Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
Chapter I. The Leading Society of Soulanges
About six kilometres (speaking legally) from Blangy, and at the same distance from Ville-aux-Fayes, on an elevation radiating from the long hillside at the foot of which flows the Avonne, stands the little town of Soulanges, surnamed La Jolie, with, perhaps, more right to that title than Mantes.
At the foot of the hill, the Thune broadens over a clay bottom to a space of some seventy acres, at the end of which the Soulanges mills, placed on numerous little islets, present as graceful a group of buildings as any landscape architect could devise. After watering the park of Soulanges, where it feeds various other streams and artificial lakes, the Thune falls into the Avonne through a fine broad channel.
The chateau of Soulanges, rebuilt under Louis XIV. from designs of Jules Mansart, and one of the finest in Burgundy, stands facing the town; so that Soulanges and its chateau mutually present to each other a charming and even elegant vista. The main road winds between the town and the pond, called by the country people, rather pompously, the lake of Soulanges.
The little town is one of those natural compositions which are extremely rare in France, where prettiness of its own kind is absolutely wanting. Here you would indeed find, as Blondet said in his letter, the charm of Switzerland, the prettiness of the environs of Neuf-chatel; while the bright vineyards which encircle Soulanges complete the resemblance,--leaving out, be it said, the Alps and the Jura. The streets, placed one above another on the slope of the hill, have but few houses; for each house stands in its own garden, which produces a mass of greenery rarely seen in a town. The roofs, red or blue, rising among flower-gardens, trees, and trellised terraces, present an harmonious variety of aspects.
The church, an old Middle-Age structure, built of stone, thanks to the munificence of the lords of Soulanges, who reserved for themselves first a chapel near the chancel, then a crypt as their necropolis, has, by way of portal, an immense arcade, like that of the church at Lonjumeau, and is bordered by flower-beds adorned with statues, and flanked on either side by columns with niches, which terminate in spires. This portal, often seen in churches of the same period when chance has saved them from the ravages of Calvinism, is surmounted by a triglyph, above which stands a statue of the Virgin holding the infant Jesus. The sides of the structure are externally of five arches, defined by stone ribs and lighted by windows with small panes. The apse rests on arched abutments that are worthy of a cathedral. The clock-tower, placed in a transept of the cross, is square and surmounted by a belfry. The church can be seen from a great distance, for it stands at the top of the great square, at the lower end of which the high-road passes through the town.
This square, large for the size of the town, is surrounded by very original buildings, all of different epochs. Many, half-wood, half- brick, with their timbers faced with slate, date back to the Middle Ages. Others, of stone, with balconies, show the form of gable so dear to our ancestors, which belongs to the twelfth century. Several charm the eye with those old projecting beams, carved with grotesque faces, which form the roof of a sort of shed, and recall the days when the middle classes were exclusively commercial. The finest house among them was that of the chief magistrate of former days,--a house with a sculptured front on a line with the church, to which it forms a fine accompaniment. Sold as national property, it was bought in by the commune, which turned it into a town-hall and court-house, where Monsieur Sarcus had presided ever since the establishment of municipal judges.
This slight sketch will give an idea of the square of Soulanges, adorned in the centre with a charming fountain brought from Italy in 1520 by the Marechal de Soulanges, which was not unworthy of a great capital. An unfailing jet of water, coming from a spring higher up the hill, was shed by four Cupids in white marble, bearing shells in their arms and baskets of grapes upon their heads.
Literary travellers who may pass this way (should any such follow Emile Blondet) might imagine the spot to have inspired Moliere and the Spanish drama, which held its footing so long on French boards, showing that comedy is native to warm countries where so much of life is passed in the public streets. The square of Soulanges is all the more a reminder of that classic stage because the two principal streets, opening just on a line with the fountain, afford the exit and entrances so necessary for the dramatic masters and valets whose business it is either to meet or to avoid each other. At the corner of one of these streets, called the rue de la Fontaine, shone the notarial escutcheon of Maitre Lupin. The houses of Messieurs Sarcus, Guerbet the collector, Brunet, Gourdon, clerk of the court, and that of his brother the doctor, also that of old Monsieur Gendrin-Vatebled, the keeper of the forests and streams,--all these houses, kept with extreme neatness by their owners, who held firmly to the flattering surname of their native town, stand in the neighborhood of the square and form the aristocratic quarter of Soulanges.
