Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
Chapter III. The Tavern
The gate of Blangy, built by Bouret, was formed of two wide pilasters of projecting rough-hewn stone; each surmounted by a dog sitting on his haunches and holding an escutcheon between his fore paws. The proximity of a small house where the steward lived dispensed with the necessity for a lodge. Between the two pilasters, a sumptuous iron gate, like those made in Buffon's time for the Jardin des Plantes, opened on a short paved way which led to the country road (formerly kept in order by Les Aigues and the Soulanges family) which unites Conches, Cerneux, Blangy, and Soulanges to Ville-aux-Fayes, like a wreath, for the whole road is lined with flowering hedges and little houses covered with roses and honey-suckle and other climbing plants.
There, along a pretty wall which extends as far as a terrace from which the land of Les Aigues falls rapidly to the valley till it meets that of Soulanges, are the rotten posts, the old wheel, and the forked stakes which constituted the manufactory of the village rope-maker.
Soon after midday, while Blondet was seating himself at table opposite the Abbe Brossette and receiving the tender expostulations of the countess, Pere Fourchon and Mouche arrived at this establishment. From that vantage-ground Pere Fourchon, under pretence of rope-making, could watch Les Aigues and see every one who went in and out. Nothing escaped him, the opening of the blinds, tete-a-tete loiterings, or the least little incidents of country life, were spied upon by the old fellow, who had set up this business within the last three years,--a trifling circumstance which neither the masters, nor the servants, nor the keepers of Les Aigues had as yet remarked upon.
"Go round to the house by the gate of the Avonne while I put away the tackle," said Pere Fourchon to his attendant, "and when you have blabbed about the thing, they'll no doubt send after me to the Grand- I-Vert, where I am going for a drop of drink,--for it makes one thirsty enough to wade in the water that way. If you do just as I tell you, you'll hook a good breakfast out of them; try to meet the countess, and give a slap at me, and that will put it into her head to come and preach morality or something! There's lots of good wine to get out of it."
After these last instructions, which the sly look in Mouche's face rendered quite superfluous, the old peasant, hugging the otter under his arm, disappeared along the country road.
Half-way between the gate and the village there stood, at the time when Emile Blondet stayed at Les Aigues, one of those houses which are never seen but in parts of France where stone is scarce. Bits of bricks picked up anywhere, cobblestones set like diamonds in the clay mud, formed very solid walls, though worn in places; the roof was supported by stout branches and covered with rushes and straw, while the clumsy shutters and the broken door--in short, everything about the cottage was the product of lucky finds, or of gifts obtained by begging.
The peasant has an instinct for his habitation like that of an animal for its nest or its burrow, and this instinct was very marked in all the arrangements of this cottage. In the first place, the door and the window looked to the north. The house, placed on a little rise in the stoniest angle of a vineyard, was certainly healthful. It was reached by three steps, carefully made with stakes and planks filled in with broken stone and gravel, so that the water ran off rapidly; and as the rain seldom comes from the northward in Burgundy, no dampness could rot the foundations, slight as they were. Below the steps and along the path ran a rustic paling, hidden beneath a hedge of hawthorn and sweet-brier. An arbor, with a few clumsy tables and wooden benches, filled the space between the cottage and the road, and invited the passers-by to rest themselves. At the upper end of the bank by the house roses grew, and wall-flowers, violets, and other flowers that cost nothing. Jessamine and honey-suckle had fastened their tendrils on the roof, mossy already, though the building was far from old.
To the right of the house, the owner had built a stable for two cows. In front of this erection of old boards, a sunken piece of ground served as a yard where, in a corner, was a huge manure-heap. On the other side of the house and the arbor stood a thatched shed, supported on trunks of trees, under which the various outdoor properties of the peasantry were put away,--the utensils of the vine-dressers, their empty casks, logs of wood piled about a mound which contained the oven, the mouth of which opened, as was usual in the houses of the peasantry, under the mantle-piece of the chimney in the kitchen.
