Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
Chapter III. The Cafe de la Paix
It was about seven o'clock when Rigou drove by the Cafe de la Paix. The setting sun, slanting its beams across the little town, was diffusing its ruddy tints, and the clear mirror of the lake contrasted with the flashing of the resplendent window-panes, which originated the strangest and most improbable colors.
The deep schemer, who had grown pensive as he revolved his plots, let his horse proceed so slowly that in passing the Cafe de la Paix he heard his own name banded about in one of those noisy disputes which, according to the Abbe Taupin, made the name of the establishment a gain-saying of its customary condition.
For a clear understanding of the following scene we must explain the topography of this region of plenty and of misrule, which began with the cafe on the square, and ended on the country road with the famous Tivoli where the conspirators proposed to entrap the general. The ground-floor of the cafe, which stood at the angle of the square and the road, and was built in the style of Rigou's house, had three windows on the road and two on the square, the latter being separated by a glass door through which the house was entered. The cafe had, moreover, a double door which opened on a side alley that separated it from the neighboring house (that of Vallet the Soulanges mercer), which led to an inside courtyard.
The house, which was painted wholly in yellow, except the blinds, which were green, is one of the few houses in the little town which has two stories and an attic. And this is why: Before the astonishing rise in the prosperity of Ville-aux-Fayes the first floor of this house, which had four chambers, each containing a bed and the meagre furniture thought necessary to justify the term "furnished lodgings," was let to strangers who were obliged to come to Soulanges on matters connected with the courts, or to visitors who did not sleep at the chateau; but for the last twenty-five years these rooms had had no other occupants than the mountebanks, the merchants, the vendors of quack medicines who came to the fair, or else commercial travellers. During the fair-time they were let for four francs a day; and brought Socquard about two hundred and fifty francs, not to speak of the profits on the consumption of food which the guests took in his cafe.
The front of the house on the square was adorned with painted signs; on the spaces that separated the windows from the glass door billiard- cues were represented, lovingly tied together with ribbons, and above these bows were depicted smoking bowls of punch, the bowls being in the form of Greek vases. The words "Cafe de la Paix" were over the door, brilliantly painted in yellow on a green ground, at each end of which rose pyramids of tricolored billiard-balls. The window-sashes, painted green, had small panes of the commonest glass.
A dozen arbor-vitae, which ought to be called cafe-trees, stood to the left and right in pots, and presented their usual pretensions and sickly appearance. Awnings, with which shopkeepers of the large cities protect their windows from the head of the sun, were as yet an unknown luxury in Soulanges. The beneficent liquids in the bottles which stood on boards just behind the window-panes went through a periodic cooking. When the sun concentrated its rays through the lenticular knobs in the glass it boiled the Madeira, the syrups, the liqueurs, the preserved plums, and the cherry-brandy set out for show; for the heat was so great that Aglae, her father, and the waiter were forced to sit outside on benches poorly shaded by the wilted shrubs,--which Mademoiselle kept alive with water that was almost hot. All three, father, daughter, and servant, might be seen at certain hours of the day stretched out there, fast asleep, like domestic animals.
In 1804, the period when "Paul and Virginia" was the rage, the inside of the cafe was hung with a paper which represented the chief scenes of that romance. There could be seen Negroes gathering the coffee- crop, though coffee was seldom seen in the establishment, not twenty cups of that beverage being served in the month. Colonial products were of so little account in the consumption of the place that if a stranger had asked for a cup of chocolate Socquard would have been hard put to it to serve him. Still, he would have done so with a nauseous brown broth made from tablets in which there were more flour, crushed almonds, and brown sugar than pure sugar and cacao, concoctions which were sold at two sous a cake by village grocers, and manufactured for the purpose of ruining the sale of the Spanish commodity.
As for coffee, Pere Socquard simply boiled it in a utensil known to all such households as the "big brown pot"; he let the dregs (that were half chicory) settle, and served the decoction, with a coolness worthy of a Parisian waiter, in a china cup which, if flung to the ground, would not have cracked.
At this period the sacred respect felt for sugar under the Emperor was not yet dispelled in the town of Soulanges, and Aglae Socquard boldly served three bits of it of the size of hazel-nuts to a foreign merchant who had rashly asked for the literary beverage.
The wall decoration of the cafe, relieved by mirrors in gilt frames and brackets on which the hats were hung, had not been changed since the days when all Soulanges came to admire the romantic paper, also a counter painted like mahogany with a Saint-Anne marble top, on which shone vessels of plated metal and lamps with double-burners, which were, rumor said, given to the beautiful Madame Socquard by Gaubertin. A sticky coating of dirt covered everything, like that found on old pictures put away and long forgotten in a garret. The tables painted to resemble marble, the benches covered in red Utrecht velvet, the hanging glass lamp full of oil, which fed two lights, fastened by a chain to the ceiling and adorned with glass pendants, were the beginning of the celebrity of the then Cafe de la Guerre.