The house of Madame Soudry--for the powerful individuality of Mademoiselle Laguerre's former waiting-maid took the lead of her husband in the community--was modern, having been built by a rich wine-merchant, born in Soulanges, who, after making his money in Paris, returned there in 1793 to buy wheat for his native town. He was slain as an "accapareur," a monopolist, by the populace, instigated by a mason, the uncle of Godain, with whom he had had some quarrel about the building of his ambitious house. The settlement of his estate, sharply contested by collateral heirs, dragged slowly along until, in 1798, Soudry, who had then returned to Soulanges, was able to buy the wine-merchant's palace for three thousand francs in specie. He then let it, in the first instance, to the government for the headquarters of the gendarmerie. In 1811 Mademoiselle Cochet, whom Soudry consulted about all his affairs, strongly objected to the renewal of the lease, making the house uninhabitable, she declared, with barracks. The town of Soulanges, assisted by the department, then erected a building for the gendarmerie in a street running at right angles from the town- hall. Thereupon Soudry cleaned up his house and restored its primitive lustre, not a little dimmed by the stabling of horses and the occupancy of gendarmes.
The house, only one story high, with projecting windows in the roof, has a view on three sides; one to the square, another to a lake, the third to a garden. The fourth side looks on a courtyard which separates the Soudrys from the adjoining house occupied by a grocer named Wattebled, a man of the second-class society of Soulanges, father of the beautiful Madame Plissoud, of whom we shall presently have occasion to speak.
All little towns have a renowned beauty, just as they have a Socquard and a Cafe de la Paix.
It will be apparent to every one that the frontage of the Soudry mansion on the lake must have a terraced garden confined by a stone balustrade which overlooks both the lake and the main road. A flight of steps leads down from the terrace to the road, and on it an orange- tree, a pomegranate, a myrtle, and other ornamental shrubs are placed, necessitating a greenhouse. On the side toward the square the house is entered from a portico raised several steps above the level of the street. According to the custom of small towns the gate of the courtyard, used only for the service of the house or for any unusual arrival, was seldom opened. Visitors, who mostly came on foot, entered by the portico.
The style of the Hotel Soudry is plain. The courses are indicated by projecting lines; the windows are framed by mouldings alternately broad and slender, like those of the Gabriel and Perronnet pavilion in the place Louis XV. These ornaments in so small a town give a certain solid and monumental air to the building which has become celebrated.
Opposite to this house, in another angle of the square stands the famous Cafe de la Paix, the characteristics of which, together with the fascinations of its Tivoli, will require, somewhat later, a less succinct description than that we have given of the Soudry mansion.
Rigou very seldom came to Soulanges; everybody was in the habit of going to him,--Lupin and Gaubertin, Soudry and Gendrin,--so much were they afraid of him. But we shall presently understand why any educated man, such as the ex-Benedictine, would have done as Rigou did, and kept away from the little town, after reading the following sketch of the personages who composed what was called in those parts "the leading society of Soulanges."
Of its principal figures, the most original, as you have already suspected, was that of Madame Soudry, whose personality, to be duly rendered, needs a minute and careful brush.
Madame Soudry, respectfully imitating Mademoiselle Laguerre, began by allowing herself a "mere touch of rouge"; but this delicate tint had changed through force of habit to those vermilion patches picturesquely described by our ancestors as "carriage-wheels." The wrinkles growing deeper and deeper, it occurred to the ex-lady's-maid to fill them up with paint. Her forehead becoming unduly yellow, and the temples too shiny, she "laid on" a little white, and renewed the veins of her youth with a tracery of blue. All this color gave an exaggerated liveliness to her eyes which were already tricksy enough, so that the mask of her face would seem to a stranger even more than fantastic, though her friends and acquaintances, accustomed to this fictitious brilliancy, actually declared her handsome.
This ungainly creature, always decolletee, showed a bosom and a pair of shoulders that were whitened and polished by the same process employed upon her face; happily, for the sake of exhibiting her magnificent laces, she partially veiled the charms of these chemical products. She always wore the body of her dress stiffened with whalebone and made in a long point and garnished with knots of ribbon, even on the point! Her petticoats gave forth a creaking noise,--so much did the silk and the furbelows abound.
This attire, which deserves the name of apparel (a word that before long will be inexplicable), was, on the evening in question, of costly brocade,--for Madame Soudry possessed over a hundred dresses, each richer than the others, the remains of Mademoiselle Laguerre's enormous and splendid wardrobe, made over to fit Madame Soudry in the last fashion of the year 1808. Her blond wig, frizzed and powdered, sustained a superb cap with knots of cherry satin ribbon matching those on her dress. If you will kindly imagine beneath this ultra- coquettish cap the face of a monkey of extreme ugliness, on which a flat nose, fleshless as that of Death, is separated by a strong hairy line from a mouth filled with false teeth, whence issue sounds like the confused clacking of hunting-horns, you will have some difficulty in understanding why the leading society of Soulanges (all the town, in fact) thought this quasi-queen a beauty,--unless, indeed, you remember the succinct statement recently made "ex professo," by one of the cleverest women of our time, on the art of making her sex beautiful by surrounding accessories.
