Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
Chapter V. Enemies Face to Face
While breakfast was in progress at the chateau, Francois, the head footman, whispered to Blondet, but loud enough for the general to overhear him,--
"Monsieur, Pere Fourchon's boy is here; he says they have caught the otter, and wants to know if you would like it, or whether they shall take it to the sub-prefect at Ville-aux-Fayes."
Emile Blondet, though himself a past-master of hoaxing, could not keep his cheeks from blushing like those of a virgin who hears an indecorous story of which she knows the meaning.
"Ha! ha! so you have hunted the otter this morning with Pere Fourchon?" cried the general, with a roar of laughter.
"What is it?" asked the countess, uneasy at her husband's laugh.
"When a man of wit and intelligence is taken in by old Fourchon," continued the general, "a retired cuirassier need not blush for having hunted that otter; which bears an enormous resemblance to the third posthorse we are made to pay for and never see." With that he went off into further explosions of laughter, in the midst of which he contrived to say: "I am not surprised you had to change your boots-- and your trousers; I have no doubt you have been wading! The joke didn't go as far as that with me,--I stayed on the bank; but then, you know, you are so much more intelligent than I--"
"But you forget," interrupted Madame de Montcornet, "that I do not know what you are talking of."
At these words, said with some pique, the general grew serious, and Blondet told the story of his fishing for the otter.
"But if they really have an otter," said the countess, "those poor people are not to blame."
"Oh, but it is ten years since an otter has been seen about here," said the pitiless general.
"Monsieur le comte," said Francois, "the boy swears by all that's sacred that he has got one."
"If they have one I'll buy it," said the general.
"I don't suppose," remarked the Abbe Brossette, "that God has condemned Les Aigues to never have otters."
"Ah, Monsieur le cure!" cried Blondet, "if you bring the Almighty against me--"
"But what is all this? Who is here?" said the countess, hastily.
"Mouche, madame,--the boy who goes about with old Fourchon," said the footman.
"Bring him in--that is, if Madame will allow it?" said the general; "he may amuse you."
Mouche presently appeared, in his usual state of comparative nudity. Beholding this personification of poverty in the middle of this luxurious dining-room, the cost of one panel of which would have been a fortune to the bare-legged, bare-breasted, and bare-headed child, it was impossible not to be moved by an impulse of charity. The boy's eyes, like blazing coals, gazed first at the luxuries of the room, and then at those on the table.
"Have you no mother?" asked Madame de Montcornet, unable otherwise to explain the child's nakedness.
"No, ma'am; m'ma died of grief for losing p'pa, who went to the army in 1812 without marrying her with papers, and got frozen, saving your presence. But I've my Grandpa Fourchon, who is a good man,--though he does beat me bad sometimes."
"How is it, my dear, that such wretched people can be found on your estate?" said the countess, looking at the general.
"Madame la comtesse," said the abbe, "in this district we have none but voluntary paupers. Monsieur le comte does all he can; but we have to do with a class of persons who are without religion and who have but one idea, that of living at your expense."
"But, my dear abbe," said Blondet, "you are here to improve their morals."
"Monsieur," replied the abbe, "my bishop sent me here as if on a mission to savages; but, as I had the honor of telling him, the savages of France cannot be reached. They make it a law unto themselves not to listen to us; whereas the church does get some hold on the savages of America."
"M'sieur le cure, they do help me a bit now," remarked Mouche; "but if I went to your church they wouldn't, and the other folks would make game of my breeches."
"Religion ought to begin by giving him trousers, my dear abbe," said Blondet. "In your foreign missions don't you begin by coaxing the savages?"
"He would soon sell them," answered the abbe, in a low tone; "besides, my salary does not enable me to begin on that line."
"Monsieur le cure is right," said the general, looking at Mouche.
The policy of the little scamp was to appear not to hear what they were saying when it was against himself.
"The boy is intelligent enough to know good from evil," continued the count, "and he is old enough to work; yet he thinks of nothing but how to commit evil without being found out. All the keepers know him. He is very well aware that the master of an estate may witness a trespass on his property and yet have no right to arrest the trespasser. I have known him keep his cows boldly in my meadows, though he knew I saw him; but now, ever since I have been mayor, he runs away fast enough."
"Oh, that is very wrong," said the countess; "you should not take other people's things, my little man."
"Madame, we must eat. My grandpa gives me more slaps than food, and they don't fill my stomach, slaps don't. When the cows come in I milk 'em just a little and I live on that. Monseigneur isn't so poor but what he'll let me drink a drop o' milk the cows get from his grass?"
