Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
Chapter VII. The Greyhound
Towards the middle of September Emile Blondet, who had gone to Paris to publish a book, returned to refresh himself at Les Aigues and to think over the work he was planning for the winter. At Les Aigues, the loving and sincere qualities which succeed adolescence in a young man's soul reappeared in the used-up journalist.
"What a fine soul!" was the comment of the count and the countess when they spoke of him.
Men who are accustomed to move among the abysses of social nature, to understand all and to repress nothing, make themselves an oasis in the heart, where they forget their perversities and those of others; they become within that narrow and sacred circle,--saints; there, they possess the delicacy of women, they give themselves up to a momentary realization of their ideal, they become angelic for some one being who adores them, and they are not playing comedy; they join their soul to innocence, so to speak; they feel the need to brush off the mud, to heal their sores, to bathe their wounds. At Les Aigues Emile Blondet was without bitterness, without sarcasm, almost without wit; he made no epigrams, he was gentle as a lamb, and platonically tender.
"He is such a good young fellow that I miss him terribly when he is not here," said the general. "I do wish he could make a fortune and not lead that Paris life of his."
Never did the glorious landscape and park of Les Aigues seem as luxuriantly beautiful as it did just then. The first autumn days were beginning, when the earth, languid from her procreations and delivered of her products, exhales the delightful odors of vegetation. At this time the woods, especially, are delicious; they begin to take the russet warmth of Sienna earth, and the green-bronze tones which form the lovely tapestry beneath which they hide from the cold of winter.
Nature, having shown herself in springtime jaunty and joyous as a brunette glowing with hope, becomes in autumn sad and gentle as a blonde full of pensive memories; the turf yellows, the last flowers unfold their pale corollas, the white-eyed daisies are fewer in the grass, only their crimson calices are seen. Yellows abound; the shady places are lighter for lack of leafage, but darker in tone; the sun, already oblique, slides its furtive orange rays athwart them, leaving long luminous traces which rapidly disappear, like the train of a woman's gown as she bids adieu.
On the morning of the second day after his arrival, Emile was at a window of his bedroom, which opened upon a terrace with a balustrade from which a noble view could be seen. This balcony ran the whole length of the apartments of the countess, on the side of the chateau towards the forests and the Blangy landscape. The pond, which would have been called a lake were Les Aigues nearer Paris, was partly in view, so was the long canal; the Silver-spring, coming from across the pavilion of the Rendezvous, crossed the lawn with its sheeny ribbon, reflecting the yellow sand.
Beyond the park, between the village and the walls, lay the cultivated parts of Blangy,--meadows where the cows were grazing, small properties surrounded by hedges, filled with fruit of all kinds, nut and apple trees. By way of frame, the heights on which the noble forest-trees were ranged, tier above tier, closed in the scene. The countess had come out in her slippers to look at the flowers in her balcony, which were sending up their morning fragrance; she wore a cambric dressing-gown, beneath which the rosy tints of her white shoulders could be seen; a coquettish little cap was placed in a bewitching manner on her hair, which escaped it recklessly; her little feet showed their warm flesh color through the transparent stockings; the cambric gown, unconfined at the waist, floated open as the breeze took it, and showed an embroidered petticoat.
"Oh! are you there?" she said.
"What are you looking at?"
"A pretty question! You have torn me from the contemplation of Nature. Tell me, countess, will you go for a walk in the woods this morning before breakfast?"
"What an idea! You know I have a horror of walking."
"We will only walk a little way; I'll drive you in the tilbury and take Joseph to hold the horses. You have never once set foot in your forest; and I have just noticed something very curious, a phenomenon; there are spots where the tree-tops are the color of Florentine bronze, the leaves are dried--"
"Well, I'll dress."
"Oh, if you do, we can't get off for two hours. Take a shawl, put on a bonnet, and boots; that's all you want. I shall tell them to harness."
"You always make me do what you want; I'll be ready in a minute."
"General," said Blondet, waking the count, who grumbled and turned over, like a man who wants his morning sleep. "We are going for a drive; won't you come?"
A quarter of an hour later the tilbury was slowly rolling along the park avenue, followed by a liveried groom on horseback.
