Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
Chapter X. The Triumph of the Vanquished
One evening in the month of May, when the fine weather had come and the Parisians had returned to Les Aigues, Monsieur de Troisville,--who had been persuaded to accompany his daughter,--Blondet, the Abbe Brossette, the general, and the sub-prefect of Ville-aux-Fayes, who was on a visit to the chateau, were all playing either whist or chess. It was about half-past eleven o'clock when Joseph entered and told his master that the worthless poaching workman who had been dismissed wanted to see him,--something about a bill which he said the general still owed him. "He is very drunk," added Joseph.
"Very good, I'll go and speak to him."
The general went out upon the lawn to some distance from the house.
"Monsieur le comte," said the detective, "nothing will ever be got out of these people. All that I have been able to gather is that if you continue to stay in this place and try to make the peasants renounce the pilfering habits which Mademoiselle Laguerre allowed them to acquire, they will shoot you as well as your bailiff. There is no use in my staying here; for they distrust me even more than they do the keepers."
The count paid his spy, who left the place the next day, and his departure justified the suspicions entertained about him by the accomplices in the death of Michaud.
When the general returned to the salon there were such signs of emotion upon his face that his wife asked him, anxiously, what news he had just heard.
"Dear wife," he said, "I don't want to frighten you, and yet it is right you should know that Michaud's death was intended as a warning for us to leave this part of the country."
"If I were in your place," said Monsieur de Troisville, "I would not leave it. I myself have had just such difficulties in Normandy, only under another form; I persisted in my course, and now everything goes well."
"Monsieur le marquis," said the sub-prefect, "Normandy and Burgundy are two very different regions. The grape heats the blood far more than the apple. We know much less of law and legal proceedings; we live among the woods; the large industries are unknown among us; we are still savages. If I might give my advice to Monsieur le comte it would be to sell this estate and put the money in the Funds; he would double his income and have no anxieties. If he likes living in the country he could buy a chateau near Paris with a park as beautiful as that of Les Aigues, surrounded by walls, where no one can annoy him, and where he can let all his farms and receive the money in good bank- bills, and have no law suits from one year's end to another. He could come and go in three or four hours, and Monsieur Blondet and Monsieur le marquis would not be so often away from you, Madame la comtesse."
"I, retreat before the peasantry when I did not recoil before the Danube!" cried the general.
"Yes, but what became of your cuirassiers?" asked Blondet.
"Such a fine estate!"
"It will sell to-day for over two millions."
"The chateau alone must have cost that," remarked Monsieur de Troisville.
"One of the best properties in a circumference of sixty miles," said the sub-prefect; "but you can find a better near Paris."
"How much income does one get from two millions?" asked the countess.
"Now-a-days, about eighty thousand francs," replied Blondet.
"Les Aigues does not bring in, all told, more than thirty thousand," said the countess; "and lately you have been at such immense expenses, --you have surrounded the woods this year with ditches."
"You could get," added Blondet, "a royal chateau for four hundred thousand francs near Paris. In these days people buy the follies of others."
"I thought you cared for Les Aigues!" said the count to his wife.
"Don't you feel that I care a thousand times more for your life?" she replied. "Besides, ever since the death of my poor Olympe and Michaud's murder the country is odious to me; all the faces I meet seem to wear a treacherous or threatening expression."
The next evening the sub-prefect, having ended his visit at the chateau, was welcomed in the salon of Monsieur Gaubertin at Ville-aux- Fayes in these words:--
"Well, Monsieur des Lupeaulx, so you have returned from Les Aigues?"
"Yes," answered the sub-prefect with a little air of triumph and a look of tender regard at Mademoiselle Elise, "and I am very much afraid to say we may lose the general; he talks of selling his property--"
"Monsieur Gaubertin, I speak for my pavilion. I can on longer endure the noise, the dust of Ville-aux-Fayes; like a poor imprisoned bird I gasp for the air of the fields, the woodland breezes," said Madame Isaure, in a lackadaisical voice, with her eyes half-closed and her head bending to her left shoulder as she played carelessly with the long curls of her blond hair.
"Pray be prudent, madame!" said her husband in a low voice; "your indiscretions will not help me to buy the pavilion." Then, turning to the sub-prefect, he added, "Haven't they yet discovered the men who were concerned in the murder of the bailiff?"
"It seems not," replied the sub-prefect.
"That will injure the sale of Les Aigues," said Gaubertin to the company generally, "I know very well that I would not buy the place. The peasantry over there are such a bad set of people; even in the days of Mademoiselle Laguerre I had trouble with them, and God knows she let them do as they liked."
At the end of the month of May the general still gave no sign that he intended to sell Les Aigues; in fact, he was undecided. One night, about ten o'clock, he was returning from the forest through one of the six avenues that led to the pavilion of the Rendezvous. He dismissed the keeper who accompanied him, as he was then so near the chateau. At a turn of the road a man armed with a gun came from behind a bush.