"Perhaps he hasn't eaten anything to-day," said the countess, touched by his misery. "Give him some bread and the rest of that chicken; let him have his breakfast," she added, looking at the footman. "Where do you sleep, my child?"
"Anywhere, madame; under the stars in summer, and wherever they'll let us in winter."
"How old are you?"
"There is still time to bring him up to better ways," said the countess to her husband.
"He will make a good soldier," said the general, gruffly; "he is well toughened. I went through that kind of thing myself, and here I am."
"Excuse me, general, I don't belong to nobody," said the boy. "I can't be drafted. My poor mother wasn't married, and I was born in a field. I'm a son of the 'airth,' as grandpa says. M'ma saved me from the army, that she did! My name ain't no more Mouche than nothing at all. Grandpa keeps telling me all my advantages. I'm not on the register, and when I'm old enough to be drafted I can go all over France and they can't take me."
"Are you fond of your grandfather?" said the countess, trying to look into the child's heart.
"My! doesn't he box my ears when he feels like it! but then, after all, he's such fun; he's such good company! He says he pays himself that way for having taught me to read and write."
"Can you read?" asked the count.
"Yah, I should think so, Monsieur le comte, and fine writing too--just as true as we've got that otter."
"Read that," said the count, giving him a newspaper.
"The Qu-o-ti-dienne," read Mouche, hesitating only three times.
Every one, even the abbe, laughed.
"Why do you make me read that newspaper?" cried Mouche, angrily. "My grandpa says it is made up to please the rich, and everybody knows later just what's in it."
"The child is right, general," said Blondet; "and he makes me long to see my hoaxing friend again."
Mouche understood perfectly that he was posing for the amusement of the company; the pupil of Pere Fourchon was worthy of his master, and he forthwith began to cry.
"How can you tease a child with bare feet?" said the countess.
"And who thinks it quite natural that his grandfather should recoup himself for his education by boxing his ears," said Blondet.
"Tell me, my poor little fellow, have you really caught an otter?"
"Yes, madame; as true as that you are the prettiest lady I have seen, or ever shall see," said the child, wiping his eyes.
"Then show me the otter," said the general.
"Oh M'sieur le comte, my grandpa has hidden it; but it was kicking still when we were at work at the rope-walk. Send for my grandpa, please; he wants to sell it to you himself."
"Take him into the kitchen," said the countess to Francois, "and give him his breakfast, and send Charles to fetch Pere Fourchon. Find some shoes, and a pair of trousers and a waistcoat for the poor child; those who come here naked must go away clothed."
"May God bless you, my beautiful lady," said Mouche, departing. "M'sieur le cure may feel quite sure that I'll keep the things and wear 'em fete-days, because you give 'em to me."
Emile and Madame Montcornet looked at each other with some surprise, and seemed to say to the abbe, "The boy is not a fool!"
"It is quite true, madame," said the abbe after the child had gone, "that we cannot reckon with Poverty. I believe it has hidden excuses of which God alone can judge,--physical excuses, often congenital; moral excuses, born in the character, produced by an order of things that are often the result of qualities which, unhappily for society, have no vent. Deeds of heroism performed upon the battle-field ought to teach us that the worst scoundrels may become heroes. But here in this place you are living under exceptional circumstances; and if your benevolence is not controlled by reflection and judgment you run the risk of supporting your enemies."
"Our enemies?" exclaimed the countess.
"Cruel enemies," said the general, gravely.
"Pere Fourchon and his son-in-law Tonsard," said the abbe, "are the strength and the intelligence of the lower classes of this valley, who consult them on all occasions. The Machiavelism of these people is beyond belief. Ten peasants meeting in a tavern are the small change of great political questions."
Just then Francois announced Monsieur Sibilet.
"He is my minister of finance," said the general, smiling; "ask him in. He will explain to you the gravity of the situation," he added, looking at his wife and Blondet.
"Because he has reasons of his own for not concealing it," said the cure, in a low tone.
Blondet then beheld a personage of whom he had heard much ever since his arrival, and whom he desired to know, the land-steward of Les Aigues. He saw a man of medium height, about thirty years of age, with a sulky look and a discontented face, on which a smile sat ill. Beneath an anxious brow a pair of greenish eyes evaded the eyes of others, and so disguised their thought. Sibilet was dressed in a brown surtout coat, black trousers and waistcoat, and wore his hair long and flat to the head, which gave him a clerical look. His trousers barely concealed that he was knock-kneed. Though his pallid complexion and flabby flesh gave the impression of an unhealthy constitution, Sibilet was really robust. The tones of his voice, which were a little thick, harmonized with this unflattering exterior.