The morning was a September morning. The dark blue of the sky burst forth here and there from the gray of the clouds, which seemed the sky itself, the ether seeming to be the accessory; long lines of ultramarine lay upon the horizon, but in strata, which alternated with other lines like sand-bars; these tones changed and grew green at the level of the forests. The earth beneath this overhanging mantle was moistly warm, like a woman when she rises; it exhaled sweet, luscious odors, which yet were wild, not civilized,--the scent of cultivation was added to the scents of the woods. Just then the Angelus was ringing at Blangy, and the sounds of the bell, mingling with the wild concert of the forest, gave harmony to the silence. Here and there were rising vapors, white, diaphanous.
Seeing these lovely preparations of Nature, the fancy had seized Olympe Michaud to accompany her husband, who had to give an order to a keeper whose house was not far off. The Soulanges doctor advised her to walk as long as she could do so without fatigue; she was afraid of the midday heat and went out only in the early morning or evening. Michaud now took her with him, and they were followed by the dog he loved best,--a handsome greyhound, mouse-colored with white spots, greedy, like all greyhounds, and as full of vices as most animals who know they are loved and petted.
So, then the tilbury reached the pavilion of the Rendezvous, the countess, who stopped to ask how Madame Michaud felt, was told she had gone into the forest with her husband.
"Such weather inspires everybody," said Blondet, turning his horse at hazard into one of the six avenues of the forest; "Joseph, you know the woods, don't you?"
And away they went. The avenue they took happened to be one of the most delightful in the forest; it soon turned and grew narrower, and presently became a winding way, on which the sunshine flickered through rifts in the leafy roof, and where the breeze brought odors of lavender, and thyme, and the wild mint, and that of falling leaves, which sighed as they fell. Dew-drops on the trees and on the grass were scattered like seeds by the passing of the light carriage; the occupants as they rolled along caught glimpses of the mysterious visions of the woods,--those cool depths, where the verdure is moist and dark, where the light softens as it fades; those white-birch glades o'ertopped by some centennial tree, the Hercules of the forest; those glorious assemblages of knotted, mossy trunks, whitened and furrowed, and the banks of delicate wild plants and fragile flowers which grow between a woodland road and the forest. The brooks sang. Truly there is a nameless pleasure in driving a woman along the ups and downs of a slippery way carpeted with moss, where she pretends to be afraid or really is so, and you are conscious that she is drawing closer to you, letting you feel, voluntarily or involuntarily, the cool moisture of her arm, the weight of her round, white shoulder, though she merely smiles when told that she hinders you in driving. The horse seems to know the secret of these interruptions, and he looks about him from right to left.
It was a new sight to the countess; this nature so vigorous in its effects, so little seen and yet so grand, threw her into a languid revery; she leaned back in the tilbury and yielded herself up to the pleasure of being there with Emile; her eyes were charmed, her heart spoke, she answered to the inward voice that harmonized with hers. He, too, glanced at her furtively; he enjoyed that dreamy meditation, while the ribbons of the bonnet floated on the morning breeze with the silky curls of the golden hair. In consequence of going they knew not where, they presently came to a locked gate, of which they had not the key. Joseph was called up, but neither had he a key.
"Never mind, let us walk; Joseph can take care of the tilbury; we shall easily find it again."
Emile and the countess plunged into the forest, and soon reached a small interior cleared space, such as is often met with in the woods. Twenty years earlier the charcoal-burners had made it their kiln, and the place still remained open, quite a large circumference having been burned over. But during those twenty years Nature had made herself a garden of flowers, a blooming "parterre" for her own enjoyment, just as an artist gives himself the delight of painting a picture for his own happiness. The enchanting spot was surrounded by fine trees, whose tops hung over like vast fringes and made a dais above this flowery couch where slept the goddess. The charcoal-burners had followed a path to a pond, always full of water. The path is there still; it invites you to step into it by a turn full of mystery; then suddenly it stops short and you come upon a bank where a thousand roots run down to the water and make a sort of canvas in the air. This hidden pond has a narrow grassy edge, where a few willows and poplars lend their fickle shade to a bank of turf which some lazy or pensive charcoal-burner must have made for his enjoyment. The frogs hop about, the teal bathe in the pond, the water-fowl come and go, a hare starts; you are the master of this delicious bath, decorated with iris and bulrushes. Above your head the trees take many attitudes; here the trunks twine down like boa-constrictors, there the beeches stand erect as a Greek column. The snails and the slugs move peacefully about. A tench shows its gills, a squirrel looks at you; and at last, after Emile and the countess, tired with her walk, were seated, a bird, but I know not what bird it was, sang its autumn song, its farewell song, to which the other songsters listened,--a song welcome to love, and heard by every organ of the being.
