Sons of the Soil by Honore de Balzac
Chapter VIII. The Great Revolutions of a Little Valley
"Well, Maitre Sibilet," said the general to his steward, the morning after his arrival, giving him a familiar title which showed how much he appreciated his services, "so we are, to use a ministerial phrase, at a crisis?"
"Yes, Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet, following the general.
The fortunate possessor of Les Aigues was walking up and down in front of the steward's house, along a little terrace where Madame Sibilet grew flowers, at the end of which was a wide stretch of meadow-land watered by the canal which Blondet has described. From this point the chateau of Les Aigues was seen in the distance, and in like manner the profile, as it were, of the steward's lodge was seen from Les Aigues.
"But," resumed the general, "what's the difficulty? If I do lose the suit against the Gravelots, a money wound is not mortal, and I'll have the leasing of my forest so well advertised that there will be competition, and I shall sell the timber at its true value."
"Business is not done in that way, Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet. "Suppose you get no lessees, what will you do?"
"Cut the timber myself and sell it--"
"You, a wood merchant?" said Sibilet. "Well, without looking at matters here, how would it be in Paris? You would have to hire a wood- yard, pay for a license and the taxes, also for the right of navigation, and duties, and the costs of unloading; besides the salary of a trustworthy agent--"
"Yes, it is impracticable," said the general hastily, alarmed at the prospect. "But why can't I find persons to lease the right of cutting timber as before?"
"Monsieur le comte has enemies."
"Who are they?"
"Well, in the first place, Monsieur Gaubertin."
"Do you mean the scoundrel whose place you took?"
"Not so loud, Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet, showing fear; "I beg of you, not so loud,--my cook might hear us."
"Do you mean to tell me that I am not to speak on my own estate of a villain who robbed me?" cried the general.
"For the sake of your own peace and comfort, come further away, Monsieur le comte. Monsieur Gaubertin is mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes."
"Ha! I congratulate Ville-aux-Fayes. Thunder! what a nobly governed town!--"
"Do me the honor to listen, Monsieur le comte, and to believe that I am talking of serious matters which may affect your future life in this place."
"I am listening; let us sit down on this bench here."
"Monsieur le comte, when you dismissed Gaubertin, he had to find some employment, for he was not rich--"
"Not rich! when he stole twenty thousand francs a year from this estate?"
"Monsieur le comte, I don't pretend to excuse him," replied Sibilet. "I want to see Les Aigues prosperous, if it were only to prove Gaubertin's dishonest; but we ought not to abuse him openly for he is one of the most dangerous scoundrels to be found in all Burgundy, and he is now in a position to injure you."
"In what way?" asked the general, sobering down.
"Gaubertin has control of nearly one third of the supplies sent to Paris. As general agent of the timber business, he orders all the work of the forests,--the felling, chopping, floating, and sending to market. Being in close relations with the workmen, he is the arbiter of prices. It has taken him three years to create this position, but he holds it now like a fortress. He is essential to all dealers, never favoring one more than another; he regulates the whole business in their interests, and their affairs are better and more cheaply looked after by him than they were in the old time by separate agents for each firm. For instance, he has so completely put a stop to competition that he has absolute control of the auction sales; the crown and the State are both dependent on him. Their timber is sold under the hammer and falls invariably to Gaubertin's dealers; in fact, no others attempt now to bid against them. Last year Monsieur Mariotte, of Auxerre, urged by the commissioner of domains, did attempt to compete with Gaubertin. At first, Gaubertin let him buy the standing wood at the usual prices; but when it came to cutting it, the Avonnais workmen asked such enormous prices that Monsieur Mariotte was obliged to bring laborers from Auxerre, whom the Ville-aux-Fayes workmen attacked and drove away. The head of the coalition, and the ringleader of the brawl were brought before the police court, and the suits cost Monsieur Mariotte a great deal of money; for, besides the odium of having convicted and punished poor men, he was forced to pay all costs, because the losing side had not a farthing to do it with. A suit against laboring men is sure to result in hatred to those who live among them. Let me warn you of this; for if you follow the course you propose, you will have to fight against the poor of this district at least. But that's not all. Counting it over, Monsieur Mariotte, a worthy man, found he was the loser by his original lease. Forced to pay ready money, he was nevertheless obliged to sell on time; Gaubertin delivered his timber at long credits for the purpose of ruining his competitor. He undersold him by at least five per cent, and the end of it is that poor Mariotte's credit is badly shaken. Gaubertin is now pressing and harassing the poor man so that he is driven, they tell me, to leave not only Auxerre, but even Burgundy itself; and he is right. In this way land-owners have long been sacrificed to dealers who now set the market-prices, just as the furniture-dealers in Paris dictate values to appraisers. But Gaubertin saves the owners so much trouble and worry that they are really gainers."
"How so?" asked the general.