Blondet gave a hasty look at the abbe, and the glance with which the young priest answered it showed the journalist that his own suspicions about the steward were certainties to the curate.
"Did you not tell me, my dear Sibilet," said the general, "that you estimate the value of what the peasants steal from us at a quarter of the whole revenue?"
"Much more than that, Monsieur le comte," replied the steward. "The poor about here get more from your property than the State exacts in taxes. A little scamp like Mouche can glean his two bushels a day. Old women, whom you would really think at their last gasp, become at the harvest and vintage times as active and healthy as girls. You can witness that phenomenon very soon," said Sibilet, addressing Blondet, "for the harvest, which was put back by the rains in July will begin next week, when they cut the rye. The gleaners must have a certificate of pauperism from the mayor of the district, and no district should allow any one to glean except the paupers; but the districts of one canton do glean in those of another without certificate. If we have sixty real paupers in our district, there are at least forty others who could support themselves if they were not so idle. Even persons who have a business leave it to glean in the fields and in the vineyards. All these people, taken together, gather in this neighborhood something like three hundred bushels a day; the harvest lasts two weeks, and that makes four thousand five hundred bushels in this district alone. The gleaning takes more from an estate than the taxes. As to the abuse of pasturage, it robs us of fully one-sixth the produce of the meadows; and as to that of the woods, it is incalculable,--they have actually come to cutting down six-year-old trees. The loss to you, Monsieur le comte, amounts to fully twenty-odd thousand francs a year."
"Do you hear that, madame?" said the general to his wife.
"Is it not exaggerated?" asked Madame de Montcornet.
"No, madame, unfortunately not," said the abbe. "Poor Niseron, that old fellow with the white head, who combines the functions of bell- ringer, beadle, grave-digger, sexton, and clerk, in defiance of his republican opinions,--I mean the grandfather of the little Genevieve whom you placed with Madame Michaud--"
"La Pechina," said Sibilet, interrupting the abbe.
"Pechina!" said the countess, "whom do you mean?"
"Madame la comtesse, when you met little Genevieve on the road in a miserable condition, you cried out in Italian, 'Piccina!' The word became a nickname, and is now corrupted all through the district into Pechina," said the abbe. "The poor girl comes to church with Madame Michaud and Madame Sibilet."
"And she is none the better for it," said Sibilet, "for the others ill-treat her on account of her religion."
"Well, that poor old man of seventy gleans, honestly, about a bushel and a half a day," continued the priest; "but his natural uprightness prevents him from selling his gleanings as others do,--he keeps them for his own consumption. Monsieur Langlume, your miller, grinds his flour gratis at my request, and my servant bakes his bread with mine."
"I had quite forgotten my little protegee," said the countess, troubled at Sibilet's remark. "Your arrival," she added to Blondet, "has quite turned my head. But after breakfast I will take you to the gate of the Avonne and show you the living image of those women whom the painters of the fifteenth century delighted to perpetuate."
The sound of Pere Fourchon's broken sabots was now heard; after depositing them in the antechamber, he was brought to the door of the dining-room by Francois. At a sign from the countess, Francois allowed him to pass in, followed by Mouche with his mouth full and carrying the otter, hanging by a string tied to its yellow paws, webbed like those of a palmiped. He cast upon his four superiors sitting at table, and also upon Sibilet, that look of mingled distrust and servility which serves as a veil to the thoughts of the peasantry; then he brandished his amphibian with a triumphant air.
"Here it is!" he cried, addressing Blondet.
"My otter!" returned the Parisian, "and well paid for."
"Oh, my dear gentleman," replied Pere Fourchon, "yours got away; she is now in her burrow, and she won't come out, for she's a female,-- this is a male; Mouche saw him coming just as you went away. As true as you live, as true as that Monsieur le comte covered himself and his cuirassiers with glory at Waterloo, the otter is mine, just as much as Les Aigues belongs to Monseigneur the general. But the otter is yours for twenty francs; if not I'll take it to the sub-prefect. If Monsieur Gourdon thinks it too dear, then I'll give you the preference; that's only fair, as we hunted together this morning!"
"Twenty francs!" said Blondet. "In good French you can't call that giving the preference."