As to accessories, in the first place, Madame Soudry was surrounded by the magnificent gifts accumulated by her late mistress, which the ex- Benedictine called "fructus belli." Then she made the most of her ugliness by exaggerating it, and by assuming that indescribable air and manner which belongs only to Parisian women, the secret of which is known even to the most vulgar among them,--who are always more or less mimics. She laced tight, wore an enormous bustle, also diamond earrings, and her fingers were covered with rings. At the top of her corsage, between two mounds of flesh well plastered with pearl-white, shone a beetle made of topaz with a diamond head, the gift of dear mistress,--a jewel renowned throughout the department. Like the late dear mistress, she wore short sleeves and bare arms, and flirted an ivory fan, painted by Boucher with two little rose-diamonds in the handle.
When she went out Madame Soudry carried a parasol of the true eighteenth-century style; that is to say, a tall cane at the end of which opened a green sun-shade with a green fringe. When she walked about the terrace a stranger on the high-road, seeing her from afar, might have thought her one of Watteau's dames.
In her salon, hung with red damask, with curtains of the same lined with silk, a fire on the hearth, a mantel-shelf adorned with bibelots of the good time of Louis XV., and bearing candelabra in the form of lilies upheld by Cupids--in this salon, filled with furniture in gilded wood of the "pied de biche" pattern, it is not impossible to understand why the people of Soulanges called the mistress of the house, "The beautiful Madame Soulanges." The mansion had actually become the civic pride of this capital of a canton.
If the leading society of the little town believed in its queen, the queen as surely believed in herself. By a phenomenon not in the least rare, which the vanity of mothers and authors carries on at all moments under our very eyes in behalf of their literary works or their marriageable daughters, the late Mademoiselle Cochet was, at the end of seven years, so completely buried under Madame Soudry, the mayoress, that she not only did not remember her past, but she actually believed herself a well-bred woman. She had studied the airs and graces, the dulcet tones, the gestures, the ways of her mistress, so long that when she found herself in the midst of an opulence of her own she was able to practice the natural insolence of it. She knew her eighteenth century, and the tales of its great lords and all their belongings, by heart. This back-stairs erudition gave to her conversation a flavor of "oeil-de-boeuf"; her soubrette gossip passed muster for courtly wit. Morally, the mayoress was, if you wish to say so, tinsel; but to savages paste diamonds are as good as real ones.
The woman found herself courted and worshipped by the society in which she lived, just as her mistress had been worshipped in former days. She gave weekly dinners, with coffee and liqueurs to those who came in after the dessert. No female head could have resisted the exhilarating force of such continual adulation. In winter the warm salon, always well-lighted with wax candles, was well-filled with the richest people of Soulanges, who paid for the good liqueurs and the fine wines which came from dear mistress's cellars, with flatteries to their hostess. These visitors and their wives had a life-interest, as it were, in this luxury; which was to them a saving of lights and fuel. Thus it came to pass that in a circuit of fifteen miles and even as far as Ville-aux-Fayes, every voice was ready to declare: "Madame Soudry does the honors admirably. She keeps open house; every one enjoys her salon; she knows how to carry herself and her fortune; she always says the witty thing, she makes you laugh. And what splendid silver! There is not another house like it short of Paris--"
The silver had been given to Mademoiselle Laguerre by Bouret. It was a magnificent service made by the famous Germain, and Madame Soudry had literally stolen it. At Mademoiselle Laguerre's death she merely took it into her own room, and the heirs, who knew nothing of the value of their inheritance, never claimed it.
For some time past the twelve or fifteen personages who composed the leading society of Soulanges spoke of Madame Soudry as the intimate friend of Mademoiselle Laguerre, recoiling at the term "waiting- woman," and making believe that she had sacrificed herself to the singer as her friend and companion.
Strange yet true! all these illusions became realities, and spread even to the actual regions of the heart; Madame Soudry reigned supreme, in a way, over her husband.
The gendarme, required to love a woman ten years older than himself who kept the management of her fortune in her own hands, behaved to her in the spirit of the ideas she had ended by adopting about her beauty. But sometimes, when persons envied him or talked to him of his happiness, he wished they were in his place, for, to hide his peccadilloes, he was forced to take as many precautions as the husband of a young and adoring wife; and it was not until very recently that he had been able to introduce into the family a pretty servant-girl.
