Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
Chapter VIII. Rural Virtue
That night Marie Tonsard was stationed on the road to Soulanges, sitting on the rail of a culvert waiting for Bonnebault, who had spent the day, as usual, at the Cafe de la Paix. She heard him coming at some distance, and his step told her that he was drunk, and she knew also that he had lost money, for he always sang if he won.
"Is that you, Bonnebault?"
"Yes, my girl."
"What's the matter?"
"I owe twenty-five francs, and they may wring my neck twenty-five times before I can pay them."
"Well, I know how you can get five hundred," she said in his ear.
"Oh! by killing a man; but I prefer to live."
"Hold your tongue. Vaudoyer will give us five hundred francs if you will let him catch your mother at a tree."
"I'd rather kill a man than sell my mother. There's your old grandmother; why don't you sell her?"
"If I tried to, my father would get angry and stop the trick."
"That's true. Well, anyhow, my mother sha'n't go to prison, poor old thing! She cooks my food and keeps me in clothes, I'm sure I don't know how. Go to prison,--and through me! I shouldn't have any bowels within me; no, no! And for fear any one else should sell her, I'll tell her this very night not to kill any more trees."
"Well, my father may say and do what he likes, but I shall tell him there are five hundred francs to be had, and perhaps he'll ask my grandmother if she'll earn them. They'll never put an old woman seventy-eight years of age in prison,--though, to be sure, she'd be better off there than in her garret."
"Five hundred francs! well, yes; I'll speak to my mother," said Bonnebault, "and if it suits her to give 'em to me, I'll let her have part to take to prison. She could knit, and amuse herself; and she'd be well fed and lodged, and have less trouble than she has at Conches. Well, to-morrow, my girl, I'll see you about it; I haven't time to stop now."
The next morning at daybreak Bonnebault and his old mother knocked at the door of the Grand-I-Vert. Mother Tonsard was the only person up.
"Marie!" called Bonnebault, "that matter is settled."
"You mean about the trees?" said Mother Tonsard; "yes, it is all settled; I've taken it."
"Nonsense!" cried Mother Bonnebault, "my son has got the promise of an acre of land from Monsieur Rigou--"
The two old women squabbled as to which of them should be sold by her children. The noise of the quarrel woke up the household. Tonsard and Bonnebault took sides for their respective mothers.
"Pull straws," suggested Tonsard's wife.
The short straw gave it in favor of the tavern.
Three days later, in the forest of Ville-aux-Fayes at daybreak, the gendarmes arrested old Mother Tonsard caught "in flagrante delicto" by the bailiff, his assistants, and the field-keeper, with a rusty file which served to tear the tree, and a chisel, used by the delinquent to scoop round the bark just as the insect bores its way. The indictment stated that sixty trees thus destroyed were found within a radius of five hundred feet. The old woman was sent to Auxerre, the case coming under the jurisdiction of the assize-court.
Michaud could not refrain from saying when he discovered Mother Tonsard at the foot of the tree: "These are the persons on whom the general and Madame la comtesse have showered benefits! Faith, if Madame would only listen to me, she wouldn't give that dowry to the Tonsard girl, who is more worthless than her grandmother."
The old woman raised her gray eyes and darted a venomous look at Michaud. When the count learned who the guilty person was, he forbade his wife to give the money to Catherine Tonsard.
"Monsieur le comte is perfectly right," said Sibilet. "I know that Godain bought that land three days before Catherine came to speak to Madame. She is quite capable, that girl, of pretending she is with child, to get the money; very likely Godain has had nothing to do with it."
"What a community!" said Blondet; "the scoundrels of Paris are saints by comparison."
"Ah, monsieur," said Sibilet, "self-interest makes people guilty of horrors everywhere. Do you know who betrayed the old woman?"
"Her granddaughter Marie; she was jealous of her sister's marriage, and to get the money for her own--"
"It is awful!" said the count. "Why! they'd murder!"
"Oh yes," said Sibilet, "for a very small sum. They care so little for life, those people; they hate to have to work all their lives. Ah monsieur, queer things happen in country places, as queer as those of Paris,--but you will never believe it."
"Let us be kind and benevolent," said the countess.
The evening after the arrest Bonnebault came to the tavern of the Grand-I-Vert, where all the Tonsard family were in great jubilation. "Oh yes, yes!" said he, "make the most of your rejoicing; but I've just heard from Vaudoyer that the countess, to punish you, withdraws the thousand francs promised to Godain; her husband won't let her give them."
"It's that villain of a Michaud who has put him up to it," said Tonsard. "My mother heard him say he would; she told me at Ville-aux- Fayes where I went to carry her some money and her clothes. Well; let that countess keep her money! our five hundred francs shall help Godain buy the land; and we'll revenge ourselves for this thing. Ha! Michaud meddles with our private matters, does he? it will bring him more harm than good. What business is it of his, I'd like to know? let him keep to the woods! It's he who is at the bottom of all this trouble--he found the clue that day my mother cut the throat of his dog. Suppose I were to meddle in the affairs of the chateau? Suppose I were to tell the general that his wife is off walking in the woods before he is up in the morning, with a young man."
"The general, the general!" sneered Courtecuisse; "they can do what they like with him. But it's Michaud who stirs him up, the mischief- maker! a fellow who don't know his business; in my day, things went differently."
"Ah!" said Tonsard, "those were the good days for all of us--weren't they, Vaudoyer?"
"Yes," said the latter, "and the fact is that if Michaud were got rid of we should be left in peace."
"Enough said," replied Tonsard. "We'll talk of this later--by moonlight--in the open field."
Towards the end of October the countess returned to Paris, leaving the general at Les Aigues. He was not to rejoin her till some time later, but she did not wish to lose the first night of the Italian Opera, and moreover she was lonely and bored; she missed Emile, who was recalled by his avocations, for he had helped her to pass the hours when the general was scouring the country or attending to business.
November was a true winter month, gray and gloomy, a mixture of snow and rain, frost and thaw. The trial of Mother Tonsard had required witnesses at Auxerre, and Michaud had given his testimony. Monsieur Rigou had interested himself for the old woman, and employed a lawyer on her behalf who relied in his defence on the absence of disinterested witnesses; but the testimony of Michaud and his assistants and the field-keeper was found to outweigh this objection. Tonsard's mother was sentenced to five years' imprisonment, and the lawyer said to her son:--
"It was Michaud's testimony which got her that."