"Hey, my dear gentleman," cried the old fellow. "Perhaps I don't know French, and I'll ask it in good Burgundian; as long as I get the money, I don't care, I'll talk Latin: 'latinus, latina, latinum'! Besides, twenty francs is what you promised me this morning. My children have already stolen the silver you gave me; I wept about it, coming along,--ask Charles if I didn't. Not that I'd arrest 'em for the value of ten francs and have 'em up before the judge, no! But just as soon as I earn a few pennies, they make me drink and get 'em out of me. Ah! it is hard, hard to be reduced to go and get my wine elsewhere. But just see what children are these days! That's what we got by the Revolution; it is all for the children now-a-days, and parents are suppressed. I'm bringing up Mouche on another tack; he loves me, the little scamp,"--giving his grandson a poke.
"It seems to me you are making him a little thief, like all the rest," said Sibilet; "he never lies down at night without some sin on his conscience."
"Ha! Monsieur Sibilet, his conscience is as clean as yours any day! Poor child! what can he steal? A little grass! that's better than throttling a man! He don't know mathematics like you, nor subtraction, nor addition, nor multiplication,--you are very unjust to us, that you are! You call us a nest of brigands, but you are the cause of the misunderstandings between our good landlord here, who is a worthy man, and the rest of us, who are all worthy men,--there ain't an honester part of the country than this. Come, what do you mean? do I own property? don't I go half-naked, and Mouche too? Fine sheets we slept in, washed by the dew every morning! and unless you want the air we breathe and the sunshine we drink, I should like to know what we have that you can take away from us! The rich folks rob as they sit in their chimney-corners,--and more profitably, too, than by picking up a few sticks in the woods. I don't see no game-keepers or patrols after Monsieur Gaubertin, who came here as naked as a worm and is now worth his millions. It's easy said, 'Robbers!' Here's fifteen years that old Guerbet, the tax-gatherer at Soulanges, carries his money along the roads by the dead of night, and nobody ever took a farthing from him; is that like a land of robbers? has robbery made us rich? Show me which of us two, your class or mine, live the idlest lives and have the most to live on without earning it."
"If you were to work," said the abbe, "you would have property. God blesses labor."
"I don't want to contradict you, M'sieur l'abbe, for you are wiser than I, and perhaps you'll know how to explain something that puzzles me. Now see, here I am, ain't I?--that drunken, lazy, idle, good-for- nothing old Fourchon, who had an education and was a farmer, and got down in the mud and never got up again,--well, what difference is there between me and that honest and worthy old Niseron, seventy years old (and that's my age) who has dug the soil for sixty years and got up every day before it was light to go to his work, and has made himself an iron body and a fine soul? Well, isn't he as bad off as I am? His little granddaughter, Pechina, is at service with Madame Michaud, whereas my little Mouche is as free as air. So that poor good man gets rewarded for his virtues in exactly the same way that I get punished for my vices. He don't know what a glass of good wine is, he's as sober as an apostle, he buries the dead, and I--I play for the living to dance. He is always in a peck o' troubles, while I slip along in a devil-may-care way. We have come along about even in life; we've got the same snow on our heads, the same funds in our pockets, and I supply him with rope to ring his bell. He's a republican and I'm not even a publican,--that's all the difference as far as I can see. A peasant may do good or do evil (according to your ideas) and he'll go out of the world just as he came into it, in rags; while you wear the fine clothes."
No one interrupted Pere Fourchon, who seemed to owe his eloquence to his potations. At first Sibilet tried to cut him short, but desisted at a sign from Blondet. The abbe, the general, and the countess, all understood from the expression of the writer's eye that he wanted to study the question of pauperism from life, and perhaps take his revenge on Pere Fourchon.
"What sort of education are you giving Mouche?" asked Blondet. "Do you expect to make him any better than your daughters?"
"Does he ever speak to him of God?" said the priest.
"Oh, no, no! Monsieur le cure, I don't tell him to fear God, but men. God is good; he has promised us poor folks, so you say, the kingdom of heaven, because the rich people keep the earth to themselves. I tell him: 'Mouche! fear the prison, and keep out of it,--for that's the way to the scaffold. Don't steal anything, make people give it to you. Theft leads to murder, and murder brings down the justice of men. The razor of justice,--that's what you've got to fear; it lets the rich sleep easy and keeps the poor awake. Learn to read. Education will teach you ways to grab money under cover of the law, like that fine Monsieur Gaubertin; why, you can even be a land-steward like Monsieur Sibilet here, who gets his rations out of Monsieur le comte. The thing to do is to keep well with the rich, and pick up the crumbs that fall from their tables.' That's what I call giving him a good, solid education; and you'll always find the little rascal on the side of the law,--he'll be a good citizen and take care of me."