This portrait of the Queen of Soulanges may seem a little grotesque, but many specimens of the same kind could be found in the provinces at that period,--some more or less noble in blood, others belonging to the higher banking-circles, like the widow of a receiver-general in Touraine who still puts slices of veal upon her cheeks. This portrait, drawn from nature, would be incomplete without the diamonds in which it is set; without the surrounding courtiers, a sketch of whom is necessary, if only to explain how formidable such Lilliputians are, and who are the makers of public opinion in remote little towns. Let no one mistake me, however; there are many localities which, like Soulanges, are neither hamlets, villages, nor little towns, which have, nevertheless, the characteristics of all. The inhabitants are very different from those of the large and busy and vicious provincial cities. Country life influences the manners and morals of the smaller places, and this mixture of tints will be found to produce some truly original characters.
The most important personage after Madame Soudry was Lupin, the notary. Though forty-five springs had bloomed for Lupin, he was still fresh and rosy, thanks to the plumpness which fills out the skin of sedentary persons; and he still sang ballads. Also, he retained the elegant evening dress of society warblers. He looked almost Parisian in his carefully-varnished boots, his sulphur-yellow waistcoats, his tight-fitting coats, his handsome silk cravats, his fashionable trousers. His hair was curled by the barber of Soulanges (the gossip of the town), and he maintained the attitude of a man "a bonne fortunes" by his liaison with Madame Sarcus, wife of Sarcus the rich, who was to his life, without too close a comparison, what the campaigns of Italy were to Napoleon. He alone of the leading society of Soulanges went to Paris, where he was received by the Soulanges family. It was enough to hear him talk to imagine the supremacy he wielded in his capacity as dandy and judge of elegance. He passed judgment on all things by the use of three terms: "out of date," "antiquated," "superannuated."[*] A man, a woman, or a piece of furniture might be "out of date"; next, by a greater degree of imperfection, "antiquated"; but as to the last term, it was the superlative of contempt. The first might be remedied, the second was hopeless, but the third,--oh, better far never to have left the void of nothingness! As to praise, a single word sufficed him, doubly and trebly uttered: "Charming!" was the positive of his admiration. "Charming, charming!" made you feel you were safe; but after "Charming, charming, charming!" the ladder might be discarded, for the heaven of perfection was attained.
[*] "Croute," "crouton," and "croute-au-pot," untranslatable, and without equivalent in English. A "croute" is the slang term for a man behind the age.--Tr.
The tabellion,--he called himself "tabellion," petty notary, and keeper of notes (making fun of his calling in order to seem above it), --the tabellion was on terms of spoken gallantry with Madame Soudry, who had a weakness for Lupin, though he was blond and wore spectacles. Hitherto the late Cochet had loved none but dark men, with moustachios and hairy hands, of the Alcides type. But she made an exception in favor of Lupin on account of his elegance, and, moreover, because she thought her glory at Soulanges was not complete without an adorer; but, to Soudry's despair, the queen's adorers never carried their adoration so far as to threaten his rights.
Lupin had married an heiress in wooden shoes and blue woollen stockings, the only daughter of a salt-dealer, who made his money during the Revolution,--a period when contraband salt-traders made enormous profits by reason of the reaction that set in against the gabelle. He prudently left his wife at home, where Bebelle, as he called her, was supported under his absence by a platonic passion for a handsome clerk who had no other means than his salary,--a young man named Bonnac, belonging to the second-class society, where he played the same role that his master, the notary, played in the first.
Madame Lupin, a woman without any education whatever, appeared on great occasions only, under the form of an enormous Burgundian barrel dressed in velvet and surmounted by a little head sunken in shoulders of a questionable color. No efforts could retain her waist-belt in its natural place. "Bebelle" candidly admitted that prudence forbade her wearing corsets. The imagination of a poet or, better still, that of an inventor, could not have found on Bebelle's back the slightest trace of that seductive sinuosity which the vertebrae of all women who are women usually produce. Bebelle, round as a tortoise, belonged to the genus of invertebrate females. This alarming development of cellular tissue no doubt reassured Lupin on the subject of the platonic passion of his fat wife, whom he boldly called Bebelle without raising a laugh.
"Your wife, what is she?" said Sarcus the rich, one day, when unable to digest the fatal word "superannuated," applied to a piece of furniture he had just bought at a bargain.