About an acre of land adjoined the house, inclosed by an evergreen hedge and planted with grape-vines; tended as peasants tend them,-- that is to say, well-manured, and dug round, and layered so that they usually set their fruit before the vines of the large proprietors in a circuit of ten miles round. A few trees, almond, plum, and apricot, showed their slim heads here and there in this enclosure. Between the rows of vines potatoes and beans were planted. In addition to all this, on the side towards the village and beyond the yard was a bit of damp low ground, favorable for the growth of cabbages and onions (favorite vegetables of the working-classes), which was closed by a wooden gate, through which the cows were driven, trampling the path into mud and covering it with dung.
The house, which had two rooms on the ground-floor, opened upon the vineyard. On this side an outer stairway, roofed with thatch and resting against the wall of the house, led up to the garret, which was lighted by one round window. Under this rustic stairway opened a cellar built of Burgundy brick, containing several casks of wine.
Though the kitchen utensils of the peasantry are usually only two, namely, a frying-pan and an iron pot, with which they manage to do all their cooking, exceptions to this rule, in the shape of two enormous saucepans hanging beneath the mantle-shelf and above a small portable stove, were to be seen in this cottage. In spite, however, of this indication of luxury, the furniture was in keeping with the external appearance of the place. A jar held water, the spoons were of wood or pewter, the dishes, of red clay without and white within, were scaling off and had been mended with pewter rivets; the heavy table and chairs were of pine wood, and for flooring there was nothing better than the hardened earth. Every fifth year the walls received a coat of white- wash and so did the narrow beams of the ceiling, from which hung bacon, strings of onions, bundles of tallow candles, and the bags in which a peasant keeps his seeds; near the bread-box stood an old- fashioned wardrobe in walnut, where the scanty household linen, and the one change of garments together with the holiday attire of the entire family were kept.
Above the mantel of the chimney gleamed a poacher's old gun, not worth five francs,--the wood scorched, the barrel to all appearances never cleaned. An observer might reflect that the protection of a hovel with only a latch, and an outer gate that was only a paling and never closed, needed no better weapon; but still the wonder was to what use it was put. In the first place, though the wood was of the commonest kind, the barrel was carefully selected, and came from a valuable gun, given in all probability to a game-keeper. Moreover, the owner of this weapon never missed his aim; there was between him and his gun the same intimate acquaintance that there is between a workman and his tool. If the muzzle must be raised or lowered the merest fraction in its aim, because it carries just an atom above or below the range, the poacher knows it; he obeys the rule and never misses. An officer of artillery would have found the essential parts of this weapon in good condition notwithstanding its uncleanly appearance. In all that the peasant appropriates to his use, in all that serves him, he displays just the amount of force that is needed, neither more nor less; he attends to the essential and to nothing beyond. External perfection he has no conception of. An unerring judge of the necessary in all things, he thoroughly understands degrees of strength, and knows very well when working for an employer how to give the least possible for the most he can get. This contemptible-looking gun will be found to play a serious part in the life of the family inhabiting this cottage, and you will presently learn how and why.
Have you now taken in all the many details of this hovel, planted about five hundred feet away from the pretty gate of Les Aigues? Do you see it crouching there, like a beggar beside a palace? Well, its roof covered with velvet mosses, its clacking hens, its grunting pig, its straying heifer, all its rural graces have a horrible meaning.
Fastened to a pole, which was stuck in the ground beside the entrance through the fence, was a withered bunch of three pine branches and some old oak-leaves tied together with a rag. Above the door of the house a roving artist had painted, probably in return for his breakfast, a huge capital "I" in green on a white ground two feet square; and for the benefit of those who could read, this witty joke in twelve letters: "Au Grand-I-Vert" (hiver). On the left of the door was a vulgar sign bearing, in colored letters, "Good March beer," and the picture of a foaming pot of the same, with a woman, in a dress excessively low-necked, on one side, and an hussar on the other,--both coarsely colored. Consequently, in spite of the blooming flowers and the fresh country air, this cottage exhaled the same strong and nauseous odor of wine and food which assails you in Paris as you pass the door of the cheap cook-shops of the faubourg.
Now you know the surroundings. Behold the inhabitants and hear their history, which contains more than one lesson for philanthropists.
The proprietor of the Grand-I-Vert, named Francois Tonsard, commends himself to the attention of philosophers by the manner in which he had solved the problem of an idle life and a busy life, so as to make the idleness profitable, and occupation nil.
