Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
Chapter II. A Bucolic Overlooked by Virgil
When a Parisian drops into the country he is cut off from all his usual habits, and soon feels the dragging hours, no matter how attentive his friends may be to him. Therefore, because it is so impossible to prolong in a tete-a-tete conversations that are soon exhausted, the master and mistress of a country-house are apt to say, calmly, "You will be terribly bored here." It is true that to understand the delights of country life one must have something to do, some interests in it; one must know the nature of the work to be done, and the alternating harmony of toil and pleasure,--eternal symbol of human life.
When a Parisian has recovered his powers of sleeping, shaken off the fatigues of his journey, and accustomed himself to country habits, the hardest period of the day (if he wears thin boots and is neither a sportsman nor an agriculturalist) is the early morning. Between the hours of waking and breakfasting, the women of the family are sleeping or dressing, and therefore unapproachable; the master of the house is out and about on his own affairs; a Parisian is therefore compelled to be alone from eight to eleven o'clock, the hour chosen in all country- houses for breakfast. Now, having got what amusement he can out of carefully dressing himself, he has soon exhausted that resource. Then, perhaps, he has brought with him some work, which he finds it impossible to do, and which goes back untouched, after he sees the difficulties of doing it, into his valise; a writer is then obliged to wander about the park and gape at nothing or count the big trees. The easier the life, the more irksome such occupations are,--unless, indeed, one belongs to the sect of shaking quakers or to the honorable guild of carpenters or taxidermists. If one really had, like the owners of estates, to live in the country, it would be well to supply one's self with a geological, mineralogical, entomological, or botanical hobby; but a sensible man doesn't give himself a vice merely to kill time for a fortnight. The noblest estate, and the finest chateaux soon pall on those who possess nothing but the sight of them. The beauties of nature seem rather squalid compared to the representation of them at the opera. Paris, by retrospection, shines from all its facets. Unless some particular interest attaches us, as it did in Blondet's case, to scenes honored by the steps and lighted by the eyes of a certain person, one would envy the birds their wings and long to get back to the endless, exciting scenes of Paris and its harrowing strifes.
The long letter of the young journalist must make most intelligent minds suppose that he had reached, morally and physically, that particular phase of satisfied passions and comfortable happiness which certain winged creatures fed in Strasbourg so perfectly represent when, with their heads sunk behind their protruding gizzards, they neither see nor wish to see the most appetizing food. So, when the formidable letter was finished, the writer felt the need of getting away from the gardens of Armida and doing something to enliven the deadly void of the morning hours; for the hours between breakfast and dinner belonged to the mistress of the house, who knew very well how to make them pass quickly. To keep, as Madame de Montcornet did, a man of talent in the country without ever seeing on his face the false smile of satiety, or detecting the yawn of a weariness that cannot be concealed, is a great triumph for a woman. The affection which is equal to such a test certainly ought to be eternal. It is to be wondered at that women do not oftener employ it to judge of their lovers; a fool, an egoist, or a petty nature could never stand it. Philip the Second himself, the Alexander of dissimulation, would have told his secrets if condemned to a month's tete-a-tete in the country. Perhaps this is why kings seek to live in perpetual motion, and allow no one to see them more than fifteen minutes at a time.
Notwithstanding that he had received the delicate attentions of one of the most charming women in Paris, Emile Blondet was able to feel once more the long forgotten delights of a truant schoolboy; and on the morning of the day after his letter was written he had himself called by Francois, the head valet, who was specially appointed to wait on him, for the purpose of exploring the valley of the Avonne.
The Avonne is a little river which, being swollen above Conches by numerous rivulets, some of which rise in Les Aigues, falls at Ville- aux-Fayes into one of the large affluents of the Seine. The geographical position of the Avonne, navigable for over twelve miles, had, ever since Jean Bouvet invented rafts, given full money value to the forests of Les Aigues, Soulanges, and Ronquerolles, standing on the crest of the hills between which this charming river flows. The park of Les Aigues covers the greater part of the valley, between the river (bordered on both sides by the forest called des Aigues) and the royal mail road, defined by a line of old elms in the distance along the slopes of the Avonne mountains, which are in fact the foot-hills of that magnificent ampitheatre called the Morvan.
