comrades perished.”

The accusation brought a smile to the general’s lips. “Michaud, I shall
go at once to the Prefecture!” he cried, with a sort of fury, “if it
is only to get the policies of insurance you ask for. Let Madame la
comtesse know that I have gone. Ha, ha! they want war, do they? Well,
they shall have it; I’ll take my pleasure in thwarting them,--every one
of them, those bourgeois of Soulanges, and their peasantry! We are in
the enemy’s country, therefore prudence! Tell the foresters to keep
within the limits of the law. Poor Vatel, take care of him. The countess
is inclined to be timid; she must know nothing of all this; otherwise I
could never get her to come back here.”

Neither the general nor Michaud understood their real peril. Michaud had
been too short a time in this Burgundian valley to realize the enemy’s
power, though he saw its action. The general, for his part, believed in
the supremacy of the law.

The law, such as the legislature of these days manufactures it, has not
the virtue we attribute to it. It strikes unequally; it is so modified
in many of its modes of application that it virtually refutes its own
principles. This fact may be noted more or less distinctly throughout
all ages. Is there any historian ignorant enough to assert that the
decrees of the most vigilant of powers were ever enforced throughout
France?--for instance, that the requisitions of the Convention for
men, commodities, and money were obeyed in Provence, in the depths of
Normandy, on the borders of Brittany, as they were at the great centres
of social life? What philosopher dares deny that a head falls to-day in
such or such department, while in a neighboring department another head
stays on its shoulders though guilty of a crime identically the same,
and often more horrible? We ask for equality in life, and inequality
reigns in law and in the death penalty!

When the population of a town falls below a certain figure the
administrative system is no longer the same. There are perhaps a hundred
cities in France where the laws are vigorously enforced, and there the
intelligence of the citizens rises to the conception of the problem of
public welfare and future security which the law seeks to solve; but
throughout the rest of France nothing is comprehended beyond immediate
gratification; people rebel against all that lessens it. Therefore in
nearly one half of France we find a power of inertia which defeats all
legal action, both municipal and governmental. This resistance, be it
understood, does not affect the essential things of public polity.
The collection of taxes, recruiting, punishment of great crimes, as a
general thing do systematically go on; but outside of such recognized
necessities, all legislative decrees which affect customs, morals,
private interests, and certain abuses, are a dead letter, owing to the
sullen opposition of the people. At the very moment when this book
is going to press, this dumb resistance, which opposed Louis XIV. in
Brittany, may still be seen and felt. See the unfortunate results of
the game-laws, to which we are now sacrificing yearly the lives of some
twenty or thirty men for the sake of preserving a few animals.

In France the law is, to at least twenty million of inhabitants, nothing
more than a bit of white paper posted on the doors of the church and the
town-hall. That gives rise to the term “papers,” which Mouche used to
express legality. Many mayors of cantons (not to speak of the district
mayors) put up their bundles of seeds and herbs with the printed
statutes. As for the district mayors, the number of those who do not
know how to read and write is really alarming, and the manner in which
the civil records are kept is even more so. The danger of this state of
things, well-known to the governing powers, is doubtless diminishing;
but what centralization (against which every one declaims, as it is
the fashion in France to declaim against all things good and useful and
strong),--what centralization cannot touch, the Power against which it
will forever fling itself in vain, is that which the general was now
about to attack, and which we shall take leave to call the Mediocracy.

A great outcry was made against the tyranny of the nobles; in these days
the cry is against that of capitalists, against abuses of power, which
may be merely the inevitable galling of the social yoke, called Compact
by Rousseau, Constitution by some, Charter by others; Czar here,
King there, Parliament in Great Britain; while in France the general
levelling begun in 1789 and continued in 1830 has paved the way for the
juggling dominion of the middle classes, and delivered the nation
into their hands without escape. The portrayal of one fact alone,
unfortunately only too common in these days, namely, the subjection of
a canton, a little town, a sub-prefecture, to the will of a family
clique,--in short, the power acquired by Gaubertin,--will show this
social danger better than all dogmatic statements put together. Many
oppressed communities will recognize the truth of this picture; many
persons secretly and silently crushed by this tyranny will find in these
words an obituary, as it were, which may half console them for their
hidden woes.

At the very moment when the general imagined himself to be renewing a
warfare in which there had really been no truce, his former steward had
just completed the last meshes of the net-work in which he now held the
whole arrondissement of Ville-aux-Fayes. To avoid too many explanations
it is necessary to state, once for all, succinctly, the genealogical
ramifications by means of which Gaubertin wound himself about the
country, as a boa-constrictor winds around a tree,--with such art that a
passing traveller thinks he beholds some natural effect of the tropical
vegetation.

In 1793 there were three brothers of the name of Mouchon in the valley
of the Avonne. After 1793 they changed the name of the valley to that of
the Valley des Aigues, out of hatred to the old nobility.

The eldest brother, steward of the property of the Ronquerolles family,
was elected deputy of the department to the Convention. Like his
friend, Gaubertin’s father, the prosecutor of those days, who saved
the Soulanges family, he saved the property and the lives of the
Ronquerolles. He had two daughters; one married to Gendrin, the lawyer,
the other to Gaubertin. He died in 1804.

The second, through the influence of his elder brother, was made
postmaster at Conches. His only child was a daughter, married to a rich
farmer named Guerbet. He died in 1817.

The last of the Mouchons, who was a priest, and the curate of
Ville-aux-Fayes before the Revolution, was again a priest after the
re-establishment of Catholic worship, and again the curate of the same
little town. He was not willing to take the oath, and was hidden for a
long time in the hermitage of Les Aigues, under the protection of the
Gaubertins, father and son. Now about sixty-seven years of age, he was
treated with universal respect and affection, owing to the harmony of
his nature with that of the inhabitants. Parsimonious to the verge of
avarice, he was thought to be rich, and the credit of being so increased
the respect that was shown to him. Monseigneur the bishop paid the
greatest attention to the Abbe Mouchon, who was always spoken of as the
venerable curate of Ville-aux-Fayes; and the fact that he had several
times refused to go and live in a splendid parsonage attached to the
Prefecture, where Monseigneur wished to settle him, made him dearer
still to his people.

Gaubertin, now mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes, received steady support from
his brother-in-law Gendrin, who was judge of the municipal court.
Gaubertin the younger, the solicitor who had the most practice before
this court and much repute in the arrondissement, was already thinking
of selling his practice after five years’ exercise of it. He wanted
to succeed his Uncle Gendrin as counsellor whenever the latter should
retire from the profession. Gendrin’s only son was commissioner of
mortgages.

Soudry’s son, who for the last two years had been prosecuting-attorney
at the prefecture, was Gaubertin’s henchman. The clever Madame Soudry
had secured the future of her husband’s son by marrying him to Rigou’s
only daughter. The united fortunes of the Soudrys and the ex-monk, which
would come eventually to the attorney, made that young man one of the
most important personages of the department.

The sub-prefect of Ville-aux-Fayes, Monsieur des Lupeaulx, nephew of the
general-secretary of one of the most important ministries in Paris, was
the prospective husband of Mademoiselle Elise Gaubertin, the mayor’s
youngest daughter, whose dowry, like that of her elder sister, was
two hundred thousand francs, not to speak of “expectations.” This
functionary showed much sense, though not aware of it, in falling in
love with Mademoiselle Elise when he first arrived at Ville-aux-Fayes,
in 1819. If it had not been for his social position, which made him
“eligible,” he would long ago have been forced to ask for his exchange.
But Gaubertin in marrying him to his daughter thought much more of the
uncle, the general-secretary, than of the nephew; and in return, the
uncle, for the sake of his nephew, gave all his influence to Gaubertin.

Thus the Church, the magistracy both removable and irremovable, the
municipality, and the prefecture, the four feet of power, walked as the
mayor pleased. Let us now see how that functionary strengthened himself
in the spheres above and below that in which he worked.

The department to which Ville-aux-Fayes belongs is one the number of
whose population gives it the right to elect six deputies. Ever since
the creation of the Left Centre of the Chamber, the arrondissement of
Ville-aux-Fayes had sent a deputy named Leclercq, formerly banking agent
of the wine department of the custom-house, a son-in-law of Gaubertin,
and now a governor of the Bank of France. The number of electors which
this rich valley sent to the electoral college was sufficient to insure,
if only through private dealing, the constant appointment of Monsieur
de Ronquerolles, the patron of the Mouchon family. The voters of
Ville-aux-Fayes lent their support to the prefect, on condition that the
Marquis de Ronquerolles was maintained in the college. Thus Gaubertin,
who was the first to broach the idea of this arrangement, was favorably
received at the Prefecture, which he often, in return, saved from petty
annoyances. The prefect always selected three firm ministerialists,
and two deputies of the Left Centre. The latter, one of them being the
Marquis de Ronquerolles, brother-in-law of the Comte de Serisy, and the
other a governor of the Bank of France, gave little or no alarm to the
cabinet, and the elections in this department were rated excellent at
the ministry of the interior.

The Comte de Soulanges, peer of France, selected to be the next marshal,
and faithful to the Bourbons, knew that his forests and other property
were all well-managed by the notary Lupin, and well-watched by Soudry.
He was a patron of Gendrin’s, having obtained his appointment as judge
partly by the help of Monsieur de Ronquerolles.

Messieurs Leclercq and de Ronquerolles sat in the Left Centre, but
nearer to the left than to the centre,--a political position which
offers great advantages to those who regard their political conscience
as a garment.

The brother of Monsieur Leclercq had obtained the situation of collector
at Ville-aux-Fayes, and Leclercq himself, Gaubertin’s son-in-law, had
lately bought a fine estate beyond the valley of the Avonne, which
brought him in a rental of thirty thousand francs, with park and chateau
and a controlling influence in its own canton.

Thus, in the upper regions of the State, in both Chambers, and in the
chief ministerial department, Gaubertin could rely on an influence that
was powerful and also active, and which he was careful not to weary with
unimportant requests.

The counsellor Gendrin, appointed judge by the Chamber, was the leading
spirit of the Supreme Court; for the chief justice, one of the three
ministerial deputies, left the management of it to Gendrin during half
the year. The counsel for the Prefecture, a cousin of Sarcus, called
“Sarcus the rich,” was the right-hand man of the prefect, himself a
deputy. Even without the family reasons which allied Gaubertin and young
des Lupeaulx, a brother of Madame Sarcus would still have been desirable
as sub-prefect to the arrondissement of Ville-aux-Fayes. Madame Sarcus,
the counsellor’s wife, was a Vallat of Soulanges, a family connected
with the Gaubertins, and she was said to have “distinguished” the notary
Lupin in her youth. Though she was now forty-five years old, with a son
in the school of engineers, Lupin never went to the Prefecture without
paying his respects and dining with her.

The nephew of Guerbet, the postmaster, whose father was, as we have
seen, collector of Soulanges, held the important situation of examining
judge in the municipal court of Ville-aux-Fayes. The third judge, son of
Corbinet, the notary, belonged body and soul to the all-powerful mayor;
and, finally, young Vigor, son of the lieutenant of the gendarmerie, was
the substitute judge.

Sibilet’s father, sheriff of the court, had married his sister to
Monsieur Vigor the lieutenant, and that individual, father of six
children, was cousin of the father of Gaubertin through his wife, a
Gaubertin-Vallat. Eighteen months previously the united efforts of the
two deputies, Monsieur de Soulanges and Gaubertin, had created the place
of commissary of police for the sheriff’s second son.

Sibilet’s eldest daughter married Monsieur Herve, a school-master, whose
school was transformed into a college as a result of this marriage,
so that for the past year Soulanges had rejoiced in the presence of a
professor.

The sheriff’s youngest son was employed on the government domains, with
the promise of succeeding the clerk of registrations so soon as that
officer had completed the term of service which enabled him to retire on
a pension.

The youngest Sibilet girl, now sixteen years old, was betrothed
to Corbinet, brother of the notary. And an old maid, Mademoiselle
Gaubertin-Vallat, sister of Madame Sibilet, the sheriff’s wife, held the
office for the sale of stamped paper.

Thus, wherever we turn in Ville-aux-Fayes we meet some member of the
invisible coalition, whose avowed chief, recognized as such by every
one, great and small, was the mayor of the town, the general agent for
the entire timber business, Gaubertin!

If we turn to the other end of the valley of the Avonne we shall see
that Gaubertin ruled at Soulanges through the Soudrys, through Lupin the
assistant mayor and steward of the Soulanges estate, who was necessarily
in constant communication with the Comte de Soulanges, through Sarcus,
justice of the peace, through Guerbet, the collector, through Gourdon,
the doctor, who had married a Gendrin-Vatebled. He governed Blangy
through Rigou, Conches through the post-master, the despotic ruler of
his own district.

Gaubertin’s influence was so great and powerful that even the
investments and the savings of Rigou, Soudry, Gendrin, Guerbet, Lupin,
even Sarcus the rich himself, were managed by his advice. The town of
Ville-aux-Fayes believed implicitly in its mayor. Gaubertin’s ability
was not less extolled than his honesty and his kindness; he was the
servant of his relatives and constituents (always with an eye to a
return of benefits), and the whole municipality adored him. The town
never ceased to blame Monsieur Mariotte, of Auxerre, for having opposed
and thwarted that worthy Monsieur Gaubertin.

Not aware of their strength, no occasion for displaying it having
arisen, the bourgeoisie of Ville-aux-Fayes contented themselves with
boasting that no strangers intermeddled in their affairs and they
believed themselves excellent citizens and faithful public servants.
Nothing, however, escaped their despotic rule, which in itself was not
perceived, the result being considered a triumph of the locality.

The only stranger in this family community was the government engineer
in the highway department; and his dismissal in favor of the son of
Sarcus the rich was now being pressed, with a fair chance that this one
weak thread in the net would soon be strengthened. And yet this powerful
league, which monopolized all duties both public and private, sucked the
resources of the region, and fastened on power like limpets to a
ship, escaped all notice so completely that General Montcornet had
no suspicion of it. The prefect boasted of the prosperity of
Ville-aux-Fayes and its arrondissement; even the minister of the
interior was heard to remark: “There’s a model sub-prefecture, which
runs on wheels; we should be lucky indeed if all were like it.” Family
designs were so involved with local interests that here, as in many
other little towns and even prefectures, a functionary who did not
belong to the place would have been forced to resign within a year.

When this despotic middle-class cousinry seizes a victim, he is so
carefully gagged and bound that complaint is impossible; he is
smeared with slime and wax like a snail in a beehive. This invisible,
imperceptible tyranny is upheld by powerful reasons,--such as the wish
to be surrounded by their own family, to keep property in their own
hands, the mutual help they ought to lend each other, the guarantees
given to the administration by the fact that their agent is under the
eyes of his fellow-citizens and neighbors. What does all this lead
to? To the fact that local interests supersede all questions of public
interest; the centralized will of Paris is frequently overthrown in the
provinces, the truth of things is disguised, and country communities
snap their fingers at government. In short, after the main public
necessities have been attended to, it will be seen that the laws,
instead of acting upon the masses, receive their impulse from them; the
populations adapt the law to themselves and not themselves to the law.

Whoever has travelled in the south or west of France, or in Alsace, in
any other way than from inn to inn to see buildings and landscapes, will
surely admit the truth of these remarks. The results of middle-class
nepotism may be, at present, merely isolated evils; but the tendency of
existing laws is to increase them. This low-level despotism can and will
cause great disasters, and the events of the drama about to be played in
the valley of Les Aigues will prove it.

The monarchical and imperial systems, more rashly overthrown than people
realize, remedied these abuses by means of certain consecrated lives,
by classifications and categories and by those particular counterpoises
since so absurdly defined as “privileges.” There are no privileges now,
when every human being is free to climb the greased pole of power. But
surely it would be safer to allow open and avowed privileges than those
which are underhand, based on trickery, subversive of what should be
public spirit, and continuing the work of despotism to a lower and baser
level than heretofore. May we not have overthrown noble tyrants devoted
to their country’s good, to create the tyranny of selfish interests?
Shall power lurk in secret places, instead of radiating from its natural
source? This is worth thinking about. The spirit of local sectionalism,
such as we have now depicted, will soon be seen to invade the Chamber.

Montcornet’s friend, the late prefect, Comte de la Roche-Hugon, had lost
his position just before the last arrival of the general at Les Aigues.
This dismissal drove him into the ranks of the Liberal opposition,
where he became one of the chorus of the Left, a position he soon after
abandoned for an embassy. His successor, luckily for Montcornet, was
a son-in-law of the Marquis de Troisville, uncle of the countess, the
Comte de Casteran. He welcomed Montcornet as a relation and begged
him to continue his intimacy at the Prefecture. After listening to
the general’s complaints the Comte de Casteran invited the bishop, the
attorney-general, the colonel of the gendarmerie, counsellor Sarcus,
and the general commanding the division to meet him the next day at
breakfast.

The attorney-general, Baron Bourlac (so famous in the Chanterie and
Rifael suits), was one of those men well-known to all governments, who
attach themselves to power, no matter in whose hands it is, and who make
themselves invaluable by such devotion. Having owed his elevation in the
first place to his fanaticism for the Emperor, he now owed the
retention of his official rank to his inflexible character and the
conscientiousness with which he fulfilled his duties. He who once
implacably prosecuted the remnant of the Chouans now prosecuted the
Bonapartists as implacably. But years and turmoils had somewhat subdued
his energy and he had now become, like other old devils incarnate,
perfectly charming in manner and ways.

The general explained his position and the fears of his bailiff, and
spoke of the necessity of making an example and enforcing the rights of
property.

The high functionaries listened gravely, making, however, no reply
beyond mere platitudes, such as, “Undoubtedly, the laws must be upheld”;
“Your cause is that of all land-owners”; “We will consider it; but,
situated as we are, prudence is very necessary”; “A monarchy could
certainly do more for the people than the people would do for itself,
even if it were, as in 1793, the sovereign people”; “The masses suffer,
and we are bound to do as much for them as for ourselves.”

The relentless attorney-general expressed such kindly and benevolent
views respecting the condition of the lower classes that our future
Utopians, had they heard him, might have thought that the higher grade
of government officials were already aware of the difficulties of that
problem which modern society will be forced to solve.

It may be well to say here that at this period of the Restoration,
various bloody encounters had taken place in remote parts of the
kingdom, caused by this very question of the pillage of woods, and
the marauding rights which the peasants were everywhere arrogating to
themselves. Neither the government nor the court liked these outbreaks,
nor the shedding of blood which resulted from repression. Though they
felt the necessity of rigorous measures, they nevertheless treated
as blunderers the officials who were compelled to employ them, and
dismissed them on the first pretence. The prefects were therefore
anxious to shuffle out of such difficulties whenever possible.

At the very beginning of the conversation Sarcus (the rich) had made a
sign to the prefect and the attorney-general which Montcornet did not
see, but which set the tone of the discussion. The attorney-general was
well aware of the state of mind of the inhabitants of the valley des
Aigues through his subordinate, Soudry the young attorney.

“I foresee a terrible struggle,” the latter had said to him. “They mean
to kill the gendarmes; my spies tell me so. It will be very hard to
convict them for it. The instant the jury feel they are incurring the
hatred of the friends of the twenty or thirty prisoners, they will not
sustain us,--we could not get them to convict for death, nor even for
the galleys. Possibly by prosecuting in person you might get a few
years’ imprisonment for the actual murderers. Better shut our eyes
than open them, if by opening them we bring on a collision which costs
bloodshed and several thousand francs to the State,--not to speak of the
cost of keeping the guilty in prison. It is too high a price to pay for
a victory which will only reveal our judicial weakness to the eyes of
all.”

Montcornet, who was wholly without suspicion of the strength and
influence of the Mediocracy in his happy valley, did not even mention
Gaubertin, whose hand kept these embers of opposition always alive,
though smouldering. After breakfast the attorney-general took Montcornet
by the arm and led him to the Prefect’s study. When the general left
that room after their conference, he wrote to his wife that he was
starting for Paris and should be absent a week. We shall see, after
the execution of certain measures suggested by Baron Bourlac, the
attorney-general, whether the secret advice he gave to Montcornet was
wise, and whether in conforming to it the count and Les Aigues were
enabled to escape the “Evil grudge.”

Some minds, eager for mere amusement, will complain that these various
explanations are far too long; but we once more call attention to the
fact that the historian of the manners, customs, and morals of his time
must obey a law far more stringent than that imposed on the historian of
mere facts. He must show the probability of everything, even the truth;
whereas, in the domain of history, properly so-called, the impossible
must be accepted for the sole reason that it did happen. The
vicissitudes of social or private life are brought about by a crowd of
little causes derived from a thousand conditions. The man of science
is forced to clear away the avalanche under which whole villages lie
buried, to show you the pebbles brought down from the summit which alone
can determine the formation of the mountain. If the historian of human
life were simply telling you of a suicide, five hundred of which occur
yearly in Paris, the melodrama is so commonplace that brief reasons and
explanations are all that need be given; but how shall he make you see
that the self-destruction of an estate could happen in these days when
property is reckoned of more value than life? “De re vestra agitur,”
 said a maker of fables; this tale concerns the affairs and interests of
all those, no matter who they be, who possess anything.

Remember that this coalition of a whole canton and of a little town
against a general, who, in spite of his rash courage, had escaped the
dangers of actual war, is going on in other districts against other men
who seek only to do what is right by those districts. It is a coalition
which to-day threatens every man, the man of genius, the statesman, the
modern agriculturalist,--in short, all innovators.

This last explanation not only gives a true presentation of the
personages of this drama, and a serious meaning even to its petty
details, but it also throws a vivid light upon the scene where so many
social interests are now marshalling.



CHAPTER X. THE SADNESS OF A HAPPY WOMAN


At the moment when the general was getting into his caleche to go to the
Prefecture, the countess and the two gentlemen reached the gate of the
Avonne, where, for the last eighteen months, Michaud and his wife Olympe
had made their home.

Whose remembered the pavilion in the state in which we lately described
it would have supposed it had been rebuilt. The bricks fallen or broken
by time, and the cement lacking to their edges, were replaced; the slate
roof had been cleaned, and the effect of the white balustrade against
its bluish background restored the gay character of the architecture.
The approaches to the building, formerly choked up and sandy, were now
cared for by the man whose duty it was to keep the park roadways
in order. The poultry-yard, stables, and cow-shed, relegated to the
buildings near the pheasantry and hidden by clumps of trees, instead
of afflicting the eye with their foul details, now blended those soft
murmurs and cooings and the sound of flapping wings, which are among
the most delightful accompaniments of Nature’s eternal harmony, with the
peculiar rustling sounds of the forest. The whole scene possessed the
double charm of a natural, untouched forest and the elegance of an
English park. The surroundings of the pavilion, in keeping with its
own exterior, presented a certain noble, dignified, and cordial effect;
while the hand of a young and happy woman gave to its interior a
very different look from what it wore under the coarse neglect of
Courtecuisse.

Just now the rich season of the year was putting forth its natural
splendors. The perfume of the flowerbeds blended with the wild odor of
the woods; and the meadows near by, where the grass had been lately cut,
sent up the fragrance of new-mown hay.

When the countess and her guests reached the end of one of the winding
paths which led to the pavilion, they saw Madame Michaud, sitting in the
open air before the door, employed in making a baby’s garment. The young
woman thus placed, thus employed, added the human charm that was needed
to complete the scene,--a charm so touching in its actuality that
painters have committed the error of endeavoring to convey it in their
pictures. Such artists forget that the SOUL of a landscape, if they
represent it truly, is so grand that the human element is crushed by it;
whereas such a scene added to Nature limits her to the proportions
of the personality, like a frame to which the mind of the spectator
confines it. When Poussin, the Raffaelle of France, made a landscape
accessory to his Shepherds of Arcadia he perceived plainly enough that
man becomes diminutive and abject when Nature is made the principal
feature on a canvas. In that picture August is in its glory, the harvest
is ready, all simple and strong human interests are represented. There
we find realized in nature the dream of many men whose uncertain life of
mingled good and evil harshly mixed makes them long for peace and rest.

Let us now relate, in few words, the romance of this home. Justin
Michaud did not reply very cordially to the advances made to him by the
illustrious colonel of cuirassiers when first offered the situation of
bailiff at Les Aigues. He was then thinking of re-entering the service.
But while the negotiations, which naturally took him to the Hotel
Montcornet, were going on, he met the countess’s head waiting-maid. This
young girl, who was entrusted to Madame de Montcornet by her parents,
worthy farmers in the neighborhood of Alencon, had hopes of a little
fortune, some twenty or thirty thousand francs, when the heirs were all
of age. Like other farmers who marry young, and whose own parents are
still living, the father and mother of the girl, being pinched
for immediate means, placed her with the young countess. Madame de
Montcornet had her taught to sew and to make dresses, arranged that she
should take her meals alone, and was rewarded for the care she bestowed
on Olympe Charel by one of those unconditional attachments which are so
precious to Parisians.

Olympe Charel, a pretty Norman girl, rather stout, with fair hair of
a golden tint, an animated face lighted by intelligent eyes, and
distinguished by a finely curved thoroughbred nose, with a maidenly
air in spite of a certain swaying Spanish manner of carrying herself,
possessed all the points that a young girl born just above the level
of the masses is likely to acquire from whatever close companionship a
mistress is willing to allow her. Always suitably dressed, with modest
bearing and manner, and able to express herself well, Michaud was soon
in love with her,--all the more when he found that his sweetheart’s
dowry would one day be considerable. The obstacles came from the
countess, who could not bear to part with so invaluable a maid; but when
Montcornet explained to her the affairs at Les Aigues, she gave way, and
the marriage was no longer delayed, except to obtain the consent of the
parents, which, of course, was quickly given.

Michaud, like his general, looked upon his wife as a superior being, to
whom he owed military obedience without a single reservation. He found
in the peace of his home and his busy life out-of-doors the elements
of a happiness soldiers long for when they give up their
profession,--enough work to keep his body healthy, enough fatigue to
let him know the charms of rest. In spite of his well-known intrepidity,
Michaud had never been seriously wounded, and he had none of those
physical pains which often sour the temper of veterans. Like all really
strong men, his temper was even; his wife, therefore, loved him utterly.
From the time they took up their abode in the pavilion, this happy home
was the scene of a long honey-moon in harmony with Nature and with the
art whose creations surrounded them,--a circumstance rare indeed! The
things about us are seldom in keeping with the condition of our souls!

The picture was so pretty that the countess stopped short and pointed
it out to Blondet and the abbe; for they could see Madame Michaud from
where they stood, without her seeing them.

“I always come this way when I walk in the park,” said the countess,
softly. “I delight in looking at the pavilion and its two turtle-doves,
as much as I delight in a fine view.”

She leaned significantly on Blondet’s arm, as if to make him share
sentiments too delicate for words but which all women feel.

“I wish I were a gate-keeper at Les Aigues,” said Blondet, smiling.
“Why! what troubles you?” he added, noticing an expression of sadness on
the countess’s face.

“Nothing,” she replied.

Women are always hiding some important thought when they say,
hypocritically, “It is nothing.”

“A woman may be the victim of ideas which would seem very flimsy to
you,” she added, “but which, to us, are terrible. As for me, I envy
Olympe’s lot.”

“God hears you,” said the abbe, smiling as though to soften the
sternness of his remark.

Madame de Montcornet grew seriously uneasy when she noticed an
expression of fear and anxiety in Olympe’s face and attitude. By the
way a woman draws out her needle or sets her stitches another woman
understands her thoughts. In fact, though wearing a rose-colored dress,
with her hair carefully braided about her head, the bailiff’s wife was
thinking of matters that were out of keeping with her pretty dress,
the glorious day, and the work her hands were engaged on. Her beautiful
brow, and the glance she turned sometimes on the ground at her feet,
sometimes on the foliage around, evidently seeing nothing, betrayed some
deep anxiety,--all the more unconsciously because she supposed herself
alone.

“Just as I was envying her! What can have saddened her?” whispered the
countess to the abbe.

“Madame,” he replied in the same tone, “tell me why man is often seized
with vague and unaccountable presentiments of evil in the very midst of
some perfect happiness?”

“Abbe!” said Blondet, smiling, “you talk like a bishop. Napoleon said,
‘Nothing is stolen, all is bought!’”

“Such a maxim, uttered by those imperial lips, takes the proportions of
society itself,” replied the priest.

“Well, Olympe, my dear girl, what is the matter?” said the countess
going up to her former maid. “You seem sad and thoughtful; is it a
lover’s quarrel?”

Madame Michaud’s face, as she rose, changed completely.

“My dear,” said Emile Blondet, in a fatherly tone, “I should like to
know what clouds that brow of yours, in this pavilion where you are
almost as well lodged as the Comte d’Artois at the Tuileries. It is
like a nest of nightingales in a grove! And what a husband we have!--the
bravest fellow of the young garde, and a handsome one, who loves us to
distraction! If I had known the advantages Montcornet has given you here
I should have left my diatribing business and made myself a bailiff.”

“It is not the place for a man of your talent, monsieur,” replied
Olympe, smiling at Blondet as an old acquaintance.

“But what troubles you, dear?” said the countess.

“Madame, I’m afraid--”

“Afraid! of what?” said the countess, eagerly; for the word reminded her
of Mouche and Fourchon.

“Afraid of the wolves, is that it?” said Emile, making Madame Michaud a
sign, which she did not understand.

“No, monsieur,--afraid of the peasants. I was born in Le Perche, where
of course there are some bad people, but I had no idea how wicked people
could be until I came here. I try not to meddle in Michaud’s affairs,
but I do know that he distrusts the peasants so much that he goes armed,
even in broad daylight, when he enters the forest. He warns his men to
be always on the alert. Every now and then things happen about here
that bode no good. The other day I was walking along the wall, near
the source of that little sandy rivulet which comes from the forest
and enters the park through a culvert about five hundred feet from
here,--you know it, madame? it is called Silver Spring, because of the
star-flowers Bouret is said to have sown there. Well, I overheard the
talk of two women who were washing their linen just where the path to
Conches crosses the brook; they did not know I was there. Our house can
be seen from that point, and one old woman pointed it out to the other,
saying: ‘See what a lot of money they have spent on the man who turned
out Courtecuisse.’ ‘They ought to pay a man well when they set him to
harass poor people as that man does,’ answered the other. ‘Well, it
won’t be for long,’ said the first one; ‘the thing is going to end soon.
We have a right to our wood. The late Madame allowed us to take it.
That’s thirty years ago, so the right is ours.’ ‘We’ll see what we shall
see next winter,’ replied the second. ‘My man has sworn the great oath
that all the gendarmerie in the world sha’n’t keep us from getting our
wood; he says he means to get it himself, and if the worst happens so
much the worse for them!’ ‘Good God!’ cried the other; ‘we can’t die
of cold, and we must bake bread to eat! They want for nothing, _those
others_! the wife of that scoundrel of a Michaud will be taken care of,
I warrant you!’ And then, Madame, they said such horrible things of me
and of you and of Monsieur le comte; and they finally declared that the
farms would all be burned, and then the chateau.”

“Bah!” said Emile, “idle talk! They have been robbing the general,
and they will not be allowed to rob him any longer. These people are
furious, that’s the whole of it. You must remember that the law and the
government are always strongest everywhere, even in Burgundy. In case
of an outbreak the general could bring a regiment of cavalry here, if
necessary.”

The abbe made a sign to Madame Michaud from behind the countess, telling
her to say no more about her fears, which were doubtless the effect
of that second sight which true passion bestows. The soul, dwelling
exclusively on one only being, grasps in the end the moral elements that
surround it, and sees in them the makings of the future. The woman who
loves feels the same presentiments that later illuminate her motherhood.
Hence a certain melancholy, a certain inexplicable sadness which
surprises men, who are one and all distracted from any such
concentration of their souls by the cares of life and the continual
necessity for action. All true love becomes to a woman an active
contemplation, which is more or less lucid, more or less profound,
according to her nature.

“Come, my dear, show your home to Monsieur Emile,” said the countess,
whose mind was so pre-occupied that she forgot La Pechina, who was the
ostensible object of her visit.

The interior of the restored pavilion was in keeping with its exterior.
On the ground-floor the old divisions had been replaced, and the
architect, sent from Paris with his own workmen (a cause of bitter
complaint in the neighborhood against the master of Les Aigues), had
made four rooms out of the space. First, an ante-chamber, at the farther
end of which was a winding wooden staircase, behind which came the
kitchen; on either side of the antechamber was a dining-room and a
parlor panelled in oak now nearly black, with armorial bearings in the
divisions of the ceilings. The architect chosen by Madame de Montcornet
for the restoration of Les Aigues had taken care to put the furniture of
this room in keeping with its original decoration.

At the time of which we write fashion had not yet given an exaggerated
value to the relics of past ages. The carved settee, the high-backed
chairs covered with tapestry, the consoles, the clocks, the tall
embroidery frames, the tables, the lustres, hidden away in the
second-hand shops of Auxerre and Ville-aux-Fayes were fifty per-cent
cheaper than the modern, ready-made furniture of the faubourg Saint
Antoine. The architect had therefore bought two or three cartloads of
well-chosen old things, which, added to a few others discarded at the
chateau, made the little salon of the gate of the Avonne an artistic
creation. As to the dining-room, he painted it in browns and hung it
with what was called a Scotch paper, and Madame Michaud added white
cambric curtains with green borders at the windows, mahogany chairs
covered with green cloth, two large buffets and a table, also in
mahogany. This room, ornamented with engravings of military scenes, was
heated by a porcelain stove, on each side of which were sporting-guns
suspended on the walls. These adornments, which cost but little, were
talked of throughout the whole valley as the last extreme of oriental
luxury. Singular to say, they, more than anything else, excited the
envy of Gaubertin, and whenever he thought of his fixed determination
to bring Les Aigues to the hammer and cut it in pieces, he reserved for
himself, “in petto,” this beautiful pavilion.

On the next floor three chambers sufficed for the household. At the
windows were muslin curtains which reminded a Parisian of the particular
taste and fancy of bourgeois requirements. Left to herself in the
decoration of these rooms, Madame Michaud had chosen satin papers; on
the mantel-shelf of her bedroom--which was furnished in that vulgar
style of mahogany and Utrecht velvet which is seen everywhere, with
its high-backed bed and canopy to which embroidered muslin curtains are
fastened--stood an alabaster clock between two candelabra covered with
gauze and flanked by two vases filled with artificial flowers protected
by glass shades, a conjugal gift of the former cavalry sergeant. Above,
under the roof, the bedrooms of the cook, the man-of-all-work, and La
Pechina had benefited by the recent restoration.

“Olympe, my dear, you did not tell me all,” said the countess, entering
Madame Michaud’s bedroom, and leaving Emile and the abbe on the
stairway, whence they descended when they heard her shut the door.

Madame Michaud, to whom the abbe had contrived to whisper a word, was
now anxious to say no more about her fears, which were really greater
than she had intimated, and she therefore began to talk of a matter
which reminded the countess of the object of her visit.

“I love Michaud, madame, as you know. Well, how would you like to have,
in your own house, a rival always beside you?”

“A rival?”

“Yes, madame; that swarthy girl you gave me to take care of loves
Michaud without knowing it, poor thing! The child’s conduct, long a
mystery to me, has been cleared up in my mind for some days.”

“Why, she is only thirteen years old!”

“I know that, madame. But you will admit that a woman who is three
months pregnant and means to nurse her child herself may have some
fears; but as I did not want to speak of this before those gentlemen,
I talked a great deal of nonsense when you questioned me,” said the
generous creature, adroitly.

Madame Michaud was not really afraid of Genevieve Niseron, but for
the last three days she was in mortal terror of some disaster from the
peasantry.

“How did you discover this?” said the countess.

“From everything and from nothing,” replied Olympe. “The poor little
thing moves with the slowness of a tortoise when she is obliged to
obey me, but she runs like a lizard when Justin asks for anything, she
trembles like a leaf at the sound of his voice; and her face is that of
a saint ascending to heaven when she looks at him. But she knows nothing
about love; she has no idea that she loves him.”

“Poor child!” said the countess with a smile and tone that were full of
naivete.

“And so,” continued Madame Michaud, answering with a smile the smile of
her late mistress, “Genevieve is gloomy when Justin is out of the house;
if I ask her what she is thinking of she replies that she is afraid
of Monsieur Rigou, or some such nonsense. She thinks people envy her,
though she is as black as the inside of a chimney. When Justin is
patrolling the woods at night the child is as anxious as I am. If I
open my window to listen for the trot of his horse, I see a light in her
room, which shows me that La Pechina (as they call here) is watching and
waiting too. She never goes to bed, any more than I do, till he comes
in.”

“Thirteen!” exclaimed the countess; “unfortunate child!”

“Unfortunate? no. This passion will save her.”

“From what?” asked Madame de Montcornet.

“From the fate which overtakes nearly all the girls of her age in these
parts. Since I have taught her cleanliness she is much less ugly than
she was; in fact, there is something odd and wild about her which
attracts men. She is so changed that you would hardly recognize her. The
son of that infamous innkeeper of the Grand-I-Vert, Nicolas, the worst
fellow in the whole district, wants her; he hunts her like game. Though
I can’t believe that Monsieur Rigou, who changes his servant-girls every
year or two is persecuting such a little fright, it is quite certain
that Nicolas Tonsard is. Justin told me so. It would be a dreadful fate,
for the people of this valley actually live like beasts; but Justin and
our two servants and I watch her carefully. Therefore don’t be uneasy,
madame; she never goes out alone except in broad daylight, and then only
as far as the gate of Conches. If by chance she fell into an ambush, her
feeling for Justin would give her strength and wit to escape; for all
women who have a preference in their hearts can resist a man they hate.”

“It was about her that I came,” said the countess, “and I little thought
my visit could be so useful to you. That child, you know, can’t remain
thirteen; and she will probably grow better-looking.”

“Oh, madame,” replied Olympe, smiling, “I am quite sure of Justin. What
a man! what a heart!--If you only knew what a depth of gratitude he
feels for his general, to whom, he says, he owes his happiness. He is
only too devoted; he would risk his life for him here, as he would on
the field of battle, and he forgets sometimes that he will one day be
father of a family.”

“Ah! I once regretted losing you,” said the countess, with a glance that
made Olympe blush; “but I regret it no longer, for I see you happy. What
a sublime and noble thing is married love!” she added, speaking out the
thought she had not dared express before the abbe.

Virginie de Troisville dropped into a revery, and Madame Michaud kept
silence.

“Well, at least the girl is honest, is she not?” said the countess, as
if waking from a dream.

“As honest as I am myself, madame.”

“Discreet?”

“As the grave.”

“Grateful?”

“Ah! madame; she has moments of humility and gentleness towards me which
seem to show an angelic nature. She will kiss my hands and say the most
upsetting things. ‘Can we die of love?’ she asked me yesterday. ‘Why do
you ask me that?’ I said. ‘I want to know if love is a disease.’”

“Did she really say that?”

“If I could remember her exact words I would tell you a great deal
more,” replied Olympe; “she appears to know much more than I do.”

“Do you think, my dear, that she could take your place in my service. I
can’t do without an Olympe,” said the countess, smiling in a rather sad
way.

“Not yet, madame,--she is too young; but in two years’ time, yes. If it
becomes necessary that she should go away from here I will let you
know. She ought to be educated, and she knows nothing of the world.
Her grandfather, Pere Niseron, is a man who would let his throat be cut
sooner than tell a lie; he would die of hunger in a baker’s shop; he has
the strength of his opinions, and the girl was brought up to all such
principles. La Pechina would consider herself your equal; for the old
man has made her, as he says, a republican,--just as Pere Fourchon has
made Mouche a bohemian. As for me, I laugh at such ideas, but you might
be displeased. She would revere you as her benefactress, but never
as her superior. It can’t be otherwise; she is wild and free like the
swallows--her mother’s blood counts for a good deal in what she is.”

“Who was her mother?”