"In the first place, because the less complicated a business is, the greater the profits to the owners," answered Sibilet. "Besides which, their income is more secure; and in all matters of rural improvement and development that is the main thing, as you will find out. Then, too, Monsieur Gaubertin is the friend and patron of working-men; he pays them well and keeps them always at work; therefore, though their families live on the estates, the woods leased to dealers and belonging to the land-owners who trust the care of their property to Gaubertin (such as MM. de Soulanges and de Ronquerolles) are not devastated. The dead wood is gathered up, but that is all--"
"That rascal Gaubertin has lost no time!" cried the general.
"He is a bold man," said Sibilet. "He really is, as he calls himself, the steward of the best half of the department, instead of being merely the steward of Les Aigues. He makes a little out of everybody, and that little on every two millions brings him in forty to fifty thousand francs a year. He says himself, 'The fires on the Parisian hearths pay it all.' He is your enemy, Monsieur le comte. My advice to you is to capitulate and be reconciled with him. He is intimate, as you know, with Soudry, the head of the gendarmerie at Soulanges; with Monsieur Rigou, our mayor at Blangy; the patrols are under his influence; therefore you will find it impossible to repress the pilferings which are eating into your estate. During the last two years your woods have been devastated. Consequently the Gravelots are more than likely to win their suit. They say, very truly: 'According to the terms of the lease, the care of the woods is left to the owner; he does not protect them, and we are injured; the owner is bound to pay us damages.' That's fair enough; but it doesn't follow that they should win their case."
"We must be ready to defend this suit at all costs," said the general, "and then we shall have no more of them."
"You shall gratify Gaubertin," remarked Sibilet.
"Suing the Gravelots is the same as a hand to hand fight with Gaubertin, who is their agent," answered Sibilet. "He asks nothing better than such a suit. He declares, so I hear, that he will bring you if necessary before the Court of Appeals."
"The rascal! the--"
"If you attempt to work your own woods," continued Sibilet, turning the knife in the wound, "you will find yourself at the mercy of workmen who will force you to pay rich men's prices instead of market- prices. In short, they'll put you, as they did that poor Mariotte, in a position where you must sell at a loss. If you then try to lease the woods you will get no tenants, for you cannot expect that any one should take risks for himself which Mariotte only took for the crown and the State. Suppose a man talks of his losses to the government! The government is a gentleman who is, like your obedient servant when he was in its employ, a worthy man with a frayed overcoat, who reads the newspapers at a desk. Let his salary be twelve hundred or twelve thousand francs, his disposition is the same, it is not a whit softer. Talk of reductions and releases from the public treasury represented by the said gentleman! He'll only pooh-pooh you as he mends his pen. No, the law is the wrong road for you, Monsieur le comte."
"Then what's to be done?" cried the general, his blood boiling as he tramped up and down before the bench.
"Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet, abruptly, "what I say to you is not for my own interests, certainly; but I advise you to sell Les Aigues and leave the neighborhood."
On hearing these words the general sprang back as if a cannon-ball had struck him; then he looked at Sibilet with a shrewd, diplomatic eye.
"A general of the Imperial Guard running away from the rascals, when Madame la comtesse likes Les Aigues!" he said. "No, I'll sooner box Gaubertin's ears on the market-place of Ville-aux-Fayes, and force him to fight me that I may shoot him like a dog."
"Monsieur le comte, Gaubertin is not such a fool as to let himself be brought into collision with you. Besides, you could not openly insult the mayor of so important a place as Ville-aux-Fayes."
"I'll have him turned out; the Troisvilles can do that for me; it is a question of income."
"You won't succeed, Monsieur le comte; Gaubertin's arms are long; you will get yourself into difficulties from which you cannot escape."
"Let us think of the present," interrupted the general. "About that suit?"
"That, Monsieur le comte, I can manage to win for you," replied Sibilet, with a knowing glance.
"Bravo, Sibilet!" said the general, shaking his steward's hand; "how are you going to do it?"
"You will win it on a writ of error," replied Sibilet. "In my opinion the Gravelots have the right of it. But it is not enough to be in the right, they must also be in order as to legal forms, and that they have neglected. The Gravelots ought to have summoned you to have the woods better watched. They can't ask for indemnity, at the close of a lease, for damages which they know have been going on for nine years; there is a clause in the lease as to this, on which we can file a bill of exceptions. You will lose the suit at Ville-aux-Fayes, possibly in the upper court as well, but we will carry it to Paris and you will win at the Court of Appeals. The costs will be heavy and the expenses ruinous. You will have to spend from twelve to fifteen thousand francs merely to win the suit,--but you will win it, if you care to. The suit will only increase the enmity of the Gravelots, for the expenses will be even heavier on them. You will be their bugbear; you will be called litigious and calumniated in every way; still, you can win--"
"Then, what's to be done?" repeated the general, on whom Sibilet's arguments were beginning to produce the effect of a violent poison.
Just then the remembrance of the blows he had given Gaubertin with his cane crossed his mind, and made him wish he had bestowed them on himself. His flushed face was enough to show Sibilet the irritation that he felt.
"You ask me what can be done, Monsieur le comte? Why, only one thing, compromise; but of course you can't negotiate that yourself. I must be thought to cheat you! We, poor devils, whose only fortune and comfort is in our good name, it is hard on us to even seem to do a questionable thing. We are always judged by appearances. Gaubertin himself saved Mademoiselle Laguerre's life during the Revolution, but it seemed to others that he was robbing her. She rewarded him in her will with a diamond worth ten thousand francs, which Madame Gaubertin now wears on her head."