However vulgar the comparison may be, the park, lying thus at the bottom of the valley, is like an enormous fish with its head at Conches and its tail in the village of Blangy; for it widens in the middle to nearly three hundred acres, while towards Conches it counts less than fifty, and sixty at Blangy. The position of this estate, between three villages, and only three miles from the little town of Soulanges, from which the descent is rapid, may perhaps have led to the strife and caused the excesses which are the chief interest attaching to the place. If, when seen from the mail road or from the uplands beyond Ville-aux-Fayes, the paradise of Les Aigues induces mere passing travellers to commit the mortal sin of envy, why should the rich burghers of Soulanges and Ville-aux-Fayes who had it before their eyes and admired it every day of their lives, have been more virtuous?
This last topographical detail was needed to explain the site, also the use of the four gates by which alone the park of Les Aigues was entered; for it was completely surrounded by walls, except where nature had provided a fine view, and at such points sunk fences or ha- has had been placed. The four gates, called the gate of Conches, the gate of Avonne, the gate of Blangy, and the gate of the Avenue, showed the styles of the different periods at which they were constructed so admirably that a brief description, in the interest of archaeologists, will presently be given, as brief as the one Blondet has already written about the gate of the Avenue.
After eight days of strolling about with the countess, the illustrious editor of the "Journal des Debats" knew by heart the Chinese kiosk, the bridges, the isles, the hermitage, the dairy, the ruined temple, the Babylonian ice-house, and all the other delusions invented by landscape architects which some nine hundred acres of land can be made to serve. He now wished to find the sources of the Avonne, which the general and the countess daily extolled in the evening, making plans to visit them which were daily forgotten the next morning. Above Les Aigues the Avonne really had the appearance of an alpine torrent. Sometimes it hollowed a bed among the rocks, sometimes it went underground; on this side the brooks came down in cascades, there they flowed like the Loire on sandy shallows where rafts could not pass on account of the shifting channels. Blondet took a short cut through the labyrinths of the park to reach the gate of Conches. This gate demands a few words, which give, moreover, certain historical details about the property.
The original founder of Les Aigues was a younger son of the Soulanges family, enriched by marriage, whose chief ambition was to make his elder brother jealous,--a sentiment, by the bye, to which we owe the fairy-land of Isola Bella in the Lago Maggiore. In the middle ages the castle of Les Aigues stood on the banks of the Avonne. Of this old building nothing remains but the gateway, which has a porch like the entrance to a fortified town, flanked by two round towers with conical roofs. Above the arch of the porch are heavy stone courses, now draped with vegetation, showing three large windows with cross-bar sashes. A winding stairway in one of the towers leads to two chambers, and a kitchen occupies the other tower. The roof of the porch, of pointed shape like all old timber-work, is noticeable for two weathercocks perched at each end of a ridge-pole ornamented with fantastic iron- work. Many an important place cannot boast of so fine a town hall. On the outside of this gateway, the keystone of the arch still bears the arms of Soulanges, preserved by the hardness of the stone on which the chisel of the artist carved them, as follows: Azure, on a pale, argent, three pilgrim's staff's sable; a fess bronchant, gules, charged with four grosses patee, fitched, or; with the heraldic form of a shield awarded to younger sons. Blondet deciphered the motto, "Je soule agir,"--one of those puns that crusaders delighted to make upon their names, and which brings to mind a fine political maxim, which, as we shall see later, was unfortunately forgotten by Montcornet. The gate, which was opened for Blondet by a very pretty girl, was of time- worn wood clamped with iron. The keeper, wakened by the creaking of the hinges, put his nose out of the window and showed himself in his night-shirt.
"So our keepers sleep till this time of day!" thought the Parisian, who thought himself very knowing in rural customs.