"What silence!" said the countess, with emotion and in a whisper, as if not to trouble this deep peace.
They looked at the green patches on the water,--worlds where life was organizing; they pointed to the lizard playing in the sun and escaping at their approach,--behavior which has won him the title of "the friend of man." "Proving, too, how well he knows him," said Emile. They watched the frogs, who, less distrustful, returned to the surface of the pond, winking their carbuncle eyes as they sat upon the water- cresses. The sweet and simple poetry of Nature permeated these two souls surfeited with the conventional things of life, and filled them with contemplative emotion. Suddenly Blondet shuddered. Turning to the countess he said,--
"Did you hear that?"
"What?" she asked.
"A curious noise."
"Ah, you literary men who live in your studies and know nothing of the country! that is only a woodpecker tapping a tree. I dare say you don't even know the most curious fact in the history of that bird. As soon as he has given his tap, and he gives millions to pierce an oak, he flies behind the tree to see if he is yet through it; and he does this every instant."
"The noise I heard, dear instructress of natural history, was not a noise made by an animal; there was evidence of mind in it, and that proclaims a man."
The countess was seized with panic, and she darted back through the wild flower-garden, seeking the path by which to leave the forest.
"What is the matter?" cried Blondet, rushing after her.
"I thought I saw eyes," she said, when they regained the path through which they had reached the charcoal-burner's open.
Just then they heard the low death-rattle of a creature whose throat was suddenly cut, and the countess, with her fears redoubled, fled so quickly that Blondet could scarcely follow her. She ran like a will- o'-the-wisp, and did not listen to Blondet who called to her, "You are mistaken." On she ran, and Emile with her, till they suddenly came upon Michaud and his wife, who were walking along arm-in-arm. Emile was panting and the countess out of breath, and it was some time before they could speak; then they explained. Michaud joined Blondet in laughing at the countess's terror; then the bailiff showed the two wanderers the way to find the tilbury. When they reached the gate Madame Michaud called, "Prince!"
"Prince! Prince!" called the bailiff; then he whistled,--but no greyhound.
Emile mentioned the curious noise that began their adventure.
"My wife heard that noise," said Michaud, "and I laughed at her."
"They have killed Prince!" exclaimed the countess. "I am sure of it; they killed him by cutting his throat at one blow. What I heard was the groan of a dying animal."
"The devil!" cried Michaud; "the matter must be cleared up."
Emile and the bailiff left the two ladies with Joseph and the horses, and returned to the wild garden of the open. They went down the bank to the pond; looked everywhere along the slope, but found no clue. Blondet jumped back first, and as he did so he saw, in a thicket which stood on higher ground, one of those trees he had noticed in the morning with withered heads. He showed it to Michaud, and proposed to go to it. The two sprang forward in a straight line across the forest, avoiding the trunks and going round the matted tangles of brier and holly until they found the tree.
"It is a fine elm," said Michaud, "but there's a worm in it,--a worm which gnaws round the bark close to the roots."
He stopped and took up a bit of the bark, saying: "See how they work."
"You have a great many worms in this forest," said Blondet.
Just then Michaud noticed a red spot; a moment more and he saw the head of his greyhound. He sighed.
"The scoundrels!" he said. "Madame was right."
Michaud and Blondet examined the body and found, just as the countess had said, that some one had cut the greyhound's throat. To prevent his barking he had been decoyed with a bit of meat, which was still between his tongue and his palate.
"Poor brute; he died of self-indulgence."
"Like all princes," said Blondet.
"Some one, whoever it is, has just gone, fearing that we might catch him or her," said Michaud. "A serious offence has been committed. But for all that, I see no branches about and no lopped trees."