The general gave Sibilet another glance still more diplomatic than the first; but the steward seemed to take no notice of the challenge it expressed.
"If I were to appear dishonest, Monsieur Gaubertin would be so overjoyed that I could instantly obtain his help," continued Sibilet. "He would listen with all his ears if I said to him: 'Suppose I were to extort twenty thousand francs from Monsieur le comte for Messrs. Gravelot, on condition that they shared them with me?' If your adversaries consented to that, Monsieur le comte, I should return you ten thousand francs; you lose only the other ten, you save appearances, and the suit is quashed."
"You are a fine fellow, Sibilet," said the general, taking his hand and shaking it. "If you can manage the future as well as you do the present, I'll call you the prince of stewards."
"As to the future," said Sibilet, "you won't die of hunger if no timber is cut for two or three years. Let us begin by putting proper keepers in the woods. Between now and then things will flow as the water does in the Avonne. Gaubertin may die, or get rich enough to retire from business; at any rate, you will have sufficient time to find him a competitor. The cake is too rich not to be shared. Look for another Gaubertin to oppose the original."
"Sibilet," said the old soldier, delighted with this variety of solutions. "I'll give you three thousand francs if you'll settle the matter as you propose. For the rest, we'll think about it."
"Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet, "first and foremost have the forest properly watched. See for yourself the condition in which the peasantry have put it during your two years' absence. What could I do? I am steward; I am not a bailiff. To guard Les Aigues properly you need a mounted patrol and three keepers."
"I certainly shall have the estate properly guarded. So it is to be war, is it? Very good, then we shall make war. That doesn't frighten me," said Montcornet, rubbing his hands.
"A war of francs," said Sibilet; "and you may find that more difficult than the other kind; men can be killed but you can't kill self- interest. You will fight your enemy on the battle-field where all landlords are compelled to fight,--I mean cash results. It is not enough to produce, you must sell; and in order to sell, you must be on good terms with everybody."
"I shall have the country people on my side."
"By what means?"
"By doing good among them."
"Doing good to the valley peasants! to the petty shopkeepers of Soulanges!" exclaimed Sibilet, squinting horribly, by reason of the irony which flamed brighter in one eye than in the other. "Monsieur le comte doesn't know what he undertakes. Our Lord Jesus Christ would die again upon the cross in this valley! If you wish an easy life, follow the example of the late Mademoiselle Laguerre; let yourself be robbed, or else make people afraid of you. Women, children, and the masses are all governed by fear. That was the great secret of the Convention, and of the Emperor, too."
"Good heavens! is this the forest of Bondy?" cried the general.
"My dear," said Sibilet's wife, appearing at this moment, "your breakfast is ready. Pray excuse him, Monsieur le comte; he has eaten nothing since morning for he was obliged to go to Ronquerolles to deliver some barley."
"Go, go, Sibilet," said the general.
The next morning the count rose early, before daylight, and went to the gate of the Avonne, intending to talk with the one forester whom he employed and find out what the man's sentiments really were.
Some seven or eight hundred acres of the forest of Les Aigues lie along the banks of the Avonne; and to preserve the majestic beauty of the river the large trees that border it have been left untouched for a distance of three leagues on both sides in an almost straight line. The mistress of Henri IV., to whom Les Aigues formerly belonged, was as fond of hunting as the king himself. In 1593 she ordered a bridge to be built of a single arch with shelving roadway by which to ride from the lower side of the forest to a much larger portion of it, purchased by her, which lay upon the slopes of the hills. The gate of the Avonne was built as a place of meeting for the huntsmen; and we know the magnificence bestowed by the architects of that day upon all buildings intended for the delight of the crown and the nobility. Six avenues branched away from it, their place of meeting forming a half- moon. In the centre of the semi-circular space stood an obelisk surmounted by a round shield, formerly gilded, bearing on one side the arms of Navarre and on the other those of the Countess de Moret. Another half-moon, on the side toward the river, communicated with the first by a straight avenue, at the opposite end of which the steep rise of the Venetian-shaped bridge could be seen. Between two elegant iron railings of the same character as that of the magnificent railing which formerly surrounded the garden of the Place Royale in Paris, now so unfortunately destroyed, stood a brick pavilion, with stone courses hewn in facets like those of the chateau, with a very pointed roof and window-casings of stone cut in the same manner. This old style, which gave the building a regal air, is suitable only to prisons when used in cities; but standing in the heart of forests it derives from its surroundings a splendor of its own. A group of trees formed a screen, behind which the kennels, an old falconry, a pheasantry, and the quarters of the huntsmen were falling into ruins, after being in their day the wonder and admiration of Burgundy.