"What do you mean to make of him?" asked Blondet.
"A servant, to begin with," returned Fourchon, "because then he'll see his masters close by, and learn something; he'll complete his education, I'll warrant you. Good example will be a fortune to him, with the law on his side like the rest of you. If M'sieur le comte would only take him in his stables and let him learn to groom the horses, the boy will be mighty pleased, for though I've taught him to fear men, he don't fear animals."
"You are a clever fellow, Pere Fourchon," said Blondet; "you know what you are talking about, and there's sense in what you say."
"Oh, sense? no; I left my sense at the Grand-I-Vert when I lost those silver pieces."
"How is it that a man of your capacity should have dropped so low? As things are now, a peasant can only blame himself for his poverty; he is a free man, and he can become a rich one. It is not as it used to be. If a peasant lays by his money, he can always buy a bit of land and become his own master."
"I've seen the olden time and I've seen the new, my dear wise gentleman," said Fourchon; "the sign over the door has changed, that's true, but the wine is the same,--to-day is the younger brother of yesterday, that's all. Put that in your newspaper! Are we poor folks free? We still belong to the same parish, and its lord is always there,--I call him Toil. The hoe, our sole property, has never left our hands. Let it be the old lords or the present taxes which take the best of our earnings, the fact remains that we sweat our lives out in toil."
"But you could undertake a business, and try to make your fortune," said Blondet.
"Try to make my fortune! And where shall I try? If I wish to leave my own province, I must get a passport, and that costs forty sous. Here's forty years that I've never had a slut of a forty-sous piece jingling against another in my pocket. If you want to travel you need as many crowns as there are villages, and there are mighty few Fourchons who have enough to get to six of 'em. It is only the draft that gives us a chance to get away. And what good does the army do us? The colonels live by the solider, just as the rich folks live by the peasant; and out of every hundred of 'em you won't find more than one of our breed. It is just as it is the world over, one rolling in riches, for a hundred down in the mud. Why are we in the mud? Ask God and the usurers. The best we can do is to stay in our own parts, where we are penned like sheep by the force of circumstances, as our fathers were by the rule of the lords. As for me, what do I care what shackles they are that keep me here? let it be the law of public necessity or the tyranny of the old lords, it is all the same; we are condemned to dig the soil forever. There, where we are born, there we dig it, that earth! and spade it, and manure it, and delve in it, for you who are born rich just as we are born poor. The masses will always be what they are, and stay what they are. The number of us who manage to rise is nothing like the number of you who topple down! We know that well enough, if we have no education! You mustn't be after us with your sheriff all the time,--not if you're wise. We let you alone, and you must let us alone. If not, and things get worse, you'll have to feed us in your prisons, where we'd be much better off than in our homes. You want to remain our masters, and we shall always be enemies, just as we were thirty years ago. You have everything, we have nothing; you can't expect we should ever be friends."
"That's what I call a declaration of war," said the general.
"Monseigneur," retorted Fourchon, "when Les Aigues belonged to that poor Madame (God keep her soul and forgive her the sins of her youth!) we were happy. She let us get our food from the fields and our fuel from the forest; and was she any the poorer for it? And you, who are at least as rich as she, you hunt us like wild beasts, neither more nor less, and drag the poor before the courts. Well, evil will come of it! you'll be the cause of some great calamity. Haven't I just seen your keeper, that shuffling Vatel, half kill a poor old woman for a stick of wood? It is such fellows as that who make you an enemy to the poor; and the talk is very bitter against you. They curse you every bit as hard as they used to bless the late Madame. The curse of the poor, monseigneur, is a seed that grows,--grows taller than your tall oaks, and oak-wood builds the scaffold. Nobody here tells you the truth; and here it is, yes, the truth! I expect to die before long, and I risk very little in telling it to you, the truth! I, who play for the peasants to dance at the great fetes at Soulanges, I heed what the people say. Well, they're all against you; and they'll make it impossible for you to stay here. If that damned Michaud of yours doesn't change, they'll force you to change him. There! that information and the otter are worth twenty francs, and more too."
As the old fellow uttered the last words a man's step was heard, and the individual just threatened by Fourchon entered unannounced. It was easy to see from the glance he threw at the old man that the threat had reached his ears, and all Fourchon's insolence sank in a moment. The look produced precisely the same effect upon him that the eye of a policeman produces on a thief. Fourchon knew he was wrong, and that Michaud might very well accuse him of saying these things merely to terrify the inhabitants of Les Aigues.
