Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
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--"
"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.