"My wife is not like yours," replied Lupin; "she is not defined as yet."
Beneath his rosy exterior the notary possessed a subtle mind, and he had the sense to say nothing about his property, which was fully as large as that of Rigou.
Monsieur Lupin's son, Amaury, was a great trouble to his father. An only son, and one of the Don Juans of the valley, he utterly refused to follow the paternal profession. He took advantage of his position as only son to bleed the strong-box cruelly, without, however, exhausting the patience of his father, who would say after every escapade, "Well, I was like that in my young days." Amaury never came to Madame Soudry's; he said she bored him; for, with a recollection of her early days, she attempted to "educate" him, as she called it, whereas he much preferred the pleasures and billiards of the Cafe de la Paix. He frequented the worst company of Soulanges, even down to Bonnebault. He continued sowing his wild oats, as Madame Soudry remarked, and replied to all his father's remonstrances with one perpetual request: "Send me back to Paris, for I am bored to death here."
Lupin ended, alas! like other gallants, by an attachment that was semi-conjugal. His known passion, in spite of his former liaison with Madame Sarcus, was for the wife of the under-sheriff of the municipal court,--Madame Euphemie Plissoud, daughter of Wattebled the grocer, who reigned in the second-class society as Madame Soudry did in the first. Monsieur Plissoud, a competitor of Brunet, belonged to the under-world of Soulanges on account of his wife's conduct, which it was said he authorized,--a report that drew upon him the contempt of the leading society.
If Lupin was the musician of the leading society, Monsieur Gourdon, the doctor, was its man of science. The town said of him, "We have here in our midst a scientific man of the first order." Madame Soudry (who believed she understood music because she had ushered in Piccini and Gluck and had dressed Mademoiselle Laguerre for the Opera) persuaded society, and even Lupin himself, that he might have made his fortune by his voice, and, in like manner, she was always regretting that the doctor did not publish his scientific ideas.
Monsieur Gourdon merely repeated the ideas of Cuvier and Buffon, which might not have enabled him to pose as a scientist before the Soulanges world; but besides this he was making a collection of shells, and he possessed an herbarium, and he knew how to stuff birds. He lived upon the glory of having bequeathed his cabinet of natural history to the town of Soulanges. After this was known he was considered throughout the department as a great naturalist and the successor of Buffon. Like a certain Genevese banker, whose pedantry, coldness, and puritan propriety he copied, without possessing either his money or his shrewdness, Monsieur Gourdon exhibited with great complacency the famous collection, consisting of a bear and a monkey (both of which had died on their way to Soulanges), all the rodents of the department, mice and field-mice and dormice, rats, muskrats, and moles, etc.; all the interesting birds ever shot in Burgundy, and an Alpine eagle caught in the Jura. Gourdon also possessed a collection of lepidoptera,--a word which led society to hope for monstrosities, and to say, when it saw them, "Why, they are only butterflies!" Besides these things he had a fine array of fossil shells, mostly the collections of his friends which they bequeathed to him, and all the minerals of Burgundy and the Jura.
These treasures, laid out on shelves with glass doors (the drawers beneath containing the insects), occupied the whole of the first floor of the doctor's house, and produced a certain effect through the oddity of the names on the tickets, the magic effect of the colors, and the gathering together of so many things which no one pays the slightest attention to when seen in nature, though much admired under glass. Society took a regular day to go and look at Monsieur Gourdon's collection.
"I have," he said to all inquirers, "five hundred ornithological objects, two hundred mammifers, five thousand insects, three thousand shells, and seven thousand specimens of minerals."
"What patience you have had!" said the ladies.
"One must do something for one's country," replied the collector.
He drew an enormous profit from his carcasses by the mere repetition of the words, "I have bequeathed everything to the town by my will." Visitors lauded his philanthropy; the authorities talked of devoting the second floor of the town hall to the "Gourdon Museum," after the collector's death.
"I rely upon the gratitude of my fellow-citizens to attach my name to the gift," he replied; "for I dare not hope they would place a marble bust of me--"
"It would be the very least we could do for you," they rejoined; "are you not the glory of our town?"
Thus the man actually came to consider himself one of the celebrities of Burgundy. The surest incomes are not from consols after all; those our vanity obtains for us have better security. This man of science was, to employ Lupin's superlatives, happy! happy!! happy!!!
Gourdon, the clerk of the court, brother of the doctor, was a pitiful little creature, whose features all gathered about his nose, so that the nose seemed the point of departure for the forehead, the cheeks, and the mouth, all of which were connected with it just as the ravines of a mountain begin at the summit. This pinched little man was thought to be one of the greatest poets in Burgundy,--a Piron, it was the fashion to say. The dual merits of the two brothers gave rise to the remark: "We have the brothers Gourdon at Soulanges--two very distinguished men; men who could hold their own in Paris."