A jack-of-all-trades, he knew how to cultivate the ground, but for himself only. For others, he dug ditches, gathered fagots, barked the trees, or cut them down. In all such work the employer is at the mercy of the workman. Tonsard owned his plot of ground to the generosity of Mademoiselle Laguerre. In his early youth he had worked by the day for the gardener at Les Aigues; and he really had not his equal in trimming the shrubbery-trees, the hedges, the horn-beams, and the horse-chestnuts. His very name shows hereditary talent. In remote country-places privileges exist which are obtained and preserved with as much care as the merchants of a city display in getting theirs. Mademoiselle Laguerre was one day walking in the garden, when she overheard Tonsard, then a strapping fellow, say, "All I need to live on, and live happily, is an acre of land." The kind creature, accustomed to make others happy, gave him the acre of vineyard near the gate of Blangy, in return for one hundred days' work (a delicate regard for his feelings which was little understood), and allowed him to stay at Les Aigues, where he lived with her servants, who thought him one of the best fellows in Burgundy.
Poor Tonsard (that is what everybody called him) worked about thirty days out of the hundred that he owed; the rest of the time he idled about, talking and laughing with Mademoiselle's women, particularly with Mademoiselle Cochet, the lady's maid, though she was ugly, like all confidential maids of handsome actresses. Laughing with Mademoiselle Cochet signified so many things that Soudry, the fortunate gendarme mentioned in Blondet's letter, still looked askance at Tonsard after the lapse of nearly twenty-five years. The walnut wardrobe, the bedstead with the tester and curtains, and the ornaments about the bedroom were doubtless the result of the said laughter.
Once in possession of his care, Tonsard replied to the first person who happened to mention that Mademoiselle Laguerre had given it to him, "I've bought it deuced hard, and paid well for it. Do rich folks ever give us anything? Are one hundred days' work nothing? It has cost me three hundred francs, and the land is all stones." But that speech never got beyond the regions of his own class.
Tonsard built his house himself, picking up the materials here and there as he could,--getting a day's work out of this one and that one, gleaning in the rubbish that was thrown away, often asking for things and always obtaining them. A discarded door cut in two for convenience in carrying away became the door of the stable; the window was the sash of a green-house. In short, the rubbish of the chateau, served to build the fatal cottage.
Saved from the draft by Gaubertin, the steward of Les Aigues, whose father was prosecuting-attorney of the department, and who, moreover, could refuse nothing to Mademoiselle Cochet, Tonsard married as soon as his house was finished and his vines had begun to bear. A well- grown fellow of twenty-three, in everybody's good graces at Les Aigues, on whom Mademoiselle had bestowed an acre of her land, and who appeared to be a good worker, he had the art to ring the praises of his negative merits, and so obtained the daughter of a farmer on the Ronquerolles estate, which lies beyond the forest of Les Aigues.
This farmer held the lease of half a farm, which was going to ruin in his hands for want of a helpmate. A widower, and inconsolable for the loss of his wife, he tried to drown his troubles, like the English, in wine, and then, when he had put the poor deceased out of his mind, he found himself married, so the village maliciously declared, to a woman named Boisson. From being a farmer he became once more a laborer, but an idle and drunken laborer, quarrelsome and vindictive, capable of any ill-deed, like most of his class when they fall from a well-to-do state of life into poverty. This man, whose practical information and knowledge of reading and writing placed him far above his fellow- workmen, while his vices kept him at the level of pauperism, you have already seen on the banks of the Avonne, measuring his cleverness with that of one of the cleverest men in Paris, in a bucolic overlooked by Virgil.
