Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
Chapter XIII. A Type of the Country Usurer
Strategically, Rigou's position at Blangy was that of a picket sentinel. He watched Les Aigues, and watched it well. The police have no spies comparable to those that serve hatred.
When the general first came to Les Aigues Rigou apparently formed some plans about him which Montcornet's marriage with a Troisville put an end to; he seemed to have wished to patronize the new land-owner. In fact his intentions were so patent that Gaubertin thought best to let him into the secrets of the coalition against Les Aigues. Before accepting any part in the affair, Rigou determined, as he said, to put the general between two stools.
One day, after the countess was fairly installed, a little wicker carriage painted green entered the grand courtyard of the chateau. The mayor, who was flanked by his mayoress, got out and came round to the portico on the garden side. As he did so Rigou saw Madame le comtesse at a window. She, however, devoted to the bishop and to religion and to the Abbe Brossette, sent word by Francois that "Madame was out."
This act of incivility, worthy of a woman born in Russia, turned the face of the ex-Benedictine yellow. If the countess had seen the man whom the abbe told her was "a soul in hell who plunged into iniquity as into a bath in his efforts to cool himself," if she had seen his face then she might have refrained from exciting the cold, deliberate hatred felt by the liberals against the royalists, increased as it was in country-places by the jealousies of neighborhood, where the recollections of wounded vanity are kept constantly alive.
A few details about this man and his morals will not only throw light on his share of the plot, called "the great affair" by his two associates, but it will have the merit of picturing an extremely curious type of man,--one of those rural existences which are peculiar to France, and which no writer has hitherto sought to depict. Nothing about this man is without significance,--neither his house, nor his manner of blowing the fire, nor his ways of eating; his habits, morals, and opinions will vividly illustrate the history of the valley. This renegade serves to show the utility of democracy; he is at once its theory and its practice, its alpha and its omega, in short, its "summum."
Perhaps you will remember certain masters of avarice pictured in former scenes of this comedy of human life: in the first place the provincial minister, Pere Grandet of Saumur, miserly as a tiger is cruel; next Gobseck, the usurer, that Jesuit of gold, delighting only in its power, and relishing the tears of the unfortunate because gold produced them; then Baron Nucingen, lifting base and fraudulent money transactions to the level of State policy. Then, too, you may remember that portrait of domestic parsimony, old Hochon of Issoudun, and that other miser in behalf of family interests, little la Baudraye of Sancerre. Well, human emotions--above all, those of avarice--take on so many and diverse shades in the diverse centres of social existence that there still remains upon the stage of our comedy another miser to be studied, namely, Rigou,--Rigou, the miser-egoist; full of tenderness for his own gratifications, cold and hard to others; the ecclesiastical miser; the monk still a monk so far as he can squeeze the juice of the fruit called good-living, and becoming secular only to put a paw upon the public money. In the first place, let us explain the continual pleasure that he took in sleeping under his own roof.
Blangy--by that we mean the sixty houses described by Blondet in his letter to Nathan--stands on a rise of land to the left of the Thune. As all the houses are surrounded by gardens, the village is a very pretty one. Some houses are built on the banks of the stream. At the upper end of the long rise stands the church, formerly flanked by a parsonage, its apse surrounded, as in many other villages, by a graveyard. The sacrilegious old Rigou had bought the parsonage, which was originally built by an excellent Catholic, Mademoiselle Choin, on land which she had bought for the purpose. A terraced garden, from which the eye looked down upon Blangy, Cerneux, and Soulanges standing between the two great seignorial parks, separated the late parsonage from the church. On its opposite side lay a meadow, bought by the last curate of the parish not long before his death, which the distrustful Rigou had since surrounded with a wall.
The ex-monk and mayor having refused to sell back the parsonage for its original purpose, the parish was obliged to buy a house belonging to a peasant, which adjoined the church. It was necessary to spend five thousand francs to repair and enlarge it and to enclose it in a little garden, one wall of which was that of the sacristy, so that communication between the parsonage and the church was still as close as it ever was.