"This is the minister of war," said the general to Blondet, nodding at Michaud.
"Pardon me, madame, for having entered without asking if you were willing to receive me," said the newcomer to the countess; "but I have urgent reasons for speaking to the general at once."
Michaud, as he said this, took notice of Sibilet, whose expression of keen delight in Fourchon's daring words was not seen by the four persons seated at the table, because they were so preoccupied by the old man; whereas Michaud, who for secret reasons watched Sibilet constantly, was struck with his air and manner.
"He has earned his twenty francs, Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet; "the otter is fully worth it."
"Give him twenty francs," said the general to the footman.
"Do you mean to take my otter away from me?" said Blondet to the general.
"I shall have it stuffed," replied the latter.
"Ah! but that good gentleman said I might keep the skin," cried Fourchon.
"Well, then," exclaimed the countess, hastily, "you shall have five francs more for the skin; but go away now."
The powerful odor emitted by the pair made the dining-room so horribly offensive that Madame de Montcornet, whose senses were very delicate, would have been forced to leave the room if Fourchon and Mouche had remained. To this circumstance the old man was indebted for his twenty-five francs. He left the room with a timid glance at Michaud, making him an interminable series of bows.
"What I was saying to monseigneur, Monsieur Michaud," he added, "was really for your good."
"Or for that of those who pay you," replied Michaud, with a searching look.
"When you have served the coffee, leave the room," said the general to the servants, "and see that the doors are shut."
Blondet, who had not yet seen the bailiff of Les Aigues, was conscious, as he now saw him, of a totally different impression from that conveyed by Sibilet. Just as the steward inspired distrust and repulsion, so Michaud commanded respect and confidence. The first attraction of his presence was a happy face, of a fine oval, pure in outline, in which the nose bore part,--a regularity which is lacking in the majority of French faces. Though the features were correct in drawing, they were not without expression, due, perhaps, to the harmonious coloring of the warm brown and ochre tints, indicative of physical health and strength. The clear brown eyes, which were bright and piercing, kept no reserves in the expression of his thought; they looked straight into the eyes of others. The broad white forehead was thrown still further into relief by his abundant black hair. Honesty, decision, and a saintly serenity were the animating points of this noble face, where a few deep lines upon the brow were the result of the man's military career. Doubt and suspicion could there be read the moment they had entered his mind. His figure, like that of all men selected for the elite of the cavalry service, though shapely and elegant, was vigorously built. Michaud, who wore moustachios, whiskers, and a chin beard, recalled that martial type of face which a deluge of patriotic paintings and engravings came very near to making ridiculous. This type had the defect of being common in the French army; perhaps the continuance of the same emotions, the same camp sufferings from which none were exempt, neither high nor low, and more especially the same efforts of officers and men upon the battle- fields, may have contributed to produce this uniformity of countenance. Michaud, who was dressed in dark blue cloth, still wore the black satin stock and high boots of a soldier, which increased the slight stiffness and rigidity of his bearing. The shoulders sloped, the chest expanded, as though the man were still under arms. The red ribbon of the Legion of honor was in his buttonhole. In short, to give a last touch in one word about the moral qualities beneath this purely physical presentment, it may be said that while the steward, from the time he first entered upon his functions, never failed to call his master "Monsieur le comte," Michaud never addressed him otherwise than as "General."
Blondet exchanged another look with the Abbe Brossette, which meant, "What a contrast!" as he signed to him to observe the two men. Then, as if to know whether the character and mind and speech of the bailiff harmonized with his form and countenance, he turned to Michaud and said:--
"I was out early this morning, and found your under-keepers still sleeping."
"At what hour?" said the late soldier, anxiously.
Michaud gave a half-roguish glance at the general.
"By what gate did monsieur leave the park?" he asked.
"By the gate of Conches. The keeper, in his night-shirt, looked at me through the window," replied Blondet.
"Gaillard had probably just gone to bed," answered Michaud. "You said you were out early, and I thought you meant day-break. If my man were at home at that time, he must have been ill; but at half-past seven he was sure to be in bed. We are up all night," added Michaud, after a slight pause, replying to a surprised look on the countess's face, "but our watchfulness is often wasted. You have just given twenty-five francs to a man who, not an hour ago, was quietly helping to hide the traces of a robbery committed upon you this very morning. I came to speak to you about it, general, when you have finished breakfast; for something will have to be done."