“Doesn’t madame know the story?” said Olympe. “Well, the son of the old
sexton at Blangy, a splendid fellow, so the people about here tell me,
was drafted at the great conscription. In 1809 young Niseron was still
only an artilleryman, in a corps d’armee stationed in Illyria and
Dalmatia when it received sudden orders to advance through Hungary and
cut off the retreat of the Austrian army in case the Emperor won the
battle of Wagram. Michaud told me all about Dalmatia, for he was there.
Niseron, being so handsome a man, captivated a Montenegrin girl of
Zahara among the mountains, who was not averse to the French garrison.
This lost her the good-will of her compatriots, and life in her own
town became impossible after the departure of the French. Zena Kropoli,
called in derision the Frenchwoman, followed the artillery, and came to
France after the peace. Auguste Niseron asked permission to marry her;
but the poor woman died at Vincennes in January, 1810, after giving
birth to a daughter, our Genevieve. The papers necessary to make the
marriage legal arrived a few days later. Auguste Niseron then wrote to
his father to come and take the child, with a wetnurse he had got from
its own country; and it was lucky he did, for he was killed soon after
by the bursting of a shell at Montereau. Registered by the name of
Genevieve and baptized at Soulanges, the little Dalmatian was taken
under the protection of Mademoiselle Laguerre, who was touched by her
story. It seems as if it were the destiny of the child to be taken care
of by the owners of Les Aigues! Pere Niseron obtained its clothes, and
now and then some help in money from Mademoiselle.”

The countess and Olympe were just then standing before a window from
which they could see Michaud approaching the abbe and Blondet, who
were walking up and down the wide, semi-circular gravelled space which
repeated on the park side of the pavilion the exterior half-moon; they
were conversing earnestly.

“Where is she?” said the countess; “you make me anxious to see her.”

“She is gone to carry milk to Mademoiselle Gaillard at the gate of
Conches; she will soon be back, for it is more than an hour since she
started.”

“Well, I’ll go and meet her with those gentlemen,” said Madame de
Montcornet, going downstairs.

Just as the countess opened her parasol, Michaud came up and told her
that the general had left her a widow for probably two days.

“Monsieur Michaud,” said the countess, eagerly, “don’t deceive me, there
is something serious going on. Your wife is frightened, and if there
are many persons like Pere Fourchon, this part of the country will be
uninhabitable--”

“If it were so, madame,” answered Michaud, laughing, “we should not be
in the land of the living, for nothing would be easier than to make
away with us. The peasant’s grumble, that is all. But as to passing from
growls to blows, from pilfering to crime, they care too much for life
and the free air of the fields. Olympe has been saying something
that frightened you, but you know she is in state to be frightened at
nothing,” he added, drawing his wife’s hand under his arm and pressing
it to warn her to say no more.

“Cornevin! Juliette!” cried Madame Michaud, who soon saw the head of her
old cook at the window. “I am going for a little walk; take care of the
premises.”

Two enormous dogs, who began to bark, proved that the effectiveness of
the garrison at the gate of the Avonne was not to be despised. Hearing
the dogs, Cornevin, an old Percheron, Olympe’s foster-father, came from
behind the trees, showing a head such as no other region than La Perche
can manufacture. Cornevin was undoubtedly a Chouan in 1794 and 1799.

The whole party accompanied the countess along that one of the six
forest avenues which led directly to the gate of Conches, crossing
the Silver-spring rivulet. Madame de Montcornet walked in front with
Blondet. The abbe and Michaud and his wife talked in a low voice of the
revelation that had just been made to the countess of the state of the
country.

“Perhaps it is providential,” said the abbe; “for if madame is willing,
we might, perhaps, by dint of benefits and constant consideration of
their wants, change the hearts of these people.”

At about six hundred feet from the pavilion and below the brooke, the
countess caught sight of a broken red jug and some spilt milk.

“Something has happened to the poor child!” she cried, calling to
Michaud and his wife, who were returning to the pavilion.

“A misfortune like Perrette’s,” said Blondet, laughing.

“No; the poor child has been surprised and pursued, for the jug was
thrown outside the path,” said the abbe, examining the ground.

“Yes, that is certainly La Pechina’s step,” said Michaud; “the print of
the feet, which have turned, you see, quickly, shows sudden terror. The
child must have darted in the direction of the pavilion, trying to get
back there.”

Every one followed the traces which the bailiff pointed out as he walked
along examining them. Presently he stopped in the middle of the path
about a hundred feet from the broken jug, where the girl’s foot-prints
ceased.

“Here,” he said, “she turned towards the Avonne; perhaps she was headed
off from the direction of the pavilion.”

“But she has been gone more than an hour,” cried Madame Michaud.

Alarm was in all faces. The abbe ran towards the pavilion, examining the
state of the road, while Michaud, impelled by the same thought, went up
the path towards Conches.

“Good God! she fell here,” said Michaud, returning from a place where
the footsteps stopped near the brook, to that where they had turned in
the road, and pointing to the ground, he added, “See!”

The marks were plainly seen of a body lying at full length on the sandy
path.

“The footprints which have entered the wood are those of some one who
wore knitted soles,” said the abbe.

“A woman, then,” said the countess.

“Down there, by the broken pitcher, are the footsteps of a man,” added
Michaud.

“I don’t see traces of any other foot,” said the abbe, who was tracking
into the wood the prints of the woman’s feet.

“She must have been lifted and carried into the wood,” cried Michaud.

“That can’t be, if it is really a woman’s foot,” said Blondet.

“It must be some trick of that wretch, Nicolas,” said Michaud. “He has
been watching La Pechina for some time. Only this morning I stood two
hours under the bridge of the Avonne to see what he was about. A woman
may have helped him.”

“It is dreadful!” said the countess.

“They call it amusing themselves,” added the priest, in a sad and
grieved tone.

“Oh! La Pechina would never let them keep her,” said the bailiff; “she
is quite able to swim across the river. I shall look along the banks. Go
home, my dear Olympe; and you gentlemen and madame, please to follow the
avenue towards Conches.”

“What a country!” exclaimed the countess.

“There are scoundrels everywhere,” replied Blondet.

“Is it true, Monsieur l’abbe,” asked Madame de Montcornet, “that I saved
the poor child from the clutches of Rigou?”

“Every young girl over fiften years of age whom you may protect at the
chateau is saved from that monster,” said the abbe. “In trying to get
possession of La Pechina from her earliest years, the apostate sought
to satisfy both his lust and his vengeance. When I took Pere Niseron
as sexton I told him what Rigou’s intentions were. That is one of the
causes of the late mayor’s rancor against me; his hatred grew out of
it. Pere Niseron said to him solemnly that he would kill him if any harm
came to Genevieve, and he made him responsible for all attempts upon the
poor child’s honor. I can’t help thinking that this pursuit of Nicolas
is the result of some infernal collusion with Rigou, who thinks he can
do as he likes with these people.”

“Doesn’t he fear the law?”

“In the first place, he is father-in-law of the prosecuting-attorney,”
 said the abbe, pausing to listen. “And then,” he resumed, “you have no
conception of the utter indifference of the rural police to what is done
around them. So long as the peasants do not burn the farm-houses and
buildings, commit no murders, poison no one, and pay their taxes, they
let them do as they like; and as these people are not restrained by any
religious principle, horrible things happen every day. On the other side
of the Avonne helpless old men are afraid to stay in their own homes,
for they are allowed nothing to eat; they wander out into the fields
as far as their tottering legs can bear them, knowing well that if they
take to their beds they will die for want of food. Monsieur Sarcus, the
magistrate, tells me that if they arrested and tried all criminals, the
costs would ruin the municipality.”

“Then he at least sees how things are?” said Blondet.

“Monseigneur thoroughly understands the condition of the valley, and
especially the state of this district,” continued the abbe. “Religion
alone can cure such evils; the law seems to me powerless, modified as it
is now--”

The words were interrupted by loud cries from the woods, and the
countess, preceded by Emile and the abbe, sprang bravely into the
brushwood in the direction of the sounds.



CHAPTER XI. THE OARISTYS, EIGHTEENTH ECLOGUE OF THEOCRITUS

LITTLE ADMIRED ON THE POLICE CALENDAR

The sagacity of a savage, which Michaud’s new occupation had developed
among his faculties, joined to an acquaintance with the passions and
interests of Blangy, enabled him partially to understand a third idyll
in the Greek style, which poor villagers like Tonsard, and middle-aged
rich men like Rigou, translate _freely_--to use the classic word--in the
depths of their country solitudes.

Nicolas, Tonsard’s second son, had drawn an unlucky number at a recent
conscription. Two years earlier his elder brother had been pronounced,
through the influence of Soudry, Gaubertin, and Sarcus the rich, unfit
for military service, on account of a pretended weakness in the muscles
of the right arm; but as Jean-Louis had since wielded instruments of
husbandry with remarkable force and skill, a good deal of talk on the
subject had gone through the district. Soudry, Rigou, and Gaubertin, who
were the special protectors of the family, had warned Tonsard that he
must not expect to save Nicolas, who was tall and vigorous, from being
recruited if he drew a fatal number. Nevertheless Gaubertin and Rigou
were so well aware of the importance of conciliating bold men able and
willing to do mischief, if properly directed against Les Aigues, that
Rigou held out certain hopes of safety to Tonsard and his son. The late
monk was occasionally visited by Catherine Tonsard who was very devoted
to her brother Nicolas; on one such occasion Rigou advised her to appeal
to the general and the countess.

“They may be glad to do you this service to cajole you; in that case,
it is just so much gained from the enemy,” he said. “If the Shopman
refuses, then we shall see what we shall see.”

Rigou foresaw that the general’s refusal would pass as one wrong the
more done by the land-owner to the peasantry, and would bind Tonsard by
an additional motive of gratitude to the coalition, in case the crafty
mind of the innkeeper could suggest to him some plausible way of
liberating Nicolas.

Nicolas, who was soon to appear before the examining board, had little
hope of the general’s intervention because of the harm done to Les
Aigues by all the members of the Tonsard family. His passion, or to
speak more correctly, his caprice and obstinate pursuit of La Pechina,
were so aggravated by the prospect of his immediate departure, which
left him no time to seduce her, that he resolved on attempting violence.
The child’s contempt for her prosecutor, plainly shown, excited the
Lovelace of the Grand-I-Vert to a hatred whose fury was equalled only
by his desires. For the last three days he had been watching La Pechina,
and the poor child knew she was watched. Between Nicolas and his prey
the same sort of understanding existed which there is between the
hunter and the game. When the girl was at some little distance from the
pavilion she saw Nicolas in one of the paths which ran parallel to the
walls of the park, leading to the bridge of the Avonne. She could easily
have escaped the man’s pursuit had she appealed to her grandfather; but
all young girls, even the most unsophisticated, have a strange fear,
possibly instinctive, of trusting to their natural protectors under the
like circumstances.

Genevieve had heard Pere Niseron take an oath to kill any man, no
matter who he was, who should dare to _touch_ (that was his word) his
granddaughter. The old man thought the child amply protected by the halo
of white hair and honor which a spotless life of three-score years and
ten had laid upon his brow. The vision of bloody scenes terrifies the
imagination of young girls so that they need not dive to the bottom of
their hearts for other numerous and inquisitive reasons which seal their
lips.

When La Pechina started with the milk which Madame Michaud had sent to
the daughter of Gaillard, the keeper of the gate of Conches, whose cow
had just calved, she looked about her cautiously, like a cat when it
ventures out onto the street. She saw no signs of Nicolas; she listened
to the silence, as the poet says, and hearing nothing, she concluded
that the rascal had gone to his day’s work. The peasants were just
beginning to cut the rye; for they were in the habit of getting in their
own harvests first, so as to benefit by the best strength of the mowers.
But Nicolas was not a man to mind losing a day’s work,--especially now
that he expected to leave the country after the fair at Soulanges and
begin, as the country people say, the new life of a soldier.

When La Pechina, with the jug on her head, was about half-way, Nicolas
slid like a wild-cat down the trunk of an elm, among the branches of
which he was hiding, and fell like a thunderbolt in front of the girl,
who flung away her pitcher and trusted to her fleet legs to regain the
pavilion. But a hundred feet farther on, Catherine Tonsard, who was on
the watch, rushed out of the wood and knocked so violently against the
flying girl that she was thrown down. The violence of the fall made her
unconscious. Catherine picked her up and carried her into the woods to
the middle of a tiny meadow where the Silver-spring brook bubbled up.

Catherine Tonsard was tall and strong, and in every respect the type of
woman whom painters and sculptors take, as the Republic did in former
days, for their figures of Liberty. She charmed the young men of the
valley of the Avonne with her voluminous bosom, her muscular legs, and
a waist as robust as it was flexible; with her plump arms, her eyes that
could flash and sparkle, and her jaunty air; with the masses of hair
twisted in coils around her head, her masculine forehead and her red
lips curling with that same ferocious smile which Eugene Delacroix and
David (of Angers) caught and represented so admirably. True image of the
People, this fiery and swarthy creature seemed to emit revolt through
her piercing yellow eyes, blazing with the insolence of a soldier. She
inherited from her father so violent a nature that the whole family,
except Tonsard, and all who frequented the tavern feared her.

“Well, how are you now?” she said to La Pechina as the latter recovered
consciousness.

Catherine had placed her victim on a little mound beside the brook and
was bringing her to her senses with dashes of cold water. “Where am I?”
 said the child, opening her beautiful black eyes through which a sun-ray
seemed to glide.

“Ah!” said Catherine, “if it hadn’t been for me you’d have been killed.”

“Thank you,” said the girl, still bewildered; “what happened to me?”

“You stumbled over a root and fell flat in the road over there, as if
shot. Ha! how you did run!”

“It was your brother who made me,” said La Pechina, remembering Nicolas.

“My brother? I did not see him,” said Catherine. “What did he do to you,
poor fellow, that should make you fly as if he were a wolf? Isn’t he
handsomer than your Monsieur Michaud?”

“Oh!” said the girl, contemptuously.

“See here, little one; you are laying up a crop of evils for yourself by
loving those who persecute us. Why don’t you keep to our side?”

“Why don’t you come to church; and why do you steal things night and
day?” asked the child.

“So you let those people talk you over!” sneered Catherine. “They love
us, don’t they?--just as they love their food which they get out of us,
and they want new dishes every day. Did you ever know one of them to
marry a peasant-girl? Not they! Does Sarcus the rich let his son marry
that handsome Gatienne Giboulard? Not he, though she is the daughter of
a rich upholsterer. You have never been at the Tivoli ball at Soulanges
in Socquard’s tavern; you had better come. You’ll see ‘em all there,
these bourgeois fellows, and you’ll find they are not worth the money we
shall get out of them when we’ve pulled them down. Come to the fair this
year!”

“They say it’s fine, that Soulanges fair!” cried La Pechina, artlessly.

“I’ll tell you what it is in two words,” said Catherine. “If you are
handsome, you are well ogled. What is the good of being as pretty as you
are if you are not admired by the men? Ha! when I heard one of them say
for the first time, ‘What a fine sprig of a girl!’ all my blood was on
fire. It was at Socquard’s, in the middle of a dance; my grandfather,
Fourchon, who was playing the clarionet, heard it and laughed. Tivoli
seemed to me as grand and fine as heaven itself. It’s lighted up, my
dear, with glass lamps, and you’ll think you are in paradise. All the
gentlemen of Soulanges and Auxerre and Ville-aux-Fayes will be there.
Ever since that first night I’ve loved the place where those words rang
in my ears like military music. It’s worthy giving your eternity to hear
such words said of you by a man you love.”

“Yes, perhaps,” replied La Pechina, thoughtfully.

“Then come, and get the praise of men; you’re sure of it!” cried
Catherine. “Ha! you’ll have a fine chance, handsome as you are, to pick
up good luck. There’s the son of Monsieur Lupin, Amaury, he might marry
you. But that’s not all; if you only knew what comforts you can find
there against vexation and worry. Why, Socquard’s boiled wine will make
you forget every trouble you ever had. Fancy! it can make you dream,
and feel as light as a bird. Didn’t you ever drink boiled wine? Then you
don’t know what life is.”

The privilege enjoyed by older persons to wet their throats with boiled
wine excites the curiosity of the children of the peasantry over twelve
years of age to such a degree that Genevieve had once put her lips to a
glass of boiled wine ordered by the doctor for her grandfather when ill.
The taste had left a sort of magic influence in the memory of the poor
child, which may explain the interest with which she listened, and on
which the evil-minded Catherine counted to carry out a plan already
half-successful. No doubt she was trying to bring her victim, giddy from
the fall, to the moral intoxication so dangerous to young women
living in the wilds of nature, whose imagination, deprived of other
nourishment, is all the more ardent when the occasion comes to exercise
it. Boiled wine, which Catherine had held in reserve, was to end the
matter by intoxicating the victim.

“What do they put into it?” asked La Pechina.

“All sorts of things,” replied Catherine, glancing back to see if her
brother were coming; “in the first place, those what d’ ye call ‘ems
that come from India, cinnamon, and herbs that change you by magic,--you
fancy you have everything you wish for; boiled wine makes you happy! you
can snap your fingers at all your troubles!”

“I should be afraid to drink boiled wine at a dance,” said La Pechina.

“Afraid of what?” asked Catherine. “There’s not the slightest danger.
Think what lots of people there will be. All the bourgeois will be
looking at us! Ah! it is one of those days that make up for all our
misery. See it and die,--for it’s enough to satisfy any one.”

“If Monsieur and Madame Michaud would only take me!” cried La Pechina,
her eyes blazing.

“Ask your grandfather Niseron; you have not given him up, poor dear man,
and he’d be pleased to see you admired like a little queen. Why do you
like those Arminacs the Michauds better than your grandfather and the
Burgundians. It’s bad to neglect your own people. Besides, why should
the Michauds object if your grandfather takes you to the fair? Oh! if
you knew what it is to reign over a man and put him beside himself, and
say to him, as I say to Godain, ‘Go there!’ and he goes, ‘Do that!’
and he does it! You’ve got it in you, little one, to turn the head of a
bourgeois like that son of Monsieur Lupin. Monsieur Amaury took a fancy
to my sister Marie because she is fair and because he is half-afraid of
me; but he’d adore you, for ever since those people at the pavilion have
spruced you up a bit you’ve got the airs of an empress.”

Adroitly leading the innocent heart to forget Nicolas and so put it off
its guard, Catherine distilled into the girl the insidious nectar of
compliments. Unawares, she touched a secret wound. La Pechina, without
being other than a poor peasant girl, was a specimen of alarming
precocity, like many another creature doomed to die as prematurely as it
blooms. Strange product of Burgundian and Montenegrin blood, conceived
and born amid the toils of war, the girl was doubtless in many ways
the result of her congenital circumstances. Thin, slender, brown as
a tobacco leaf, and short in stature, she nevertheless possessed
extraordinary strength,--a strength unseen by the eyes of peasants, to
whom the mysteries of the nervous system are unknown. Nerves are not
admitted into the medical rural mind.

At thirteen years of age Genevieve had completed her growth, though she
was hardly as tall as an ordinary girl of her age. Did her face owe its
topaz skin, so dark and yet so brilliant, dark in tone and brilliant in
the quality of its tissue, giving a look of age to the childish face,
to her Montenegrin origin, or to the ardent sun of Burgundy? Medical
science may dismiss the inquiry. The premature old age on the surface of
the face was counterbalanced by the glow, the fire, the wealth of light
which made the eyes two stars. Like all eyes which fill with sunlight
and need, perhaps, some sheltering screen, the eyelids were fringed with
lashes of extraordinary length. The hair, of a bluish black, long and
fine and abundant, crowned a brow moulded like that of the Farnese
Juno. That magnificent diadem of hair, those grand Armenian eyes, that
celestial brow eclipsed the rest of the face. The nose, though pure in
form as it left the brow, and graceful in curve, ended in flattened and
flaring nostrils. Anger increased this effect at times, and then the
face wore an absolutely furious expression. All the lower part of the
face, like the lower part of the nose, seemed unfinished, as if the clay
in the hands of the divine sculptor had proved insufficient. Between
the lower lip and the chin the space was so short that any one taking La
Pechina by the chin would have rubbed the lip; but the teeth prevented
all notice of this defect. One might almost believe those little bones
had souls, so brilliant were they, so polished, so transparent, so
exquisitely shaped, disclosed as they were by too wide a mouth, curved
in lines that bore resemblance to the fantastic shapes of coral. The
shells of the ears were so transparent to the light that in the sunshine
they were rose-colored. The complexion, though sun-burned, showed a
marvellous delicacy in the texture of the skin. If, as Buffon declared,
love lies in touch, the softness of the girl’s skin must have had the
penetrating and inciting influence of the fragrance of daturas. The
chest and indeed the whole body was alarmingly thin; but the feet and
hands, of alluring delicacy, showed remarkable nervous power, and a
vigorous organism.

This mixture of diabolical imperfections and divine beauties, harmonious
in spite of discords, for they blended in a species of savage dignity,
also this triumph of a powerful soul over a feeble body, as written in
those eyes, made the child, when once seen, unforgettable. Nature had
wished to make that frail young being a woman; the circumstances of her
conception moulded her with the face and body of a boy. A poet observing
the strange creature would have declared her native clime to be Arabia
the Blest; she belonged to the Afrite and Genii of Arabian tales.
Her face told no lies. She had the soul of that glance of fire, the
intellect of those lips made brilliant by the bewitching teeth, the
thought enshrined within that glorious brow, the passion of those
nostrils ready at all moments to snort flame. Therefore love, such as
we imagine it on burning sands, in lonely deserts, filled that heart
of twenty in the breast of a child, doomed, like the snowy heights of
Montenegro, to wear no flowers of the spring.

Observers ought now to understand how it was that La Pechina, from whom
passion issued by every pore, awakened in perverted natures the feelings
deadened by abuse; just as water fills the mouth at sight of those
twisted, blotched, and speckled fruits which gourmands know by
experience, and beneath whose skin nature has put the rarest flavors and
perfumes. Why did Nicolas, that vulgar laborer, pursue this being who
was worthy of a poet, while the eyes of the country-folk pitied her as
a sickly deformity? Why did Rigou, the old man, feel the passion of a
young one for this girl? Which of the two men was young, and which was
old? Was the young peasant as blase as the old usurer? Why did these two
extremes of life meet in one common and devilish caprice? Does the vigor
that draws to its close resemble the vigor that is only dawning? The
moral perversities of men are gulfs guarded by sphinxes; they begin and
end in questions to which there is no answer.

The exclamation, formerly quoted, of the countess, “Piccina!” when
she first saw Genevieve by the roadside, open-mouthed at sight of the
carriage and the elegantly dressed woman within it, will be understood.
This girl, almost a dwarf, of Montenegrin vigor, loved the handsome,
noble bailiff, as children of her age love, when they do love, that is
to say, with childlike passion, with the strength of youth, with the
devotion which in truly virgin souls gives birth to divinest poesy.
Catherine had just swept her coarse hands across the sensitive strings
of that choice harp, strung to the breaking-point. To dance before
Michaud, to shine at the Soulanges ball and inscribe herself on the
memory of that adored master! What glorious thoughts! To fling them into
that volcanic head was like casting live coals upon straw dried in the
August sun.

“No, Catherine,” replied La Pechina, “I am ugly and puny; my lot is to
sit in a corner and never to be married, but live alone in the world.”

“Men like weaklings,” said Catherine. “You see me, don’t you?” she
added, showing her handsome, strong arms. “I please Godain, who is a
poor stick; I please that little Charles, the count’s groom; but Lupin’s
son is afraid of me. I tell you it is the small kind of men who love me,
and who say when they see me go by at Ville-aux-Fayes and at Soulanges,
‘Ha! what a fine girl!’ Now YOU, that’s another thing; you’ll please the
fine men.”

“Ah! Catherine, if it were true--that!” cried the bewitched child.

“It is true, it is so true that Nicolas, the handsomest man in the
canton, is mad about you; he dreams of you, he is losing his mind;
and yet all the other girls are in love with him. He is a fine lad! If
you’ll put on a white dress and yellow ribbons, and come to Socquard’s
for the midsummer ball, you’ll be the handsomest girl there, and all
the fine people from Ville-aux-Fayes will see you. Come, won’t you?--See
here, I’ve been cutting grass for the cows, and I brought some boiled
wine in my gourd; Socquard gave it me this morning,” she added quickly,
seeing the half-delirious expression in La Pechina’s eyes which women
understand so well. “We’ll share it together, and you’ll fancy the men
are in love with you.”

During this conversation Nicolas, choosing the grassy spots to step on,
had noiselessly slipped behind the trunk of an old oak near which his
sister had seated La Pechina. Catherine, who had now and then cast her
eyes behind her, saw her brother as she turned to get the boiled wine.

“Here, take some,” she said, offering it.

“It burns me!” cried Genevieve, giving back the gourd, after taking two
or three swallows from it.

“Silly child!” replied Catherine; “see here!” and she emptied the rustic
bottle without taking breath. “See how it slips down; it goes like a
sunbeam into the stomach.”

“But I ought to be carrying the milk to Mademoiselle Gaillard,” cried
Genevieve; “and it is all spilt! Nicolas frightened me so!”

“Don’t you like Nicolas?”

“No,” answered Genevieve. “Why does he persecute me? He can get plenty
other girls, who are willing.”

“But if he likes you better than all the other girls in the valley--”

“So much the worse for him.”

“I see you don’t know him,” answered Catherine, as she seized the girl
rapidly by the waist and flung her on the grass, holding her down in
that position with her strong arms. At this moment Nicolas appeared.
Seeing her odious persecutor, the child screamed with all her might, and
drove him five feet away with a violent kick in the stomach; then she
twisted herself like an acrobat, with a dexterity for which Catherine
was not prepared, and rose to run away. Catherine, still on the
ground, caught her by one foot and threw her headlong on her face. This
frightful fall stopped the brave child’s cries for a moment. Nicolas
attempted, furiously, to seize his victim, but she, though giddy from
the wine and the fall, caught him by the throat in a grip of iron.

“Help! she’s strangling me, Catherine,” cried Nicolas, in a stifled
voice.

La Pechina uttered piercing screams, which Catherine tried to choke
by putting her hands over the girl’s mouth, but she bit them and drew
blood. It was at this moment that Blondet, the countess, and the abbe
appeared at the edge of the wood.

“Here are those Aigues people!” exclaimed Catherine, helping Genevieve
to rise.

“Do you want to live?” hissed Nicolas in the child’s ear.

“What then?” she asked.

“Tell them we were all playing, and I’ll forgive you,” said Nicolas, in
a threatening voice.

“Little wretch, mind you say it!” repeated Catherine, whose glance was
more terrifying than her brother’s murderous threat.

“Yes, I will, if you let me alone,” replied the child. “But anyhow I
will never go out again without my scissors.”

“You are to hold your tongue, or I’ll drown you in the Avonne,” said
Catherine, ferociously.

“You are monsters,” cried the abbe, coming up; “you ought to be arrested
and taken to the assizes.”

“Ha! and pray what do you do in your drawing-rooms?” said Nicolas,
looking full at the countess and Blondet. “You play and amuse
yourselves, don’t you? Well, so do we, in the fields which are ours.
We can’t always work; we must play sometimes,--ask my sister and La
Pechina.”

“How do you fight if you call that playing?” cried Blondet.

Nicolas gave him a murderous look.

“Speak!” said Catherine, gripping La Pechina by the forearm and leaving
a blue bracelet on the flesh. “Were not we amusing ourselves?”

“Yes, madame, we were amusing ourselves,” said the child, exhausted by
her display of strength, and now breaking down as though she were about
to faint.

“You hear what she says, madame,” said Catherine, boldly, giving the
countess one of those looks which women give each other like dagger
thrusts.

She took her brother’s arm, and the pair walked off, not mistaking the
opinion they left behind them in the minds of the three persons who had
interrupted the scene. Nicolas twice looked back, and twice encountered
Blondet’s gaze. The journalist continued to watch the tall scoundrel,
who was broad in the shoulders, healthy and vigorous in complexion, with
black hair curling tightly, and whose rather soft face showed upon
its lips and around the mouth certain lines which reveal the peculiar
cruelty that characterizes sluggards and voluptuaries. Catherine swung
her petticoat, striped blue and white, with an air of insolent coquetry.

“Cain and his wife!” said Blondet to the abbe.

“You are nearer the truth than you know,” replied the priest.

“Ah! Monsieur le cure, what will they do to me?” said La Pechina, when
the brother and sister were out of sight.

The countess, as white as her handkerchief, was so overcome that she
heard neither Blondet nor the abbe nor La Pechina.

“It is enough to drive one from this terrestrial paradise,” she said
at last. “But the first thing of all is to save that child from their
claws.”

“You are right,” said Blondet in a low voice. “That child is a poem, a
living poem.”

Just then the Montenegrin girl was in a state where soul and body smoke,
as it were, after the conflagration of an anger which has driven all
forces, physical and intellectual, to their utmost tension. It is an
unspeakable and supreme splendor, which reveals itself only under the
pressure of some frenzy, be it resistance or victory, love or martyrdom.
She had left home in a dress with alternate lines of brown and yellow,
and a collarette which she pleated herself by rising before daylight;
and she had not yet noticed the condition of her gown soiled by her
struggle on the grass, and her collar torn in Catherine’s grasp. Feeling
her hair hanging loose, she looked about her for a comb. At this moment
Michaud, also attracted by the screams, came upon the scene. Seeing her
god, La Pechina recovered her full strength. “Monsieur Michaud,” she
cried, “he did not even touch me!”

The cry, the look, the action of the girl were an eloquent commentary,
and told more to Blondet and the abbe than Madame Michaud had told the
countess about the passion of that strange nature for the bailiff, who
was utterly unconscious of it.

“The scoundrel!” cried Michaud.

Then, with an involuntary and impotent gesture, such as mad men and wise
men can both be forced into giving, he shook his fist in the direction
in which he had caught sight of Nicolas disappearing with his sister.

“Then you were not playing?” said the abbe with a searching look at La
Pechina.

“Don’t fret her,” interposed the countess; “let us return to the
pavilion.”

Genevieve, though quite exhausted, found strength under Michaud’s eyes
to walk. The countess followed the bailiff through one of the by-paths
known to keepers and poachers where only two can go abreast, and which
led to the gate of the Avonne.

“Michaud,” said the countess when they reached the depth of the wood,
“We must find some way of ridding the neighborhood of such vile people;
that child is actually in danger of death.”

“In the first place,” replied Michaud, “Genevieve shall not leave the
pavilion. My wife will be glad to take the nephew of Vatel, who has the
care of the park roads, into the house. With Gounod (that is his name)
and old Cornevin, my wife’s foster-father, always at hand, La Pechina
need never go out without a protector.”

“I will tell Monsieur to make up this extra expense to you,” said the
countess. “But this does not rid us of that Nicolas. How can we manage
that?”

“The means are easy and right at hand,” answered Michaud. “Nicolas is to
appear very soon before the court of appeals on the draft. The general,
instead of asking for his release, as the Tonsards expect, has only to
advise his being sent to the army--”

“If necessary, I will go myself,” said the countess, “and see my cousin,
de Casteran, the prefect. But until then, I tremble for that child--”

The words were said at the end of the path close to the open space by
the bridge. As they reached the edge of the bank the countess gave a
cry; Michaud advanced to help her, thinking she had struck her foot
against a stone; but he shuddered at the sight that met his eyes.

Marie Tonsard and Bonnebault, seated below the bank, seemed to be
conversing, but were no doubt hiding there to hear what passed.
Evidently they had left the wood as the party advanced towards them.

Bonnebault, a tall, wiry fellow, had lately returned to Conches after
six years’ service in the cavalry, with a permanent discharge due to
his evil conduct,--his example being likely to ruin better men. He wore
moustachios and a small chin-tuft; a peculiarity which, joined to his
military carriage, made him the reigning fancy of all the girls in the
valley. His hair, in common with that of other soldiers, was cut very
short behind, but he frizzed it on the top of his head, brushing up the
ends with a dandy air; on it his foraging cap was jauntily tilted to one
side. Compared to the peasants, who were mostly in rags, like Mouche
and Fourchon, he seemed gorgeous in his linen trousers, boots, and short
waistcoat. These articles, bought at the time of his liberation, were,
it is true, somewhat the worse for a life in the fields; but this
village cock-of-the-walk had others in reserve for balls and holidays.
He lived, it must be said, on the gifts of his female friends,
which, liberal as they were, hardly sufficed for the libations, the
dissipations, and the squanderings of all kinds which resulted from his
intimacy with the Cafe de la Paix.

Cowardice is like courage; of both there are various kinds. Bonnebault
would have fought like a brave soldier, but he was weak in presence of
his vices and his desires. Lazy as a lizard, that is to say, active only
when it suited him, without the slightest decency, arrogant and base,
able for much but neglectful of all, the sole pleasure of this “breaker
of hearts and plates,” to use a barrack term, was to do evil or inflict
damage. Such a nature does as much harm in rural communities as it does
in a regiment. Bonnebault, like Tonsard and like Fourchon, desired to
live well and do nothing; and he had his plans laid. Making the most of
his gallant appearance with increasing success, and of his talents for
billiards with alternate loss and gain, he flattered himself that the
day would come when he could marry Mademoiselle Aglae Socquard, only
daughter of the proprietor of the Cafe de la Paix, a resort which was
to Soulanges what, relatively speaking, Ranelagh is to the Bois de
Boulogne. To get into the business of tavern-keeping, to manage
the public balls, what a fine career for the marshal’s baton of a
ne’er-do-well! These morals, this life, this nature, were so plainly
stamped upon the face of the low-lived profligate that the countess was
betrayed into an exclamation when she beheld the pair, for they gave her
the sensation of beholding snakes.

Marie, desperately in love with Bonnebault, would have robbed for
his benefit. Those moustachios, the swaggering gait of a trooper, the
fellow’s smart clothes, all went to her heart as the manners and charms
of a de Marsay touch that of a pretty Parisian. Each social sphere
has its own standard of distinction. The jealous Marie rebuffed Amaury
Lupin, the other dandy of the little town, her mind being made up to
become Madame Bonnebault.

“Hey! you there, hi! come on!” cried Nicolas and Catherine from afar,
catching sight of Marie and Bonnebault.

The sharp call echoed through the woods like the cry of savages.

Seeing the pair at his feet, Michaud shuddered and deeply repented
having spoken. If Bonnebault and Marie Tonsard had overheard
the conversation, nothing but harm could come of it. This event,
insignificant as it seems, was destined, in the irritated state of
feeling then existing between Les Aigues and the peasantry, to have a
decisive influence on the fate of all,--just as victory or defeat in
battle sometimes depends upon a brook which shepherds jump while cannon
are unable to pass it.

Gallantly bowing to the countess, Bonnebault passed Marie’s arm through
his own with a conquering air and took himself off triumphantly.

“The King of Hearts of the valley,” muttered Michaud to the countess. “A
dangerous man. When he loses twenty francs at billiards he would murder
Rigou to get them back. He loves a crime as he does a pleasure.”

“I have seen enough for to-day; take me home, gentlemen,” murmured the
countess, putting her hand on Emile’s arm.

She bowed sadly to Madame Michaud, after watching La Pechina safely back
to the pavilion. Olympe’s depression was transferred to her mistress.

“Ah, madame,” said the abbe, as they continued their way, “can it be
that the difficulty of doing good is about to deter you? For the
last five years I have slept on a pallet in a parsonage which has no
furniture; I say mass in a church without believers; I preach to no
hearers; I minister without fees or salary; I live on the six hundred
francs the law allows me, asking nothing of my bishop, and I give the
third of that in charity. Still, I am not hopeless. If you knew what
my winters are in this place you would understand the strength of those
words,--I am not hopeless. I keep myself warm with the belief that we
can save this valley and bring it back to God. No matter for ourselves,
madame; think of the future! If it is our duty to say to the poor,
‘Learn how to be poor; that is, how to work, to endure, to strive,’ it
is equally our duty to say to the rich, ‘Learn your duty as prosperous
men,’--that is to say, ‘Be wise, be intelligent in your benevolence;
pious and virtuous in the place to which God has called you.’ Ah!
madame, you are only the steward of Him who grants you wealth; if you
do not obey His behests you will never transmit to your children the
prosperity He gives you. You will rob your posterity. If you follow in
the steps of that poor singer’s selfishness, which caused the evils that
now terrify us, you will bring back the scaffolds on which your fathers
died for the faults of their fathers. To do good humbly, in obscurity,
in country solitudes, as Rigou now does evil,--ah! that indeed is prayer
in action and dear to God. If in every district three souls only would
work for good, France, our country, might be saved from the abyss
that yawns; into which we are rushing headlong, through spiritual
indifference to all that is not our own self-interest. Change! you must
change your morals, change your ethics, and that will change your laws.”

Though deeply moved as she listened to this grand utterance of true
catholic charity, the countess answered in the fatal words, “We will
consider it,”--words of the rich, which contain that promise to the ear
which saves their purses and enables them to stand with arms crossed in
presence of all disaster, under pretext that they were powerless.

Hearing those words, the abbe bowed to Madame de Montcornet and turned
off into a path which led him direct to the gate of Blangy.

“Belshazzar’s feast is the everlasting symbol of the dying days of a
caste, of an oligarchy, of a power!” he thought as he walked away.
“My God! if it be Thy will to loose the poor like a torrent to reform
society, I know, I comprehend, why it is that Thou hast abandoned the
wealthy to their blindness!”



CHAPTER XII. SHOWETH HOW THE TAVERN IS THE PEOPLE’S PARLIAMENT


Old Mother Tonsard’s screams brought a number of people from Blangy
to know what was happening at the Grand-I-Vert, the distance from the
village to the inn not being greater than that from the inn to the gate
of Blangy. One of these inquiring visitors was old Niseron, La Pechina’s
grandfather, who was on his way, after ringing the second Angelus, to
dig the vine-rows in his last little bit of ground.

Bent by toil, with pallid face and silvery hair, the old vinedresser,
now the sole representative of civic virtue in the community, had been,
during the Revolution, president of the Jacobin club at Ville-aux-Fayes,
and a juror in the revolutionary tribunal of the district. Jean-Francois
Niseron, carved out of the wood that the apostles were made of, was
of the type of Saint Peter; whom painters and sculptors have united in
representing with the square brow of the people, the thick, naturally
curling hair of the laborer, the muscles of the man of toil, the
complexion of a fisherman; with the large nose, the shrewd, half-mocking
lips that scoff at fate, the neck and shoulders of the strong man who
cuts his wood to cook his dinner while the doctrinaires of his opinions
talk.

Such, at forty years of age on the breaking out of the Revolution,
was this man, strong as iron, pure as gold. Advocate of the people,
he believed in a republic through the very roll of that name, more
formidable in sound perhaps than in reality. He believed in the republic
of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in the brotherhood of man, in the exchange of
noble sentiments, in the proclamation of virtue, in the choice of
merit without intrigue,--in short, in all that the narrow limits of one
arrondissement like Sparta made possible, and which the vast proportions
of an empire make chimerical. He signed his beliefs with his blood,--his
only son went to war; he did more, he signed them with the prosperity of
his life,--last sacrifice of self. Nephew and sole heir of the curate of
Blangy, the then all-powerful tribune might have enforced his rights and
recovered the property left by the priest to his pretty servant-girl,
Arsene; but he respected his uncle’s wishes and accepted poverty, which
came upon him as rapidly as the fall of his cherished republic came upon
France.

Never a farthing’s worth, never so much as the branch of a tree
belonging to another passed into the hands of this notable republican,
who would have made the republic acceptable to the world if he and such
as he could have guided it. He refused to buy the national domains; he
denied the right of the Republic to confiscate property. In reply to all
demands of the committee of public safety he asserted that the virtue of
citizens would do for their sacred country what low political intriguers
did for money. This patriot of antiquity publicly reproved Gaubertin’s
father for his secret treachery, his underhand bargaining, his
malversations. He reprimanded the virtuous Mouchon, that representative
of the people whose virtue was nothing more nor less than
incapacity,--as it is with so many other legislators who, gorged with
the greatest political resources that any nation ever gave, armed with
the whole force of a people, are still unable to bring forth from them
the grandeur which Richelieu wrung for France out of the weakness of
a king. Consequently, citizen Niseron became a living reproach to the
people about him. They endeavored to put him out of sight and mind with
the reproachful remark, “Nothing satisfies that man.”