There, from 1802 to 1804, all the bourgeois of Soulanges played at dominoes and a game of cards called "brelan," drank tiny glasses of liqueur or boiled wine, and ate brandied fruits and biscuits; for the dearness of colonial products had banished coffee, sugar, and chocolate. Punch was a great luxury; so was "bavaroise." These infusions were made with a sugary substance resembling molasses, the name of which is now lost, but which, at the time, made the fortune of its inventor.
These succinct details will recall to the memory of all travellers many others that are analogous; and those persons who have never left Paris can imagine the ceiling blackened with smoke and the mirrors specked with millions of spots, showing in what freedom and independence the whole order of diptera lived in the Cafe de la Paix.
The beautiful Madame Socquard, whose gallant adventures surpassed those of the mistress of the Grand-I-Vert, sat there, enthroned, dressed in the last fashion. She affected the style of a sultana, and wore a turban. Sultanas, under the Empire, enjoyed a vogue equal to that of the "angel" of to-day. The whole valley took pattern from the turbans, the poke-bonnets, the fur caps, the Chinese head-gear of the handsome Socquard, to whose luxury the big-wigs of Soulanges contributed. With a waist beneath her arm-pits, after the fashion of our mothers, who were proud of their imperial graces, Junie (she was named Junie!) made the fortune of the house of Socquard. Her husband owed to her the ownership of a vineyard, of the house they lived in, and also the Tivoli. The father of Monsieur Lupin was said to have committed some follies for the handsome Madame Socquard; and Gaubertin, who had taken her from him, certainly owed him the little Bournier.
These details, together with the deep mystery with which Socquard manufactured his boiled wine, are sufficient to explain why his name and that of the Cafe de la Paix were popular; but there were other reasons for their renown. Nothing better than wine could be got at Tonsard's and the other taverns in the valley; from Conches to Ville- aux-Fayes, in a circumference of twenty miles, the Cafe Socquard was the only place where the guests could play billiards and drink the punch so admirably concocted by the proprietor. There alone could be found a display of foreign wines, fine liqueurs, and brandied fruits. Its name resounded daily throughout the valley, accompanied by ideas of superfine sensual pleasures such as men whose stomachs are more sensitive than their hearts dream about. To all these causes of popularity was added that of being an integral part of the great festival of Soulanges. The Cafe de la Paix was to the town, in a superior degree, what the tavern of the Grand-I-Vert was to the peasantry,--a centre of venom; it was the point of contact and transmission between the gossip of Ville-aux-Fayes and that of the valley. The Grand-I-Vert supplied the milk and the Cafe de la Paix the cream, and Tonsard's two daughters were in daily communication between the two.
To Socquard's mind the square of Soulanges was merely an appendage to his cafe. Hercules went from door to door, talking with this one and that one, and wearing in summer no other garment than a pair of trousers and a half-buttoned waistcoat. If any one entered the tavern, the people with whom he gossiped warned him, and he slowly and reluctantly returned.
Rigou stopped his horse, and getting out of the chaise, fastened the bridle to one of the posts near the gate of the Tivoli. Then he made a pretext to listen to what was going on without being noticed, and placed himself between two windows through one of which he could, by advancing his head, see the persons in the room, watch their gestures, and catch the louder tones which came through the glass of the windows and which the quiet of the street enabled him to hear.
"If I were to tell old Rigou that your brother Nicolas is after La Pechina," cried an angry voice, "and that he waylays her, he'd rip the entrails out of every one of you,--pack of scoundrels that you are at the Grand-I-Vert!"
"If you play me such a trick as that, Aglae," said the shrill voice of Marie Tonsard, "you sha'n't tell anything more except to the worms in your coffin. Don't meddle with my brother's business or with mine and Bonnebault's either."
Marie, instigated by her grandmother, had, as we see, followed Bonnebault; she had watched him through the very window where Rigou was now standing, and had seen him displaying his graces and paying compliments so agreeable to Mademoiselle Socquard that she was forced to smile upon him. That smile had brought about the scene in the midst of which the revelation that interested Rigou came out.
"Well, well, Pere Rigou, what are you doing here?" said Socquard, slapping the usurer on the shoulder; he was coming from a barn at the end of the garden, where he kept various contrivances for the public games, such as weighing-machines, merry-go-rounds, see-saws, all in readiness for the Tivoli when opened. Socquard stepped noiselessly, for he was wearing a pair of those yellow leather-slippers which cost so little by the gross that they have an enormous sale in the provinces.