Pere Fourchon, formerly a schoolmaster at Blangy, lost that place through misconduct and his singular ideas as to public education. He helped the children to make paper boats with their alphabets much oftener than he taught them how to spell; he scolded them in so remarkable a manner for pilfering fruit that his lectures might really have passed for lessons on the best way of scaling the walls. From teacher he became a postman. In this capacity, which serves as a refuge to many an old soldier, Pere Fourchon was daily reprimanded. Sometimes he forgot the letters in a tavern, at other times he kept them in his pocket. When he was drunk he left those for one village in another village; when he was sober he read them. Consequently, he was soon dismissed. No longer able to serve the State, Pere Fourchon ended by becoming a manufacturer. In the country a poor man can always get something to do, and make at least a pretence of gaining an honest livelihood. At sixty-eight years of age the old man started his rope- walk, a manufactory which requires the very smallest capital. The workshop is, as we have seen, any convenient wall; the machinery costs about ten francs. The apprentice slept, like his master, in a hay- loft, and lived on whatever he could pick up. The rapacity of the law in the matter of doors and windows expires "sub dio." The tow to make the first rope can be borrowed. But the principal revenue of Pere Fourchon and his satellite Mouche, the natural son of one of his natural daughters, came from the otters; and then there were breakfasts and dinners given them by peasants who could neither read nor write, and were glad to use the old fellow's talents when they had a bill to make out, or a letter to dispatch. Besides all this, he knew how to play the clarionet, and he went about with his friend Vermichel, the miller of Soulanges, to village weddings and the grand balls given at the Tivoli of Soulanges.
Vermichel's name was Michel Vert, but the transposition was so generally used that Brunet, the clerk of the municipal court of Soulanges, was in the habit of writing Michel-Jean-Jerome Vert, called Vermichel, practitioner. Vermichel, a famous violin in the Burgundian regiment of former days, had procured for Pere Fourchon, in recognition of certain services, a situation as practitioner, which in remote country-places usually devolves on those who are able to sign their name. Pere Fourchon therefore added to his other avocations that of witness, or practitioner of legal papers, whenever the Sieur Brunet came to draw them in the districts of Cerneux, Conches, and Blangy. Vermichel and Fourchon, allied by a friendship of twenty years' tippling, might really be considered a business firm.
Mouche and Fourchon, bound together by vice as Mentor and Telemachus by virtue, travelled like the latter, in search of their father, "panis angelorum,"--the only Latin words which the old fellow's memory had retained. They went about scraping up the pickings of the Grand-I- Vert, and those of the adjacent chateaux; for between them, in their busiest and most prosperous years, they had never contrived to make as much as three hundred and sixty fathoms of rope. In the first place, no dealer within a radius of fifty miles would have trusted his tow to either Mouche or Fourchon. The old man, surpassing the miracles of modern chemistry, knew too well how to resolve the tow into the all- benignant juice of the grape. Moreover, his triple functions of public writer for three townships, legal practitioner for one, and clarionet- player at large, hindered, so he said, the development of his business.
Thus it happened that Tonsard was disappointed from the start in the hope he had indulged of increasing his comfort by an increase of property in marriage. The idle son-in-law had chanced, by a very common accident, on an idler father-in-law. Matters went all the worse because Tonsard's wife, gifted with a sort of rustic beauty, being tall and well-made, was not fond of work in the open air. Tonsard blamed his wife for her father's short-comings, and ill-treated her, with the customary revenge of the common people, whose minds take in only an effect and rarely look back to causes.
Finding her fetters heavy, the woman lightened them. She used Tonsard's vices to get the better of him. Loving comfort and good eating herself, she encouraged his idleness and gluttony. In the first place, she managed to procure the good-will of the servants of the chateau, and Tonsard, in view of the results, made no complaint as to the means. He cared very little what his wife did, so long as she did all he wanted of her. That is the secret agreement of many a household. Madame Tonsard established the wine-shop of the Grand-I- Vert, her first customers being the servants of Les Aigues and the keepers and huntsmen.
Gaubertin, formerly steward to Mademoiselle Laguerre, one of La Tonsard's chief patrons, gave her several puncheons of excellent wine to attract custom. The effect of these gifts (continued as long as Gaubertin remained a bachelor) and the fame of her rather lawless beauty commended this beauty to the Don Juans of the valley, and filled the wine-shop of the Grand-I-Vert. Being a lover of good eating, La Tonsard was naturally an excellent cook; and though her talents were only exercised on the common dishes of the country, jugged hare, game sauce, stewed fish and omelets, she was considered in all the country round to be an admirable cook of the sort of food which is eaten at a counter and spiced in a way to excite a desire for drink. By the end of two years, she had managed to rule Tonsard, and turn him to evil courses, which, indeed, he asked no better than to indulge in.