The patriot peasant returned to his cot at Blangy and watched the
destruction, one by one, of his illusions; he saw his republic come
to an end at the heels of an emperor, while he himself fell into utter
poverty, to which Rigou stealthily managed to reduce him. And why?
Because Niseron had never been willing to accept anything from him.
Reiterated refusals showed the ex-priest in what profound contempt the
nephew of the curate held him; and now that icy scorn was revenged by
the terrible threat as to his little granddaughter, about which the Abbe
Brossette spoke to the countess.

The old man had composed in his own mind a history of the French
republic, filled with the glorious features which gave immortality to
that heroic period to the exclusion of all else. The infamous deeds, the
massacres, the spoliations, his virtuous soul ignored; he admired, with
a single mind, the devotedness of the people, the “Vengeur,” the gifts
to the nation, the uprising of the country to defend its frontier; and
he still pursued his dream that he might sleep in peace.

The Revolution produced many poets like old Niseron, who sang their
poems in the country solitudes, in the army, openly or secretly, by
deeds buried beneath the whirlwind of that storm, just as the wounded
left behind to die in the great wars of the empire cried out, “Long live
the Emperor!” This sublimity of soul belongs especially to France. The
Abbe Brossette respected the convictions of the old man, who became
simply but deeply attached to the priest from hearing him say, “The true
republic is in the Gospel.” The stanch republican carried the cross,
and wore the sexton’s robe, half-red, half-black, and was grave and
dignified in church,--supporting himself by the triple functions with
which he was invested by the abbe, who was able to give the fine old
man, not, to be sure, enough to live on, but enough to keep him from
dying of hunger.

Niseron, the Aristides of Blangy, spoke little, like all noble dupes who
wrap themselves in the mantle of resignation; but he was never silent
against evil, and the peasants feared him as thieves fear the police.
He seldom came more than six times a year to the Grand-I-Vert, though he
was always warmly welcomed there. The old man cursed the want of charity
of the rich,--their selfishness disgusted him; and through this fiber of
his mind he seemed to the peasants to belong to them; they were in the
habit of saying, “Pere Niseron doesn’t like the rich; he’s one of us.”

The civic crown won by this noble life throughout the valley lay in
these words: “That good old Niseron! there’s not a more honest man.”
 Often taken as umpire in certain kinds of disputes, he embodied the
meaning of that archaic term,--the village elder. Always extremely
clean, though threadbare, he wore breeches, coarse woollen stockings,
hob-nailed shoes, the distinctively French coat with large buttons and
the broad-brimmed felt hat to which all old peasants cling; but for
daily wear he kept a blue jacket so patched and darned that it looked
like a bit of tapestry. The pride of a man who feels he is free, and
knows he is worthy of freedom, gave to his countenance and his whole
bearing a _something_ that was inexpressibly noble; you would have felt
he wore a robe, not rags.

“Hey! what’s happening so unusual?” he said, “I heard the noise down
here from the belfry.”

They told him of Vatel’s attack on the old woman, talking all at once
after the fashion of country-people.

“If she didn’t cut the tree, Vatel was wrong; but if she did cut it, you
have done two bad actions,” said Pere Niseron.

“Take some wine,” said Tonsard, offering a full glass to the old man.

“Shall we start?” said Vermichel to the sheriff’s officer.

“Yes,” replied Brunet, “we must do without Pere Fourchon and take the
assistant at Conches. Go on before me; I have a paper to carry to the
chateau. Rigou has gained his second suit, and I’ve got to deliver the
verdict.”

So saying, Monsieur Brunet, all the livelier for a couple of glasses of
brandy, mounted his gray mare after saying good-bye to Pere Niseron; for
the whole valley were desirous in their hearts of the good man’s esteem.

No science, not even that of statistics, can explain the rapidity with
which news flies in the country, nor how it spreads over those ignorant
and untaught regions which are, in France, a standing reproach to the
government and to capitalists. Contemporaneous history can show that a
famous banker, after driving post-horses to death between Waterloo
and Paris (everybody knows why--he gained what the Emperor had lost,
a commission!) carried the fatal news only three hours in advance of
rumor. So, not an hour after the encounter between old mother Tonsard
and Vatel, a number of the customers of the Grand-I-Vert assembled there
to hear the tale.

The first to come was Courtecuisse, in whom you would scarcely have
recognized the once jovial forester, the rubicund do-nothing, whose
wife made his morning coffee as we have before seen. Aged, and thin,
and haggard, he presented to all eyes a lesson that no one learned. “He
tried to climb higher than the ladder,” was what his neighbors said
when others pitied him and blamed Rigou. “He wanted to be a bourgeois
himself.”

In fact, Courtecuisse did intend to pass for a bourgeois in buying the
Bachelerie, and he even boasted of it; though his wife went about the
roads gathering up the horse-droppings. She and Courtecuisse got
up before daylight, dug their garden, which was richly manured, and
obtained several yearly crops from it, without being able to do more
than pay the interest due to Rigou for the rest of the purchase-money.
Their daughter, who was living at service in Auxerre, sent them her
wages; but in spite of all their efforts, in spite of this help, the
last day for the final payment was approaching, and not a penny in
hand with which to meet it. Madame Courtecuisse, who in former times
occasionally allowed herself a bottle of boiled wine or a bit of roast
meat, now drank nothing but water. Courtecuisse was afraid to go to
the Grand-I-Vert lest he should have to leave three sous behind him.
Deprived of power, he had lost his privilege of free drinks, and he
bitterly complained, like all other fools, of man’s ingratitude. In
short, he found, according to the experience of all peasants bitten with
the demon of proprietorship, that toil had increased and food decreased.

“Courtecuisse has done too much to the property,” the people said,
secretly envying his position. “He ought to have waited till he had paid
the money down and was master before he put up those fruit palings.”

With the help of his wife he had managed to manure and cultivate the
three acres of land sold to him by Rigou, together with the garden
adjoining the house, which was beginning to be productive; and he was
in danger of being turned out of it all. Clothed in rags like Fourchon,
poor Courtecuisse, who lately wore the boots and gaiters of a huntsman,
now thrust his feet into sabots and accused “the rich” of Les Aigues of
having caused his destitution. These wearing anxieties had given to the
fat little man and his once smiling and rosy face a gloomy and dazed
expression, as though he were ill from the effects of poison or with
some chronic malady.

“What’s the matter with you, Monsieur Courtecuisse; is your tongue
tied?” asked Tonsard, as the man continued silent after he had told him
about the battle which had just taken place.

“No, no!” cried Madame Tonsard; “he needn’t complain of the midwife who
cut his string,--she made a good job of it.”

“It is enough to make a man dumb, thinking from morning till night of
some way to escape Rigou,” said the premature old man, gloomily.

“Bah!” said old Mother Tonsard, “you’ve got a pretty daughter, seventeen
years old. If she’s a good girl you can easily manage matters with that
old jail bird--”

“We sent her to Auxerre two years ago to Madame Mariotte the elder, to
keep her out of harm’s way; I’d rather die than--”

“What a fool you are!” said Tonsard, “look at my girls,--are they any
the worse? He who dares to say they are not as virtuous as marble images
will have to do with my gun.”

“It’ll be hard to have to come to that,” said Courtecuisse, shaking his
head. “I’d rather earn the money by shooting one of those Arminacs.”

“Well, I call it better for a girl to save a father than to wrap up her
virtue and let it mildew,” retorted the innkeeper.

Tonsard felt a sharp tap on his shoulder, delivered by Pere Niseron.

“That is not a right thing to say!” cried the old man. “A father is the
guardian of the honor of his family. It is by behaving as you do that
scorn and contempt are brought upon us; it is because of such conduct
that the People are accused of being unfit for liberty. The People
should set an example of civic virtue and honor to the rich. You all
sell yourselves to Rigou for gold; and if you don’t sell him your
daughters, at any rate you sell him your honor,--and it’s wrong.”

“Just see what a position Courtecuisse is in,” said Tonsard.

“See what a position I am in,” replied Pere Niseron; “but I sleep in
peace; there are no thorns in my pillow.”

“Let him talk, Tonsard,” whispered his wife, “you know they’re just _his
notions_, poor dear man.”

Bonnebault and Marie, Catherine and her brother came in at this moment
in a state of exasperation, which had begun with Nicolas’s failure,
and was raised to the highest pitch by Michaud’s advice to the countess
about Bonnebault. As Nicolas entered the tavern he was uttering
frightful threats against the Michaud family and Les Aigues.

“The harvest’s coming; well, I vow I’ll not go before I’ve lighted my
pipe at their wheat-stacks,” he cried, striking his fist on the table as
he sat down.

“Mustn’t yelp like that before people,” said Godain, showing him Pere
Niseron.

“If the old fellow tells, I’ll wring his neck,” said Catherine.
“He’s had his day, that old peddler of foolish reasons! They call him
virtuous; it’s his temperament that keeps him so, that’s all.”

Strange and noteworthy sight!--that of those lifted heads, that group
of persons gathered in the reeking hovel, while old Mother Tonsard stood
sentinel at the door as security for the secret words of the drinkers.

Of all those faces, that of Godain, Catherine’s suitor, was perhaps the
most alarming, though the least pronounced. Godain,--a miser without
money,--the cruelest of misers, for he who seeks money surely takes
precedence of him who hoards it, one turning his eagerness within
himself, the other looking outside with terrible intentness,--Godain
represented the type of the majority of peasant faces.

He was a journeyman, small in frame, and saved from the draft by not
attaining the required military height; naturally lean and made more
so by hard work and the enforced sobriety under which reluctant workers
like Courtecuisse succumb. His face was no bigger than a man’s fist,
and was lighted by a pair of yellow eyes with greenish strips and brown
spots, in which a thirst for the possession of property was mingled
with a concupiscence which had no heat,--for desire, once at the
boiling-point, had now stiffened like lava. His skin, brown as that of
a mummy, was glued to his temples. His scanty beard bristled among
his wrinkles like stubble in the furrows. Godain never perspired, he
reabsorbed his substance. His hairy hands, formed like claws, nervous,
never still, seemed to be made of old wood. Though scarcely twenty-seven
years of age, white lines were beginning to show in his rusty black
hair. He wore a blouse, through the breast opening of which could be
seen a shirt of coarse linen, so black that he must have worn it a month
and washed it himself in the Thune. His sabots were mended with old
iron. The original stuff of his trousers was unrecognizable from the
darns and the infinite number of patches. On his head was a horrible
cap, evidently cast off and picked up in the doorway of some bourgeois
house in Ville-aux-Fayes.

Clear-sighted enough to estimate the elements of good fortune that
centred in Catherine Tonsard, his ambition was to succeed her father at
the Grand-I-Vert. He made use of all his craftiness and all his actual
powers to capture her; he promised her wealth, he also promised her the
license her mother had enjoyed; besides this, he offered his prospective
father-in-law an enormous rental, five hundred francs a year, for his
inn, until he could buy him out, trusting to an agreement he had made
with Monsieur Brunet to pay these costs by notes on stamped paper. By
trade a journeyman tool-maker, this gnome worked for the wheelwrights
when work was plentiful, but he also hired himself out for any extra
labor which was well paid. Though he possessed, unknown to the whole
neighborhood, eighteen hundred francs now in Gaubertin’s hands, he lived
like a beggar, slept in a barn, and gleaned at the harvests. He wore
Gaubertin’s receipt for his money sewn into the waist-belt of his
trousers,--having it renewed every year with its own added interest and
the amount of his savings.

“Hey! what do I care,” cried Nicolas, replying to Godain’s prudent
advice not to talk before Niseron. “If I’m doomed to be a soldier
I’d rather the sawdust of the basket sucked up my blood than have it
dribbled out drop by drop in the battles. I’ll deliver this country of
at least one of those Arminacs that the devil has launched upon us.”

And he related what he called Michaud’s plot against him, which Marie
and Bonnebault had overheard.

“Where do you expect France to find soldiers?” said the white-haired
old man, rising and standing before Nicolas during the silence which
followed the utterance of this threat.

“We serve our time and come home again,” remarked Bonnebault, twirling
his moustache.

Observing that all the worst characters of the neighborhood were
collecting, Pere Niseron shook his head and left the tavern, after
offering a farthing to Madame Tonsard in payment for his glass of wine.
When the worthy man had gone down the steps a movement of relief and
satisfaction passed through the assembled drinkers which would have told
whoever watched them that each man in that company felt he was rid of
the living image of his own conscience.

“Well, what do you say to all that, hey, Courtecuisse?” asked Vaudoyer,
who had just come in, and to whom Tonsard had related Vatel’s attempt.

Courtecuisse clacked his tongue against the roof of his mouth, and set
his glass on the table.

“Vatel put himself in the wrong,” he said. “If I were Mother Tonsard,
I’d give myself a few wounds and go to bed and say I was ill, and have
that Shopman and his keeper up before the assizes and get twenty crowns
damages. Monsieur Sarcus would give them.”

“In any case the Shopman would give them to stop the talk it would
make,” said Godain.

Vaudoyer, the former field-keeper, a man five feet six inches tall, with
a face pitted with the small-pox and furrowed like a nut-cracker, kept
silence with a hesitating air.

“Well, you old ninny, does that ruffle you?” asked Tonsard, attracted
by the idea of damages. “If they had broken twenty crowns’ worth of my
mother’s bones we could turn it into good account; we might make a fine
fuss for three hundred francs; Monsieur Gourdon would go to Les Aigues
and tell them that the mother had got a broken hip--”

“And break it, too,” interrupted Madame Tonsard; “they do that in
Paris.”

“It would cost too much,” remarked Godain.

“I have been too long among the people who rule us to believe that
matters will go as you want them,” said Vaudoyer at last, remembering
his past official intercourse with the courts and the gendarmerie. “If
it were at Soulanges, now, it might be done; Monsieur Soudry represents
the government there, and he doesn’t wish well to the Shopman; but if
you attack the Shopman and Vatel they’ll defend themselves viciously;
they’ll say, ‘The woman was to blame; she had a tree, otherwise she
would have let her bundle be examined on the highroad; she wouldn’t have
run away; if an accident happened to her it was through her own fault.’
No, you can’t trust to that plan.”

“The Shopman didn’t resist when I sued him,” said Courtecuisse; “he paid
me at once.”

“I’ll go to Soulanges, if you like,” said Bonnebault, “and consult
Monsieur Gourdon, the clerk of the court, and you shall know to-night if
_there’s money in it_.”

“You are only making an excuse to be after that big goose of a girl,
Socquard’s daughter,” said Marie Tonsard, giving Bonnebault a slap on
the shoulder that made his lungs hum.

Just then a verse of an old Burgundian Christmas carol was heard:--

  “One fine moment of his life
  Was at the wedding feast;
  He changed the water into wine,--
  Madeira of the best.”

Every one recognized the vinous voice of old Fourchon, to whom the verse
must have been peculiarly agreeable; Mouche accompanied in his treble
tones.

“Ha! they’re full!” cried old Mother Tonsard to her daughter-in-law;
“your father is as red as a grid-iron, and that chip o’ the block as
pink as vine-shoot.”

“Your healths!” cried the old man, “and a fine lot of scoundrels you
are! All hail!” he said to his granddaughter, whom he spied kissing
Bonnebault, “hail, Marie, full of vice! Satan is with three; cursed art
thou among women, etcetera. All hail, the company present! you are done
for, every one of you! you may just say good-bye to your sheaves. I
being news. I always told you the rich would crush us; well now, the
Shopman is going to have the law of you! Ha! see what it is to struggle
against those bourgeois fellows, who have made so many laws since they
got into power that they’ve a law to enforce every trick they play--”

A violent hiccough gave a sudden turn to the ideas of the distinguished
orator.

“If Vermichel were only here I’d blow in his gullet, and he’d get an
idea of sherry wine. Hey! what a wine it is! If I wasn’t a Burgundian
I’d be a Spaniard! It’s God’s own wine! the pope says mass with it--Hey!
I’m young again! Say, Courtecuisse! if your wife were only here we’d be
young together. Don’t tell me! Spanish wine is worth a dozen of boiled
wine. Let’s have a revolution if it’s only to empty the cellars!”

“But what’s your news, papa?” said Tonsard.

“There’ll be no harvest for you; the Shopman has given orders to stop
the gleaning.”

“Stop the gleaning!” cried the whole tavern, with one voice, in which
the shrill tones of the four women predominated.

“Yes,” said Mouche, “he is going to issue an order, and Groison is to
take it round, and post it up all over the canton. No one is to glean
except those who have pauper certificates.”

“And what’s more,” said Fourchon, “the folks from the other districts
won’t be allowed here at all.”

“What’s that?” cried Bonnebault, “do you mean to tell me that neither
my grandmother nor I, nor your mother, Godain, can come here and glean?
Here’s tomfoolery for you; a pretty show of authority! Why, the fellow
is a devil let loose from hell,--that scoundrel of a mayor!”

“Shall you glean whether or no, Godain?” said Tonsard to the journeyman
wheelwright, who was saying a few words to Catherine.

“I? I’ve no property; I’m a pauper,” he replied; “I shall ask for a
certificate.”

“What did they give my father for his otter, bibi?” said Madame Tonsard
to Mouche.

Though nearly at his last gasp from an over-taxed digestion and two
bottles of wine, Mouche, sitting on Madame Tonsard’s lap, laid his head
on his aunt’s neck and whispered slyly in her ear:--

“I don’t know, but he has got gold. If you’ll feed me high for a month,
perhaps I can find out his hiding-place; he has one, I know that.”

“Father’s got gold!” whispered La Tonsard to her husband, whose voice
was loudest in the uproar of the excited discussion, in which all
present took part.

“Hush! here’s Groison,” cried the old sentinel.

Perfect silence reigned in the tavern. When Groison had got to a safe
distance, Mother Tonsard made a sign, and the discussion began again on
the question as to whether they should persist in gleaning, as before,
without a certificate.

“You’ll have to give in,” said Pere Fourchon; “for the Shopman has gone
to see the prefect and get troops to enforce the order. They’ll shoot
you like dogs,--and that’s what we are!” cried the old man, trying
to conquer the thickening of his speech produced by his potations of
sherry.

This fresh announcement, absurd as it was, made all the drinkers
thoughtful; they really believed the government capable of slaughtering
them without pity.

“I remember just such troubles near Toulouse, when I was stationed
there,” said Bonnebault. “We were marched out, and the peasants were cut
and slashed and arrested. Everybody laughed to see them try to resist
cavalry. Ten were sent to the galleys, and eleven put in prison; the
whole thing was crushed. Hey! what? why, soldiers are soldiers, and you
are nothing but civilian beggars; they’ve a right, they think, to sabre
peasants, the devil take you!”

“Well, well,” said Tonsard, “what is there in all that to frighten you
like kids? What can they get out of my mother and daughters? Put ‘em in
prison? well, then they must feed them; and the Shopman can’t imprison
the whole country. Besides, prisoners are better fed at the king’s
expense than they are at their own; and they’re kept warmer, too.”

“You are a pack of fools!” roared Fourchon. “Better gnaw at the
bourgeois than attack him in front; otherwise, you’ll get your backs
broke. If you like the galleys, so be it,--that’s another thing! You
don’t work as hard there as you do in the fields, true enough; but you
don’t have your liberty.”

“Perhaps it would be well,” said Vaudoyer, who was among the more
valiant in counsel, “if some of us risked our skins to deliver the
neighborhood of that Languedoc fellow who has planted himself at the
gate of the Avonne.”

“Do Michaud’s business for him?” said Nicolas; “I’m good for that.”

“Things are not ripe for it,” said old Fourchon. “We should risk too
much, my children. The best way is to make ourselves look miserable
and cry famine; then the Shopman and his wife will want to help us, and
you’ll get more out of them that way than you will by gleaning.”

“You are all blind moles,” shouted Tonsard, “let ‘em pick a quarrel with
their law and their troops, they can’t put the whole country in irons,
and we’ve plenty of friends at Ville-aux-Fayes and among the old lords
who’ll sustain us.”

“That’s true,” said Courtecuisse; “none of the other land-owners
complain, it is only the Shopman; Monsieur de Soulanges and Monsieur de
Ronquerolles and others, they are satisfied. When I think that if that
cuirassier had only had the courage to let himself be killed like the
rest I should still be happy at the gate of the Avonne, and that it was
he that turned my life topsy-turvy, it just puts me beside myself.”

“They won’t call out the troops for a Shopman who has set every one in
the district against him,” said Godain. “The fault’s his own; he tried
to ride over everybody here, and upset everything; and the government
will just say to him, ‘Hush up.’”

“The government never says anything else; it can’t, poor government!”
 said Fourchon, seized with a sudden tenderness for the government. “Yes,
I pity it, that good government; it is very unlucky,--it hasn’t a penny,
like us; but that’s very stupid of a government that makes the money
itself, very stupid! Ah! if I were the government--”

“But,” cried Courtecuisse, “they tell me in Ville-aux-Fayes that
Monsieur de Ronquerolles talked about our rights in the Assembly.”

“That’s in Monsieur Rigou’s newspaper,” said Vaudoyer, who in his
capacity of ex-field-keeper knew how to read and write; “I read it--”

In spite of his vinous tenderness, old Fourchon, like many of the lower
classes whose faculties are stimulated by drunkenness, was following,
with an intelligent eye and a keen ear, this curious discussion which a
variety of asides rendered still more curious. Suddenly, he stood up in
the middle of the room.

“Listen to the old one, he’s drunk!” said Tonsard, “and when he is, he
is twice as full of deviltry; he has his own and that of the wine--”

“Spanish wine, and that trebles it!” cried Fourchon, laughing like a
satyr. “My sons, don’t butt your head straight at the thing,--you’re too
weak; go at it sideways. Lay low, play dead; the little woman is scared.
I tell you, the thing’ll come to an end before long; she’ll leave
the place, and if she does the Shopman will follow her, for she’s his
passion. That’s your plan. Only, to make ‘em go faster, my advice is to
get rid of their counsellor, their support, our spy, our ape--”

“Who’s that?”

“The damned abbe, of course,” said Tonsard; “that hunter after sins, who
thinks the host is food enough for us.”

“That’s true,” cried Vaudoyer; “we were happy enough till he came. We
ought to get rid of that eater of the good God,--he’s the real enemy.”

“Finikin,” added Fourchon, using a nickname which the abbe owed to his
prim and rather puny appearance, “might be led into temptation and fall
into the power of some sly girl, for he fasts so much. Then if we could
catch him in the act and drum him up with a good charivari, the bishop
would be obliged to send him elsewhere. It would please old Rigou
devilish well. Now if your daughter, Courtecuisse, would leave
Auxerre--she’s a pretty girl, and if she’d take to piety, she might save
us all. Hey! ran tan plan!--”

“Why don’t _you_ do it?” said Godain to Catherine, in a low voice;
“there’d be scuttles full of money to hush up the talk; and for the time
being you’d be mistress here--”

“Shall we glean, or shall we not glean? that’s the point,” said
Bonnebault. “I don’t care two straws for your abbe, not I; I belong to
Conches, where we haven’t a black-coat to poke up our consciences.”

“Look here,” said Vaudoyer, “we had better go and ask Rigou, who knows
the law, whether the Shopman can forbid gleaning, and he’ll tell us if
we’ve got the right of it. If the Shopman has the law on his side, well,
then we must do as the old one says,--see about taking things sideways.”

“Blood will be spilt,” said Nicolas, darkly, as he rose after drinking a
whole bottle of wine, which Catherine drew for him in order to keep
him silent. “If you’d only listen to me you’d down Michaud; but you are
miserable weaklings,--nothing but poor trash!”

“I’m not,” said Bonnebault. “If you are all safe friends who’ll keep
your tongues between your teeth, I’ll aim at the Shopman--Hey! how I’d
like to put a plum through his bottle; wouldn’t it avenge me on those
cursed officers?”

“Tut! tut!” cried Jean-Louis Tonsard, who was supposed to be, more or
less, Gaubertin’s son, and who had just entered the tavern. This fellow,
who was courting Rigou’s pretty servant-girl, had succeeded his nominal
father as clipper of hedges and shrubberies and other Tonsardial
occupations. Going about among the well-to-do houses, he talked with
masters and servants and picked up ideas which made him the man of the
world of the family, the shrewd head. We shall presently see that in
making love to Rigou’s servant-girl, Jean-Louis deserved his reputation
for shrewdness.

“Well, what have you to say, prophet?” said the innkeeper to his son.

“I say that you are playing into the hands of the rich folk,” replied
Jean-Louis. “Frighten the Aigues people to maintain your rights if you
choose; but if you drive them out of the place and make them sell the
estate, you are doing just what the bourgeois of the valley want, and
it’s against your own interest. If you help the bourgeois to divide the
great estates among them, where’s the national domain to be bought for
nothing at the next Revolution? Wait till then, and you’ll get your land
without paying for it, as Rigou got his; whereas if you go and thrust
this estate into the jaws of the rich folk of the valley, the rich folk
will dribble it back to you impoverished and at twice the price they
paid for it. You are working for their interests, I tell you; so does
everybody who works for Rigou,--look at Courtecuisse.”

The policy contained in this allocution was too deep for the drunken
heads of those present, who were all, except Courtecuisse, laying by
their money to buy a slice of the Aigues cake. So they let Jean-Louis
harangue, and continued, as in the Chamber of Deputies, their private
confabs with one another.

“Yes, that’s so; you’ll be Rigou’s cats-paw!” cried Fourchon, who alone
understood his grandson.

Just then Langlume, the miller of Les Aigues, passed the tavern. Madame
Tonsard hailed him.

“Is it true,” she said, “that gleaning is to be forbidden?”

Langlume, a jovial white man, white with flour and dressed in
grayish-white clothes, came up the steps and looked in. Instantly all
the peasants became as sober as judges.

“Well, my children, I am forced to answer yes, and no. None but the poor
are to glean; but the measures they are going to take will turn out to
your advantage.”

“How so?” asked Godain.

“Why, they can prevent any but paupers from gleaning here,” said the
miller, winking in true Norman fashion; “but that doesn’t prevent you
from gleaning elsewhere,--unless all the mayors do as the Blangy mayor
is doing.”

“Then it is true,” said Tonsard, in a threatening voice.

“As for me,” said Bonnebault, putting his foraging-cap over one ear and
making his hazel stick whiz in the air, “I’m off to Conches to warn the
friends.”

And the Lovelace of the valley departed, whistling the tune of the
martial song,--

  “You who know the hussars of the Guard,
  Don’t you know the trombone of the regiment?”

“I say, Marie! he’s going a queer way to get to Conches, that friend of
yours,” cried old Mother Tonsard to her granddaughter.

“He’s after Aglae!” said Marie, who made one bound to the door. “I’ll
have to thrash her once for all, that baggage!” she cried, viciously.

“Come, Vaudoyer,” said Tonsard, “go and see Rigou, and then we
shall know what to do; he’s our oracle, and his spittle doesn’t cost
anything.”

“Another folly!” said Jean-Louis, in a low voice, “Rigou betrays
everybody; Annette tells me so; she says he’s more dangerous when he
listens to you than other folks are when they bluster.”

“I advise you to be cautious,” said Langlume. “The general has gone to
the prefecture about your misdeeds, and Sibilet tells me he has sworn
an oath to go to Paris and see the Chancellor of France and the King
himself, and the whole pack of them if necessary, to get the better of
his peasantry.”

“His peasantry!” shouted every one.

“Ha, ha! so we don’t belong to ourselves any longer?”

As Tonsard asked the question, Vaudoyer left the house to see Rigou.

Langlume, who had already gone out, turned on the door-step, and
answered:--

“Crowd of do-nothings! are you so rich that you think you are your own
masters?”

Though said with a laugh, the meaning contained in those words was
understood by all present, as horses understand the cut of a whip.

“Ran tan plan! masters indeed!” shouted old Fourchon. “I say, my lad,”
 he added to Nicolas, “after your performance this morning it’s not my
clarionet that you’ll get between your thumb and four fingers!”

“Don’t plague him, or he’ll make you throw up your wine by a punch in
the stomach,” said Catherine, roughly.



CHAPTER XIII. A TYPE OF THE COUNTRY USURER


Strategically, Rigou’s position at Blangy was that of a picket sentinel.
He watched Les Aigues, and watched it well. The police have no spies
comparable to those that serve hatred.

When the general first came to Les Aigues Rigou apparently formed some
plans about him which Montcornet’s marriage with a Troisville put an end
to; he seemed to have wished to patronize the new land-owner. In fact
his intentions were so patent that Gaubertin thought best to let him
into the secrets of the coalition against Les Aigues. Before accepting
any part in the affair, Rigou determined, as he said, to put the general
between two stools.

One day, after the countess was fairly installed, a little wicker
carriage painted green entered the grand courtyard of the chateau. The
mayor, who was flanked by his mayoress, got out and came round to the
portico on the garden side. As he did so Rigou saw Madame le comtesse at
a window. She, however, devoted to the bishop and to religion and to the
Abbe Brossette, sent word by Francois that “Madame was out.”

This act of incivility, worthy of a woman born in Russia, turned the
face of the ex-Benedictine yellow. If the countess had seen the man whom
the abbe told her was “a soul in hell who plunged into iniquity as into
a bath in his efforts to cool himself,” if she had seen his face then
she might have refrained from exciting the cold, deliberate hatred
felt by the liberals against the royalists, increased as it was
in country-places by the jealousies of neighborhood, where the
recollections of wounded vanity are kept constantly alive.

A few details about this man and his morals will not only throw light on
his share of the plot, called “the great affair” by his two associates,
but it will have the merit of picturing an extremely curious type of
man,--one of those rural existences which are peculiar to France, and
which no writer has hitherto sought to depict. Nothing about this man is
without significance,--neither his house, nor his manner of blowing
the fire, nor his ways of eating; his habits, morals, and opinions will
vividly illustrate the history of the valley. This renegade serves
to show the utility of democracy; he is at once its theory and its
practice, its alpha and its omega, in short, its “summum.”

Perhaps you will remember certain masters of avarice pictured in former
scenes of this comedy of human life: in the first place the provincial
minister, Pere Grandet of Saumur, miserly as a tiger is cruel; next
Gobseck, the usurer, that Jesuit of gold, delighting only in its power,
and relishing the tears of the unfortunate because gold produced them;
then Baron Nucingen, lifting base and fraudulent money transactions to
the level of State policy. Then, too, you may remember that portrait
of domestic parsimony, old Hochon of Issoudun, and that other miser in
behalf of family interests, little la Baudraye of Sancerre. Well, human
emotions--above all, those of avarice--take on so many and diverse
shades in the diverse centres of social existence that there still
remains upon the stage of our comedy another miser to be studied,
namely, Rigou,--Rigou, the miser-egoist; full of tenderness for his own
gratifications, cold and hard to others; the ecclesiastical miser; the
monk still a monk so far as he can squeeze the juice of the fruit called
good-living, and becoming secular only to put a paw upon the public
money. In the first place, let us explain the continual pleasure that he
took in sleeping under his own roof.

Blangy--by that we mean the sixty houses described by Blondet in his
letter to Nathan--stands on a rise of land to the left of the Thune. As
all the houses are surrounded by gardens, the village is a very pretty
one. Some houses are built on the banks of the stream. At the upper end
of the long rise stands the church, formerly flanked by a parsonage,
its apse surrounded, as in many other villages, by a graveyard. The
sacrilegious old Rigou had bought the parsonage, which was originally
built by an excellent Catholic, Mademoiselle Choin, on land which she
had bought for the purpose. A terraced garden, from which the eye looked
down upon Blangy, Cerneux, and Soulanges standing between the two great
seignorial parks, separated the late parsonage from the church. On its
opposite side lay a meadow, bought by the last curate of the parish not
long before his death, which the distrustful Rigou had since surrounded
with a wall.

The ex-monk and mayor having refused to sell back the parsonage for its
original purpose, the parish was obliged to buy a house belonging to
a peasant, which adjoined the church. It was necessary to spend five
thousand francs to repair and enlarge it and to enclose it in a
little garden, one wall of which was that of the sacristy, so that
communication between the parsonage and the church was still as close as
it ever was.

These two houses, built on a line with the church, and seeming to belong
to it by their gardens, faced a piece of open ground planted by trees,
which might be called the square of Blangy,--all the more because
the count had lately built, directly opposite to the new parsonage,
a communal building intended for the mayor’s office, the home of the
field-keeper, and the quarters of that school of the Brothers of the
Christian Doctrine, for which the Abbe Brossette had hitherto begged in
vain. Thus, not only were the houses of the ex-monk and the young priest
connected and yet separated by the church, but they were in a position
to watch each other. Indeed, the whole village spied upon the abbe. The
main street, which began at the Thune, crept tortuously up the hill to
the church. Vineyards, the cottages of the peasantry, and a small grove
crowned the heights.

Rigou’s house, the handsomest in the village, was built of the large
rubble-stone peculiar to Burgundy, imbedded in yellow mortar smoothed by
the trowel, which produced an uneven surface, still further broken here
and there by projecting points of the stone, which was mostly black. A
band of cement, in which no stones were allowed to show, surrounded each
window with a sort of frame, where time had made some slight, capricious
cracks, such as appear on plastered ceilings. The outer blinds, of a
clumsy pattern, were noticeable for their color, which was dragon-green.
A few mosses grew among the slates of the roof. The type is that of
Burgundian homesteads; the traveller will see thousands like it when
visiting this part of France.

A double door opened upon a passage, half-way down which was the well of
the staircase. By the entrance was the door of a large room with three
windows looking out upon the square. The kitchen, built behind and
beneath the staircase, was lighted from the courtyard, which was neatly
paved with cobble-stones and entered by a porte-cochere. Such was the
ground-floor. The first floor contained three bedrooms, above them a
small attic chamber.

A wood-shed, a coach-house, and a stable adjoined the kitchen, and
formed two sides of a square around the courtyard. Above these rather
flimsy buildings were lofts containing hay and grain, a fruit-room, and
one servant’s-chamber.

A poultry-yard, the stable, and a pigsty faced the house across the
courtyard.

The garden, about an acre in size and enclosed by walls, was a true
priest’s garden; that is, it was full of wall-fruit and fruit-trees,
grape-arbors, gravel-paths, closely trimmed box-trees, and square
vegetable patches, made rich with the manure from the stable.

Within, the large room, panelled in wainscot, was hung with old
tapestry. The walnut furniture, brown with age and covered with stuffs
embroidered in needle-work, was in keeping with the wainscot and with
the ceiling, which was also panelled. The latter had three projecting
beams, but these were painted, and between them the space was plastered.
The mantel, also in walnut, surmounted by a mirror in the most grotesque
frame, had no other ornament than two brass eggs standing on a marble
base, each of which opened in the middle; the upper half when turned
over showed a socket for a candle. These candlesticks for two lights,
festooned with chains (an invention of the reign of Louis XV.), were
becoming rare. On a green and gold bracket fastened to the wall opposite
to the window was a common but excellent clock. The curtains, which
squeaked upon their rods, were at least fifty years old; their material,
of cotton in a square pattern like that of mattresses, alternately pink
and white, came from the Indies. A sideboard and dinner-table completed
the equipment of the room, which was kept with extreme nicety.

At the corner of the fireplace was an immense sofa, Rigou’s especial
seat. In the angle, above a little “bonheur du jour,” which served him
as a desk, and hanging to a common screw, was a pair of bellows, the
origin of Rigou’s fortune.

From this succinct description, in style like that of an auction sale,
it will be easy to imagine that the bedrooms of Monsieur and Madame
Rigou were limited to mere necessaries; yet it would be a mistake to
suppose that such parsimony affected the essential excellence of those
necessaries. For instance, the most fastidious of women would have slept
well in Rigou’s bed, with fine linen sheets, excellent mattresses, made
luxurious by a feather-bed (doubtless bought for some abbe by a pious
female parishioner) and protected from draughts by thick curtains. All
the rest of Rigou’s belongings were made comfortable for his use, as we
shall see.

In the first place, he had reduced his wife, who could neither read,
write, nor cipher, to absolute obedience. After having ruled her
deceased master, the poor creature was now the servant of her husband;
she cooked and did the washing, with very little help from a pretty girl
named Annette, who was nineteen years old and as much a slave to Rigou
as her mistress, and whose wages were thirty francs a year.

Tall, thin, and withered, Madame Rigou, a woman with a yellow face
red about the cheek-bones, her head always wrapped in a colored
handkerchief, and wearing the same dress all the year round, did not
leave the house for two hours in a month’s time, but kept herself
in exercise by doing the hard work of a devoted servant. The keenest
observer could not have found a trace of the fine figure, the Rubens
coloring, the splendid lines, the superb teeth, the virginal eyes which
first drew the attention of the Abbe Niseron to the young girl. The
birth of her only daughter, Madame Soudry, Jr., had blighted her
complexion, decayed her teeth, dimmed her eyes, and even caused the
dropping of their lashes. It almost seemed as if the finger of God
had fallen upon the wife of the priest. Like all well-to-do country
house-wives, she liked to see her closets full of silk gowns, made and
unmade, and jewels and laces which did her no good and only excited the
sin of envy and a desire for her death in the minds of all the young
women who served Rigou. She was one of those beings, half-woman,
half-animal, who are born to live by instinct. This ex-beautiful Arsene
was disinterested; and the bequest left to her by the late Abbe Niseron
would be inexplicable were it not for the curious circumstance which
prompted it, and which we give here for the edification of the vast
tribe of expectant heirs.

Madame Niseron, the wife of the old republican sexton, always paid the
greatest attention to her husband’s uncle, the priest of Blangy; the
forty or fifty thousand francs soon to be inherited from the old man
of seventy would put the family of his only nephew into a condition of
affluence which she impatiently awaited, for besides her only son (the
father of La Pechina) Madame Niseron had a charming little daughter,
lively and innocent,--one of those beings that seem perfected only
because they are to die, which she did at the age of fourteen from “pale
color,” the popular name for chlorosis among the peasantry. The darling
of the parsonage, where the child fluttered about her great uncle the
abbe as she did in her home, bringing clouds and sunshine with her, she
grew to love Mademoiselle Arsene, the pretty servant whom the old abbe
engaged in 1789. Arsene was the niece of his housekeeper, whose place
the girl took by request of the latter on her deathbed.

In 1791, just about the time that the Abbe Niseron offered his house as
an asylum to Rigou and his brother Jean, the little girl played one of
her mischievous but innocent tricks. She was playing with Arsene and
some other children at a game which consists in hiding an object which
the rest seek, and crying out, “You burn!” or “You freeze!” according
as the searchers approach or leave the hidden article. Little Genevieve
took it into her head to hide the bellows in Arsene’s bed. The bellows
could not be found, and the game came to an end; Genevieve was taken
home by her mother and forgot to put the bellows back on the nail.
Arsene and her aunt searched more than a week for them; then they
stopped searching and managed to do without them, the old abbe blowing
his fire with an air-cane made in the days when air-canes were the
fashion,--a fashion which was no doubt introduced by some courtier of
the reign of Henri III. At last, about a month before her death, the
housekeeper, after a dinner at which the Abbe Mouchon, the Niseron
family, and the curate of Soulanges were present, returned to her
jeremiades about the loss of the bellows.

“Why! they’ve been these two weeks in Arsene’s bed!” cried the little
one, with a peal of laughter. “Great lazy thing! if she had taken the
trouble to make her bed she would have found them.”

As it was 1791 everybody laughed; but a dead silence succeeded the
laugh.

“There is nothing laughable in that,” said the housekeeper; “since I
have been ill Arsene sleeps in my room.”

