Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
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?"
"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."
"As the grave."
"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.