The rascal was continually poaching, and with nothing to fear from it. The intimacies of his wife with Gaubertin and the keepers and the rural authorities, together with the laxity of the times, secured him impunity. As soon as his children were large enough he made them serviceable to his comfort, caring no more for their morality than for that of his wife. He had two sons and two daughters. Tonsard, who lived, as did his wife, from hand to mouth, might have come to an end of this easy life if he had not maintained a sort of martial law over his family, which compelled them to work for the preservation of it. When he had brought up his children, at the cost of those from whom his wife was able to extort gifts, the following charter and budget were the law at the Grand-I-Vert.
Tonsard's old mother and his two daughters, Catherine and Marie, went into the woods at certain seasons twice a-day, and came back laden with fagots which overhung the crutch of their poles at least two feet beyond their heads. Though dried sticks were placed on the outside of the heap, the inside was made of live wood cut from young trees. In plain words, Tonsard helped himself to his winter's fuel in the woods of Les Aigues. Besides this, father and sons were constantly poaching. From September to March, hares, rabbits, partridges, deer, in short, all the game that was not eaten at the chateau, was sold at Blangy and at Soulanges, where Tonsard's two daughters peddled milk in the early mornings,--coming back with the news of the day, in return for the gossip they carried about Les Aigues, and Cerneux, and Conches. In the months when the three Tonsards were unable to hunt with a gun, they set traps. If the traps caught more game than they could eat, La Tonsard made pies of it and sent them to Ville-aux-Fayes. In harvest- time seven Tonsards--the old mother, the two sons (until they were seventeen years of age), the two daughters, together with old Fourchon and Mouche--gleaned, and generally brought in about sixteen bushels a day of all grains, rye, barley, wheat, all good to grind.
The two cows, led to the roadside by the youngest girl, always managed to stray into the meadows of Les Aigues; but as, if it ever chanced that some too flagrant trespass compelled the keepers to take notice of it, the children were either whipped or deprived of a coveted dainty, they had acquired such extraordinary aptitude in hearing the enemy's footfall that the bailiff or the park-keeper of Les Aigues was very seldom able to detect them. Besides, the relations of those estimable functionaries with Tonsard and his wife tied a bandage over their eyes. The cows, held by long ropes, obeyed a mere twitch or a special low call back to the roadside, knowing very well that, the danger once past, they could finish their browsing in the next field. Old mother Tonsard, who was getting more and more infirm, succeeded Mouche in his duties, after Fourchon, under pretence of caring for his natural grandson's education, kept him to himself; while Marie and Catherine made hay in the woods. These girls knew the exact spots where the fine forest-grass abounded, and there they cut and spread and cocked and garnered it, supplying two thirds, at least, of the winter fodder, and leading the cows on all fine days to sheltered nooks where they could still find pasture. In certain parts of the valley of Les Aigues, as in all places protected by a chain of mountains, in Piedmont and in Lombardy for instance, there are spots where the grass keeps green all the year. Such fields, called in Italy "marciti," are of great value; though in France they are often in danger of being injured by snow and ice. This phenomenon is due, no doubt, to some favorable exposure, and to the infiltration of water which keeps the ground at a warmer temperature.
The calves were sold for about eighty francs. The milk, deducting the time when the cows calved or went dry, brought in about one hundred and sixty francs a year besides supplying the wants of the family. Tonsard himself managed to earn another hundred and sixty by doing odd jobs of one kind or another.
The sale of food and wine in the tavern, after all costs were paid, returned a profit of about three hundred francs, for the great drinking-bouts happened only at certain times and in certain seasons; and as the topers who indulged in them gave Tonsard and his wife due notice, the latter bought in the neighboring town the exact quantity of provisions needed and no more. The wine produced by Tonsard's vineyard was sold in ordinary years for twenty francs a cask to a wine-dealer at Soulanges with whom Tonsard was intimate. In very prolific years he got as much as twelve casks from his vines; but eight was the average; and Tonsard kept half for his own traffic. In all wine-growing districts the gleaning of the large vineyards gives a good perquisite, and out of it the Tonsard family usually managed to obtain three casks more. But being, as we have seen, sheltered and protected by the keepers, they showed no conscience in their proceedings,--entering vineyards before the harvesters were out of them, just as they swarmed into the wheat-fields before the sheaves were made. So, the seven or eight casks of wine, as much gleaned as harvested, were sold for a good price. However, out of these various proceeds the Grand-I-Vert was mulcted in a good sum for the personal consumption of Tonsard and his wife, who wanted the best of everything to eat, and better wine than they sold,--which they obtained from their friend at Soulanges in payment for their own. In short, the money scraped together by this family amounted to about nine hundred francs, for they fattened two pigs a year, one for themselves and the other to sell.