In spite of this explanation the Abbe Niseron looked thunderbolts at
Madame Niseron and his nephew, thinking they were plotting mischief
against him. The housekeeper died. Rigou contrived to work up the
abbe’s resentment to such a pitch that he made a will disinheriting
Jean-Francois Niseron in favor of Arsene Pichard.

In 1823 Rigou, perhaps out of a sense of gratitude, still blew the fire
with an air-cane, and left the bellows hanging to the screw.

Madame Niseron, idolizing her daughter, did not long survive her. Mother
and child died in 1794. The old abbe, too, was dead, and citizen Rigou
took charge of Arsene’s affairs by marrying her. A former convert in
the monastery, attached to Rigou as a dog is to his master, became the
groom, gardener, herdsman, valet, and steward of the sensual Harpagon.
Arsene Rigou, the daughter, married in 1821 without dowry to the
prosecuting-attorney, inheriting something of her mother’s rather vulgar
beauty, together with the crafty mind of her father.

Now about sixty-seven years of age, Rigou had never been ill in his
life, and nothing seemed able to lessen his aggressively good health.
Tall, lean, with brown circles round his eyes, the lids of which were
nearly black, any one who saw him of a morning, when as he dressed he
exposed the wrinkled, red, and granulated skin of his neck, would have
compared him to a condor,--all the more because his long nose, sharp
at the tip, increased the likeness by its sanguineous color. His head,
partly bald, would have frightened phrenologists by the shape of its
skull, which was like an ass’s backbone, an indication of despotic
will. His grayish eyes, half-covered by filmy, red-veined lids, were
predestined to aid hypocrisy. Two scanty locks of hair of an undecided
color overhung the large ears, which were long and without rim, a sure
sign of cruelty, but cruelty of the moral nature only, unless where it
means actual insanity. The mouth, very broad, with thin lips, indicated
a sturdy eater and a determined drinker by the drop of its corners,
which turned downward like two commas, from which drooled gravy when he
ate and saliva when he talked. Heliogabalus must have been like this.

His dress, which never varied, consisted of a long blue surtout with a
military collar, a black cravat, with waistcoat and trousers of black
cloth. His shoes, very thick soled, had iron nails outside, and inside
woollen linings knit by his wife in the winter evenings. Annette and her
mistress also knit the master’s stockings. Rigou’s name was Gregoire.

Though this sketch gives some idea of the man’s character, no one can
imagine the point to which, in his private and unthwarted life, the
ex-Benedictine had pushed the science of selfishness, good living, and
sensuality. In the first place, he dined alone, waited upon by his wife
and Annette, who themselves dined with Jean in the kitchen, while the
master digested his meal and disposed of his wine as he read “the news.”

In the country the special names of journals are never mentioned; they
are all called by the general name of “the news.”

Rigou’s dinner, like his breakfast and supper, was always of choice
delicacies, cooked with the art which distinguishes a priest’s
housekeeper from all other cooks. Madame Rigou made the butter herself
twice a week. Cream was a concomitant of many sauces. The vegetables
came at a jump, as it were, from their frames to the saucepan.
Parisians, who are accustomed to eat the fruits of the earth after they
have had a second ripening in the sun of a city, infected by the air of
the streets, fermenting in close shops, and watered from time to time by
the market-women to give them a deceitful freshness, have little idea of
the exquisite flavors of really fresh produce, to which nature has lent
fugitive but powerful charms when eaten as it were alive.

The butcher of Soulanges brought his best meat under fear of losing
Rigou’s custom. The poultry, raised on the premises, was of the finest
quality.

This system of secret pampering embraced everything in which Rigou was
personally concerned. Though the slippers of the knowing Thelemist were
of stout leather they were lined with lamb’s wool. Though his coat was
of rough cloth it did not touch his skin, for his shirt, washed and
ironed at home, was of the finest Frisian linen. His wife, Annette, and
Jean drank the common wine of the country, the wine he reserved from his
own vineyards; but in his private cellar, as well stocked as the cellars
of Belgium, the finest vintages of Burgundy rubbed sides with those
of Bordeaux, Champagne, Roussillon, not to speak of Spanish and Rhine
wines, all bought ten years in advance of use and bottled by Brother
Jean. The liqueurs in that cellar were those of the Isles, and came
originally from Madame Amphoux. Rigou had laid in a supply to last him
the rest of his days, at the national sale of a chateau in Burgundy.

The ex-monk ate and drank like Louis XIV. (one of the greatest consumers
of food and drink ever known), which reveals the costs of a life that
was more than voluptuous. Careful and very shrewd in managing his secret
prodigalities, he disputed all purchases as only churchmen can dispute.
Instead of taking infinite precautions against being cheated, the sly
monk kept patterns and samples, had the agreements reduced to writing,
and warned those who forwarded his wines or his provisions that if
they fell short of the mark in any way he should refuse to accept their
consignments.

Jean, who had charge of the fruit-room, was trained to keep fresh the
finest fruits grown in the department; so that Rigou ate pears and
apples and sometimes grapes, at Easter.

No prophet regarded as a God was ever more blindly obeyed than was Rigou
in his own home. A mere motion of his black eyelashes could plunge his
wife, Annette, and Jean into the deepest anxiety. He held his three
slaves by the multiplicity of their many duties, which were like a chain
in his hands. These poor creatures were under the perpetual yoke of some
ordered duty, with an eye always on them; but they had come to take a
sort of pleasure in accomplishing these tasks, and did not suffer under
them. All three had the comfort and well-being of that one man before
their minds as the sole end and object of all their thoughts.

Annette was (since 1795) the tenth pretty girl in Rigou’s service,
and he expected to go down to his grave with relays of such servants.
Brought to him at sixteen, she would be sent away at nineteen. All these
girls, carefully chosen at Auxerre, Clamecy, or in the Morvan, were
enticed by the promise of future prosperity; but Madame Rigou persisted
in living. So at the end of every three years some quarrel, usually
brought about by the insolence of the servant to the poor mistress,
caused their dismissal.

Annette, who was a picture of delicate beauty, ingenuous and sparkling,
deserved to be a duchess. Rigou knew nothing of the love affair between
her and Jean-Louis Tonsard, which proves that he had let himself be
fooled by the girl,--the only one of his many servants whose ambition
had taught her to flatter the lynx as the only way to blind him.

This uncrowned Louis XV. did not keep himself wholly to his pretty
Annette. Being the mortgagee of lands bought by peasants who were unable
to pay for them, he kept a harem in the valley, from Soulanges to
five miles beyond Conches on the road to La Brie, without making other
payments than “extension of time,” for those fugitive pleasures which
eat into the fortunes of so many old men.

This luxurious life, a life like that of Bouret, cost Rigou almost
nothing. Thanks to his white slaves, he could cut and mow down and
gather in his wood, hay, and grain. To the peasant manual labor is
a small matter, especially if it serves to postpone the payment of
interest due. And so Rigou, while requiring little premiums on each
month’s delay, squeezed a great deal of manual labor out of his
debtors,--positive drudgery, to which they submitted thinking they gave
little because nothing left their pockets. Rigou sometimes obtained in
this way more than the principal of a debt.

Deep as a monk, silent as a Benedictine in the throes of writing
history, sly as a priest, deceitful as all misers, carefully keeping
within the limits of the law, the man might have been Tiberius in Rome,
Richelieu under Louis XIII., or Fouche, had the ambition seized him to
go to the Convention; but, instead of all that, Rigou had the common
sense to remain a Lucullus without ostentation, in other words, a
parsimonious voluptuary. To occupy his mind he indulged a hatred
manufactured out of the whole cloth. He harassed the Comte de
Montcornet. He worked the peasants like puppets by hidden wires, the
handling of which amused him as though it were a game of chess where
the pawns were alive, the knights caracoled, the bishops, like Fourchon,
gabbled, the feudal castles shone in the sun, and the queen maliciously
checkmated the king. Every day, when he got out of bed and saw from his
window the proud towers of Les Aigues, the chimneys of the pavilions,
and the noble gates, he said to himself: “They shall fall! I’ll dry up
the brooks, I’ll chop down the woods.” But he had two victims in mind, a
chief one and a lesser one. Though he meditated the dismemberment of the
chateau, the apostate also intended to make an end of the Abbe Brossette
by pin-pricks.

To complete the portrait of the ex-priest it will suffice to add that
he went to mass regretting that his wife still lived, and expressed the
desire to be reconciled with the Church as soon as he became a widower.
He bowed deferentially to the Abbe Brossette whenever he met him, and
spoke to him courteously and without heat. As a general thing all men
who belong to the Church, or who have come out of it, have the patience
of insects; they owe this to the obligation they have been under,
ecclesiastically, to preserve decorum,--a training which has been
lacking for the last twenty years to the vast majority of the French
nation, even those who think themselves well-bred. All the monks
which the Revolution brought out of their monasteries and forced into
business, public or private, showed in their coldness and reserve the
great advantage which ecclesiastical discipline gives to the sons of the
Church, even those who desert her.

Gaubertin had understood Rigou from the days when the Abbe Niseron made
his will and the ex-monk married the heiress; he fathomed the craft
hidden behind the jaundiced face of that accomplished hypocrite; and he
made himself the man’s fellow-worshipper before the altar of the Golden
Calf. When the banking-house of Leclercq was first started he advised
Rigou to put fifty thousand francs into it, guaranteeing their security
himself. Rigou was all the more desirable as an investor, or sleeping
partner, because he drew no interest but allowed his capital to
accumulate. At the period of which we write it amounted to over a
hundred thousand francs, although in 1816 he had taken out one hundred
and eighty thousand for investment in the Public Funds, from which he
derived an income of seventeen thousand francs. Lupin the notary had
cognizance of at least one hundred thousand francs which Rigou had lent
on small mortgages upon good estates. Ostensibly, Rigou derived about
fourteen thousand francs a year from landed property actually owned by
him. But as to his amassed hoard, it was represented by an “x” which no
rule of equations could evolve, just as the devil alone knew the secret
schemes he plotted with Langlume.

This dangerous usurer, who proposed to live a score of years longer, had
established fixed rules to work upon. He lent nothing to a peasant who
bought less than seven acres, and who could not pay one-half of the
purchase-money down. Rigou well understood the defects of the law of
dispossession when applied to small holdings, and the danger both to the
Public Treasury and to land-owners of the minute parcelling out of the
soil. How can you sue a peasant for the value of one row of vines
when he owns only five? The bird’s-eye view of self-interest is always
twenty-five years ahead of the perceptions of a legislative body. What a
lesson for a nation! Law will ever emanate from one brain, that of a man
of genius, and not from the nine hundred legislative heads, which, great
as they may be in themselves, are belittled and lost in a crowd.
Rigou’s law contains the essential element which has yet to be found
and introduced into public law to put an end to the absurd spectacle of
landed property reduced to halves, quarters, tenths, hundredths,--as
in the district of Argenteuil, where there are thirty thousand plots of
land.

Such operations as those Rigou was concerned in require extensive
collusion, like those we have seen existing in this arrondissement.
Lupin, the notary, whom Rigou employed to draw at least one third of
the deeds annually entrusted to his notarial office, was devoted to him.
This shark could thus include in the mortgage note (signed always in
presence of the wife, when the borrower was married) the amount of the
illegal interest. The peasant, delighted to feel he had to pay only his
five per cent interest annually, always imagined he should be able to
meet the payment by working doubly hard or by improving the land and
getting double returns upon it.

Hence the deceitful hopes excited by what imbecile economists call
“small farming,”--a political blunder to which we owe such mistakes as
sending French money to Germany to buy horses which our own land had
ceased to breed; a blunder which before long will reduce the raising of
cattle until meat will be unattainable not only by the people, but by
the lower middle classes (see “Le Cure de Village.”)

So, not a little sweat bedewed men’s brows between Conches and
Ville-aux-Fayes to Rigou’s profit, all being willing to give it; whereas
the labor dearly paid for by the general, the only man who did spend
money in the district, brought him curses and hatred, which were
showered upon him simply because he was rich. How could such facts
be understood unless we had previously taken that rapid glance at the
Mediocracy. Fourchon was right; the middle classes now held the position
of the former lords. The small land-owners, of whom Courtecuisse is
a type, were tenants in mortmain of a Tiberius in the valley of the
Avonne, just as, in Paris, traders without money are the peasantry of
the banking system.

Soudry followed Rigou’s example from Soulanges to a distance of fifteen
miles beyond Ville-aux-Fayes. These two usurers shared the district
between them.

Gaubertin, whose rapacity was in a higher sphere, not only did not
compete against that of his associates, but he prevented all other
capital in Ville-aux-Fayes from being employed in the same
fruitful manner. It is easy to imagine what immense influence this
triumvirate--Rigou, Soudry, and Gaubertin--wielded in election periods
over electors whose fortunes depended on their good-will.

Hate, intelligence, and means at command, such were the three sides of
the terrible triangle which describes the general’s closest enemy, the
spy ever watching Les Aigues,--a shark having constant dealings with
sixty to eighty small land-owners, relations or connections of the
peasantry, who feared him as such men always fear their creditor.

Rigou was in his way another Tonsard. The one throve on thefts from
nature, the other waxed fat on legal plunder. Both liked to live well.
It was the same nature in two species,--the one natural, the other
whetted by his training in a cloister.

It was about four o’clock when Vaudoyer left the tavern of the
Grand-I-Vert to consult the former mayor. Rigou was at dinner. Finding
the front door locked, Vaudoyer looked above the window blinds and
called out:--

“Monsieur Rigou, it is I,--Vaudoyer.”

Jean came round from the porte-cochere and said to Vaudoyer:--

“Come into the garden; Monsieur has company.”

The company was Sibilet, who, under pretext of discussing the verdict
Brunet had just handed in, was talking to Rigou of quite other matters.
He had found the usurer finishing his dessert. On a square dinner-table
covered with a dazzling white cloth--for, regardless of his wife and
Annette who did the washing, Rigou exacted clean table-linen every
day--the steward noted strawberries, apricots, peaches, figs, and
almonds, all the fruits of the season in profusion, served in white
porcelain dishes on vine-leaves as daintily as at Les Aigues.

Seeing Sibilet, Rigou told him to run the bolts of the inside
double-doors, which were added to the other doors as much to stifle
sounds as to keep out the cold air, and asked him what pressing business
brought him there in broad daylight when it was so much safer to confer
together at night.

“The Shopman talks of going to Paris to see the Keeper of the Seals;
he is capable of doing you a great deal of harm; he may ask for
the dismissal of your son-in-law, and the removal of the judges at
Ville-aux-Fayes, especially after reading the verdict just rendered in
your favor. He has turned at bay; he is shrewd, and he has an adviser in
that abbe, who is quite able to tilt with you and Gaubertin. Priests
are powerful. Monseigneur the bishop thinks a great deal of the Abbe
Brossette. Madame la comtesse talks of going herself to her cousin the
prefect, the Comte de Casteran, about Nicolas. Michaud begins to see
into our game.”

“You are frightened,” said Rigou, softly, casting a look on Sibilet
which suspicion made less impassive than usual, and which was therefore
terrific. “You are debating whether it would not be better on the whole
to side with the Comte de Montcornet.”

“I don’t see where I am to get the four thousand francs I save honestly
and invest every year, after you have cut up and sold Les Aigues,” said
Sibilet, shortly. “Monsieur Gaubertin has made me many fine promises;
but the crisis is coming on; there will be fighting, surely. Promising
before victory and keeping a promise after it are two very different
things.”

“I will talk to him about it,” replied Rigou, imperturbably. “Meantime
this is what I should say to you if I were in his place: ‘For the last
five years you have taken Monsieur Rigou four thousand francs a year,
and that worthy man gives you seven and a half per cent; which makes
your property in his hands at this moment over twenty-seven thousand
francs, as you have not drawn the interest. But there exists a private
signed agreement between you and Rigou, and the Shopman will dismiss his
steward whenever the Abbe Brossette lays that document before his eyes;
the abbe will be able to do so after receiving an anonymous letter which
will inform him of your double-dealing. You would therefore do better
for yourself by keeping well with us instead of clamoring for your pay
in advance,--all the more because Monsieur Rigou, who is not legally
bound to give you seven and a half per cent and the interest on your
interest, will make you in court a legal tender of your twenty thousand
francs, and you will not be able to touch that money until your
suit, prolonged by legal trickery, shall be decided by the court at
Ville-aux-Fayes. But if you act wisely you will find that when Monsieur
Rigou gets possession of your pavilion at Les Aigues, you will have
very nearly thirty thousand francs in his hands and thirty thousand more
which the said Rigou may entrust to you,--which will be all the more
advantageous to you then because the peasantry will have flung them
themselves upon the estate of Les Aigues, divided into small lots like
the poverty of the world.’ That’s what Monsieur Gaubertin might say to
you. As for me, I have nothing to say, for it is none of my business.
Gaubertin and I have our own quarrel with that son of the people who is
ashamed of his own father, and we follow our own course. If my friend
Gaubertin feels the need of using you, I don’t; I need no one, for
everybody is at my command. As to the Keeper of the Seals, that
functionary is often changed; whereas we--WE are always here, and can
bide our time.”

“Well, I’ve warned you,” returned Sibilet, feeling like a donkey under a
pack-saddle.

“Warned me of what?” said Rigou, artfully.

“Of what the Shopman is going to do,” answered the steward, humbly. “He
started for the Prefecture in a rage.”

“Let him go! If the Montcornets and their kind didn’t use wheels, what
would become of the carriage-makers?”

“I shall bring you three thousand francs to-night,” said Sibilet, “but
you ought to make over some of your maturing mortgages to me,--say, one
or two that would secure to me good lots of land.”

“Well, there’s that of Courtecuisse. I myself want to be easy on him
because he is the best shot in the canton; but if I make over his
mortgage to you, you will seem to be harassing him on the Shopman’s
account, and that will be killing two birds with one stone; when
Courtecuisse finds himself a beggar, like Fourchon, he’ll be capable
of anything. Courtecuisse has ruined himself on the Bachelerie; he has
cultivated all the land, and trained fruit on the walls. The little
property is now worth four thousand francs, and the count will gladly
pay you that to get possession of the three acres that jut right into
his land. If Courtecuisse were not such an idle hound he could have paid
his interest with the game he might have killed there.”

“Well, transfer the mortgage to me, and I’ll make my butter out of
it; the count shall buy the three acres, and I shall get the house and
garden for nothing.”

“What are you going to give me out of it?”

“Good heavens! you’d milk an ox!” exclaimed Sibilet,--“when I have just
done you such a service, too. I have at last got the Shopman to enforce
the laws about gleaning--”

“Have you, my dear fellow?” said Rigou, who a few days earlier had
suggested this means of exasperating the peasantry to Sibilet, telling
him to advise the general to try it. “Then we’ve got him; he’s lost! But
it isn’t enough to hold him with one string; we must wind it round and
round him like a roll of tobacco. Slip the bolts of the door, my lad;
tell my wife to bring my coffee and the liqueurs, and tell Jean to
harness up. I’m off to Soulanges; will see you to-night!--Ah! Vaudoyer,
good afternoon,” said the late mayor as his former field-keeper entered
the room. “What’s the news?”

Vaudoyer related the talk which had just taken place at the tavern, and
asked Rigou’s opinion as to the legality of the rules which the general
thought of enforcing.

“He has the law with him,” said Rigou, curtly. “We have a hard landlord;
the Abbe Brossette is a malignant priest; he advises all such measures
because you don’t go to mass, you miserable unbelievers. I go; there’s
a God, I tell you. You peasants will have to bear everything, for the
Shopman will always get the better of you--”

“We shall glean,” said Vaudoyer, in that determined tone which
characterizes Burgundians.

“Without a certificate of pauperism?” asked the usurer. “They say the
Shopman has gone to the Prefecture to ask for troops so as to force you
to keep the law.”

“We shall glean as we have always gleaned,” repeated Vaudoyer.

“Well, glean then! Monsieur Sarcus will decide whether you have the
right to,” said Rigou, seeming to promise the help of the justice of the
peace.

“We shall glean, and we shall do it in force, or Burgundy won’t be
Burgundy any longer,” said Vaudoyer. “If the gendarmes have sabres we
have scythes, and we’ll see what comes of it!”

At half-past four o’clock the great green gate of the former parsonage
turned on its hinges, and the bay horse, led by Jean, was brought round
to the front door. Madame Rigou and Annette came out on the steps and
looked at the little wicker carriage, painted green, with a leathern
hood, where their lord and master was comfortably seated on good
cushions.

“Don’t be late home, monsieur,” said Annette, with a little pout.

The village folk, already informed of the measures the general proposed
to take, were at their doors or standing in the main street as Rigou
drove by, believing that he was going to Soulanges in their defence.

“Well, Madame Courtecuisse, so our mayor is on his way to protect us,”
 remarked an old woman as she knitted; the question of depredating in
the forest was of great interest to her, for her husband sold the stolen
wood at Soulanges.

“Ah! the good man, his heart bleeds to see the way we are treated; he is
as unhappy as we are about it,” replied the poor woman, who trembled at
the very name of her husband’s creditor, and praised him out of fear.

“And he himself, too,--they’ve shamefully ill-used him! Good-day,
Monsieur Rigou,” said the old knitter to the usurer, who bowed to her
and to his debtor’s wife.

As Rigou crossed the Thune, fordable at all seasons, Tonsard came out of
the tavern and met him on the high-road.

“Well, Pere Rigou,” he said, “so the Shopman means to make dogs of us?”

“We’ll see about that,” said the usurer, whipping up his horse.

“He’ll protect us,” said Tonsard, turning to a group of women and
children who were near him.

“Rigou is thinking as much about you as a cook thinks of the gudgeons he
is frying in his pan,” called out Fourchon.

“Take the clapper out of your throat when you are drunk,” said Mouche,
pulling his grandfather by the blouse, and tumbling him down on a bank
under a poplar tree. “If that hound of a mayor heard you say that, he’d
never buy any more of your tales.”

The truth was that Rigou was hurrying to Soulanges in consequence of the
warning given him by the steward of Les Aigues, which, in his heart, he
regarded as threatening the secret coalition of the valley.



PART II



CHAPTER I. THE LEADING SOCIETY OF SOULANGES


About six kilometres (speaking legally) from Blangy, and at the same
distance from Ville-aux-Fayes, on an elevation radiating from the long
hillside at the foot of which flows the Avonne, stands the little town
of Soulanges, surnamed La Jolie, with, perhaps, more right to that title
than Mantes.

At the foot of the hill, the Thune broadens over a clay bottom to a
space of some seventy acres, at the end of which the Soulanges mills,
placed on numerous little islets, present as graceful a group of
buildings as any landscape architect could devise. After watering the
park of Soulanges, where it feeds various other streams and artificial
lakes, the Thune falls into the Avonne through a fine broad channel.

The chateau of Soulanges, rebuilt under Louis XIV. from designs of Jules
Mansart, and one of the finest in Burgundy, stands facing the town; so
that Soulanges and its chateau mutually present to each other a charming
and even elegant vista. The main road winds between the town and the
pond, called by the country people, rather pompously, the lake of
Soulanges.

The little town is one of those natural compositions which are extremely
rare in France, where _prettiness_ of its own kind is absolutely
wanting. Here you would indeed find, as Blondet said in his letter, the
charm of Switzerland, the prettiness of the environs of Neuf-chatel;
while the bright vineyards which encircle Soulanges complete the
resemblance,--leaving out, be it said, the Alps and the Jura. The
streets, placed one above another on the slope of the hill, have but few
houses; for each house stands in its own garden, which produces a mass
of greenery rarely seen in a town. The roofs, red or blue, rising among
flower-gardens, trees, and trellised terraces, present an harmonious
variety of aspects.

The church, an old Middle-Age structure, built of stone, thanks to the
munificence of the lords of Soulanges, who reserved for themselves first
a chapel near the chancel, then a crypt as their necropolis, has, by way
of portal, an immense arcade, like that of the church at Lonjumeau, and
is bordered by flower-beds adorned with statues, and flanked on either
side by columns with niches, which terminate in spires. This portal,
often seen in churches of the same period when chance has saved them
from the ravages of Calvinism, is surmounted by a triglyph, above which
stands a statue of the Virgin holding the infant Jesus. The sides of
the structure are externally of five arches, defined by stone ribs and
lighted by windows with small panes. The apse rests on arched abutments
that are worthy of a cathedral. The clock-tower, placed in a transept of
the cross, is square and surmounted by a belfry. The church can be seen
from a great distance, for it stands at the top of the great square, at
the lower end of which the high-road passes through the town.

This square, large for the size of the town, is surrounded by
very original buildings, all of different epochs. Many, half-wood,
half-brick, with their timbers faced with slate, date back to the Middle
Ages. Others, of stone, with balconies, show the form of gable so dear
to our ancestors, which belongs to the twelfth century. Several charm
the eye with those old projecting beams, carved with grotesque faces,
which form the roof of a sort of shed, and recall the days when the
middle classes were exclusively commercial. The finest house among
them was that of the chief magistrate of former days,--a house with a
sculptured front on a line with the church, to which it forms a fine
accompaniment. Sold as national property, it was bought in by the
commune, which turned it into a town-hall and court-house, where
Monsieur Sarcus had presided ever since the establishment of municipal
judges.

This slight sketch will give an idea of the square of Soulanges, adorned
in the centre with a charming fountain brought from Italy in 1520 by
the Marechal de Soulanges, which was not unworthy of a great capital.
An unfailing jet of water, coming from a spring higher up the hill, was
shed by four Cupids in white marble, bearing shells in their arms and
baskets of grapes upon their heads.

Literary travellers who may pass this way (should any such follow Emile
Blondet) might imagine the spot to have inspired Moliere and the Spanish
drama, which held its footing so long on French boards, showing that
comedy is native to warm countries where so much of life is passed in
the public streets. The square of Soulanges is all the more a reminder
of that classic stage because the two principal streets, opening just on
a line with the fountain, afford the exit and entrances so necessary for
the dramatic masters and valets whose business it is either to meet or
to avoid each other. At the corner of one of these streets, called the
rue de la Fontaine, shone the notarial escutcheon of Maitre Lupin. The
houses of Messieurs Sarcus, Guerbet the collector, Brunet, Gourdon,
clerk of the court, and that of his brother the doctor, also that of old
Monsieur Gendrin-Vatebled, the keeper of the forests and streams,--all
these houses, kept with extreme neatness by their owners, who held
firmly to the flattering surname of their native town, stand in
the neighborhood of the square and form the aristocratic quarter of
Soulanges.

The house of Madame Soudry--for the powerful individuality of
Mademoiselle Laguerre’s former waiting-maid took the lead of her husband
in the community--was modern, having been built by a rich wine-merchant,
born in Soulanges, who, after making his money in Paris, returned
there in 1793 to buy wheat for his native town. He was slain as an
“accapareur,” a monopolist, by the populace, instigated by a mason, the
uncle of Godain, with whom he had had some quarrel about the building of
his ambitious house. The settlement of his estate, sharply contested by
collateral heirs, dragged slowly along until, in 1798, Soudry, who had
then returned to Soulanges, was able to buy the wine-merchant’s palace
for three thousand francs in specie. He then let it, in the first
instance, to the government for the headquarters of the gendarmerie. In
1811 Mademoiselle Cochet, whom Soudry consulted about all his affairs,
strongly objected to the renewal of the lease, making the house
uninhabitable, she declared, with barracks. The town of Soulanges,
assisted by the department, then erected a building for the gendarmerie
in a street running at right angles from the town-hall. Thereupon Soudry
cleaned up his house and restored its primitive lustre, not a little
dimmed by the stabling of horses and the occupancy of gendarmes.

The house, only one story high, with projecting windows in the roof, has
a view on three sides; one to the square, another to a lake, the third
to a garden. The fourth side looks on a courtyard which separates the
Soudrys from the adjoining house occupied by a grocer named Wattebled,
a man of the SECOND-CLASS society of Soulanges, father of the beautiful
Madame Plissoud, of whom we shall presently have occasion to speak.

All little towns have a renowned beauty, just as they have a Socquard
and a Cafe de la Paix.

It will be apparent to every one that the frontage of the Soudry mansion
on the lake must have a terraced garden confined by a stone balustrade
which overlooks both the lake and the main road. A flight of steps
leads down from the terrace to the road, and on it an orange-tree,
a pomegranate, a myrtle, and other ornamental shrubs are placed,
necessitating a greenhouse. On the side toward the square the house
is entered from a portico raised several steps above the level of
the street. According to the custom of small towns the gate of the
courtyard, used only for the service of the house or for any unusual
arrival, was seldom opened. Visitors, who mostly came on foot, entered
by the portico.

The style of the Hotel Soudry is plain. The courses are indicated by
projecting lines; the windows are framed by mouldings alternately broad
and slender, like those of the Gabriel and Perronnet pavilion in the
place Louis XV. These ornaments in so small a town give a certain solid
and monumental air to the building which has become celebrated.

Opposite to this house, in another angle of the square stands the
famous Cafe de la Paix, the characteristics of which, together with
the fascinations of its Tivoli, will require, somewhat later, a less
succinct description than that we have given of the Soudry mansion.

Rigou very seldom came to Soulanges; everybody was in the habit of going
to him,--Lupin and Gaubertin, Soudry and Gendrin,--so much were they
afraid of him. But we shall presently understand why any educated man,
such as the ex-Benedictine, would have done as Rigou did, and kept
away from the little town, after reading the following sketch of the
personages who composed what was called in those parts “the leading
society of Soulanges.”

Of its principal figures, the most original, as you have already
suspected, was that of Madame Soudry, whose personality, to be duly
rendered, needs a minute and careful brush.

Madame Soudry, respectfully imitating Mademoiselle Laguerre, began by
allowing herself a “mere touch of rouge”; but this delicate tint had
changed through force of habit to those vermilion patches picturesquely
described by our ancestors as “carriage-wheels.” The wrinkles growing
deeper and deeper, it occurred to the ex-lady’s-maid to fill them up
with paint. Her forehead becoming unduly yellow, and the temples too
shiny, she “laid on” a little white, and renewed the veins of her youth
with a tracery of blue. All this color gave an exaggerated liveliness to
her eyes which were already tricksy enough, so that the mask of her face
would seem to a stranger even more than fantastic, though her friends
and acquaintances, accustomed to this fictitious brilliancy, actually
declared her handsome.

This ungainly creature, always decolletee, showed a bosom and a pair of
shoulders that were whitened and polished by the same process employed
upon her face; happily, for the sake of exhibiting her magnificent
laces, she partially veiled the charms of these chemical products. She
always wore the body of her dress stiffened with whalebone and made in
a long point and garnished with knots of ribbon, even on the point! Her
petticoats gave forth a creaking noise,--so much did the silk and the
furbelows abound.

This attire, which deserves the name of apparel (a word that before
long will be inexplicable), was, on the evening in question, of costly
brocade,--for Madame Soudry possessed over a hundred dresses, each
richer than the others, the remains of Mademoiselle Laguerre’s enormous
and splendid wardrobe, made over to fit Madame Soudry in the last
fashion of the year 1808. Her blond wig, frizzed and powdered, sustained
a superb cap with knots of cherry satin ribbon matching those on her
dress. If you will kindly imagine beneath this ultra-coquettish cap the
face of a monkey of extreme ugliness, on which a flat nose, fleshless as
that of Death, is separated by a strong hairy line from a mouth filled
with false teeth, whence issue sounds like the confused clacking of
hunting-horns, you will have some difficulty in understanding why
the leading society of Soulanges (all the town, in fact) thought
this quasi-queen a beauty,--unless, indeed, you remember the succinct
statement recently made “ex professo,” by one of the cleverest women
of our time, on the art of making her sex beautiful by surrounding
accessories.

As to accessories, in the first place, Madame Soudry was surrounded
by the magnificent gifts accumulated by her late mistress, which the
ex-Benedictine called “fructus belli.” Then she made the most of her
ugliness by exaggerating it, and by assuming that indescribable air
and manner which belongs only to Parisian women, the secret of which is
known even to the most vulgar among them,--who are always more or less
mimics. She laced tight, wore an enormous bustle, also diamond earrings,
and her fingers were covered with rings. At the top of her corsage,
between two mounds of flesh well plastered with pearl-white, shone a
beetle made of topaz with a diamond head, the gift of dear mistress,--a
jewel renowned throughout the department. Like the late dear mistress,
she wore short sleeves and bare arms, and flirted an ivory fan, painted
by Boucher with two little rose-diamonds in the handle.

When she went out Madame Soudry carried a parasol of the true
eighteenth-century style; that is to say, a tall cane at the end of
which opened a green sun-shade with a green fringe. When she walked
about the terrace a stranger on the high-road, seeing her from afar,
might have thought her one of Watteau’s dames.

In her salon, hung with red damask, with curtains of the same lined with
silk, a fire on the hearth, a mantel-shelf adorned with bibelots of the
good time of Louis XV., and bearing candelabra in the form of lilies
upheld by Cupids--in this salon, filled with furniture in gilded wood of
the “pied de biche” pattern, it is not impossible to understand why the
people of Soulanges called the mistress of the house, “The beautiful
Madame Soulanges.” The mansion had actually become the civic pride of
this capital of a canton.

If the leading society of the little town believed in its queen, the
queen as surely believed in herself. By a phenomenon not in the least
rare, which the vanity of mothers and authors carries on at all
moments under our very eyes in behalf of their literary works or their
marriageable daughters, the late Mademoiselle Cochet was, at the end
of seven years, so completely buried under Madame Soudry, the mayoress,
that she not only did not remember her past, but she actually believed
herself a well-bred woman. She had studied the airs and graces, the
dulcet tones, the gestures, the ways of her mistress, so long that when
she found herself in the midst of an opulence of her own she was able to
practice the natural insolence of it. She knew her eighteenth century,
and the tales of its great lords and all their belongings, by heart.
This back-stairs erudition gave to her conversation a flavor of
“oeil-de-boeuf”; her soubrette gossip passed muster for courtly wit.
Morally, the mayoress was, if you wish to say so, tinsel; but to savages
paste diamonds are as good as real ones.

The woman found herself courted and worshipped by the society in which
she lived, just as her mistress had been worshipped in former days. She
gave weekly dinners, with coffee and liqueurs to those who came in after
the dessert. No female head could have resisted the exhilarating
force of such continual adulation. In winter the warm salon, always
well-lighted with wax candles, was well-filled with the richest people
of Soulanges, who paid for the good liqueurs and the fine wines which
came from dear mistress’s cellars, with flatteries to their hostess.
These visitors and their wives had a life-interest, as it were, in this
luxury; which was to them a saving of lights and fuel. Thus it came
to pass that in a circuit of fifteen miles and even as far as
Ville-aux-Fayes, every voice was ready to declare: “Madame Soudry does
the honors admirably. She keeps open house; every one enjoys her salon;
she knows how to carry herself and her fortune; she always says the
witty thing, she makes you laugh. And what splendid silver! There is not
another house like it short of Paris--”

The silver had been given to Mademoiselle Laguerre by Bouret. It was a
magnificent service made by the famous Germain, and Madame Soudry had
literally stolen it. At Mademoiselle Laguerre’s death she merely took it
into her own room, and the heirs, who knew nothing of the value of their
inheritance, never claimed it.

For some time past the twelve or fifteen personages who composed the
leading society of Soulanges spoke of Madame Soudry as the _intimate
friend_ of Mademoiselle Laguerre, recoiling at the term “waiting-woman,”
 and making believe that she had sacrificed herself to the singer as her
friend and companion.

Strange yet true! all these illusions became realities, and spread even
to the actual regions of the heart; Madame Soudry reigned supreme, in a
way, over her husband.

The gendarme, required to love a woman ten years older than himself who
kept the management of her fortune in her own hands, behaved to her in
the spirit of the ideas she had ended by adopting about her beauty. But
sometimes, when persons envied him or talked to him of his happiness,
he wished they were in his place, for, to hide his peccadilloes, he was
forced to take as many precautions as the husband of a young and adoring
wife; and it was not until very recently that he had been able to
introduce into the family a pretty servant-girl.

This portrait of the Queen of Soulanges may seem a little grotesque, but
many specimens of the same kind could be found in the provinces at
that period,--some more or less noble in blood, others belonging to the
higher banking-circles, like the widow of a receiver-general in Touraine
who still puts slices of veal upon her cheeks. This portrait, drawn from
nature, would be incomplete without the diamonds in which it is set;
without the surrounding courtiers, a sketch of whom is necessary, if
only to explain how formidable such Lilliputians are, and who are the
makers of public opinion in remote little towns. Let no one mistake me,
however; there are many localities which, like Soulanges, are neither
hamlets, villages, nor little towns, which have, nevertheless, the
characteristics of all. The inhabitants are very different from those
of the large and busy and vicious provincial cities. Country life
influences the manners and morals of the smaller places, and this
mixture of tints will be found to produce some truly original
characters.

The most important personage after Madame Soudry was Lupin, the notary.
Though forty-five springs had bloomed for Lupin, he was still fresh
and rosy, thanks to the plumpness which fills out the skin of sedentary
persons; and he still sang ballads. Also, he retained the elegant
evening dress of society warblers. He looked almost Parisian in
his carefully-varnished boots, his sulphur-yellow waistcoats, his
tight-fitting coats, his handsome silk cravats, his fashionable
trousers. His hair was curled by the barber of Soulanges (the gossip of
the town), and he maintained the attitude of a man “a bonne fortunes” by
his liaison with Madame Sarcus, wife of Sarcus the rich, who was to his
life, without too close a comparison, what the campaigns of Italy were
to Napoleon. He alone of the leading society of Soulanges went to Paris,
where he was received by the Soulanges family. It was enough to hear him
talk to imagine the supremacy he wielded in his capacity as dandy and
judge of elegance. He passed judgment on all things by the use of three
terms: “out of date,” “antiquated,” “superannuated.”[*] A man, a woman,
or a piece of furniture might be “out of date”; next, by a greater
degree of imperfection, “antiquated”; but as to the last term, it was
the superlative of contempt. The first might be remedied, the second was
hopeless, but the third,--oh, better far never to have left the void of
nothingness! As to praise, a single word sufficed him, doubly and trebly
uttered: “Charming!” was the positive of his admiration. “Charming,
charming!” made you feel you were safe; but after “Charming, charming,
charming!” the ladder might be discarded, for the heaven of perfection
was attained.


     [*] “Croute,” “crouton,” and “croute-au-pot,”
      untranslatable, and without equivalent in English. A
     “croute” is the slang term for a man behind the age.--Tr.


The tabellion,--he called himself “tabellion,” petty notary, and keeper
of notes (making fun of his calling in order to seem above it),--the
tabellion was on terms of spoken gallantry with Madame Soudry, who had
a weakness for Lupin, though he was blond and wore spectacles. Hitherto
the late Cochet had loved none but dark men, with moustachios and hairy
hands, of the Alcides type. But she made an exception in favor of Lupin
on account of his elegance, and, moreover, because she thought her
glory at Soulanges was not complete without an adorer; but, to Soudry’s
despair, the queen’s adorers never carried their adoration so far as to
threaten his rights.

Lupin had married an heiress in wooden shoes and blue woollen stockings,
the only daughter of a salt-dealer, who made his money during the
Revolution,--a period when contraband salt-traders made enormous profits
by reason of the reaction that set in against the gabelle. He prudently
left his wife at home, where Bebelle, as he called her, was supported
under his absence by a platonic passion for a handsome clerk who had no
other means than his salary,--a young man named Bonnac, belonging to the
second-class society, where he played the same role that his master, the
notary, played in the first.

Madame Lupin, a woman without any education whatever, appeared on great
occasions only, under the form of an enormous Burgundian barrel dressed
in velvet and surmounted by a little head sunken in shoulders of a
questionable color. No efforts could retain her waist-belt in its
natural place. “Bebelle” candidly admitted that prudence forbade her
wearing corsets. The imagination of a poet or, better still, that of an
inventor, could not have found on Bebelle’s back the slightest trace of
that seductive sinuosity which the vertebrae of all women who are women
usually produce. Bebelle, round as a tortoise, belonged to the genus of
invertebrate females. This alarming development of cellular tissue no
doubt reassured Lupin on the subject of the platonic passion of his fat
wife, whom he boldly called Bebelle without raising a laugh.