In 1595, the royal hunting-parties set forth from this magnificent pavilion, preceded by those fine dogs so dear to Rubens and to Paul Veronese; the huntsmen mounted on high-steeping steeds with stout and blue-white satiny haunches, seen no longer except in Wouverman's amazing work, followed by footmen in livery; the scene enlivened by whippers-in, wearing the high top-boots with facings and the yellow leathern breeches which have come down to the present day on the canvas of Van der Meulen. The obelisk was erected in commemoration of the visit of the Bearnais, and his hunt with the beautiful Comtesse de Moret; the date is given below the arms of Navarre. That jealous woman, whose son was afterwards legitimatized, would not allow the arms of France to figure on the obelisk, regarding them as a rebuke.
At the time of which we write, when the general's eyes rested on this splendid ruin, moss had gathered for centuries on the four faces of the roof; the hewn-stone courses, mangled by time, seemed to cry with yawning mouths against the profanation; disjointed leaden settings let fall their octagonal panes, so that the windows seemed blind of an eye here and there. Yellow wallflowers bloomed about the copings; ivy slid its white rootlets into every crevice.
All things bespoke a shameful want of care,--the seal set by mere life-possessors on the ancient glories that they possess. Two windows on the first floor were stuffed with hay. Through another, on the ground-floor, was seen a room filled with tools and logs of wood; while a cow pushed her muzzle through a fourth, proving that Courtecuisse, to avoid having to walk from the pavilion to the pheasantry, had turned the large hall of the central building into a stable,--a hall with panelled ceiling, and in the centre of each panel the arms of all the various possessors of Les Aigues!
Black and dirty palings disgraced the approach to the pavilion, making square inclosures with plank roofs for pigs, ducks, and hens, the manure of which was taken away every six months. A few ragged garments were hung to dry on the brambles which boldly grew unchecked here and there. As the general came along the avenue from the bridge, Madame Courtecuisse was scouring a saucepan in which she had just made her coffee. The forester, sitting on a chair in the sun, considered his wife as a savage considers his. When he heard a horse's hoofs he turned round, saw the count, and seemed taken aback.
"Well, Courtecuisse, my man," said the general, "I'm not surprised that the peasants cut my woods before Messrs. Gravelot can do so. So you consider your place a sinecure?"
"Indeed, Monsieur le comte, I have watched the woods so many nights that I'm ill from it. I've got a chill, and I suffer such pain this morning that my wife has just made me a poultice in that saucepan."
"My good fellow," said the count, "I don't know of any pain that a coffee poultice cures except that of hunger. Listen to me, you rascal! I rode through my forest yesterday, and then through those of Monsieur de Soulanges and Monsieur de Ronquerolles. Theirs are carefully watched and preserved, while mine is in a shameful state."
"Ah, monsieur! but they are the old lords of the neighborhood; everybody respects their property. How can you expect me to fight against six districts? I care for my life more than for your woods. A man who would undertake to watch your woods as they ought to be watched would get a ball in his head for wages in some dark corner of the forest--"
"Coward!" cried the general, trying to control the anger the man's insolent reply provoked in him. "Last night was as clear as day, yet it cost me three hundred francs in actual robbery and over a thousand in future damages. You will leave my service unless you do better. All wrong-doing deserves some mercy; therefore these are my conditions: You may have the fines, and I will pay you three francs for every indictment you bring against these depredators. If I don't get what I expect, you know what you have to expect, and no pension either. Whereas, if you serve me faithfully and contrive to stop these depredations, I'll give you an annuity of three hundred francs for life. You can think it over. Here are six ways," continued the count, pointing to the branching roads; "there's only one for you to take,-- as for me also, who am not afraid of balls; try and find the right one."
Courtecuisse, a small man about forty-six years of age, with a full- moon face, found his greatest happiness in doing nothing. He expected to live and die in that pavilion, now considered by him his pavilion. His two cows were pastured in the forest, from which he got his wood; and he spent his time in looking after his garden instead of after the delinquents. Such neglect of duty suited Gaubertin, and Courtecuisse knew it did. The keeper chased only those depredators who were the objects of his personal dislike,--young women who would not yield to his wishes, or persons against whom he held a grudge; though for some time past he had really felt no dislikes, for every one yielded to him on account of his easy-going ways with them.
Courtecuisse had a place always kept for him at the table of the Grand-I-Vert; the wood-pickers feared him no longer; indeed, his wife and he received many gifts in kind from them; his wood was brought in; his vineyard dug; in short, all delinquents at whom he blinked did him service.
Counting on Gaubertin for the future, and feeling sure of two acres whenever Les Aigues should be brought to the hammer, he was roughly awakened by the curt speech of the general, who, after four quiescent years, was now revealing his true character,--that of a bourgeois rich man who was determined to be no longer deceived. Courtecuisse took his cap, his game-bag, and his gun, put on his gaiters and his belt (which bore the very recent arms of Montcornet), and started for Ville-aux- Fayes, with the careless, indifferent air and manner under which country-people often conceal very deep reflections, while he gazed at the woods and whistled to the dogs to follow him.