The idlers and scapegraces and also the laborers took a fancy to the tavern of the Grand-I-Vert, partly because of La Tonsard's merits, and partly on account of the hail-fellow-well-met relation existing between this family and the lower classes of the valley. The two daughters, both remarkably handsome, followed the example of their mother as to morals. Moreover, the long established fame of the Grand- I-Vert, dating from 1795, made it a venerable spot in the eyes of the common people. From Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes, workmen came there to meet and make their bargains and hear the news collected by the Tonsard women and by Mouche and old Fourchon, or supplied by Vermichel and Brunet, that renowned official, when he came to the tavern in search of his practitioner. There the price of hay and of wine was settled; also that of a day's work and of piece-work. Tonsard, a sovereign judge in such matters, gave his advice and opinion while drinking with his guests. Soulanges, according to a saying in these parts, was a town for society and amusement only, while Blangy was a business borough; crushed, however, by the great commercial centre of Ville-aux-Fayes, which had become in the last twenty-five years the capital of this flourishing valley. The cattle and grain market was held at Blangy, in the public square, and the prices there obtained served as a tariff for the whole arrondissement.
By staying in the house and doing no out-door work, La Tonsard continued fresh and fair and dimpled, in comparison with the women who worked in the fields and faded as rapidly as the flowers, becoming old and haggard before they were thirty. She liked to be well-dressed. In point of fact, she was only clean, but in a village cleanliness is a luxury. The daughters, better dressed than their means warranted, followed their mother's example. Beneath their outer garment, which was relatively handsome, they wore linen much finer than that of the richest peasant women. On fete-days they appeared in dresses that were really pretty, obtained, Heaven knows how! For one thing, the men- servants at Les Aigues sold to them, at prices that were easily paid, the cast-off clothing of the lady's-maids, which, after sweeping the streets of Paris and being made over to fit Marie and Catherine, appeared triumphantly in the precincts of the Grand-I-Vert. These girls, bohemians of the valley, received not one penny in money from their parents, who gave them food only, and the wretched pallets on which they slept with their grandmother in the barn, where their brothers also slept, curled up in the hay like animals. Neither father nor mother paid any heed to this propinquity.
The iron age and the age of gold are more alike than we think for. In the one nothing aroused vigilance; in the other, everything rouses it; the result to society is, perhaps, very much the same. The presence of old Mother Tonsard, which was more a necessity than a precaution, was simply one immorality the more. And thus it was that the Abbe Brossette, after studying the morals of his parishioners, made this pregnant remark to his bishop:--
"Monseigneur, when I observe the stress that the peasantry lay on their poverty, I realize how they fear to lose that excuse for their immorality."
Though everybody knew that the family had no principles and no scruples, nothing was ever said against the morals of the Grand-I- Vert. At the beginning of this book it is necessary to explain, once for all, to persons accustomed to the decencies of middle-class life, that the peasants have no decency in their domestic habits and customs. They make no appeal to morality when their daughters are seduced, unless the seducer is rich and timid. Children, until the State takes possession of them, are used either as capital or as instruments of convenience. Self-interest has become, specially since 1789, the sole motive of the masses; they never ask if an action is legal or immoral, but only if it is profitable. Morality, which is not to be confounded with religion, begins only at a certain competence,-- just as one sees, in a higher sphere, how delicacy blossoms in the soul when fortune decorates the furniture. A positively moral and upright man is rare among the peasantry. Do you ask why? Among the many reasons that may be given for this state of things, the principal one is this: Through the nature of their social functions, the peasants live a purely material life which approximates to that of savages, and their constant union with nature tends to foster it. When toil exhausts the body it takes from the mind its purifying action, especially among the ignorant. The Abbe Brossette was right in saying that the state policy of the peasant is his poverty.