“Your wife, what is she?” said Sarcus the rich, one day, when unable to
digest the fatal word “superannuated,” applied to a piece of furniture
he had just bought at a bargain.

“My wife is not like yours,” replied Lupin; “she is not defined as yet.”

Beneath his rosy exterior the notary possessed a subtle mind, and he had
the sense to say nothing about his property, which was fully as large as
that of Rigou.

Monsieur Lupin’s son, Amaury, was a great trouble to his father. An
only son, and one of the Don Juans of the valley, he utterly refused
to follow the paternal profession. He took advantage of his position as
only son to bleed the strong-box cruelly, without, however, exhausting
the patience of his father, who would say after every escapade, “Well,
I was like that in my young days.” Amaury never came to Madame Soudry’s;
he said she bored him; for, with a recollection of her early days, she
attempted to “educate” him, as she called it, whereas he much preferred
the pleasures and billiards of the Cafe de la Paix. He frequented the
worst company of Soulanges, even down to Bonnebault. He continued
sowing his wild oats, as Madame Soudry remarked, and replied to all
his father’s remonstrances with one perpetual request: “Send me back to
Paris, for I am bored to death here.”

Lupin ended, alas! like other gallants, by an attachment that was
semi-conjugal. His known passion, in spite of his former liaison with
Madame Sarcus, was for the wife of the under-sheriff of the municipal
court,--Madame Euphemie Plissoud, daughter of Wattebled the grocer, who
reigned in the second-class society as Madame Soudry did in the first.
Monsieur Plissoud, a competitor of Brunet, belonged to the under-world
of Soulanges on account of his wife’s conduct, which it was said he
authorized,--a report that drew upon him the contempt of the leading
society.

If Lupin was the musician of the leading society, Monsieur Gourdon, the
doctor, was its man of science. The town said of him, “We have here
in our midst a scientific man of the first order.” Madame Soudry (who
believed she understood music because she had ushered in Piccini and
Gluck and had dressed Mademoiselle Laguerre for the Opera) persuaded
society, and even Lupin himself, that he might have made his fortune
by his voice, and, in like manner, she was always regretting that the
doctor did not publish his scientific ideas.

Monsieur Gourdon merely repeated the ideas of Cuvier and Buffon, which
might not have enabled him to pose as a scientist before the Soulanges
world; but besides this he was making a collection of shells, and he
possessed an herbarium, and he knew how to stuff birds. He lived upon
the glory of having bequeathed his cabinet of natural history to the
town of Soulanges. After this was known he was considered throughout
the department as a great naturalist and the successor of Buffon. Like a
certain Genevese banker, whose pedantry, coldness, and puritan propriety
he copied, without possessing either his money or his shrewdness,
Monsieur Gourdon exhibited with great complacency the famous collection,
consisting of a bear and a monkey (both of which had died on their way
to Soulanges), all the rodents of the department, mice and field-mice
and dormice, rats, muskrats, and moles, etc.; all the interesting birds
ever shot in Burgundy, and an Alpine eagle caught in the Jura. Gourdon
also possessed a collection of lepidoptera,--a word which led society
to hope for monstrosities, and to say, when it saw them, “Why, they are
only butterflies!” Besides these things he had a fine array of fossil
shells, mostly the collections of his friends which they bequeathed to
him, and all the minerals of Burgundy and the Jura.

These treasures, laid out on shelves with glass doors (the drawers
beneath containing the insects), occupied the whole of the first floor
of the doctor’s house, and produced a certain effect through the oddity
of the names on the tickets, the magic effect of the colors, and the
gathering together of so many things which no one pays the slightest
attention to when seen in nature, though much admired under glass.
Society took a regular day to go and look at Monsieur Gourdon’s
collection.

“I have,” he said to all inquirers, “five hundred ornithological
objects, two hundred mammifers, five thousand insects, three thousand
shells, and seven thousand specimens of minerals.”

“What patience you have had!” said the ladies.

“One must do something for one’s country,” replied the collector.

He drew an enormous profit from his carcasses by the mere repetition
of the words, “I have bequeathed everything to the town by my will.”
 Visitors lauded his philanthropy; the authorities talked of devoting
the second floor of the town hall to the “Gourdon Museum,” after the
collector’s death.

“I rely upon the gratitude of my fellow-citizens to attach my name to
the gift,” he replied; “for I dare not hope they would place a marble
bust of me--”

“It would be the very least we could do for you,” they rejoined; “are
you not the glory of our town?”

Thus the man actually came to consider himself one of the celebrities of
Burgundy. The surest incomes are not from consols after all; those our
vanity obtains for us have better security. This man of science was, to
employ Lupin’s superlatives, happy! happy!! happy!!!

Gourdon, the clerk of the court, brother of the doctor, was a pitiful
little creature, whose features all gathered about his nose, so that the
nose seemed the point of departure for the forehead, the cheeks, and
the mouth, all of which were connected with it just as the ravines of a
mountain begin at the summit. This pinched little man was thought to be
one of the greatest poets in Burgundy,--a Piron, it was the fashion to
say. The dual merits of the two brothers gave rise to the remark: “We
have the brothers Gourdon at Soulanges--two very distinguished men; men
who could hold their own in Paris.”

Devoted to the game of cup-and-ball, the clerk of the court became
possessed by another mania,--that of composing an ode in honor of an
amusement which amounted to a passion in the eighteenth century. Manias
among mediocrats often run in couples. Gourdon junior gave birth to his
poem during the reign of Napoleon. That fact is sufficient to show
the sound and healthy school of poesy to which he belonged; Luce de
Lancival, Parny, Saint-Lambert, Rouche, Vigee, Andrieux, Berchoux were
his heroes. Delille was his god, until the day when the leading society
of Soulanges raised the question as to whether Gourdon were not superior
to Delille; after which the clerk of the court always called his
competitor “Monsieur l’Abbe Delille,” with exaggerated politeness.

The poems manufactured between 1780 and 1814 were all of one pattern,
and the one which Gourdon composed upon the Cup-and-Ball will give an
idea of them. They required a certain knack or proficiency in the art.
“The Chorister” is the Saturn of this abortive generation of jocular
poems, all in four cantos or thereabouts, for it was generally admitted
that six would wear the subject threadbare.

Gourdon’s poem entitled “Ode to the Cup-and-Ball” obeyed the poetic
rules which governed these works, rules that were invariable in their
application. Each poem contained in the first canto a description of
the “object sung,” preceded (as in the case of Gourdon) by a species of
invocation, of which the following is a model:--

  I sing the good game that belongeth to all,
  The game, be it known, of the Cup and the Ball;
  Dear to little and great, to the fools and the wise;
  Charming game! where the cure of all tedium lies;
  When we toss up the ball on the point of a stick
  Palamedus himself might have envied the trick;
  O Muse of the Loves and the Laughs and the Games,
  Come down and assist me, for, true to your aims,
  I have ruled off this paper in syllable squares.
  Come, help me--

After explaining the game and describing the handsomest cup-and-balls
recorded in history, after relating what fabulous custom it had formerly
brought to the Singe-Vert and to all dealers in toys and turned ivories,
and finally, after proving that the game attained to the dignity of
statics, Gourdon ended the first canto with the following conclusion,
which will remind the erudite reader of all the conclusions of the first
cantos of all these poems:--

  ‘Tis thus that the arts and the sciences, too,
  Find wisdom in things that seemed silly to you.

The second canto, invariably employed to depict the manner of using “the
object,” explaining how to exhibit it in society and before women, and
the benefit to be derived therefrom, will be readily conceived by the
friends of this virtuous literature from the following quotation, which
depicts the player going through his performance under the eyes of his
chosen lady:--

  Now look at the player who sits in your midst,
  On that ivory ball how his sharp eye is fixt;
  He waits and he watches with keenest attention,
  Its least little movement in all its precision;
  The ball its parabola thrice has gone round,
  At the end of the string to which it is bound.
  Up it goes! but the player his triumph has missed,
  For the disc has come down on his maladroit wrist;
  But little he cares for the sting of the ball,
  A smile from his mistress consoles for it all.

It was this delineation, worthy of Virgil, which first raised a doubt as
to Delille’s superiority over Gourdon. The word “disc,” contested by
the opinionated Brunet, gave matter for discussions which lasted eleven
months; in fact, until Gourdon the scientist, one evening when all
present were on the point of getting seriously angry, annihilated the
anti-discers by observing:--

“The moon, called a _disc_ by poets, is undoubtedly a ball.”

“How do you know that?” retorted Brunet. “We have never seen but one
side.”

The third canto told the regulation story,--in this instance, the
famous anecdote of the cup-and-ball which all the world knows by heart,
concerning a celebrated minister of Louis XVI. According to the sacred
formula delivered by the “Debats” from 1810 to 1814, in praise of these
glorious words, Gourdon’s ode “borrowed fresh charms from poesy to
embellish the tale.”

The fourth canto summed up the whole, and concluded with these daring
words,--not published, be it remarked, from 1810 to 1814; in fact, they
did not see the light till 1824, after Napoleon’s death.

  ‘Twas thus that I sang in the time of alarms.
  Oh, if kings would consent to bear no other arms,
  And people enjoyed what was best for them all,
  The sweet little game of the Cup and the Ball,
  Our Burgundy then might be free of all fear,
  And return to the good days of Saturn and Rhea.

These fine verses were published in a first and only edition from the
press of Bournier, printer of Ville-aux-Fayes. One hundred subscribers,
in the sum of three francs, guaranteed the dangerous precedent of
immortality to the poem,--a liberality that was all the greater because
these hundred persons had heard the poem from beginning to end a hundred
times over.

Madame Soudry had lately suppressed the cup-and-ball, which usually lay
on a pier-table in the salon and for the last seven years had given rise
to endless quotations, for she finally discovered in the toy a rival to
her own attractions.

As to the author, who boasted of future poems in his desk, it is enough
to quote the terms in which he mentioned to the leading society of
Soulanges a rival candidate for literary honors.

“Have you heard a curious piece of news?” he had said, two years
earlier. “There is another poet in Burgundy! Yes,” he added, remarking
the astonishment on all faces, “he comes from Macon. But you could
never imagine the subjects he takes up,--a perfect jumble, absolutely
unintelligible,--lakes, stars, waves, billows! not a single
philosophical image, not even a didactic effort! he is ignorant of the
very meaning of poetry. He calls the sky by its name. He says ‘moon,’
bluntly, instead of naming it ‘the planet of night.’ That’s what the
desire to be thought original brings men to,” added Gourdon, mournfully.
“Poor young man! A Burgundian, and sing such stuff as that!--the pity
of it! If he had only consulted me, I would have pointed out to him the
noblest of all themes, wine,--a poem to be called the Baccheide; for
which, alas! I now feel myself too old.”

This great poet is still ignorant of his finest triumph (though he owes
it to the fact of being a Burgundian), namely, that of living in the
town of Soulanges, so rounded and perfected within itself that it knows
nothing of the modern Pleiades, not even their names.

A hundred Gourdons made poetry under the Empire, and yet they tell us
it was a period that neglected literature! Examine the “Journal de
la Libraire” and you will find poems on the game of draughts, on
backgammon, on tricks with cards, on geography, typography, comedy,
etc.,--not to mention the vaunted masterpieces of Delille on Piety,
Imagination, Conversation; and those of Berchoux on Gastromania and
Dansomania, etc. Who can foresee the chances and changes of taste,
the caprices of fashion, the transformations of the human mind? The
generations as they pass along sweep out of sight the last fragments
of the idols they found on their path and set up other gods,--to be
overthrown like the rest.

Sarcus, a handsome little man with a dapple-gray head, devoted himself
in turn to Themis and to Flora,--in other words, to legislation and a
greenhouse. For the last twelve years he had been meditating a book
on the History of the Institution of Justices of the Peace, “whose
political and judiciary role,” he said, “had already passed through
several phases, all derived from the Code of Brumaire, year IV.; and
to-day that institution, so precious to the nation, had lost its power
because the salaries were not in keeping with the importance of its
functions, which ought to be performed by irremovable officials.” Rated
in the community as an able man, Sarcus was the accepted statesman of
Madame Soudry’s salon; you can readily imagine that he was the leading
bore. They said he talked like a book. Gaubertin prophesied he would
receive the cross of the Legion of honor, but not until the day when, as
Leclercq’s successor, he should take his seat on the benches of the Left
Centre.

Guerbet, the collector, a man of parts, a heavy, fat, individual with
a buttery face, a toupet on his bald spot, gold earrings, which were
always in difficulty with his shirt-collar, had the hobby of pomology.
Proud of possessing the finest fruit-garden in the arrondissement, he
gathered his first crops a month later than those of Paris; his hot-beds
supplied him with pine-apples, nectarines, and peas, out of season. He
brought bunches of strawberries to Madame Soudry with pride when the
fruit could be bought for ten sous a basket in Paris.

Soulanges possessed a pharmaceutist named Vermut, a chemist, who was
more of a chemist than Sarcus was a statesman, or Lupin a singer, or
Gourdon the elder a scientist, or his brother a poet. Nevertheless, the
leading society of Soulanges did not take much notice of Vermut, and
the second-class society took none at all. The instinct of the first may
have led them to perceive the real superiority of this thinker, who said
little but smiled at their absurdities so satirically that they first
doubted his capacity and then whispered tales against it; as for the
other class they took no notice of him one way or the other.

Vermut was the butt of Madame Soudry’s salon. No society is complete
without a victim,--without an object to pity, ridicule, despise, and
protect. Vermut, full of his scientific problems, often came with his
cravat untied, his waistcoat unbuttoned, and his little green surtout
spotted.

The little man, gifted with the patience of a chemist, could not enjoy
(that is the term employed in the provinces to express the abolition of
domestic rule) Madame Vermut,--a charming woman, a lively woman, capital
company (for she could lose forty sous at cards and say nothing), a
woman who railed at her husband, annoyed him with epigrams, and declared
him to be an imbecile unable to distil anything but dulness. Madame
Vermut was one of those women who in the society of a small town are the
life and soul of amusement and who set things going. She supplied the
salt of her little world, kitchen-salt, it is true; her jokes were
somewhat broad, but society forgave them; though she was capable of
saying to the cure Taupin, a man of seventy years of age, with white
hair, “Hold your tongue, my lad.”

The miller of Soulanges, possessing an income of fifty thousand francs,
had an only daughter whom Lupin desired for his son Amaury, since he had
lost the hope of marrying him to Gaubertin’s daughter. This miller, a
Sarcus-Taupin, was the Nucingen of the little town. He was supposed to
be thrice a millionaire; but he never transacted business with others,
and thought only of grinding his wheat and keeping a monopoly of it;
his most noticeable point was a total absence of politeness and good
manners.

The elder Guerbet, brother of the post-master at Conches, possessed
an income of ten thousand francs, besides his salary as collector. The
Gourdons were rich; the doctor had married the only daughter of old
Monsieur Gendrin-Vatebled, keeper of the forests and streams, whom the
family were now _expecting to die_, while the poet had married the niece
and sole heiress of the Abbe Taupin, the curate of Soulanges, a stout
priest who lived in his cure like a rat in his cheese.

This clever ecclesiastic, devoted to the leading society, kind and
obliging to the second, apostolic to the poor and unfortunate, made
himself beloved by the whole town. He was cousin of the miller and
cousin of the Sarcuses, and belonged therefore to the neighborhood and
to its mediocracy. He always dined out and saved expenses; he went to
weddings but came away before the ball; he paid the costs of public
worship, saying, “It is my business.” And the parish let him do it,
with the remark, “We have an excellent priest.” The bishop, who knew the
Soulanges people and was not at all misled as to the true value of the
abbe, was glad enough to keep in such a town a man who made religion
acceptable, and who knew how to fill his church and preach to sleepy
heads.

It is unnecessary to remark that not only each of these worthy burghers
possessed some one of the special qualifications which are necessary to
existence in the provinces, but also that each cultivated his field in
the domain of vanity without a rival. Pere Guerbet understood finance,
Soudry might have been minister of war; if Cuvier had passed that way
incognito, the leading society of Soulanges would have proved to him
that he knew nothing in comparison with Monsieur Gourdon the doctor.
“Adolphe Nourrit with his thread of a voice,” remarked the notary
with patronizing indulgence, “was scarcely worthy to accompany the
nightingale of Soulanges.” As to the author of the “Cup-and-Ball” (which
was then being printed at Bournier’s), society was satisfied that a poet
of his force could not be met with in Paris, for Delille was now dead.

This provincial bourgeoisie, so comfortably satisfied with itself, took
the lead through the various superiorities of its members. Therefore
the imagination of those who ever resided, even for a short time, in a
little town of this kind can conceive the air of profound satisfaction
upon the faces of these people, who believed themselves the solar plexus
of France, all of them armed with incredible dexterity and shrewdness to
do mischief,--all, in their wisdom, declaring that the hero of Essling
was a coward, Madame de Montcornet a manoeuvring Parisian, and the Abbe
Brossette an ambitious little priest.

If Rigou, Soudry, and Gaubertin had lived at Ville-aux-Fayes, they would
have quarrelled; their various pretensions would have clashed; but
fate ordained that the Lucullus of Blangy felt too strongly the need
of solitude, in which to wallow at his ease in usury and sensuality, to
live anywhere but at Blangy; that Madame Soudry had sense enough to
see that she could reign nowhere else except at Soulanges; and that
Ville-aux-Fayes was Gaubertin’s place of business. Those who enjoy
studying social nature will admit that General Montcornet was pursued by
special ill-luck in this accidental separation of his dangerous enemies,
who thus accomplished the evolutions of their individual power and
vanity at such distances from each other that neither star interfered
with the orbit of the other,--a fact which doubled and trebled their
powers of mischief.

Nevertheless, though all these worthy bourgeois, proud of their
accomplishments, considered their society as far superior in attractions
to that of Ville-aux-Fayes, and repeated with comic pomposity the local
dictum, “Soulanges is a town of society and social pleasures,” it
must not be supposed that Ville-aux-Fayes accepted this supremacy. The
Gaubertin salon ridiculed (“in petto”) the salon Soudry. By the manner
in which Gaubertin remarked, “We are a financial community, engaged
in actual business; we have the folly to fatigue ourselves in making
fortunes,” it was easy to perceive a latent antagonism between the earth
and the moon. The moon believed herself useful to the earth, and the
earth governed the moon. Earth and moon, however, lived in the closest
intimacy. At the carnival the leading society of Soulanges went in a
body to four balls given by Gaubertin, Gendrin, Leclercq, and Soudry,
junior. Every Sunday the latter, his wife, Monsieur, Madame, and
Mademoiselle Elise Gaubertin dined with the Soudrys at Soulanges. When
the sub-prefect was invited, and when the postmaster of Conches arrived
to take pot-luck, Soulanges enjoyed the sight of four official equipages
drawn up at the door of the Soudry mansion.



CHAPTER II. THE CONSPIRATORS IN THE QUEEN’S SALON


Reaching Soulanges about half-past five o’clock, Rigou was sure of
finding the usual party assembled at the Soudrys’. There, as everywhere
else in town, the dinner-hour was three o’clock, according to the custom
of the last century. From five to nine the notables of Soulanges met
in Madame Soudry’s salon to exchange the news, make their political
speeches, comment upon the private lives of every one in the valley, and
talk about Les Aigues, which latter topic kept the conversation going
for at least an hour every day. It was everybody’s business to learn at
least something of what was going on, and also to pay their court to the
mistress of the house.

After this preliminary talk they played at boston, the only game the
queen understood. When the fat old Guerbet had mimicked Madame Isaure,
Gaubertin’s wife, laughed at her languishing airs, imitated her thin
voice, her pinched mouth, and her juvenile ways; when the Abbe Taupin
had related one of the tales of his repertory; when Lupin had told of
some event at Ville-aux-Fayes, and Madame Soudry had been deluged with
compliments ad nauseum, the company would say: “We have had a charming
game of boston.”

Too self-indulgent to be at the trouble of driving over to the Soudrys’
merely to hear the vapid talk of its visitors and to see a Parisian
monkey in the guise of an old woman, Rigou, far superior in intelligence
and education to this petty society, never made his appearance unless
business brought him over to meet the notary. He excused himself from
visiting on the ground of his occupations, his habits, and his health,
which latter did not allow him, he said, to return at night along a road
which led by the foggy banks of the Thune.

The tall, stiff usurer always had an imposing effect upon Madame
Soudry’s company, who instinctively recognized in his nature the cruelty
of the tiger with steel claws, the craft of a savage, the wisdom of
one born in a cloister and ripened by the sun of gold,--a man to whom
Gaubertin had never yet been willing to fully commit himself.

The moment the little green carriole and the bay horse passed the Cafe
de la Paix, Urbain, Soudry’s man-servant, who was seated on a
bench under the dining-room windows, and was gossipping with the
tavern-keeper, shades his eyes with his hand to see who was coming.

“It’s Pere Rigou,” he said. “I must go round and open the door. Take his
horse, Socquard.” And Urbain, a former trooper, who could not get into
the gendarmerie and had therefore taken service with Soudry, went round
the house to open the gates of the courtyard.

Socquard, a famous personage throughout the valley, was treated, as
you see, with very little ceremony by the valet. But so it is with many
illustrious people who are so kind as to walk and to sneeze and to sleep
and to eat precisely like common mortals.

Socquard, born a Hercules, could carry a weight of eleven hundred
pounds; a blow of his fist applied on a man’s back would break the
vertebral column in two; he could bend an iron bar, or hold back a
carriage drawn by one horse. A Milo of Crotona in the valley, his fame
had spread throughout the department, where all sorts of foolish stories
were current about him, as about all celebrities. It was told how he had
once carried a poor woman and her donkey and her basket on his back to
market; how he had been known to eat a whole ox and drink the fourth
of a hogshead of wine in one day, etc. Gentle as a marriageable
girl, Socquard, who was a stout, short man, with a placid face, broad
shoulders, and a deep chest, where his lungs played like the bellows
of a forge, possessed a flute-like voice, the limpid tones of which
surprised all those who heard them for the first time.

Like Tonsard, whose renown released him from the necessity of giving
proofs of his ferocity, in fact, like all other men who are backed by
public opinion of one kind or another, Socquard never displayed his
extraordinary muscular force unless asked to do so by friends. He now
took the horse as the usurer drew up at the steps of the portico.

“Are you all well at home, Monsieur Rigou?” said the illustrious
innkeeper.

“Pretty well, my good friend,” replied Rigou. “Do Plissoud and
Bonnebault and Viollet and Amaury still continue good customers?”

This question, uttered in a tone of good-natured interest, was by no
means one of those empty speeches which superiors are apt to bestow
upon inferiors. In his leisure moments Rigou thought over the smallest
details of “the affair,” and Fourchon had already warned him that there
was something suspicious in the intimacy between Plissoud, Bonnebault,
and the brigadier, Viollet.

Bonnebault, in payment of a few francs lost at cards, might very likely
tell the secrets he heard at Tonsard’s to Viollet; or he might let them
out over his punch without realizing the importance of such gossip. But
as the information of the old otter man might be instigated by thirst,
Rigou paid no attention except so far as it concerned Plissoud, whose
situation was likely to inspire him with a desire to counteract the
coalition against Les Aigues, if only to get his paws greased by one or
the other of the two parties.

Plissoud combined with his duties of under-sheriff other occupations
which were poorly remunerated, that of agent of insurance (a new form of
enterprise just beginning to show itself in France), agent, also, of a
society providing against the chances of recruitment. His insufficient
pay and a love of billiards and boiled wine made his future doubtful.
Like Fourchon, he cultivated the art of doing nothing, and expected his
fortune through some lucky but problematic chance. He hated the leading
society, but he had measured its power. He alone knew the middle-class
coalition organized by Gaubertin to its depths; and he continued to
sneer at the rich men of Soulanges and Ville-aux-Fayes, as if he alone
represented the opposition. Without money and not respected, he did not
seem a person to be feared professionally, and so Brunet, glad to have a
despised competitor, protected him and helped him along, to prevent him
selling his business to some eager young man, like Bonnac for instance,
who might force him, Brunet, to divide the patronage of the canton
between them.

“Thanks to those fellows, we keep the ball a-rolling,” said Socquard.
“But folks are trying to imitate my boiled wine.”

“Sue them,” said Rigou, sententiously.

“That would lead too far,” replied the innkeeper.

“Do your clients get on well together?”

“Tolerably, yes; sometimes they’ll have a row, but that’s only natural
for players.”

All heads were at the window of the Soudry salon which looked to the
square. Recognizing the father of his daughter-in-law, Soudry came to
the portico to receive him.

“Well, comrade,” said the mayor of Soulanges, “is Annette ill, that you
give us your company of an evening?”

Through an old habit acquired in the gendarmerie Soudry always went
direct to the point.

“No,--There’s trouble brewing,” replied Rigou, touching his right
fore-finger to the hand which Soudry held out to him. “I came to talk
about it, for it concerns our children in a way--”

Soudry, a handsome man dressed in blue, as though he were still a
gendarme, with a black collar, and spurs at his heels, took Rigou by the
arm and led him up to his imposing better-half. The glass door to the
terrace was open, and the guests were walking about enjoying the summer
evening, which brought out the full beauty of the glorious landscape
which we have already described.

“It is a long time since we have seen you, my dear Rigou,” said Madame
Soudry, taking the arm of the ex-Benedictine and leading him out upon
the terrace.

“My digestion is so troublesome!” he replied; “see! my color is almost
as high as yours.”

Rigou’s appearance on the terrace was the sign for an explosion of
jovial greetings on the part of the assembled company.

“And how may the lord of Blangy be?” said little Sarcus, justice of the
peace.

“Lord!” replied Rigou, bitterly, “I am not even cock of my own village
now.”

“The hens don’t say so, scamp!” exclaimed Madame Soudry, tapping her fan
on his arm.

“All well, my dear master?” said the notary, bowing to his chief client.

“Pretty well,” replied Rigou, again putting his fore-finger into his
interlocutor’s hand.

This gesture, by which Rigou kept down the process of hand-shaking to
the coldest and stiffest of demonstrations would have revealed the whole
man to any observer who did not already know him.

“Let us find a corner where we can talk quietly,” said the ex-monk,
looking at Lupin and at Madame Soudry.

“Let us return to the salon,” replied the queen.

“What has the Shopman done now?” asked Soudry, sitting down beside his
wife and putting his arm about her waist.

Madame Soudry, like other old women, forgave a great deal in return for
such public marks of tenderness.

“Why,” said Rigou, in a low voice, to set an example of caution, “he has
gone to the Prefecture to demand the enforcement of the penalties; he
wants the help of the authorities.”

“Then he’s lost,” said Lupin, rubbing his hands; “the peasants will
fight.”

“Fight!” cried Soudry, “that depends. If the prefect and the general,
who are friends, send a squadron of cavalry the peasants can’t fight.
They might at a pinch get the better of the gendarmes, but as for
resisting a charge of cavalry!--”

“Sibilet heard him say something much more dangerous than that,” said
Rigou; “and that’s what brings me here.”

“Oh, my poor Sophie!” cried Madame Soudry, sentimentally, alluding to
her _friend_, Mademoiselle Laguerre, “into what hands Les Aigues has
fallen! This is what we have gained by the Revolution!--a parcel of
swaggering epaulets! We might have foreseen that whenever the bottle was
turned upside down the dregs would spoil the wine!”

“He means to go to Paris and cabal with the Keeper of the Seals and
others to get the whole judiciary changed down here,” said Rigou.

“Ha!” cried Lupin, “then he sees his danger.”

“If they appoint my son-in-law attorney-general we can’t help ourselves;
the general will get him replaced by some Parisian devoted to his
interests,” continued Rigou. “If he gets a place in Paris for Gendrin
and makes Guerbet chief-justice of the court at Auxerre, he’ll knock
down our skittles! The gendarmerie is on his side now, and if he gets
the courts as well, and keeps such advisers as the abbe and Michaud we
sha’n’t dance at the wedding; he’ll play us some scurvy trick or other.”

“How is it that in all these five years you have never managed to get
rid of that abbe?” said Lupin.

“You don’t know him; he’s as suspicious as a blackbird,” replied Rigou.
“He is not a man at all, that priest; he doesn’t care for women; I can’t
find out that he has any passion; there’s no point at which one can
attack him. The general lays himself open by his temper. A man with a
vice is the servant of his enemies if they know how to pull its string.
There are no strong men but those who lead their vices instead of being
led by them. The peasants are all right; their hatred against the abbe
keeps up; but we can do nothing as yet. He’s like Michaud, in his
way; such men are too good for this world,--God ought to call them to
himself.”

“It would be a good plan to find some pretty servant-girl to scrub his
staircase,” remarked Madame Soudry. The words caused Rigou to give the
little jump with which crafty natures recognize the craft of others.

“The Shopman has another vice,” he said; “he loves his wife; we might
get hold of him that way.”

“We ought to find out how far she really influences him,” said Madame
Soudry.

“There’s the rub!” said Lupin.

“As for you, Lupin,” said Rigou, in a tone of authority, “be off to the
Prefecture and see the beautiful Madame Sarcus at once! You must get her
to tell you all the Shopman says and does at the Prefecture.”

“Then I shall have to stay all night,” replied Lupin.

“So much the better for Sarcus the rich; he’ll be the gainer,” said
Rigou. “She is not yet out of date, Madame Sarcus--”

“Oh! Monsieur Rigou,” said Madame Soudry, in a mincing tone, “are women
ever out of date?”

“You may be right about Madame Sarcus; she doesn’t paint before the
glass,” retorted Rigou, who was always disgusted by the exhibition of
the Cochet’s ancient charms.

Madame Soudry, who thought she used only a “suspicion” of rouge, did not
perceive the sarcasm and hastened to say:--

“Is it possible that women paint?”

“Now, Lupin,” said Rigou, without replying to this naivete, “go over
to Gaubertin’s to-morrow morning. Tell him that my fellow-mayor and I”
 (striking Soudry on the thigh) “will break bread with him at breakfast
somewhere about midday. Tell him everything, so that we may all have
thought it over before we meet, for now’s the time to make an end of
that damned Shopman. As I drove over here I came to the conclusion it
would be best to get up a quarrel between the courts and him, so that
the Keeper of the Seals would be wary of making the changes he may ask
in their members.”

“Bravo for the son of the Church!” cried Lupin, slapping Rigou on the
shoulder.

Madame Soudry was here struck by an idea which could come only to a
former waiting-maid of an Opera divinity.

“If,” she said, “one could only get the Shopman to the fete at
Soulanges, and throw some fine girl in his way who would turn his head,
we could easily set his wife against him by letting her know that the
son of an upholsterer has gone back to the style of his early loves.”

“Ah, my beauty!” said Soudry, “you have more sense in your head than the
Prefecture of police in Paris.”

“That’s an idea which proves that Madame reigns by mind as well as by
beauty,” said Lupin, who was rewarded by a grimace which the leading
society of Soulanges were in the habit of accepting without protest for
a smile.

“One might do better still,” said Rigou, after some thought; “if we
could only turn it into a downright scandal.”

“Complaint and indictment! affair in the police court!” cried Lupin.
“Oh! that would be grand!”

“Glorious!” said Soudry, candidly. “What happiness to see the Comte de
Montcornet, grand cross of the Legion of honor, commander of the Order
of Saint Louis, and lieutenant-general, accused of having attempted, in
a public resort, the virtue--just think of it!”

“He loves his wife too well,” said Lupin, reflectively. “He couldn’t be
got to that.”

“That’s no obstacle,” remarked Rigou; “but I don’t know a single girl in
the whole arrondissement who is capable of making a sinner of a saint. I
have been looking out for one for the abbe.”

“What do you say to that handsome Gatienne Giboulard, of Auxerre, whom
Sarcus, junior, is mad after?” asked Lupin.

“That’s the only one,” answered Rigou, “but she is not suitable; she
thinks she has only to be seen to be admired; she’s not complying
enough; we want a witch and a sly-boots, too. Never mind, the right one
will turn up sooner or later.”

“Yes,” said Lupin, “the more pretty girls he sees the greater the
chances are.”

“But perhaps you can’t get the Shopman to the fair,” said the
ex-gendarme. “And if he does come, will he go to the Tivoli ball?”

“The reason that has always kept him away from the fair doesn’t exist
this year, my love,” said Madame Soudry.

“What reason, dearest?” asked Soudry.

“The Shopman wanted to marry Mademoiselle de Soulanges,” said the
notary. “The family replied that she was too young, and that mortified
him. That is why Monsieur de Soulanges and Monsieur de Montcornet, two
old friends who both served in the Imperial Guard, are so cool to
each other that they never speak. The Shopman doesn’t want to meet the
Soulanges at the fair; but this year the family are not coming.”

Usually the Soulanges party stayed at the chateau from July to October,
but the general was then in command of the artillery in Spain, under the
Duc d’Angouleme, and the countess had accompanied him. At the siege of
Cadiz the Comte de Soulanges obtained, as every one knows, the marshal’s
baton, which he kept till 1826.

“Very true,” cried Lupin. “Well, it is for you, papa,” he added,
addressing Rigou, “to manoeuvre the matter so that we can get him to the
fair; once there, we ought to be able to entrap him.”

The fair of Soulanges, which takes place on the 15th of August, is one
of the features of the town, and carries the palm over all other
fairs in a circuit of sixty miles, even those of the capital of
the department. Ville-aux-Fayes has no fair, for its fete-day, the
Saint-Sylvestre, happens in winter.

From the 12th to the 15th of August all sorts of merchants abounded at
Soulanges, and set up their booths in two parallel lines, two rows of
the well-known gray linen huts, which gave a lively appearance to the
usually deserted streets. The two weeks of the fair brought in a sort
of harvest to the little town, for the festival has the authority and
prestige of tradition. The peasants, as old Fourchon said, flocked in
from the districts to which labor bound them for the rest of the
year. The wonderful show on the counters of the improvised shops, the
collection of all sorts of merchandise, the coveted objects of the wants
or the vanities of these sons of the soil, who have no other shows or
exhibitions to enjoy exercise a periodical seduction over the minds of
all, especially the women and children. So, after the first of August
the authorities posted advertisements signed by Soudry, throughout
the whole arrondissement, offering protection to merchants, jugglers,
mountebanks, prodigies of all kinds, and stating how long the fair would
last, and what would be its principal attractions.

On these posters, about which it will be remembered Madame Tonsard
inquired of Vermichel, there was always, on the last line, the following
announcement:

“Tivoli will be illuminated with colored-glass lamps.”

The town had adopted as the place for public a dance-ground created
by Socquard out of a stony garden (stony, like the rest of the hill
on which Soulanges is built, where the gardens are of made land), and
called by him a Tivoli. This character of the soil explains the peculiar
flavor of the Soulanges wine,--a white wine, dry and spirituous, very
like Madeira or the Vouvray wine, or Johannisberger,--three vintages
which resemble one another.

The powerful effect produced by the Socquard ball upon the imaginations
of the whole country-side made the inhabitants thereof very proud of
their Tivoli. Such as had ventured as far as Paris declared that
the Parisian Tivoli was superior to that of Soulanges only in size.
Gaubertin boldly declared that, for his part, he preferred the Socquard
ball to the Parisian ball.

“Well, we’ll think it all over,” continued Rigou. “That Parisian fellow,
the editor of a newspaper, will soon get tired of his present amusement
and be glad of a change; perhaps we could through the servants give him
the idea of coming to the fair, and he’d bring the others; I’ll consider
it. Sibilet might--although, to be sure, his influence is devilishly
decreased of late--but he might get the general to think he could curry
popularity by coming.”

“Find out if the beautiful countess keeps the general at arm’s length,”
 said Lupin; “that’s the point if you want him to fall into the farce at
Tivoli.”

“That little woman,” cried Madame Soudry, “is too much of a Parisian not
to know how to run with the hare and hold with the hounds.”

“Fourchon has got his granddaughter Catherine on good terms, he tells
me, with Charles, the Shopman’s groom. That gives us one ear more in
Les Aigues--Are you sure of the Abbe Taupin,” he added, as the priest
entered the room from the terrace.

“We hold him and the Abbe Mouchon, too, just as I hold Soudry,” said the
queen, stroking her husband’s chin; “you are not unhappy, dearest, are
you?” she said to Soudry.

“If I can plan a scandal against that Tartufe of a Brossette we can
win,” said Rigou, in a low voice. “But I am not sure if the local spirit
can succeed against the Church spirit. You don’t realize what that is.
I, myself, who am no fool, I can’t say what I’ll do when I fall ill. I
believe I shall try to be reconciled with the Church.”

“Suffer me to hope it,” said the Abbe Taupin, for whose benefit Rigou
had raised his voice on the last words.

“Alas! the wrong I did in marrying prevents it,” replied Rigou. “I
cannot kill off Madame Rigou.”

“Meantime, let us think of Les Aigues,” said Madame Soudry.

“Yes,” said the ex-monk. “Do you know, I begin to think that our
associate at Ville-aux-Fayes may be cleverer than the rest of us. I
fancy that Gaubertin wants Les Aigues for himself, and that he means to
trick us in the end.”

“But Les Aigues will not belong to any one of us; it will have to come
down, from roof to cellar,” said Soudry.

“I shouldn’t be surprised if there were treasure buried in those
cellars,” observed Rigou, cleverly.

“Nonsense!”

“Well, in the wars of the olden time the great lords, who were often
besieged and surprised, did bury their gold until they should be able to
recover it; and you know that the Marquis de Soulanges-Hautemer (in whom
the younger branch came to an end) was one of the victims of the Biron
conspiracy. The Comtesse de Moret received the property from Henri IV.
when it was confiscated.”

“See what it is to know the history of France!” said Soudry. “You are
right. It is time to come to an understanding with Gaubertin.”

“If he shirks,” said Rigou, “we must smoke him out.”

“He is rich enough now,” said Lupin, “to be an honest man.”

“I’ll answer for him as I would for myself,” said Madame Soudry; “he’s
the most loyal man in the kingdom.”

“We all believe in his loyalty,” said Rigou, “but nevertheless nothing
should be neglected, even among friends--By the bye, I think there is
some one in Soulanges who is hindering matters.”

“Who’s that?” asked Soudry.

“Plissoud,” replied Rigou.

“Plissoud!” exclaimed Soudry. “Poor fool! Brunet holds him by the
halter, and his wife by the gullet; ask Lupin.”

“What can he do?” said Lupin.

“He means to warn Montcornet,” replied Rigou, “and get his influence and
a place--”

“It wouldn’t bring him more than his wife earns for him at Soulanges,”
 said Madame Soudry.

“He tells everything to his wife when he is drunk,” remarked Lupin. “We
shall know it all in good time.”

“The beautiful Madame Plissoud has no secrets from you,” said Rigou; “we
may be easy about that.”

“Besides, she’s as stupid as she is beautiful,” said Madame Soudry. “I
wouldn’t change with her; for if I were a man I’d prefer an ugly woman
who has some mind, to a beauty who can’t say two words.”

“Ah!” said the notary, biting his lips, “but she can make others say
three.”

“Puppy!” cried Rigou, as he made for the door.

“Well, then,” said Soudry, following him to the portico, “to-morrow,
early.”

“I’ll come and fetch you--Ha! Lupin,” he said to the notary, who came
out with him to order his horse, “try to make sure that Madame Sarcus
hears all the Shopman says and does against us at the Prefecture.”

“If she doesn’t hear it, who will?” replied Lupin.

“Excuse me,” said Rigou, smiling blandly, “but there are such a lot of
ninnies in there that I forgot there was one clever man.”

“The wonder is that I don’t grow rusty among them,” replied Lupin,
naively.

“Is it true that Soudry has hired a pretty servant?”

“Yes,” replied Lupin; “for the last week our worthy mayor has set
the charms of his wife in full relief by comparing her with a little
peasant-girl about the age of an old ox; and we can’t yet imagine how
he settles it with Madame Soudry, for, would you believe it, he has the
audacity to go to bed early.”