"What! you complain of the Shopman when he proposes to make your fortune?" said Gaubertin. "Doesn't the fool offer to give you three francs for every arrest you make, and the fines to boot? Have an understanding with your friends and you can bring as many indictments as you please,--hundreds if you like! With one thousand francs you can buy La Bachelerie from Rigou, become a property owner, live in your own house, and work for yourself, or rather, make others work for you, and take your ease. Only--now listen to me--you must manage to arrest only such as haven't a penny in the world. You can't shear sheep unless the wool is on their backs. Take the Shopman's offer and leave him to collect the costs,--if he wants them; tastes differ. Didn't old Mariotte prefer losses to profits, in spite of my advice?"
Courtecuisse, filled with admiration for these words of wisdom, returned home burning with the desire to be a land-owner and a bourgeois like the rest.
When the general reached Les Aigues he related his expedition to Sibilet.
"Monsieur le comte did very right," said the steward, rubbing his hands; "but he must not stop short half-way. The field-keeper of the district who allows the country-people to prey upon the meadows and rob the harvests ought to be changed. Monsieur le comte should have himself chosen mayor, and appoint one of his old soldiers, who would have the courage to carry out his orders, in place of Vaudoyer. A great land-owner should be master in his own district. Just see what difficulties we have with the present mayor!"
The mayor of the district of Blangy, formerly a Benedictine, named Rigou, had married, in the first year of the Republic, the servant- woman of the late priest of Blangy. In spite of the repugnance which a married monk excited at the Prefecture, he had continued to be mayor after 1815, for the reason that there was no-one else at Blangy who was capable of filling the post. But in 1817, when the bishop sent the Abbe Brossette to the parish of Blangy (which had then been vacant over twenty-five years), a violent opposition not unnaturally broke out between the old apostate and the young ecclesiastic, whose character is already known to us. The war which was then and there declared between the mayor's office and the parsonage increased the popularity of the magistrate, who had hitherto been more or less despised. Rigou, whom the peasants had disliked for usurious dealings, now suddenly represented their political and financial interests, supposed to be threatened by the Restoration, and more especially by the clergy.
A copy of the "Constitutionnel," that great organ of liberalism, after making the rounds of the Cafe de la Paix, came back to Rigou on the seventh day,--the subscription, standing in the name of old Socquard the keeper of the coffee-house, being shared by twenty persons. Rigou passed the paper on to Langlume the miller, who, in turn, gave it in shreds to any one who knew how to read. The "Paris items," and the anti-religion jokes of the liberal sheet formed the public opinion of the valley des Aigues. Rigou, like the venerable Abbe Gregoire, became a hero. For him, as for certain Parisian bankers, politics spread a mantle of popularity over his shameful dishonesty.
At this particular time the perjured monk, like Francois Keller the great orator, was looked upon as a defender of the rights of the people,--he who, not so very long before, dared not walk in the fields after dark, lest he should stumble into pitfalls where he would seem to have been killed by accident! Persecute a man politically and you not only magnify him, but you redeem his past and make it innocent. The liberal party was a great worker of miracles in this respect. Its dangerous journal, which had the wit to make itself as commonplace, as calumniating, as credulous, and as sillily perfidious as every audience made up the general masses, did in all probability as much injury to private interests as it did to those of the Church.
Rigou flattered himself that he should find in a Bonapartist general now laid on the shelf, in a son of the people raised from nothing by the Revolution, a sound enemy to the Bourbons and the priests. But the general, bearing in mind his private ambitions, so arranged matters as to evade the visit of Monsieur and Madame Rigou when he first came to Les Aigues.
When you have become better acquainted with the terrible character of Rigou, the lynx of the valley, you will understand the full extent of the second capital blunder which the general's aristocratic ambitions led him to commit, and which the countess made all the greater by an offence which will be described in the further history of Rigou.
If Montcornet had courted the mayor's good-will, if he had sought his friendship, perhaps the influence of the renegade might have neutralized that of Gaubertin. Far from that, three suits were now pending in the courts of Ville-aux-Fayes between the general and the ex-monk. Until the present time the general had been so absorbed in his personal interests and in his marriage that he had never remembered Rigou, but when Sibilet advised him to get himself made mayor in Rigou's place, he took post-horses and went to see the prefect.
The prefect, Comte Martial de la Roche-Hugon, had been a friend of the general since 1804; and it was a word from him said to Montcornet in a conversation in Paris, which brought about the purchase of Les Aigues. Comte Martial, a prefect under Napoleon, remained a prefect under the Bourbons, and courted the bishop to retain his place. Now it happened that Monseigneur had several times requested him to get rid of Rigou. Martial, to whom the condition of the district was perfectly well known, was delighted with the general's request; so that in less than a month the Comte de Montcornet was mayor of Blangy.
By one of those accidents which come about naturally, the general met, while at the prefecture where his friend put him up, a non- commissioned officer of the ex-Imperial guard, who had been cheated out of his retiring pension. The general had already, under other circumstances, done a service to the brave cavalryman, whose name was Groison; the man, remembering it, now told him his troubles, admitting that he was penniless. The general promised to get him his pension, and proposed that he should take the place of field-keeper to the district of Blangy, as a way of paying off his score of gratitude by devotion to the new mayor's interests. The appointments of master and man were made simultaneously, and the general gave, as may be supposed, very firm instructions to his subordinate.