"You are always for maintaining the right, my dear Michaud, and 'summum jus, summum injuria.' If you are not more tolerant, you will get into trouble, so Sibilet here tells me. I wish you could have heard Pere Fourchon just now; the wine he had been drinking made him speak out."
"He frightened me," said the countess.
"He said nothing I did not know long ago," replied the general.
"Oh! the rascal wasn't drunk; he was playing a part; for whose benefit I leave you to guess. Perhaps you know?" returned Michaud, fixing an eye on Sibilet which caused the latter to turn red.
"O rus!" cried Blondet, with another look at the abbe.
"But these poor creatures suffer," said the countess, "and there is a great deal of truth in what old Fourchon has just screamed at us,--for I cannot call it speaking."
"Madame," replied Michaud, "do you suppose that for fourteen years the soldiers of the Emperor slept on a bed of roses? My general is a count, he is a grand officer of the Legion of honor, he has had perquisites and endowments given to him; am I jealous of him, I who fought as he did? Do I wish to cheat him of his glory, to steal his perquisites, to deny him the honor due to his rank? The peasant should obey as the soldier obeys; he should feel the loyalty of a soldier, his respect for acquired rights, and strive to become an officer himself, honorably, by labor and not by theft. The sabre and the plough are twins; though the soldier has something more than the peasant,--he has death hanging over him at any minute."
"I want to say that from the pulpit," cried the abbe.
"Tolerant!" continued the keeper, replying to the general's remark about Sibilet, "I would tolerate a loss of ten per cent upon the gross returns of Les Aigues; but as things are now thirty per cent is what you lose, general; and, if Monsieur Sibilet's accounts show it, I don't understand his tolerance, for he benevolently gives up a thousand or twelve hundred francs a year."
"My dear Monsieur Michaud," replied Sibilet, in a snappish tone, "I have told Monsieur le comte that I would rather lose twelve hundred francs a year than my life. Think of it seriously; I have warned you often enough."
"Life!" exclaimed the countess; "you can't mean that anybody's life is in danger?"
"Don't let us argue about state affairs here," said the general, laughing. "All this, my dear, merely means that Sibilet, in his capacity of financier, is timid and cowardly, while the minister of war is brave and, like his general, fears nothing."
"Call me prudent, Monsieur le comte," interposed Sibilet.
"Well, well!" cried Blondet, laughing, "so here we are, like Cooper's heroes in the forests of America, in the midst of sieges and savages."
"Come, gentlemen, it is your business to govern without letting me hear the wheels of the administration," said Madame de Montcornet.
"Ah! madame," said the cure, "but it may be right that you should know the toil from which those pretty caps you wear are derived."
"Well, then, I can go without them," replied the countess, laughing. "I will be very respectful to a twenty-franc piece, and grow as miserly as the country people themselves. Come, my dear abbe, give me your arm. Leave the general with his two ministers, and let us go to the gate of the Avonne to see Madame Michaud, for I have not had time since my arrival to pay her a visit, and I want to inquire about my little protegee."
And the pretty woman, already forgetting the rags and tatters of Mouche and Fourchon, and their eyes full of hatred, and Sibilet's warnings, went to have herself made ready for the walk.
The abbe and Blondet obeyed the behest of the mistress of the house and followed her from the dining-room, waiting till she was ready on the terrace before the chateau.
"What do you think of all this?" said Blondet to the abbe.
"I am a pariah; they dog me as they would a common enemy. I am forced to keep my eyes and ears perpetually open to escape the traps they are constantly laying to get me out of the place," replied the abbe. "I am even doubtful, between ourselves, as to whether they will not shoot me."
"Why do you stay?" said Blondet.
"We can't desert God's cause any more than that of an emperor," replied the priest, with a simplicity that affected Blondet. He took the abbe's hand and shook it cordially.
"You see how it is, therefore, that I know very little of the plots that are going on," continued the abbe. "Still, I know enough to feel sure that the general is under what in Artois and in Belgium is called an 'evil grudge.'"
A few words are here necessary about the curate of Blangy.
This priest, the fourth son of a worthy middle-class family of Autun, was an intelligent man carrying his head high in his collar. Small and slight, he redeemed his rather puny appearance by the precise and carefully dressed air that belongs to Burgundians. He accepted the second-rate post of Blangy out of pure devotion, for his religious convictions were joined to political opinions that were equally strong. There was something of the priest of the olden time about him; he held to the Church and to the clergy passionately; saw the bearings of things, and no selfishness marred his one ambition, which was to serve. That was his motto,--to serve the Church and the monarchy wherever it was most threatened; to serve in the lowest rank like a soldier who feels that he is destined, sooner or later, to attain command through courage and the resolve to do his duty. He made no compromises with his vows of chastity, and poverty, and obedience; he fulfilled them, as he did the other duties of his position, with that simplicity and cheerful good-humor which are the sure indications of an honest heart, constrained to do right by natural impulses as much as by the power and consistency of religious convictions.