“I’ll find out to-morrow,” said the village Sardanapalus, trying to
smile.

The two plotters shook hands as they parted.

Rigou, who did not like to be on the road after dark for,
notwithstanding his present popularity, he was cautious, called to his
horse, “Get up, Citizen,”--a joke this son of 1793 was fond of letting
fly at the Revolution. Popular revolutions have no more bitter enemies
than those they have trained themselves.

“Pere Rigou’s visits are pretty short,” said Gourdon the poet to Madame
Soudry.

“They are pleasant, if they are short,” she answered.

“Like his own life,” said the doctor; “his abuse of pleasures will cut
that short.”

“So much the better,” remarked Soudry, “my son will step into the
property.”

“Did he bring you any news about Les Aigues?” asked the Abbe Taupin.

“Yes, my dear abbe,” said Madame Soudry. “Those people are the scourge
of the neighborhood. I can’t comprehend how it is that Madame de
Montcornet, who is certainly a well-bred woman, doesn’t understand their
interests better.”

“And yet she has a model before her eyes,” said the abbe.

“Who is that?” asked Madame Soudry, smirking.

“The Soulanges.”

“Ah, yes!” replied the queen after a pause.

“Here I am!” cried Madame Vermut, coming into the room; “and without
my re-active,--for Vermut is so inactive in all that concerns me that I
can’t call him an active of any kind.”

“What the devil is that cursed old Rigou doing there?” said Soudry
to Guerbet, as they saw the green chaise stop before the gate of the
Tivoli. “He is one of those tiger-cats whose every step has an object.”

“You may well say cursed,” replied the fat little collector.

“He has gone into the Cafe de la Paix,” remarked Gourdon, the doctor.

“And there’s some trouble there,” added Gourdon the poet; “I can hear
them yelping from here.”

“That cafe,” said the abbe, “is like the temple of Janus; it was called
the Cafe de la Guerre under the Empire, and then it was peace itself;
the most respectable of the bourgeoisie met there for conversation--”

“Conversation!” interrupted the justice of the peace. “What kind of
conversation was it which produced all the little Bourniers?”

“--but ever since it has been called, in honor of the Bourbons, the
Cafe de la Paix, fights take place there every day,” said Abbe Taupin,
finishing the sentence which the magistrate had taken the liberty of
interrupting.

This idea of the abbe was, like the quotations from “The Cup-and-Ball,”
 of frequent recurrence.

“Do you mean that Burgundy will always be the land of fisticuffs?” asked
Pere Guerbet.

“That’s not ill said,” remarked the abbe; “not at all; in fact it’s
almost an exact history of our country.”

“I don’t know anything about the history of France,” blurted Soudry;
“and before I try to learn it, it is more important to me to know why
old Rigou has gone into the Cafe de la Paix with Socquard.”

“Oh!” returned the abbe, “wherever he goes and wherever he stays, you
may be quite certain it is for no charitable purpose.”

“That man gives me goose-flesh whenever I see him,” said Madame Vermut.

“He is so much to be feared,” remarked the doctor, “that if he had a
spite against me I should have no peace till he was dead and buried; he
would get out of his coffin to do you an ill-turn.”

“If any one can force the Shopman to come to the fair, and manage to
catch him in a trap, it’ll be Rigou,” said Soudry to his wife, in a low
tone.

“Especially,” she replied, in a loud one, “if Gaubertin and you, my
love, help him.”

“There! didn’t I tell you so?” cried Guerbet, poking the justice of the
peace. “I knew he would find some pretty girl at Socquard’s,--there he
is, putting her into his carriage.”

“You are quite wrong, gentlemen,” said Madame Soudry; “Monsieur Rigou is
thinking of nothing but the great affair; and if I’m not mistaken, that
girl is only Tonsard’s daughter.”

“He is like the chemist who lays in a stock of vipers,” said old
Guerbet.

“One would think you were intimate with Monsieur Vermut to hear you
talk,” said the doctor, pointing to the little apothecary, who was then
crossing the square.

“Poor fellow!” said the poet, who was suspected of occasionally
sharpening his wit with Madame Vermut; “just look at that waddle of his!
and they say he is learned!”

“Without him,” said the justice of the peace, “we should be hard put
to it about post-mortems; he found poison in poor Pigeron’s stomach so
cleverly that the chemists of Paris testified in the court at Auxerre
that they couldn’t have done better--”

“He didn’t find anything at all,” said Soudry; “but, as President
Gendrin says, it is a good thing to let people suppose that poison will
always be found--”

“Madame Pigeron was very wise to leave Auxerre,” said Madame Vermut;
“she was silly and wicked both. As if it were necessary to have recourse
to drugs to annul a husband! Are not there other ways quite as sure, but
innocent, to rid ourselves of that incumbrance? I would like to have
a man dare to question my conduct! The worthy Monsieur Vermut doesn’t
hamper me in the least,--but he has never been ill yet. As for Madame
de Montcornet, just see how she walks about the woods and the hermitage
with that journalist whom she brought from Paris at her own expense, and
how she pets him under the very eyes of the general!”

“At her own expense!” cried Madame Soudry. “Are you sure? If we could
only get proof of it, what a fine subject for an anonymous letter to the
general!”

“The general!” cried Madame Vermut, “he won’t interfere with things; he
plays his part.”

“What part, my dear?” asked Madame Soudry.

“Oh! the paternal part.”

“If poor little Pigeron had had the wisdom to play it, instead of
harassing his wife, he’d be alive now,” said the poet.

Madame Soudry leaned over to her neighbor, Monsieur Guerbet, and made
one of those apish grimaces which she had inherited from dear mistress,
together with her silver, by right of conquest, and twisting her face
into a series of them she made him look at Madame Vermut, who was
coquetting with the author of “The Cup-and-Ball.”

“What shocking style that woman has! what talk, what manners!” she
said. “I really don’t think I can admit her any longer into _our
society_,--especially,” she added, “when Monsieur Gourdon, the poet, is
present.”

“There’s social morality!” said the abbe, who had heard and observed all
without saying a word.

After this epigram, or rather, this satire on the company, so true and
so concise that it hit every one, the usual game of boston was proposed.

Is not this a picture of life as it is at all stages of what we agree to
call society? Change the style, and you will find that nothing more and
nothing less is said in the gilded salons of Paris.



CHAPTER III. THE CAFE DE LA PAIX


It was about seven o’clock when Rigou drove by the Cafe de la Paix. The
setting sun, slanting its beams across the little town, was diffusing
its ruddy tints, and the clear mirror of the lake contrasted with the
flashing of the resplendent window-panes, which originated the strangest
and most improbable colors.

The deep schemer, who had grown pensive as he revolved his plots, let
his horse proceed so slowly that in passing the Cafe de la Paix he
heard his own name banded about in one of those noisy disputes which,
according to the Abbe Taupin, made the name of the establishment a
gain-saying of its customary condition.

For a clear understanding of the following scene we must explain the
topography of this region of plenty and of misrule, which began with the
cafe on the square, and ended on the country road with the famous Tivoli
where the conspirators proposed to entrap the general. The ground-floor
of the cafe, which stood at the angle of the square and the road, and
was built in the style of Rigou’s house, had three windows on the
road and two on the square, the latter being separated by a glass door
through which the house was entered. The cafe had, moreover, a double
door which opened on a side alley that separated it from the neighboring
house (that of Vallet the Soulanges mercer), which led to an inside
courtyard.

The house, which was painted wholly in yellow, except the blinds, which
were green, is one of the few houses in the little town which has two
stories and an attic. And this is why: Before the astonishing rise in
the prosperity of Ville-aux-Fayes the first floor of this house, which
had four chambers, each containing a bed and the meagre furniture
thought necessary to justify the term “furnished lodgings,” was let to
strangers who were obliged to come to Soulanges on matters connected
with the courts, or to visitors who did not sleep at the chateau; but
for the last twenty-five years these rooms had had no other occupants
than the mountebanks, the merchants, the vendors of quack medicines who
came to the fair, or else commercial travellers. During the fair-time
they were let for four francs a day; and brought Socquard about two
hundred and fifty francs, not to speak of the profits on the consumption
of food which the guests took in his cafe.

The front of the house on the square was adorned with painted signs; on
the spaces that separated the windows from the glass door billiard-cues
were represented, lovingly tied together with ribbons, and above these
bows were depicted smoking bowls of punch, the bowls being in the
form of Greek vases. The words “Cafe de la Paix” were over the door,
brilliantly painted in yellow on a green ground, at each end of which
rose pyramids of tricolored billiard-balls. The window-sashes, painted
green, had small panes of the commonest glass.

A dozen arbor-vitae, which ought to be called cafe-trees, stood to the
left and right in pots, and presented their usual pretensions and sickly
appearance. Awnings, with which shopkeepers of the large cities protect
their windows from the head of the sun, were as yet an unknown luxury in
Soulanges. The beneficent liquids in the bottles which stood on boards
just behind the window-panes went through a periodic cooking. When the
sun concentrated its rays through the lenticular knobs in the glass it
boiled the Madeira, the syrups, the liqueurs, the preserved plums,
and the cherry-brandy set out for show; for the heat was so great that
Aglae, her father, and the waiter were forced to sit outside on benches
poorly shaded by the wilted shrubs,--which Mademoiselle kept alive with
water that was almost hot. All three, father, daughter, and servant,
might be seen at certain hours of the day stretched out there, fast
asleep, like domestic animals.

In 1804, the period when “Paul and Virginia” was the rage, the inside
of the cafe was hung with a paper which represented the chief scenes
of that romance. There could be seen Negroes gathering the coffee-crop,
though coffee was seldom seen in the establishment, not twenty cups of
that beverage being served in the month. Colonial products were of so
little account in the consumption of the place that if a stranger had
asked for a cup of chocolate Socquard would have been hard put to it to
serve him. Still, he would have done so with a nauseous brown broth made
from tablets in which there were more flour, crushed almonds, and brown
sugar than pure sugar and cacao, concoctions which were sold at two sous
a cake by village grocers, and manufactured for the purpose of ruining
the sale of the Spanish commodity.

As for coffee, Pere Socquard simply boiled it in a utensil known to all
such households as the “big brown pot”; he let the dregs (that were half
chicory) settle, and served the decoction, with a coolness worthy of a
Parisian waiter, in a china cup which, if flung to the ground, would not
have cracked.

At this period the sacred respect felt for sugar under the Emperor was
not yet dispelled in the town of Soulanges, and Aglae Socquard boldly
served three bits of it of the size of hazel-nuts to a foreign merchant
who had rashly asked for the literary beverage.

The wall decoration of the cafe, relieved by mirrors in gilt frames and
brackets on which the hats were hung, had not been changed since the
days when all Soulanges came to admire the romantic paper, also a
counter painted like mahogany with a Saint-Anne marble top, on which
shone vessels of plated metal and lamps with double-burners, which
were, rumor said, given to the beautiful Madame Socquard by Gaubertin.
A sticky coating of dirt covered everything, like that found on old
pictures put away and long forgotten in a garret. The tables painted to
resemble marble, the benches covered in red Utrecht velvet, the hanging
glass lamp full of oil, which fed two lights, fastened by a chain to
the ceiling and adorned with glass pendants, were the beginning of the
celebrity of the then Cafe de la Guerre.

There, from 1802 to 1804, all the bourgeois of Soulanges played at
dominoes and a game of cards called “brelan,” drank tiny glasses of
liqueur or boiled wine, and ate brandied fruits and biscuits; for the
dearness of colonial products had banished coffee, sugar, and chocolate.
Punch was a great luxury; so was “bavaroise.” These infusions were made
with a sugary substance resembling molasses, the name of which is now
lost, but which, at the time, made the fortune of its inventor.

These succinct details will recall to the memory of all travellers many
others that are analogous; and those persons who have never left Paris
can imagine the ceiling blackened with smoke and the mirrors specked
with millions of spots, showing in what freedom and independence the
whole order of diptera lived in the Cafe de la Paix.

The beautiful Madame Socquard, whose gallant adventures surpassed those
of the mistress of the Grand-I-Vert, sat there, enthroned, dressed
in the last fashion. She affected the style of a sultana, and wore a
turban. Sultanas, under the Empire, enjoyed a vogue equal to that of the
“angel” of to-day. The whole valley took pattern from the turbans,
the poke-bonnets, the fur caps, the Chinese head-gear of the handsome
Socquard, to whose luxury the big-wigs of Soulanges contributed. With a
waist beneath her arm-pits, after the fashion of our mothers, who were
proud of their imperial graces, Junie (she was named Junie!) made the
fortune of the house of Socquard. Her husband owed to her the ownership
of a vineyard, of the house they lived in, and also the Tivoli. The
father of Monsieur Lupin was said to have committed some follies for
the handsome Madame Socquard; and Gaubertin, who had taken her from him,
certainly owed him the little Bournier.

These details, together with the deep mystery with which Socquard
manufactured his boiled wine, are sufficient to explain why his name and
that of the Cafe de la Paix were popular; but there were other reasons
for their renown. Nothing better than wine could be got at Tonsard’s and
the other taverns in the valley; from Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes, in
a circumference of twenty miles, the Cafe Socquard was the only place
where the guests could play billiards and drink the punch so admirably
concocted by the proprietor. There alone could be found a display of
foreign wines, fine liqueurs, and brandied fruits. Its name resounded
daily throughout the valley, accompanied by ideas of superfine sensual
pleasures such as men whose stomachs are more sensitive than their
hearts dream about. To all these causes of popularity was added that of
being an integral part of the great festival of Soulanges. The Cafe de
la Paix was to the town, in a superior degree, what the tavern of the
Grand-I-Vert was to the peasantry,--a centre of venom; it was the point
of contact and transmission between the gossip of Ville-aux-Fayes and
that of the valley. The Grand-I-Vert supplied the milk and the Cafe
de la Paix the cream, and Tonsard’s two daughters were in daily
communication between the two.

To Socquard’s mind the square of Soulanges was merely an appendage to
his cafe. Hercules went from door to door, talking with this one and
that one, and wearing in summer no other garment than a pair of trousers
and a half-buttoned waistcoat. If any one entered the tavern, the
people with whom he gossiped warned him, and he slowly and reluctantly
returned.

Rigou stopped his horse, and getting out of the chaise, fastened the
bridle to one of the posts near the gate of the Tivoli. Then he made a
pretext to listen to what was going on without being noticed, and placed
himself between two windows through one of which he could, by advancing
his head, see the persons in the room, watch their gestures, and catch
the louder tones which came through the glass of the windows and which
the quiet of the street enabled him to hear.

“If I were to tell old Rigou that your brother Nicolas is after La
Pechina,” cried an angry voice, “and that he waylays her, he’d rip the
entrails out of every one of you,--pack of scoundrels that you are at
the Grand-I-Vert!”

“If you play me such a trick as that, Aglae,” said the shrill voice of
Marie Tonsard, “you sha’n’t tell anything more except to the worms in
your coffin. Don’t meddle with my brother’s business or with mine and
Bonnebault’s either.”

Marie, instigated by her grandmother, had, as we see, followed
Bonnebault; she had watched him through the very window where Rigou
was now standing, and had seen him displaying his graces and paying
compliments so agreeable to Mademoiselle Socquard that she was forced to
smile upon him. That smile had brought about the scene in the midst of
which the revelation that interested Rigou came out.

“Well, well, Pere Rigou, what are you doing here?” said Socquard,
slapping the usurer on the shoulder; he was coming from a barn at the
end of the garden, where he kept various contrivances for the public
games, such as weighing-machines, merry-go-rounds, see-saws, all in
readiness for the Tivoli when opened. Socquard stepped noiselessly, for
he was wearing a pair of those yellow leather-slippers which cost so
little by the gross that they have an enormous sale in the provinces.

“If you have any fresh lemons, I’d like a glass of lemonade,” said
Rigou; “it is a warm evening.”

“Who is making that racket?” said Socquard, looking through the window
and seeing his daughter and Marie Tonsard.

“They are quarrelling for Bonnebault,” said Rigou, sardonically.

The anger of the father was at once controlled by the interest of the
tavern-keeper. The tavern-keeper judged it prudent to listen outside,
as Rigou was doing; the father was inclined to enter and declare
that Bonnebault, possessed of admirable qualities in the eyes of a
tavern-keeper, had none at all as son-in-law to one of the notables of
Soulanges. And yet Pere Socquard had received but few offers for his
daughter. At twenty-two Aglae already rivalled in size and weight Madame
Vermichel, whose agility seemed phenomenal. Sitting behind a counter
increased the adipose tendency which she derived from her father.

“What devil is it that gets into girls?” said Socquard to Rigou.

“Ha!” replied the ex-Benedictine, “of all the devils, that’s the one the
Church has most to do with.”

Just then Bonnebault came out of the billiard-room with a cue in his
hand, and struck Marie sharply, saying:--

“You’ve made me miss my stroke; but I’ll not miss you, and I’ll give it
to you till you muffle that clapper of yours.”

Socquard and Rigou, who now thought it wise to interfere, entered the
cafe by the front door, raising such a crowd of flies that the light
from the windows was obscured; the sound was like that of the distant
practising of a drum-corps. After their first excitement was over, the
big flies with the bluish bellies, accompanied by the stinging little
ones, returned to their quarters in the windows, where on three tiers of
planks, the paint of which was indistinguishable under the fly-specks,
were rows of viscous bottles ranged like soldiers.

Marie was crying. To be struck before a rival by the man she loves is
one of those humiliations that no woman can endure, no matter what her
place on the social ladder may be; and the lower that place is, the more
violent is the expression of her wrath. The Tonsard girl took no notice
of Rigou or of Socquard; she flung herself on a bench, in gloomy and
sullen silence, which the ex-monk carefully watched.

“Get a fresh lemon, Aglae,” said Pere Socquard, “and go and rinse that
glass yourself.”

“You did right to send her away,” whispered Rigou, “or she might have
been hurt”; and he glanced significantly at the hand with which Marie
grasped a stool she had caught up to throw at Aglae’s head.

“Now, Marie,” said Socquard, standing before her, “people don’t come
here to fling stools; if you were to break one of my mirrors, the milk
of your cows wouldn’t pay for the damage.”

“Pere Socquard, your daughter is a reptile; I’m worth a dozen of her,
I’d have you know. If you don’t want Bonnebault for a son-in-law, it is
high time for you to tell him to go and play billiards somewhere else;
he’s losing a hundred sous every minute.”

In the middle of this flux of words, screamed rather than said, Socquard
took Marie round the waist and flung her out of the door, in spite of
her cries and resistance. It was none too soon; for Bonnebault rushed
out of the billiard-room, his eyes blazing.

“It sha’n’t end so!” cried Marie Tonsard.

“Begone!” shouted Bonnebault, whom Viollet held back round the body lest
he should do the girl some hurt. “Go to the devil, or I will never speak
to you or look at you again!”

“You!” said Marie, flinging him a furious glance. “Give me back my
money, and I’ll leave you to Mademoiselle Socquard if she is rich enough
to keep you.”

Thereupon Marie, frightened when she saw that even Socquard-Alcides
could scarcely hold Bonnebault, who sprang after her like a tiger, took
to flight along the road.

Rigou followed, and told her to get into his carriole to escape
Bonnebault, whose shouts reached the hotel Soudry; then, after hiding
Marie under the leather curtains, he came back to the cafe to drink his
lemonade and examine the group it now contained, composed of Plissoud,
Amaury, Viollet, and the waiter, who were all trying to pacify
Bonnebault.

“Come, hussar, it’s your turn to play,” said Amaury, a small, fair young
man, with a dull eye.

“Besides, she’s taken herself off,” said Viollet.

If any one ever betrayed astonishment it was Plissoud when he beheld
the usurer of Blangy sitting at one of the tables, and more occupied in
watching him, Plissoud, than in noticing the quarrel that was going on.
In spite of himself, the sheriff allowed his face to show the species
of bewilderment which a man feels at an unexpected meeting with a person
whom he hates and is plotting against, and he speedily withdrew into the
billiard-room.

“Adieu, Pere Socquard,” said Rigou.

“I’ll get your carriage,” said the innkeeper; “take your time.”

“How shall I find out what those fellows have been saying over their
pool?” Rigou was asking himself, when he happened to see the waiter’s
face in the mirror beside him.

The waiter was a jack at all trades; he cultivated Socquard’s vines,
swept out the cafe and the billiard-room, kept the garden in order, and
watered the Tivoli, all for fifty francs a year. He was always without a
jacket, except on grand occasions; usually his sole garments were a pair
of blue linen trousers, heavy shoes, and a striped velvet waistcoat,
over which he wore an apron of homespun linen when at work in the
cafe or billiard-room. This apron, with strings, was the badge of his
functions. The fellow had been hired by Socquard at the last annual
fair; for in this valley, as throughout Burgundy, servants are hired in
the market-place by the year, exactly as one buys horses.

“What’s your name?” said Rigou.

“Michel, at your service,” replied the waiter.

“Doesn’t old Fourchon come here sometimes?”

“Two or three times a week, with Monsieur Vermichel, who gives me a
couple of sous to warn him if his wife’s after them.”

“He’s a fine old fellow, Pere Fourchon; knows a great deal and is full
of good sense,” said Rigou, paying for his lemonade and leaving the
evil-smelling place when he saw Pere Socquard leading his horse round.

Just as he was about to get into the carriage, Rigou noticed the chemist
crossing the square and hailed him with a “Ho, there, Monsieur Vermut!”
 Recognizing the rich man, Vermut hurried up. Rigou joined him, and said
in a low voice:--

“Are there any drugs that can eat into the tissue of the skin so as to
produce a real disease, like a whitlow on the finger, for instance?”

“If Monsieur Gourdon would help, yes,” answered the little chemist.

“Vermut, not a word of all this, or you and I will quarrel; but speak of
the matter to Monsieur Gourdon, and tell him to come and see me the day
after to-morrow. I may be able to procure him the delicate operation of
cutting off a forefinger.”

Then, leaving the little man thoroughly bewildered, Rigou got into the
carriole beside Marie Tonsard.

“Well, you little viper,” he said, taking her by the arm when he had
fastened the reins to a hook in front of the leathern apron which closed
the carriole and the horse had started on a trot, “do you think you can
keep Bonnebault by giving way to such violence? If you were a wise girl
you would promote his marriage with that hogshead of stupidity and take
your revenge afterwards.”

Marie could not help smiling as she answered:--

“Ah, how bad you are! you are the master of us all in wickedness.”

“Listen to me, Marie; I like the peasants, but it won’t do for any one
of you to come between my teeth and a mouthful of game. Your brother
Nicolas, as Aglae said, is after La Pechina. That must not be; I protect
her, that girl. She is to be my heiress for thirty thousand francs, and
I intend to marry her well. I know that Nicolas, helped by your sister
Catherine, came near killing the little thing this morning. You are to
see your brother and sister at once, and say to them: ‘If you let La
Pechina alone, Pere Rigou will save Nicolas from the conscription.’”

“You are the devil incarnate!” cried Marie. “They do say you’ve signed a
compact with him. Is that true?”

“Yes,” replied Rigou, gravely.

“I heard it, but I didn’t believe it.”

“He has guaranteed that no attacks aimed at me shall hurt me; that I
shall never be robbed; that I shall live a hundred years and succeed
in everything I undertake, and be as young to the day of my death as a
two-year old cockerel--”

“Well, if that’s so,” said Marie, “it must be _devilishly_ easy for you
to save my brother from the conscription--”

“If he chooses, that’s to say. He’ll have to lose a finger,” returned
Rigou. “I’ll tell him how.”

“Look out, you are taking the upper road!” exclaimed Marie.

“I never go by the lower at night,” said the ex-monk.

“On account of the cross?” said Marie, naively.

“That’s it, sly-boots,” replied her diabolical companion.

They had reached a spot where the high-road cuts through a slight
elevation of ground, making on each side of it a rather steep slope,
such as we often see on the mail-roads of France. At the end of
this little gorge, which is about a hundred feet long, the roads to
Ronquerolles and to Cerneux meet and form an open space, in the centre
of which stands a cross. From either slope a man could aim at a victim
and kill him at close quarters, with all the more ease because the
little hill is covered with vines, and the evil-doer could lie in ambush
among the briers and brambles that overgrow them. We can readily imagine
why the usurer did not take that road after dark. The Thune flows round
the little hill; and the place is called the Close of the Cross. No
spot was ever more adapted for revenge or murder, for the road to
Ronquerolles continues to the bridge over the Avonne in front of the
pavilion of the Rendezvous, while that to Cerneux leads off above
the mail-road; so that between the four roads,--to Les Aigues,
Ville-aux-Fayes, Ronquerolles, and Cerneux,--a murderer could choose his
line of retreat and leave his pursuers in uncertainty.

“I shall drop you at the entrance of the village,” said Rigou when they
neared the first houses of Blangy.

“Because you are afraid of Annette, old coward!” cried Marie. “When
are you going to send her away? you have had her now three years. What
amuses me is that your old woman still lives; the good God knows how to
revenge himself.”



CHAPTER IV. THE TRIUMVIRATE OF VILLE-AUX-FAYES


The cautious usurer compelled his wife and Jean to go to bed and to rise
by daylight; assuring them that the house would never be attacked if he
sat up till midnight, and he never himself rose till late. Not only had
he thus secured himself from interruption between seven at night and
five the next morning but he had accustomed his wife and Jean to respect
his morning sleep and that of Hagar, whose room was directly behind his.

So, on the following morning, about half past six, Madame Rigou, who
herself took care of the poultry-yard with some assistance from Jean,
knocked timidly at her husband’s door.

“Monsieur Rigou,” she said, “you told me to wake you.”

The tones of that voice, the attitude of the woman, her frightened air
as she obeyed an order the execution of which might be ill-received,
showed the utter self-abnegation in which the poor creature lived, and
the affection she still bore to her petty tyrant.

“Very good,” replied Rigou.

“Shall I wake Annette?” she asked.

“No, let her sleep; she has been up half the night,” he replied,
gravely.

The man was always grave, even when he allowed himself to jest. Annette
had in fact opened the door secretly to Sibilet, Fourchon, and Catherine
Tonsard, who all came at different hours between eleven and two o’clock.

Ten minutes later Rigou, dressed with more care than usual, came
downstairs and greeted his wife with a “Good-morning, my old woman,”
 which made her happier than if counts had knelt at her feet.

“Jean,” he said to the ex-lay-brother, “don’t leave the house; if any
one robs me it will be worse for you than for me.”

By thus mingling mildness and severity, hopes and rebuffs, the clever
egoist kept his three slaves faithful and close at his heels, like dogs.

Taking the upper-road, so-called, to avoid the Close of the Cross, Rigou
reached the square of Soulanges about eight o’clock.

Just as he was fastening his rein to the post nearest the little door
with three steps, a blind opened and Soudry showed his face, pitted with
the small-pox, which the expression of his small black eyes rendered
crafty.

“Let’s begin by taking a crust here before we start,” he said; “we
sha’n’t get breakfast at Ville-aux-Fayes before one o’clock.”

Then he softly called a servant-girl, as young and pretty as Annette,
who came down noiselessly, and received his order for ham and bread;
after which he went himself to the cellar and fetched some wine.

Rigou contemplated for the hundredth time the well-known dining-room,
floored in oak, with stuccoed ceiling and cornice, its high wainscot and
handsome cupboards finely painted, its porcelain stone and magnificent
tall clock,--all the property of Mademoiselle Laguerre. The chair-backs
were in the form of lyres, painted white and highly varnished; the seats
were of green morocco with gilt nails. A massive mahogany table was
covered with green oilcloth, with large squares of a deeper shade of
green, and a plain border of the lighter. The floor, laid in Hungarian
point, was carefully waxed by Urbain and showed the care which
ex-waiting-women know how to exact out of their servants.

“Bah! it cost too much,” thought Rigou for the hundredth time. “I can
eat as good a dinner in my room as here, and I have the income of the
money this useless splendor would have wasted. Where is Madame Soudry?”
 he asked, as the mayor returned armed with a venerable bottle.

“Asleep.”

“And you no longer disturb her slumbers?” said Rigou.

The ex-gendarme winked with a knowing air, and pointed to the ham which
Jeannette, the pretty maid, was just bringing in.

“That will pick you up, a pretty bit like that,” he said. “It was cured
in the house; we cut into it only yesterday.”

“Where did you find her?” said the ex-Benedictine in Soudry’s ear.

“She is like the ham,” replied the ex-gendarme, winking again; “I have
had her only a week.”

Jeannette, still in her night-cap, with a short petticoat and her bare
feet in slippers, had slipped on a bodice made with straps over the arms
in true peasant fashion, over which she had crossed a neckerchief which
did not entirely hide her fresh and youthful attractions, which were at
least as appetizing as the ham she carried. Short and plump, with
bare arms mottled red, ending in large, dimpled hands with short but
well-made fingers, she was a picture of health. The face was that of a
true Burgundian,--ruddy, but white about the temples, throat, and ears;
the hair was chestnut; the corners of the eyes turned up towards the
top of the ears; the nostrils were wide, the mouth sensual, and a little
down lay along the cheeks; all this, together with a jaunty expression,
tempered however by a deceitfully modest attitude, made her the model of
a roguish servant-girl.

“On my honor, Jeannette is as good as the ham,” said Rigou. “If I hadn’t
an Annette I should want a Jeannette.”

“One is as good as the other,” said the ex-gendarme, “for your Annette
is fair and delicate. How is Madame Rigou,--is she asleep?” added
Soudry, roughly, to let Rigou see he understood his joke.

“She wakes with the cock, but she goes to roost with the hens,” replied
Rigou. “As for me, I sit up and read the ‘Constitutionnel.’ My wife lets
me sleep at night and in the morning too; she wouldn’t come into my room
for all the world.”

“It’s just the other way here,” replied Jeanette. “Madame sits up with
the company playing cards; sometimes there are sixteen of them in
the salon; Monsieur goes to bed at eight o’clock, and we get up at
daylight--”

“You think that’s different,” said Rigou, “but it comes to the same
thing in the end. Well, my dear, you come to me and I’ll send Annette
here, and that will be the same thing and different too.”

“Old scamp, you’ll make her ashamed,” said Soudry.

“Ha! gendarme; you want your field to yourself! Well, we all get our
happiness where we can find it.”

Jeanette, by her master’s order, disappeared to lay out his clothes.

“You must have promised to marry her when your wife dies,” said Rigou.

“At your age and mine,” replied Soudry, “there’s no other way.”

“With girls of any ambition it would be one way to become a widower,”
 added Rigou; “especially if Madame Soudry found fault with Jeannette for
her way of scrubbing the staircase.”

The remark made the two husbands pensive. When Jeannette returned and
announced that all was ready, Soudry said to her, “Come and help me!”--a
precaution which made the ex-monk smile.

“There’s a difference, indeed!” said he. “As for me, I’d leave you alone
with Annette, my good friend.”

A quarter of an hour later Soudry, in his best clothes, got into the
wicker carriage, and the two friends drove round the lake of Soulanges
to Ville-aux-Fayes.

“Look at it!” said Rigou, as they reached an eminence from which the
chateau of Soulanges could be seen in profile.

The old revolutionary put into the tone of his words all the hatred
which the rural middle classes feel to the great chateaux and the great
estates.

“Yes, but I hope it will never be destroyed as long as I live,” said
Soudry. “The Comte de Soulanges was my general; he did me kindness; he
got my pension, and he allows Lupin to manage the estate. After Lupin
some of us will have it, and as long as the Soulanges family exists they
and their property will be respected. Such folks are large-minded; they
let every one make his profit, and they find it pays.”

“Yes, but the Comte de Soulanges has three children, who, at his death,
may not agree,” replied Rigou. “The husband of his daughter and his
sons may go to law, and end by selling the lead and iron mines to
manufacturers, from whom we shall manage to get them back.”

The chateau just then showed up in profile, as if to defy the ex-monk.

“Ah! look at it; in those days they built well,” cried Soudry. “But
just now Monsieur le Comte is economizing, so as to make Soulanges the
entailed estate of his peerage.”

“My dear friend,” said Rigou, “entailed estates won’t exist much
longer.”

When the topic of public matters was exhausted, the worthy pair began to
discuss the merits of their pretty maids in terms too Burgundian to be
printed here. That inexhaustible subject carried them so far that before
they knew it they saw the capital of the arrondissement over which
Gaubertin reigned, and which we hope excites enough curiosity in the
reader’s mind to justify a short digression.

The name of Ville-aux-Fayes, singular as it is, is explained as the
corruption of the words (in low Latin) “Villa in Fago,”--the manor of
the woods. This name indicates that a forest once covered the delta
formed by the Avonne before it joins its confluent the Yonne. Some Frank
doubtless built a fortress on the hill which slopes gently to the long
plain. The savage conqueror separated his vantage-ground from the
delta by a wide and deep moat and made the position a formidable one,
essentially seignorial, convenient for enforcing tolls across the
bridges and for protecting his rights of profit on all grains ground in
the mills.

That is the history of the beginning of Ville-aux-Fayes. Wherever feudal
or ecclesiastical dominion established there we find gathered together
interests, inhabitants, and, later, towns when the localities were in a
position to maintain them and to found and develop great industries.
The method of floating timber discovered by Jean Rouvet in 1549, which
required certain convenient stations to intercept it, was the making
of Ville-aux-Fayes, which, up to that time, had been, compared to
Soulanges, a mere village. Ville-aux-Fayes became a storage place for
timber, which covered the shores of the two rivers for a distance of
over thirty miles. The work of taking out of the water, computing the
lost logs, and making the rafts which the Yonne carried down to the
Seine, brought together a large concourse of workmen. Such a population
increased consumption and encouraged trade. Thus Ville-aux-Fayes, which
had but six hundred inhabitants at the end of the seventeenth century,
had two thousand in 1790, and Gaubertin had now raised the number to
four thousand, by the following means.

When the legislative assembly decreed the new laying out of territory,
Ville-aux-Fayes, which was situated where, geographically, a
sub-prefecture was needed, was chosen instead of Soulanges as chief town
or capital of the arrondissement. The increased population of Paris,
by increasing the demand for and the value of wood as fuel, necessarily
increased the commerce of Ville-aux-Fayes. Gaubertin had founded
his fortune, after losing his stewardship, on this growing business,
estimating the effect of peace on the population of Paris, which did
actually increase by over one-third between 1815 and 1825.

The shape of Ville-aux-Fayes followed the conformation of the ground.
Each side of the promontory was lined with wharves. The dam to stop the
timber from floating further down was just below a hill covered by the
forest of Soulanges. Between the dam and the town lay a suburb. The
lower town, covering the greater part of the delta, came down to the
shores of the lake of the Avonne.

Above the lower town some five hundred houses with gardens, standing
on the heights, were grouped round three sides of the promontory, and
enjoyed the varied scene of the diamond waters of the lake, the rafts in
construction along its edge, and the piles of wood upon the shores. The
waters, laden with timber from the river and the rapids which fed the
mill-races and the sluices of a few manufactories, presented an animated
scene, all the more charming because inclosed in the greenery of
forests, while the long valley of Les Aigues offered a glorious contrast
to the dark foil of the heights above the town itself.

Gaubertin had built himself a house on the level of the delta, intending
to make a place which should improve the locality and render the lower
town as desirable as the upper. It was a modern house built of stone,
with a balcony of iron railings, outside blinds, painted windows, and
no ornament but a line of fret-work under the eaves, a slate roof,
one story in height with a garret, a fine courtyard, and behind it an
English garden bathed by the waters of the Avonne. The elegance of the
place compelled the department to build a fine edifice nearly opposite
to it for the sub-prefecture, provisionally lodged in a mere kennel.
The town itself also built a town-hall. The law-courts had lately been
installed in a new edifice; so that Ville-aux-Fayes owed to the active
influence of its present mayor a number of really imposing public
buildings. The gendarmerie had also built barracks which completed the
square formed by the marketplace.

These changes, on which the inhabitants prided themselves, were due to
the impetus given by Gaubertin, who within a day or two had received the
cross of the Legion of honor, in anticipation of the coming birthday
of the king. In a town so situated and so modern there was of course,
neither aristocracy nor nobility. Consequently, the rich merchants of
Ville-aux-Fayes, proud of their own independence, willingly espoused the
cause of the peasantry against a count of the Empire who had taken sides
with the Restoration. To them the oppressors were the oppressed. The
spirit of this commercial town was so well known to the government that
they send there as sub-prefect a man with a conciliatory temper, a pupil
of his uncle, the well-known des Lupeaulx, one of those men, accustomed
to compromise, who are familiar with the difficulties and necessities
of administration, but whom puritan politicians, doing infinitely worse
things, call corrupt.

The interior of Gaubertin’s house was decorated with the unmeaning
commonplaces of modern luxury. Rich papers with gold borders, bronze
chandeliers, mahogany furniture of a new pattern, astral lamps, round
tables with marble tops, white china with gilt lines for dessert, red
morocco chairs and mezzo-tint engravings in the dining-room, and
blue cashmere furniture in the salon,--all details of a chilling and
perfectly unmeaning character, but which to the eyes of Ville-aux-Fayes
seemed the last efforts of Sardanapalian luxury. Madame Gaubertin played
the role of elegance with great effect; she assumed little airs and
was lackadaisical at forty-five years of age, as though certain of the
homage of her court.

We ask those who really know France, if these houses--those of Rigou,
Soudry, and Gaubertin--are not a perfect presentation of the village,
the little town, and the seat of a sub-prefecture?

Without being a man of mind, or a man of talent, Gaubertin had the
appearance of being both. He owed the accuracy of his perception and his
consummate art to an extreme keenness after gain. He desired wealth, not
for his wife, not for his children, not for himself, not for his family,
not for the reputation that money gives; after the gratification of his
revenge (the hope of which kept him alive) he loved the touch of money,
like Nucingen, who, it was said, kept fingering the gold in his pockets.
The rush of business was Gaubertin’s wine; and though he had his belly
full of it, he had all the eagerness of one who was empty. As with
valets of the drama, intrigues, tricks to play, mischief to organize,
deceptions, commercial over-reachings, accounts to render and receive,
disputes, and quarrels of self-interest, exhilarated him, kept his
blood in circulation, and his bile flowing. He went and came on foot,
on horseback, in a carriage, by water; he was at all auctions and timber
sales in Paris, thinking of everything, keeping hundreds of wires in his
hands and never getting them tangled.

Quick, decided in his movements as in his ideas, short and squat in
figure, with a thin nose, a fiery eye, an ear on the “qui vive,” there
was something of the hunting-dog about him. His brown face, very round
and sunburned, from which the tanned ears stood out predominantly,--for
he always wore a cap,--was in keeping with that character. His nose
turned up; his tightly-closed lips could never have opened to say a
kindly thing. His bushy whiskers formed a pair of black and shiny tufts
beneath the highly-colored cheek-bones, and were lost in his cravat.
Hair that was pepper-and-salt in color and frizzled naturally in stages
like those of a judge’s wig, seeming scorched by the fury of the fire
which heated his brown skull and gleamed in his gray eyes surrounded
by circular wrinkles (no doubt from a habit of always blinking when
he looked across the country in full sunlight), completed the
characteristics of his physiognomy. His lean and vigorous hands were
hairy, knobbed, and claw-like, like those of men who do their share of
labor. His personality was agreeable to those with whom he had to do,
for he wrapped it in a misleading gayety; he knew how to talk a great
deal without saying a word of what he meant to keep unsaid. He wrote
little, so as to deny anything that escaped him which might prove
unfavorable in its after effects upon his interests. His books and
papers were kept by a cashier,--an honest man, whom men of Gaubertin’s
stamp always seek to get hold of, and whom they make, in their own
selfish interests, their first dupe.

When Rigou’s little green chaise appeared, towards twelve o’clock, in
the broad avenue which skirts the river, Gaubertin, in cap, boots, and
jacket, was returning from the wharves. He hastened his steps,--feeling
very sure that Rigou’s object in coming over could only be “the great
affair.”