Devoted to the game of cup-and-ball, the clerk of the court became possessed by another mania,--that of composing an ode in honor of an amusement which amounted to a passion in the eighteenth century. Manias among mediocrats often run in couples. Gourdon junior gave birth to his poem during the reign of Napoleon. That fact is sufficient to show the sound and healthy school of poesy to which he belonged; Luce de Lancival, Parny, Saint-Lambert, Rouche, Vigee, Andrieux, Berchoux were his heroes. Delille was his god, until the day when the leading society of Soulanges raised the question as to whether Gourdon were not superior to Delille; after which the clerk of the court always called his competitor "Monsieur l'Abbe Delille," with exaggerated politeness.
The poems manufactured between 1780 and 1814 were all of one pattern, and the one which Gourdon composed upon the Cup-and-Ball will give an idea of them. They required a certain knack or proficiency in the art. "The Chorister" is the Saturn of this abortive generation of jocular poems, all in four cantos or thereabouts, for it was generally admitted that six would wear the subject threadbare.
Gourdon's poem entitled "Ode to the Cup-and-Ball" obeyed the poetic rules which governed these works, rules that were invariable in their application. Each poem contained in the first canto a description of the "object sung," preceded (as in the case of Gourdon) by a species of invocation, of which the following is a model:--
I sing the good game that belongeth to all, The game, be it known, of the Cup and the Ball; Dear to little and great, to the fools and the wise; Charming game! where the cure of all tedium lies; When we toss up the ball on the point of a stick Palamedus himself might have envied the trick; O Muse of the Loves and the Laughs and the Games, Come down and assist me, for, true to your aims, I have ruled off this paper in syllable squares. Come, help me--
After explaining the game and describing the handsomest cup-and-balls recorded in history, after relating what fabulous custom it had formerly brought to the Singe-Vert and to all dealers in toys and turned ivories, and finally, after proving that the game attained to the dignity of statics, Gourdon ended the first canto with the following conclusion, which will remind the erudite reader of all the conclusions of the first cantos of all these poems:--
'Tis thus that the arts and the sciences, too, Find wisdom in things that seemed silly to you.
The second canto, invariably employed to depict the manner of using "the object," explaining how to exhibit it in society and before women, and the benefit to be derived therefrom, will be readily conceived by the friends of this virtuous literature from the following quotation, which depicts the player going through his performance under the eyes of his chosen lady:--
Now look at the player who sits in your midst, On that ivory ball how his sharp eye is fixt; He waits and he watches with keenest attention, Its least little movement in all its precision; The ball its parabola thrice has gone round, At the end of the string to which it is bound. Up it goes! but the player his triumph has missed, For the disc has come down on his maladroit wrist; But little he cares for the sting of the ball, A smile from his mistress consoles for it all.
It was this delineation, worthy of Virgil, which first raised a doubt as to Delille's superiority over Gourdon. The word "disc," contested by the opinionated Brunet, gave matter for discussions which lasted eleven months; in fact, until Gourdon the scientist, one evening when all present were on the point of getting seriously angry, annihilated the anti-discers by observing:--
"The moon, called a disc by poets, is undoubtedly a ball."
"How do you know that?" retorted Brunet. "We have never seen but one side."
The third canto told the regulation story,--in this instance, the famous anecdote of the cup-and-ball which all the world knows by heart, concerning a celebrated minister of Louis XVI. According to the sacred formula delivered by the "Debats" from 1810 to 1814, in praise of these glorious words, Gourdon's ode "borrowed fresh charms from poesy to embellish the tale."
The fourth canto summed up the whole, and concluded with these daring words,--not published, be it remarked, from 1810 to 1814; in fact, they did not see the light till 1824, after Napoleon's death.
'Twas thus that I sang in the time of alarms. Oh, if kings would consent to bear no other arms, And people enjoyed what was best for them all, The sweet little game of the Cup and the Ball, Our Burgundy then might be free of all fear, And return to the good days of Saturn and Rhea.
These fine verses were published in a first and only edition from the press of Bournier, printer of Ville-aux-Fayes. One hundred subscribers, in the sum of three francs, guaranteed the dangerous precedent of immortality to the poem,--a liberality that was all the greater because these hundred persons had heard the poem from beginning to end a hundred times over.