After a walk of about quarter of an hour, he reached the sources of the river above Conches, where his ravished eyes beheld one of those landscapes that ought to be described, like the history of France, in a thousand volumes or in only one. We must here content ourselves with two paragraphs.
A projecting rock, covered with dwarf trees and abraded at its base by the Avonne, to which circumstance it owes a slight resemblance to an enormous turtle lying across the river, forms an arch through which the eye takes in a little sheet of water, clear as a mirror, where the stream seems to sleep until it reaches in the distance a series of cascades falling among huge rocks, where little weeping willows with elastic motion sway back and forth to the flow of waters.
Beyond these cascades is the hillside, rising sheer, like a Rhine rock clothed with moss and heather, gullied like it, again, by sharp ridges of schist and mica sending down, here and there, white foaming rivulets to which a little meadow, always watered and always green, serves as a cup; farther on, beyond the picturesque chaos and in contrast to this wild, solitary nature, the gardens of Conches are seen, with the village roofs and the clock-tower and the outlying fields.
There are the two paragraphs, but the rising sun, the purity of the air, the dewy sheen, the melody of woods and waters--imagine them!
"Almost as charming as at the Opera," thought Blondet, making his way along the banks of the unnavigable portion of the Avonne, whose caprices contrast with the straight and deep and silent stream of the lower river, flowing between the tall trees of the forest of Les Aigues.
Blondet did not proceed far on his morning walk, for he was presently brought to a stand-still by the sight of a peasant,--one of those who, in this drama, are supernumeraries so essential to its action that it may be doubted whether they are not in fact its leading actors.
When the clever journalist reached a group of rocks where the main stream is imprisoned, as it were, between two portals, he saw a man standing so motionless as to excite his curiosity, while the clothes and general air of this living statue greatly puzzled him.
The humble personage before him was a living presentment of the old men dear to Charlet's pencil; resembling the troopers of that Homer of soldiery in a strong frame able to endure hardship, and his immortal skirmishers in a fiery, crimson, knotted face, showing small capacity for submission. A coarse felt hat, the brim of which was held to the crown by stitches, protected a nearly bald head from the weather; below it fell a quantity of white hair which a painter would gladly have paid four francs an hour to copy,--a dazzling mass of snow, worn like that in all the classical representations of Deity. It was easy to guess from the way in which the cheeks sank in, continuing the lines of the mouth, that the toothless old fellow was more given to the bottle than the trencher. His thin white beard gave a threatening expression to his profile by the stiffness of its short bristles. The eyes, too small for his enormous face, and sloping like those of a pig, betrayed cunning and also laziness; but at this particular moment they were gleaming with the intent look he cast upon the river. The sole garments of this curious figure were an old blouse, formerly blue, and trousers of the coarse burlap used in Paris to wrap bales. All city people would have shuddered at the sight of his broken sabots, without even a wisp of straw to stop the cracks; and it is very certain that the blouse and the trousers had no money value at all except to a paper-maker.
As Blondet examined this rural Diogenes, he admitted the possibility of a type of peasantry he had seen in old tapestries, old pictures, old sculptures, and which, up to this time, had seemed to him imaginary. He resolved for the future not to utterly condemn the school of ugliness, perceiving a possibility that in man beauty may be but the flattering exception, a chimera in which the race struggles to believe.
"What can be the ideas, the morals, the habits, of such a being? What is he thinking of?" thought Blondet, seized with curiosity. "Is he my fellow-creature? We have nothing in common but shape, and even that!--"
He noticed in the old man's limbs the peculiar rigidity of the tissues of persons who live in the open air, accustomed to the inclemencies of the weather and to the endurance of heat and cold,--hardened to everything, in short,--which makes their leathern skin almost a hide, and their nerves an apparatus against physical pain almost as powerful as that of the Russians or the Arabs.
"Here's one of Cooper's Red-skins," thought Blondet; "one needn't go to America to study savages."