These two houses, built on a line with the church, and seeming to belong to it by their gardens, faced a piece of open ground planted by trees, which might be called the square of Blangy,--all the more because the count had lately built, directly opposite to the new parsonage, a communal building intended for the mayor's office, the home of the field-keeper, and the quarters of that school of the Brothers of the Christian Doctrine, for which the Abbe Brossette had hitherto begged in vain. Thus, not only were the houses of the ex-monk and the young priest connected and yet separated by the church, but they were in a position to watch each other. Indeed, the whole village spied upon the abbe. The main street, which began at the Thune, crept tortuously up the hill to the church. Vineyards, the cottages of the peasantry, and a small grove crowned the heights.
Rigou's house, the handsomest in the village, was built of the large rubble-stone peculiar to Burgundy, imbedded in yellow mortar smoothed by the trowel, which produced an uneven surface, still further broken here and there by projecting points of the stone, which was mostly black. A band of cement, in which no stones were allowed to show, surrounded each window with a sort of frame, where time had made some slight, capricious cracks, such as appear on plastered ceilings. The outer blinds, of a clumsy pattern, were noticeable for their color, which was dragon-green. A few mosses grew among the slates of the roof. The type is that of Burgundian homesteads; the traveller will see thousands like it when visiting this part of France.
A double door opened upon a passage, half-way down which was the well of the staircase. By the entrance was the door of a large room with three windows looking out upon the square. The kitchen, built behind and beneath the staircase, was lighted from the courtyard, which was neatly paved with cobble-stones and entered by a porte-cochere. Such was the ground-floor. The first floor contained three bedrooms, above them a small attic chamber.
A wood-shed, a coach-house, and a stable adjoined the kitchen, and formed two sides of a square around the courtyard. Above these rather flimsy buildings were lofts containing hay and grain, a fruit-room, and one servant's-chamber.
A poultry-yard, the stable, and a pigsty faced the house across the courtyard.
The garden, about an acre in size and enclosed by walls, was a true priest's garden; that is, it was full of wall-fruit and fruit-trees, grape-arbors, gravel-paths, closely trimmed box-trees, and square vegetable patches, made rich with the manure from the stable.
Within, the large room, panelled in wainscot, was hung with old tapestry. The walnut furniture, brown with age and covered with stuffs embroidered in needle-work, was in keeping with the wainscot and with the ceiling, which was also panelled. The latter had three projecting beams, but these were painted, and between them the space was plastered. The mantel, also in walnut, surmounted by a mirror in the most grotesque frame, had no other ornament than two brass eggs standing on a marble base, each of which opened in the middle; the upper half when turned over showed a socket for a candle. These candlesticks for two lights, festooned with chains (an invention of the reign of Louis XV.), were becoming rare. On a green and gold bracket fastened to the wall opposite to the window was a common but excellent clock. The curtains, which squeaked upon their rods, were at least fifty years old; their material, of cotton in a square pattern like that of mattresses, alternately pink and white, came from the Indies. A sideboard and dinner-table completed the equipment of the room, which was kept with extreme nicety.
At the corner of the fireplace was an immense sofa, Rigou's especial seat. In the angle, above a little "bonheur du jour," which served him as a desk, and hanging to a common screw, was a pair of bellows, the origin of Rigou's fortune.
From this succinct description, in style like that of an auction sale, it will be easy to imagine that the bedrooms of Monsieur and Madame Rigou were limited to mere necessaries; yet it would be a mistake to suppose that such parsimony affected the essential excellence of those necessaries. For instance, the most fastidious of women would have slept well in Rigou's bed, with fine linen sheets, excellent mattresses, made luxurious by a feather-bed (doubtless bought for some abbe by a pious female parishioner) and protected from draughts by thick curtains. All the rest of Rigou's belongings were made comfortable for his use, as we shall see.
In the first place, he had reduced his wife, who could neither read, write, nor cipher, to absolute obedience. After having ruled her deceased master, the poor creature was now the servant of her husband; she cooked and did the washing, with very little help from a pretty girl named Annette, who was nineteen years old and as much a slave to Rigou as her mistress, and whose wages were thirty francs a year.