“Good morning, gendarme; good morning, paunch of gall and wisdom,” he
said, giving a little slap to the stomachs of his two visitors. “We have
business to talk over, and, faith! we’ll do it glass in hand; that’s the
true way to take things.”

“If you do your business that way, you ought to be fatter than you are,”
 said Rigou.

“I work too hard; I’m not like you two, confined to the house and
bewitched there, like old dotards. Well, well, after all that’s the best
way; you can do your business comfortably in an arm-chair, with your
back to the fire and your belly at table; custom goes to you, I have to
go after it. But now, come in, come in! the house is yours for the time
you stay.”

A servant, in blue livery edged with scarlet, took the horse by the
bridle and led him into the courtyard, where were the offices and the
stable.

Gaubertin left his guests to walk about the garden for a moment, while
he went to give his orders and arrange about the breakfast.

“Well, my wolves,” he said, as he returned, rubbing his hands, “the
gendarmerie of Soulanges were seen this morning at daybreak, marching
towards Conches; no doubt they mean to arrest the peasants for
depredations; ha, ha! things are getting warm, warm! By this time,” he
added, looking at his watch, “those fellows may have been arrested.”

“Probably,” said Rigou.

“Well, what do you all say over there? Has anything been decided?”

“What is there to decide?” asked Rigou. “We have no part in it,” he
added, looking at Soudry.

“How do you mean nothing to decide? If Les Aigues is sold as the result
of our coalition, who is to gain five or six hundred thousand francs
out of it? Do you expect me to, all alone? No, my inside is not strong
enough to split up two millions, with three children to establish, and a
wife who hasn’t the first idea about the value of money; no, I must have
associates. Here’s the gendarme, he has plenty of funds all ready. I
know he doesn’t hold a single mortgage that isn’t ready to mature; he
only lends now on notes at sight of which I endorse. I’ll go into this
thing by the amount of eight hundred thousand francs; my son, the
judge, two hundred thousand; and I count on the gendarme for two hundred
thousand more; now, how much will you put in, skull-cap?”

“All the rest,” replied Rigou, stiffly.

“The devil! well, I wish I had my hand where your heart is!” exclaimed
Gaubertin. “Now what are you going to do?”

“Whatever you do; tell your plan.”

“My plan,” said Gaubertin, “is to take double, and sell half to the
Conches, and Cerneux, and Blangy folks who want to buy. Soudry has his
clients, and you yours, and I, mine. That’s not the difficulty. The
thing is, how are we going to arrange among ourselves? How shall we
divide up the great lots?”

“Nothing easier,” said Rigou. “We’ll each take what we like best. I,
for one, shall stand in nobody’s way; I’ll take the woods in common with
Soudry and my son-in-law; the timber has been so injured that you won’t
care for it now, and you may have all the rest. Faith, it is worth the
money you’ll put into it!”

“Will you sign that agreement?” said Soudry.

“A written agreement is worth nothing,” replied Gaubertin. “Besides, you
know I am playing above board; I have perfect confidence in Rigou, and
he shall be the purchaser.”

“That will satisfy me,” said Rigou.

“I will make only one condition,” added Gaubertin. “I must have the
pavilion of the Rendezvous, with all its appurtenances, and fifty acres
of the surrounding land. I shall make it my country-house, and it shall
be near my woods. Madame Gaubertin--Madame Isaure, for that’s what she
wants people to call her--says she shall make it her villa.”

“I’m willing,” said Rigou.

“Well, now, between ourselves,” continued Gaubertin, after looking about
him on all sides and making sure that no one could overhear him, “do you
think they are capable of striking a blow?”

“Such as?” asked Rigou, who never allowed himself to understand a hint.

“Well, if the worst of the band, the best shot, sent a ball whistling
round the ears of the count--just to frighten him?”

“He’s a man to rush at an assailant and collar him.”

“Michaud, then.”

“Michaud would do nothing at the moment, but he’d watch and spy till he
found out the man and those who instigated him.”

“You are right,” said Gaubertin; “those peasants must make a riot and
a few must be sent to the galleys. Well, so much the better for us; the
authorities will catch the worst, whom we shall want to get rid of after
they’ve done the work. There are those blackguards, the Tonsards and
Bonnebault--”

“Tonsard is ready for mischief,” said Soudry, “I know that; and we’ll
work him up by Vaudoyer and Courtecuisse.”

“I’ll answer for Courtecuisse,” said Rigou.

“And I hold Vaudoyer in the hollow of my hand.”

“Be cautious!” said Rigou; “before everything else be cautious.”

“Now, papa skull-cap, do you mean to tell me that there’s any harm
in speaking of things as they are? Is it we who are indicting and
arresting, or gleaning or depredating? If Monsieur le comte knows what
he’s about and leases the woods to the receiver-general it is all up
with our schemes,--‘Farewell baskets, the vintage is o’er’; in that case
you will lose more than I. What we say here is between ourselves and
for ourselves; for I certainly wouldn’t say a word to Vaudoyer that I
couldn’t repeat to God and man. But it is not forbidden, I suppose, to
profit by any events that may take place. The peasantry of this canton
are hot-headed; the general’s exactions, his severity, Michaud’s
persecutions, and those of his keepers have exasperated them; to-day
things have come to a crisis and I’ll bet there’s a rumpus going on now
with the gendarmerie. And so, let’s go and breakfast.”

Madame Gaubertin came into the garden just then. She was a rather fair
woman with long curls, called English, hanging down her cheeks, who
played the style of sentimental virtue, pretended never to have
known love, talked platonics to all the men about her, and kept the
prosecuting-attorney at her beck and call. She was given to caps with
large bows, but preferred to wear only her hair. She danced, and at
forty-five years of age had the mincing manner of a girl; her feet,
however, were large and her hands frightful. She wished to be called
Isaure, because among her other oddities and absurdities she had the
taste to repudiate the name of Gaubertin as vulgar. Her eyes were light
and her hair of an undecided color, something like dirty nankeen. Such
as she was, she was taken as a model by a number of young ladies, who
stabbed the skies with their glances, and posed as angels.

“Well, gentlemen,” she said, bowing, “I have some strange news for you.
The gendarmerie have returned.”

“Did they make any prisoners?”

“None; the general, it seems, had previously obtained the pardon of
the depredators. It was given in honor of this happy anniversary of the
king’s restoration to France.”

The three associates looked at each other.

“He is cleverer than I thought for, that big cuirassier!” said
Gaubertin. “Well, come to breakfast. After all, the game is not lost,
only postponed; it is your affair now, Rigou.”

Soudry and Rigou drove back disappointed, not being able as yet to plan
any other catastrophe to serve their ends and relying, as Gaubertin
advised, on what might turn up. Like certain Jacobins at the outset of
the Revolution who were furious with Louis XVI.’s conciliations, and
who provoked severe measures at court in the hope of producing anarchy,
which to them meant fortune and power, the formidable enemies of General
Montcornet staked their present hopes on the severity which Michaud and
his keepers were likely to employ against future depredators.
Gaubertin promised them his assistance, without explaining who were his
co-operators, for he did not wish them to know about his relations with
Sibilet. Nothing can equal the prudence of a man of Gaubertin’s stamp,
unless it be that of an ex-gendarme or an unfrocked priest. This plot
could not have been brought to a successful issue,--a successfully
evil issue,--unless by three such men as these, steeped in hatred and
self-interest.



CHAPTER V. VICTORY WITHOUT A FIGHT


Madame Michaud’s fears were the effect of that second sight which
comes of true passion. Exclusively absorbed by one only being, the soul
finally grasps the whole moral world which surrounds that being; it
sees clearly. A woman when she loves feels the same presentiments which
disquiet her later when a mother.

While the poor young woman listened to the confused voices coming from
afar across an unknown space, a scene was really happening in the tavern
of the Grand-I-Vert which threatened her husband’s life.

About five o’clock that morning early risers had seen the gendarmerie of
Soulanges on its way to Conches. The news circulated rapidly; and those
whom it chiefly interested were much surprised to learn from others, who
lived on high ground, that a detachment commanded by the lieutenant of
Ville-aux-Fayes had marched through the forest of Les Aigues. As it was
a Monday, there were already good reasons why the peasants should be
at the tavern; but it was also the eve of the anniversary of the
restoration of the Bourbons, and though the frequenters of Tonsard’s
den had no need of that “august cause” (as they said in those days) to
explain their presence at the Grand-I-Vert, they did not fail to make
the most of it if the mere shadow of an official functionary appeared.

Vaudoyer, Courtecuisse, Tonsard and his family, Godain, and an old
vine-dresser named Laroche, were there early in the morning. The latter
was a man who scratched a living from day to day; he was one of the
delinquents collected in Blangy under the sort of subscription invented
by Sibilet and Courtecuisse to disgust the general by the results of
his indictments. Blangy had supplied three men, twelve women, also eight
girls and five boys for whom parent were answerable, all of whom were in
a condition of pauperism; but they were the only ones who could be
found that were so. The year 1823 had been a very profitable one to the
peasantry, and 1826 as likely, through the enormous quantity of wine
yielded, to bring them in a good deal of money; add to this the works at
Les Aigues, undertaken by the general, which had put a great deal more
in circulation throughout the three districts which bordered on the
estate. It had therefore been quite difficult to find in Blangy,
Conches, and Cerneux, one hundred and twenty indigent persons against
whom to bring the suits; and in order to do so, they had taken old
women, mothers, and grandmothers of those who owned property but who
possessed nothing of their own, like Tonsard’s mother. Laroche, an
old laborer, possessed absolutely nothing; he was not, like Tonsard,
hot-blooded and vicious,--his motive power was a cold, dull hatred; he
toiled in silence with a sullen face; work was intolerable to him, but
he had to work to live; his features were hard and their expression
repulsive. Though sixty years old, he was still strong, except that his
back was bent; he saw no future before him, no spot that he could call
his own, and he envied those who possessed the land; for this reason
he had no pity on the forests of Les Aigues, and took pleasure in
despoiling them uselessly.

“Will they be allowed to put us in prison?” he was saying. “After
Conches they’ll come to Blangy. I’m an old offender, and I shall get
three months.”

“What can we do against the gendarmerie, old drunkard?” said Vaudoyer.

“Why! cut the legs of their horses with our scythes. That’ll bring them
down; their muskets are not loaded, and when they find us ten to one
against them they’ll decamp. If the three villages all rose and killed
two or three gendarmes, they couldn’t guillotine the whole of us. They’d
have to give way, as they did on the other side of Burgundy, where they
sent a regiment. Bah! that regiment came back again, and the peasants
cut the woods just as much as they ever did.”

“If we kill,” said Vaudoyer; “it is better to kill one man; the question
is, how to do it without danger and frighten those Arminacs so that
they’ll be driven out of the place.”

“Which one shall we kill?” asked Laroche.

“Michaud,” said Courtecuisse. “Vaudoyer is right, he’s perfectly right.
You’ll see that when a keeper is sent to the shades there won’t be one
of them willing to stay even in broad daylight to watch us. Now they’re
there night and day,--demons!”

“Wherever one goes,” said old Mother Tonsard,--who was seventy-eight
years old, and presented a parchment face honey-combed with the
small-pox, lighted by a pair of green eyes, and framed with dirty-white
hair, which escaped in strands from a red handkerchief,--“wherever
one goes, there they are! they stop us, they open our bundles, and if
there’s a single branch, a single twig of a miserable hazel, they seize
the whole bundle, and they say they’ll arrest us. Ha, the villains!
there’s no deceiving them; if they suspect you, you’ve got to undo the
bundle. Dogs! all three are not worth a farthing! Yes, kill ‘em, and it
won’t ruin France, I tell you.”

“Little Vatel is not so bad,” said Madame Tonsard.

“He!” said Laroche, “he does his business, like the others; when there’s
a joke going he’ll joke with you, but you are none the better with
him for that. He’s worse than the rest,--heartless to poor folks, like
Michaud himself.”

“Michaud has got a pretty wife, though,” said Nicolas Tonsard.

“She’s with young,” said the old woman; “and if this thing goes on
there’ll be a queer kind of baptism for the little one when she calves.”

“Oh! those Arminacs!” cried Marie Tonsard; “there’s no laughing with
them; and if you did, they’d threaten to arrest you.”

“You’ve tried your hand at cajoling them, have you?” said Courtecuisse.

“You may bet on that.”

“Well,” said Tonsard with a determined air, “they are men like other
men, and they can be got rid of.”

“But I tell you,” said Marie, continuing her topic, “they won’t be
cajoled; I don’t know what’s the matter with them; that bully at the
pavilion, he’s married, but Vatel, Gaillard, and Steingel are not;
they’ve not a woman belonging to them; indeed, there’s not a woman in
the place who would marry them.”

“Well, we shall see how things go at the harvest and the vintage,” said
Tonsard.

“They can’t stop the gleaning,” said the old woman.

“I don’t know that,” remarked Madame Tonsard. “Groison said that the
mayor was going to publish a notice that no one should glean without a
certificate of pauperism; and who’s to give that certificate? Himself,
of course. He won’t give many, I tell you! And they say he is going to
issue an order that no one shall enter the fields till the carts are all
loaded.”

“Why, the fellow’s a pestilence!” cried Tonsard, beside himself with
rage.

“I heard that only yesterday,” said Madame Tonsard. “I offered Groison a
glass of brandy to get something out of him.”

“Groison! there’s another lucky fellow!” said Vaudoyer, “they’ve built
him a house and given him a good wife, and he’s got an income and
clothes fit for a king. There was I, field-keeper for twenty years, and
all I got was the rheumatism.”

“Yes, he’s very lucky,” said Godain, “he owns property--”

“And we go without, like the fools that we are,” said Vaudoyer. “Come,
let’s be off and find out what’s going on at Conches; they are not so
patient over there as we are.”

“Come on,” said Laroche, who was none too steady on his legs. “If I
don’t exterminate one of two of those fellows may I lose my name.”

“You!” said Tonsard, “you’d let them put the whole district in prison;
but I--if they dare to touch my old mother, there’s my gun and it never
misses.”

“Well,” said Laroche to Vaudoyer, “I tell you that if they make a single
prisoner at Conches one gendarme shall fall.”

“He has said it, old Laroche!” cried Courtecuisse.

“He has said it,” remarked Vaudoyer, “but he hasn’t done it, and he
won’t do it. What good would it do to get yourself guillotined for some
gendarme or other? No, if you kill, I say, kill Michaud.”

During this scene Catherine Tonsard stood sentinel at the door to
warn the drinkers to keep silent if any one passed. In spite of their
half-drunken legs they sprang rather than walked out of the tavern,
and their bellicose temper started them at a good pace on the road to
Conches, which led for over a mile along the park wall of Les Aigues.

Conches was a true Burgundian village, with one street, which was
crossed by the main road. The houses were built either of brick or of
cobblestones, and were squalid in aspect. Following the mail-road
from Ville-aux-Fayes, the village was seen from the rear and there
it presented rather a picturesque effect. Between the road and the
Ronquerolles woods, which continued those of Les Aigues and crowned
the heights, flowed a little river, and several houses, rather prettily
grouped, enlivened the scene. The church and the parsonage stood alone
and were seen from the park of Les Aigues, which came nearly up to
them. In front of the church was a square bordered by trees, where the
conspirators of the Grand-I-Vert saw the gendarmerie and hastened their
already hasty steps. Just then three men on horseback rode rapidly
out of the park of Les Aigues and the peasants at once recognized the
general, his groom, and Michaud the bailiff, who came at a gallop into
the square. Tonsard and his party arrived a minute or two after them.
The delinquents, men and women, had made no resistance, and were
standing between five of the Soulanges gendarmes and fifteen of those
from Ville-aux-Fayes. The whole village had assembled. The fathers,
mothers, and children of the prisoners were going and coming and
bringing them what they might want in prison. It was a curious scene,
that of a population one and all exasperated, but nearly all silent, as
though they had made up their minds to a course of action. The old
women and the young ones alone spoke. The children, boys and girls, were
perched on piles of wood and heaps of stones to get a better sight of
what was happening.

“They have chosen their time, those hussars of the guillotine,” said one
old woman; “they are making a fete of it.”

“Are you going to let ‘em carry of your man like that? How shall you
manage to live for three months?--the best of the year, too, when he
could earn so much.”

“It’s they who rob us,” replied the woman, looking at the gendarmes with
a threatening air.

“What do you mean by that, old woman?” said the sergeant. “If you insult
us it won’t take long to settle you.”

“I meant nothing,” said the old woman, in a humble and piteous tone.

“I heard you say something just now you may have cause to repent of.”

“Come, come, be calm, all of you,” said the mayor of Conches, who was
also the postmaster. “What the devil is the use of talking? These men,
as you know very well, are under orders and must obey.”

“That’s true; it’s the owner of Les Aigues who persecutes us--But
patience!”

Just then the general rode into the square and his arrival caused a few
groans which did not trouble him in the least. He rode straight up
to the lieutenant in command, and after saying a few words gave him
a paper; the officer then turned to his men and said: “Release your
prisoners; the general has obtained their pardon.”

General Montcornet was then speaking to the mayor; after a few moments’
conversation in a low tone, the latter, addressing the delinquents,
who expected to sleep in prison and were a good deal surprised to find
themselves free, said to them:--

“My friends, thank Monsieur le comte. You owe your release to him. He
went to Paris and obtained your pardon in honor of the anniversary of
the king’s restoration. I hope that in future you will conduct yourself
properly to a man who has behaved so well to you, and that you will in
future respect his property. Long live the King!”

The peasants shouted “Long live the King!” with enthusiasm, to avoid
shouting, “Hurrah for the Comte de Montcornet!”

The scene was a bit of policy arranged between the general, the prefect,
and the attorney-general; for they were all anxious, while showing
enough firmness to keep the local authorities up to their duty and awe
the country-people, to be as gentle as possible, fully realizing as
they did the difficulties of the question. In fact, if resistance had
occurred, the government would have been in a tight place. As Laroche
truly said, they could not guillotine or even convict a whole community.

The general invited the mayor of Conches, the lieutenant, and the
sergeant to breakfast. The conspirators of the Grand-I-Vert adjourned
to the tavern of Conches, where the delinquents spent in drink the money
their relations had given them to take to prison, sharing it with
the Blangy people, who were naturally part of the wedding,--the word
“wedding” being applied indiscriminately in Burgundy to all such
rejoicings. To drink, quarrel, fight, eat and go home drunk and
sick,--that is a wedding to these peasants.

The general, who had come by the park, took his guests back through the
forest that they might see for themselves the injury done to the timber,
and so judge of the importance of the question.

Just as Rigou and Soudry were on their way back to Blangy, the count and
countess, Emile Blondet, the lieutenant of gendarmerie, the sergeant,
and the mayor of Conches were finishing their breakfast in the splendid
dining-room where Bouret’s luxury had left the delightful traces already
described by Blondet in his letter to Nathan.

“It would be a terrible pity to abandon this beautiful home,” said
the lieutenant, who had never before been at Les Aigues, and who was
glancing over a glass of champagne at the circling nymphs that supported
the ceiling.

“We intend to defend it to the death,” said Blondet.

“If I say that,” continued the lieutenant, looking at his sergeant as
if to enjoin silence, “it is because the general’s enemies are not only
among the peasantry--”

The worthy man was quite moved by the excellence of the breakfast, the
magnificence of the silver service, the imperial luxury that surrounded
him, and Blondet’s clever talk excited him as much as the champagne he
had imbibed.

“Enemies! have I enemies?” said the general, surprised.

“He, so kind!” added the countess.

“But you are on bad terms with our mayor, Monsieur Gaubertin,” said
the lieutenant. “It would be wise, for the sake of the future, to be
reconciled with him.”

“With him!” cried the count. “Then you don’t know that he was my former
steward, and a swindler!”

“A swindler no longer,” said the lieutenant, “for he is mayor of
Ville-aux-Fayes.”

“Ha, ha!” laughed Blondet, “the lieutenant’s wit is keen; evidently a
mayor is essentially an honest man.”

The lieutenant, convinced by the count’s words that it was useless
to attempt to enlighten him, said no more on that subject, and the
conversation changed.



CHAPTER VI. THE FOREST AND THE HARVEST


The scene at Conches had, apparently, a good effect on the peasantry;
on the other hand, the count’s faithful keepers were more than ever
watchful that only dead wood should be gathered in the forest of Les
Aigues. But for the last twenty years the woods had been so thoroughly
cleared out that very little else than live wood was now there; and this
the peasantry set about killing, in preparation for winter, by a simple
process, the results of which could only be discovered in the course of
time. Tonsard’s mother went daily into the forest; the keepers saw her
enter; knew where she would come out; watched for her and made her open
her bundle, where, to be sure, were only fallen branches, dried chips,
and broken and withered twigs. The old woman would whine and complain at
the distance she had to go at her age to gather such a miserable bunch
of fagots. But she did not tell that she had been in the thickest part
of the wood and had removed the earth at the base of certain young
trees, round which she had then cut off a ring of bark, replacing the
earth, moss, and dead leaves just as they were before she touched them.
It was impossible that any one could discover this annular incision,
made, not like a cut, but more like the ripping or gnawing of animals or
those destructive insects called in different regions borers, or
turks, or white worms, which are the first stage of cockchafers. These
destructive pests are fond of the bark of trees; they get between the
bark and the sap-wood and eat their way round. If the tree is large
enough for the insect to pass into its second state (of larvae, in which
it remains dormant until its second metamorphose) before it has gone
round the trunk, the tree lives, because so long as even a small bit of
the sap-wood remains covered by the bark, the tree will still grow
and recover itself. To realize to what a degree entomology affects
agriculture, horticulture, and all earth products, we must know that
naturalists like Latreille, the Comte Dejean, Klugg of Berlin, Gene of
Turin, etc., find that the vast majority of all known insects live at
the sacrifice of vegetation; that the coleoptera (a catalogue of which
has lately been published by Monsieur Dejean) have twenty-seven thousand
species, and that, in spite of the most earnest research on the part of
entomologists of all countries, there is an enormous number of species
of whom they cannot trace the triple transformations which belong to
all insects; that there is, in short, not only a special insect to
every plant, but that all terrestrial products, however much they may
be manipulated by human industry, have their particular parasite. Thus
flax, after covering the human body and hanging the human being, after
roaming the world on the back of an army, becomes writing-paper; and
those who write or who read are familiar with the habits and morals
of an insect called the “paper-louse,” an insect of really marvellous
celerity and behavior; it undergoes its mysterious transformations in
a ream of white paper which you have carefully put away; you see
it gliding and frisking along in its shining robe, that looks like
isinglass or mica,--truly a little fish of another element.

The borer is the despair of the land-owner; he works underground;
no Sicilian vespers for him until he becomes a cockchafer! If the
populations only realized with what untold disasters they are threatened
in case they let the cockchafers and the caterpillars get the
upper hand, they would pay more attention than they do to municipal
regulations.

Holland came near perishing; its dikes were undermined by the teredo,
and science is unable to discover the insect from which that mollusk
derives, just as science still remains ignorant of the metamorphoses of
the cochineal. The ergot, or spur, of rye is apparently a population of
insects where the genius of science has been able, so far, to discover
only one slight movement. Thus, while awaiting the harvest and gleaning,
fifty old women imitated the borer at the feet of five or six hundred
trees which were fated to become skeletons and to put forth no more
leaves in the spring. They were carefully chosen in the least accessible
places, so that the surrounding branches concealed them.

Who conveyed the secret information by which this was done? No one.
Courtecuisse happened to complain in Tonsard’s tavern of having found a
tree wilting in his garden; it seemed he said, to have a disease, and he
suspected a borer; for he, Courtecuisse, knew what borers were, and if
they once circled a tree just below the ground, the tree died. Thereupon
he explained the process. The old women at once set to work at the
same destruction, with the mystery and cleverness of gnomes; and their
efforts were doubled by the rules now enforced by the mayor of Blangy
and necessarily followed by the mayors of the adjoining districts.

The great land-owners of the department applauded General de
Montcornet’s course; and the prefect in his private drawing-room
declared that if, instead of living in Paris, other land-owners would
come and live on their estates and follow such a course together, a
solution of the difficulty could be obtained; for certain measures,
added the prefect, ought to be taken, and taken in concert, modified by
benefactions and by an enlightened philanthropy, such as every one could
see actuated in General Montcornet.

The general and his wife, assisted by the abbe, tried the effects of
such benevolence. They studied the subject, and endeavored to show by
incontestable results to those who pillaged them that more money
could be made by legitimate toil. They supplied flax and paid for the
spinning; the countess had the thread woven into linen suitable
for towels, aprons, and coarse napkins for kitchen use, and for
underclothing for the very poor. The general began improvements which
needed many laborers, and he employed none but those in the adjoining
districts. Sibilet was in charge of the works and the Abbe Brossette
gave the countess lists of the most needy, and often brought them to her
himself. Madame de Montcornet attended to these matters personally in
the great antechamber which opened upon the portico. It was a beautiful
waiting-room, floored with squares of white and red marble, warmed by a
porcelain stove, and furnished with benches covered with red plush.

It was there that one morning, just before harvest, old Mother Tonsard
brought her granddaughter Catherine, who had to make, she said, a
dreadful confession,--dreadful for the honor of a poor but honest
family. While the old woman addressed the countess Catherine stood in
an attitude of conscious guilt. Then she related on her own account the
unfortunate “situation” in which she was placed, which she had confided
to none but her grandmother; for her mother, she knew, would turn her
out, and her father, an honorable man, might kill her. If she only had a
thousand francs she could be married to a poor laborer named Godain, who
_knew all_, and who loved her like a brother; he could buy a poor bit
of ground and build a cottage if she had that sum. It was very touching.
The countess promised the money; resolving to devote the price of some
fancy to this marriage. The happy marriages of Michaud and Groison
encouraged her. Besides, such a wedding would be a good example to
the people of the neighborhood and stimulate to virtuous conduct. The
marriage of Catherine Tonsard and Godain was accordingly arranged by
means of the countess’s thousand francs.

Another time a horrible old woman, Mother Bonnebault, who lived in a hut
between the gate of Conches and the village, brought back a great bundle
of skeins of linen thread.

“Madame la comtesse has done wonders,” said the abbe, full of hope as to
the moral progress of his savages. “That old woman did immense damage to
your woods, but now she has no time for it; she stays at home and spins
from morning till night; her time is all taken up and well paid for.”

Peace reigned everywhere. Groison made very satisfactory reports;
depredations seemed to have ceased, and it is even possible that the
state of the neighborhood and the feeling of the inhabitants might
really have changed if it had not been for the revengeful eagerness
of Gaubertin, the cabals of the leading society of Soulanges, and the
intrigues of Rigou, who one and all, with “the affair” in view, blew the
embers of hatred and crime in the hearts of the peasantry of the valley
des Aigues.

The keepers still complained of finding a great many branches cut with
shears in the deeper parts of the wood and left to dry, evidently as
a provision for winter. They watched for the delinquents without ever
being able to catch them. The count, assisted by Groison, had given
certificates of pauperism to only thirty or forty of the real poor of
the district; but the other two mayors had been less strict. The more
clement the count showed himself in the affair at Conches the more
determined he was to enforce the laws about gleaning, which had now
degenerated into theft. He did not interfere with the management of
three of his farms which were leased to tenants, nor with those whose
tenants worked for his profit, of which he had a number; but he managed
six farms himself, each of about two hundred acres, and he now published
a notice that it was forbidden, under pain of being arrested and made
to pay the fine imposed by the courts, to enter those fields before
the crop was carried away. The order concerned only his own immediate
property. Rigou, who knew the country well, had let his farm-lands in
portions and on short leases to men who knew how to get in their own
crops, and who paid him in grain; therefore gleaning did not affect
him. The other proprietors were peasants, and no nefarious gleaning was
attempted on their land.

When the harvest began the count went himself to Michaud to see how
things were going on. Groison, who advised him to do this, was to
be present himself at the gleaning of each particular field. The
inhabitants of cities can have no idea what gleaning is to the
inhabitants of the country; the passion of these sons of the soil for
it seems inexplicable; there are women who will give up well-paid
employments to glean. The wheat they pick up seems to them sweeter than
any other; and the provision they thus make for their chief and most
substantial food has to them an extraordinary attraction. Mothers take
their babes and their little girls and boys; the feeblest old men drag
themselves into the wheat-fields; and even those who own property are
paupers for the nonce. All gleaners appear in rags.

The count and Michaud were present on horseback when the first tattered
batch entered the first fields from which the wheat had been carried. It
was ten o’clock in the morning. August had been a hot month, the sky was
cloudless, blue as a periwinkle; the earth was baked, the wheat flamed,
the harvestmen worked with their faces scorched by the reflection of the
sun-rays on the hard and arid earth. All were silent, their shirts wet
with perspiration; while from time to time, they slaked their thirst
with water from round, earthenware jugs, furnished with two handles and
a mouth-piece stoppered with a willow stick.

At the father end of the stubble-field stood the carts which contained
the sheaves, and near them a group of at least a hundred beings who far
exceeded the hideous conceptions of Murillo and Teniers, the boldest
painters of such scenes, or of Callot, that poet of the fantastic in
poverty. The pictured bronze legs, the bare heads, the ragged garments
so curiously faded, so damp with grease, so darned and spotted and
discolored, in short, the painters’ ideal of the material of abject
poverty was far surpassed by this scene; while the expression on those
faces, greedy, anxious, doltish, idiotic, savage, showed the everlasting
advantage which nature possesses over art by its comparison with the
immortal compositions of those princes of color. There were old women
with necks like turkeys, and hairless, scarlet eyelids, who stretched
their heads forward like setters before a partridge; there were
children, silent as soldiers under arms, little girls who stamped like
animals waiting for their food; the natures of childhood and old age
were crushed beneath the fierceness of a savage greed,--greed for the
property of others now their own by long abuse. All eyes were savage,
all gestures menacing; but every one kept silence in presence of the
count, the field-keeper, and the bailiff. At this moment all classes
were represented,--the great land-owners, the farmers, the working men,
the paupers; the social question was defined to the eye; hunger had
convoked the actors in the scene. The sun threw into relief the hard and
hollow features of those faces; it burned the bare feet dusty with the
soil; children were present with no clothing but a torn blouse, their
blond hair tangled with straw and chips; some women brought their babes
just able to walk, and left them rolling in the furrows.

The gloomy scene was harrowing to the old soldier, whose heart was
kind, and he said to Michaud: “It pains me to see it. One must know the
importance of these measures to be able to insist upon them.”

“If every land-owner followed your example, lived on his property, and
did the good that you and yours are doing, general, there would be,
I won’t say no poor, for they are always with us, but no poor man who
could not live by his labor.”

“The mayors of Conches, Cerneux, and Soulanges have sent us all their
paupers,” said Groison, who had now looked at the certificates; “they
had no right to do so.”

“No, but our people will go to their districts,” said the general. “For
the time being we have done enough by preventing the gleaning before
the sheaves were taken away; we had better go step by step,” he added,
turning to leave the field.

“Did you hear him?” said Mother Tonsard to the old Bonnebault woman,
for the general’s last words were said in a rather louder tone than the
rest, and reached the ears of the two old women who were posted in the
road which led beside the field.

“Yes, yes! we haven’t got to the end yet,--a tooth to-day and to-morrow
an ear; if they could find a sauce for our livers they’d eat ‘em as they
do a calf’s!” said old Bonnebault, whose threatening face was turned in
profile to the general as he passed her, though in the twinkling of
an eye she changed its expression to one of hypocritical softness and
submission as she hastened to make him a profound curtsey.

“So you are gleaning, are you, though my wife helps you to earn so much
money?”

“Hey! my dear gentleman, may God preserve you in good health! but, don’t
you see, my grandson squanders all I earn, and I’m forced to scratch
up a little wheat to get bread in the winter,--yes, yes, I glean just a
bit; it all helps.”

The gleaning proved of little profit to the gleaners. The farmers and
tenant-farmers, finding themselves backed up, took care that their wheat
was well reaped, and superintended the making of the sheaves and their
safe removal, so that little or none of the pillage of former years
could take place.

Accustomed to get a good proportion of wheat in their gleaning, the
false as well as the true poor, forgetting the count’s pardon at
Conches, now felt a deep but silent anger against him, which was
aggravated by the Tonsards, Courtecuisse, Bonnebault, Laroche, Vaudoyer,
Godain, and their adherents. Matters went worse still after the vintage;
for the gathering of the refuse grape was not allowed until Sibilet had
examined the vines with extreme care. This last restriction exasperated
these sons of the soil to the highest pitch; but when so great a social
distance separates the angered class from the threatened class, words
and threats are lost; nothing comes to the surface or is perceived but
facts; meantime the malcontents work underground like moles.

The fair of Soulanges took place as usual quite peacefully, except
for certain jarrings between the leading society and the second-class
society of Soulanges, brought about by the despotism of the queen, who
could not tolerate the empire founded and established over the heart of
the brilliant Lupin by the beautiful Euphemie Plissoud, for she herself
laid permanent claim to his fickle fervors.

The count and countess did not appear at the fair nor at the Tivoli
fete; and that, again, was counted a wrong by the Soudrys, the
Gaubertins, and their adherents; it was pride, it was disdain, said the
Soudry salon. During this time the countess was filling the void caused
by Emile’s return to Paris with the immense interest and pleasure all
fine souls take in the good they are doing, or think they do; and the
count, for his part, applied himself no less zealously to changes and
ameliorations in the management of his estate, which he expected and
believed would modify and benefit the condition of the people and hence
their characters. Madame de Montcornet, assisted by the advice and
experience of the Abbe Brossette, came, little by little, to have a
thorough and statistical knowledge of all the poor families of the
district, their respective condition, their wants, their means of
subsistence, and the sort of help she must give to each to obtain work
so as not to make them lazy or idle.

The countess had placed Genevieve Niseron, La Pechina, in a convent at
Auxerre, under pretext of having her taught to sew that she might employ
her in her own house, but really to save her from the shameful
attempts of Nicolas Tonsard, whom Rigou had managed to save from the
conscription. The countess also believed that a religious education, the
cloister, and monastic supervision, would subdue the ardent passions of
the precocious little girl, whose Montenegrin blood seemed to her like a
threatening flame which might one day set fire to the domestic happiness
of her faithful Olympe.

So all was at peace at the chateau des Aigues. The count, misled by
Sibilet, reassured by Michaud, congratulated himself on his firmness,
and thanked his wife for having contributed by her benevolence to the
immense comfort of their tranquillity. The question of the sale of his
timber was laid aside till he should go to Paris and arrange with the
dealers. He had not the slightest notion of how to do business, and
he was in total ignorance of the power wielded by Gaubertin over the
current of the Yonne,--the main line of conveyance which supplied the
timber of the Paris market.



CHAPTER VII. THE GREYHOUND


Towards the middle of September Emile Blondet, who had gone to Paris to
publish a book, returned to refresh himself at Les Aigues and to think
over the work he was planning for the winter. At Les Aigues, the loving
and sincere qualities which succeed adolescence in a young man’s soul
reappeared in the used-up journalist.

“What a fine soul!” was the comment of the count and the countess when
they spoke of him.

Men who are accustomed to move among the abysses of social nature, to
understand all and to repress nothing, make themselves an oasis in the
heart, where they forget their perversities and those of others; they
become within that narrow and sacred circle,--saints; there, they
possess the delicacy of women, they give themselves up to a momentary
realization of their ideal, they become angelic for some one being who
adores them, and they are not playing comedy; they join their soul to
innocence, so to speak; they feel the need to brush off the mud, to
heal their sores, to bathe their wounds. At Les Aigues Emile Blondet
was without bitterness, without sarcasm, almost without wit; he made no
epigrams, he was gentle as a lamb, and platonically tender.

“He is such a good young fellow that I miss him terribly when he is not
here,” said the general. “I do wish he could make a fortune and not lead
that Paris life of his.”

Never did the glorious landscape and park of Les Aigues seem as
luxuriantly beautiful as it did just then. The first autumn days were
beginning, when the earth, languid from her procreations and delivered
of her products, exhales the delightful odors of vegetation. At this
time the woods, especially, are delicious; they begin to take the russet
warmth of Sienna earth, and the green-bronze tones which form the lovely
tapestry beneath which they hide from the cold of winter.

Nature, having shown herself in springtime jaunty and joyous as a
brunette glowing with hope, becomes in autumn sad and gentle as a blonde
full of pensive memories; the turf yellows, the last flowers unfold
their pale corollas, the white-eyed daisies are fewer in the grass, only
their crimson calices are seen. Yellows abound; the shady places are
lighter for lack of leafage, but darker in tone; the sun, already
oblique, slides its furtive orange rays athwart them, leaving long
luminous traces which rapidly disappear, like the train of a woman’s
gown as she bids adieu.

On the morning of the second day after his arrival, Emile was at a
window of his bedroom, which opened upon a terrace with a balustrade
from which a noble view could be seen. This balcony ran the whole length
of the apartments of the countess, on the side of the chateau towards
the forests and the Blangy landscape. The pond, which would have been
called a lake were Les Aigues nearer Paris, was partly in view, so was
the long canal; the Silver-spring, coming from across the pavilion of
the Rendezvous, crossed the lawn with its sheeny ribbon, reflecting the
yellow sand.

Beyond the park, between the village and the walls, lay the cultivated
parts of Blangy,--meadows where the cows were grazing, small properties
surrounded by hedges, filled with fruit of all kinds, nut and apple
trees. By way of frame, the heights on which the noble forest-trees were
ranged, tier above tier, closed in the scene. The countess had come
out in her slippers to look at the flowers in her balcony, which were
sending up their morning fragrance; she wore a cambric dressing-gown,
beneath which the rosy tints of her white shoulders could be seen; a
coquettish little cap was placed in a bewitching manner on her hair,
which escaped it recklessly; her little feet showed their warm flesh
color through the transparent stockings; the cambric gown, unconfined at
the waist, floated open as the breeze took it, and showed an embroidered
petticoat.

“Oh! are you there?” she said.

“Yes.”

“What are you looking at?”

“A pretty question! You have torn me from the contemplation of Nature.
Tell me, countess, will you go for a walk in the woods this morning
before breakfast?”

“What an idea! You know I have a horror of walking.”

“We will only walk a little way; I’ll drive you in the tilbury and take
Joseph to hold the horses. You have never once set foot in your forest;
and I have just noticed something very curious, a phenomenon; there are
spots where the tree-tops are the color of Florentine bronze, the leaves
are dried--”

“Well, I’ll dress.”

“Oh, if you do, we can’t get off for two hours. Take a shawl, put on a
bonnet, and boots; that’s all you want. I shall tell them to harness.”

“You always make me do what you want; I’ll be ready in a minute.”

“General,” said Blondet, waking the count, who grumbled and turned over,
like a man who wants his morning sleep. “We are going for a drive; won’t
you come?”

A quarter of an hour later the tilbury was slowly rolling along the park
avenue, followed by a liveried groom on horseback.

The morning was a September morning. The dark blue of the sky burst
forth here and there from the gray of the clouds, which seemed the sky
itself, the ether seeming to be the accessory; long lines of ultramarine
lay upon the horizon, but in strata, which alternated with other lines
like sand-bars; these tones changed and grew green at the level of the
forests. The earth beneath this overhanging mantle was moistly warm,
like a woman when she rises; it exhaled sweet, luscious odors, which
yet were wild, not civilized,--the scent of cultivation was added to the
scents of the woods. Just then the Angelus was ringing at Blangy, and
the sounds of the bell, mingling with the wild concert of the forest,
gave harmony to the silence. Here and there were rising vapors, white,
diaphanous.

Seeing these lovely preparations of Nature, the fancy had seized Olympe
Michaud to accompany her husband, who had to give an order to a keeper
whose house was not far off. The Soulanges doctor advised her to walk
as long as she could do so without fatigue; she was afraid of the midday
heat and went out only in the early morning or evening. Michaud now
took her with him, and they were followed by the dog he loved best,--a
handsome greyhound, mouse-colored with white spots, greedy, like all
greyhounds, and as full of vices as most animals who know they are loved
and petted.