Though the Parisian was less than ten paces off, the old man did not turn his head, but kept looking at the opposite bank with a fixity which the fakirs of India give to their vitrified eyes and their stiffened joints. Compelled by the power of a species of magnetism, more contagious than people have any idea of, Blondet ended by gazing at the water himself.
"Well, my good man, what do you see there?" he asked, after the lapse of a quarter of an hour, during which time he saw nothing to justify this intent contemplation.
"Hush!" whispered the old man, with a sign to Blondet not to ruffle the air with his voice; "You will frighten it--"
"An otter, my good gentleman. If it hears us it'll go quick under water. I'm certain it jumped there; see! see! there, where the water bubbles! Ha! it sees a fish, it is after that! But my boy will grab it as it comes back. The otter, don't you know, is very rare; it is scientific game, and good eating, too. I get ten francs for every one I carry to Les Aigues, for the lady fasts Fridays, and to-morrow is Friday. Years agone the deceased madame used to pay me twenty francs, and gave me the skin to boot! Mouche," he called, in a low voice, "watch it!"
Blondet now perceived on the other side of the river two bright eyes, like those of a cat, beneath a tuft of alders; then he saw the tanned forehead and tangled hair of a boy about ten years of age, who was lying on his stomach and making signs towards the otter to let his master know he kept it well in sight. Blondet, completely mastered by the eagerness of the old man and boy, allowed the demon of the chase to get the better of him,--that demon with the double claws of hope and curiosity, who carries you whithersoever he will.
"The hat-makers buy the skin," continued the old man; "it's so soft, so handsome! They cover caps with it."
"Do you really think so, my old man?" said Blondet, smiling.
"Well truly, my good gentleman, you ought to know more than I, though I am seventy years old," replied the old fellow, very humbly and respectfully, falling into the attitude of a giver of holy water; "perhaps you can tell me why conductors and wine-merchants are so fond of it?"
Blondet, a master of irony, already on his guard from the word "scientific," recollected the Marechal de Richelieu and began to suspect some jest on the part of the old man; but he was reassured by his artless attitude and the perfectly stupid expression of his face.
"In my young days we had lots of otters," whispered the old fellow; "but they've hunted 'em so that if we see the tail of one in seven years it is as much as ever we do. And the sub-prefect at Ville-aux- Fayes,--doesn't monsieur know him? though he be a Parisian, he's a fine young man like you, and he loves curiosities,--so, as I was saying, hearing of my talent for catching otters, for I know 'em as you know your alphabet, he says to me like this: 'Pere Fourchon,' says he, "when you find an otter bring it to me, and I'll pay you well; and if it's spotted white on the back,' says he, 'I'll give you thirty francs.' That's just what he did say to me as true as I believe in God the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. And there's a learned man at Soulanges, Monsieur Gourdon, our doctor, who is making, so they tell me, a collection of natural history which hasn't its mate at Dijon even; indeed he is first among the learned men in these parts, and he'll pay me a fine price, too; he stuffs men and beasts. Now my boy there stands me out that that otter has got the white spots. 'If that's so,' says I to him, 'then the good God wishes well to us this morning!' Ha! didn't you see the water bubble? yes, there it is! there it is! Though it lives in a kind of a burrow, it sometimes stays whole days under water. Ha, there! it heard you, my good gentleman; it's on its guard now; for there's not a more suspicious animal on earth; it's worse than a woman."
"So you call women suspicious, do you?" said Blondet.
"Faith, monsieur, if you come from Paris you ought to know about that better than I. But you'd have done better for me if you had stayed in your bed and slept all the morning; don't you see that wake there? that's where she's gone under. Get up, Mouche! the otter heard monsieur talking, and now she's scary enough to keep us at her heels till midnight. Come, let's be off! and good-bye to our thirty francs!"