Tall, thin, and withered, Madame Rigou, a woman with a yellow face red about the cheek-bones, her head always wrapped in a colored handkerchief, and wearing the same dress all the year round, did not leave the house for two hours in a month's time, but kept herself in exercise by doing the hard work of a devoted servant. The keenest observer could not have found a trace of the fine figure, the Rubens coloring, the splendid lines, the superb teeth, the virginal eyes which first drew the attention of the Abbe Niseron to the young girl. The birth of her only daughter, Madame Soudry, Jr., had blighted her complexion, decayed her teeth, dimmed her eyes, and even caused the dropping of their lashes. It almost seemed as if the finger of God had fallen upon the wife of the priest. Like all well-to-do country house- wives, she liked to see her closets full of silk gowns, made and unmade, and jewels and laces which did her no good and only excited the sin of envy and a desire for her death in the minds of all the young women who served Rigou. She was one of those beings, half-woman, half-animal, who are born to live by instinct. This ex-beautiful Arsene was disinterested; and the bequest left to her by the late Abbe Niseron would be inexplicable were it not for the curious circumstance which prompted it, and which we give here for the edification of the vast tribe of expectant heirs.
Madame Niseron, the wife of the old republican sexton, always paid the greatest attention to her husband's uncle, the priest of Blangy; the forty or fifty thousand francs soon to be inherited from the old man of seventy would put the family of his only nephew into a condition of affluence which she impatiently awaited, for besides her only son (the father of La Pechina) Madame Niseron had a charming little daughter, lively and innocent,--one of those beings that seem perfected only because they are to die, which she did at the age of fourteen from "pale color," the popular name for chlorosis among the peasantry. The darling of the parsonage, where the child fluttered about her great uncle the abbe as she did in her home, bringing clouds and sunshine with her, she grew to love Mademoiselle Arsene, the pretty servant whom the old abbe engaged in 1789. Arsene was the niece of his housekeeper, whose place the girl took by request of the latter on her deathbed.
In 1791, just about the time that the Abbe Niseron offered his house as an asylum to Rigou and his brother Jean, the little girl played one of her mischievous but innocent tricks. She was playing with Arsene and some other children at a game which consists in hiding an object which the rest seek, and crying out, "You burn!" or "You freeze!" according as the searchers approach or leave the hidden article. Little Genevieve took it into her head to hide the bellows in Arsene's bed. The bellows could not be found, and the game came to an end; Genevieve was taken home by her mother and forgot to put the bellows back on the nail. Arsene and her aunt searched more than a week for them; then they stopped searching and managed to do without them, the old abbe blowing his fire with an air-cane made in the days when air- canes were the fashion,--a fashion which was no doubt introduced by some courtier of the reign of Henri III. At last, about a month before her death, the housekeeper, after a dinner at which the Abbe Mouchon, the Niseron family, and the curate of Soulanges were present, returned to her jeremiades about the loss of the bellows.
"Why! they've been these two weeks in Arsene's bed!" cried the little one, with a peal of laughter. "Great lazy thing! if she had taken the trouble to make her bed she would have found them."
As it was 1791 everybody laughed; but a dead silence succeeded the laugh.
"There is nothing laughable in that," said the housekeeper; "since I have been ill Arsene sleeps in my room."
In spite of this explanation the Abbe Niseron looked thunderbolts at Madame Niseron and his nephew, thinking they were plotting mischief against him. The housekeeper died. Rigou contrived to work up the abbe's resentment to such a pitch that he made a will disinheriting Jean-Francois Niseron in favor of Arsene Pichard.
In 1823 Rigou, perhaps out of a sense of gratitude, still blew the fire with an air-cane, and left the bellows hanging to the screw.
Madame Niseron, idolizing her daughter, did not long survive her. Mother and child died in 1794. The old abbe, too, was dead, and citizen Rigou took charge of Arsene's affairs by marrying her. A former convert in the monastery, attached to Rigou as a dog is to his master, became the groom, gardener, herdsman, valet, and steward of the sensual Harpagon. Arsene Rigou, the daughter, married in 1821 without dowry to the prosecuting-attorney, inheriting something of her mother's rather vulgar beauty, together with the crafty mind of her father.