The priest had seen at first sight Blondet's attachment to the countess; he saw that between a Troisville and a monarchical journalist he could safely show himself to be a man of broad intelligence, because his calling was certain to be respected. He usually came to the chateau very evening to make the fourth at a game of whist. The journalist, able to recognize the abbe's real merits, showed him so much deference that the pair grew into sympathy with each other; as usually happens when men of intelligence meet their equals, or, if you prefer it, the ears that are able to hear them. Swords are fond of their scabbards.
"But to what do you attribute this state of things, Monsieur l'abbe, you who are able, through your disinterestedness, to look over the heads of things?"
"I shall not talk platitudes after such a flattering speech as that," said the abbe, smiling. "What is going on in this valley is spreading more or less throughout France; it is the outcome of the hopes which the upheaval of 1789 caused to infiltrate, if I may use that expression, the minds of the peasantry, the sons of the soil. The Revolution affected certain localities more than others. This side of Burgundy, nearest to Paris, is one of those places where the revolutionary ideas spread like the overrunning of the Franks by the Gauls. Historically, the peasants are still on the morrow of the Jacquerie; that defeat is burnt in upon their brain. They have long forgotten the facts which have now passed into the condition of an instinctive idea. That idea is bred in the peasant blood, just as the idea of superiority was once bred in noble blood. The revolution of 1789 was the retaliation of the vanquished. The peasants then set foot in possession of the soil which the feudal law had denied them for over twelve hundred years. Hence their desire for land, which they now cut up among themselves until actually they divide a furrow into two parts; which, by the bye, often hinders or prevents the collection of taxes, for the value of such fractions of property is not sufficient to pay the legal costs of recovering them."
"Very true, for the obstinacy of the small owners--their aggressiveness, if you choose--on this point is so great that in at least one thousand cantons of the three thousand of French territory, it is impossible for a rich man to buy an inch of land from a peasant," said Blondet, interrupting the abbe. "The peasants who are willing to divide up their scraps of land among themselves would not sell a fraction on any condition or at any price to the middle classes. The more money the rich man offers, the more the vague uneasiness of the peasant increases. Legal dispossession alone is able to bring the landed property of the peasant into the market. Many persons have noticed this fact without being able to find a reason for it."
"This is the reason," said the abbe, rightly believing that a pause with Blondet was equivalent to a question: "twelve centuries have done nothing for a caste whom the historic spectacle of civilization has never yet diverted from its one predominating thought,--a caste which still wears proudly the broad-brimmed hat of its masters, ever since an abandoned fashion placed it upon their heads. That all-pervading thought, the roots of which are in the bowels of the people, and which attached them so vehemently to Napoleon (who was personally less to them than he thought he was) and which explains the miracle of his return in 1815,--that desire for land is the sole motive power of the peasant's being. In the eyes of the masses Napoleon, ever one with them through his million of soldiers, is still the king born of the Revolution; the man who gave them possession of the soil and sold to them the national domains. His anointing was saturated with that idea."
"An idea to which 1814 dealt a blow, an idea which monarchy should hold sacred," said Blondet, quickly; "for the people may some day find on the steps of the throne a prince whose father bequeathed to him the head of Louis XVI. as an heirloom."
"Here is madame; don't say any more," said the abbe, in a low voice. "Fourchon has frightened her; and it is very desirable to keep her here in the interests of religion and of the throne, and, indeed, in those of the people themselves."
Michaud, the bailiff of Les Aigues, had come to the chateau in consequence of the assault on Vatel's eyes. But before we relate the consultation which then and there took place, the chain of events requires a succinct account of the circumstances under which the general purchased Les Aigues, the serious causes which led to the appointment of Sibilet as steward of that magnificent property, and the reasons why Michaud was made bailiff, with all the other antecedents to which were due the tension of the minds of all, and the fears expressed by Sibilet.
This rapid summary will have the merit of introducing some of the principal actors in this drama, and of exhibiting their individual interests; we shall thus be enabled to show the dangers which surrounded the General comte de Montcornet at the moment when this history opens.