Mouche got up reluctantly; he looked at the spot where the water bubbled, pointed to it with his finger and seemed unable to give up all hope. The child, with curly hair and a brown face, like the angels in a fifteenth-century picture, seemed to be in breeches, for his trousers ended at the knee in a ragged fringe of brambles and dead leaves. This necessary garment was fastened upon him by cords of tarred oakum in guise of braces. A shirt of the same burlap which made the old man's trousers, thickened, however, by many darns, open in front showed a sun-burnt little breast. In short, the attire of the being called Mouche was even more startlingly simple than that of Pere Fourchon.
"What a good-natured set of people they are here," thought Blondet; "if a man frightened away the game of the people of the suburbs of Paris, how their tongues would maul him!"
As he had never seen an otter, even in a museum, he was delighted with this episode of his early walk. "Come," said he, quite touched when the old man walked away without asking him for a compensation, "you say you are a famous otter catcher. If you are sure there is an otter down there--"
From the other side of the water Mouche pointed his finger to certain air-bubbles coming up from the bottom of the Avonne and bursting on its surface.
"It has come back!" said Pere Fourchon; "don't you see it breathe, the beggar? How do you suppose they manage to breathe at the bottom of the water? Ah, the creature's so clever it laughs at science."
"Well," said Blondet, who supposed the last word was a jest of the peasantry in general rather than of this peasant in particular, "wait and catch the otter."
"And what are we to do about our day's work, Mouche and I?"
"What is your day worth?"
"For the pair of us, my apprentice and me?--Five francs," said the old man, looking Blondet in the eye with a hesitation which betrayed an enormous overcharge.
The journalist took ten francs from his pocket, saying, "There's ten, and I'll give you ten more for the otter."
"And it won't cost you dear if there's white on its back; for the sub- prefect told me there wasn't one o' them museums that had the like; but he knows everything, our sub-prefect,--no fool he! If I hunt the otter, he, M'sieur des Lupeaulx, hunts Mademoiselle Gaubertin, who has a fine white "dot" on her back. Come now, my good gentleman, if I may make so bold, plunge into the middle of the Avonne and get to that stone down there. If we head the otter off, it will come down stream; for just see their slyness, the beggars! they always go above their burrow to feed, for, once full of fish, they know they can easily drift down, the sly things! Ha! if I'd been trained in their school I should be living now on an income; but I was a long time finding out that you must go up stream very early in the morning if you want to bag the game before others. Well, somebody threw a spell over me when I was born. However, we three together ought to be slyer than the otter."
"How so, my old necromancer?"
"Why, bless you! we are as stupid as the beasts, and so we come to understand the beasts. Now, see, this is what we'll do. When the otter wants to get home Mouche and I'll frighten it here, and you'll frighten it over there; frightened by us and frightened by you it will jump on the bank, and when it takes to earth, it is lost! It can't run; it has web feet for swimming. Ho, ho! it will make you laugh, such floundering! you don't know whether you are fishing or hunting! The general up at Les Aigues, I have known him to stay here three days running, he was so bent on getting an otter."
Blondet, armed with a branch cut for him by the old man, who requested him to whip the water with it when he called to him, planted himself in the middle of the river by jumping from stone to stone.
"There, that will do, my good gentleman."
Blondet stood where he was told without remarking the lapse of time, for every now and then the old fellow made him a sign as much as to say that all was going well; and besides, nothing makes time go so fast as the expectation that quick action is to succeed the perfect stillness of watching.
"Pere Fourchon," whispered the boy, finding himself alone with the old man, "there's really an otter!"
"Do you see it?"
"There, see there!"
The old fellow was dumb-founded at beholding under water the reddish- brown fur of an actual otter.
"It's coming my way!" said the child.
"Hit him a sharp blow on the head and jump into the water and hold him fast down, but don't let him go!"
Mouche dove into the water like a frightened frog.
"Come, come, my good gentleman," cried Pere Fourchon to Blondet, jumping into the water and leaving his sabots on the bank, "frighten him! frighten him! Don't you see him? he is swimming fast your way!"
The old man dashed toward Blondet through the water, calling out with the gravity that country people retain in the midst of their greatest excitements:--
"Don't you see him, there, along the rocks?"