Now about sixty-seven years of age, Rigou had never been ill in his life, and nothing seemed able to lessen his aggressively good health. Tall, lean, with brown circles round his eyes, the lids of which were nearly black, any one who saw him of a morning, when as he dressed he exposed the wrinkled, red, and granulated skin of his neck, would have compared him to a condor,--all the more because his long nose, sharp at the tip, increased the likeness by its sanguineous color. His head, partly bald, would have frightened phrenologists by the shape of its skull, which was like an ass's backbone, an indication of despotic will. His grayish eyes, half-covered by filmy, red-veined lids, were predestined to aid hypocrisy. Two scanty locks of hair of an undecided color overhung the large ears, which were long and without rim, a sure sign of cruelty, but cruelty of the moral nature only, unless where it means actual insanity. The mouth, very broad, with thin lips, indicated a sturdy eater and a determined drinker by the drop of its corners, which turned downward like two commas, from which drooled gravy when he ate and saliva when he talked. Heliogabalus must have been like this.
His dress, which never varied, consisted of a long blue surtout with a military collar, a black cravat, with waistcoat and trousers of black cloth. His shoes, very thick soled, had iron nails outside, and inside woollen linings knit by his wife in the winter evenings. Annette and her mistress also knit the master's stockings. Rigou's name was Gregoire.
Though this sketch gives some idea of the man's character, no one can imagine the point to which, in his private and unthwarted life, the ex-Benedictine had pushed the science of selfishness, good living, and sensuality. In the first place, he dined alone, waited upon by his wife and Annette, who themselves dined with Jean in the kitchen, while the master digested his meal and disposed of his wine as he read "the news."
In the country the special names of journals are never mentioned; they are all called by the general name of "the news."
Rigou's dinner, like his breakfast and supper, was always of choice delicacies, cooked with the art which distinguishes a priest's housekeeper from all other cooks. Madame Rigou made the butter herself twice a week. Cream was a concomitant of many sauces. The vegetables came at a jump, as it were, from their frames to the saucepan. Parisians, who are accustomed to eat the fruits of the earth after they have had a second ripening in the sun of a city, infected by the air of the streets, fermenting in close shops, and watered from time to time by the market-women to give them a deceitful freshness, have little idea of the exquisite flavors of really fresh produce, to which nature has lent fugitive but powerful charms when eaten as it were alive.
The butcher of Soulanges brought his best meat under fear of losing Rigou's custom. The poultry, raised on the premises, was of the finest quality.
This system of secret pampering embraced everything in which Rigou was personally concerned. Though the slippers of the knowing Thelemist were of stout leather they were lined with lamb's wool. Though his coat was of rough cloth it did not touch his skin, for his shirt, washed and ironed at home, was of the finest Frisian linen. His wife, Annette, and Jean drank the common wine of the country, the wine he reserved from his own vineyards; but in his private cellar, as well stocked as the cellars of Belgium, the finest vintages of Burgundy rubbed sides with those of Bordeaux, Champagne, Roussillon, not to speak of Spanish and Rhine wines, all bought ten years in advance of use and bottled by Brother Jean. The liqueurs in that cellar were those of the Isles, and came originally from Madame Amphoux. Rigou had laid in a supply to last him the rest of his days, at the national sale of a chateau in Burgundy.
The ex-monk ate and drank like Louis XIV. (one of the greatest consumers of food and drink ever known), which reveals the costs of a life that was more than voluptuous. Careful and very shrewd in managing his secret prodigalities, he disputed all purchases as only churchmen can dispute. Instead of taking infinite precautions against being cheated, the sly monk kept patterns and samples, had the agreements reduced to writing, and warned those who forwarded his wines or his provisions that if they fell short of the mark in any way he should refuse to accept their consignments.
Jean, who had charge of the fruit-room, was trained to keep fresh the finest fruits grown in the department; so that Rigou ate pears and apples and sometimes grapes, at Easter.
No prophet regarded as a God was ever more blindly obeyed than was Rigou in his own home. A mere motion of his black eyelashes could plunge his wife, Annette, and Jean into the deepest anxiety. He held his three slaves by the multiplicity of their many duties, which were like a chain in his hands. These poor creatures were under the perpetual yoke of some ordered duty, with an eye always on them; but they had come to take a sort of pleasure in accomplishing these tasks, and did not suffer under them. All three had the comfort and well- being of that one man before their minds as the sole end and object of all their thoughts.