"If you have any fresh lemons, I'd like a glass of lemonade," said Rigou; "it is a warm evening."
"Who is making that racket?" said Socquard, looking through the window and seeing his daughter and Marie Tonsard.
"They are quarrelling for Bonnebault," said Rigou, sardonically.
The anger of the father was at once controlled by the interest of the tavern-keeper. The tavern-keeper judged it prudent to listen outside, as Rigou was doing; the father was inclined to enter and declare that Bonnebault, possessed of admirable qualities in the eyes of a tavern- keeper, had none at all as son-in-law to one of the notables of Soulanges. And yet Pere Socquard had received but few offers for his daughter. At twenty-two Aglae already rivalled in size and weight Madame Vermichel, whose agility seemed phenomenal. Sitting behind a counter increased the adipose tendency which she derived from her father.
"What devil is it that gets into girls?" said Socquard to Rigou.
"Ha!" replied the ex-Benedictine, "of all the devils, that's the one the Church has most to do with."
Just then Bonnebault came out of the billiard-room with a cue in his hand, and struck Marie sharply, saying:--
"You've made me miss my stroke; but I'll not miss you, and I'll give it to you till you muffle that clapper of yours."
Socquard and Rigou, who now thought it wise to interfere, entered the cafe by the front door, raising such a crowd of flies that the light from the windows was obscured; the sound was like that of the distant practising of a drum-corps. After their first excitement was over, the big flies with the bluish bellies, accompanied by the stinging little ones, returned to their quarters in the windows, where on three tiers of planks, the paint of which was indistinguishable under the fly- specks, were rows of viscous bottles ranged like soldiers.
Marie was crying. To be struck before a rival by the man she loves is one of those humiliations that no woman can endure, no matter what her place on the social ladder may be; and the lower that place is, the more violent is the expression of her wrath. The Tonsard girl took no notice of Rigou or of Socquard; she flung herself on a bench, in gloomy and sullen silence, which the ex-monk carefully watched.
"Get a fresh lemon, Aglae," said Pere Socquard, "and go and rinse that glass yourself."
"You did right to send her away," whispered Rigou, "or she might have been hurt"; and he glanced significantly at the hand with which Marie grasped a stool she had caught up to throw at Aglae's head.
"Now, Marie," said Socquard, standing before her, "people don't come here to fling stools; if you were to break one of my mirrors, the milk of your cows wouldn't pay for the damage."
"Pere Socquard, your daughter is a reptile; I'm worth a dozen of her, I'd have you know. If you don't want Bonnebault for a son-in-law, it is high time for you to tell him to go and play billiards somewhere else; he's losing a hundred sous every minute."
In the middle of this flux of words, screamed rather than said, Socquard took Marie round the waist and flung her out of the door, in spite of her cries and resistance. It was none too soon; for Bonnebault rushed out of the billiard-room, his eyes blazing.
"It sha'n't end so!" cried Marie Tonsard.
"Begone!" shouted Bonnebault, whom Viollet held back round the body lest he should do the girl some hurt. "Go to the devil, or I will never speak to you or look at you again!"
"You!" said Marie, flinging him a furious glance. "Give me back my money, and I'll leave you to Mademoiselle Socquard if she is rich enough to keep you."
Thereupon Marie, frightened when she saw that even Socquard-Alcides could scarcely hold Bonnebault, who sprang after her like a tiger, took to flight along the road.
Rigou followed, and told her to get into his carriole to escape Bonnebault, whose shouts reached the hotel Soudry; then, after hiding Marie under the leather curtains, he came back to the cafe to drink his lemonade and examine the group it now contained, composed of Plissoud, Amaury, Viollet, and the waiter, who were all trying to pacify Bonnebault.
"Come, hussar, it's your turn to play," said Amaury, a small, fair young man, with a dull eye.
"Besides, she's taken herself off," said Viollet.
If any one ever betrayed astonishment it was Plissoud when he beheld the usurer of Blangy sitting at one of the tables, and more occupied in watching him, Plissoud, than in noticing the quarrel that was going on. In spite of himself, the sheriff allowed his face to show the species of bewilderment which a man feels at an unexpected meeting with a person whom he hates and is plotting against, and he speedily withdrew into the billiard-room.
"Adieu, Pere Socquard," said Rigou.
"I'll get your carriage," said the innkeeper; "take your time."
"How shall I find out what those fellows have been saying over their pool?" Rigou was asking himself, when he happened to see the waiter's face in the mirror beside him.
