Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
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 voluptaries. 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!"