Madame Soudry had lately suppressed the cup-and-ball, which usually lay on a pier-table in the salon and for the last seven years had given rise to endless quotations, for she finally discovered in the toy a rival to her own attractions.
As to the author, who boasted of future poems in his desk, it is enough to quote the terms in which he mentioned to the leading society of Soulanges a rival candidate for literary honors.
"Have you heard a curious piece of news?" he had said, two years earlier. "There is another poet in Burgundy! Yes," he added, remarking the astonishment on all faces, "he comes from Macon. But you could never imagine the subjects he takes up,--a perfect jumble, absolutely unintelligible,--lakes, stars, waves, billows! not a single philosophical image, not even a didactic effort! he is ignorant of the very meaning of poetry. He calls the sky by its name. He says 'moon,' bluntly, instead of naming it 'the planet of night.' That's what the desire to be thought original brings men to," added Gourdon, mournfully. "Poor young man! A Burgundian, and sing such stuff as that!--the pity of it! If he had only consulted me, I would have pointed out to him the noblest of all themes, wine,--a poem to be called the Baccheide; for which, alas! I now feel myself too old."
This great poet is still ignorant of his finest triumph (though he owes it to the fact of being a Burgundian), namely, that of living in the town of Soulanges, so rounded and perfected within itself that it knows nothing of the modern Pleiades, not even their names.
A hundred Gourdons made poetry under the Empire, and yet they tell us it was a period that neglected literature! Examine the "Journal de la Libraire" and you will find poems on the game of draughts, on backgammon, on tricks with cards, on geography, typography, comedy, etc.,--not to mention the vaunted masterpieces of Delille on Piety, Imagination, Conversation; and those of Berchoux on Gastromania and Dansomania, etc. Who can foresee the chances and changes of taste, the caprices of fashion, the transformations of the human mind? The generations as they pass along sweep out of sight the last fragments of the idols they found on their path and set up other gods,--to be overthrown like the rest.
Sarcus, a handsome little man with a dapple-gray head, devoted himself in turn to Themis and to Flora,--in other words, to legislation and a greenhouse. For the last twelve years he had been meditating a book on the History of the Institution of Justices of the Peace, "whose political and judiciary role," he said, "had already passed through several phases, all derived from the Code of Brumaire, year IV.; and to-day that institution, so precious to the nation, had lost its power because the salaries were not in keeping with the importance of its functions, which ought to be performed by irremovable officials." Rated in the community as an able man, Sarcus was the accepted statesman of Madame Soudry's salon; you can readily imagine that he was the leading bore. They said he talked like a book. Gaubertin prophesied he would receive the cross of the Legion of honor, but not until the day when, as Leclercq's successor, he should take his seat on the benches of the Left Centre.
Guerbet, the collector, a man of parts, a heavy, fat, individual with a buttery face, a toupet on his bald spot, gold earrings, which were always in difficulty with his shirt-collar, had the hobby of pomology. Proud of possessing the finest fruit-garden in the arrondissement, he gathered his first crops a month later than those of Paris; his hot- beds supplied him with pine-apples, nectarines, and peas, out of season. He brought bunches of strawberries to Madame Soudry with pride when the fruit could be bought for ten sous a basket in Paris.
Soulanges possessed a pharmaceutist named Vermut, a chemist, who was more of a chemist than Sarcus was a statesman, or Lupin a singer, or Gourdon the elder a scientist, or his brother a poet. Nevertheless, the leading society of Soulanges did not take much notice of Vermut, and the second-class society took none at all. The instinct of the first may have led them to perceive the real superiority of this thinker, who said little but smiled at their absurdities so satirically that they first doubted his capacity and then whispered tales against it; as for the other class they took no notice of him one way or the other.
Vermut was the butt of Madame Soudry's salon. No society is complete without a victim,--without an object to pity, ridicule, despise, and protect. Vermut, full of his scientific problems, often came with his cravat untied, his waistcoat unbuttoned, and his little green surtout spotted.
The little man, gifted with the patience of a chemist, could not enjoy (that is the term employed in the provinces to express the abolition of domestic rule) Madame Vermut,--a charming woman, a lively woman, capital company (for she could lose forty sous at cards and say nothing), a woman who railed at her husband, annoyed him with epigrams, and declared him to be an imbecile unable to distil anything but dulness. Madame Vermut was one of those women who in the society of a small town are the life and soul of amusement and who set things going. She supplied the salt of her little world, kitchen-salt, it is true; her jokes were somewhat broad, but society forgave them; though she was capable of saying to the cure Taupin, a man of seventy years of age, with white hair, "Hold your tongue, my lad."