Annette was (since 1795) the tenth pretty girl in Rigou's service, and he expected to go down to his grave with relays of such servants. Brought to him at sixteen, she would be sent away at nineteen. All these girls, carefully chosen at Auxerre, Clamecy, or in the Morvan, were enticed by the promise of future prosperity; but Madame Rigou persisted in living. So at the end of every three years some quarrel, usually brought about by the insolence of the servant to the poor mistress, caused their dismissal.
Annette, who was a picture of delicate beauty, ingenuous and sparkling, deserved to be a duchess. Rigou knew nothing of the love affair between her and Jean-Louis Tonsard, which proves that he had let himself be fooled by the girl,--the only one of his many servants whose ambition had taught her to flatter the lynx as the only way to blind him.
This uncrowned Louis XV. did not keep himself wholly to his pretty Annette. Being the mortgagee of lands bought by peasants who were unable to pay for them, he kept a harem in the valley, from Soulanges to five miles beyond Conches on the road to La Brie, without making other payments than "extension of time," for those fugitive pleasures which eat into the fortunes of so many old men.
This luxurious life, a life like that of Bouret, cost Rigou almost nothing. Thanks to his white slaves, he could cut and mow down and gather in his wood, hay, and grain. To the peasant manual labor is a small matter, especially if it serves to postpone the payment of interest due. And so Rigou, while requiring little premiums on each month's delay, squeezed a great deal of manual labor out of his debtors,--positive drudgery, to which they submitted thinking they gave little because nothing left their pockets. Rigou sometimes obtained in this way more than the principal of a debt.
Deep as a monk, silent as a Benedictine in the throes of writing history, sly as a priest, deceitful as all misers, carefully keeping within the limits of the law, the man might have been Tiberius in Rome, Richelieu under Louis XIII., or Fouche, had the ambition seized him to go to the Convention; but, instead of all that, Rigou had the common sense to remain a Lucullus without ostentation, in other words, a parsimonious voluptuary. To occupy his mind he indulged a hatred manufactured out of the whole cloth. He harassed the Comte de Montcornet. He worked the peasants like puppets by hidden wires, the handling of which amused him as though it were a game of chess where the pawns were alive, the knights caracoled, the bishops, like Fourchon, gabbled, the feudal castles shone in the sun, and the queen maliciously checkmated the king. Every day, when he got out of bed and saw from his window the proud towers of Les Aigues, the chimneys of the pavilions, and the noble gates, he said to himself: "They shall fall! I'll dry up the brooks, I'll chop down the woods." But he had two victims in mind, a chief one and a lesser one. Though he meditated the dismemberment of the chateau, the apostate also intended to make an end of the Abbe Brossette by pin-pricks.
To complete the portrait of the ex-priest it will suffice to add that he went to mass regretting that his wife still lived, and expressed the desire to be reconciled with the Church as soon as he became a widower. He bowed deferentially to the Abbe Brossette whenever he met him, and spoke to him courteously and without heat. As a general thing all men who belong to the Church, or who have come out of it, have the patience of insects; they owe this to the obligation they have been under, ecclesiastically, to preserve decorum,--a training which has been lacking for the last twenty years to the vast majority of the French nation, even those who think themselves well-bred. All the monks which the Revolution brought out of their monasteries and forced into business, public or private, showed in their coldness and reserve the great advantage which ecclesiastical discipline gives to the sons of the Church, even those who desert her.
Gaubertin had understood Rigou from the days when the Abbe Niseron made his will and the ex-monk married the heiress; he fathomed the craft hidden behind the jaundiced face of that accomplished hypocrite; and he made himself the man's fellow-worshipper before the altar of the Golden Calf. When the banking-house of Leclercq was first started he advised Rigou to put fifty thousand francs into it, guaranteeing their security himself. Rigou was all the more desirable as an investor, or sleeping partner, because he drew no interest but allowed his capital to accumulate. At the period of which we write it amounted to over a hundred thousand francs, although in 1816 he had taken out one hundred and eighty thousand for investment in the Public Funds, from which he derived an income of seventeen thousand francs. Lupin the notary had cognizance of at least one hundred thousand francs which Rigou had lent on small mortgages upon good estates. Ostensibly, Rigou derived about fourteen thousand francs a year from landed property actually owned by him. But as to his amassed hoard, it was represented by an "x" which no rule of equations could evolve, just as the devil alone knew the secret schemes he plotted with Langlume.