Blondet, placed by direction of the old fellow in such a way that the sun was in his eyes, thrashed the water with much satisfaction to himself.
"Go on, go on!" cried Pere Fourchon; "on the rock side; the burrow is there, to your left!"
Carried away by excitement and by his long waiting, Blondet slipped from the stones into the water.
"Ha! brave you are, my good gentleman! Twenty good Gods! I see him between your legs! you'll have him!-- Ah! there! he's gone--he's gone!" cried the old man, in despair.
Then, in the fury of the chase, the old fellow plunged into the deepest part of the stream in front of Blondet.
"It's your fault we've lost him!" he cried, as Blondet gave him a hand to pull him out, dripping like a triton, and a vanquished triton. "The rascal, I see him, under those rocks! He has let go his fish," continued Fourchon, pointing to something that floated on the surface. "We'll have that at any rate; it's a tench, a real tench."
Just then a groom in livery on horseback and leading another horse by the bridle galloped up the road toward Conches.
"See! there's the chateau people sending after you," said the old man. "If you want to cross back again I'll give you a hand. I don't mind about getting wet; it saves washing!"
"How about rheumatism?"
"Rheumatism! don't you see the sun has browned our legs, Mouche and me, like tobacco-pipes. Here, lean on me, my good gentleman--you're from Paris; you don't know, though you do know so much, how to walk on our rocks. If you stay here long enough, you'll learn a deal that's written in the book o' nature,--you who write, so they tell me, in the newspapers."
Blondet had reached the bank before Charles, the groom, perceived him.
"Ah, monsieur!" he cried; "you don't know how anxious Madame has been since she heard you had gone through the gate of Conches; she was afraid you were drowned. They have rung the great bell three times, and Monsieur le cure is hunting for you in the park."
"What time is it, Charles?"
"A quarter to twelve."
"Help me to mount."
"Ha!" exclaimed the groom, noticing the water that dripped from Blondet's boots and trousers, "has monsieur been taken in by Pere Fourchon's otter?"
The words enlightened the journalist.
"Don't say a word about it, Charles," he cried, "and I'll make it all right with you."
"Oh, as for that!" answered the man, "Monsieur le comte himself has been taken in by that otter. Whenever a visitor comes to Les Aigues, Pere Fourchon sets himself on the watch, and if the gentleman goes to see the sources of the Avonne he sells him the otter; he plays the trick so well that Monsieur le comte has been here three times and paid him for six days' work, just to stare at the water!"
"Heavens!" thought Blondet. "And I imagined I had seen the greatest comedians of the present day!--Potier, the younger Baptiste, Michot, and Monrose. What are they compared to that old beggar?"
"He is very knowing at the business, Pere Fourchon is," continued Charles; "and he has another string to his bow, besides. He calls himself a rope-maker, and has a walk under the park wall by the gate of Blangy. If you merely touch his rope he'll entangle you so cleverly that you will want to turn the wheel and make a bit of it yourself; and for that you would have to pay a fee for apprenticeship. Madame herself was taken in, and gave him twenty francs. Ah! he is the king of tricks, that old fellow!"
The groom's gossip set Blondet thinking of the extreme craftiness and wiliness of the French peasant, of which he had heard a great deal from his father, a judge at Alencon. Then the satirical meaning hidden beneath Pere Fourchon's apparent guilelessness came back to him, and he owned himself "gulled" by the Burgundian beggar.
"You would never believe, monsieur," said Charles, as they reached the portico at Les Aigues, "how much one is forced to distrust everybody and everything in the country,--especially here, where the general is not much liked--"
"That's more than I know," said Charles, with the stupid air servants assume to shield themselves when they wish not to answer their superiors, which nevertheless gave Blondet a good deal to think of.
"Here you are, truant!" cried the general, coming out on the terrace when he heard the horses. "Here he is; don't be uneasy!" he called back to his wife, whose little footfalls were heard behind him. "Now the Abbe Brossette is missing. Go and find him, Charles," he said to the groom.