"General," he said, "this is the third time I have had you at the end of my barrel, and the third time that I give you your life."
"Why do you want to kill me, Bonnebault?" said the general, without showing the least emotion.
"Faith, if I don't, somebody else will; but I, you see, I like the men who served the Emperor, and I can't make up my mind to shoot you like a partridge. Don't question me, for I'll tell you nothing; but you've got enemies, powerful enemies, cleverer than you, and they'll end by crushing you. I am to have a thousand crowns if I kill you, and then I can marry Marie Tonsard. Well, give me enough to buy a few acres of land and a bit of a cottage, and I'll keep on saying, as I have done, that I've found no chances. That will give you time to sell your property and get away; but make haste. I'm an honest lad still, scamp as I am; but another fellow won't spare you."
"If I give you what you ask, will you tell me who offered you those three thousand francs?" said the general.
"I don't know myself; and the person who is urging me to do the thing is some one I love too well to tell of. Besides, even if you did know it was Marie Tonsard, that wouldn't help you; Marie Tonsard would be as silent as that wall, and I should deny every word I've said."
"Come and see me to-morrow," said the general.
"Enough," replied Bonnebault; "and if they begin to say I'm too dilatory, I'll let you know in time."
A week after that singular conversation the whole arrondissement, indeed the whole department, was covered with posters, advertising the sale of Les Aigues at the office of Maitre Corbineau, the notary of Soulanges. All the lots were knocked down to Rigou, and the price paid amounted to two millions five hundred thousand francs. The next day Rigou had the names changed; Monsieur Gaubertin took the woods, Rigou and Soudry the vineyards and the farms. The chateau and the park were sold over again in small lots among the sons of the soil, the peasantry,--excepting the pavilion, its dependencies, and fifty surrounding acres, which Monsieur Gaubertin retained as a gift to his poetic and sentimental spouse.
Many years after these events, during the year 1837, one of the most remarkable political writers of the day, Emile Blondet, reached the last stages of a poverty which he had so far hidden beneath an outward appearance of ease and elegance. He was thinking of taking some desperate step, realizing, as he did, that his writings, his mind, his knowledge, his ability for the direction of affairs, had made him nothing better than a mere functionary, mechanically serving the ends of others; seeing that every avenue was closed to him and all places taken; feeling that he had reached middle-life without fame and without fortune; that fools and middle-class men of no training had taken the places of the courtiers and incapables of the Restoration, and that the government was reconstituted such as it was before 1830. One evening, when he had come very near committing suicide (a folly he had so often laughed at), while his mind travelled back over his miserable existence calumniated and worn down with toil far more than with the dissipations charged against him, the noble and beautiful face of a woman rose before his eyes, like a statue rising pure and unbroken amid the saddest ruins. Just then the porter brought him a letter sealed with black from the Comtesse de Montcornet, telling him of the death of her husband, who had again taken service in the army and commanded a division. The count had left her his property, and she had no children. The letter, though dignified, showed Blondet very plainly that the woman of forty whom he had loved in his youth offered him a friendly hand and a large fortune.
A few days ago the marriage of the Comtesse de Montcornet with Monsieur Blondet, appointed prefect in one of the departments, was celebrated in Paris. On their way to take possession of the prefecture, they followed the road which led past what had formerly been Les Aigues. They stopped the carriage near the spot where the two pavilions had once stood, wishing to see the places so full of tender memories for each. The country was no longer recognizable. The mysterious woods, the park avenues, all were cleared away; the landscape looked like a tailor's pattern-card. The sons of the soil had taken possession of the earth as victors and conquerors. It was cut up into a thousand little lots, and the population had tripled between Conches and Blangy. The levelling and cultivation of the noble park, once so carefully tended, so delightful in its beauty, threw into isolated relief the pavilion of the Rendezvous, now the Villa Buen-Retiro of Madame Isaure Gaubertin; it was the only building left standing, and it commanded the whole landscape, or as we might better call it, the stretch of cornfields which now constituted the landscape. The building seemed magnified into a chateau, so miserable were the little houses which the peasants had built around it.
"This is progress!" cried Emile. "It is a page out of Jean-Jacques' 'Social Compact'! and I--I am harnessed to the social machine that works it! Good God! what will the kings be soon? More than that, what will the nations themselves be fifty years hence under this state of things?"
"But you love me; you are beside me. I think the present delightful. What do I care for such a distant future?" said his wife.
"Oh yes! by your side, hurrah for the present!" cried the lover, gayly, "and the devil take the future."
Then he signed to the coachman, and as the horses sprang forward along the road, the wedded pair returned to the enjoyment of their honeymoon.