This dangerous usurer, who proposed to live a score of years longer, had established fixed rules to work upon. He lent nothing to a peasant who bought less than seven acres, and who could not pay one-half of the purchase-money down. Rigou well understood the defects of the law of dispossession when applied to small holdings, and the danger both to the Public Treasury and to land-owners of the minute parcelling out of the soil. How can you sue a peasant for the value of one row of vines when he owns only five? The bird's-eye view of self-interest is always twenty-five years ahead of the perceptions of a legislative body. What a lesson for a nation! Law will ever emanate from one brain, that of a man of genius, and not from the nine hundred legislative heads, which, great as they may be in themselves, are belittled and lost in a crowd. Rigou's law contains the essential element which has yet to be found and introduced into public law to put an end to the absurd spectacle of landed property reduced to halves, quarters, tenths, hundredths,--as in the district of Argenteuil, where there are thirty thousand plots of land.
Such operations as those Rigou was concerned in require extensive collusion, like those we have seen existing in this arrondissement. Lupin, the notary, whom Rigou employed to draw at least one third of the deeds annually entrusted to his notarial office, was devoted to him. This shark could thus include in the mortgage note (signed always in presence of the wife, when the borrower was married) the amount of the illegal interest. The peasant, delighted to feel he had to pay only his five per cent interest annually, always imagined he should be able to meet the payment by working doubly hard or by improving the land and getting double returns upon it.
Hence the deceitful hopes excited by what imbecile economists call "small farming,"--a political blunder to which we owe such mistakes as sending French money to Germany to buy horses which our own land had ceased to breed; a blunder which before long will reduce the raising of cattle until meat will be unattainable not only by the people, but by the lower middle classes (see "Le Cure de Village.")
So, not a little sweat bedewed men's brows between Conches and Ville- aux-Fayes to Rigou's profit, all being willing to give it; whereas the labor dearly paid for by the general, the only man who did spend money in the district, brought him curses and hatred, which were showered upon him simply because he was rich. How could such facts be understood unless we had previously taken that rapid glance at the Mediocracy. Fourchon was right; the middle classes now held the position of the former lords. The small land-owners, of whom Courtecuisse is a type, were tenants in mortmain of a Tiberius in the valley of the Avonne, just as, in Paris, traders without money are the peasantry of the banking system.
Soudry followed Rigou's example from Soulanges to a distance of fifteen miles beyond Ville-aux-Fayes. These two usurers shared the district between them.
Gaubertin, whose rapacity was in a higher sphere, not only did not compete against that of his associates, but he prevented all other capital in Ville-aux-Fayes from being employed in the same fruitful manner. It is easy to imagine what immense influence this triumvirate --Rigou, Soudry, and Gaubertin--wielded in election periods over electors whose fortunes depended on their good-will.
Hate, intelligence, and means at command, such were the three sides of the terrible triangle which describes the general's closest enemy, the spy ever watching Les Aigues,--a shark having constant dealings with sixty to eighty small land-owners, relations or connections of the peasantry, who feared him as such men always fear their creditor.
Rigou was in his way another Tonsard. The one throve on thefts from nature, the other waxed fat on legal plunder. Both liked to live well. It was the same nature in two species,--the one natural, the other whetted by his training in a cloister.
It was about four o'clock when Vaudoyer left the tavern of the Grand- I-Vert to consult the former mayor. Rigou was at dinner. Finding the front door locked, Vaudoyer looked above the window blinds and called out:--
"Monsieur Rigou, it is I,--Vaudoyer."
Jean came round from the porte-cochere and said to Vaudoyer:--
"Come into the garden; Monsieur has company."