Blondet and the bailiff began a cautious search, looking at each spot where they set their feet before setting them. Presently Blondet pointed to a tree beneath which the grass was flattened down and two hollows made.
"Some one knelt there, and it must have been a woman, for a man would not have left such a quantity of flattened grass around the impression of his two knees; yes, see! that is the outline of a petticoat."
The bailiff, after examining the base of the tree, found the beginning of a hole beneath the bark; but he did not find the worm with the tough skin, shiny and squamous, covered with brown specks, ending in a tail not unlike that of a cockchafer, and having also the latter's head, antennae, and the two vigorous hooks or shears with which the creature cuts into the wood.
"My dear fellow," said Blondet, "now I understand the enormous number of dead trees that I noticed this morning from the terrace of the chateau, and which brought me here to find out the cause of the phenomenon. Worms are at work; but they are no other than your peasants."
The bailiff gave vent to an oath and rushed off, followed by Blondet, to rejoin the countess, whom he requested to take his wife home with her. Then he jumped on Joseph's horse, leaving the man to return on foot, and disappeared with great rapidity to cut off the retreat of the woman who had killed his dog, hoping to catch her with the bloody bill-hook in her hand and the tool used to make the incisions in the bark of the tree.
"Let us go and tell the general at once, before he breakfasts," cried the countess; "he might die of anger."
"I'll prepare him," said Blondet.
"They have killed the dog," said Olympe, in tears.
"You loved the poor greyhound, dear, enough to weep for him?" said the countess.
"I think of Prince as a warning; I fear some danger to my husband."
"How they have ruined this beautiful morning for us," said the countess, with an adorable little pout.
"How they have ruined the country," said Olympe, gravely.
They met the general near the chateau.
"Where have you been?" he asked.
"You shall know in a minute," said Blondet, mysteriously, as he helped the countess and Madame Michaud to alight. A moment more and the two gentlemen were alone on the terrace of the apartments.
"You have plenty of moral strength, general; you won't put yourself in a passion, will you?"
"No," said the general; "but come to the point or I shall think you are making fun of me."
"Do you see those trees with dead leaves?"
"Do you see those others that are wilting?"
"Well, every one of them has been killed by the peasants you think you have won over by your benefits."
And Blondet related the events of the morning.
The general was so pale that Blondet was frightened.
"Come, curse, swear, be furious! your self-control may hurt you more than anger!"
"I'll go and smoke," said the general, turning toward the kiosk.
During breakfast Michaud came in; he had found no one. Sibilet, whom the count had sent for, came also.
"Monsieur Sibilet, and you, Monsieur Michaud, are to make it known, cautiously, that I will pay a thousand francs to whoever will arrest in the act the person or persons who are killing my trees; they must also discover the instrument with which the work is done, and where it was bought. I have settled upon a plan."
"Those people never betray one another," said Sibilet, "if the crime done is for their benefit and premeditated. There is no denying that this diabolical business has been planned, carefully planned and contrived."
"Yes, but a thousand francs means a couple of acres of land."
"We can try," said Sibilet; "fifteen hundred francs might buy you a traitor, especially if you promise secrecy."
"Very good; but let us act as if we suspected nothing, I especially; if not, we shall be the victims of some collusion; one has to be as wary with these brigands as with the enemy in war."
"But the enemy is here," said Blondet.
Sibilet threw him the furtive glance of a man who understood the meaning of the words, and then he withdrew.
"I don't like your Sibilet," said Blondet, when he had seen the steward leave the house. "That man is playing false."
"Up to this time he has done nothing I could complain of," said the general.
Blondet went off to write letters. He had lost the careless gayety of his first arrival, and was now uneasy and preoccupied; but he had no vague presentiments like those of Madame Michaud; he was, rather, in full expectation of certain foreseen misfortunes. He said to himself, "This affair will come to some bad end; and if the general does not take decisive action and will not abandon a battle-field where he is overwhelmed by numbers there must be a catastrophe; and who knows who will come out safe and sound,--perhaps neither he nor his wife. Good God! that adorable little creature! so devoted, so perfect! how can he expose her thus! He thinks he loves her! Well, I'll share their danger, and if I can't save them I'll suffer with them."