The waiter was a jack at all trades; he cultivated Socquard's vines, swept out the cafe and the billiard-room, kept the garden in order, and watered the Tivoli, all for fifty francs a year. He was always without a jacket, except on grand occasions; usually his sole garments were a pair of blue linen trousers, heavy shoes, and a striped velvet waistcoat, over which he wore an apron of homespun linen when at work in the cafe or billiard-room. This apron, with strings, was the badge of his functions. The fellow had been hired by Socquard at the last annual fair; for in this valley, as throughout Burgundy, servants are hired in the market-place by the year, exactly as one buys horses.
"What's your name?" said Rigou.
"Michel, at your service," replied the waiter.
"Doesn't old Fourchon come here sometimes?"
"Two or three times a week, with Monsieur Vermichel, who gives me a couple of sous to warn him if his wife's after them."
"He's a fine old fellow, Pere Fourchon; knows a great deal and is full of good sense," said Rigou, paying for his lemonade and leaving the evil-smelling place when he saw Pere Socquard leading his horse round.
Just as he was about to get into the carriage, Rigou noticed the chemist crossing the square and hailed him with a "Ho, there, Monsieur Vermut!" Recognizing the rich man, Vermut hurried up. Rigou joined him, and said in a low voice:--
"Are there any drugs that can eat into the tissue of the skin so as to produce a real disease, like a whitlow on the finger, for instance?"
"If Monsieur Gourdon would help, yes," answered the little chemist.
"Vermut, not a word of all this, or you and I will quarrel; but speak of the matter to Monsieur Gourdon, and tell him to come and see me the day after to-morrow. I may be able to procure him the delicate operation of cutting off a forefinger."
Then, leaving the little man thoroughly bewildered, Rigou got into the carriole beside Marie Tonsard.
"Well, you little viper," he said, taking her by the arm when he had fastened the reins to a hook in front of the leathern apron which closed the carriole and the horse had started on a trot, "do you think you can keep Bonnebault by giving way to such violence? If you were a wise girl you would promote his marriage with that hogshead of stupidity and take your revenge afterwards."
Marie could not help smiling as she answered:--
"Ah, how bad you are! you are the master of us all in wickedness."
"Listen to me, Marie; I like the peasants, but it won't do for any one of you to come between my teeth and a mouthful of game. Your brother Nicolas, as Aglae said, is after La Pechina. That must not be; I protect her, that girl. She is to be my heiress for thirty thousand francs, and I intend to marry her well. I know that Nicolas, helped by your sister Catherine, came near killing the little thing this morning. You are to see your brother and sister at once, and say to them: 'If you let La Pechina alone, Pere Rigou will save Nicolas from the conscription.'"
"You are the devil incarnate!" cried Marie. "They do say you've signed a compact with him. Is that true?"
"Yes," replied Rigou, gravely.
"I heard it, but I didn't believe it."
"He has guaranteed that no attacks aimed at me shall hurt me; that I shall never be robbed; that I shall live a hundred years and succeed in everything I undertake, and be as young to the day of my death as a two-year old cockerel--"
"Well, if that's so," said Marie, "it must be devilishly easy for you to save my brother from the conscription--"
"If he chooses, that's to say. He'll have to lose a finger," returned Rigou. "I'll tell him how."
"Look out, you are taking the upper road!" exclaimed Marie.
"I never go by the lower at night," said the ex-monk.
"On account of the cross?" said Marie, naively.
"That's it, sly-boots," replied her diabolical companion.
They had reached a spot where the high-road cuts through a slight elevation of ground, making on each side of it a rather steep slope, such as we often see on the mail-roads of France. At the end of this little gorge, which is about a hundred feet long, the roads to Ronquerolles and to Cerneux meet and form an open space, in the centre of which stands a cross. From either slope a man could aim at a victim and kill him at close quarters, with all the more ease because the little hill is covered with vines, and the evil-doer could lie in ambush among the briers and brambles that overgrow them. We can readily imagine why the usurer did not take that road after dark. The Thune flows round the little hill; and the place is called the Close of the Cross. No spot was ever more adapted for revenge or murder, for the road to Ronquerolles continues to the bridge over the Avonne in front of the pavilion of the Rendezvous, while that to Cerneux leads off above the mail-road; so that between the four roads,--to Les Aigues, Ville-aux-Fayes, Ronquerolles, and Cerneux,--a murderer could choose his line of retreat and leave his pursuers in uncertainty.
"I shall drop you at the entrance of the village," said Rigou when they neared the first houses of Blangy.
"Because you are afraid of Annette, old coward!" cried Marie. "When are you going to send her away? you have had her now three years. What amuses me is that your old woman still lives; the good God knows how to revenge himself."