The company was Sibilet, who, under pretext of discussing the verdict Brunet had just handed in, was talking to Rigou of quite other matters. He had found the usurer finishing his dessert. On a square dinner-table covered with a dazzling white cloth--for, regardless of his wife and Annette who did the washing, Rigou exacted clean table- linen every day--the steward noted strawberries, apricots, peaches, figs, and almonds, all the fruits of the season in profusion, served in white porcelain dishes on vine-leaves as daintily as at Les Aigues.
Seeing Sibilet, Rigou told him to run the bolts of the inside double- doors, which were added to the other doors as much to stifle sounds as to keep out the cold air, and asked him what pressing business brought him there in broad daylight when it was so much safer to confer together at night.
"The Shopman talks of going to Paris to see the Keeper of the Seals; he is capable of doing you a great deal of harm; he may ask for the dismissal of your son-in-law, and the removal of the judges at Ville- aux-Fayes, especially after reading the verdict just rendered in your favor. He has turned at bay; he is shrewd, and he has an adviser in that abbe, who is quite able to tilt with you and Gaubertin. Priests are powerful. Monseigneur the bishop thinks a great deal of the Abbe Brossette. Madame la comtesse talks of going herself to her cousin the prefect, the Comte de Casteran, about Nicolas. Michaud begins to see into our game."
"You are frightened," said Rigou, softly, casting a look on Sibilet which suspicion made less impassive than usual, and which was therefore terrific. "You are debating whether it would not be better on the whole to side with the Comte de Montcornet."
"I don't see where I am to get the four thousand francs I save honestly and invest every year, after you have cut up and sold Les Aigues," said Sibilet, shortly. "Monsieur Gaubertin has made me many fine promises; but the crisis is coming on; there will be fighting, surely. Promising before victory and keeping a promise after it are two very different things."
"I will talk to him about it," replied Rigou, imperturbably. "Meantime this is what I should say to you if I were in his place: 'For the last five years you have taken Monsieur Rigou four thousand francs a year, and that worthy man gives you seven and a half per cent; which makes your property in his hands at this moment over twenty-seven thousand francs, as you have not drawn the interest. But there exists a private signed agreement between you and Rigou, and the Shopman will dismiss his steward whenever the Abbe Brossette lays that document before his eyes; the abbe will be able to do so after receiving an anonymous letter which will inform him of your double-dealing. You would therefore do better for yourself by keeping well with us instead of clamoring for your pay in advance,--all the more because Monsieur Rigou, who is not legally bound to give you seven and a half per cent and the interest on your interest, will make you in court a legal tender of your twenty thousand francs, and you will not be able to touch that money until your suit, prolonged by legal trickery, shall be decided by the court at Ville-aux-Fayes. But if you act wisely you will find that when Monsieur Rigou gets possession of your pavilion at Les Aigues, you will have very nearly thirty thousand francs in his hands and thirty thousand more which the said Rigou may entrust to you,--which will be all the more advantageous to you then because the peasantry will have flung them themselves upon the estate of Les Aigues, divided into small lots like the poverty of the world.' That's what Monsieur Gaubertin might say to you. As for me, I have nothing to say, for it is none of my business. Gaubertin and I have our own quarrel with that son of the people who is ashamed of his own father, and we follow our own course. If my friend Gaubertin feels the need of using you, I don't; I need no one, for everybody is at my command. As to the Keeper of the Seals, that functionary is often changed; whereas we--we are always here, and can bide our time."
"Well, I've warned you," returned Sibilet, feeling like a donkey under a pack-saddle.
"Warned me of what?" said Rigou, artfully.
"Of what the Shopman is going to do," answered the steward, humbly. "He started for the Prefecture in a rage."
"Let him go! If the Montcornets and their kind didn't use wheels, what would become of the carriage-makers?"
"I shall bring you three thousand francs to-night," said Sibilet, "but you ought to make over some of your maturing mortgages to me,--say, one or two that would secure to me good lots of land."