So, then the tilbury reached the pavilion of the Rendezvous, the
countess, who stopped to ask how Madame Michaud felt, was told she had
gone into the forest with her husband.

“Such weather inspires everybody,” said Blondet, turning his horse at
hazard into one of the six avenues of the forest; “Joseph, you know the
woods, don’t you?”

“Yes, monsieur.”

And away they went. The avenue they took happened to be one of the
most delightful in the forest; it soon turned and grew narrower, and
presently became a winding way, on which the sunshine flickered through
rifts in the leafy roof, and where the breeze brought odors of lavender,
and thyme, and the wild mint, and that of falling leaves, which sighed
as they fell. Dew-drops on the trees and on the grass were scattered
like seeds by the passing of the light carriage; the occupants as
they rolled along caught glimpses of the mysterious visions of the
woods,--those cool depths, where the verdure is moist and dark, where
the light softens as it fades; those white-birch glades o’ertopped
by some centennial tree, the Hercules of the forest; those glorious
assemblages of knotted, mossy trunks, whitened and furrowed, and the
banks of delicate wild plants and fragile flowers which grow between a
woodland road and the forest. The brooks sang. Truly there is a nameless
pleasure in driving a woman along the ups and downs of a slippery way
carpeted with moss, where she pretends to be afraid or really is so, and
you are conscious that she is drawing closer to you, letting you feel,
voluntarily or involuntarily, the cool moisture of her arm, the weight
of her round, white shoulder, though she merely smiles when told that
she hinders you in driving. The horse seems to know the secret of these
interruptions, and he looks about him from right to left.

It was a new sight to the countess; this nature so vigorous in its
effects, so little seen and yet so grand, threw her into a languid
revery; she leaned back in the tilbury and yielded herself up to the
pleasure of being there with Emile; her eyes were charmed, her heart
spoke, she answered to the inward voice that harmonized with hers. He,
too, glanced at her furtively; he enjoyed that dreamy meditation, while
the ribbons of the bonnet floated on the morning breeze with the silky
curls of the golden hair. In consequence of going they knew not where,
they presently came to a locked gate, of which they had not the key.
Joseph was called up, but neither had he a key.

“Never mind, let us walk; Joseph can take care of the tilbury; we shall
easily find it again.”

Emile and the countess plunged into the forest, and soon reached a small
interior cleared space, such as is often met with in the woods. Twenty
years earlier the charcoal-burners had made it their kiln, and the place
still remained open, quite a large circumference having been burned
over. But during those twenty years Nature had made herself a garden of
flowers, a blooming “parterre” for her own enjoyment, just as an artist
gives himself the delight of painting a picture for his own happiness.
The enchanting spot was surrounded by fine trees, whose tops hung over
like vast fringes and made a dais above this flowery couch where slept
the goddess. The charcoal-burners had followed a path to a pond, always
full of water. The path is there still; it invites you to step into it
by a turn full of mystery; then suddenly it stops short and you come
upon a bank where a thousand roots run down to the water and make a sort
of canvas in the air. This hidden pond has a narrow grassy edge, where a
few willows and poplars lend their fickle shade to a bank of turf which
some lazy or pensive charcoal-burner must have made for his enjoyment.
The frogs hop about, the teal bathe in the pond, the water-fowl come and
go, a hare starts; you are the master of this delicious bath, decorated
with iris and bulrushes. Above your head the trees take many attitudes;
here the trunks twine down like boa-constrictors, there the beeches
stand erect as a Greek column. The snails and the slugs move peacefully
about. A tench shows its gills, a squirrel looks at you; and at last,
after Emile and the countess, tired with her walk, were seated, a bird,
but I know not what bird it was, sang its autumn song, its farewell
song, to which the other songsters listened,--a song welcome to love,
and heard by every organ of the being.

“What silence!” said the countess, with emotion and in a whisper, as if
not to trouble this deep peace.

They looked at the green patches on the water,--worlds where life was
organizing; they pointed to the lizard playing in the sun and escaping
at their approach,--behavior which has won him the title of “the friend
of man.” “Proving, too, how well he knows him,” said Emile. They watched
the frogs, who, less distrustful, returned to the surface of the pond,
winking their carbuncle eyes as they sat upon the water-cresses. The
sweet and simple poetry of Nature permeated these two souls surfeited
with the conventional things of life, and filled them with contemplative
emotion. Suddenly Blondet shuddered. Turning to the countess he said,--

“Did you hear that?”

“What?” she asked.

“A curious noise.”

“Ah, you literary men who live in your studies and know nothing of the
country! that is only a woodpecker tapping a tree. I dare say you don’t
even know the most curious fact in the history of that bird. As soon as
he has given his tap, and he gives millions to pierce an oak, he flies
behind the tree to see if he is yet through it; and he does this every
instant.”

“The noise I heard, dear instructress of natural history, was not a
noise made by an animal; there was evidence of mind in it, and that
proclaims a man.”

The countess was seized with panic, and she darted back through the wild
flower-garden, seeking the path by which to leave the forest.

“What is the matter?” cried Blondet, rushing after her.

“I thought I saw eyes,” she said, when they regained the path through
which they had reached the charcoal-burner’s open.

Just then they heard the low death-rattle of a creature whose throat
was suddenly cut, and the countess, with her fears redoubled, fled
so quickly that Blondet could scarcely follow her. She ran like a
will-o’-the-wisp, and did not listen to Blondet who called to her, “You
are mistaken.” On she ran, and Emile with her, till they suddenly came
upon Michaud and his wife, who were walking along arm-in-arm. Emile was
panting and the countess out of breath, and it was some time before they
could speak; then they explained. Michaud joined Blondet in laughing at
the countess’s terror; then the bailiff showed the two wanderers the way
to find the tilbury. When they reached the gate Madame Michaud called,
“Prince!”

“Prince! Prince!” called the bailiff; then he whistled,--but no
greyhound.

Emile mentioned the curious noise that began their adventure.

“My wife heard that noise,” said Michaud, “and I laughed at her.”

“They have killed Prince!” exclaimed the countess. “I am sure of it;
they killed him by cutting his throat at one blow. What I heard was the
groan of a dying animal.”

“The devil!” cried Michaud; “the matter must be cleared up.”

Emile and the bailiff left the two ladies with Joseph and the horses,
and returned to the wild garden of the open. They went down the bank to
the pond; looked everywhere along the slope, but found no clue. Blondet
jumped back first, and as he did so he saw, in a thicket which stood
on higher ground, one of those trees he had noticed in the morning with
withered heads. He showed it to Michaud, and proposed to go to it. The
two sprang forward in a straight line across the forest, avoiding the
trunks and going round the matted tangles of brier and holly until they
found the tree.

“It is a fine elm,” said Michaud, “but there’s a worm in it,--a worm
which gnaws round the bark close to the roots.”

He stopped and took up a bit of the bark, saying: “See how they work.”

“You have a great many worms in this forest,” said Blondet.

Just then Michaud noticed a red spot; a moment more and he saw the head
of his greyhound. He sighed.

“The scoundrels!” he said. “Madame was right.”

Michaud and Blondet examined the body and found, just as the countess
had said, that some one had cut the greyhound’s throat. To prevent his
barking he had been decoyed with a bit of meat, which was still between
his tongue and his palate.

“Poor brute; he died of self-indulgence.”

“Like all princes,” said Blondet.

“Some one, whoever it is, has just gone, fearing that we might catch him
or her,” said Michaud. “A serious offence has been committed. But for
all that, I see no branches about and no lopped trees.”

Blondet and the bailiff began a cautious search, looking at each spot
where they set their feet before setting them. Presently Blondet pointed
to a tree beneath which the grass was flattened down and two hollows
made.

“Some one knelt there, and it must have been a woman, for a man would
not have left such a quantity of flattened grass around the impression
of his two knees; yes, see! that is the outline of a petticoat.”

The bailiff, after examining the base of the tree, found the beginning
of a hole beneath the bark; but he did not find the worm with the tough
skin, shiny and squamous, covered with brown specks, ending in a tail
not unlike that of a cockchafer, and having also the latter’s head,
antennae, and the two vigorous hooks or shears with which the creature
cuts into the wood.

“My dear fellow,” said Blondet, “now I understand the enormous number
of _dead_ trees that I noticed this morning from the terrace of
the chateau, and which brought me here to find out the cause of
the phenomenon. Worms are at work; but they are no other than your
peasants.”

The bailiff gave vent to an oath and rushed off, followed by Blondet, to
rejoin the countess, whom he requested to take his wife home with her.
Then he jumped on Joseph’s horse, leaving the man to return on foot, and
disappeared with great rapidity to cut off the retreat of the woman who
had killed his dog, hoping to catch her with the bloody bill-hook in her
hand and the tool used to make the incisions in the bark of the tree.

“Let us go and tell the general at once, before he breakfasts,” cried
the countess; “he might die of anger.”

“I’ll prepare him,” said Blondet.

“They have killed the dog,” said Olympe, in tears.

“You loved the poor greyhound, dear, enough to weep for him?” said the
countess.

“I think of Prince as a warning; I fear some danger to my husband.”

“How they have ruined this beautiful morning for us,” said the countess,
with an adorable little pout.

“How they have ruined the country,” said Olympe, gravely.

They met the general near the chateau.

“Where have you been?” he asked.

“You shall know in a minute,” said Blondet, mysteriously, as he helped
the countess and Madame Michaud to alight. A moment more and the two
gentlemen were alone on the terrace of the apartments.

“You have plenty of moral strength, general; you won’t put yourself in a
passion, will you?”

“No,” said the general; “but come to the point or I shall think you are
making fun of me.”

“Do you see those trees with dead leaves?”

“Yes.”

“Do you see those others that are wilting?”

“Yes.”

“Well, every one of them has been killed by the peasants you think you
have won over by your benefits.”

And Blondet related the events of the morning.

The general was so pale that Blondet was frightened.

“Come, curse, swear, be furious! your self-control may hurt you more
than anger!”

“I’ll go and smoke,” said the general, turning toward the kiosk.

During breakfast Michaud came in; he had found no one. Sibilet, whom the
count had sent for, came also.

“Monsieur Sibilet, and you, Monsieur Michaud, are to make it known,
cautiously, that I will pay a thousand francs to whoever will arrest _in
the act_ the person or persons who are killing my trees; they must also
discover the instrument with which the work is done, and where it was
bought. I have settled upon a plan.”

“Those people never betray one another,” said Sibilet, “if the crime
done is for their benefit and premeditated. There is no denying that
this diabolical business has been planned, carefully planned and
contrived.”

“Yes, but a thousand francs means a couple of acres of land.”

“We can try,” said Sibilet; “fifteen hundred francs might buy you a
traitor, especially if you promise secrecy.”

“Very good; but let us act as if we suspected nothing, I especially; if
not, we shall be the victims of some collusion; one has to be as wary
with these brigands as with the enemy in war.”

“But the enemy is here,” said Blondet.

Sibilet threw him the furtive glance of a man who understood the meaning
of the words, and then he withdrew.

“I don’t like your Sibilet,” said Blondet, when he had seen the steward
leave the house. “That man is playing false.”

“Up to this time he has done nothing I could complain of,” said the
general.

Blondet went off to write letters. He had lost the careless gayety of
his first arrival, and was now uneasy and preoccupied; but he had no
vague presentiments like those of Madame Michaud; he was, rather, in
full expectation of certain foreseen misfortunes. He said to himself,
“This affair will come to some bad end; and if the general does not
take decisive action and will not abandon a battle-field where he is
overwhelmed by numbers there must be a catastrophe; and who knows who
will come out safe and sound,--perhaps neither he nor his wife. Good
God! that adorable little creature! so devoted, so perfect! how can he
expose her thus! He thinks he loves her! Well, I’ll share their danger,
and if I can’t save them I’ll suffer with them.”



CHAPTER VIII. RURAL VIRTUE


That night Marie Tonsard was stationed on the road to Soulanges, sitting
on the rail of a culvert waiting for Bonnebault, who had spent the day,
as usual, at the Cafe de la Paix. She heard him coming at some distance,
and his step told her that he was drunk, and she knew also that he had
lost money, for he always sang if he won.

“Is that you, Bonnebault?”

“Yes, my girl.”

“What’s the matter?”

“I owe twenty-five francs, and they may wring my neck twenty-five times
before I can pay them.”

“Well, I know how you can get five hundred,” she said in his ear.

“Oh! by killing a man; but I prefer to live.”

“Hold your tongue. Vaudoyer will give us five hundred francs if you will
let him catch your mother at a tree.”

“I’d rather kill a man than sell my mother. There’s your old
grandmother; why don’t you sell her?”

“If I tried to, my father would get angry and stop the trick.”

“That’s true. Well, anyhow, my mother sha’n’t go to prison, poor old
thing! She cooks my food and keeps me in clothes, I’m sure I don’t know
how. Go to prison,--and through me! I shouldn’t have any bowels within
me; no, no! And for fear any one else should sell her, I’ll tell her
this very night not to kill any more trees.”

“Well, my father may say and do what he likes, but I shall tell him
there are five hundred francs to be had, and perhaps he’ll ask my
grandmother if she’ll earn them. They’ll never put an old woman
seventy-eight years of age in prison,--though, to be sure, she’d be
better off there than in her garret.”

“Five hundred francs! well, yes; I’ll speak to my mother,” said
Bonnebault, “and if it suits her to give ‘em to me, I’ll let her have
part to take to prison. She could knit, and amuse herself; and she’d
be well fed and lodged, and have less trouble than she has at Conches.
Well, to-morrow, my girl, I’ll see you about it; I haven’t time to stop
now.”

The next morning at daybreak Bonnebault and his old mother knocked at
the door of the Grand-I-Vert. Mother Tonsard was the only person up.

“Marie!” called Bonnebault, “that matter is settled.”

“You mean about the trees?” said Mother Tonsard; “yes, it is all
settled; I’ve taken it.”

“Nonsense!” cried Mother Bonnebault, “my son has got the promise of an
acre of land from Monsieur Rigou--”

The two old women squabbled as to which of them should be sold by her
children. The noise of the quarrel woke up the household. Tonsard and
Bonnebault took sides for their respective mothers.

“Pull straws,” suggested Tonsard’s wife.

The short straw gave it in favor of the tavern.

Three days later, in the forest of Ville-aux-Fayes at daybreak, the
gendarmes arrested old Mother Tonsard caught “in flagrante delicto” by
the bailiff, his assistants, and the field-keeper, with a rusty file
which served to tear the tree, and a chisel, used by the delinquent to
scoop round the bark just as the insect bores its way. The indictment
stated that sixty trees thus destroyed were found within a radius of
five hundred feet. The old woman was sent to Auxerre, the case coming
under the jurisdiction of the assize-court.

Michaud could not refrain from saying when he discovered Mother Tonsard
at the foot of the tree: “These are the persons on whom the general and
Madame la comtesse have showered benefits! Faith, if Madame would only
listen to me, she wouldn’t give that dowry to the Tonsard girl, who is
more worthless than her grandmother.”

The old woman raised her gray eyes and darted a venomous look at
Michaud. When the count learned who the guilty person was, he forbade
his wife to give the money to Catherine Tonsard.

“Monsieur le comte is perfectly right,” said Sibilet. “I know that
Godain bought that land three days before Catherine came to speak to
Madame. She is quite capable, that girl, of pretending she is with
child, to get the money; very likely Godain has had nothing to do with
it.”

“What a community!” said Blondet; “the scoundrels of Paris are saints by
comparison.”

“Ah, monsieur,” said Sibilet, “self-interest makes people guilty of
horrors everywhere. Do you know who betrayed the old woman?”

“No.”

“Her granddaughter Marie; she was jealous of her sister’s marriage, and
to get the money for her own--”

“It is awful!” said the count. “Why! they’d murder!”

“Oh yes,” said Sibilet, “for a very small sum. They care so little
for life, those people; they hate to have to work all their lives. Ah
monsieur, queer things happen in country places, as queer as those of
Paris,--but you will never believe it.”

“Let us be kind and benevolent,” said the countess.

The evening after the arrest Bonnebault came to the tavern of the
Grand-I-Vert, where all the Tonsard family were in great jubilation.
“Oh yes, yes!” said he, “make the most of your rejoicing; but I’ve just
heard from Vaudoyer that the countess, to punish you, withdraws the
thousand francs promised to Godain; her husband won’t let her give
them.”

“It’s that villain of a Michaud who has put him up to it,” said Tonsard.
“My mother heard him say he would; she told me at Ville-aux-Fayes where
I went to carry her some money and her clothes. Well; let that countess
keep her money! our five hundred francs shall help Godain buy the land;
and we’ll revenge ourselves for this thing. Ha! Michaud meddles with our
private matters, does he? it will bring him more harm than good. What
business is it of his, I’d like to know? let him keep to the woods! It’s
he who is at the bottom of all this trouble--he found the clue that day
my mother cut the throat of his dog. Suppose I were to meddle in the
affairs of the chateau? Suppose I were to tell the general that his wife
is off walking in the woods before he is up in the morning, with a young
man.”

“The general, the general!” sneered Courtecuisse; “they can do what they
like with him. But it’s Michaud who stirs him up, the mischief-maker! a
fellow who don’t know his business; in my day, things went differently.”

“Ah!” said Tonsard, “those were the good days for all of us--weren’t
they, Vaudoyer?”

“Yes,” said the latter, “and the fact is that if Michaud were got rid of
we should be left in peace.”

“Enough said,” replied Tonsard. “We’ll talk of this later--by
moonlight--in the open field.”

Towards the end of October the countess returned to Paris, leaving the
general at Les Aigues. He was not to rejoin her till some time later,
but she did not wish to lose the first night of the Italian Opera, and
moreover she was lonely and bored; she missed Emile, who was recalled by
his avocations, for he had helped her to pass the hours when the general
was scouring the country or attending to business.

November was a true winter month, gray and gloomy, a mixture of snow and
rain, frost and thaw. The trial of Mother Tonsard had required witnesses
at Auxerre, and Michaud had given his testimony. Monsieur Rigou had
interested himself for the old woman, and employed a lawyer on her
behalf who relied in his defence on the absence of disinterested
witnesses; but the testimony of Michaud and his assistants and the
field-keeper was found to outweigh this objection. Tonsard’s mother was
sentenced to five years’ imprisonment, and the lawyer said to her son:--

“It was Michaud’s testimony which got her that.”



CHAPTER IX THE CATASTROPHE


One Saturday evening, Courtecuisse, Bonnebault, Godain, Tonsard, his
daughters, wife, and Pere Fourchon, also Vaudoyer and several mechanics
were supping at the tavern. The moon was at half-full, the first snow
had melted, and frost had just stiffened the ground so that a man’s step
left no traces. They were eating a stew of hare caught in a trap;
all were drinking and laughing. It was the day after the wedding of
Catherine and Godain, and the wedded pair were to be conducted to their
new home, which was not far from that of Courtecuisse; for when Rigou
sold an acre of land it was sure to be isolated and close to the woods.
Courtecuisse and Vaudoyer had brought their guns to accompany the bride.
The neighborhood was otherwise fast asleep; not a light was to be seen;
none but the wedding party were awake, but they made noise enough. In
the midst of it the old Bonnebault woman entered, and every one looked
at her.

“I think she is going to lie-in,” she whispered in Tonsard’s ear. “_He_
has saddled his horse and is going for the doctor at Soulanges.”

“Sit down,” said Tonsard, giving her his place at the table, and going
himself to lie on a bench.

Just then the gallop of a horse passing rapidly along the road was
heard. Tonsard, Courtecuisse, and Vaudoyer went out hurriedly, and saw
Michaud on his way to the village.

“He knows what he’s about,” said Courtecuisse; “he came down by the
terrace and he means to go by Blangy and the road,--it’s the safest
way.”

“Yes,” said Tonsard, “but he will bring the doctor back with him.”

“He won’t find him,” said Courtecuisse, “the doctor has been sent for to
Conches for the postmistress.”

“Then he’ll go from Soulanges to Conches by the mail-road; that’s
shortest.”

“And safest too, for us,” said Courtecuisse, “there’s a fine moon, and
there are no keepers on the roads as there are in the woods; one can
hear much farther; and down there, by the pavilions, behind the hedges,
just where they join the little wood, one can aim at a man from behind,
like a rabbit, at five hundred feet.”

“It will be half-past eleven before he comes past there,” said Tonsard,
“it will take him half an hour to go to Soulanges and as much more to
get back,--but look here! suppose Monsieur Gourdon were on the road?”

“Don’t trouble about that,” said Courtecuisse, “I’ll stand ten minutes
away from you to the right on the road towards Blangy, and Vaudoyer
will be ten minutes away on your left towards Conches; if anything comes
along, the mail, or the gendarmes, or whatever it is, we’ll fire a shot
into the ground,--a muffled sound, you’ll know it.”

“But suppose I miss him?” said Tonsard.

“He’s right,” said Courtecuisse, “I’m the best shot; Vaudoyer, I’ll go
with you; Bonnebault may watch in my place; he can give a cry; that’s
easier heard and less suspicious.”

All three returned to the tavern and the wedding festivities went on;
but about eleven o’clock Vaudoyer, Courtecuisse, Tonsard, and Bonnebault
went out, carrying their guns, though none of the women took any notice
of them. They came back in about three-quarters of an hour, and sat
drinking till past one o’clock. Tonsard’s girls and their mother and the
old Bonnebault woman had plied the miller, the mechanics, and the two
peasants, as well as Fourchon, with so much drink that they were all
on the ground and snoring when the four men left the tavern; on their
return, the sleepers were shaken and roused, and every one seemed to
them, as before, in his place.

While this orgy was going on Michaud’s household was in a scene of
mortal anxiety. Olympe had felt false pains, and her husband, thinking
she was about to be delivered, rode off instantly in haste for the
doctor. But the poor woman’s pains ceased as soon as she realized that
Michaud was gone; for her mind was so preoccupied by the danger her
husband ran at that hour of the night, in a lawless region filled with
determined foes, that the anguish of her soul was powerful enough
to deaden and momentarily subdue those of the body. In vain her
servant-woman declared her fears were imaginary; she seemed not to
comprehend a word that was said to her, and sat by the fire in her
bed-chamber listening to every sound. In her terror, which increased
every moment, she had the man wakened, meaning to give him some order
which still she did not give. At last, the poor woman wandered up and
down, coming and going in feverish agitation; she looked out of all the
windows and opened them in spite of the cold; then she went downstairs
and opened the door into the courtyard, looking out and listening.
“Nothing! nothing!” she said. Then she went up again in despair. About
a quarter past twelve, she cried out: “Here he is! I hear the horse!”
 Again she went down, followed by the man who went to open the iron gate
of the courtyard. “It is strange,” she said, “that he should return by
the Conches woods!”

As she spoke she stood still, horrorstruck, motionless, voiceless. The
man shared her terror, for, in the furious gallop of the horse, the
clang of the empty stirrups, the neigh of the frightened animal, there
was something, they scarcely knew what, of unspeakable warning. Soon,
too soon for the unhappy wife, the horse reached the gate, panting and
sweating, but alone; he had broken the bridle, no doubt by entangling
it. Olympe gazed with haggard eyes at the servant as he opened the gate;
she saw the horse, and then, without a word, she ran to the chateau
like a madwoman; when she reached it she fell to the ground beneath the
general’s windows crying out: “Monsieur, they have murdered him!”

The cry was so terrible it awoke the count; he rang violently, bringing
the whole household to their feet; and the groans of Madame Michaud, who
as she lay on the ground, gave birth to a child that died in being born,
brought the general and all the servants about her. They raised the poor
dying woman, who expired, saying to the general: “They have murdered
him!”

“Joseph!” cried the count to his valet, “go for the doctor; there may
yet be time to save her. No, better bring the curate; the poor woman is
dead, and her child too. My God! my God! how thankful I am that my wife
is not here. And you,” he said to the gardener, “go and find out what
has happened.”

“I can tell you,” said the pavilion servant, coming up, “Monsieur
Michaud’s horse has come back alone, the reins broke, his legs bloody;
and there’s a spot of blood on the saddle.”

“What can be done at this time of night?” cried the count. “Call
up Groison, send for the keepers, saddle the horses; we’ll beat the
country.”

By daybreak, eight persons--the count, Groison, the three keepers, and
two gendarmes sent from Soulanges with their sergeant--searched the
country. It was not till the middle of the morning that they found the
body of the bailiff in a copse between the mail-road and the smaller
road leading to Ville-aux-Fayes, at the end of the park of Les Aigues,
not far from Conches. Two gendarmes started, one to Ville-aux-Fayes for
the prosecuting attorney, the other to Soulanges for the justice of the
peace. Meantime the general, assisted by the sergeant, noted down the
facts. They found on the road, just above the two pavilions, the print
of the stamping of the horse’s feet as he roared, and the traces of his
frightened gallop from there to the first opening in the woods above the
hedge. The horse, no longer guided, turned into the wood-path. Michaud’s
hat was found there. The animal evidently took the nearest way to reach
his stable. The bailiff had a ball though his back which broke the
spine.

Groison and the sergeant studied the ground around the spot where the
horse reared (which might be called, in judicial language, the theatre
of the crime) with remarkable sagacity, but without obtaining any clue.
The earth was too frozen to show the footprints of the murderer, and all
they found was the paper of a cartridge. When the attorney and the judge
and Monsieur Gourdon, the doctor, arrived and raised the body to make
the autopsy, it was found that the ball, which corresponded with the
fragments of the wad, was an ammunition ball, evidently from a military
musket; and no such musket existed in the district of Blangy. The judge
and Monsieur Soudry the attorney, who came that evening to the chateau,
thought it best to collect all the facts and await events. The same
opinion was expressed by the sergeant and the lieutenant of the
gendarmerie.

“It is impossible that it can be anything but a planned attack on the
part of the peasants,” said the sergeant; “but there are two districts,
Conches and Blangy, in each of which there are five or six persons
capable of being concerned in the murder. The one that I suspect most,
Tonsard, passed the night carousing in the Grand-I-Vert; but your
assistant, general, the miller Langlume, was there, and he says that
Tonsard did not leave the tavern. They were all so drunk they could not
stand; they took the bride home at half-past one; and the return of
the horse proves that Michaud was murdered between eleven o’clock and
midnight. At a quarter past ten Groison saw the whole company assembled
at table, and Monsieur Michaud passed there on his way to Soulanges,
which he reached at eleven. His horse reared between the two pavilions
on the mail-road; but he may have been shot before reaching Blangy and
yet have stayed in the saddle for some little time. We should have to
issue warrants for at least twenty persons and arrest them; but I know
these peasants, and so do these gentlemen; you might keep them a year in
prison and you would get nothing out of them but denials. What could you
do with all those who were at Tonsard’s?”

They sent for Langlume, the miller, and the assistant of General
Montcornet as mayor; he related what had taken place in the tavern, and
gave the names of all present; none had gone out except for a minute or
two into the courtyard. He had left the room for a moment with Tonsard
about eleven o’clock; they had spoken of the moon and the weather, and
heard nothing. At two o’clock the whole party had taken the bride and
bridegroom to their own house.

The general arranged with the sergeant, the lieutenant, and the civil
authorities to send to Paris for the cleverest detective in the service
of the police, who should come to the chateau as a workman, and behave
so ill as to be dismissed; he should then take to drinking and frequent
the Grand-I-Vert and remain in the neighborhood in the character of an
ill-wisher to the general. The best plan they could follow was to watch
and wait for a momentary revelation, and then make the most of it.

“If I have to spend twenty thousand francs I’ll discover the murderer of
my poor Michaud,” the general was never weary of saying.

He went off with that idea in his head, and returned from Paris in the
month of January with one of the shrewdest satellites of the chief of
the detective police, who was brought down ostensibly to do some work
to the interior of the chateau. The man was discovered poaching. He was
arrested, and turned off, and soon after--early in February--the general
rejoined his wife in Paris.



CHAPTER X. THE TRIUMPH OF THE VANQUISHED


One evening in the month of May, when the fine weather had come and the
Parisians had returned to Les Aigues, Monsieur de Troisville,--who had
been persuaded to accompany his daughter,--Blondet, the Abbe Brossette,
the general, and the sub-prefect of Ville-aux-Fayes, who was on a visit
to the chateau, were all playing either whist or chess. It was about
half-past eleven o’clock when Joseph entered and told his master that
the worthless poaching workman who had been dismissed wanted to see
him,--something about a bill which he said the general still owed him.
“He is very drunk,” added Joseph.

“Very good, I’ll go and speak to him.”

The general went out upon the lawn to some distance from the house.

“Monsieur le comte,” said the detective, “nothing will ever be got out
of these people. All that I have been able to gather is that if you
continue to stay in this place and try to make the peasants renounce the
pilfering habits which Mademoiselle Laguerre allowed them to acquire,
they will shoot you as well as your bailiff. There is no use in my
staying here; for they distrust me even more than they do the keepers.”

The count paid his spy, who left the place the next day, and his
departure justified the suspicions entertained about him by the
accomplices in the death of Michaud.

When the general returned to the salon there were such signs of emotion
upon his face that his wife asked him, anxiously, what news he had just
heard.

“Dear wife,” he said, “I don’t want to frighten you, and yet it is right
you should know that Michaud’s death was intended as a warning for us to
leave this part of the country.”

“If I were in your place,” said Monsieur de Troisville, “I would not
leave it. I myself have had just such difficulties in Normandy, only
under another form; I persisted in my course, and now everything goes
well.”

“Monsieur le marquis,” said the sub-prefect, “Normandy and Burgundy are
two very different regions. The grape heats the blood far more than the
apple. We know much less of law and legal proceedings; we live among the
woods; the large industries are unknown among us; we are still savages.
If I might give my advice to Monsieur le comte it would be to sell this
estate and put the money in the Funds; he would double his income and
have no anxieties. If he likes living in the country he could buy a
chateau near Paris with a park as beautiful as that of Les Aigues,
surrounded by walls, where no one can annoy him, and where he can let
all his farms and receive the money in good bank-bills, and have no law
suits from one year’s end to another. He could come and go in three or
four hours, and Monsieur Blondet and Monsieur le marquis would not be so
often away from you, Madame la comtesse.”

“I, retreat before the peasantry when I did not recoil before the
Danube!” cried the general.

“Yes, but what became of your cuirassiers?” asked Blondet.

“Such a fine estate!”

“It will sell to-day for over two millions.”

“The chateau alone must have cost that,” remarked Monsieur de
Troisville.

“One of the best properties in a circumference of sixty miles,” said the
sub-prefect; “but you can find a better near Paris.”

“How much income does one get from two millions?” asked the countess.

“Now-a-days, about eighty thousand francs,” replied Blondet.

“Les Aigues does not bring in, all told, more than thirty thousand,”
 said the countess; “and lately you have been at such immense
expenses,--you have surrounded the woods this year with ditches.”

“You could get,” added Blondet, “a royal chateau for four hundred
thousand francs near Paris. In these days people buy the follies of
others.”

“I thought you cared for Les Aigues!” said the count to his wife.

“Don’t you feel that I care a thousand times more for your life?” she
replied. “Besides, ever since the death of my poor Olympe and Michaud’s
murder the country is odious to me; all the faces I meet seem to wear a
treacherous or threatening expression.”

The next evening the sub-prefect, having ended his visit at the chateau,
was welcomed in the salon of Monsieur Gaubertin at Ville-aux-Fayes in
these words:--

“Well, Monsieur des Lupeaulx, so you have returned from Les Aigues?”

“Yes,” answered the sub-prefect with a little air of triumph and a look
of tender regard at Mademoiselle Elise, “and I am very much afraid to
say we may lose the general; he talks of selling his property--”

“Monsieur Gaubertin, I speak for my pavilion. I can on longer endure the
noise, the dust of Ville-aux-Fayes; like a poor imprisoned bird I gasp
for the air of the fields, the woodland breezes,” said Madame Isaure, in
a lackadaisical voice, with her eyes half-closed and her head bending
to her left shoulder as she played carelessly with the long curls of her
blond hair.

“Pray be prudent, madame!” said her husband in a low voice; “your
indiscretions will not help me to buy the pavilion.” Then, turning to
the sub-prefect, he added, “Haven’t they yet discovered the men who were
concerned in the murder of the bailiff?”

“It seems not,” replied the sub-prefect.

“That will injure the sale of Les Aigues,” said Gaubertin to the
company generally, “I know very well that I would not buy the place. The
peasantry over there are such a bad set of people; even in the days of
Mademoiselle Laguerre I had trouble with them, and God knows she let
them do as they liked.”

At the end of the month of May the general still gave no sign that he
intended to sell Les Aigues; in fact, he was undecided. One night, about
ten o’clock, he was returning from the forest through one of the six
avenues that led to the pavilion of the Rendezvous. He dismissed the
keeper who accompanied him, as he was then so near the chateau. At a
turn of the road a man armed with a gun came from behind a bush.

“General,” he said, “this is the third time I have had you at the end of
my barrel, and the third time that I give you your life.”

“Why do you want to kill me, Bonnebault?” said the general, without
showing the least emotion.

“Faith, if I don’t, somebody else will; but I, you see, I like the men
who served the Emperor, and I can’t make up my mind to shoot you like a
partridge. Don’t question me, for I’ll tell you nothing; but you’ve
got enemies, powerful enemies, cleverer than you, and they’ll end by
crushing you. I am to have a thousand crowns if I kill you, and then I
can marry Marie Tonsard. Well, give me enough to buy a few acres of land
and a bit of a cottage, and I’ll keep on saying, as I have done, that
I’ve found no chances. That will give you time to sell your property and
get away; but make haste. I’m an honest lad still, scamp as I am; but
another fellow won’t spare you.”

“If I give you what you ask, will you tell me who offered you those
three thousand francs?” said the general.

“I don’t know myself; and the person who is urging me to do the thing
is some one I love too well to tell of. Besides, even if you did know
it was Marie Tonsard, that wouldn’t help you; Marie Tonsard would be as
silent as that wall, and I should deny every word I’ve said.”

“Come and see me to-morrow,” said the general.

“Enough,” replied Bonnebault; “and if they begin to say I’m too
dilatory, I’ll let you know in time.”

A week after that singular conversation the whole arrondissement, indeed
the whole department, was covered with posters, advertising the sale of
Les Aigues at the office of Maitre Corbineau, the notary of Soulanges.
All the lots were knocked down to Rigou, and the price paid amounted to
two millions five hundred thousand francs. The next day Rigou had the
names changed; Monsieur Gaubertin took the woods, Rigou and Soudry the
vineyards and the farms. The chateau and the park were sold over again
in small lots among the sons of the soil, the peasantry,--excepting the
pavilion, its dependencies, and fifty surrounding acres, which Monsieur
Gaubertin retained as a gift to his poetic and sentimental spouse.

              *     *     *     *     *

Many years after these events, during the year 1837, one of the most
remarkable political writers of the day, Emile Blondet, reached the
last stages of a poverty which he had so far hidden beneath an outward
appearance of ease and elegance. He was thinking of taking some
desperate step, realizing, as he did, that his writings, his mind,
his knowledge, his ability for the direction of affairs, had made him
nothing better than a mere functionary, mechanically serving the ends of
others; seeing that every avenue was closed to him and all places
taken; feeling that he had reached middle-life without fame and without
fortune; that fools and middle-class men of no training had taken the
places of the courtiers and incapables of the Restoration, and that the
government was reconstituted such as it was before 1830. One evening,
when he had come very near committing suicide (a folly he had so often
laughed at), while his mind travelled back over his miserable existence
calumniated and worn down with toil far more than with the dissipations
charged against him, the noble and beautiful face of a woman rose before
his eyes, like a statue rising pure and unbroken amid the saddest ruins.
Just then the porter brought him a letter sealed with black from the
Comtesse de Montcornet, telling him of the death of her husband, who had
again taken service in the army and commanded a division. The count
had left her his property, and she had no children. The letter, though
dignified, showed Blondet very plainly that the woman of forty whom he
had loved in his youth offered him a friendly hand and a large fortune.

A few days ago the marriage of the Comtesse de Montcornet with Monsieur
Blondet, appointed prefect in one of the departments, was celebrated in
Paris. On their way to take possession of the prefecture, they followed
the road which led past what had formerly been Les Aigues. They stopped
the carriage near the spot where the two pavilions had once stood,
wishing to see the places so full of tender memories for each. The
country was no longer recognizable. The mysterious woods, the park
avenues, all were cleared away; the landscape looked like a tailor’s
pattern-card. The sons of the soil had taken possession of the earth as
victors and conquerors. It was cut up into a thousand little lots, and
the population had tripled between Conches and Blangy. The levelling and
cultivation of the noble park, once so carefully tended, so delightful
in its beauty, threw into isolated relief the pavilion of the
Rendezvous, now the Villa Buen-Retiro of Madame Isaure Gaubertin; it was
the only building left standing, and it commanded the whole landscape,
or as we might better call it, the stretch of cornfields which now
constituted the landscape. The building seemed magnified into a chateau,
so miserable were the little houses which the peasants had built around
it.

“This is progress!” cried Emile. “It is a page out of Jean-Jacques’
‘Social Compact’! and I--I am harnessed to the social machine that works
it! Good God! what will the kings be soon? More than that, what will the
nations themselves be fifty years hence under this state of things?”

“But you love me; you are beside me. I think the present delightful.
What do I care for such a distant future?” said his wife.

“Oh yes! by your side, hurrah for the present!” cried the lover, gayly,
“and the devil take the future.”

Then he signed to the coachman, and as the horses sprang forward along
the road, the wedded pair returned to the enjoyment of their honeymoon.


1845.



ADDENDUM

The following personages appear in other stories of the Human Comedy.

Note: Sons of the Soil is also known as The Peasantry and is referred to
by that title when mentioned in other addendums.

     Blondet, Emile
       Jealousies of a Country Town
       A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
       Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life
       Modeste Mignon
       Another Study of Woman
       The Secrets of a Princess
       A Daughter of Eve
       The Firm of Nucingen

     Blondet, Virginie
       Jealousies of a Country Town
       The Secrets of a Princess
       A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
       Another Study of Woman
       The Member for Arcis
       A Daughter of Eve

     Bourlac, Bernard-Jean-Baptiste-Macloud, Baron de
       The Seamy Side of History

     Brossette, Abbe
       Beatrix

     Carigliano, Duchesse de
       At the Sign of the Cat and Racket
       A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
       The Member for Arcis

     Casteran, De
       The Chouans
       The Seamy Side of History
       Jealousies of a Country Town
       Beatrix

     Laguerre, Mademoiselle
       A Prince of Bohemia

     La Roche-Hugon, Martial de
       Domestic Peace
       A Daughter of Eve
       The Member for Arcis
       The Middle Classes
       Cousin Betty

     Lupin, Amaury
       A Start in Life

     Marest, Georges
       A Start in Life

     Minorets, The
       The Government Clerks

     Montcornet, Marechal, Comte de
       Domestic Peace
       Lost Illusions
       A Distinguished Provincial at Paris
       Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life
       A Man of Business
       Cousin Betty

     Navarreins, Duc de
       A Bachelor’s Establishment
       Colonel Chabert
       The Muse of the Department
       The Thirteen
       Jealousies of a Country Town
       Scenes from a Courtesan’s Life
       The Country Parson
       The Magic Skin
       The Gondreville Mystery
       The Secrets of a Princess
       Cousin Betty

     Ronquerolles, Marquis de
       The Imaginary Mistress
       Ursule Mirouet
       A Woman of Thirty
       Another Study of Woman
       The Thirteen
       The Member for Arcis

     Scherbelloff, Princesse (or Scherbellof or Sherbelloff)
       Jealousies of a Country Town

     Soulanges, Comte Leon de
       Domestic Peace

     Soulanges, Comtesse Hortense de
       Domestic Peace
       The Thirteen

     Steingel
       The Gondreville Mystery

     Troisville, Guibelin, Vicomte de
       The Seamy Side of History
       The Chouans
       Jealousies of a Country Town





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