Meddling in everybody's interests, Tonsard heard everybody's complaints, and often instigated frauds to benefit the needy. His wife, a kindly appearing woman, had a good word for evil-doers, and never withheld either approval or personal help from her customers in anything they undertook against the rich. This inn, a nest of vipers, brisk and venomous, seething and active, was a hot-bed for the hatred of the peasants and the workingmen against the masters and the wealthy.
The prosperous life of the Tonsards was, therefore, an evil example. Others asked themselves why they should not take their wood, as the Tonsards did, from the forest; why not pasture their cows and have game to eat and to sell as well as they; why not harvest without sowing the grapes and the grain. Accordingly, the pilfering thefts which thin the woods and tithe the ploughed lands and meadows and vineyards became habitual in this valley, and soon existed as a right throughout the districts of Blangy, Conches, and Cerneux, all adjacent to the domain of Les Aigues. This sore, for certain reasons which will be given in due time, did far greater injury to Les Aigues than to the estates of Ronquerolles or Soulanges. You must not, however, fancy that Tonsard, his wife and children, and his old mother ever deliberately said to themselves, "We will live by theft, and commit it as cleverly as we can." Such habits grow slowly. To the dried sticks they added, in the first instance, a single bit of good wood; then, emboldened by habit and a carefully prepared immunity (necessary to plans which this history will unfold), they ended at last in cutting "their wood," and stealing almost their entire livelihood. Pasturage for the cows and the abuses of gleaning were established as customs little by little. When the Tonsards and the do-nothings of the valley had tasted the sweets of these four rights (thus captured by rural paupers, and amounting to actual robbery) we can easily imagine they would never give them up unless compelled by a power greater than their own audacity.
At the time when this history begins Tonsard, then about fifty years of age, tall and strong, rather stout than thin, with curly black hair, skin highly colored and marbled like a brick with purple blotches, yellow whites to the eyes, large ears with broad flaps, a muscular frame, encased, however, in flabby flesh, a retreating forehead, and a hanging lip,--Tonsard, such as you see him, hid his real character under an external stupidity, lightened at times by a show of experience, which seemed all the more intelligent because he had acquired in the company of his father-in-law a sort of bantering talk, much affected by old Fourchon and Vermichel. His nose, flattened at the end as if the finger of God intended to mark him, gave him a voice which came from his palate, like that of all persons disfigured by a disease which thickens the nasal passages, through which the air then passes with difficulty. His upper teeth overlapped each other, and this defect (which Lavater calls terrible) was all the more apparent because they were as white as those of a dog. But for a certain lawless and slothful good humor, and the free-and-easy ways of a rustic tippler, the man would have alarmed the least observing of spectators.
If the portraits of Tonsard, his inn, and his father-in-law take a prominent place in this history, it is because that place belongs to him and to the inn and to the family. In the first place, their existence, so minutely described, is the type of a hundred other households in the valley of Les Aigues. Secondly, Tonsard, without being other than the instrument of deep and active hatreds, had an immense influence on the struggle that was about to take place, being the friend and counsellor of all the complainants of the lower classes. His inn, as we shall presently see, was the rendezvous for the aggressors; in fact, he became their chief, partly on account of the fear he inspired throughout the valley--less, however, by his actual deeds than by those that were constantly expected of him. The threat of this man was as much dreaded as the thing threatened, so that he never had occasion to execute it.
Every revolt, open or concealed, has its banner. The banner of the marauders, the drunkards, the idlers, the sluggards of the valley des Aigues was the terrible tavern of the Grand-I-Vert. Its frequenters found amusement there,--as rare and much-desired a thing in the country as in a city. Moreover, there was no other inn along the country-road for over twelve miles, a distance which conveyances (even when laden) could easily do in three hours; so that those who went from Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes always stopped at the Grand-I-Vert, if only to refresh themselves. The miller of Les Aigues, who was also assistant-mayor, and his men came there. The grooms and valets of the general were not averse to Tonsard's wine, rendered attractive by Tonsard's daughters; so the Grand-I-Vert held subterraneous communication with the chateau through the servants, and knew immediately everything that they knew. It is impossible either by benefits or through their own self-interests, to break up the perpetual understanding that exists between the servants of a household and the people from whom they come. Domestic service is of the masses, and to the masses it will ever remain attached. This fatal comradeship explains the reticence of the last words of Charles the groom, as he and Blondet reached the portico of the chateau.