"Well, there's that of Courtecuisse. I myself want to be easy on him because he is the best shot in the canton; but if I make over his mortgage to you, you will seem to be harassing him on the Shopman's account, and that will be killing two birds with one stone; when Courtecuisse finds himself a beggar, like Fourchon, he'll be capable of anything. Courtecuisse has ruined himself on the Bachelerie; he has cultivated all the land, and trained fruit on the walls. The little property is now worth four thousand francs, and the count will gladly pay you that to get possession of the three acres that jut right into his land. If Courtecuisse were not such an idle hound he could have paid his interest with the game he might have killed there."
"Well, transfer the mortgage to me, and I'll make my butter out of it; the count shall buy the three acres, and I shall get the house and garden for nothing."
"What are you going to give me out of it?"
"Good heavens! you'd milk an ox!" exclaimed Sibilet,--"when I have just done you such a service, too. I have at last got the Shopman to enforce the laws about gleaning--"
"Have you, my dear fellow?" said Rigou, who a few days earlier had suggested this means of exasperating the peasantry to Sibilet, telling him to advise the general to try it. "Then we've got him; he's lost! But it isn't enough to hold him with one string; we must wind it round and round him like a roll of tobacco. Slip the bolts of the door, my lad; tell my wife to bring my coffee and the liqueurs, and tell Jean to harness up. I'm off to Soulanges; will see you to-night!--Ah! Vaudoyer, good afternoon," said the late mayor as his former field- keeper entered the room. "What's the news?"
Vaudoyer related the talk which had just taken place at the tavern, and asked Rigou's opinion as to the legality of the rules which the general thought of enforcing.
"He has the law with him," said Rigou, curtly. "We have a hard landlord; the Abbe Brossette is a malignant priest; he advises all such measures because you don't go to mass, you miserable unbelievers. I go; there's a God, I tell you. You peasants will have to bear everything, for the Shopman will always get the better of you--"
"We shall glean," said Vaudoyer, in that determined tone which characterizes Burgundians.
"Without a certificate of pauperism?" asked the usurer. "They say the Shopman has gone to the Prefecture to ask for troops so as to force you to keep the law."
"We shall glean as we have always gleaned," repeated Vaudoyer.
"Well, glean then! Monsieur Sarcus will decide whether you have the right to," said Rigou, seeming to promise the help of the justice of the peace.
"We shall glean, and we shall do it in force, or Burgundy won't be Burgundy any longer," said Vaudoyer. "If the gendarmes have sabres we have scythes, and we'll see what comes of it!"
At half-past four o'clock the great green gate of the former parsonage turned on its hinges, and the bay horse, led by Jean, was brought round to the front door. Madame Rigou and Annette came out on the steps and looked at the little wicker carriage, painted green, with a leathern hood, where their lord and master was comfortably seated on good cushions.
"Don't be late home, monsieur," said Annette, with a little pout.
The village folk, already informed of the measures the general proposed to take, were at their doors or standing in the main street as Rigou drove by, believing that he was going to Soulanges in their defence.
"Well, Madame Courtecuisse, so our mayor is on his way to protect us," remarked an old woman as she knitted; the question of depredating in the forest was of great interest to her, for her husband sold the stolen wood at Soulanges.
"Ah! the good man, his heart bleeds to see the way we are treated; he is as unhappy as we are about it," replied the poor woman, who trembled at the very name of her husband's creditor, and praised him out of fear.
"And he himself, too,--they've shamefully ill-used him! Good-day, Monsieur Rigou," said the old knitter to the usurer, who bowed to her and to his debtor's wife.
As Rigou crossed the Thune, fordable at all seasons, Tonsard came out of the tavern and met him on the high-road.
"Well, Pere Rigou," he said, "so the Shopman means to make dogs of us?"
"We'll see about that," said the usurer, whipping up his horse.
"He'll protect us," said Tonsard, turning to a group of women and children who were near him.
"Rigou is thinking as much about you as a cook thinks of the gudgeons he is frying in his pan," called out Fourchon.
"Take the clapper out of your throat when you are drunk," said Mouche, pulling his grandfather by the blouse, and tumbling him down on a bank under a poplar tree. "If that hound of a mayor heard you say that, he'd never buy any more of your tales."
The truth was that Rigou was hurrying to Soulanges in consequence of the warning given him by the steward of Les Aigues, which, in his heart, he regarded as threatening the secret coalition of the valley.