Vaudoyer, the displaced keeper, a peasant on the Ronquerolles estate, was only fit, like most field-keepers, to stalk about, and gossip, and let himself be petted by the poor of the district, who asked nothing better than to corrupt at subaltern authority,--the advanced guard, as it were, of the land-owners. He knew Soudry, the brigadier at Soulanges, for brigadiers of gendarmerie, performing functions that are semi-judicial in drawing up criminal indictments, have much to do with the rural keepers, who are, in fact, their natural spies. Soudry, being appealed to, sent Vaudoyer to Gaubertin, who received his old acquaintance very cordially, and invited him to drink while listening to the recital of his troubles.
"My dear friend," said the mayor of Ville-aux-Fayes, who could talk to every man in his own language, "what has happened to you is likely to happen to us all. The nobles are back upon us. The men to whom the Emperor gave titles make common cause with the old nobility. They all want to crush the people, re-establish their former rights and take our property from us. But we are Burgundians; we must resist, and drive those Arminacs back to Paris. Return to Blangy; you shall be agent for Monsieur Polissard, the wood-merchant, who is contractor for the forest of Ronquerolles. Don't be uneasy, my lad; I'll find you enough to do for the whole of the coming year. But remember one thing; the wood is for ourselves! Not a single depredation, or the thing is at an end. Send all interlopers to Les Aigues. If there's brush or fagots to sell make people buy ours; don't let them buy of Les Aigues. You'll get back to your place as field-keeper before long; this thing can't last. The general will get sick of living among thieves. Did you know that that Shopman called me a thief, me!--son of the stanchest and most incorruptible of republicans; me!--the son in law of Mouchon, that famous representative of the people, who died without leaving me enough to bury him?"
The general raised the salary of the new field-keeper to three hundred francs; and built a town-hall, in which he gave him a residence. Then he married him to a daughter of one of his tenant-farmers, who had lately died, leaving her an orphan with three acres of vineyard. Groison attached himself to the general as a dog to his master. This legitimate fidelity was admitted by the whole community. The keeper was feared and respected, but like the captain of a vessel whose ship's company hate him; the peasantry shunned him as they would a leper. Met either in silence or with sarcasms veiled under a show of good-humor, the new keeper was a sentinel watched by other sentinels. He could do nothing against such numbers. The delinquents took delight in plotting depredations which it was impossible for him to prove, and the old soldier grew furious at his helplessness. Groison found the excitement of a war of factions in his duties, and all the pleasures of the chase,--a chase after petty delinquents. Trained in real war to a loyalty which consists in part of playing a fair game, this enemy of traitors came at last to hate these people, so treacherous in their conspiracies, and so clever in their thefts that they mortified his self-esteem. He soon observed that the depredations were committed only at Les Aigues; all the other estates were respected. At first he despised a peasantry ungrateful enough to pillage a general of the Empire, an essentially kind and generous man; presently, however, he added hatred to contempt. But multiply himself as he would, he could not be everywhere, and the enemy pillaged everywhere that he was not. Groison made the general understand that it was necessary to organize the defence on a war footing, and proved to him the insufficiency of his own devoted efforts and the evil disposition of the inhabitants of the valley.
"There is something behind it all, general," he said; "these people are so bold they fear nothing; they seem to rely on the favor of the good God."
"We shall see," replied the count.
Fatal word! The verb "to see" has no future tense for politicians.
At the moment, Montcornet was considering another difficulty, which seemed to him more pressing. he needed an alter ego to do his work in the mayor's office during the months he lived in Paris. Obliged to find some man who knew how to read and write for the position of assistant mayor, he knew of none and could hear of none throughout the district but Langlume, the tenant of his own flour-mill. The choice was disastrous. Not only were the interests of mayor and miller diametrically opposed, but Langlume had long hatched swindling projects with Rigou, who lent him money to carry on his business, or to acquire property. The miller had bought the right to the hay of certain fields for his horses, and Sibilet could not sell it except to him. The hay of all the fields in the district was sold at better prices than that of Les Aigues, though the yield of the latter was the best.
Langlume, then, became the provisional mayor; but in France the provisional is eternal,--though Frenchmen are suspected of loving change. Acting by Rigou's advice, he played a part of great devotion to the general; and he was still assistant-mayor at the moment when, by the omnipotence of the historian, this drama begins.
In the absence of the mayor, Rigou, necessarily a member of the district council, reigned supreme, and brought forward resolutions all injuriously affecting the general. At one time he caused money to be spent for purposes that were profitable to the peasants only,--the greater part of the expenses falling upon Les Aigues, which, by reason of its great extent, paid two thirds of the taxes; at other times the council refused, under his influence, certain useful and necessary allowances, such as an increase in salary for the abbe, repairs or improvements to the parsonage, or "wages" to the school-master.
"If the peasants once know how to read and write, what will become of us?" said Langlume, naively, to the general, to excuse this anti- liberal action taken against a brother of the Christian Doctrine whom the Abbe Brossette wished to establish as a public school-master in Blangy.