The miller of Soulanges, possessing an income of fifty thousand francs, had an only daughter whom Lupin desired for his son Amaury, since he had lost the hope of marrying him to Gaubertin's daughter. This miller, a Sarcus-Taupin, was the Nucingen of the little town. He was supposed to be thrice a millionaire; but he never transacted business with others, and thought only of grinding his wheat and keeping a monopoly of it; his most noticeable point was a total absence of politeness and good manners.
The elder Guerbet, brother of the post-master at Conches, possessed an income of ten thousand francs, besides his salary as collector. The Gourdons were rich; the doctor had married the only daughter of old Monsieur Gendrin-Vatebled, keeper of the forests and streams, whom the family were now expecting to die, while the poet had married the niece and sole heiress of the Abbe Taupin, the curate of Soulanges, a stout priest who lived in his cure like a rat in his cheese.
This clever ecclesiastic, devoted to the leading society, kind and obliging to the second, apostolic to the poor and unfortunate, made himself beloved by the whole town. He was cousin of the miller and cousin of the Sarcuses, and belonged therefore to the neighborhood and to its mediocracy. He always dined out and saved expenses; he went to weddings but came away before the ball; he paid the costs of public worship, saying, "It is my business." And the parish let him do it, with the remark, "We have an excellent priest." The bishop, who knew the Soulanges people and was not at all misled as to the true value of the abbe, was glad enough to keep in such a town a man who made religion acceptable, and who knew how to fill his church and preach to sleepy heads.
It is unnecessary to remark that not only each of these worthy burghers possessed some one of the special qualifications which are necessary to existence in the provinces, but also that each cultivated his field in the domain of vanity without a rival. Pere Guerbet understood finance, Soudry might have been minister of war; if Cuvier had passed that way incognito, the leading society of Soulanges would have proved to him that he knew nothing in comparison with Monsieur Gourdon the doctor. "Adolphe Nourrit with his thread of a voice," remarked the notary with patronizing indulgence, "was scarcely worthy to accompany the nightingale of Soulanges." As to the author of the "Cup-and-Ball" (which was then being printed at Bournier's), society was satisfied that a poet of his force could not be met with in Paris, for Delille was now dead.
This provincial bourgeoisie, so comfortably satisfied with itself, took the lead through the various superiorities of its members. Therefore the imagination of those who ever resided, even for a short time, in a little town of this kind can conceive the air of profound satisfaction upon the faces of these people, who believed themselves the solar plexus of France, all of them armed with incredible dexterity and shrewdness to do mischief,--all, in their wisdom, declaring that the hero of Essling was a coward, Madame de Montcornet a manoeuvring Parisian, and the Abbe Brossette an ambitious little priest.
If Rigou, Soudry, and Gaubertin had lived at Ville-aux-Fayes, they would have quarrelled; their various pretensions would have clashed; but fate ordained that the Lucullus of Blangy felt too strongly the need of solitude, in which to wallow at his ease in usury and sensuality, to live anywhere but at Blangy; that Madame Soudry had sense enough to see that she could reign nowhere else except at Soulanges; and that Ville-aux-Fayes was Gaubertin's place of business. Those who enjoy studying social nature will admit that General Montcornet was pursued by special ill-luck in this accidental separation of his dangerous enemies, who thus accomplished the evolutions of their individual power and vanity at such distances from each other that neither star interfered with the orbit of the other,-- a fact which doubled and trebled their powers of mischief.
Nevertheless, though all these worthy bourgeois, proud of their accomplishments, considered their society as far superior in attractions to that of Ville-aux-Fayes, and repeated with comic pomposity the local dictum, "Soulanges is a town of society and social pleasures," it must not be supposed that Ville-aux-Fayes accepted this supremacy. The Gaubertin salon ridiculed ("in petto") the salon Soudry. By the manner in which Gaubertin remarked, "We are a financial community, engaged in actual business; we have the folly to fatigue ourselves in making fortunes," it was easy to perceive a latent antagonism between the earth and the moon. The moon believed herself useful to the earth, and the earth governed the moon. Earth and moon, however, lived in the closest intimacy. At the carnival the leading society of Soulanges went in a body to four balls given by Gaubertin, Gendrin, Leclercq, and Soudry, junior. Every Sunday the latter, his wife, Monsieur, Madame, and Mademoiselle Elise Gaubertin dined with the Soudrys at Soulanges. When the sub-prefect was invited, and when the postmaster of Conches arrived to take pot-luck, Soulanges enjoyed the sight of four official equipages drawn up at the door of the Soudry mansion.