The general, delighted with his old Groison, returned to Paris and immediately looked about him for other old soldiers of the late imperial guard, with whom to organize the defence of Les Aigues on a formidable footing. By dint of searching out and questioning his friends and many officers on half-pay, he unearthed Michaud, a former quartermaster at headquarters of the cuirassiers of the guard; one of those men whom troopers call "hard-to-cook," a nickname derived from the mess kitchen where refractory beans are not uncommon. Michaud picked out from among his friends and acquaintances, three other men fit to be his helpers, and able to guard the estate without fear and without reproach.
The first, named Steingel, a pure-blooded Alsacian, was a natural son of the general of that name, who fell in one of Bonaparte's first victories with the army of Italy. Tall and strong, he belonged to the class of soldiers accustomed, like the Russians, to obey, passively and absolutely. Nothing hindered him in the performance of his duty; he would have collared an emperor or a pope if such were his orders. He ignored danger. Perfectly fearless, he had never received the smallest scratch during his sixteen years' campaigning. He slept in the open air or in his bed with stoical indifference. At any increased labor or discomfort, he merely remarked, "It seems to be the order of the day."
The second man, Vatel, son of the regiment, corporal of voltigeurs, gay as a lark, rather free and easy with the fair sex, brave to foolhardiness, was capable of shooting a comrade with a laugh if ordered to execute him. With no future before him and not knowing how to employ himself, the prospect of finding an amusing little war in the functions of keeper, attracted him; and as the grand army and the Emperor had hitherto stood him in place of a religion, so now he swore to serve the brave Montcornet against and through all and everything. His nature was of that essentially wrangling quality to which a life without enemies seems dull and objectless,--the nature, in short, of a litigant, or a policeman. If it had not been for the presence of the sheriff's officer, he would have seized Tonsard and the bundle of wood at the Grand-I-Vert, snapping his fingers at the law on the inviolability of a man's domicile.
The third man, Gaillard, also an old soldier, risen to the rank of sub-lieutenant, and covered with wounds, belonged to the class of mechanical soldiers. The fate of the Emperor never left his mind and he became indifferent to everything else. With the care of a natural daughter on his hands, he accepted the place that was now offered to him as a means of subsistence, taking it as he would have taken service in a regiment.
When the general reached Les Aigues, whither he had gone in advance of his troopers, intending to send away Courtecuisse, he was amazed at discovering the impudent audacity with which the keeper had fulfilled his commands. There is a method of obeying which makes the obedience of the servant a cutting sarcasm on the master's order. But all things in this world can be reduced to absurdity, and Courtecuisse in this instance went beyond its limits.
One hundred and twenty-six indictments against depredators (most of whom were in collusion with Courtecuisse) and sworn to before the justice court of Soulanges, had resulted in sixty-nine commitments for trial, in virtue of which Brunet, the sheriff's officer, delighted at such a windfall of fees, had rigorously enforced the warrants in such a way as to bring about what is called, in legal language, a declaration of insolvency; a condition of pauperism where the law becomes of course powerless. By this declaration the sheriff proves that the defendant possesses no property of any kind, and is therefore a pauper. Where there is absolutely nothing, the creditor, like the king, loses his right to sue. The paupers in this case, carefully selected by Courtecuisse, were scattered through five neighboring districts, whither Brunet betook himself duly attended by his satellites, Vermichel and Fourchon, to serve the writs. Later he transmitted the papers to Sibilet with a bill of costs for five thousand francs, requesting him to obtain the further orders of Monsieur le comte de Montcornet.
Just as Sibilet, armed with these papers, was calmly explaining to the count the result of the rash orders he had given to Courtecuisse, and witnessing, as calmly, a burst of the most violent anger a general of the French cavalry was ever known to indulge in, Courtecuisse entered to pay his respects to his master and to bring his own account of eleven hundred francs, the sum to which his promised commission now amounted. The natural man took the bit in his teeth and ran off with the general, who totally forgot his coronet and his field rank; he was a trooper once more, vomiting curses of which he probably was ashamed when he thought of them later.
"Ha! eleven hundred francs!" he shouted, "eleven hundred slaps in your face! eleven hundred kicks!--Do you think I can't see straight through your lies? Out of my sight, or I'll strike you flat!"
At the mere look of the general's purple face and before that warrior could get out the last words, Courtecuisse was off like a swallow.
"Monsieur le comte," said Sibilet, gently, "you are wrong."
"Wrong! I, wrong?"
"Yes, Monsieur le comte, take care, you will have trouble with that rascal; he will sue you."
"What do I care for that? Tell the scoundrel to leave the place instantly! See that he takes nothing of mine, and pay him his wages."
Four hours later the whole country-side was gossiping about this scene. The general, they said, had assaulted the unfortunate Courtecuisse, and refused to pay his wages and two thousand francs besides, which he owed him. Extraordinary stories went the rounds, and the master of Les Aigues was declared insane. The next day Brunet, who had served all the warrants for the general, now brought him on behalf of Courtecuisse a summon to appear before the police court. The lion was stung by gnats; but his misery was only just beginning.
The installation of a keeper is not done without a few formalities; he must, for instance, file an oath in the civil court. Some days therefore elapsed before the three keepers really entered upon their functions. Though the general had written to Michaud to bring his wife without waiting until the lodge at the gate of the Avonne was ready for them, the future head-keeper, or rather bailiff, was detained in Paris by his marriage and his wife's family, and did not reach Les Aigues until a fortnight later. During those two weeks, and during the time still further required for certain formalities which were carried out with very ill grace by the authorities at Ville-aux-Fayes, the forest of Les Aigues was shamefully devastated by the peasantry, who took advantage of the fact that there was practically no watch over it.
The appearance of three keepers handsomely dressed in green cloth, the Emperor's color, with faces denoting firmness, and each of them well- made, active, and capable of spending their nights in the woods, was a great event in the valley, from Conches to Ville-aux-Fayes.
Throughout the district Groison was the only man who welcomed these veterans. Delighted to be thus reinforced, he let fall a few threats against thieves, who before long, he said, would be watched so closely that they could do no damage. Thus the usual proclamation of all great commanders was not lacking to the present war; in this case it was said aloud and also whispered in secret.
Sibilet called the general's attention to the fact that the gendarmerie of Soulanges, and especially its brigadier, Soudry, were thoroughly and hypocritically hostile to Les Aigues. He made him see the importance of substituting another brigade, which might show a better spirit.
"With a good brigadier and a company of gendarmes devoted to your interests, you could manage the country," he said to him.
The general went to the Prefecture and obtained from the general in command of the division the retirement of Soudry and the substitution of a man named Viallet, an excellent gendarme at headquarters, who was much praised by his general and the prefect. The company of gendarmes at Soulanges were dispersed to other places in the department by the colonel of the gendarmerie, an old friend of Montcornet, and chosen men were put in their places with secret orders to keep watch over the estate of the Comte de Montcornet, and prevent all future attempts to injure it; they were also particularly enjoined not to allow themselves to be gained over by the inhabitants of Soulanges.
This last revolutionary measure, carried out with such rapidity that there was no possibility of countermining it created much astonishment in Soulanges and in Ville-aux-Fayes. Soudry, who felt himself dismissed, complained bitterly, and Gaubertin managed to get him appointed mayor, which put the gendarmerie under his orders. An outcry was made about tyranny. Montcornet became an object of general hatred. Not only were five or six lives radically changed by him, but many personal vanities were wounded. The peasants, taking their cue from words dropped by the small tradesmen of Ville-aux-Fayes and Soulanges, and by Rigou, Langlume, Guerbet, and the postmaster at Conches, thought they were on the eve of losing what they called their rights.
The general stopped the suit brought by Courtecuisse by paying him all he demanded. The man then purchased, nominally for two thousand francs, a little property surrounded on all sides but one by the estate of Les Aigues,--a sort of cover into which the game escaped. Rigou, the owner, had never been willing to part with La Bachelerie, as it was called, to the possessors of the estate, but he now took malicious pleasure in selling it, at fifty per cent discount, to Courtecuisse; which made the ex-keeper one of Rigou's numerous henchmen, for all he actually paid for the property was one thousand francs.
The three keepers, with Michaud the bailiff, and Groison the field- keeper of Blangy, led henceforth the life of guerrillas. Living night and day in the forest, they soon acquired that deep knowledge of woodland things which becomes a science among foresters, saving them much loss of time; they studied the tracks of animals, the species of the trees, and their habits of growth, training their ears to every sound and to every murmur of the woods. Still further, they observed faces, watched and understood the different families in the various villages of the district, and knew the individuals in each family, their habits, characters, and means of living,--a far more difficult matter than most persons suppose. When the peasants who obtained their living from Les Aigues saw these well-planned measures of defence, they met them with dumb resistance or sneering submission.
From the first, Michaud and Sibilet mutually disliked each other. The frank and loyal soldier, with the sense of honor of a subaltern of the young "garde," hated the servile brutality and the discontented spirit of the steward. He soon took note of the objections with which Sibilet opposed all measures that were really judicious, and the reasons he gave for those that were questionable. Instead of calming the general, Sibilet, as the reader has already seen, constantly excited him and drove him to harsh measures, all the while trying to daunt him by drawing his attention to countless annoyances, petty vexations, and ever-recurring and unconquerable difficulties. Without suspecting the role of spy and exasperator undertaken by Sibilet (who secretly intended to eventually make choice in his own interests between Gaubertin and the general) Michaud felt that the steward's nature was bad and grasping, and he was unable to explain to himself its apparent honesty. The enmity which separated the two functionaries was satisfactory to the general. Michaud's hatred led him to watch the steward, though he would not have condescended to play the part of spy if the general had not required it. Sibilet fawned upon the bailiff and flattered him, without being able to get anything from him beyond an extreme politeness which the loyal soldier established between them as a barrier.
Now, all preliminary details having been made known, the reader will understand the conduct of the general's enemies and the meaning of the conversation which he had with what he called his two ministers, after Madame de Montcornet, the abbe, and Blondet left the breakfast-table.